Murder Most Intimate: Guest Post by Hilary Davidson

When I was being interviewed on a radio show a couple of months ago, the host asked me about patterns in my work. At the time, the only one that came to mind was revenge, which plays a starring role in each of my novels. I wasn’t aware of other patterns until I started putting together my short story collection, The Black Widow Club. It has made me see my work in a new light. The truth is, I like to poison people.

In crime fiction, poison is often considered a “cozy” way to dispatch a person, given that the murderer doesn’t need to confront his or her victim with a knife, gun, or other weapon. That used to be how I looked at poisonings. Growing up, I was fascinated by Agatha Christie’s novels, in which poison often plays a prominent role. Alfred Hitchcock used it to wonderful effect in his films — think of Ingrid Bergman being poisoned by her Nazi husband in Notorious, or even of Joan Fontaine wondering if her husband had it in for her in Suspicion. Other films, like Arsenic and Old Lace, represented poisoners as dotty yet sweet characters. Poison seemed like such a democratic way to dispatch someone. After all, you don’t need to be strong or have any particular skill with weaponry. The killer could be young or old, healthy or infirm. It seemed almost easy.

My point of view changed after I heard a forensic toxicologist speak at a Sisters in Crime event a few years ago. If there was one lesson I learned that evening, it was this: Poisoners need no physical strength, but they must have nerves of steel. Shooting or stabbing someone takes a mere moment, whereas poison requires dedication. Many poisons require a certain amount of time to work — often it’s days, but it could be a week or more — and the poisoner must administer several doses of poison. Given that the poisoner normally needs to be in close proximity to his or her victim, this means that the killer has to be able to look into the eyes of their victim, engage them in conversation, perhaps even be affectionate with them — all the while knowing that they’re killing this person.

There was something particularly horrific about that idea to me. How could you live with someone and slowly murder them? Wouldn’t the killer change his or her mind at some point? It’s never been hard for me to understand a crime a passion. I can see how a person — carried away by rage or jealousy or some other dark impulse — might make a terrible decision in a heartbeat… and, a moment later, be filled with terrible, unceasing grief. But imagining what would drive someone to the ruthless, heartless act of poisoning has been a tougher task.

That question led directly to the title story in my new collection. “The Black Widow Club” begins with a gunshot, but it ends with deeper, more horrific crimes. I used to think of poisons as exotic, strange concoctions that could be recognized by distinct marks, like the red rash that was symptomatic of belladonna. But the reality is that some of the hardest-to-detect poisons are already in our homes and garden sheds. And the killer is already inside the house.

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The Black Widow Club is available as an eBook via bookpeople.com.

Hard Word Book Club Discusses 23 SHADES OF BLACK

On August 28th, our Hard Word Book Club travels to the seedy streets of ’80s New York in Kenneth Wishnia’s 23 Shades Of The Black. It is the first appearance of Wishnia’s Filomena Buscarsela, an Eucudorian immigrant working as a detective in a mostly white male NYPD.

The story takes place during one late night shift. Buscarel looks into the death of an artist that’s tied to a toxic leak. She travels the art and punk scene of the East Village encountering both corporate and police corruption. The book is tough, full of detail about it’s place and time, and is still socially relevant.

Even cooler, we’ll have Kenneth Wishnia calling in for our discussion. We’ll start at 7PM on Wednesday, the 28th on BookPeople’s third floor. The book is 10% off for those who attend.

The Look Out: THE RETURN by Michael Gruber

Look Out for The Return by Michael Gruber
On Our Shelves September 3rd

Welcome to The Look Out, our new monthly feature that turns you on to a great piece of crime fiction coming down the road. Our first installment focuses on a unique book coming out September 3rd from one of the genre’s most respected authors.

In some ways The Return seems like a departure for Michael Gruber in both plot and subgenre. Known for dense, atmospheric thrillers drenched in literary attitude, here he gives us a more streamlined, hard boiled novel. What The Return proves is that Gruber’s voice can carry anything.

The main character, Marder, is a New York book editor who carries many secrets, one being a great amount of wealth. A medical diagnosis opens a darker secret he decides to confront and he grabs some guns, buys a camper and sets out for Mexico. Along for the ride is Skelly, his damaged and quite lethal buddy from Vietnam.

Gruber’s style and approach to the story holds it together and makes it different from your average revenge tale. He creates a strong air of violence and mystery. His characters slowly reveal themselves, creating suspense about who they are and making you care for them in a very deep way.

The Return is a one of a kind adventure by a one of a kind writer. Mark your calendars for September 3rd. (You can pre-order here.)

Crime Fiction Friday: DOE RUN ROAD by Dennis Tafoya

If Bruce Springsteen wrote crime fiction it would probably be like Dennis Tafoya’s. Full of working class pathos and hard won emotion that’s never sentimental, his work makes you feel for the junkies, criminals, and everyday survivors on the bottom rungs. If you like this short story that appeared in Plots With Guns, immediately find copies of his books Dope Thief and The Wolves Of Fairmount Park.

Doe Run Road by Dennis Tafoya

Junior Knapp was driving east on 30 as the sun went down, going home to see his mother one last time. He had pieces of a bullet lodged under a rib and when he breathed deep it was like there was broken glass moving around in his lungs. The stupid guard had gotten excited, and Junior shook his head again to think of it. They weren’t supposed to pull their guns. It was against the insurance, he’d wanted to say when the old fart was there with the smoke standing in the air between them, the man just as surprised as Junior to hear the heavy report of the gun and see the blood pouring out onto the linoleum. Junior remembered the man making an ‘O’ with his mouth, a witless, surprised look that he still had when Junior jerked the .45 free of his jacket and worked the trigger until the old guard went down.

Read the story.

Crime Fiction with a Twist: Guest Post by Chris F. Holm

Regular readers of this blog have seen my name come up a time or two. Scott’s been kind enough to shine a light on my Collector series – comprising Dead Harvest, The Wrong Goodbye, and The Big Reap – which tells the tale of Sam Thornton, who’s condemned to collect the souls of the damned at hell’s behest, thanks to a devil’s bargain he made to save his dying wife.

What you might be wondering is how the hell an urban fantasy series snuck its way onto a mystery blog.

The fact is, my background’s in crime fiction. My short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s, Needle and Thuglit – I even, much to my surprise, wound up reprinted in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011. Truth is, I sort of fell into this fantasy thing by accident – and if you ask me, what I’m really writing is crime fiction with a twist.

I don’t know about you people, but when I’m drifting off to sleep, it’s not uncommon for me to have scenes running through my head – stories trying to be told. A writer’s affliction, I suppose. Anyways, one night while I’m lying in bed, my thoughts turned to an image of a man chain-smoking outside a busy Oxford pub, watching the jollity inside through the window while he shivers on the darkened street. He’s specifically interested in one man – a writer of some renown, who’s celebrating with friends after a reading. When the pub shuts down, and the patrons are ushered out into the street, the smoking man falls in behind the writer, who makes his way with drunken care down the sidewalk.

When the writer ducks into an alley to take a leak, the smoking man follows, clearly determined to do the writer harm. And at this point, I confess, I didn’t think much of the scene. It seemed predictable. Crime-fic 101. Maybe the writer had slept with the smoking man’s wife, or run afoul of some two-bit gangster. Maybe he’d stolen the smoking man’s story for his own.

But then, a funny thing happened. I suppose I tipped further toward unconsciousness, because instead of simply shooting or strangling the writer, the smoking man reached his hand into the writer’s chest and yanked free his soul while telling him, “Sorry – it’s nothing personal.” At which point my eyes flew open, and I rushed downstairs to my office to get down everything I could remember.

In the days that followed, I began asking questions. Who was that man? Why did he take the writer’s soul? What did he mean, it wasn’t personal? And the answers led me to create Sam Thornton, a decent man who, thanks to an unfortunate set of circumstances, winds up a hitman for hell.

Sam’s world is yanked straight from classic crime pulp – picture angels in trench coats driving Crown Vics, and fedora-ed demons running speakeasies, and you’ve got the gist. And in the middle of it all is this poor damned sap still trying in vain despite his circumstances to do what’s right.

Is it fantasy? Sure. But it owes more to Chandler and Hammett than to Tolkien. Maybe that’s why Scott and company have been so nice to me.

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Copies of Chris F. Holm’s books are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

The People of Jarrett Creek: Guest Post by Terry Shames

“Convincing small town atmosphere and a vivid supporting cast are a plus.” – Publishers Weekly Review of A Killing at Cotton Hill

“The characters were so realistic they seemed to crawl off the pages.” – Lee Lofland: A Cop’s Eye Review

I’ve started on the third book in the Samuel Craddock series and have been thinking about the characters who wove themselves into the first two books, making the town of Jarrett Creek come alive. Notice I said, “wove themselves.” I sometimes felt as if they were talking to me from my laptop screen, saying, “Can I be in the book, too?”

When my sister read A Killing at Cotton Hill, she said she knew who I had used as a model for the victim, and named a woman from our past. But she got it wrong, because Dora Lee isn’t drawn directly from one person in particular. Like most of the characters in the book, she is a mixture of people. Here’s another example, describing the murder victim’s best friend, Ida Ruth:

“Ida Ruth is a large, unattractive woman with big teeth and a burn scar along her left ear where a kerosene stove exploded next to her when she was a girl.”

Ida Ruth is a combination of three people I knew as a child—one a big-boned, tall woman; another a woman with a mouth full of big teeth; and the third, my uncle who had burn scars not on his face, but on his legs, from when a kerosene stove exploded near him when he was a toddler.

The art teacher, Alex Eubanks, is a combination of a bandy-legged artist I once met and a puffed-up yoga teacher I knew, who, like Eubanks, “thinks he’s doing (somebody) a big favor” if he offers to give them lessons.

I usually claim that my grandfather was the basis for the character of Samuel Craddock. The truth is more complicated. In actuality my grandfather was not much like Samuel. He was smart and quick and had a wry sense of humor, but he also could be short-tempered and dismissive. My friend Charlie, who died a few years ago, feeds into Samuel, too. Charlie was philosophical and intuitive and saw people with a keen eye—and his voice often speaks to me from Samuel’s character. But Charlie didn’t have the patience or compassion that Samuel does. That part comes from me. I am cursed with seeing more than one side of an argument, and with understanding that sometimes people’s behavior comes from deep needs that can drive them into evil territory. So Samuel comes from strong antecedents.

A few of the characters are taken more or less from real life. One example is Reverend Duckworth. Tucked in the back of my mind was something I heard when I was a teenager about the Baptist preacher in the town where I grew up. Rumor had it that as pious as he was in church, outside of church he had a bad temper and a foul mouth. Someone saw him lose a bowling game, after which he cussed out everybody in the place!

Samuel’s brother and sister-in-law are based on real people. I know them intimately. Like his counterpart, DeWitt is a hearty fellow, and his wife has fears that keep her housebound.

Maddie Hicks is straight from my memory of a woman who cut hair in my grandparents’ town, working out of the mobile home where she lived. She smoked and talked non-stop. Apparently she had been a wild teenager, but as a mother of two young boys, she was cheerful and breezy, and seemed to take life as she found it, as Maddie does.

How is it that these people from my past have ended up in the Samuel Craddock novels? How do their names pop into my head effortlessly? Why do I hear their voices as if I had seen them last week? I wish I knew how that magic worked. All I know is that every time I need a character description or trait, something leaps from my memory and onto the page. And I hope it keeps happening!

One last note: What of Jenny? She isn’t as transparent as some of the other characters. She intrigues me and I can’t wait to get to know what her real story is—and that will happen in Book 3.

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Copies of A Killing at Cotton Hill are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Terry Shames will speak about and sign A Kiling At Cotton Hill here at BookPeople on Friday, August 16th at 7pm.