MysteryPeople Q&A with Steve Hamilton

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Last year, prolific and internationally-renowned crime writer Steve Hamilton blew us away with The Second Life Of Nick Mason, about a criminal who gets an early release from prison as long as he does the bidding of Darius Cole, a kingpin who rules his empire from a cell. In the second in the series, Exit Strategy, Nick plots an escape from Darius as he has to carry out his latest chore, kill several witness in Witness Protection all across the country, that are testifying against Darius for his retrial, one his lethal former gunman.

Steve will be doing a live stock signing for us, Tuesday, May 23rd, starting at noon, so come on by to get your books signed and say hello to one of the best in the genre. We caught up with him ahead of time to talk about Exit Strategy and and writing criminals.

MysteryPeople Scott: When writing The Second Life of Nick Mason, did you know you that Nick and Darius had at least another story in them?

SH: Absolutely! In fact, I had the first seven books in this series all laid out in detail, before I ever started.

MPS: How do you think Nick has changed since the first book?

SH: In the first book, Nick Mason was released from prison to become a killing machine. It was something Darius Cole saw in him, something that Nick didn’t even know he had inside him. But now in this second book – as the assignments get more and more brutal – Nick can see it happening. He is becoming this machine and he can’t even help it. That’s what drives him to find his “exit strategy,” before he loses his humanity forever.

MPS: Your books usually stay in one city or town for most of your books. Did going across the country affect your writing in any way?

SH: Where you come from is a big part of you are. For Alex McKnight, it was Detroit. For Nick Mason, it just felt to me like he had to have come from the South Side of Chicago. And in the past few years, I’ve gotten to know and love that amazing city so well. That’s one of the best parts of being a writer.

MPS: What does having a protagonist like Nick allow you to do that you couldn’t with Alex McKnight?

SH: Clearly, Nick Mason lives on the other side of the law, which is the first obvious difference. From the very first page of book one, you have to acknowledge that he’s a career criminal – even if he’s lived by a strict personal code, and even if he takes the deal to get out of prison just so he can see his family again. And now he’s made this choice to do whatever he’s told in his new life – something that Alex wouldn’t be able to do, no matter the stakes. But one of the most overwhelming things about writing this series is how much readers have responded to him, and how much they’re actually rooting for him in these books.

MPS: Darius is one of the best antagonists in recent crime fiction. He is as smart as he is unscrupulous and even has a complex set of justice. What is it like writing for him?

SH: An antagonist like Darius Cole has to be a complex, fully realized character, with his own reasons for doing what he does – reasons that make perfect sense in his own world. Hemingway said the writer’s job is to understand, not judge. I just try to make him as real as possible, and let the reader do the judging.

MPS: There are at least four major characters plotting their fate against each other like chess players. How much pre-planning went into Exit Strategy?

SH: I knew from the beginning where each character would be in the end. The challenge was to make those threads all come together in a way that was both surprising and satisfying at the same time. But that was really the main theme of this book – each character had his or her own “exit strategy,” trying to escape from his or her own personal prison.

Steve Hamilton comes to BookPeople for a public stock signing Tuesday, May 23rd, at 12 PM. You can find copies of Exit Strategy on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Ausma Zehanat Khan

 

Ausma Zehanat Khan first appeared on our radar with her crime fiction debut, The Unquiet Dead, introducing the handsome Esa Khattak and the sporty Rachel Getty. The two are partners in a special Canadian community policing unit dedicated to sensitive cases involving minority communities. In The Unquiet Dead, they tackle a case involving war criminals, Balkan ghosts, and the intersection of private and public suffering. In The Language of SecretsKhattak and Getty go undercover in a a mosque controlled by a charismatic leader suspected of planning a violent attack – and engaged to Khattak’s sister. In Khan’s third novel to feature the duo, Among the RuinsKhattak just wants to enjoy a nice vacation in Iran, but gets recruited by the Canadian secret service to look into the untimely death of a Canadian citizen and activist filmmaker. Ausma was kind enough to let us ask her a few questions about the series. 

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

“I have this set of stories I want to tell based on my background in human rights law and my continuing commitment to human rights issues. It’s important to me personally because these are stories that rarely see the light, or that when they do, they’re depicted through a perspective that I don’t recognize as authentic.”

Molly Odintz: Rachel Getty is my favorite contemporary sidekick – she’s practical, sporty, and is always game to help Esa Khattak both with his assigned work and his efforts to outwit his superiors. She seems to be the average joe of the novel, intended to balance out Esa Khattak’s impressively erudite mind. Is she a Watson, to Esa’s Sherlock? Tell us about the dynamics between Rachel and Esa. 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: That’s such a lovely compliment, thank you! Rachel is definitely Esa’s counterpoint, and her story is as important to the books as Esa’s is. I try to have these characters draw each other out, and to serve as foils for each other—I think Rachel is braver than Esa when it comes to personal conflicts and entanglements. She doesn’t always get things right, but she’s much more willing to take chances than he is, though both characters will continue to develop as they grow closer over time. I see Rachel as quite independent of Esa, and as an equal contributor to their crime-solving efforts. I think she also helps interpret Esa and humanize him to my readers.

MO: Each of your novels begins with a murder, but quickly expands its scope to include international concerns, especially about human rights abuses. How has your work made its way into your writing? 

AZK: I have this set of stories I want to tell based on my background in human rights law and my continuing commitment to human rights issues. It’s important to me personally because these are stories that rarely see the light, or that when they do, they’re depicted through a perspective that I don’t recognize as authentic. So in The Unquiet Dead, I examine the costs of the Bosnian genocide and the ongoing legacy of genocide denial. In The Language of Secrets, I invert the perspective of who gets to comment on terrorism and try to provide some historical context instead of the facile interpretations that are routinely presented to us. In Among the Ruins, I take on the egregious human rights record of the Iranian regime, without denying the agency of the Iranian people, or the beauty and sophistication of Iran’s history, culture and civilization. I talk about these issues through the lens of crime fiction because I think it makes painful and complex realities easier for us to look at—and somehow more personal.

MO: Your series started off presenting Canada as more tolerant than the US – your main character’s work is dedicated to solving cases involving minority communities with sensitivity. Yet in The Language of Secrets, Esa Khattak is manipulated into going undercover in what the Canadian government believes to be a group planning a violent attack, volunteered by others rather than volunteering himself. In the third book in the series, Among The Ruins, Esa is recruited by the Canadian Secret Service for a dangerous international mission, then pursues that mission to the point of endangering himself. Is Esa using his position to represent his community’s interests, or being used himself by his superiors to control his community? Or both? 

AZK: This is a difficult question to answer, I must admit. In recent months, I’ve grown to worry that Canada’s commitment to multiculturalism could be undermined by voices on the extreme right should there be a change in government. At the moment, I can only say that Canada’s political leadership has worked hard to set a tone of inclusiveness and mutual respect, and that divisive, hateful rhetoric has not penetrated Canadian society from the top-down. I am very conscious that that could change and that it takes constant engagement by a broad spectrum of citizens and communities to ensure the rights and freedoms of all Canadians. There are definitely areas of weakness and vulnerability that are open to exploitation that I worry about. And I try to communicate those areas of weakness and vulnerability in my books by showing that Esa is vulnerable to those pressures. It’s very much part of Esa’s job to make sure that his community, and other minority communities, are treated fairly by law enforcement, but I have set him up with this impossible mandate where these two sets of interests don’t necessarily coincide. How minority communities experience policing and how they are targeted by certain kinds of policing is a continuous story I’m interested in exploring in these books.

MO: Among the Ruins is the first in your series to go outside North America – Khattak goes on vacation in Iran, yet quickly finds himself embroiled in local politics and recruited by secret agents to discover the reason behind a prominent Canadian-Muslim documentarian. What drew you to the Iranian setting? Were there any challenges in your research? 

AZK: I’m fascinated by the complexity and sophistication of Iran’s history and culture—I’m married into an Iranian family, so I’ve been richly immersed in Persian culture. And there has been a long exchange between Iran/Persia and the Indian subcontinent, which is where my family is from, that influences the languages I speak and the customs I’ve been exposed to. I wanted to tell a story that drew on these influences in my life.

I’m also troubled by the way we speak about Iran. We view Iran through the lens of Western interests, a lens that disregards our problematic interventions in the region, so I wanted to explore Iran through a different lens—the lens of someone like Esa who values its history, its rich traditions, its stunning civilizational accomplishments. Normally, I would have loved to travel to Iran to do research on the book but because my husband is a well-known critic of the regime, and because my book is so critical of human rights abuses within Iran, I had to rely on secondary sources and my own memories of a childhood trip to Iran.

“It’s very much part of Esa’s job to make sure that his community, and other minority communities, are treated fairly by law enforcement, but I have set him up with this impossible mandate where these two sets of interests don’t necessarily coincide. How minority communities experience policing and how they are targeted by certain kinds of policing is a continuous story I’m interested in exploring in these books.”

MO: While most of Among the Ruins is told from Esa and Rachel’s alternating perspectives, you sprinkled in some intense interludes describing (in first person) a political prisoner’s experiences of torture and confinement. What went into those passages? They were incredibly moving. 

AZK: Thank you so much for saying so. After Iran’s stolen election of June 2009, there was a severe crackdown against protesters by the regime and a short while after that, human rights reports began to emerge about the nature of that crackdown. There are also several political prisoner accounts that have been published, so I read many of those firsthand accounts and the human rights reports to try and capture the reality of what happens to political prisoners once they disappear inside Iran’s prisons—and particularly what happened at that moment after the election. My character’s experience is a composite experience of abuses that actually took place. I also interviewed several Iranians about their direct experience of the protests and the arrests to get a better sense of how visceral and frightening those events were. Little details like the use of the Sonata were gained from these interviews.

MO: In an interview with Brian Bethune for MacLean’s, you highlight the stark difference between Canada and the US in terms of the level of harassment and climate of fear Muslims face in each nation. This interview ran on February 2nd, 2016. What are some of your thoughts, post-election?

AZK: I’ve mentioned that there are also things to worry about in Canada, the difference being that for the moment, the anti-Islam/ anti-Muslim rhetoric isn’t state-sanctioned, and that hate crimes and hateful rhetoric are neither sanctioned by the Canadian government nor tolerated. For Muslim communities in the United States, this is a frightening moment—the future is filled with uncertainty, there’s been a spike in hate crimes against Muslim women, against our mosques, there are all kinds of incursions against our civil liberties, and there’s the sense after the Muslim ban that there’s the potential for things to escalate quickly and become much worse. I live my life differently now, more cautiously, more self-protectively, and I engage in self-censorship which is difficult for someone who’s used to being outspoken about human rights, and who writes the kind of books that I write. Having said that, I continue to give talks and meet with book clubs and other groups, and each of those encounters allows me to meet amazing Americans who are as appalled by the current political climate as I am, and who are active in their own communities on a host of similar issues. I think we’re all conscious that we’re seeing the erosion of democratic norms and that civil liberties are not something that any community should take for granted.

MO: Esa Khattak is talented, attractive, and generally an exceptional human being – yet you provide him with enough faults, challenges, and bumps in the road to keep him out of too-good-too-believe. What has reader response been like with the character? Do you get lots of love letters addressed to him from adoring fans? 

AZK: I think I can safely—and gratefully—say that my readers are extremely fond of Esa, and that he definitely gets his share of fan mail! He has his admirers, and my friends have all claimed him for themselves, which I find so funny. Esa is a joy to write but he’s also a tough nut to crack! In the fourth book in the series, I’m trying to open him up more.

MO: Crime fiction, more than other genres, seems to lend itself either to defending or demonizing the other. Your series falls firmly in the responsible representation category, but there’s plenty of airport paperbacks and military thrillers out there ready to reinforce stereotype rather than challenge it. What different directions (if any) would you like to see the genre go in the future? 

AZK: This is a great question. I don’t challenge anyone’s right to write the stories they think are valuable and important, but I’m fatigued by the way stories of the Muslim bad guy are presented. They lack depth or context, they’re binary, and they seem to have a shallow understanding of language, culture, politics, religion or history—and the complex relationship between all these different factors. So I think if the demand for these kinds of stories continues, it would be great to shift the lens of who’s commenting and to delve deeper to tell a richer, more complicated story that doesn’t resolve into us vs. them, but examines the impact of our actions and policies on a region that we seem to project both our fears and our conquering myths onto. I think it would be a thing of beauty to try and understand the hopes and aspirations of the “Other”, and to realize they’re no different from our own.

You can find copies of Among The Ruins on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Q&A with David Swinson

David Swinson has captured our cold, twisted hearts with his Frank Marr trilogy. Marr is a drug-addled former cop who first appeared in all his complicated degenerate glory in The Second Girlwherein he becomes an accidental hero after a trip to buy drugs becomes a rescue mission for a kidnapped woman. In Swinson’s second tale to feature the character, Crime SongMarr takes on a more personal case. We sent him a few questions about his latest. 

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

MysteryPeople Scott: This time Marr is pulled into a more personal case involving family. What made you want to explore that part of him, particularly for his second mystery?

David Swinson: I’ve always seen the Marr series as a trilogy. For the second book I wanted to get into his past a bit more, and his history with not only his aunt, but music. He needed something more personal to disrupt him.

MPS: This novel has several twists and reveals. How much had you worked it out before starting the first chapter?

DS: I knew where I wanted to take the story when I began writing. I don’t outline, but I do take a lot of notes, usually when I’m in bed and near sleep. It can drive my wife crazy, but that’s when the ideas come. And it’s usually while writing the first few pages when I take the most notes. A lot will change, though, when the story takes a life of its’ own.

A lot of the twists and turns is a result of that. Some of them even surprised me.

MPS: I felt a subtle change in Frank from The Second Girl, particularly in the way he looks at his addiction. Are being thought of a hero in the first book and what he is facing in Crime Song effecting him, more than he is admitting?

DS: Definitely. Again, that happened when the story started taking on its own life. I think his young cousin had a lot to do with that too. Frank was selfish, thinking he could grab a little something for his stash. It didn’t work out that way. In fact, it turned bad for his cousin. Frank knew he should have intervened so that tore him up emotionally, and when he started to question not only his motives, but the beast that controls him.

MPS: One of the things I love about your writing is I feel the emotion of the story, yet it never overwhelms or feels manipulative. How do you approach emotion without being overwrought?

DS: When Frank Marr first came into my head and started to come to life, I knew he would be a character that would never feel sorry for himself, and would rarely complain. Brooding was out of the question. Sometimes I forget and interject myself into him, my own anxieties. That isn’t Frank. I usually catch it in the first draft. If I don’t, my editor Josh Kendall will. He understands Frank Marr as much as I do. The tension and the emotion that happens should be something natural so I am very conscious about not overdoing it.

MPS: I’ve noticed if things become really bleak in your work, there will be a spark of humor to lighten the events. Are you looking for the humor or is it organic?

DS: It is organic. When it’s not, then it doesn’t feel natural. For me, a lot of the humor happens through dialogue, and that’s not planned out.

MPS: The music of Bread plays an integral part of the plot. Any particular reason you went with them?

DS: That is a bit of my history. I know I said I don’t interject myself into Frank Marr, but so much of it is based on life experience. There’s a difference between that and putting my emotions into Frank Marr’s head. When I was a teenager, my mother used to listen to Bread. It was after my parents’ divorce, and was always something she listened to when she was feeling sad. I’m a devout fan of bands like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Social Distortion, and most early punk rock and alternative music, but I admit I grew to like Bread, as corny as they were. That part of Frank is also me. Only that part.

You can find copies of Crime Song on our shelves or via bookpeople.comThe Second Girl is now out in paperback – you can find copies on our shelves or via bookpeople.com. 

Crime Fiction Friday: Scott Montgomery Interviewed by S.W. Lauden

S.W. Lauden of Bad Citizen Corporation & Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery On The Origins of MysteryPeople, the Secrets of Bookselling, and Scott’s Top Ten Mysteries of All Time

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Ever wanted to know more about MysteryPeople and what we do? Our crime fiction coordinator Scott Montgomery was interviewed by author and blogger, S.W. Lauden on his website Bad Citizen Corporation. Scott tells a little bit about what he does and shares a top 10 list. You can read all about it here.

“It’s very important to me that we have independent publishers. It makes us stand out since we’re often the only store in town to find the cool, funky crime fiction, and personally I think it’s a great way to serve the genre. We simply choose what to showcase by what we like or discover.” – Scott Montgomery

Read the full interview. 

There Are Visions to Be Seen: MysteryPeople Q&A with Marcie Rendon

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

 

Marcie Rendon’s Murder On The Red River gives us a unique protagonist in Cash, a pool-hustling, truck-driving, American Indian girl, living on the North Dakota side of the Red River. Getting visions has her calling on her guardian, Sheriff Wheaton, to help investigate the murder of an Indian activist. Marcie delivers a vivid rendering of both place and character, something we discussed in this interview with her.

MysteryPeople Scott: Cash is a great heroine because she is as flawed as she is cool. How did you come up with her?

Marcie Rendon: Cash appeared as I was writing a story about a young woman who wrote songs in her head on her way to becoming a country western singer. That was the intended story. Cash had her own ideas about where her story was going. Cash can be just about any Native woman I know – incredible humanity, strength and resiliency in the face of much oppression.

MPS: She does a lot of things a girl her age isn’t known for doing, yet I never forgot she was nineteen. Was there a way as an author that you reminded us of her age without being obvious?

MR: I think it’s fairly accurate to say that most Native people never get the same ‘childhoods’ the majority of folks in the US take for granted. By the circumstances of racism and oppression we are often born into ‘adulthood’. And in that life there is also always a vulnerability that is visible if one takes the time to really be aware. So, I tried to have her vulnerability available to the reader throughout the story. There are also a number of points where it is mentioned that she is doing things other folks her age aren’t and her fake ID gets checked a few times.

MPS: Cash’s visions come off being grounded and believable. How did you avoid them from being too supernatural?

MR: Singer/songwriter Buffy St. Marie is quoted as saying: You think I have visions because I am an Indian. I have visions because there are visions to be seen.

As writers we are told to ‘write what we know’ and ‘to show not tell’. I think many people think these kinds of seeing and knowing are supernatural whereas many Native folks know this way of seeing is real and everyday so I wrote it that way.

MPS: There is a lot of traveling back and forth across the Red River in the book. Does it serve as a line of division?

MR: If so, it was not intentional. It is just a fact of the way the two cities of Fargo-Moorhead sit on either side of the Red River. The story is one about division of cultures and expectations of women for sure. And those divisions are very real; I think more so in rural areas than more urban settings – or maybe because of the sparsity of population they are just more visible in the rural setting.

MPS: Did using the mystery genre allow you to explore things with these characters and society you couldn’t into in others?

MR: Writing this story as a mystery was a way to address potentially heavy social issues in an interesting way. People hopefully can read the story and one, as native people see themselves, and two, as non-natives get a bigger historical picture without being consumed with guilt. It was also a way to demonstrate the resilience of native people. Native people have tremendous ability to bounce back from adversity and to see humor in not-so-funny life situations.

MPS: What did you want to get across about the Red River area?

MR: The Red River Valley sustains the people, people far beyond the Valley. And although the Red River is a relatively small river, it has tremendous impact on the land, with its’ seasonal floods and geological history that left behind the rich topsoil that.

You can find copies of Murder on the Red River on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

Murder in the Afternoon Book Club Celebrates Texas Writers Month with Joe R. Lansdale

Joe R. Lansdale Calling In for The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club’s Discussion of Sunset and Sawdust

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  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

The Murder In The Afternoon Book Club celebrates Texas Mystery Writers Month by reading one of the state’s best authors. Sunset And Sawdust is one of Joe Lansdale’s most underrated books. We’re happy to shed light on it as well as have Joe be a part of our discussion.

The book takes place in the Depression era sawmill town of Rapture, Texas, where Sunset Jones has just murdered her abusive husband, Pete, while he was trying to assault her. She turns to the only person who can help, her mother-in-law who owns half of Rapture. Knowing her son was no good, she helps Sunset get the job of town constable; newly available since the last person to occupy the position was the now-dead Pete. With the help of a charming Woody Guthrie type hobo and a hulking deputy who is sweet on her, Sunset enforces the law and wades into a mystery involving her late husband, oil, and a baby in a jar.

With this novel dealing with issues of gender, race, and class, creating a vivid portrayal of the depression, and containing characters both entertaining and complex, Lansdale gives us much to talk about. Luckily, Joe will be joining us via conference call for part of the discussion. Join us for the discussion on BookPeople’s third floor, May 15th, at 1PM. The book is 10% off for those planning to attend.

You can find copies of Sunset & Sawdust  on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets to discuss it on Monday, May 15th, at 1 PM. The club meets the third Monday of each month. 

MysteryPeople Review: ROBERT B. PARKER’S LITTLE WHITE LIES by Ace Atkins

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  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

I’ve mentioned in some of my reviews of Ace Atkins’ later Spenser books that he is bringing more of himself to the series, adapting the characters to reflect his own voice. After proving in the early books like Lullaby and Wonderland that he could do Parker’s voice and had his characters down, Ace began to bring more of his own sensibility into the books, starting with Cheap Shot. It may have come to full fruition in his latest and best Spenser book yet, Little White Lies.

Ace took inspiration for his latest from an article he co-wrote for Men’s Journal. Spenser’s therapist girlfriend, Susan Silverman, refers one of her clients to him. The woman has been bilked out of $300,000 by M. Brook Wells (or that is the name he is at least currently going by), a man selling himself as ex-special forces and CIA. Tracking Wells down gets Spenser shot at by some real military types and he discovers a trail of conned marks, including a seedy gun merchant, cable news bookers, an entire church, and a gang of gun runners. Dealing with one dangerous revelation after another, Spenser has to invite bad ass back-up, Hawk, for a trip to Georgia.

Of the six Spenser novels, this is Ace’s most personal. He shows his knowledge of Spenser lore, bringing back characters like feminist writer Rachel Wallace, who guides him through the world of cable talk, and gay sniper Vinnie Morris, who gets pulled in by Hawk and Spenser for more fire power. He also shows off the Boston character as well as Parker ever did – but when Spenser goes down south, we are definitely in Ace’s own territory. Atkins portrays Georgia less with local color than with local attitude. The themes of religion, politics, and hypocrisy and how a con man uses extreme belief in God and country to do his work, could have easily popped up in a book featuring Ace’s own Mississippi hero Quinn Colson. However the more iconic Spenser fits the scene perfectly and the story updates him as our detective searches for facts in Trump’s America of alternative facts. Even though it was written before the election, the result is still the same.

In Little White Lies Ace Atkins uses Robert B. Parker’s characters and style to tell a story only he could. Atkins’ talents meet with those of his influence, bringing the character into modern times. Not only is this one of Ace’s best Spenser novels, it is one of the best in the entire Spenser series.

You can find copies of Little White Lies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com