MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: GUN CHURCH

Reed Farrel Coleman reads here in Austin at the next Noir at the Bar at Opal Divine’s, Tuesday, November 13 at 7p.

Reed Farrel Coleman is one of the most exciting authors out there. His fans, who include many top crime authors, always look to see what he’s doing next. His latest, Gun Church, is a bit of a departure, yet retains all of the qualities we read his work for.

The protagonist is Kip Weiler, a washed up novelist from the 80s. Done in by his own narcissism as much as by drugs and alcohol, he finds himself teaching at a small town college. When he stops a school shooting in his classroom, his life takes many turns.

Two of his students, Jim and Renee, invite him into a group in town that worships handguns. One of the main activities at “The Church” is shooting at each other while wearing Kevlar vests. Kip becomes a part of the group, developing a friendship with Jim and an affair with Ann. He even comes back to writing. Coleman delivers a fun book-within-a-book that seems to allude to his Irish colleague Ken Bruen. When a local bully who is part of the group pushes Kip too far, lines get crossed and he steps right over the edge he’s been living on.

Coleman’s talent for conveying the voice of his protagonists really comes into play with Gun Church. He hooks us into a character we may not initially like right off the bat. Eventually we wind up rooting for him when he tries for redemption, feeling his pain when he fails. The tension is close to unbearable when the story finds Kip on a downward spiral. Coleman doesn’t let you or the character go until the last word.

Most authors would have taken the premise of a school shooting and delivered a simple social commentary on hand gun violence. Reed goes deeper. He also looks at publishing, academia, small town America, and the paths our ego and emotions lead us down. We feel for practically every character as he takes us down these many roads. We’d expect nothing less from him.

Reed Farrel Coleman will read from Gun Church at MysteryPeople’s next Noir at the Bar at Opal Divine’s on Tuesday, November 13 at 7pm. He will be joined by Sarah Cortez and Jesse Sublett.

Scene of the Crime: Sophie Littlefield & West Missouri

Sophie Littlefield has used western Missouri effectively for both her Stella Hardesty mysteries and her Hailey Tarbell supernatural YA novels. In this months’ Scene Of The Crime, she discusses the area and the type of people who inhabit it.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: What made you use western Missouri as a setting?

SOPHIE LITTLEFIELD: I grew up in central Missouri, but virtually all of my childhood summer vacations were spent camping in parks all around the state, often in the Lake of the Ozarks region. When I was in high school, I went to All-State Orchestra every year (another time we can discuss my incredibly geeky pastimes: playing the cello, debate club, and spending Friday nights at the library). It was held at the faaaaabulous Tan-Tar-A Family Resort in Osage Beach. I was struck by the beauty of the lake – when I wasn’t busy being struck by my first kiss, first cigarette, first liquor, etc. (Parents: watch out for those seemingly-innocent band kids!)

MP: What makes it unique as a crime fiction backdrop?

SL: The thing about the heartland is that everyone is so darn nice all the time. You really don’t expect a whole lot of shenanigans when folks are constantly exhorting you to ‘come on back, now.’ Of course, that’s only one side of the Ozarks coin – you have only to dip a toe in a Woodrell novel to catch a glimpse of the other side.

MP: What is the biggest misconception about the place?

SL:  Now I’m going to contradict myself – people think that the Ozark region is full of rednecks and yahoos. The truth is that it is a historically and culturally rich and vibrant place, and I hope I never give the impression that I believe otherwise. The Osage Indians, the riverways, the hardscrabble lives early European settlers faced, the folklore – all of these fascinated me as a child and continue to today.

Also, some coastal types mistakenly believe that Missouri has a mild climate. Hell no! You freeze your ass off in the winter and wander about in a sweaty, listless fugue state in the summer. Remember in Little House on the Prairie, when Pa died in a snowstorm because he got lost on the way back to the house from the barn? Happens ever year in my home town.

MP: How does the area inform Stella?

SL: Stella is a true Midwesterner, community-minded and generous. I explore that theme in the second book in the series, A Bad Day for Pretty, which opens with a flashback to when she was a child and her father and uncle helped rescue neighbors during a tornado. “Helping folks is what Daddys do,” her father tells her, but the real message is that helping others is what *everyone* does.

MP: You now live and write in California. Is it sometimes a challenge to put your mind back in the Midwest?

SL:  It’s funny how those early years stay with you. At times, I’ve struggled mightily to wring the midwest out – mostly during my insecure younger years when I wanted to seem more sophisticated than I actually am. But you’d be amazed how hard it is to eradicate that relentless good nature. We midwest types are the opposite of edgy – if you don’t believe me, wander around central Missouri until you find a scowling, pierced, tattooed teenager and bid him a good day: he will be UNABLE to resist mumbling “you, too.”

MP: You have at least two series set in the area with strong women from different generations. What’s special about the the women where you’re from?

SL: We’re sturdy, we’re determined, and we age well!

MysteryPeople Q&A with Chris F. Holm

This year, Chris F. Holm released his debut Dead Harvest, introducing his hard boiled hero Sam Thorton, a man who sold his soul and ended up a collector of other souls. The book earned praise from crime fiction and supernatural fans alike. This month, the second Thorton book, The Wrong Goodbye, took us further into Sam’s world. Since our next Hard Word Book Club will be on Halloween, we decided to discuss Dead Harvest with Chris calling in to the discussion. He was also kind enough to answer some questions for us in advance.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the character of Sam Thornton come about?

CHRIS F. HOLM: Corny as it sounds, he popped into my head more or less fully formed as I was drifting off to sleep one night. I was in that strange space between wakefulness and dreaming, and a scene was unfolding in my mind. It was of a man — surly, American — watching through the window of an Oxford pub at the jollity inside. When the pub closed down, the American fell in behind one of the drunken patrons — a noted British man of letters — and tailed him until the guy ducked into an alley to take a leak. They struggle, the Brit’s eyes wide with fear. Then the American plunged his hand into the Brit’s chest and tore out his soul. As the man’s dead body hit the ground, the American said, “Sorry — it’s nothing personal.”

I have no idea where any of that came from, but once I saw it, I shook off all thoughts of sleep and ran down the stairs to my office, where I wrote down as much of it as I could remember. That scene wound up the opening chapter of Dead Harvest. As for how the character developed from there, I suppose I filled in the wheres and whys by drawing on my pet obsessions: classic detective novels, religious conspiracy stories, cheesy horror flicks, Lovecraft, philosophy, folklore, Greek myth. But the truth is, after that first scene everything fell into place so easily, Sam still feels more discovered than created to me.

MP: What makes him a character worth returning to as a writer?

CH: George Orwell once said, “On the whole, human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time.” Well, Sam’s not a bad man by any means, but he sure ain’t too good. To me, Sam’s appeal is that he’s not simply a tarnished man of honor in the vein of Hammett’s Continental Op or Chandler’s Marlowe; he’s a deeply flawed guy who’s made some truly poor — if not outright immoral — decisions in the course of his existence. I mean, the poor guy’s damned to hell, and not on any technicality, either. But despite that, he holds on to the hope of redemption, if only in his own mind. There’s something to that struggle — to finding some meager shred of hope and faith in the face of a foregone conclusion — that I find tremendously compelling. I’m as curious as anybody to see where fate takes Sam… and what he has to say about it when it does.

MP: While the books deal with spirituality, you’ve deftly avoided the characters and backdrop from being attributed to any one religion. How difficult has that been to do?

CH Actually, in some ways, I think it’s been easier than if I tied myself to any one religion. One of the goals I had when I sat down to write this series was to write something people of any faith — or none at all — could enjoy. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as telling a specific kind of story. And anyway, it seems to me that wrestling with questions of faith, morality, and mortality is universal to the human experience.

To that end, I had this notion of all the world’s religions, folklore, and mythology as a vast, multigenerational game of telephone — the result of centuries of folks catching different glimpses of the greater world around us, but never quite enough to make any sense of it. And the beauty of that idea is, I’m not tied to any one cosmology or cast of characters; I can steal whatever I like from wherever I like without fear of running afoul of any rulebook. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the course of writing the Collector novels, it’s that nothing I cook up can hold a candle to the giant piles of weird that comprise our species’ many and varied belief systems.

MP: You established your world and hero with Dead Harvest. What was the goal with The Wrong Goodbye?

CH: Dead Harvest was an experiment: I wanted to see if I could write fantasy that read like crime. Taut, propulsive, and with as little world building as I could manage while still telling the story I wanted to tell. Whether I was successful in that regard is for the audience to decide.

When the time came to write The Wrong Goodbye, I realized I wasn’t interested in going the case-of-the-week route. So I decided to take a big step back, and really expand the scope of Sam’s world. The result, I hope, is bigger, richer, funnier, and more character-driven than was Dead Harvest.

Then again, there’s always a chance some readers would prefer a case-of-the-week.

MP: What’s the best thing about creating your own world?

CH: The best thing? The sense of discovery around every corner. Writing Sam’s world is an act of exploration. What’s a demon drug look, taste, and feel like? If a character can’t be killed, what would he or she fear most in this world? What would my own worst hell look like? What would yours?

Sam’s is a fertile world to explore all my personal obsessions, and hopefully have some fun along the way. My only limits are those of my own imagination. Which is writer-code for “I’m just happy none of this has to make real-world sense.”

MP: What’s the most challenging about it?

CH: Uh, same answer. Because the flip-side of that coin is, every detail has to hang together, or the whole illusion comes crashing down. Which, frankly, could happen at any time. So fingers crossed Sam and company keep whispering in my ear.

MP: Just by the titles in the series, it’s obvious you’re a hard boiled crime fiction fan. Who are some of your favorite writers in the genre?

CH: Well, Chandler and Hammett are gimmes, since it’s from they I cribbed my titles. But I’m also a huge fan of James Cain, Ross Macdonald, Jim Thompson, and Patricia Highsmith. Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake are twin pillars of literary godhood, as far as I’m concerned; Westlake’s Parker novels in particular are probably my all-time favorite series. Charles Ardai’s devastating Songs of Innocence and Domenic Stansberry’s The Confession can hang with anything I’ve ever read. And if you ask me, Megan Abbott is pushing the genre in brave new directions.

MP: You’re more of a crime writer who took on an urban fantasy series where most of the authors come the the subgenre from fantasy, do you think that gives you a different take?

CH: I think so, although I think the difference is evidenced more in tone and rhythm than in content. Plenty of folks writing urban fantasy or whatever you wanna call it have the chops to pull off the grittier subject matter, and I’d likewise like to think my fantastical elements are up to snuff. But style of prose lends as much flavor to any tale as does the story, and I think, prose-wise, all my herbs and spices are calibrated to a crime-fic palette. Not that I’m the only crime writer sneaking across that border; Charlie Huston and Stephen Blackmoore, just to name a couple, have done the same to great effect.

James Cameron to Direct THE INFORMATIONIST

We’ve been champions of Taylor Steven’s series featuring her bad-ass heroine Vanessa Michael Munroe since the first  book, The Informationist, hit shelves. Looks like Stevens also found a fan in James Cameron, director of the two largest grossing films in the world. He’s announced plans to direct and produce The Informationist for the big screen. For those yet to read the book, or its follow up, The Innocent, they are fast paced novels with one heck of a fascinating heroine. Congratulations, Taylor!

Noir at the Bar Gets Possessed

Noir fiction and horror have a lot in common. Both delve into the darkest of themes and tones. In either genre a bleak ending is not only accepted, it’s practically expected. It’s no wonder they’ve bled into one another in several books and share a talent pool of authors. Their fans have steel nerves who don’t wear rose color glasses while they read. So, since our next Noir At The Bar is scheduled so close to Halloween, we found it fitting to make it horror themed.

Austin has a thriving horror scene and we’re tapping into the talent of two presses, Sinister Grin and Abattoir. Sinister Grin author Lee Thomas has become a major name in the genre. His last book, The German, a blend of serial killer story, historical fiction, and possible ghost story, proved to be a powerful socially aware read that earned him fans outside of horror. His latest, Ash Street deals with victims of a thrill kill couple who come back to life. We also have two other authors from Sinister Grin. Nate Southland took the question of why so many bands die in plane crashes and used it for his book, Down. Wrath James White’s Sacrifice deals with a homicide detective looking into voodoo murders.

Another up and coming horror press, Abbattoir was founded by Ed Kurtz. One of it’s latest releases is Bleed On Me by Shane McKenzie. The story concerns a slacker and a drug dealer who have to fight the undead next door. Horror great Ray Garton has said, “Shane McKenzie has the kind of imagination that should require a license to operate.”

Come out and join us on Thursday, October 25th at 7pm at Opal Divines, 700 6th Street, and introduce yourself to some of the darkest Austin has to offer. We will also have a reading and music by Noir At The Bar regular Jesse Sublett. Bring enough cash for books and booze and join us if you dare.

A Book to Die For

Books To Die For was something I couldn’t wait to read as soon as I heard about it. Authors John Connolly and Declan Burke asked over one hundred of the world’s top crime fiction authors to pick the book they would most passionately advocate for and write an essay about it. The contributors vary in sub-genre from Michael Connelly to Laurie R. King to Jo Nesbo. The book exceeded my expectations.

The approach to the essays ranges from the erudite to the anecdotal. I’ve heard Megan Abbott discuss Dorothy B. Hughes’ In A Lonely Place in depth, and in her essay learned she still had a lot to say about it. Joseph Wambaugh’s piece on In Cold Blood recounts how he was invited to Truman Capote’s house when they met on The Tonight Show and how the meeting nudged him into writing The Onion Field. Some simply work as great recommendations, like Lee Child’s testimony for a book titled The Damned And The Destroyed by Kenneth Orvis. I’m getting Donald Goine’s ghetto noir, Daddy Cool, on Ken Bruen’s advice.

The collection delivers so many things. Arranged chronologically by the publication date of the recommended books, it serves as an informal history of the genre. It also proves you can learn the most about an artist when he or she discusses an admired peer. When David Corbett praises James Crumley’s The Wrong Case, he lists many things that can be found in his own work. and you can tell William Kent Kruger learned some lessons from Tony Hillerman when designing his hero.

Books To Die For serves as a history of crime fiction reflected in one of it’s current and, quite possibly, greatest generations. John Connolly has said writing the essay was the hardest thing he’s ever done and he will never do it again. Hopefully we can talk him into it in about ten years.

A Night with The Bookseller

It was an honor to host Mark Pryor last week for the launch of his debut novel, The Bookseller, and not just because he gave me a a signed copy of the book wrapped in official crime scene tape. Mark, an Austin ADA who was brought up in England, has kicked off what looks to be an engaging series in the vein of the Jack Reacher novels with his character Hugo Marston, the head of security for the American embassy in Paris.

Over eighty people showed up to the event, including famed author David Lindsey. When Pryor was searching for authors’ brains to pick about writing, Mr. Lindsey invited him out for coffee. (For all you Lindsey fans, he told me he’s at work on something new.)

Mark said he wouldn’t do a reading. “The character I created was a Texan and you don’t want to hear my British accent doing him, especially when he speaks French.”

He did volunteer to answer the question most writers hate – where does he get his ideas? His answer, with no irony, was “On vacation.”

He said The Bookseller came about from wandering through Parisian bookstalls. There were books of all kind, some worth nothing, some priceless. When the idea came to him of a book containing something hidden that a group of people were looking for, he and his wife searched the city for paper and pen. They spent over three hours in a cafe jotting down ideas.

The vacation paid off. The Bookseller a is fast paced adventure that uses plot, setting, and character to create one engaging tale. Mark will have another Hugo Marston book out by the summer. We look forward to having him here again.

Parker Hits the Big Screen

While Richard Stark’s (aka Donald Westlake’s) Parker books have been adapted into almost half a dozen films, notably Point Blank and The Outfit, film producers have never been able to use the character’s actual name because no one wanted to make the whole Parker series, as Westlake wanted, only one book at a time. That will change this January with Parker, the new movie based on the book Firebreak. Starring Jason Statham as the bad ass heistman, it is planned to be the first in a series of films based on the books.

Their has been some debate about having a Parker with a British accent (watch him try to pass himself off as a Texan), but I’ll argue he brings the attitude. You can be the judge by looking at the trailer. If for some reason you haven’t read a Parker book, pick one up immediately, they are diamond hard with dialogue you can use to hammer a railroad tie.

Cleveland Rocked!

Injuries, New Authors, Noir at the Bar, The Classy John Connolly, & A Book to Die For at Bouchercon 2012

John Kenyon. Kent Gowran, Thomas Pluck, Tommy Shaw, Christa Faust, Peter Farris, and myself. The hard boiled Algonquin Roundtable.

Heading toward the venue of the 2012 Bouchercon, I realized Cleveland was a perfect setting for the world’s largest crime fiction conference. Walking some of the streets where a post-Untouchable Eliot Ness worked fighting corruption and trying to solve the still open case of “The Torso Killer”, rain pelting my hat and coat while I passed the town’s historic buildings, put be in a noir mood. No wonder this town has served as an inspiration for the likes of Les Roberts and Michael Koryta.

We even had our share of injury. After looking fine Wednesday, Wallace Stroby became bedridden in his hotel room for most of the conference. Reed Farrel Coleman sported several stitches the last two days after taking a tumble off the risers when his panel ended. He told us he’ll have a great scar to show off at our Noir At the Bar on November 13th. Another author took the same tumble at the award ceremony. Even this bookseller ended up with a nasty twist to the ankle . In true hard boiled fashion, we were all at the hotel bar on the last evening of the conference nursing our wounds (and wounded egos).

The opening ceremony was held at the Rock N’ Roll Hall Of Fame. John Connolly gave a funny keynote speech, featuring an interview with the “stand in” for the controversial Jack Reacher choice, Tom Cruise, and we all got a tour of the museum. The only thing cooler than seeing Elvis’ Caddy was finally meeting Big Daddy Thug himself, Todd Robinson, creator of Thuglit magazine and impresario of the New York Noir At The Bar. I even got to go back to the hotel in a limo van, since these things happen when you’re standing next to John Connolly.

Noir At The Bar had its own night on Friday. Hosted by new publisher on the block, Snubnose Press, at the Wonder Bar, it featured several of their writers including buddies Jonathan Woods and Jedidiah Ayres (co-founder of St. Louis’s Noir At The Bar). I also discovered Josh Stallings, an author whose work I can’t wait to dive into. He read from the darkest, toughest, grittiest and funniest thing there, and it was from his memoir. The talent was hard hitting, poetic, and mostly drunk.

Chatting with Peter Farris and John Rector before “Bringing Back Noir” panel.

This year had some of the best panels. “Eve Of Destruction” featured women writers like Sophie Littlefield and Deborah Coonts who write about crime fighting ladies. Debra said one of the most gratifying things about her writing is “…having men do what I think they’ll do.” The following hour went to the other gender with “Man Fiction” (a term which everyone on the panel dismissed). Max Allan Collins gave some great advice about writing hard boiled fiction with its more melodramatic elements. “When the story is a shout, I try to write at a whisper with character and setting to make it as recognizable as possible.”

My favorite panel was “Heroes & Villains” moderated by Mark Billingham with Karin Slaughter, Alafair Burke, John Connolly, and Martyn Waites. The authors discussed heroes and villains in their own life and on the page. Somehow the discussion got to sex scenes. Martyn said he always knows when his wife gets to one in his work. “She sighs and says, “Here’s something else I have to live up to.”

John Connolly delivered an eloquent statement about the need to put a part of himself in his heroes, villains and everyone in between. “That way they all have meaning.”

Connolly also started an impassioned discussion when he was asked who his real life villain was. He answered people who use the terms, “legacy publishing” and “dead tree publishing”. “There’s animosity with some people against the printed book…All I’m asking for is a choice.”

Mark Billingham added, “It’s like escalators being threatened by stairs.”

I also got to know some authors who are new to the game. Tim O’Mara, a New York schoolteacher, created buzz with his debut, Sacrifice Fly. If he can tell a story on the page as good as he can at the bar we’re all in for a treat. I also met ex-con turned novelist Les Edgerton, who dropped a great piece of life advice – “Never let anyone rent space in your head.”

An author who made quite a splash was buddy and fellow Texan Reavis Wortham. Both of his books, The Rock Hole and Burrows, which look at the effect of the ’60s on a small town, sold out in the book room. He also seemed to be surrounded by at least two beautiful women every time I saw him. Not bad for his first Bouchercon.

The true star at Cleveland was Books To Die For, a collection of essays edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke, with assistance from my fellow Mystery Bookstore vet Ellen Clair Lamb, where the authors asked over a hundred of their fellow crime writers to pick a book they would passionately advocate people read. One of the largest lines at the conference was to get signatures from thirty of the contributors. John told the crowd, “We laughed when we we’re told it was the hardest thing we’d ever do…We’ll never do it again.”

As closing ceremonies ended and the authors gave each other a goodbye hug before heading to the airport, I sat with Christa Faust and Johnny Shaw plotting out deeds for next years Bouchercon in Albany. I see more injuries ahead.