Terrance McCauley is one of those authors that have been writing for close to a decade and delivering solid genre writing. He has a western coming out in September and his period detective thriller, The Fairfax Incident, has gotten great reviews, In this piece published in Shotgun Honey, he gives us a unique idea for a career decision.
The Sinners continues Ace Atkins’ southern crime fiction series with Afghan war vet and Mississippi sheriff Quinn Colson. His jurisdiction of Tibbehah County is hopping with a murder tied to a nemesis of the previous sheriff, Quinn’s dead uncle. His buddy Boom finds himself working for a questionable trucking company. All his tied to Mississippi queen-pin Fannie. If that wasn’t enough, Quinn’s getting married. Ace will be at BookPeople on July 24th with Megan Abbott with her new book Give Me Your Hand to sign and discuss their latest books and crime fiction. We caught up with him early to catch us up with Quinn.
MysteryPeople Scott: Family plays a big part in the series, but especially in this one, with Quinn going after a criminal family who are in some part a result from the sins of his uncle. You also have him getting married. What did you want to explore?
AA: When I first started this series, I liked the idea of playing with time. Being able to go back into the history of Tibbehah County and seeing the ripple effect of major events really interests me. Or as Mr. Faulkner says, the past is never dead . . .
I hope as the series moves forward to really explore the county — from its founding to the wild days of bootlegging and beyond. The connection to the important – and infamous – families keep us all tied to one big story.
MPS: I was happy to see Boom get a large amount of time as a character. What made you want to put more focus on him?
AA: I figured it was about damn time. Boom has been a supporting figure for far too long. He’s always interested me as a complex man who’s been to hell and back, coming home from Iraq with a horrific injury. I wanted Boom to to have his own story, away from Quinn, and outside Tibbehah County. I’d always like the idea of truckers, a big fan of the trucker films of the 70s, and thought Boom was ideal to take the wheel. I’ve heard about a lot of one-armed truckers who overcame their disability and conquered the road. There was no doubt Boom could do it.
MPS: Fannie grows to be a more complex and interesting character with each book. How did she initially come to creation?
AA: Oh, I love Fannie, too. She’s so much fun to write. She really came from a few places. Most notably Joan Crawford’s performance as Vienna in Johnny Guitar. I also borrowed a lot from a woman named Fannie Belle, a real life madame, I’d written about in one of my True Crime Novels, Wicked City.
I think her role – in the big picture of all the novels – has certainly grown. And her relationship with Quinn and her cohorts in the Dixie Mafia has only gotten more complex. She is a very strong independent woman in a male dominated world of crime. But she proves time and again, she can outsmart them all.
MPS: There is a great balance of the crime plot and the planning of the wedding, that never feels like a B story. What does that part of the book allow you to do with Quinn?
AA: That was really the toughest part of The Sinners for me. I knew Quinn was going to marry Maggie going back to The Fallen. It’s high time for him to get hitched, although he’ll never settle down. But I didn’t want write anything overly sentimental or melodramatic. And that’s hard as hell with a wedding. I think Quinn getting married, and now having a family with a young son, will only make the stories more interesting.
MPS: Do you think marriage means Quinn is settling down or will provide new struggles for him to deal with?
AA: I’d look at Quinn being married like Spenser with Susan Silverman. Just because a man is monogamous doesn’t mean his life is boring. In fact, I find the the bed-hopping hero to be a little old and unbelievable. Maybe in the sixties. But not now. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rolled my eyes at an author writing a hero who’s irresistible to women.
MPS: You’ll be doing an event with us at BookPeople with Megan Abbott. What makes her a stand-out author to you?
AA: Megan Abbott is simply the best! I admire her writing and her knowledge of the genre a ton. Whether it’s film noir or classic hard boiled heroes, few know more than Megan. We’ve been close friends for a long while and can’t wait to sit down and talk about her novel in Austin. Her latest book — Give Me Your Hand – is just outstanding, gut wrenching and mean as hell. I loved it.
When it comes to portraying the darkest desires of the human heart and the actions they trigger, Megan Abbott writes about them with grace and elegance that creates eerie noir able to completely connect with the reader. Her latest, Give Me Your Hand, uses the backdrop of the science field to look at the danger of ambition and secrets with two researchers reunited in competition for a research project under an esteemed scientist and a shared confidence severed their bond in high school. Megan will be joining Ace Atkins whose new book is The Sinners for an event here Tuesday, July 24th at 7pm.
MysteryPeople Scott: On first glance, the world of science and the lab seem like an atypical setting for noir. What did it allow you to do with the genre?
Megan Abbott: I guess I’ve always thought of labs as spooky places, full of atmosphere. Slick surfaces, dark corners and the body and mortality. Blood. And once I started to read about the hothouse environment in competitive labs, I knew it was perfect.
MPS: What was your biggest take away in researching that world?
MA: The stakes are very high there. I became fascinated about stories of “labotage”—researchers sabotaging one another’s work, mixing up slides, dumping results. And it’s also a world where women are still very much in the minority, making it very complicated for women working in that world…which is what we see with Kit and Diane.
MPS: How did premenstrual dysphoric disorder become the research subject?
MA: Given the lack of funding for research into women’s health issues, I knew I wanted them to be studying a “female” condition. And I began reading about PMDD (AKA extreme PMS)—how calamitous it can be for women who suffer from it, how it can rule their lives. The extreme mood swings, the anger, the despair. I’m always drawn to stories that enable you to explore the way women’s bodies are seen as disruptive, dangerous.
MPS: Diane is one of those noir characters you often use who is part a full-fledged person and part the gaze of the protagonist. Do you have to keep anything in mind when dealing with that kind of character?
MA: What a great question. I think, with those characters, they’re mysteries to me during the first stages of writing the book. And then I slowly uncover their secrets—as I did Diane. And then ultimately, I grow to love them—as I did Diane. And that love is the only way the book works, if it does. I have to fall in love with my mysteries.
MPS: How did you get the name Diane Fleming, since it fits both who she is and what people picture her to be perfectly?
MA: Boy, names are so hard. I usually keep changing the name over and over until one finally sticks, feels right. And I admit, this one just came to me. I hadn’t even thought of its larger resonances, but you’re right!
MPS: I couldn’t help but think Severin’s lab with a pool of smart talented people working on a project by an esteemed professional in the field sounded to me what the writers’ room of “The Deuce” might be like. Did you pull anything from your own experience for Give Me Your Hand?
MA: Haha! I don’t think so. But it was a very male environment for Lisa (Lutz) and me, so maybe there’s something to it!
MPS: You’ll being doing an event with us on July 24th with Ace Atkins, a writer who you are a big fan of. What do you admire about him?
MA: His ability to pound bourbon and talk Burt Reynolds movies until all hours of the night? His good looks and charm? Yes, yes, and yes. But most of all, it’s his books. I’ve read them all, I love them all, and The Sinners is Ace at his best. No one paints a world more vividly than Ace. No one has a richer palette of characters. He’s the best.
Gabino Ingesias is one of our rising talents in the Austin crime fiction scene. He blends his Latin culture with a dead on understanding of where his protagonists are coming from to deliver a muscular, gritty style of writing that holds a dark humanity to it. A perfect example is this nasty little piece recently published in Shotgun Honey.
If you like mysteries with lots of twists you need to read Splinter In The Blood, the debut novel by Ashley Dyer.
The story starts out with a bang, literally, with a scene in which Detective Chief Greg Carver, the lead investigator of a serial killer named the Thorn Killer has been shot. He is sprawled on his seat in his own home. OK, maybe there are other mysteries that have started this way.
But I’m not done setting the stage because Carver remembers the shooter standing in front of him. Soon, by the end of the next chapter, he has remembered who shot him: His partner, Sgt. Ruth Lake, who after shooting him takes away his files, compromising the crime scene.
As the book proceeds there become two investigations: Who shot Carver and who is the Thorn Killer? Lake, of course, doesn’t tell anyone what she did, and is not supposed to be working on the former investigation but can’t stay away.
Gradually, we began to understand her motives, her disdain for Carver as a person and as an investigator. And Lake and the Thorn Killer are both fascinating characters.
Ashley Dyer, who is actually two different people working together, agreed to an email interview. One part of the writing duo is Margaret Murphy, a Writing Fellow and Reading Round Lector for the Royal Literary Fund, a past Chair of the Crime Writers Association (CWA), and founder of Murder Squad. A CWA Short Story Dagger winner, she has been shortlisted for the First Blood critics’ award for crime fiction as well as the CWA Dagger in the Library. The other part is Helen Pepper, a Senior Lecturer in Policing at Teesside University. She has been an analyst, Forensic Scientist, Scene of Crime Officer, CSI, and Crime Scene Manager. She has co-authored, as well as contributed to, professional policing texts. Her expertise is in great demand with crime writers: she is a judge for the CWA’s Non-Fiction Dagger award, and is Forensic Consultant on both the Vera and Shetland TV series. Thanks to them both for chatting with us, and you can read more about them on their website.
Scott Butki: How did you two decide to join up and work together?
Helen Pepper: I’d done a lot of work with Ann Cleeves. Ann is a member of Murder Squad, a group of crime writers from the north of England, which was founded by Margaret. So we’d met a few times at writing events. Margaret told Ann she was looking for a forensic advisor and asked if I might be interested. I was VERY interested, because I knew Margaret was such a great writer.
Margaret Murphy: I’d written a one-page outline (more of a blurb, really) for Splinter In The Blood in 2014, but it wasn’t until 2016 that I started working on it in earnest. I knew, by this time, that Ruth Lake, one of the two main protagonists, was a former CSI, so naturally, Helen came to mind. You’ve seen her bio, so you will have guessed that she has an ability to bend time – how else would she fit so much into a day? Even so, I was apprehensive that a collaboration of this kind might be a project too far, and I was delighted when she agreed.
SB: How did you go about working together? Some writing partners alternate chapters, others have one do the writing while the other checks the details, for example.
HP: I’m not a writer, Margaret’s the driving force there. What happens is Margaret will come up with an idea, then we’ll get together and talk it through. My job is to come up with ideas as to how we can use forensic science in the story, both to move the story along and maybe to create a few red herrings!
I also advise on police procedure and how things are done in real life, which quite often involves pointing out that, yes, there might be a really fancy piece of kit that will get us a result, but there’s a really straightforward inexpensive way to get to the same result, and police forces don’t have an endless budget.
Margaret then disappears to write the book (a minor job!). Whilst she’s writing we bat ideas back and forth and she sends me completed chapters to check. I love this part of the process, it’s so exciting to see how Margaret makes the story come to life.
MM: When I feel that I have a story idea we could run with, I usually write a short, two-to-three-page synopsis. After that, we bat ideas back and forth, talking about story, forensic procedures that might come into play, police approaches to particular categories of crime, and so on. One example of Helen telling me I can’t have a jazzy piece of kit to do forensics goes like this (no spoilers): I found an academic paper on the use of laser technology to create a 3-D holographic image of a fingermark inside a clear block of material. I took it to Helen, very excited about it, and proud of myself. ‘You could do that,’ she said, ‘but you probably wouldn’t have such an expensive piece of kit, and anyway, why would you, when you could just take a strong flashlight, shine it at an angle through the block, then take a photo?’ (Collapse of stout party.)
After we’ve talked story lines and forensic elements, I mull for a bit, then start on the full outline, which may be 20,000 to 40,000 words long.
SB: How would you summarize the plot and protagonist?
MM: The story begins with an image: a woman standing over a shooting victim; he lies sprawled in an armchair in his own home. She’s holding a gun. By the end of the next chapter, we know that the shooting victim is Detective Chief Inspector Greg Carver and the woman holding the gun is his trusted partner, Detective Sergeant Ruth Lake. By this time, Lake has systematically removed or destroyed evidence and recreated the scene.
For the past year, Carver and Lake have been investigating a series of bizarre, ritualistic killings: five female victims, all tattooed – even the soles of their feet. Over a period of weeks, the “Thorn Killer” inks strange patterns and eyes on the victims – some opened, some closed. Even more cruelly, the ink contains a paralytic which slowly suffocates them. Carver wakes from a coma some days later, and as he struggles towards recovery, he experiences strange hallucinations and ‘auras’ – a form of synaesthesia – caused by the injuries to his brain as he lay near death.
He is lying about how much he remembers and Ruth is lying about what she did at the crime scene – can they catch the killer when they’re lying to each other and everyone around them?
SB: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
HP: Enjoyment, and a need to read the next book!
MM: All of the above, and also one or two instances when they think, ‘Well I didn’t know that!’ Hopefully, akin to the sudden ‘Aha!’ moments in my background reading, when I want to dash out of my office and grab the next person I see to tell them all about it. But I’ve learned to be very careful with those moments as a writer – you don’t want your readers to feel they’re being lectured to – and excitedly approaching a stranger in the street with my latest scientific factoid, doesn’t always end well…
SB: Helen, I’m guessing that as someone who has been an analyst, forensic scientist, scene of crime officer, CSI and crime scene manager you must cringe when watching tv crime shows. Is it thus therapeutic to work on the Vera and Shetland tv series to ensure they got it right?
HP: I don’t watch too many TV crime shows – they tend to make my teeth itch! Though since I’ve been working on Vera and Shetland I’m a little more forgiving than I used to be. I started out thinking that we could make everything absolutely accurate, but it’s just not possible. In real life there’s a huge team, each of whom each make a small contribution. The senior investigator sits in an office juggling budgets and authorizing overtime and detectives spend an awful lot of time filling out forms and writing reports – which doesn’t make riveting TV viewing. So now I see it as my job to guide writers towards realism, but still keeping it interesting.
SB: Margaret, what was the adjustment like going from writing crime fiction on your own versus as a partner?
MM: I’d worked on a few TV and online scripts and story lines in the past which involved ‘round-table’ discussions with visual artists, producers and writers. Although none of these projects were commissioned, I did enjoy the process, so I was looking forward to working with Helen – and she’s made the transition very easy for me.
SB: What were the advantages and disadvantages of co-writing this?
HP: For me there’s only advantages. Working with Margaret gives me an insight into how the writing process works and allows me into a whole different world. I think one thing that CSIs and writers have in common is that we are really nosey – we like poking around in other people’s lives. I love finding out how the writing works, and I adore meeting ‘real’ people at writing events. You might need to talk to Margaret about the disadvantages!
MM: It’s fun being able to share interviews, podcasts and book tours with someone else – it can be lonely on the circuit, staying in motels and watching bad TV for entertainment. From the performance point of view, I can be excitable and expressive, a bit of a mimic, too – whereas Helen is relaxed and very droll, so we riff well off each other, and audiences enjoy the balance.
Disadvantages: Helen has a ‘proper’ job, teaching police and CSIs of the future to solve real crimes, so I sometimes have to curb my need to know something NOW! Immediately! Without delay! while she fulfills her other responsibilities.
SB: Who are some currently working crime fiction writers you’d like more people to check out?
HP: I think Margaret could answer this better than me. I don’t get to read much crime fiction. I’m a judge for the Crime Writer’s Association non-fiction dagger, so I read an awful lot of non-fiction crime. I’m also a university lecturer, so I have to keep up to date with what’s happening in academia – not to mention the TV scripts and Ashley Dyer reading. I have to say, though, that the murder squad writers are all really excellent. Although they all write crime fiction their approaches are really different, so however you like your crime, one of them would have something for you to enjoy.
MM: Dennis Lehane is a master on so many levels. I feel a strong connection to the recurring theme in his books – both series and standalone – that violence has consequences that are individual, generational and societal. But he is able to do all of this in the most stylish, entertaining narratives you will ever find in crime fiction.
Richard Montanari writes menace like no one else. His books are all very different, yet all have a tension and page-turning pace to envy. I’m usually a slow reader, but his prose, sometimes hard edged, sometimes lyrical always has me reading way past my bedtime.
AJ Finn – his debut is a lovely, twisty take on the domestic noir. Though he explores well-recognized tropes, he does it in a fresh, intelligent and witty manner. The Woman in the Window has hugely enjoyable Hitchcockian references and more than one playful nod towards noir films, and the ending is deeply satisfying, too.
SB: What’s it like having publicists comparing your work to Netflix’s Mind Hunters, BBC’s Broadchurch and American TV’s Criminal Minds?
HP: Pretty mind-blowing! It’s such a great feeling when people like what you’ve done.
MM: One word – gratifying.
SB: Are you already working on the second book? How far do you have this planned out?
HP: The second book’s all finished (and it’s an absolute cracker!). We’re just starting out on book three, and I’m really looking forward to it.
MM: Helen has a more objective view (and I hope she’s right!) As a writer, I’m always terribly anxious about submitting a book. We are awaiting our editor’s verdict as we write this…
BTW, we both microblog on our Facebook page @AshleyDyerNovels (we do giveaways and competitions, too!). We’re on Twitter as @AshleyDyer2017 and we even do forensics and background-to the-story videos on YouTube as Ashley Dyer Author – do come and join us!
It’s impossible to talk about Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police mystery series without talking about food and wine. (And it’s equally impossible to read the books without getting hungry!) Set in the Perigord region of France, the novels describe the local culinary traditions in great detail and Bruno’s love of good food and fine wine are integral themes of the book. From his morning croissant to an evening meal featuring copious amounts of duck fat and a few glasses of the local wine, Bruno is a true connoisseur of all that the local farmers have to offer. He’s also deeply invested in the friendships he’s formed, volunteering with local youth and organizing dinners with friends who might not otherwise get to see each other. The Perigord is a region steeped in history (it’s been continually occupied for some 70,000 years) and Walker brings the abundant cultural and comestible traditions to vibrant life.
But don’t be deceived by the seemingly bucolic setting—Walker’s novels aren’t cozies by any means, they’re intricately plotted works teeming with political and international intrigue.
In A Taste for Vengeance, Bruno is adjusting to his new role—instead of being responsible only for the town of St. Denis, his territory will now cover the entire valley and a couple of other jurisdictions. He must navigate a new chain of command while not alienating former peers who now report to him—a delicate balancing act for the modest Bruno.
A friend asks Bruno if he can find out why one of her cooking school students, German tourist Monika Felder, didn’t show up as planned; his investigation reveals that the woman had been travelling with someone other than her husband, a mysterious Irishman presumed to be her lover. When the two turn up dead, the investigation deepens and Bruno learns that the Irishman was operating under an assumed identity and had not only a background in intelligence but also a military connection to Monika’s husband.
Meanwhile, Bruno learns that the star member of the youth rugby team he mentors is pregnant—a development he perceives as potentially catastrophic on the eve of her possible nomination to the national squad.
As always, Walker weaves these disparate plot elements together seamlessly and the reader is treated to a riveting and complex tale of crime while gaining insight into Bruno’s rich and varied personal life.
In July our Murder In The Afternoon book club will continue to work through one of the best current crime fiction series, the Walt Longmire books. For those not familiar, it follows an aging yet capable sheriff who struggles to keep the peace in his Northern Wyoming county as well as get his life back on track after his wife’s death. We will be reading the fifth book, The Dark Horse, where Walt deals with a murder that takes him out of his jurisdiction.
Walt helps out the town of Absalom by jailing a prisoner for them. Mary Barsard has confessed to murdering her husband, but the prescription drugs in her system cause a lack of focus, giving Walt doubts about her guilt. He attempts to go undercover in her small town in the Powder River and find the truth. As he finds it, Walt also finds trouble.
The Dark Horse is a rich blend of mystery and modern western. It deals with the issues of the area, the struggles of women in it, all while subtly examining crime and western fiction. We’ll be able to learn a lot about the book, including the movie that loosely inspired it, with author Craig Johnson calling in to the club. We’ll be meeting on BookPeople’s third floor, Monday, July 16th, a 1PM. The books are ten percent off to those who attend.