Guest Post: James S. Parker on the Supernatural

This Saturday at 4pm, we’ll host James Parker to discuss his latest book, Relic Of Darkness, who here takes an interesting look at the advice “write what you know”.

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A lot of really smart people will tell you unequivocally that ghosts do not exist.  Accredited professionals will nod knowingly as they assure you that demons are merely products of the imagination.  But here’s the truth: the world is filled with mysterious and inexplicable events, and many of those have even the most expert of experts speechless.  Suffice it to say that there is a great deal that we do not yet understand and it is unfair to question our own sanity when confronted with the unknown.

With this in mind, when you finally pick up the pen to write, one of the first mantras you’ll hear is to write what you know.  In The Dark Side of the Cross, and in my newest novel, Relic of Darkness, I’ve tried to do exactly that, writing supernatural crime novels.  In both books our hero not only comes up against intensely dangerous bad guys, but also battles with dark and shadowy unseen forces.   My background in criminology helped a great deal in writing these books.  But what about the supernatural part, how does that fit in with “write what you know”?  In that area I draw from the greatest teacher there is, experience.

My front row, in your face experience with the supernatural took place when I was a senior in high school.  Prior to this happening I, too, was one of those who would scoff at the absurdity of such a thing.  Fortunately, when this did happen, I was not alone (I’m not the bravest guy alive).  I was with several professional people when this event occurred, including the police.  It took place in Kentucky, in an old mansion that pre-dated the Civil War, and had been converted into a nursing home.  My mom, a nurse, worked there.  When first hired, her employers told her they weren’t going to say that the place was haunted, but people had reported seeing and hearing things.  All of us laughed when she told us.

Famous last words.

One night they kept hearing someone walk across the third floor, which was not in use, and come down a closed-in stairwell where they waited for the door to open.  A friend and I agreed to drive over and spend the night with them.  The police had already been there twice.  Not too long after we arrived we heard it and if it was a mouse, it was wearing boots.  The police came again and this time brought a K-9 unit.  Just as they were getting ready to leave, the footsteps started up again.  The police quickly moved to the door.  One gripped the doorknob with his gun drawn, the other held the collar of the dog.  When it reached the bottom of the stairs they flung open the door and released the dog.  There was nothing there.  The dog backed up into the wall, whining.  To this day I can feel the fear that dominated me at that moment.

I believe that almost all of us, at some point in time, will have what I lovingly call an “X Files” moment.  It may be pleasant, or it may be terrifying, as it was for me.  Either way it will make an impression.  My advice – don’t let some know-it-all, no matter who it is, tell you you’re crazy.  You’re not.  You have simply become experienced.

Thankfully, my experience helped me to write stories I’m proud of, stories that readers seem to love as well!

MysteryPeople Q&A with Marcia Clark: KILLER AMBITION

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Scott, Jesse Sublett & Marcia Clark at Noir in the Bar.

We were thrilled to have Marcia Clark as one of our guests for our L.A. themed Noir At The Bar last Saturday at Opal Divines (along with Josh Stallings, Timothy Hallinan, and Jesse Sublett). Her Rachel Knight series is a store favorite. It skillfully blends the legal thriller with police procedural. We talked with Marcia about her latest, Killer Ambition, what it’s like to try high profile cases, and some of her favorite current crime fiction.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: This is the first time you have Rachel trying a case in court. I had to fight myself from skipping ahead to find out the verdict. In a pop culture of Grisham books and Law & Order reruns, how did you go about making it fresh and give that tension?

MARCIA CLARK: What you don’t usually see in novels or on TV shows is an insider’s view of what it’s like to be on the inside of a media case. Having lived it, I was able to bring that experience to bear in showing what it’s like from the prosecutor’s point of view. Every trial is a daily roller coaster ride. No matter how much you prepare, every day presents surprises. You never know exactly how a witness will come across, or what minefield will present itself. And when it’s all televised, those moments are beamed straight into living rooms across the country.

I didn’t plan to write about handling a high profile trial. Simpson was a crazy circus, but that was a long time ago. Time to move on. But over the years since then, I was forced to acknowledge that criminal trials have become an established source of entertainment. The “genre” seems to be here to stay. So it seemed almost anachronistic not to write a story that spoke to that cultural reality.

MP: This case involves many in the Hollywood upper class. What’s the difference when questioning and prosecuting the elite?

MC: Their expectation of special treatment, and their ability to get it. The rich and powerful (not just in the industry in Hollywood, but in any field) have layers of assistants and lawyers whose job it is to shield them from “distractions.” Just getting an interview with a witness like that can be a nightmare, because it has to be scheduled way in advance to accommodate the calendars of not just the witnesses, but their lawyers and agents and PR people, etc.

And when the upper class person is a suspect – forget it, it’s crazy town. Every single move, no matter how routine – i.e. having the defendant fingerprinted at booking – engenders a battle royal. The lawyers want to make a good show of it, even if that show involves silly, useless arguments. And it’s not just because they’re being paid handsomely, it’s also because they know their potential future clients are watching.

MP: The trial is a media circus. As someone who has experienced those, what did you want to convey about prosecuting in the spotlight?

MC: So many things – among them the impact the media can have on public opinion, and the way the media can be used by people with their own agendas to manipulate the message. For example, in Killer Ambition, I show people slamming the prosecution to the press and picketing the courthouse in support of the defendant so they can curry favor with him because he’s a Hollywood power player. I also show how the publicity makes life tougher for the prosecutors in particular, because unlike the rich and famous, they don’t live behind gates or have a coterie of bodyguards and assistants to protect them from – if nothing else – overzealous reporters.

MP: The relationship and banter between Rachel and her police friend Bailey is great. Besides a smart professional partner, what else does she provide Rachel?

MC: Bailey is usually the voice of reason when Rachel’s single-minded focus leads her into reckless territory. As a result of Rachel’s childhood trauma, the quest for justice is more than a mission, it’s an intensely personal, all consuming obsession. One that sometimes causes her to overlook the danger in a situation. And Rachel has personal issues that can crop up to cause problems in her love life – as shown in Guilt by Degrees. S. Bailey, who came from a healthy family, doesn’t have those issues, so she tries to give Rachel a reality check. Sometimes she succeeds. Sometimes she doesn’t. When it comes to the emotional issues in a relationship, rationality can wind up stuffed into a back pocket. At least for the moment.

MP: I’ve noticed you like having some of your supporting characters, particularly those on the other side of the law, turn up again. As a writer, what do you enjoy about your outlaws?

MC: I love that you used the word “outlaws.” It’s perfect. It conveys the fact that they engage in, shall we say, extra-legal activities, but they’re not inherently bad people. Working for so many years as a criminal lawyer on both sides of the courtroom, I learned that some are just schlemiels, some don’t know how else to get by, and others are actually looking for a way out. I love showing that human side – the side you’d enjoy having a drink with. One of the recurring outlaws in my series is Luis Revelo, the head of a gang, who’s working on his MBA. He’ll probably wind up as CEO of some investment banking group. But until then, he still has a large family to support, so he’s still a shot caller for the Sylmar Sevens. This means he’s less than thrilled when Rachel calls on him for information. It’s not good for his “rep” to be seen with “the man.” Nevertheless, as shown in Guilt by Association, Luis owes Rachel. And Rachel never fails to remind him of it when she needs his help. So when Rachel calls, he picks up. Eventually.

MP: You’re also a really knowledgeable fan of crime fiction. Anybody you’ve been reading lately that you really like?

MC: I just finished The Double by George Pelecanos, which was excellent. I highly recommend it. I’m now reading Jeff Abbott’s latest, Downfall, and loving it.

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Signed copies of Killer Ambition are now available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. We ship all over the world.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Charlie Huston

We’re looking forward to hosting Charlie Huston tonight at BookPeople. With books like Caught Stealing and The Mystic Arts Of Erasing All Signs of Death, he has been the crime fiction voice of his generation. His latest, Skinner, is a spy thriller featuring an assassin raised by scientists in a “Skinner box”. The lack of human contact makes him an efficient killer who carries some heavy emotional damage. In true action thriller fashion, we caught up with Charlie as he was driving and asked him a few questions.


MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the decision to write Skinner in the present tense come about?

CHARLIE HUSTON: Originally, I thought it lent itself to third person past tense since it went back and forth to different points of view. As I got into it, I noticed it was one of my densest books. There’s a lot of verbage. The present tense seemed to goose the narrative.

MP: How did you come across the idea of using the Skinner box?

CH: I read an article about scientists who incorporated children into their experiments. Most were benign, but the idea of the Skinner box freaked me out. Then I took it to its most extreme.

MP: What is your writing routine?

CH: I’m a schedule guy. I get my daughter off to school, then bike for exercise, then I’m at my desk by noon and I stay there until 6pm. There may be only three hours worth of actually writing, but I don’t leave that desk and I’m working out the story.

MP: What do you want people to take away from Skinner?

CH: Of course I want them to be entertained, but I’m a sucker for a melancholy story, so I’m always out to break your heart. I want that emotional connection, but have some optimism in the balance. In the end I want people to feel that the world right now may seem like a bad place, but it doesn’t have to be this way. People can find the right side and fight for it, no matter how small a group they are.

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Huston appears at BookPeople tonight, Wednesday, July 24 at 7pm, to speak about and sign Skinner. The event is free and open to the public. If you can’t make it, you can order a signed copy via bookpeople.com.

Get to Know Josh Stallings

When I met Josh Stallings at the Cleveland Bouchercon, I found him to be a warm guy, full of life. This made his down and dirty crime fiction even more amazing. To borrow from Waylon Jennings, his books are “lonesome, on’ry, and mean”.

Those three traits could also describe his series character, Moses McGuire. McGuire is an ex mafia enforcer now working as a strip club bouncer. He earned his skills as a Marine in Beirut and inmate in the California penal system. He has the look of a Viking in biker leather with an attitude to match and a flaw of romanticising women to an unrealistic point they can never meet.


He goes after the killer of one such woman in his debut, Beautiful, Naked, & Dead. With the blind purpose of Mike Hammer, McGuire trudges along a trail of violence and vengeance that takes him to San Fransisco and brothels outside Las Vegas. He gets involved with the mob, porn, an FBI sting, and a sister who may not be completely trustworthy. The story is told with a heart as hard as concrete, but it beats with longing and lament.

The McGuire books echoe the work of James Crumley, Newton Thornburg, and other crime novelists of the ’70s. Stallings deals with damaged characters pushed to societies’ edges, trapped in the hypocrisy. McGuire and his ad hoc family are far from saints and many would consider his allies enemies, but all carry a code that keeps them from falling over that edge into the dark abyss they’re standing over.

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You can see how some of Josh’s life informed the McGuire novels in his memoir, All The Wild Children. He applies his punchy style to memories of growing up in California where he and his brother practically raised themselves. Stories of the life they lead involve the management of a teen club, forays into drug use, and acts of petty crime, all of which can be both funny and frightening. The book also sees McGuire confront this past as an adult, partially through writing the books. His unique voice is filled with raw emotion and steers clear of the self indulgence that traps some memoirs.

Like Andrew Vachss, Josh Stallings takes a hard look at people on the fringe, with a pulp edge. He captures both the loneliness and hard fought hope of the outsider. Whether through the Moses McGuire books or his own life, his work is an ode to the people he refers to as “the children of the battle zone”.

Writers, Magicians & DUTCH CURRIDGE

~Guest Post by Tim Bryant

Fiction writers are people who never stopped believing in magic. We can’t stop throwing these characters, names, words and ideas into the hat to see what might come out. How does the magic work, you ask. If we try to answer, we’re just making that up, too, because we never really know for sure. Here’s the secret, as much as it can be told: The magic lies as much within the reader.

In 2010, I published my first novel, Dutch Curridge. At that point, I had lived with Dutch— a private detective— and had come to know his world— 1940s/50s Fort Worth, Texas— inside and out. Dutch was a man who identified with and fought for the downtrodden even as he fought his own personal demons.
Says everything/says nothing.

You can’t really know the man behind the words until you read your way into his mind and his heart, and then he’s as hard to capture with language as any of us. I carefully outfitted Dutch to be an antihero I could work and play with. He’s like me in many ways, but not all. I like him in most ways, but not all. However, I didn’t know what kind of life he might or might not have until the first novel came out and started getting feedback. That was magic.

I began to get emails and messages from people in faraway places like Washington state and Cape Girardeau, Missouri and the United Kingdom— readers who weren’t related, who had no reason to get in touch other than to tell me how much they enjoyed my novel, my character, and by the way, how soon will you have more out?
A good portion of the readers were women, telling me that they weren’t normally fans of hardboiled detective novels. In truth, neither Dutch nor Southern Select are standard pulp novels. They’re also music histories. Psychologies. Ghost stories. Love stories. Like true Texas tall tales, I just wanted them to be bigger.
Some readers were history buffs who were happy to see Fort Worth’s colorful history used as a backdrop. Cowtown, as Dutch’s home, had a rich musical background — western swing to jazz— to draw on. It had a gangster reputation to rival that of Chicago’s. Most importantly, it had a chip on its shoulder for being continually pushed into the Big D’s shadow, and that mirrored the one on Dutch’s shoulder.

As sales of Dutch Curridge climbed higher than I had realistically hoped, and as more people began to look for more Dutch, there was a short time when the magic began to feel like pressure. Could I pull a rabbit from the hat again? Would the smoke and mirrors work? Would Dutch, the character, come through for me again? That’s when I came to the realization. It’s not down to me. It’s not Dutch.

We all believe in magic. It’s what makes us pick up one book and then another and another. It transports us from the lives we know. It allows us to see through new eyes. It gives our lives a richer, more empathetic context. My grandmother used to tell me that people who read are smarter than those who don’t. Now I know that she was instilling that magic in me.

And now there is Southern Select, the second Dutch Curridge novel. Maybe a simpler story, perhaps better told. Another look inside the man and the place he calls home. Another stab at righting wrongs that he doesn’t want to live with. At making a hard life just a little more easy for people he doesn’t want to live without.
My grandmother would have loved Dutch Curridge, the man and the book. She would have loved Southern Select atching me become a writer. Watching as a group of writing friends and I started a small publisher, Behooven Press, to better pass the books along. As long as there is someone to read, we will continue to put out more stories. It, I finally realized, will never end. If it did, it wouldn’t be magic.

SKINNER Doesn’t Let Up

Skinner by Charlie Huston
Reviewed by Andrew

Skinner, the new novel by Charlie Huston, is a fast paced thriller that doesn’t let up. Each chapter in Skinner alternates view points between characters, giving the reader windows into how each character thinks and what their motivations are.

The main character, Skinner, is named after a skinner box in which a test subject is taught to respond to certain stimuli to condition an action (like a rat seeing a light and then pushing a lever). Skinner, in the book, grew up in a skinner box as an experiment by his parents. It’s an interesting idea that adds to the uniqueness of the main character.

Huston employs the present tense to keep the action fast-paced and constantly moving. Initially, this technique can take a little getting used to, but as the novel progresses it keeps readers on the edge of their seats knowing that each word happens exactly as it is read. Its style won me over in the end.

Huston takes us through a small village in India to the air conditioned battlegrounds of government buildings and keeps the reader’s interest with characters ranging from children whose prized possession is a ball, a former hit man turned “asset” protection (a bodyguard), and quirky, drug using roboticists who are the best at their jobs. Heck, there’s even a love story.

With the controversy over the NSA and Edward Snowden in the news, Skinner’s release date could not have been timed any better. The bulk of the novel focuses on how global conflict is increasingly being fought in cyberspace and will be great reaping grounds for novelists to come. Skinner is a quick and fun read that takes many twists and turns and is hard put down once it really gets moving.

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Charlie Huston speaks about and signs Skinner here at BookPeople this Wednesday, July 24 at 7pm. The event is free and open to the public.

New Releases in MysteryPeople: July 23rd 2013

Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay (paperback release)

Thomas Kilbride is a map-obsessed schizophrenic so affected that he rarely leaves the self-imposed bastion of his bedroom. But with a computer program called Whirl360.com, he travels the world while never so much as stepping out the door. He pores over and memorizes the streets of the world. He examines every address, as well as the people who are frozen in time on his computer screen. Then he sees something that anyone else might have stumbled upon–but has not–in a street view of downtown New York City: an image in a window. An image that looks like a woman being murdered.

Thomas’s brother, Ray, takes care of him, cooking for him, dealing with the outside world on his behalf, and listening to his intricate and increasingly paranoid theories. When Thomas tells Ray what he has seen, Ray humors him with a half-hearted investigation. But Ray soon realizes he and his brother have stumbled onto a deadly conspiracy. And now they are in the cross hairs.

Fallout by Garry Disher

Australian jewel thief Wyatt has a bounty of stolen jewels and a yacht, but nothing can stop him from returning to his life of crime. He drugs his lover, police officer Liz Redding, and escapes into the night only to discover the gems he lifted are fakes. With his luck and his resources rapidly running out, Wyatt begrudgingly joins forces with Raymond, his estranged nephew and an established criminal himself, to lift some expensive artwork.

It should be an easy job—the gallery is under construction and Wyatt has performed similar heists before. But it isn’t long before things go south, leaving Wyatt with some tough choices. Will the young and eager Raymond prove to be a worthy pupil or is he nothing but dead weight? For Wyatt, putting faith in other people has never been as tempting… or as dangerous.

The Homecoming by Carsten Stroud

From its explosive opening to its eerie climax, The Homecoming is a page-turning, labyrinthine thrill ride that returns to Niceville . . . where evil lives far longer than men do.

When two plane crashes set off a spellbinding chain reaction of murder, inadvertent kidnapping, corporate corruption, and financial double-dealing, it’s not enough that Niceville detective Nick Kavanaugh (ex–Special Forces) has to investigate. He and his wife, family lawyer Kate, have also just taken in brutally orphaned Rainey Teague. Something bothers Nick about Rainey—and it isn’t just that the woman in charge of attendance at Rainey’s prep school has disappeared. In fact, people have long been disappearing from seemingly placid Niceville, including, most disturbingly, Kate’s father. Using his files, Kate and Nick start to unearth Niceville’s blood stained history, but something (or is it Nothing?) stands in their way.

Once again, Carsten Stroud gives us unforgettable characters, including Coker, the steely, amoral police sniper, and Harvill Endicott, an urbanely manipulative psychopath, not to mention Warren Smoles, the most conniving lawyer you will ever meet. Stroud’s unique storytelling gifts bring us into a world where protecting your family from the unknown becomes almost impossible but essential for survival.

Anything is possible in The Homecoming. 

Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

The Last Policeman received the 2013 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original–along with plenty of glowing reviews.

Now Detective Hank Palace returns in Countdown City, the second volume of the Last Policeman trilogy. There are just 77 days before a deadly asteroid collides with Earth, and Detective Palace is out of a job. With the Concord police force operating under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department, Hank’s days of solving crimes are over…until a woman from his past begs for help finding her missing husband.

Brett Cavatone disappeared without a trace—an easy feat in a world with no phones, no cars, and no way to tell whether someone’s gone “bucket list” or just gone. With society falling to shambles, Hank pieces together what few clues he can, on a search that leads him from a college-campus-turned-anarchist-encampment to a crumbling coastal landscape where anti-immigrant militia fend off “impact zone” refugees.

Countdown City presents another fascinating mystery set on brink of an apocalypse–and once again, Hank Palace confronts questions way beyond “whodunit.” What do we as human beings owe to one another? And what does it mean to be civilized when civilization is collapsing all around you?