Partners in Crime Fiction: Episode 2

In the latest Partners In Crime Fiction podcast, Scott and Chris discuss Books To Die For, a collection of essays from over a hundred crime writers about their favorite books edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke. Our BookPeople mystery experts also discuss the books they would most passionately advocate as well as their latest favorite reads.

Listen here:

5 Books to Look Forward to in 2013

Wrath of Angels by John Connolly
Many of the characters and histories from several of the Charlie Parker novels, especially The Black Angel, culminate in this story involving a list of names of people who may have made a deal with the devil. Connolly has a way of weaving the supernatural with a private eye novel and making them both seem  uniquely his own.

Hammett Unwritten by Owen Fitzstephen
I’m curious about this debut since it uses the life of my favorite writer, Dashiell Hammett, for a mystery that runs through his days as a Pinkerton detective, author, and member of the Hollywood Ten during the red scare, all linked to his book, The Maltese Falcon. It’s also from Seventh Street Books, who discovered author Mark Pryor who has become a store favorite with his debut, The Bookseller.

PENANCEPenance by Dan O’Shea
Ever since I met Dan at a Bouchercon a few years ago, I’ve been following his short work and his career. This debut novel featuring a Chicago cop going up against political corruption and a deadly sniper could introduce him to a larger number of mystery readers

Evil In All It’s Disguises by Hilary Davidson
Davidson’s series with her heroine, travel writer Lily Moore, is fast making her one of my favorite thriller writers. Her latest, dealing with a missing colleague and friend in Acapulco, reinforces her strong heroine and strong narrative.

Donnybrook by Frank Bill
Every author I know has been raving about Donnybrook, Frank Bill’s first novel with characters who move in and out of a bare knuckles competition. His short story “Cold, Hard Love” in his collection Crimes In Southern Indiana serves as a prequel to the book.

Hard Word Book Club Discusses THE DOGS OF WAR

Tonight’s Hard Word Book Club will not only be the last of the year, but will be the last for co-host Joe Turner. In his honor we’re discussing a favorite of his, Fredrick Forsyth’s The Dogs Of War. One of the first mercenary novels, it follows the detailed planning and execution of a corporation and soldier of fortune Cat Shannon (is there a more bad ass name?) as he sets off a military coup in an African government to get its platinum deposits. How detailed is it? Margret Thatcher’s son tried to use the book for his own coup.

After our discussion we’ll be splitting a six pack of Shiner and watching the film version starring Christopher Walken and the under-rated Tom Berenger.

Tough guys, guns, and beer. Is there a better way to blow off some holiday steam?

Fine at 5′ 7″: A Review of JACK REACHER

jack reach tom cruise

As soon as a Jack Reacher movie was announced with Tom Cruise as the lead, many fans of Lee Child’s character were up in arms. It had little to do with Cruise’s acting talent or the choice of Christopher McQuarrie as writer and director. It was the fact that Tom Cruise is seven inches shorter than the formidable 6’4″ hero Child writes about in the books. After seeing an advanced screening of Jack Reacher, the film proves that size matters little.

The plot sticks close to the book One Shot. The first ten minutes are pure cinema. Without dialogue, we view a killer take out five seemingly random people through the chilling POV of his rifle scope. We see the clues set before us, leading to the arrest of an ex-army sniper. The man doesn’t say a word, he just writes GET JACK REACHER.

This kicks off a cool montage and voice over that gives non-readers everything they need to know about Jack. He’s a brilliant former army investigator, who has trouble with authority and now lives off the grid. When he introduces himself, we learn he’s not out to prove the sniper innocent, he wants to make sure there’s an airtight case against the man to find him guilty. The evidence and a group of thugs sent to rough him up (who of course fail miserably) prove otherwise.

McQuarrie’s writing and direction make the film work. It’s a throw back to the stripped down action films of the ’70s. The fight choreography is clean, believable, and easy to follow with little quick cutting. A chase where Reacher turns the tables on a car that’s following him as he is pursued  by a half dozen squad cars relies more on strategy than stunt work. The script also doesn’t shy away from the character’s more sociopathic instincts, particularly at the climax. This is a movie Steve McQueen could have been in (who was also under six feet.)

It also takes its violent content seriously. McQuarrie’s technique gives us a PG-13 film with little blood, but with an R-rated feel for the brutality of the actions. Mainly this is because he treats violence with respect for the damage it can do. The camera doesn’t fetishize guns the way a lot of films do, they are shown as blunt tools for killing. Every character that uses violence comes off either dim, socially maladjusted, or, like Reacher, carrying a void with them. When Reacher and the main villain, beautifully cast with German director Werner Herzog, look at each other in the eye, there is little difference that can be viewed between them.

The main question is about Tom Cruise as Reacher, though. My verdict is mixed, but accepting. His awareness of the camera and display of “intensity” has never quite worked for me. McQuarrie does his best to keep this in check and whether it comes off as Reacher’s confidence or a Cruise character’s cockiness will be in the eye of the individual viewer. For Reacher’s physical appearance, Cruise allows his age to show, showing the wear Reacher’s life has put on him. He portrays him as a man who has been through many tests, knowing he’s passed most of them and what to expect. After a few minutes I forgot about the height thing.

At best for Reacher fans, the movie reflects the spirit of the books and character and even at it’s worst, it is a strong, smart, old school action movie. And for those who need a 6’4″ actor, look for Child’s cameo as a desk sergeant in the police station scene.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Declan Burke

declan burke

One of my favorite books this year, and our pick of the month, isn’t a work of crime fiction, but about Crime Fiction. Edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke, Books to Die For contains essays by over a hundred of the best crime writers around the world about the book they would most passionately advocate for. Any crime fiction fan should have a copy of this. We caught up with Declan Burke to ask him a few questions about this achievement.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the idea for this book come about?

DECLAN BURKE: The idea was one of those off-the-cuff ‘What if …?’ moments. I’d just interviewed John for one of the Irish papers, I think it was the Irish Times, and we were chatting about books and writers, and the conversation wandered into the realms of, ‘I wonder what such-a-person’s favourite book is?’ That was the interesting thing for us, I think – that the book wouldn’t be a list or a Top 100 or a Best Of kind of compilation. All writers are first and foremost readers, and it was reading particular books that inspired them to become writers. Who wouldn’t be curious as to what book turned Michael Connelly into the writer he is today? Or Sara Paretsky, or Laura Lippman, or George Pelecanos … And so forth. We knew from the beginning that the book wouldn’t be comprehensive or definitive in terms of the great canon of crime / mystery literature, but we never intended it to be that kind of book. It was always meant to be a book for people who love books, by people who love books.

MP: Is there an author you would have loved to have gotten but didn’t?

DB: I guess there’s a couple, actually. Again, we knew setting out that we wouldn’t get everyone we’d like to have contributed, but that’s par for the course with books like this. I’d have loved to see James Lee Burke make a contribution, for sure. And James Ellroy is a particular favourite of mine. I’d also liked to have had Maj Sjöwall write a piece. Having said that, I’d be far more inclined to celebrate the authors who did make a contribution – what was truly wonderful about the project was the way virtually every writer we contacted got what we were trying to do straight away, and pretty much volunteered to take part. They all seemed to appreciate that it was a labour of love, and they all bought into it on that level. It was more than a bit humbling, to be honest.

MP: I’ve already picked up two books due to the author recommendations. Was there any essays that made you want to pick up and read a book or author you hadn’t before?

DB: Absolutely. I got involved in the book more from curiosity than anything else, because even though I read quite a bit of crime and mystery fiction, I’m always aware of the gaps in my knowledge – John is far more of a student and scholar of the genre. But even allowing for the fact that I wasn’t fully up to speed on the genre, I was very pleasantly surprised at the number of books and writers I’d never heard of, and the passion their advocates brought to writing about them. I was totally ignorant of Kem Nunn, for example, and I’ve since picked up two of his books. I was amazed by the support for Josephine Tey, particularly among female writers – she’s an author who would have been on my radar as one of the lesser known writers of the British ‘Golden Age’ of mystery fiction, but Books to Die For showed me that she’s very relevant indeed to a host of contemporary writers. So definitely – it was tough going, putting the book together, but very educational, and hugely enjoyable.

MP: Your essay is on Liam O’Flaherty’s The Assassin. Is there anything about that book that influences your own writing?

DB: I’d love to say yes, but I’m afraid not! I picked The Assassin because I love its style and the story it tells – O’Flaherty wrote The Assassin and The Informer in a very clipped, staccato-like proto-noir style that we recognise in the works of Dashiell Hammett and James Cain, and even Paul Cain, although O’Flaherty published both of those novels in the mid-1920s, some years before Hammett published his first novel. O’Flaherty was a bit of a wanderer, and a sailor, and as far as I know he spent some time in San Francisco in the early 1920s. I do wonder if he stumbled across the early writing of Dashiell Hammett, and if it influenced him; or if Hammett was influenced by O’Flaherty; or if it’s all a complete coincidence.

MP: Was it easy to pick The Assassin or were there some close runner-ups?

DB: I could have picked maybe another 20 titles, easily. Probably the hardest thing to do, if you’re a reader, is to narrow your favourite books down to just one – and as any reader will tell you, that choice will change from one day to the next. Probably my favourite crime novel of all time is Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, not because it’s his best book, but because it was the first crime title I read that opened my eyes to what could be achieved in the genre – really, when I read the first paragraph of The Big Sleep, it felt like I’d come home. That’s a feeling I’d never had before, and have rarely had since. So I’d probably have picked The Big Sleep – except when Michael Connelly agreed to get involved, and very humbly (typically for him) asked if we’d mind if he wrote about Chandler, there was no way I was going to get to write about Chandler!

MP: John Connolly said at Bouchercon that this book was the hardest thing to do and that he would never do this again. Would you be willing to do it for the next generation?

DB: I suppose there’s a couple of answers to that. Yes, it was a pretty tough thing to do, given the concept, and the fact that you’re trying to co-ordinate so many writers across four or five continents, all of whom have their own deadlines to manage. Having said that, I can see how an updated or expanded version might work in, say, 10 years time, or 20 years time. But – and it’s a pretty big but – I honestly don’t think it’d work if John wasn’t on board, and for a number of reasons. One is that he’s universally respected in the business, and especially by his peers, and another is that he has a fantastic knowledge of the genre. What people may not know, though, is that John has the work ethic of a small army. I have no doubt that Books to Die For wouldn’t have been anything like the book it is if John hadn’t committed to it so wholeheartedly, and he really poured himself into it. So I can understand why he might shy away from getting involved in reworking it again at some point in the future – and to be honest, if John wasn’t on board, I’d be reluctant to get involved again myself. It was a tough book to do, like I say, but there was a bit of magic involved too, and I think we (and I include Clair Lamb in this) came up with something unique. I don’t know if I’d want to mess with that again.

Get to Know Max Allan Collins

max allan collins 2

Few authors are as prolific as Max Allan Collins. If you ask him how many books he’s written, he can only give you an estimate, As I worked on this piece, I was reminded of yet another series character he created, so we’ll say the number is at least seven. He’s written in practically every medium; books, comics, scripts, and plays (directing a few). He’s also a songwriter for his band, Cruising. At times his output has overshadowed the fact that the quality of his work is that of a master craftsman.

His first major character was Nolan, a thief in the Parker mold who debuted in 1972 with Bait Money (now appearing with second book, Blood Money, in the Hard Case Crime omnibus, Two For The Money). To differentiate him from the Richard Stark character, Collins made him a young, aspiring comic book artist with criminal skills, who Nolan reluctantly takes on. The relationship between the two added a stronger human dimension, while still delivering a hard hitting style and story.

His next anti-hero was Quarry. The character set two precedents; he was one of the first protagonists to be a Vietnam vet (coming out roughly the same time as David Morrell’s John Rambo in First Blood) and also one of the first to be a hit man. With Quarry and Nolan, Collins took the hard boiled story of the ’40s and ’50s and brought it into the counter culture perspective of his generation.

That said, it is probably his character from the past who he is best known for, Nate Heller. Wanting to do a classic trench coat-fedora private eye, but feeling that kind of hero was anachronistic for a modern book, he put the detective in a historical context. Beginning in True Detective, Nate has been involved with Capone successor Frank Nitti, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, even Area 51, and other notorious events in history. He has crossed paths with Bugsy Siegel, The Barker Gang, Ian Fleming when he was a spy himself, Marilyn Monroe, and the Kennedys,  who are all portrayed in a very human light.

It’s Collins’ ability to strike a balance between the iconic and relatable that shapes his talent. When talking about genre writing, he once said, “When the story is a shout, I try to write it at a whisper.” He mainly does this through detail in setting and character to make the pulp relatable. Most of his heroes live somewhere between angel and demon (or are a combination of both traits) seeking survival more often than redemption or justice. When the quest is for justice, it comes on their somewhat tarnished terms with questionable methods. Still, Collins never loses the style or sensationalism that draws us to these stories.

Lately, he’s been writing the quintessential tough guy, Mike Hammer. Being one of Mickey Spillane’s first critical defenders, the two struck up a friendship. When he knew he was dying, Mickey asked Collins to take over his unfinished work, including several Hammer books. The last one to come out, Lady, Go Die, a planned follow up to I, The Jury has Hammer in small town America solving the murder of a woman found dead on a horse statue.

His last two novels are almost polar opposites in the genre. Antiques Disposal is the latest in the Trash “N” Treasures series he writes with his wife Barbra under the pseudonym Barbra Allan. Featuring mother-daughter antique collectors Brandy and Vivianne Borne, the series has been described as a subversive cozy. He also has Heller finally involved in the Kennedy assassination with Target Lancer, using an interesting historical footnote that gives a fresh Chicago take on the conspiracy.

And there’s more to come. In February Seduction Of The Innocent, a mystery set during the Communist scare of the 1950s, comes out. In 2013, we also get Complex 90. a Hammer novel with Mike in cold war Russia. Collins is finishing up the third Heller novel in his “Kennedy Trilogy”. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are even a few books in between, but I’ll never be surprised at their quality. After his forty years of his writing, as a fan, I’ve come to expect it.

MysteryPeople Top Ten (Okay, Eleven) of 2012

I know I said it last year about 2011, but 2012 proved to be one of the best years in crime fiction. I thought doing lists of my top ten debuts and Texas authors would help pare down my list, but I still had about sixteen books to whittle down, looking for a way to cheat. I was only able to that once, making this my top eleven books instead of ten. Here are the titles I don’t think you should pass up.

1. The Kings Of Cool by Don Winslow

In this prequel to his acclaimed Savages, Winslow not only goes back to the early days of his protagonist, but also goes further back with the storyline of his characters’ parents. A powerful crime novel that is both epic and tight, looking at fifty years of Southern California culture, two generations, and friendship versus blood, The Kings of Cool is a must-read.

2. Gun Church by Reed Farrel Coleman

Coleman explores several themes in this noir thriller centered around a has-been writer’s involvement with a group that worships handguns. Reed’s ability to get under the skin of his protagonist adds to the harrowing suspense as the character takes his downward spiral.


3. Dare Me by Megan Abbott

The more I think about this book, the more I love it. Abbot takes the noir genre, usually associated with loners and losers, and drops it in the middle of a high school cheer leading squad. A great dark take on American ambition and the need for acceptance.


4. The Prophet by Michael Koryta

A moving thriller about two brothers in a rust belt town, estranged after their sister was murdered, who are brought together twenty years later when a new killing occurs. A brilliant story involving meditation and family, redemption, and the ripples caused by a violent act.


5. When It All Comes Down To Dust by Barry Graham

A dark and moving tale, with one hell of an interesting and chilling reveal, about the violent trajectory of a pedophile and his now adult victim that occurs after he’s been released from prison. Graham lets his characters breath and live, giving them and their emotions a vital complexity. Just try to shake this one after you’ve read it.


6. As The Crow Flies by Craig Johnson

Sheriff Walt Longmire has to juggle a murder investigation and his daughter’s wedding that both take place on the Cheyenne reservation. This book has the humor and humanity we’ve come to expect from Johnson as well as a portrayal of reservation life, with echoes of Tony Hillerman.


7. Say You’re Sorry by Michael Robotham

Bristish psychologist Joe O’ Loughlin looks into a two year disappearance in a small town with a lot of secrets. O’Loughlin is one of the most engaging heroes out there. After reading this, I picked up all of Robotham’s work I could find and recommend all of it.


8. Lake Country by Sean Doolittle

A wild romp that starts with two ex-marines and a kidnapping for revenge scheme that runs into a crooked bounty hunter, two glory hungry journalists, and several Midwestern ne’er do wells.



9. Lullaby by Ace Atkins

Atkins gets the voice of Robert B. Parker’s Spencer down without being a mimic. By using the well established characters of Spenser, Hawk, Susan, and many of Spenser’s past adversaries, Ace takes a subtle look at heroes and villains in changing times.


10. Kings Of Midnight by Wallace Stroby & Gone by Randy Wayne White

Two male crime writers who each pulled off unique, strong  heroines with depth. Stroby continues his series with heist woman Crissa Stone after the unrecovered money from the notorious Luftansa heist, delivering hard action and great wiseguy dialogue. White introduces Hanna Smith, a fishing guide and part time PI, who delivers my favorite line of the year- “Forgiveness is for women who don’t have the balls for revenge.”

What Scott’s Reading This Week

This week I’m reading writers who have impressed me in the past.

Collusion by Stuart Neville

Reading Neville’s upcoming Ratlines made me want to read the work I hadn’t. A follow up to Ghosts Of Belfast, this thriller has a Belfast cop, Lennon, involved in a set of politically connected murders. The only person who can help him is Fagan, the former IRA soldier in love with his wife.

ash streetAsh Street by Lee Thomas

I fell in love with Lee’s work after reading his Hill Country-set thriller, The German. Ash Street deals with the ghosts of victims of two thrill killers haunting their families. Thomas’s skill with both style and characterization make this a horror novel strong on both mood and emotion.

Evil In All It’s Disguises by Hilary Davidson

After reading The Damage Done and  The Next One To Fall, I couldn’t wait to crack into this next book with travel writer in trouble Lily Moore. Davidson has a strong, accessible style and an engaging heroine who always pulls you in. Look for this book on shelves in March of next year.

Two from Gary Phillips

Some of you may of read our Get To Know piece on Gary Phillips. Many of you may already know him. Gary has been delivering great hard boiled crime fiction for close to twenty years now. Two new books show his talent, both past and present.

Monkology is an update on a limited edition originally published on MacMillan Press, collecting his short stories featuring his Compton private eye, Ivan Monk. Monk, who first appeared almost twenty years ago in Gary’s debut Violent Spring, is a two-fisted hero who is also politically aware. Now re-issued in a beautiful trade paperback with additional stories published after the edition, Monkology includes “The Socratic Method”, which serves as an interesting and suspenseful look at the kind of PI Monk is. Monkology is an entertaining twenty year overview of Gary Phillip’s character and his LA.

Phillips’ latest novel, The Warlord Of Willow Ridge, uses the housing crisis for a story that is a mix of action thriller and modern western. It starts when O’Conner, a mysterious stranger, joins a suburban community and takes over an abandoned McMansion to lay low. The once-nice gated community has gone down hill; two gangs uses other houses for methlabs and fight for territory. Now the remaining residents find more than their mortgages a threat. O’Conner finds himself being an unlikely Shane for suburbia, taking on the gangs.

As in most of his work, Phillips uses humanity to fuse pulp and politics. While enigmatic, O’Conner is a believable bad-ass. He’s an outlaw in midlife who’s personality is brought out by his interaction with the Willow Ridge residents. The residents themselves are well drawn with humor and complexity. The characterization keeps the satire from taking over the story.

Both Monkology and The Warlord Of Willow Ridge show the range Gary has, as well as some of his reoccurring elements. The worlds he depicts may be in different shades of grey, but his characters always stand something. Monkology shows his great past. The Warlord of Willow Ridge tells us he ain’t over yet.

Top 5 Debut Authors of 2012

This was a great year for debut novels. All of these authors announced themselves as talents to be contended with. I can’t wait to read their future work.

1. Last Call For The Living by Peter Farris

This is a gritty and greasy Southern hard boiled novel about the relationship of an Aryan Brotherhood bank robber and the teller he takes hostage. Faulkner thematics with action scenes that give Lee Child a run for his money. It’s already gained notoriety for its shoot out in a snake handler church.

2. Frank Sinatra In A Blender by Matthew McBride (Due December 20th)

Nothing is socially or morally acceptable about this tough, violent, funny, over the the top tale about an alcoholic, oxy-snorting PI’s attempt to play both ends against the middle, but damn is it fun. To borrow a line from This Is Spinal Tap, this story is always on Eleven. This book contains the only instance I’ve ever read that combines ibuprofen and a chainsaw in the same scene.

3. A Death in Mexico by Jonathan Woods

Woods wowed us with his short story collection, Bad JuJu. Here he proves he can excel in the long form as well as the short, with a wonderful lurid mystery featuring the engaging hero Inspector Hector Diaz, a rumpled Mexican cop full of vices and all the virtues that count.

4. The Bookseller by Mark Pryor

The Bookseller is a fun international thriller with a buddy twist. Hugo Marston, Head Of Security for the US embassy, looks for a Parisian book stall owner he believes to be kidnapped. Backed up by his semi-retired CIA pal, Tom Green, the two plunge into a plot connected to drug cartels and France’s dark history.

5. Hell On Church Street by Jake Hinkson

A down and dirty noir about a corrupt Baptist minister being blackmailed by an even more corrupt chief of police. While I agree with everybody who remarked about the echoes of Jim Thompson in this book, Hinkson proves to have a voice all his own.


For the record, three of these books, Hell On Church Street, A Death In Mexico, and Frank  Sinatra In A Blender, are from independent publisher New Pulp Press, while The Bookseller is from the newly formed Seventh Street Books, proving the importance of indie publishers for great new voices.