Top 5 Texas Crime Novels of 2020

MysteryPeople’s Scott M. is back on the blog with a round-up of his five favorite crime reads of 2020 by authors based in Texas. Read on for more.

2020 was a great time for authors in our Lone Star home. They ranged in sub-genre, tone, and region, using Texas as a metaphor for America and life. Here are the five (maybe six) Texas crime novels that struck me most.

 
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One of Texas’ finest landed a one two punch this year, a collection of stories involving the formative years of his series characters Hap & Leonard, and an East Texas-flavored tribute to James M. Cain starring a 1960s used car salesman with more than a few secrets that the author puts his own spin on. Reading both of these is like taking a master class in writing. Plus, he wrote a great female buddy novel, Jane Goes North.
 
 
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All Things Left Wild by James Wade
 
On the border during the early twentieth century, two young horse thieves murder a a rancher’s son and are pursued by the father who is more poet than pistoleer in this look at nature, brutality, and male identity. This mix of crime novel and western haunts the reader like a fine murder ballad.
 
 
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Hard Times by Les Edgerton
 
A tight, tough, and poignant novel of an abused wife who connects with a Black man on the run during the Depression. Edgerton finds the human grace in the bleak circumstances of his characters.
 
 
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The Burn by Kathleen Kent
 
Dallas narcotics cop Betty Rhyzyk is back, having to break out of desk duty when informants pop up murdered all over the city. A tough hard-boiled cop thriller with one of contemporary crime fiction’s most complex lead characters.
 
 
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Lineage Most Lethal by S.C. Perkins
 
This second book to feature Austin genealogist Lucy Lancaster provides something unique—a cozy espionage thriller—when a dying woman hands her a fountain pen. A great use of the state capitol, the nearby town of Wimberly, and the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps.

These titles and other mystery favorites are available online now at BookPeople. Curbside service by phone is available, too. Give us a ring at (512) 472 – 5050.
 

Scott M.’s 10 Best Crime Novels of 2020

MysteryPeople’s Scott Montgomery joins us on the blog just before year’s end to share the ten best—in his opinion—crime novels of 2020.

Crime fiction writers came through in a year where we needed them the most. They helped us escape and examine our times with some of their best writing. It was also a year of discovering either debut authors or ones that finally got the limelight they deserved. Here are my eleven favorites I was able to squeeze into a top ten. I could easily give ten more.

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Next To Last Stand by Craig Johnson
In another year, I may have put one of the darker novels below in this spot, but if there was ever a time for smart comfort reading Craig Johnson rode in like The Lone Ranger with this funny and warm mystery that also delivers an engaging history lesson. Walt Longmire, Craig’s Northern Wyoming sheriff, becomes involved in the world of western art when it appears the famed Custer’s Last Fight painting, believed to have been lost in a fire, is actually still around with several shady characters out to find it. While entertaining, Johnson uses the tale to examine points of view in history, war, and the men who fight in them with a humanistic eye.
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Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby & Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden
Both of these authors used their culture to infuse excitement into the traditional hard-boiled novel. Cosby gave a much needed Black voice to rural noir with his story of a former getaway driver pulled back into one last job to save his family and dignity. Weiden introduces us to Virgil Wounded Horse, a half-Lakota enforcer citizens hire on the Rosebud reservation to get justice, forced to hunt down the people who bring in heroin into the rez to clear his nephew. Both use the crime novel to examine family, race, and male identity.
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The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel
This book starts with the murder of two twelve-year old girls and gets bleaker as the working class mother of one of the girls seeks justice in her small town, coming up against the local police, her mother who she always feared of becoming, and her own dark past. Engel keeps the story tight and focused in her heroine, finding grace notes in the unlikeliest of places.
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The Poison Flood by Jordan Farmer
A reclusive hunchback musician witnesses a murder during a chemical leak that plagues his Appalachian town, setting off several events that force him to face his life and make human connections. Farmer finds a sad humanity in all of his characters, creating one of the most poignant reads of the year.
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City Of Margins by William Boyle
Boyle creates a literary mural with several people effected and entwined from a past murder in a Brooklyn neighborhood. Funny and tragic, Boyle creates a story of the inertia of a community told in a style somewhere between Scorsese and Altman.
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The Less Dead by Denise Mina
A middle class doctor—adopted as a child—discovers her birth mother was a prostitute and victim of a serial murderer. As she uncovers her mother’s killer she also gets to know the woman she never knew. Mina’s latest masterpiece is one of class, society, and crime.
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Lost River by J. Todd Scott
Scott creates an epic tale that takes place during one violent day in the life of a Kentucky lawman, DEA agent, and EMT. Scott, a practicing DEA agent, provides an intimate look at the opioid crisis.
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Broken by Don Winslow
This collection of new novellas from one of crime fiction’s best range in mood, style, and sub-genre. He introduces us to new characters and revisits old ones, some we haven’t seen in a long time, linking them into a shared world that spins a little faster than our own.
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Scott Phillips returns with a jaundiced, funny vengeance in this tale of California scheming with a down-and-out attorney devising an art fraud plan with a questionable group of characters, reminding us he mixes black humor, sex, crime, and scumbags like no other.
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Line Of Sight by James Queally
My favorite private eye novel of the year introduced Russell Avery, a former reporter who used to uncover police corruption, now working as an investigator who specializes in clearing cops. When asked by a political activist to look into a questionable shooting of a drug dealer, his ideals and life get put on the line as he navigates a no man’s land between cops and criminals where even the closest to you are hard to trust. I hope this isn’t the last time we see Avery.

You can find the titles listed here online at BookPeople today.

Meike’s Top 10 Reads of 2020

Bookseller, former Events Host, and avid mystery reader Meike dishes on her ten favorite reads of the year. How does your stack compare?


2020 saw the (hopefully temporary) elimination of my role as an Event Host at BookPeople, but the folks over there were kind enough to ask me to weigh in on some of my favorite titles of the year. If there was any silver lining to this otherwise miserable year, it was the remarkable quality and diversity of the crime fiction titles that were released—and the extra free time allowed me to take full advantage by reading  more widely than I might have otherwise. Narrowing my favorites down to only 10 was a challenge—there are many more that deserve to be mentioned in any summary of the year’s best. Below are some highlights which I’ve listed in alphabetical order only because rating them in any other manner would be almost impossible.

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And Now She’s Gone by Rachel Howzell Hall

Private investigator Grayson Sykes is hired for her first big case at Rader Consulting—to find Isabel Lincoln, the missing wife of Dr. Ian O’Donnell. But Isabel seems to have left virtually no trace, so part of the mystery is whether her absence is intentional. While this is a cleverly-plotted PI procedural, Howzell Hall tackles issues ranging from race to domestic abuse to toxic masculinity to the lasting effects of childhood trauma—all of which to conspire to leave the reader solidly hooked into a compelling and eye-opening drama.

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Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby

This will be on almost every top 10 list you see this year, and with good reason—it’s an adrenaline rush that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let up. Beauregard “Bug” Montage, like his father before him, was once one of the best getaway drivers in the South but he’s worked hard to leave that life behind. He wants to succeed where his own father failed–he loves his wife and kids deeply and desperately wants to make an honest living. More than anything he wants to give them the stable family life he himself missed out on. But the odds are stacked against people like Bug, and he just can’t resist that one more “can’t miss” opportunity—which of course does exactly that to spectacular effect. 

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The Bright Lands by John Fram

I was living in a small Texas town when my sons’ football team won the state football championship, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this debut. Joel Whitley couldn’t get out of his home town of Bentley fast enough when his homosexuality was outed in a most humiliating way. But when he receives a troubling message from his younger brother Dylan, the star quarterback of Bentley’s high school football team, he reluctantly returns—only to have Dylan go missing a short time later. As he hunts for Dylan some long-buried secrets come to light—and some people will go to any lengths to make sure those secrets stay deeply buried. Framm nails the small town obsession with high school football but this is no Friday Night Lights—Friday Night Darkness might be more apt.

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Goodnight Beautiful by Aimee Molloy

Newlyweds Sam and Annie leave NYC behind so that Sam can establish a therapy practice in his small upstate New York hometown. The practice is thriving—Sam’s a popular therapist, especially with his female clients—but Sam doesn’t realize that every word of his sessions can be heard in the room upstairs through a vent in his office ceiling. One day he leaves for work and doesn’t come home, and Annie is left wondering how well she really knows her husband. It’s tough to say more about this book without revealing spoilers, but there are some fantastic twists that absolutely blindsided me.

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Hard Cash Valley by Brian Panowich

This is the third installment in Panowich’s Southern Noir trilogy set in the fictional North Georgia McFalls County. Ex-arson investigator Dane Kirby is pulled into an FBI investigation when a mutilated body is found in Jacksonville, Florida. The investigation circles around to a gambling ring run by some of the baddest Southern outlaws imaginable; Dane has a history with these men and must learn to come to terms with a tragedy that threatens to destroy him. It’s a dark and gritty tale filled with bad men, but balanced by complex female characters that give heart to the saga.

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He Started It by Samantha Downing

Downing’s My Lovely Wife (about a married couple keeping things spicy by committing murder) made my list in 2019, and her sophomore effort does not disappoint. Siblings Beth, Portia, and Eddie haven’t seen each other in years but when their wealthy grandfather dies they are not only forced to reconnect—they’re required to reenact the road trip their grandfather took them on as kids. As if a long car ride with your siblings isn’t enough reason to commit murder, some long buried secrets come to light and confrontations ensue. (Personal note: I raised 3 kids and loved seeing someone explore the fraught emotions of adult sibling rivalry. I’m considering re-writing my will.)

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Long Bright River by Liz Moore

This gritty and gripping police procedural illuminates multiple aspects of the opioid crisis and its wide-ranging effects. Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick is a Philly beat cop patrolling the deteriorating Kensington neighborhood where she grew up, and where almost every resident’s life has been affected by the booming drug trade. When a series of murders rocks the neighborhood Mickey realizes that she hasn’t seen her younger sister Kacey in several weeks. Kacey has been living rough, turning tricks to support her addiction. Although the adult sisters are estranged, as children they were inseparable and Mickey has always felt responsible for Kacey. As she hunts for both Kacey and the killer, Mickey is forced to come to terms with the long tail of trauma both girls experienced as children.

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The French Widow by Mark Pryor

As a bookseller, I absolutely love Pryor’s Hugo Marston series because I can recommend it to just about anyone looking for a good mystery. The series is set in Paris and features Hugo Marston, a cowboy-boot wearing Texan transplant who works as head of security for the American embassy—so lovers of espionage enjoy the international intrigue. The books have just the right amount of violence—they satisfy lovers of darker tales while not upsetting devotees of more cozy fiction. Although the main characters are the straight arrow Hugo and his freewheeling best friend Tom, they’re balanced by the sophisticated and independent Claudia—the kind of strong, complex female character that’s often under-represented crime fiction. And then there’s the setting–Pryor’s deep love of Paris is evident in his references to its beauty and history (not to mention the occasional glowing descriptions of its culinary offerings). Hugo’s latest challenge is to find out who attacked a young woman at a historic Paris chateau on the same night four valuable paintings are stolen while facing considerable media and police attention. Pryor’s books are best enjoyed with a café-au-lait and croissant at hand—you are welcome.

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These Women by Ivy Pochoda

Five very different women who live in the West Adams neighborhood of South LA are connected by a serial killer—but this is their story, not his. Told in a kaleidoscope of overlapping viewpoints, this beautiful story shines a light on women who are frequently overlooked and examines why their stories often don’t seem to matter to everyone.

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Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

I love reading about the history of indigenous people and I love reading crime fiction—so I was thrilled by this debut novel that both entertains and educates. (It was my pick for this year’s BookPeople Holiday Catalog.) Virgil Wounded Horse works as a kind of private enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation is South Dakota—when the tribal council and US law enforcement fail to prosecute crimes (often those committed against women and children) family members hire Virgil to exact his own unique type of punishment. (The book kicks off with a bang as Virgil beats the CRAP out of a rapist behind a bar!) His vigilantism takes a personal turn when his nephew becomes ensnared by the booming drug trade on the reservation. Wanbli Weiden is an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota nation and brings an authenticity to the issues faced by his Native American characters. The fact that he’s such a talented storyteller results in one of the most exciting debuts of 2020.


You can find each title listed in-store and online at BookPeople.

An Interview with Jeff Vorzimmer, Editor of ‘The Best of Manhunt 2’

9781951473051The Best Of Manhunt, a collection of over twenty-five stories from the great crime fiction magazine of the fifties and sixties, was one of our most popular anthologies. We were happy the demand caused a follow up with The Best of Manhunt 2, knowing there were still wonderful crime stories from Manhunt that hadn’t been republished. Editor Jeff Vorzimmer talked with us about making the second dive in.

Scott Montgomery: Besides there being so much great Manhunt material still left to dive into, what made you take on the task again?

Jeff Vorzimmer: We had so many stories left over we couldn’t squeeze into the first volume and the fact that we had so many advance orders on the first volume, it just seemed like a no-brainer. The original selections were decided on by Bill Pronzini, me and Peter Enfantino. Bill and Peter are the only two people I know who have read every Manhunt story. The only thing I insisted on was including every story in the Manhunt anthology published in 1958, but I also wanted to include enough other great Manhunt stories so that any potential reader who had read that volume would still find our anthology worth buying. But I guess the biggest reason for the second volume was that we hadn’t included ten or so of the twenty-seven stories that Bill had wanted to include. Ultimately we included seven more of his selections in the second anthology. A few I vetoed, two sci-fi stories, for example, and two where the author estates didn’t want to include stories.

SM: Do you see any kind of defining differences in the two volumes?

JV: When we did the first volume, we knew that we had to include stories by big-name authors as a draw, which, unfortunately squeezed out a lot of equally good, if not better, stories by lesser-known authors. We knew that if the first volume sold well, we could include these really great stories in a follow up volume, since we would already have an audience, who would trust us enough to read a volume of stories, some of which were by lesser-known authors.

SM: Who are some lesser known authors you were happy to include here?

JV: Jack Ritchie (again), C. L. Sweeney, Robert Edmond Alter (one of my favorite authors) and Edward D. Hoch, who you wouldn’t know unless you were an avid reader of mystery magazines or short story anthologies in the 60s and 70s.

SM: Was there a particular story you wanted in the first one that you put in this one?

JV: Oh, yes, and they were all Bill Pronzini selections—“Protection” by Erle Stanly Gardner, “A Question of Values” by C. L. Sweeney, “Shatter Proof” by Jack Ritchie and “The Old Pro” by H. A. DeRosso, the famous western author.

SM: I was happy to see you had a story featuring William Campbell Gault’s Joe Puma. What do you enjoy about his writing?

JV: Another of Bill Prozini’s selections I had originally wanted to include in the first volume. Part of my growing up was in California in the early- to mid-60s and Gault really captures the essence of what L.A. was like back then. He includes details like the names of real clubs and restaurants.

SM: You also edited a book that unearthed three books about beats. What drew you to that?

JV: As I mentioned, part of my growing up was in California in the early sixties in the L.A. area and in Carmel. At the time Carmel had a laid-back, artist colony vibe to it. Rent was cheap then and the beatniks would gather on the beach every night around bonfires. Joan Baez lived there with her sister Mimi and Mimi’s husband Richard Fariña and Dylan for a while. I thought they were all so cool. I grew up reading Kerouac, Ginsberg, Brautigan, Braly and Ferlinghetti. It was later I discovered Beats-ploitation books—books that were written to cash in on the whole beatnik craze as it went mainstream. These books were, for the most part, crudely-drawn caricatures of the beatnik scene, but yet there was more of a feeling of what it was really like since these writers were as intent on recreating the whole milieu as they were on any story line. I thought it would be fun to reprint some of them.

SM: Any plans for The Best of Manhunt 3?

JV: It’s a good possibility. There are enough good stories left. Peter Enfantino is pushing for it. He and I are currently working on The Manhunt Companion, a book of capsule reviews of every Manhunt story as well as a complete content list of every issue and various indices. There’s even a list of every TV episode created from Manhunt stories. It’s due out in March of next year.


The Best of Manhunt and The Best of Manhunt 2 are available for purchase in-store and online now.

About Jeff Vorzimmer: Jeff Vorzimmer is the editor of The Best of Manhunt. He spent twenty years at The Austin American-Statesman and is currently a member of the team at Stark House Press. His writing has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2600 and Cool and Strange Music.

Crime Fiction Friday: ‘The Little Angel’ by Billy Kring

We are happy to have Billy Kring’s latest Hunter Kincaid novel, A Cinnabar Sky, on our shelves. Even better, he wrote a short story featuring a border patrol agent in the time of COVID for our Crime Fiction Friday. Settle in and enjoy.


The Little Angel

Hunter and Raymond squatted on their heels Indian style behind a clump of greasewood to observe the crowd below them on the bank of the Rio Grande. Both Border Patrol agents wore their face masks to protect each other during the pandemic, both of the masks were a desert camo fabric. 

At the edge of the crowd, a man stood on a ledge of rock and orated to them like a preacher, using wide arm gestures and other theatrical hand movements to lure the people closer. He wore no mask, but everyone in the crowd did. Hunter could hear him, but Raymond could not. “Too many gunshots with no ear protection,” he’d said.

Hunter said, “You’re not missing much. Guy calls himself Colonel Hardin, of the Light Brigade.”

 “As in, ‘The Charge of’?”

She pointed, “Look over there, his two assistants are unfurling a banner on the side of the mini-van.” Two women in sequined one-piece bathing suits hung a bright red and yellow banner on the vehicle. It read, Colonel Hardin’s Patented Corona-Virus Cure. Raymond read it out loud, “Made from rare jungle plants and special minerals only found at the peak of the Andes where the Amazon River originates. Blended by medicine men and chemists, and guaranteed as a cure to COVID-19, leprosy, and cancer.”

“No wonder he’s down here pedaling that stuff.” The crowd was good-sized for this area of the Big Bend country, and the two agents studied the men and women comprising it. Hunter spotted one woman off to the side, standing quietly and leaning on a wooden cane as she watched Colonel Hardin. There’s something about her, Hunter thought, then her attention returned to Hardin as he continued his sales pitch. 

Hardin spoke in perfect Spanish, saying, “We have with us today, a distressed individual riddled with the Corona-virus, and on death’s door. He was brought on a burro from a village at the foothills of the Sierra Madres, and he has barely made it with his life.” The man was grey-faced and sallow, and panted as he struggled to breathe.

Several people carried him on a stretcher to the ledge of rock and placed him at Hardin’s feet. Hardin knelt beside the cot, and the crowd pushed forward, all except the woman on the cane. 

Hunter stood up, “Let’s go down there and see this miracle worker up close.” 

Raymond stood, “As you wish.”

“You watched The Princess Bride again last night, didn’t you?”

“With my two nieces. It was great.”

“How many times have you seen it?”

“How many times has it been on television?” Hunter grinned, shaking her head.

They were off the hill in no time, coming to the crowd and having the people part when they spotted the badges. Hunter went first and was at the rock ledge when Hardin gave the wheezing man a small bottle of elixir. Hunter looked at his face as he glanced at the crowd. Light brown eyes in greyish skin showed his illness. He turned it up and drank a swallow, then staggered backward, almost going off the ledge. Hardin moved closer, and was a foot away from Hunter when he turned his eyes to her.

She felt the shock, for they were the blackest she had ever seen. The crowd rustled behind her, and Raymond was suddenly beside her so close their arms touched. Hardin frowned at him, and made a gesture at Raymond’s face, like opening all his fingers, and Raymond’s mask fell to the ground, and the man blew into Raymond’s face.

The sick man rolled to his feet and stood, and his eyes had changed and were as black as sin. A woman gasped and backed away from the ledge as she crossed herself.  

That was when the little woman with the cane nudged through the crowd and stood at the rock ledge by Hunter. Hardin backed from her, making a sound almost like a hiss. The woman said to him, “It is time for you to leave.” She didn’t shout it, but the man left without another word, driving away in the van, and leaving the river bank as if no one else had been there.

The crowd’s mood seemed to lift, and they also dispersed, leaving only Hunter, Raymond, and the small woman. Hunter asked her, “What is your name?”

“Angelina.” She was tiny, maybe five feet tall at the most, but her eyes were lively and she had beautiful smile. “I’ll be going now.”

“Do you live around here? We can give you a ride.”

“No need. I’m from just around the corner.” She touched both Hunter and Raymond in farewell, then left them, walking downriver from their position.

It was two weeks later when Raymond came down with Coronavirus, and came down bad with it. He struggled to breathe, and ran a fever that had him delirious, talking about the devil, and angels, mumbling and coughing in his fever dreams.

When Hunter, and Connie, Raymond’s wife sat together and worried about if he would die or not, A knock came on Connie’s door, and when she opened it, Angelina, the small woman from the river was there. She smiled and talked to both, then asked if she could see Raymond. Connie said, “He’s contagious, and not talking right now.” She cried, “We aren’t sure if he will make it through the night.”

Angelina reassured her that she was immune to Corona, and would only be a moment, so Connie let her enter. When she came out of the bedroom, she smiled at both of them and said, “He seems to be breathing better. Good night.”

Raymond recovered rapidly, and before long, he complained because his bosses wouldn’t allow him to go back to work for a few more days.

Hunter felt as if a big weight had been lifted, now that she knew her best friend was going to be okay. On a whim the next day at work, Hunter drove down to the river, where Hardin had been situated. She turned downstream, wanting to see if she could locate Angelina. Around the river’s curve were the long-abandoned ruins of a small village church, and a cemetery. One Grave marker remained from all the years that floods had washed over the location. She walked to it and read the inscription: Angelina Milagro, born 1801 died 1888 – The angel who watches over our town.

Hunter sat down on the grass, took off her hat and remained there for ten minutes, touching the stone. Then she rose, dusted off her pants and said, “Thank you, Angelina.”


You can find more from Billy Kring when shop at BookPeople in-store and online.

An Interview with John T. Davis and Manning Wolfe

losers-gumbo-kindle-360x570-1In Loser’s Gumbo, the latest Bullet Book, Manning Wolfe picked music journalist John T. Davis—and one of the three writers who make up the Miles Arceneaux pseudonym—for a tale of a road weary musician who discovers a body in a drum case. As he has to clear his own name, he gets involved in a fast moving plot tied to a historic lost recording. Manning and John were kind enough to talk to us about collaborating, music, and murder.


Scott Montgomery: How did the both of you come up with the idea of Loser’s Gumbo?

John T. Davis: Given that the over-arching idea was for a murder mystery, we wanted to give it a memorable setting. Because of my experience as a music journalist and affinity for Louisiana and New Orleans and that musical climate, we decided to set the story in that environment.

Manning Wolfe: Growing up in Houston it was a common road trip to scoot down I-10 to Breaux Bridge for the Crawfish Festival or New Orleans for Mardi Gras. When J.T. and I set our reluctant hero on a path back and forth between the high rises of the Houston Medical Center and the cypress knees of the Lafayette Swamps, it was easy to visualize Mack traveling up and down the highway with his band.

SM: John, I’m assuming you’re the one who provided much of the details about a musician on the road. What did you want to get across to the reader about that life?

JT: I wanted to express the uniqueness of that lifestyle, and the commitment it requires to be successful in it. Musicians have a whole other way of relating to the world. To paraphrase a line in the book (which I originally heard from singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard), the world is divided between the “day people” and the “night people,” and it’s the job of the night people to take the day people’s money. Back when I was committing journalism for the daily paper, I naturally developed an affection for late nights and larger-than-life characters.

When I moved to Austin in 1975, it was (and still is) an incubator for all sorts of music and artists. Back then, the longhairs and the rednecks were eyeballing each other’s music with a certain wary curiosity. As a result, rock and country bred a natural, Texas-specific offspring.

As my own musical horizons began to expand, I soon became aware of fascinating sounds emanating from fabled, far-flung regions—zydeco and swamp pop from South Louisiana…greasy, horn-driven rhythm and blues from the inner city wards of Houston…Bouncing soul and street parade sass courtesy of the hoodoo piano professors and marching brass bands from New Orleans…hardcore honky-tonk country from the oilfield towns of Beaumont and Port Arthur, and ancestral country blues from East Texas.

Over the years, mostly in the line of duty but sometimes just for fun, I went out on the road with Jerry Jeff Walker, Marcia Ball, Rodney Crowell, Delbert McClinton, Asleep At the Wheel, Rosie Flores, Stephen Bruton, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and others. All of these guys were lifers. It was music or nothing. No one had a Plan B.

I got to see The Life from the inside of the bus, so to speak. The big festivals and tiny roadside honky-tonks. The shitty motel rooms and the steady diet of convenience store cuisine. The shady promoters and sketchy backstage hangers on. The all-nighters and the mornings after. Jerry Jeff used to say he played music for free; he got paid for all the weary miles traveling the endless highway. “Every place you go,” he once remarked, “You’ve got to be everybody’s Saturday night.” That’s a sentiment to which our protagonist, Mack Mouton, would drink a toast.

SM: As with all of the fiction you’re involved with John, the gulf area really comes alive. What makes it a great location for fiction, particularly crime fiction?

JT: The Gulf Coast region really resonates as a setting for a mystery. There’s something about the coast—the heat and humidity, the colorful characters, the quirky regional culture—that really makes a great venue for a story. Obviously, we’re not alone in this perception as great writers from James Lee Burke to John D. MacDonald to Carl Hiaasen and others have worked the same territory.

SM: Manning, you say you always learn a little from the Bullet Books authors you collaborated with. What did you get from John?

MW: When I wrote my second legal thriller, Music Notes, I incorporated a lot of the history of Texas music and musicians that I loved. I had also enjoyed a lot of jazz around Louisiana. Working with J.T. expanded my musical knowledge further to include the blended sounds that developed between Texas and Swamp country.

SM: John, was there a difference did you have in working with Manning as you did with the Miles Arceneaux crew you’ve known for decades?

JT: The main thing is that Manning and I have a professional relationship, versus the longtime personal  friendship I have with the other two “Miles” authors. That being said, her insights and perspective made for a very rewarding and enjoyable collaboration.

SM: This is a very fun read, what made it a fun one to write?

JT: As for me, I really enjoyed working in the Bullet Books framework—a fast-paced format designed, as Kinky Friedman memorably said of his own mysteries, “designed to entertain Americans in their airports.”

MW: I enjoyed the sassy dialogue that J.T. is so good at writing. Trying to match his voice was challenging, but fun, as I dug deep for my inner Cajun.


Loser’s Gumbo and other titles mentioned in this post are available to purchase from BookPeople in-store and online now.

MysteryPeople’s Pick of the Month: ‘The Galway Epiphany’ by Ken Bruen

Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott M.  reviews The Galway Epiphany by Ken Bruen, MysteryPeople’s Pick of the Month for November. Read more below.

 
9780802157034_ee1dbThere were reports last year that Galway Girl would be the last last novel in Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series. Luckily, that was a rumor. The misanthropic Galway detective is back in one of his best yet with The Galway Epiphany. And while Taylor may have found a better outlook on his life, but it’s still a bleak life.
 
We find Jack possibly at his most peaceful, living on the country estate of his friend, ex-Rolling Stones roadie and hawk trainer, Keefer. A trip of personal affairs brings him back to Galway where he is hit by a truck and robbed by two children as he passes out. He awakens in the hospital unscathed and is soon hired by a questionable order of nuns to find the two kids, who Jack learns are two refugees from Guatemala deemed “miracle children.” The trail puts him up against an arsonist and he is also hired to avenge a young girl’s suicide caused by a cyber-bully. As Jack learns more about the children, he discovers two kids who were molded into sociopaths, particularly the girl, Sara. To say more would ruin the emotional jolts the author designed.
 
Bruen uses all of the tropes he has established in the series to deliver something in relationship to the progress Taylor has made. He knows we don’t want a chipper Jack. The sudden brutal violence, black humor and the dark journeys to the heart are all there. Now they become a bigger threat to Taylor, who has a newfound and fragile sense of himself. He has become less victim and more survivor. All of it is put in a precarious position as he is pushed to a hellish decision.
 
Many look at Jack Taylor as an anti-hero, but his world is making him a hero. Much like Sara, circumstances have hardened him to do the dirtiest of jobs. However, probably due to being an avid reader, they have not not obliterated his heart or empathy to be the Chandler tarnished knight when the chips are down as his cases in The Galway Epiphany run along the backdrop of Trump and Brexit news barreling near the COVID-19 discovery. Let’s hope Ken Bruen keeps Jack around for our time.

The Galway Epiphany and other titles mentioned in this post are available at BookPeople in-store and online now.
 
About the Author: Ken Bruen imagereceived a doctorate in metaphysics, taught English in South Africa, and then became a crime novelist. The critically acclaimed author of twelve previous Jack Taylor novels and The White Trilogy, he is the recipient of two Barry Awards and two Shamus Awards and has twice been a finalist for the Edgar Award. He lives in Galway, Ireland.

Interview with Mark Pryor, author of ‘The French Widow’

9781645060239Mark Pryor’s latest Hugo Marston novel, The French Widow, has the head of our Paris embassy’s security involved in a public incident where he takes down a gunman firing into the public, the matter becomes more controversial when evidence points to the man being an American citizen. He also has to deal with a murder on an estate of a family that takes dysfunction to new heights. Mark was kind enough to talk about the book and his hero.

 

Scott Montgomery: You have Hugo involved in a shooting that pushes him into the public spotlight. As someone you have described as “a watcher’ how does this affect him?

Mark Pryor: He hates it. He’s fine being a hero if no one knows but, as you point out, he does NOT want to be in the spotlight. That makes this plot rather mean, I know, but it’s very intentional: because Hugo is a harder person to get to know, in each book I try to drop him into a new situation, one that makes him uncomfortable and gives us a closer look at a different aspect of his character (in previous books I had him find a recording of his dead wife’s voice, for example). It also allows me to put him in conflict with his best friend, Tom, who just LOVES attention and to that end sticks his oar into Hugo’s business, purporting to make things better for his friend but actually making them worse.

SM: Once again you have him up against two different killers. How does this structure help you as an author?

MP: In this book I wanted to give the Lambourd family a reason to dislike Hugo, and while I didn’t plan it necessarily, his involvement in a high-profile incident like a shooting gave the secretive family every reason to want nothing to do with him (quite apart from protecting each other from law enforcement and consequences). I also think it ups the pressure on Hugo because whichever storyline I’m telling, the other one is hanging like a sword over his head. His attention is always being dragged away from what he’s doing toward the other thing, and I think that tension and pressure helps keep the plot moving along.

SM: There are a handful of chapters in the point of view of one of the killers. How did that decision come about?

MP: I think the only other time I did this in a Hugo book was in The Crypt Thief. Honestly, it’s just plain fun. It’s also a personal challenge to me, in that first chapter which I tell from the killer’s perspective I want to include little nuggets of information, some relevant and some distractions, that the reader can latch onto and begin to figure out who the killer might be. Mostly, though, it’s just good fun writing from the point of a view of a psycho…!

SM: The main mystery is a play on the murder on a country estate. What made you want to play in that sandbox? 

MP: Several reasons, really. First, it’s what I grew up reading — Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes books, where country estates were ten-a-penny. In this case, the chateau is based on a real place, both the building and its location. Even the history of the family is taken from a real Parisian family, and I plumped on them because I visited what is now a museum but what used to be their home. It’s the Musee Nissim de Camondo for anyone who wants to look it up. Lovely house with fascinating furniture and art, and nary a tourist in sight!

SM: You have some wonderful moments with Hugo’s girlfriend (though he’s not ready to admit that) Claudia. As a writer what do you enjoy about her as a character?

MP: I like how what we think of as the traditional courting roles are reversed. Here’s the reticent, laid-back Hugo chasing the girl instead of the pretty girl chasing the handsome hunk. I think he likes it that way, too, that’s part of her attraction for him and he doesn’t really mind. I also love that she’s not dependent on him in any way, except when she wants to be — she has more money than him, a bigger house, a great job… yet she’s like him in that these things are accoutrements to her life, not part of her personality. They are both very real, honest, and strong people and they have a genuine admiration and respect for each other. Sure, there’s a physical attraction but their friendship/relationship is so much more than that.

SM: Am I reading (no pun intended) more into this or is Hugo coming out of his shell more in the previous books?

MP: I think that’s a smart observation, and a couple of people have asked similar questions, but I have to admit to that not being intentional. Maybe it’s the natural arc of a series, where the main characters reveal more and more of themselves as the series goes on, such that a point comes where the reader puts down a book feeling like they suddenly know the person better. Again, I’m not clever enough to conjure that process intentionally, let’s be clear about that!


The French Widow is available now from BookPeople in-store and online. You can shop Pryor’s other titles here.

About the Author: Mark Pryor is the author of the Hugo Marston novels The Bookseller, The Crypt Thief, The Blood Promise, The Button Man, The Reluctant Matador, and The Paris Librarian, as well as the novels Hollow Man and the forthcoming Dominic. He has also published the true-crime book As She Lay Sleeping. A native of Hertfordshire, England, he is an assistant district attorney in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife and three children.

MysteryPeople’s Pick of the Month: Next To Last Stand

MysteryPeople’s Pick of the Month is Craig Johnson’s Next To Last Stand. Read on for Scott M.’s thoughts on the latest Sheriff Longmire caper.


9780525522539_90cdc“Unless you know your craft, you can not express your art.” – Alfred Hitchcock

This quote kept popping up in my mind, starting at page one and all the way to the final sentence of Craig Johnson’s latest Sheriff Walt Longmire novel, Next To Last Stand. Johnson tells this story with such a light and humorous touch, it can be easy to miss many of the themes and ideas he explores, seeing it as one of his “funny books.” That said, you would be numb to miss the emotion those themes touch.
It begins with Walt chatting with The Wavers, a group of elderly vets who sit in their souped-up wheelchairs outside the Wyoming Home For Sailors And Soldiers, waving at passing motorists. In Walt’s position we view and understand these men the traveling families don’t see through their windshield. It subtly leads into one of the main themes of the book concerning men who will never stop being soldiers.
One of the Wavers, Charlie Lee Stillwater has passed. A Black vet and amateur student of western history and art, Charlie was a favorite of Walt’s daughter Cady. He appears to have died of natural causes. The mystery concerns a million dollars found under his bed in a shoebox.
Also found in Charlie’s room is an artist’s study of a cavalry soldier fighting a Native American. Walt soon matches it to the painting Custer’s Last Fight by Cassilly Adams, made famous by the Anheuser Busch company from the reprints they sent to practically every bar in the country. History says the original burned up in a fire at Fort Bliss in 1946. However, that may not be the case and Charlie may have had the painting in his possession, brokering a deal. Soon Walt is plunged into the western art world, dealing with high Wyoming society, dangerous Russians, and history versus legend.
Johnson may have given mystery fiction its best MacGuffin since The Maltese Falcon. The painting itself holds a fascinating history that engages both Walt and the reader, his deputy and lover, Vic, not so much. It also has him donning a tux to go undercover at an art auction with comic results. Also, much like The Maltese Falcon, Johnson makes one of the mysteries concern its actual existence.
It also serves as a touchstone for many of the book’s themes. One is the “Print The Legend” controversy often associated with the west. The painting itself holds many inaccuracies, including Custer wearing his hair long and the attacking tribes having shields that were more appropriately carried by Zulu warriors in Africa. One of the funnier chapters has Walt struggling to explain what he was taught about the battle to Vic while his Cheyenne buddy Henry Standing constantly lobs history from the Native American point of view all while the highly inaccurate Custer Of The West plays on the TV above the bar.
He also uses painting and plot to examine the ghosts combatants carry when the war is over. Craig ties this to what Walt is dealing with from the events that occurred in Depth Of Winter that has brought out his darker side of him, partly created by his Vietnam experience. A wonderful moment that ties these themes together occurs during a chess game with Walt and his predecessor Lucian, a World War Two vet, as they discuss how the many famous battles are lost ones.
The book ends poignantly, in a sentence he sets up for in the beginning and alludes to at certain points without drawing attention. Between these chapters is an entertaining yarn of art, history, old soldiers, and the battles they continue to fight. Ironically, his craft has created a finer piece of art than the historic painting he writes about.

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Above the Influence: An Interview with Joe R. Lansdale

9780316479912_22712Joe R. Lansdale’s latest, More Better Deals, takes a few cues from one of his influences—James M. Cain—who gave us one of the great templates of noir with his books The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. This time the male is Ed Edwards, a used car salesman in early sixties East Texas, carrying a family secret. When he goes to repossess a Cadillac, he soon finds himself in the arms of purchaser’s wife, Nancy Craig. She would like to see her husband gone and Ed would like to have her, and the husband’s businesses as well, as part of some insurance money to help his sister. Yes, the set up is familiar, but Lansdale uses it to create a novel wild, funny, and completely his own.
Joe was kind enough to take some questions about the book, Cain, and the effect of where he lives on his writing.

Scott Montgomery: More Better Deals is an homage to one of your favorite writers James M Cain. You once described him as a “clean writer.” What does that mean to you?

Joe R. Lansdale: His prose is uncluttered. He doesn’t even tell you who’s talking, and you always know. He writes tight, little stories without adornment, but his prose is still fast paced and muscular and understandable.

SM: While I see the classic Cain plot setup, the voice, characters, and theme are all yours. How do you try to use your influences in your work?
JRL: Well, this is a more obvious one than usual. I have wanted to play with the Cain structure—at least the one he developed for his two signature books in my view, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twicethen undercurrent it with social commentary without it being too overwhelming, and I wanted to give it my voice and more humor, though it is certainly dark humor.
SM: The setting puts a fine spin on the template. What about East Texas makes it skew a story in a different way?
JRL: It’s my background, and East Texas to me is far more interesting than Los Angeles because it can be deceptive. It’s wooded and lots of water and hospitality, but underneath that hospitality is a razor’s edge and a turd in the punch bowl. Not everyone, of course. Like anywhere, East Texas is a mix of good and bad, but I’m writing crime novels, so the bad are more prominent, but I think there’s a kind of squirming difference here, a mild gothic undertone due to Southern roots, and it not being like the myth of Texas. No deserts, no mountains in this corner of the state. Woods and water and smiling racism, and the old days police work with a black jack and a phone book.
SM: Ed carries a secret that takes this out of the normal Cain template. Were you aware of that going into the story or did it develop as it went along?
JRL : I knew it going in. I don’t know that I thought about it consciously, but I knew.
S.M. : How did you approach Nancy so she wouldn’t be the standard femme fatale?
JRL: I  based her on people I knew, who I’m sure didn’t commit murder, but who had inclinations for something better but were living in a time when a female brain surgeon, or any kind of job of that ilk was generally out of the reach of ambitious and smart women. I thought of Nancy as being the kind of woman that had she had a different upbringing and a chance at greater education might well have been more successful, even in those times. I envisioned her as having a burning hunger for what she didn’t get to do, and that, along with her background, gave her a less savory viewpoint.
SM: You also released a very funny road trip book. Jane Goes North. What inspired that story?
JRL: I’m not sure what inspired that. I have written about road trips before and I enjoy books and films about road trips, and it developed out of that. To very different characters traveling across country for very different reasons, not really wanting to be together, but being forced together. They were also the type that were so constantly disappointed that even the most absurd event that occurred they were not truly surprised or shocked. I wanted to write a kind of insane fable. I think they were both good people who had made bad choices and couldn’t get out of what I’ve seen so many people fall into. The repeat of past mistakes with the mythology that next time it’ll work out, when of course repeating mistakes rarely leads to a different outcome. The road trip was their break with those mistakes and a kind of revelation for them. I had so much fun with that book and consider it one of my best.

More Better Deals is available at BookPeople in-store and online now.