MysteryPeople Q&A with Miles Arceneaux

Miles Arceneux is the pseudonym for authors Brent Douglas, John T. Davis, and James R. Dennis. Their manuscript for Thin Slice Of Life won the Writers’ League of Texas award in the mystery category, leading the rollicking story to get published. It’s an often humorous, hard boiled tale set on Texas’ gulf coast that features a brother out for revenge who teams with a stalwart Texas ranger going up against a Vietnamese gangster. When I sent them some questions recently, as their nature, they pretty much answered as one.

The fellas, along with author Stephen Romano, will be here at BookPeople Monday, October 1st at 7pm to talk about their work, take questions, sign books and generally just have a good time.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the three of you decide to write together?

MILES ARCENEAUX: A group of friends has been gathering in Rockport, on the Texas Coast, for Labor Day since 1980. As a lark, probably after a quantity of red wine or good whiskey, a bunch of us decided to take turns writing chapters of a serial novel (an earlier collaborative effort by several best-selling authors, Naked Came the Stranger, was an inspiration). It was almost like a dare. We originally had groups of friends writing in Austin, San Antonio and El Paso, where we three principals lived. The prevailing sentiment amongst us was, “How hard can it be?”

Pretty hard, as it turned out. People took a stab at a chapter or two and fell by the wayside until, lo these many years later, the writing team was whittled down to the three of us. (The group of friends in Houston, it should be noted, eventually provided invaluable assistance with cover graphics, website design and layout).

MP: How did you go about collaborating?

MA: We wish we could say it was intentional and the product of a laser-focused creative strategy, but our collaborative process just evolved in an intuitive fashion. Early on, we passed chapters back and forth like teenagers driving around without having much of an idea about where we were going.

But, as we passed the chapters back and forth and edited one another, the tone began to take on a certain seamless quality. It helped that all three of us were able to dish out and accept constructive criticism and suggestions without getting our collective knickers in a twist. The hardest part was editing the manuscript many, many times, until the three writers became a single narrative voice. Although Brent was given the title “Editor In Chief for Life, or 50,000 Miles,” the plot and style was discussed constantly via fax, phone and (midway through the process when the Internet came along) e-mail…and, inevitably, beer joints and barrooms. Spouses (a big shout out here from John T. to the lovely Kathy Cordova), sweethearts and friends helped keep the momentum going.

It evolved that each of us had a particular empathy for certain characters: Brent’s grandfather had been a shrimper, and he himself worked on a shrimp boat in college, so he knew that universe; James Dennis, when he was a lawyer in El Paso, contracted legendary Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson (by then retired) to do some work for his firm, so he got a close-up look at the Ranger history and ethos; John T. has a journalistic background writing about music in Texas, Louisiana and the South, so he was able to bring that expertise to the table

MP: How did the location and time period of the Texas Gulf in 1979 come about?

MA: The original Labor Day gathering was held in the twin communities of Rockport/Fulton, where Brent’s parents had a home, and where his grandfather had worked as a shrimper, so it had appeal for us—and it hasn’t been written about in fiction a great deal.

A couple of things drew us to that late-Seventies period. Most importantly, it was the period of time when Vietnamese refugees began settling on the Texas Coast and moving into the fishing industry, which created a certain churning cultural tension (and, in some cases, outright hostility) as the Vietnamese began to dominate the local fishing industry. It’ was an interesting and turbulent time and place that we wanted to explore. As James says, “I have spent lots of time living on and around the border. The intersection of two or more nations/peoples/values and cultures holds a real fascination for me.”

Additionally, we wanted to be able to isolate our characters, to a certain extent—in that era, there were no cell phones, no computers, no Internet. Fax machines were state of the art in those days. We wanted to have our heroes on their own, so to speak.

MP: While the plot and action is hard boiled, one of your heroes, Charlie, has a whimsical side and there is a lot of humor that runs through the book. What importance do you place on using levity with such a tough tale?

MA: The humor emerged from the characters’ voices; if they are predisposed to view their world in an ironic or irreverent way, that necessarily comes out in the dialogue. We all very much enjoy writers like Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard (and, to a lesser extent, John D. MacDonald) who all injected levity into their tales. We think it provides some needed counterpoint to the tension of the suspenseful sequences and, when juxtaposed against some of the scenes of extreme violence in the book, make that violence that much more shocking. The tone started out lighter originally, but darkened in order for us to remain true to the characters.

But beyond everything else, the irreverent, wisecracking stuff is just plain fun to write.

MP: You explore the Vietnamese society on the gulf, which is rarely depicted. How did you approach writing about that culture? 

Brent lived in Rockport in 1980 after finishing school. He says, “Although there wasn’t a lot of intermingling at that time between the Anglos and the Vietnamese (they were just getting settled in), we did see them, buy bait from them, etc. In addition,. I picked up their accents, speech patterns and backstories after listening to the 50 or so oral history audio recordings from the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History on the U.T. campus in Austin.

“From my perspective,” says James, “Most of what I know about Col. Bao (our villain) and guys like him came from what I read about the war, and the sort of people who tend to capitalize when a society is disintegrating or, in this case, coalescing after a disintegration.”

MP: Where did the pseudonym Miles Arceneaux come from?

MA: Miles was a character in an earlier draft of the book. Our good friend, novelist Stephen Harrigan, gave us invaluable feedback about slimming down and tightening up the manuscript and Miles was, unfortunately, a character that fell by the wayside. We resurrected him, like the Mummy, to be our author. Our original pen name was going to be either “John Grisham” or “Stephen King,” but cooler heads prevailed.

MP: Do the three of you each have separate solo projects or do you plan to continue collaborating?

MA: We are continuing to collaborate. We already have the first draft of a sequel featuring Charlie Sweetwater and some of the TSOL characters completed. It takes place several years after the events in Thin Slice of Life, and is set around the real-life underwater discovery of the La Belle, one of the ships belonging to the famous French explorer La Salle. Intrigue ensues.

We are also halfway through with a prequel of sorts, set in the same area in the 1950s, featuring the older members of the clan butting heads with Galveston mobsters. None of us rule out pursuing individual projects (John T. is working on a musical biography of the Flatlanders for U.T. Press, and James has written in other genres), but at this point, Miles Arceneaux is bigger than the three of us. As he should be.

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: PHANTOM by Jo Nesbo

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for October: Phantom  by Jo Nesbo
~Post by Chris M.

A few years ago Jo Nesbo was marketed as the heir to Steig Larsson’s Nordic crime fiction throne, and while Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy certainly catapulted Nordic crime writers into a new sphere of the public eye, it is my belief that Nesbo will ultimately be remembered as the genre’s seminal figure. A master storyteller, Jo Nesbo’s writing manages to merge nuanced characters, detail driven narratives, and page turning thrills into a potent tonic that satisfies on levels few writers in any genre ever reach.

In Phantom, his 9th novel featuring Detective Harry Hole (the 6th to be made available in the US), Nesbo offers a somber and very sobering look at addiction and self-destruction; two themes that also describe Harry Hole and his past misconduct as an alcoholic. The story begins as Harry Hole returns to Oslo after a self-imposed 3-year exile to Hong Kong. Harry’s return is prompted by the arrest of Oleg, son of his unobtainable true love Rakel, who is accused of murder. Fans of the series will understand the sordid history shared by Harry, Oleg, and Rakel, and new readers should be warned that their relationship is at best complicated, and at worst an ongoing tragedy.

Phantom opens with a rat scampering over a dying body. We see things from the rat’s perspective as she scurries across the crime scene looking at the objects scattered about the room: a bloody piece of cotton gauze, a shell casing, a half-smoked Russian cigarette, and it’s these objects which represent the story’s many characters and interwoven plot lines and set a morose tone for the rest of the novel. The story that unfolds is told from a variety of perspectives. We’ve got Gusto the murder victim reflecting on his life, Truls Bernsten the corrupt cop trying to cover his ass, and Harry the detective trying to follow the threads that lead to something resembling the truth.

Phantom’s success is due in large part to Nesbo’s ability to draw complete characters. He understands his subjects and masterfully communicates his understanding to his readers. There are very few moments in any of Nesbo’s novel where a reader has cause to question the motivations of any particular character. This dedication to nuance is what sets Jo Nesbo head and shoulders above his peers. He adds a depth to his novels that is virtually unrivaled in modern crime fiction, and it offers a read so satisfying that other Nordic fiction feels like a lesser animal. This isn’t to say that Nordic crime fiction begins and ends with Mr. Nesbo, that wouldn’t do justice to many other great Scandinavian writers working today, but the experience of reading a Harry Hole novel somehow feels more complete.

If you are wondering how Phantom stacks up against the other books in the series, I can say with aplomb that it is Nesbo’s best work. Phantom, while smaller in scope than its predecessors, deals with a seemingly simple topic like drug addiction in such a way that it humanizes the petty drug pushers and users that populate the novels 400 pages. In the end we understand their motivations. Whereas a serial killer is always a maladjusted individual with some nagging psychological issues, drug addicts are people with emotional damage trying to escape their reality. Phantom also gives us a better understanding of Harry Hole, who’s long-running struggle with addiction motivates almost every action in his life.

As a long-time fan of Nesbo’s work I am both happy and sad after reading Phantom: happy because Nesbo penned a novel that ranks among my favorites in the genre, and sad because now I have to wait for more. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Jo Nesbo’s work, I urge you to check out this wonderful series. With the announcement that Martin Scorsese will be directing the film adaptation of Nesbo’s The Snowman, I can guarantee you’ll be hearing a lot about detective Harry Hole so get a jumpstart now so that you won’t have to catch up later.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Michael Robotham

Say You’re Sorry is the latest book from Michael Robatham featuring Joe O’Loughlin, a clinical psychiatrist suffering from Parkinson’s who assists the British police. O’Loughlin is summoned to a small town to look into the three year old disappearance of two girls when a new suspect is found. Robotham has a great ability to take us through some of the darkest parts of the psyche, yet still keep a tone of humanity. Joe will be joining us on Monday, October 8th with author Helen Knode for a signing and discussion. In the mean time, Mr. Robotham was kind enough to answer a few questions from us.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: In Say You’re Sorry, the town of Bingham is practically a character in the book and not particularly a nice one. How did you approach writing about it?

MICHAEL ROBOTHAM: I decided to set Say You’re Sorry in a small town to show the impact that a terrible crime can have on a close-knit community where everybody knows each other. A place normally regarded as being peaceful and idyllic takes on a completely different atmosphere when children go missing. People question friendships and look askance at neighbors. Doors are locked. Children aren’t allowed out to play.

I grew up in small country towns and I know what dark secrets can lie behind the net curtains and pretty facades.

MP: Piper narrates part of the story in a very odd voice that doesn’t seem to portray any sense of danger. How did this concept come about?

MR: Sometimes we get Piper’s thoughts and other times read her diaries, as she explains the ordeal that she’s endured. She and her best friend Tash were kidnapped and imprisoned three years earlier, but now Tash has managed to escape their ‘dungeon’ and go for help, leaving Piper behind. Slowly Piper begins to suspect that Tash isn’t coming back. And if there’s one thing worse than being imprisoned, it’s being alone.

MP: What makes O’Loughlin a character worth writing about for you?

MR: Joe O’Loughlin is like an old friend, who has featured in some of my previous novels. He’s a clinical psychologist, with a brilliant understanding of human nature, but a crumbling body. He’s the perfect narrator for a story like  Say You’re Sorry, which is psychologically very dark and confronting. Joe has such a wonderful sense of humor and humanity that he lightens up the darkest moments. Readers feel safe in his hands. He’ll take them to some very dark places, but bring them out again unscathed

MP: How do you go about researching O’Loughlins job as a psychologist since he applies that skill to working a case?

MR: Many years ago I was fortunate enough to work with a brilliant psychologist called Paul Britton, who pioneered offender profiling in the UK. Paul worked on some of the most celebrated crimes in Great Britain, helping the police catch dozens of killers. His knowledge of criminal behavior and motivations was drawn from a long career working in secure mental units and prison hospitals with the criminally insane, making decisions about whether they could ever be released into the community.

Most of my knowledge comes from Paul Britton, who has a phenomenal ability to ‘read’ people – the way they walk, talk, dress, react. He has an amazing mind that never stops processing the world around him.

MP: You’re vice as a writer seems so immersed in the character you’re following that it’s difficult to trace an influence. Do you have any?

MR: I write in the first person, inhabiting the skin of my characters, looking at the world through their eyes.

Years ago, when my first novel Suspectwas sold around the world on a partial manuscript, I got near the end and Joe O’Loughin was in so much trouble – about to lose his wife, family, his career and perhaps his liberty. I suddenly realized how I was going to save him, but in the same breath thought to myself, ‘If I get run over by a bus tomorrow, Joe will go to prison for the rest of his life for a murder he didn’t commit.’

I wrote manically for 48 hours to get the story down, so that if something happened to me, Joe would be safe. That’s how real my characters are to me. That’s my vice.

MP: One of my favorite lines in the book is “I don’t mind the snow. It hides so many sins.” What does it hide for Joe?

MR: A city covered in snow is given a chance to start again. Everything looks clean and fresh for just a few hours.

I’m always reminded of something my daughter said to me when she was four-years-old and I was pushing her on a swing. ‘Daddy,’ she said, ‘if you close your eyes and squeeze them tightly shut, when you open the again – it can be a brand new world.’ From the mouth of a child…amazing!

RESURRECTION EXPRESS – From Noir to Apocalyptic at the Speed of Sound

Not only does Stephen Romano have a background in film, he’s influenced by a specific sub genre, grind house. It’s those dark, exploitative, at times brutal movies from the ’70s and ’80s that fuel his creativity. His dark artwork has graced horror film posters and book covers. He adapted Joe R. Lansdale’s Incident On And Off A Mountain Road for Phantasm director Don Coscarelli  and collaborated with the creators of Saw for the book Black Light. He even designed a collection of promotional material for faux grind house movies called Shock Festival. It comes as no surprise that his debut solo novel, Resurrection Express, is a nihilistic piece of entertainment that goes from noir to apocalyptic at the speed of sound.

Set up by an Austin gangster, high tech heist man Elroy Coffin lives out his sentence in a maximum security prison fighting off inmates and struggling to hang on to the fading memories of his murdered wife Toni. A mysterious woman tells him Toni may still be alive. She can get him out of prison if he’ll do a job, stealing information from Hartman.

The first part resembles a Richard Stark Parker novel. Elroy is put on parole and winds up with a crew that includes two ex-military men and the only robber he can trust, his very tough father. The job goes bad and bloody and puts Elroy and the survivors on the run from the law, from Hartman, and from some seriously connected killers. This is just the first third of the book.

The rest of the plot I can’t disclose without giving away some serious reveals and twists. It races along toward an action thriller with some sci-fi touches, dealing with identity and life, holding onto its dark tone like a junkyard dog with a bone.

This book is relentless. It has the feel of a grind house auteur working with a two-hundred million dollar budget. Nothing is too big, whether it’s shoot-outs, revelations, or ideas. Near the end of the book, Elroy finds himself on a helicopter gunship during a full scale assault on a mountain compound. As a reader, you feel pummeled by the end of the novel. That said, Resurrection Express questions ideas of love and hope. Just don’t expect any happy answers.

MysteryPeople welcomes Stephen Romano to speak about & sign Resurrection Express on Monday, October 1 at 7pm. He’ll be joined by Miles Arceneaux.

Scene of the Crime: Peter Spiegelman & Wall Street

Today we begin a new monthly series, Scene Of The Crime, where authors discuss the locations they write about. Peter Spiegelman’s PI John March works cases involving Wall Street. Spiegelman, who worked as a software designer for many Wall Street businesses, also edited one of the best Akashic anthologies, Wall Street Noir, proving the reach of the street.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: What makes Wall Street a place to return to for your fiction?

PETER SPIEGELMAN: I worked on and around Wall Street for twenty-plus years, and I have friends and family who still work there, so it’s a place I know well. It’s also a place where wrongdoing has often been a part of the landscape—which makes it fertile ground for crime fiction.

MP: What makes it a unique location for you?

PS: From my first day there, it was apparent to me that Wall Street is quite a noir-ish place. Though the trappings are different, a trading floor has more than a few things in common with a casino or a racetrack. You can find compulsive risk-takers there, and people who measure their own self-worth by their latest gains or losses. There is arrogance, desperation, self-deception and self-destruction at work, along with short fuses and big egos, so it makes a great laboratory for anyone interested in how people behave under pressure—what they will and won’t do, where they draw (or don’t draw) the line.

MP: How does it inform your hero?

PS: Wall Street is a world John March knows intimately (he’s the black sheep son of a family of investment bankers)—a world he grew up in, but that he ultimately turned his back on. Now he’s an “outside insider” – someone who knows about the skeletons in the closet, and where the bodies are buried. He maintains a reflexive skepticism about Wall Street, isn’t intimidated or awestruck by big money, and isn’t misled by nonsense wrapped in jargon.

MP: What is the biggest misconception about the place?

PS: From the long, sad history of crime on Wall Street, it’s easy to believe that the industry is made up exclusively of Gordon Gekkos or Bernie Madoffs or seedy boiler-room types pushing sub-prime mortgages, or slicker Ivy League types pushing toxic derivatives. But that’s far from the whole story. The vast majority of people employed there are hardworking folks who are not paid extravagant sums, and who are no less honest than people in any other industry.

MP: What did you enjoy most about working there?

PS: I had a chance to do some interesting, very challenging work there, and to do it with some very smart people. But the best part, by far, of working on Wall Street was meeting my wife there.

Peter will be calling into our Hard Word Book Club September 26th at 7pm, for our discussion of his first John March book, Black Maps.

New Work from Jesse Sublett

Jesse Sublett is becoming as much a MysteryPeople institution as he is an Austin one. A member of The Skunks, a band that helped define the town’s new wave scene, and author of the Martin Fender mysteries, Jesse has also played murder ballads at some of our author events and is a regular at our Noir At The Bar. He recently posted a short story, Stars In Her Hair, on his website. The story also serves as a chapter for Grave Digger Blues, the work-in-progress that he’s been reading at our Noir At The Bars. Jesse will be performing at our next horror-themed Noir At The Bar on October 25th at Opal Divine’s off 6th Street. If you want to be in the room for a rip-roaring reading like you’ve never experienced before, you ought to come on down.

If You Like Jack Reacher…

~Post by Scott

A couple weeks ago, A Wanted Man by Lee Child came out. By now, most fans have devoured it, looking for their next fix. Here are five series characters who can get you through to the next book-

TRAVIS MCGEE created by John D. Macdonald
First Book: Deep Blue Good-by
Reacher’s off the grid lifestyle and philosophy owes a lot to McGee. Macdonald was the first to take the men’s adventure novel to a new level.
CHARLIE FOX created by Zoë Sharp
First Book: Killer Instinct
More than a female Reacher, this British Special forces veteran and self defense expert, has to struggle to keep her aggression in check at times. Zoë Sharp proves that women writers and characters can get just as rough and tumble as the boys. These are some of the best action sequences in print.
QUINN COLSON created by Ace Atkins
First Book: The Ranger
This series brings back memories of the Southern set action movies of the Seventies, with Army ranger Colson out to clean up his corrupt Mississippi town. A well written mix of hard boiled crime and current events.
MERCY GUNDERSON created by Lori Armstrong
First Book: No Mercy
Gunderson used to be part of an elite group of female snipers. Sidelined stateside to the family’s South Dakota ranch, she has to use her old skills to protect it and her clan. Armstrong brings thriller elements to the modern western with a fun and at times even humorous look at her region.
First Book: Even
This is truly Reacher as a fish out of water. Tied to British Naval Intelligence, Trevellyn navigates his way around danger as well as the U.S., Andrew Grant proves he can write a man of action as well as his brother Lee Child.

Big News for Elmore Leonard

The Library of America will be printing a collection of Elmore Leonard’s early crime fiction. For someone who has influenced two generations in the genre as well as authors outside of it with his approach to plot, character, and dialogue, this is an honor well earned. Check out the complete Reader’s Almanac article HERE.

November 14 “The National Book Foundation will present its 2012 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Elmore Leonard… Martin Amis will present the medal to Leonard, who is the twenty-fifth winner of the award that has previously gone to John Ashbery, Toni Morrison, John Updike, and Joan Didion.” Read the full article HERE.

A pilot is also in the works over at USA based off of one of Elmore’s short stories from When the Women Come Out to Dance. “The project centers on a Miami businessman who, contemplating a run for political office, tries to increase his chances of being elected by marrying a Colombian woman who is on the run from her troubled past. What starts as a marriage of convenience quickly escalates into much more as his new wife proves to be more resourceful at “fixing” any problem the corrupt South Miami political scene throws at her husband.” Read the full article HERE.


Join a Conversation with Peter Spiegelman

Here at BookPeople on Wednesday Sept, 26th, at 7pm, the Hard Word Book Club will be discussing one of the best modern private eye novels out there, Peter Spiegelman’s Black Maps. It is a book both unique in setting and tone, introducing us to Spiegelman’s series character John March.

March turned his back on his family of Wall Street financiers to become a deputy sheriff in upstate New York. After his life is shattered with the murder of his wife, he moves back to the city. While trying to put his life back together, he hires himself out as an investigator. Because of his family connections, most of the jobs involve the life he left behind.

In Black Maps, March is hired by a self-made investment  banker, Rick Pierro, who is being blackmailed. As John John tries to find the blackmailer, he discovers Pierro may be involved in something more criminal and personal than he thought.

Peter Spiegelman brings two pieces of his background together that make the book and the rest of the John March series a distinguished read. Peter used to work as a software designer for several Wall Street firms and said he encountered many people as dark and reckless as anything from a Jim Thompson novel. He conveys these people with nuance and shading, taking them beyond cardboard Gordon Geckos. His background as a poet produces a different rhythm and flow from the usual Chandler approach to prose. The word choice  is clean and can cut right to the emotion without over-emoting.

We’re honored to have Peter Spiegelman call in to our discussion on Wednesday, September 26th as we examine this novel that holds a unique place in the genre. Hard Word Book Club is free to attend, no registration necessary. Just show up. 

Crime Fiction 101

If you want to be a crime fiction writer, the New York Daily News reports on what could be the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for the genre, taught by some of the best in the business – Crime Fiction Academy.

From the article:

“Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane, Lawrence Block, Laura Lippman, Lee Child, Megan Abbott, Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Isaacs, Harlen Coben, Linda Fairstein, S.J. Rozan, Jason Pinter, Val McDermid and Karin Slaughter are among those eager and willing to educate the genre’s newbies.”

Would you sign up?