Hard Word Book Club discussing ‘Death Along the Spirit Road’

We’re kicking off 2012 in The Hard Word Book Club, our group that discusses hardboiled crime fiction and westerns, with Death Along The Spirit Road, a book the straddles both genres. The author CM Wendelboe (Curt or “Chick Magnet” to his friends) was a protege of Craig Johnson, creator of the Walt Longmire series, and shares Craig’s human and often humorous representation of American Indians. Picture a slightly less politically correct Tony Hillerman.

Death Along The Spirit Road is the first in a series featuring Lakota FBI agent Manny Tanno. Manny is sent to the place he wanted to get away from, The Pine Ridge Reservation, to solve the murder of developer Jason Red Cloud, who was killed with a war axe. Under a deadline, Manny has to deal with the chief tribal cop who was his high school rival and his brother who is a suspect. The book has incredibly well developed characters and some funny dialogue, and takes an interesting look at the notions of tribe, family, honor, and history in a place where Crazy Horse, Wounded Knee, and the arrest of Leonard Peltier still linger.

Curt will be calling in to our group discussion of the book on Wednesday, January 25th, 7p. I’ve gotten to know him through moderating a panel he was on at the Texas Festival of Books. He’s funny and very knowledgeable about law enforcement on the reservation, being a deputy near Pine Ridge.

Our next discussion on February 29th will also have an author call in, Wallace Stroby, when we discuss his unique heist yarn, Cold Shot To The Heart.

Taylor Stevens TONIGHT!

We’ve been looking forward to welcoming Taylor Stevens back to BookPeople since her event with us for The Informationist back in March of last year. The wait is finally over – Stevens is here tonight at 7p! She’ll be joined by one of our other favorite authors, Austin’s own Jeff Abbott (his latest, Adrenaline, is now out in paperback) to talk about her brand new thriller, The Innocent.

Taylor was recently featured in both the Chronicle and the Statesman. For more info about the book and Stevens, scroll down and read Scott’s Q&A with her and his review of the book. We’re big fans and hope you can make it out tonight!


Q&A with James Carlos Blake

I’ve been talking about James Carlos Blake here on the blog for the last couple of weeks. I recently read his latest novel, Country of the Bad Wolfes, in preparation for his event here on Sunday, January 22nd. In this new book, he looks at his own ancestry with two generations of twins who dueled, loved, and built fortunes in both the US and Mexico, and also looks at the relationship we have with those South of the border, as well as eighteenth century (and possibly current) manifest destiny.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Blake about what it was like to tell a story of his own family, his research, his influences, and what the border means to him as a writer.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: While this book is as rough, brutal, and unflinching as your previous work, with characters who you have to accept on their own terms, it has a slightly more romantic quality than the other books. Did writing about people that were a part of your own lineage have a different effect on you?

JAMES CARLOS BLAKE: Not that I’m aware of. While the skeleton of the story is formed of my family’s history, the book is a novel, a work of invention, and I freely altered family facts to suit my tale. I think the “more romantic quality” you perceive in it may derive from there being so many women in it. One of the joys of writing this book was that it so naturally involved many women of every age and kind — from a wise and ancient crone to  a truly bad-ass 16-year-old.

MP: What kind of research did you have to do for a story you’re so connected to?

JCB: There wasn’t much research necessary by the time I decided to write the book . I’ve been familiar with my family’s history since I was a boy, and over the years I’ve read a good deal about 19th-century Mexican and American history. If there’s one general subject of study that benefits a fiction writer, it’s history, whether or not he writes historical fiction. History is human nature writ large, and the better you understand the past, the better you’ll understand people in general, including those of our own day. What’s more, I’ve lived, at one time or another, in almost every place in the book, and I have a good memory for places, for their weather, landscape, character. Together with imagination, those memories served me well in creating the physical and cultural worlds of the Wolfes.

Besides wanting to write a book based on my family, I’ve also long wanted to write about Porfirio Diaz, one of the most fascinating figures in Mexican history. And for some time I’ve wanted to write a sequel to my third novel, In the Rogue Blood, whose main character, Edward Little, was only 19 at the end of the book. In Country of the Bad Wolfes I write all three stories.

MP: These two sets of twins have adventures for a dozen books. How did you keep the narrative thread from being overly episodic?

JCB: The book’s original title was A Natural History of the Bad Wolfes, because, like most family stories, the Wolfes’ is a kind of history. Moreover, “natural history” generally implies a non-academic presentation of facts and events about your subject. Because so much of the story is told in narrative summary — the mode of most good histories — I thought the title was apt and might also help the reader understand why the book is written the way it is. You’re right that there are countless episodes, but rather than develop all of them with “real-time” pacing (that is, with lots of specific details of manner and direct dialog), I present many of the episodes more compactly through summary description and indirect dialog. It’s a style that strikes me as much truer to the tradition of storytelling. Plus, it keeps the story moving along at a pretty good clip.

MP: What did you want to express about these four men?

JCB: I simply wanted to present the most interesting characters I could. And I’ve always been fascinated by twins. I think twinhood may be the most intimate connection possible between two people, though of course not all twins share the same degrees of intimacy. Both sets of Wolfe twins are close to each other, but the first set begins to diverge in both looks and in character by the time they’re in their teens, while the second set is not only physically identical all their lives, they are like a single soul in two bodies.

MP: Even though you use innovative approaches in some of your novels and stories, there is a classic feel to your work. Who are your influences?

JCB: Probably every writer whose work I’ve enjoyed has taught me something. William Goldman’s early novels had a great effect on me and taught me much about point-of-view before I even knew what that term meant — especially in his use of the third-person in a way that seems almost first person. Hemingway has taught me more than I can adequately credit, just as he has taught most writers who came after him. Steinbeck is another influence. Robert Stone. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Many others who don’t leap to mind at the moment, and probably many whose influence I’m not even aware of.

MP: Many of your books take place in the past and deal with historical figures both legendary and minor. What brings you to the past so often?

JCB: My love of it for one thing, my acquaintance with it for another. Aspiring novelists should be taught that the old adage, “Write about what you know,” isn’t limited to what you have personally experienced. Vicarious experience is also a great part of what you know. Read a lot of history and it becomes part of your store of knowledge, part of what you’re prepared to write about. The same goes for stories and memories that other people share with you. A crime story set in the past has the advantage of not having to deal with the high-tech detail that has to be dealt with in present-day stories. I like that the past doesn’t change, though there are arguments against that view. Despite all that, the book I’m writing now is set in our own time. It’s also about the Wolfe family but takes place a hundred years after the end of Bad Wolfes.

MP: Many of your books move between the Mexico and Texas. What does that border mean to you as a writer?

JCB: Brownsville is the place of my childhood and elementary schooling, and I still have a great affection for the town. In some inexplicable way, even though I haven’t lived there since boyhood, I feel that Brownsville’s my true home. It was inevitable that I’d someday write a big novel set in large part in that region. The Tex-Mex border has its own special character, an amalgam of two cultures and languages and outlooks, and its effect on me is undeniable. As a writer I feel lucky to have lived there at the impressionable age I did.

James Carlos Blake will speak & sign Country of the Bad Wolfes here at BookPeople on Sunday, January 22, 3pm. We’ll have refreshments, and beer on hand from Saint Arnold Brewing Company.

Book Review: ‘Country of the Bad Wolfes’

Blake will speak & sign 'Country of the Bad Wolfes' at BookPeople on Jan 22, 3p.

James Carlos Blake has looked at men who mirror our nation’s past, starting with his look at gunman John Wesely Hardin (The Pistoleer). He’s looked at Civil war guerrilla Bloody Bill Anderson in the lyrical The Wildwood Boys and John Dillinger in the tough and funny Handsome Harry. His worlds are filled with brutal crime and adventure and men that must be accepted own their own terms. Sam Pekinpah would have loved adapting any of his novels of earthy poetry. In his latest, Country Of the Bad Wolfes, he takes story to a grander and more personal scale, basing the novel on two sets of twins who are his own ancestors and covering two countries and one century.

Born of a New England pirate in 1828, Samuel and Roger Wolfe have a wanderlust and need for fortune in their blood. Their lusts and their disposition to get into a fight put them into one adventure after another, and on the other side of the law many a time. To avoid imprisonment, Samuel joins the army and fights in The Mexican War while his brother attends Dartmouth. Their skills, will, and fate lead them to Little, a mysterious businessman who sets them up in Mexico. There they find themselves involved in US adventurism and Diaz, the country’s president. Both find themselves in more than a few duels and seducing a more than a few lovely ladies.

One such woman, Alma Rodriguez, saves Samuel’s life in a duel and marries him. From that union come another set of twins, Sebastian and John. The two grow to be like their father and uncle, but even bolder and more free minded. Running from the law brings them back to the US via Texas, where they found their own town. Samuel also begets a bastard son, Blake Cortez, sealing the fate of his other sons.

Blake employs a style that is a mix of historical account and legend handed down from generation to generation. This allows him to move through time to focus on the the events that define the family. It also works well when he weaves Diaz’s history in with the Wolfe’s, showing how their fates are tied. Blake also employs his trademark realism and immediacy in his portrayal of violence.

Combined with his humor and pathos, Country of the Bad Wolfes has a more epic feel than some of his previous work. His female characters also bring a different perspective to this work. They have a greater impact on the story than in previous novels, influencing the four men we follow as both lovers and nurturers. A stand out character is Marina, a scarred servant girl Sebastian and John both fall in love with. Blake Cortez’s mother sets the climax Lady Macbeth-style.

What makes Country Of Bad Wolfes such an exciting read is the feeling that this is a book of transition for James Carlos Blake. There is shading of character, skillful shifts in tone and ambition, from an author who has already delivered solid novels time and time again. Country of the Bad Wolfes tells us the best is yet to come.

James Carlos Blake will speak & sign Country of the Bad Wolfes here at BookPeople on Sunday, January 22, 3p. We’ll have beer on hand from Saint Arnold Brewing Company and snacks to enjoy.

Bobby’s Top 10

Bobby McCue was the manager of LA’s Mystery Bookstore for over seven years. Know as “Dark Bobby” by many of us for his love of the bleakest noir and hardest of hard boiled, he has valuable opinions about the crime fiction field and is someone I consult with regularly. Recently he shared his Top 10 of 2011 on facebook, and has allowed us to share it here with you. With some of the overlaps on our list, you can tell he was (and still is) my mentor.

Bobby’s Top 10

1. The End of EverythingMegan Abbott

Transported me to a different time, gender, & situation – Brilliant!




2. Crimes in Southern IndianaFrank Bill

Excellent writing & thought provoking stories, much like Daniel Woodrell. If you liked Pike by Benjamin Whitmer in 2010, you will love this compilation.




3. The InformationistTaylor Stevens

Excellent writing…great character & story. If you are a Lee Child fan, this is a must read, as is Taylor’s second book, The Innocent.




4. Stolen Souls — Stuart Neville

Belfast – great writing, story, and characters. I loved Galya for her heart and resolve.




5. The Outlaw AlbumDaniel Woodrell

Because the stories and writing are awesome and thought provoking, as usual.




6. The Drop – Michael Connelly

The best procedural writer out there, from beginning to end.




7. Fun & Games – Duane Swierczynski

Over-the-top and thoroughly entertaining. Gave me a tour of parts of LA I didn’t know about.




8. You’re Next – Gregg Hurwitz

A well-crafted story and thriller.





9. The Sentry – Robert Crais

Enjoyable series and writing.





10. The Informant – Thomas Perry

I really love Tom’s writing style and storytelling. Plus, it’s The Butcher’s Boy!





Honorable Mention:

The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht

This wasn’t the type of book I normally read, but I loved the folklore, the writing and the story.

Three Books to Read Right Now

The Dispatcher by Ryan David Jahn

A police dispatcher in a small Texas town gets a call from his daughter who was presumed dead seven years ago. Jahn depicts the gritty and grizzly race across the country and against time with strong characterization and  a view of the American Southwest through a dirty windshield.

What It Was by George Pelecanos

Pelecanos returns with Derek Strange in this trade paperback original, looking back at Strange’s early days as a PI. Both Pelecanos and Derek Strange are the epitome of cool. (This one’s actually on sale January 23, so you can read it SOON, if not right now.)

The Damage Done by Hilary Davidson

The winner of several mystery awards for best debut novel, this thriller is now out in paperback. When Lily Moore returns to New York to deal with the death of her sister, she finds someone else’s body in the morgue. Lily searches for the truth from the city’s penthouses to back alleys  dealing with few she can trust in this thriller that heralded a truly unique voice to the genre. Hilary will be here February 18th to sign and discuss her wonderful follow up, The Next One To Fall.

MysteryPeople E-Newsletter

We sent out this month’s MysteryPeople e-newsletter today. If you haven’t signed up yet and would like to, here’s the link to do so. We send out a monthly update of the Crime Fiction authors coming to the store, what Scott’s reading, and whatever other fun stuff we can find. If you know someone who might enjoy receiving this information in their inbox, pass along the good word. We don’t spam anyone or sell information, just keep subscribers up to date with the latest MysteryPeople happenings.

Getting to Know R. J. Ellory

R. J. Ellory will be at BookPeople to speak & sign 'A Quiet Vendetta' on Fri, Jan 27, 7p.

I first came across R. J. Ellory’s work through A Quiet Belief In Angels. It was a dark, wrought, and ultimately beautiful novel following four decades of a man’s life that is entwined with a string of killings that started when he was a young man in Depression-era Georgia. It was like Pat Conroy writing with Thomas Harris lurking behind him. His feel for the region announced the promise of a great Southern crime writer.

I was thrilled to have a chance to be introduced to him a couple of months later at the Indianapolis Bouchercon. I was thrown when he didn’t have a Southern accent, in fact he didn’t even have an American one. It was British. It turned out Roger Jon Ellory became quite a name in his country writing crime fiction about ours.

We got to know one another at the hotel bar, talking about music, books, and Texas. I think that even if I sold books on a blanket outside Waterloo Records he would have wanted to have done a signing, just so he could see Austin. We agreed that he’d come to the store as soon as we could work it out. In return for being his future guide to the city, he sent me his back list of UK titles. It became apparent why Overlook Press brought him over here. He not only knew about the South, but many parts of America and its history, as well.

His approach is an oddly successful meeting of Dickens and Dashielle Hammett. He tends to have a sweeping quality more associated with historical or general fiction writers than most current crime writers. Like Dickens, the sweep never overwhelms the characters or the harshness of their stories. It’s where social and personal issues collide. He often deals with a shadow history hidden behind the pages of what we like to pronounce about ourselves as Americans, such as in A Simple Act Of Violence, which ended up on many 2011 best-of lists.

Many times he achieves a balance between intimate emotion and the down right hard boiled using a story within a story technique. Ghost Heart, a heart breaking noir that I can’t wait to come over here, deals with a New York bookstore owner learning about her father. The father’s life in the Jewish underworld could have been a great piece of hard boiled crime fiction on it’s own, but Ellory delivers suspense and a true sense of love about a daughter trying to know her father through a mysterious stranger who claims to be an old friend. However, this man could be targeting her for revenge. The book is a wonderful example of how Ellory uses a large, exotic canvas, continuing to move his focus to something more intimate: an exchange between two people, the realization of one.

It’s that positive human emotion that sets him apart from the pack. Roger has said his first priority as a writer is emotion. The emotion creeps up on you many times, since he often has cold and brutal beginnings, yet you find yourself consumed by it at the end. I can’t think of another author who takes you through such a dark world and leaves you with such believable hope.

A Quiet Vendetta, the latest to reach our shores, is quintessential Ellory. Ray Hartman, a mob prosecutor, is brought to New Orleans to meet with a Mr Perez. Perez is willing to reveal the location of where the kidnapped daughter of the Louisiana governor is, if Hartman listens to his life story. What a story it is, going from Cuba to all over the US in the last half century when Perez worked as an efficient enforcer for the Mafia. It includes Hoffa, Watergate, the Governor, and Hartman himself. Picture the Godfather saga told through the structure of The Usual Suspects.

RJ Ellory uses the genre and the United States to look at the emotional lives of his characters. It’s about how our actions make up the sum of us and how they can also redefine and redeem us. He’s one of the best American authors, no matter what his accent is.

Get to know Roger like I did, over a few beers or a glass of wine, as he discusses and signs A Quiet Vendetta on Friday January 27th at 7PM. Rumor is he might even pick up a guitar and play a few tunes for us while he’s here.