Book Review: ‘The Innocent’ by Taylor Stevens

Stevens will be at BookPeople Wed 1/18, 7p in conversation w/ Jeff Abbott about 'The Innocent'.

VANESSA MUNROE IS NOT THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO!

This really needs to be stated. With publishers marketing to the latest big thing and book critics who lack knowledge of crime fiction writing about the genre, authors and their characters often get unfairly lumped together with previous big hitting books. This happened in early 2011 when Taylor Stevens debuted Ms. Munroe in the New York Times bestselling thriller The Informationist and critics compared her work to Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. The damaged and deadly female character has been around long before Stieg Larsson came on the scene, in fiction by the likes of Carol O’Connel, Val McDermid, and Karin Slaughter. Stevens evolved the character type into someone completely unique in The Informationist, and continues to do this in her latest adventure, The Innocent.

Munroe’s job is as an informationist, a combination Mercenary, corporate spy, PI, and bad ass librarian. She is able to get all the information on anything or place – if you can afford her. It’s a gig that can take her anywhere, to do anything with her talents, which are unique. Stevens delivers the cool yet intense precision of a heist novel when you watch Munroe work.

SJ Rozan, acclaimed author of books like Ghost Hero and Absent Friends and a Taylor Stevens fan said, “Vanessa Munroe is unique in the same way Peter Hoeg’s Smilla (of Smilla’s Sense of Snow) is unique. She has a particular physical talent — in Munroe’s case, an innate ability to pick up languages and cultural cues and therefore to blend like a chameleon into any situation — and she’s chosen a way to make a living turning this talent into a highly developed skill”

Stevens’ love of and influence by Robert Ludlum shows in her backdrop and her ability to  ground high adventure with very real current events. The Informationist took Vanessa to Equatorial Guinea in Africa to locate a missing woman and confront a past she has little memory of. It’s an Africa you probably haven’t seen or read about before. She deals with its beauty and corruption and all the grey area between. Her ability to do this was one of the things that caught SJ’s attention. “Stevens’ knowledge of, obvious love for, and refusal to romanticize the Africa she writes about paints vivid, believable pictures for her reader.”

This time, in The Innocent, Vanessa goes to South America to rescue a girl who was abducted by a cult, with a narrow window of opportunity. Stevens delivers some thrilling set pieces, particularly a reconnaissance run in the cult compound, while looking at the real life of cults and the effect they have on those in them and those who service them. Plot, character, and theme dovetail seamlessly, each informing the other.

In fact it’s this balance of character and plot shown in The Innocent that make Vanessa Munroe and her adventures so good. Instead of being driven by the past that has damaged her, she confronts it with the belief she’ll be better, if not  a better human being, for it. It’s the quality that make her a a truly unique and just plain true heroine. No tattoos required.

Taylor Stevens will appear at BookPeople on Wednesday, January 18, 7p in conversation with fellow bestselling crime fiction author Jeff Abbott about The Innocent.

America the Brutal – A Look at James Carlos Blake

MysteryPeople welcomes James Carlos Blake to BookPeople on Sunday, Jan 22, 3pm.

James Carlos Blake is to fiction what John Prine and Steve Earle are to music. His writing is impeccably crafted, and what that craft portrays is a rough and raw Americana. Much of his work mixes history with legend, injecting a very human honesty. He’s been compared to Cormac McCarthy, James Harrison, and other “masculine fiction writers”, but holds more humor than many branded with the label. He examines our country and it’s history of love, but not a young romantic love; his is knowing, weathered, experienced, and that much deeper.

His approaches to narrative are unique. His first book, The Pistoleer, followed the life of South Texas gunman John Wesley Hardin. Each chapter is an anecdote from someone who knew him. He used the same approach for his next book, The Friends Of Pancho Villa. The life of Handsome Harry is told through several “confessions” by John Dillinger’s partner that are often hilarious.

However he approaches the writing, it’s the subject and the subject’s relationship to the times that shine through. Many of his protagonists are violent men who have to be taken on their own terms, such as Missouri border guerilla Bloody Bill Anderson in The Wildwood Boys or the Galveston gangsters in Under The Skin. Usually it’s the characters’ actions that seals their fate, much like the society of their time. His last book, The Killings Of Stanley Ketchel, the poignant and brutal story of the forgotten ragtime era boxer, truly shows this. The book is a favorite of many authors, including Daniel Woodrell.

His latest look at history is a bit more personal this time around. Country Of Bad Wolfes uses Blake’s own ancestors as it follows the lineage of two sets of twins whose lives cover most of the eighteenth century in hunts for fortune and glory in the United States and Mexico. Their adventures intertwine with Mexican President Diaz, whose reign influences his dealings with the family. The book is trademark Blake with rogue heroes, duels, and demons and angels of human nature locked in a violent dance with one another. It’s a look at the United States and Mexico and the bloodshed, politics, and history that lies between the borders.

As a whole, James Carlos Blake’s work has the feel of lived-in legend. It’s a collection of old folk ballads singing to a new present. And I highly recommend you listen.

MysteryPeople welcomes James Carlos Blake to BookPeople to speak and sign Country of the Bad Wolfes on Sunday, January 22, 3pm. We’ll have complimentary beer and snacks on hand. Hope you can join us.

Keep Austin Noir

We  just got in our very first round of MysteryPeople t-shirts. Here’s Scott lookin’ so proud. The front bears the illustrious MP logo, and the back advises any thieves or PI’s on your tail to Keep Austin Noir. We have them hanging in the store, or you can get them here. You know you’ve hit the big time when they give you your own t-shirt.

Step One:  T-shirts.  Step Two:  World Domination.  Step Three: Eh, we can take a break after world domination. There are books that need to be read, after all.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Taylor Stevens

Taylore Stevens will appear in conversation with Jeff Abbott at BookPeople on Wed 1/18, 7p.

When Taylor Stevens debuted with The Informationist, she won over not only our staff, but the New York Times bestseller list. Taylor has created one of the most unique characters in some time, Vanessa Michael Munroe, an ultra-cool professional who can obtain any and all information you want, if you can afford her. Vanessa’s past experience with a cult has created baggage that she confronts with as much courage as she confronts the bad guys. In Stevens’ second book, The Innocent, Vanessa is on a mission to rescue a girl from the cult. Recently, Taylor was kind enough to answer a few questions from me concerning her character, her writing, and the part of her life which informs Vanessa’s past.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: It seems that now that Vanessa Michael Munroe has learned more about her past from The Informationist, she’s really dealing with it here and trying to understand when to cut off emotions she had previously shut down. Did you feel you were writing for a slightly different Vanessa this time?

TAYLOR STEVENS: I felt that I was writing for a different situation more than for a slightly different character, because there are aspects of Munroe’s personality that just weren’t able to surface within the circumstances of The Informationist, and which we’re finally able to catch glimpses of in The Innocent. That said, just as we as individuals are touched and changed by what happens in our own lives, she, too, was affected by prior events, and I think a bit of that comes through, as well.

MP: Vanessa is out to rescue a girl from a cult, making the mission very personal for her. What did you most want to convey about this type of life?

TS: Writing The Innocent seemed like a perfect opportunity to showcase more of Michael Munroe’s talent and badassery while offering readers access to a firsthand knowledge of cult life that most thriller writers don’t have. The Innocent is fiction and Hannah and her experiences are emphatically not me or mine, but this book is also probably the closest I will ever get to writing an autobiography. Now when people ask me what it was like growing up in The Children of God, I can smile and simply point to The Innocent and say, “Here, read this.”

MP: What do you admire about Vanessa?

TS: I most admire that she fully owns her decisions. Even when circumstances force her to choose between the lesser of evils, she feels no self pity, doesn’t attempt to place blame or make excuses, and accepts full responsibility for actions that some might find morally compromised, knowing that those same actions will probably come back to haunt her.

MP: You really seem to revel in Vanessa’s methodology and her research. How do you go about doing the research for your books?

TS: I wish I could say that I had a method, but it really boils down to asking one question over and over and over again: how does this make sense? And then not letting go until I feel I have a satisfying answer.

MP: What I love about both The Informationist and The Innocent is that there’s a sense of high adventure and cool people doing ultra-cool things, but it is grounded in current events and has a gritty feel to it. How important is that balancing act to you?

TS: I think it’s very important. As real as Michael Munroe is to me, as much as her abilities and her personality make sense to me, for some readers she pushes the boundaries of disbelief suspension. Working with this type of larger-than-life character, I feel it’s imperative that the plot and location be solidly grounded in realism, or else the entire work has the potential to tip over the edge into comedic farce rather than maintain the page-turning immediacy that I’m striving for.

MP: You write some of the slickest action scenes out there. Any advice to writers who have to do one?

TS: Wow. This is probably one of the most amazing compliments I’ve received, thank you! I’m often at a loss when it comes to offering writing advice because I don’t feel as if I know what I’m doing—I really am just winging it. One concept I do try to adhere to when writing action is that of less is more. The more words, the more description, the more detail that gets thrown into an action sequence, the more cluttered it will be and the slower and clunkier it will feel. In contrast, the sparser the language, the more the reader is able to fill in the gaps, allowing mental images to freely unspool. I find a lot of problems in my own writing can be solved by deleting over-explanation and unnecessary words.

Taylor Stevens will be at BookPeople discussing and signing copies of The Innocent on Wednesday, January 18th at 7PM. She’ll be in conversation with bestselling thriller writer Jeff Abbot.