History of Mystery Looks at Elmore Leonard & OUT OF SIGHT

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The next meeting of our free History Of Mystery Class focuses on the most influential crime fiction author of the last fifty years: Elmore Leonard. His influence reached beyond the genre, touching screenwriters as well as authors. After Leonard made a name for himself, characters and dialogue were never the same.

Out Of Sihttp://contrappassomag.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/185156-1020-a.jpgght is, arguably, the quintessential Elmore Leonard novel. This story of a US Marshall chasing down a fugitive she’s falling for takes place in the two cities he was associated with: Miami and Detroit. It demonstrates his ability to deliver absurdest humor that can turn to sudden violence. Believable characters and fun dialogue populate the novel.

We will be meeting on BookPeople’s third floor (603 N. Lamar Blvd.) onSunday, December 1st at 6PM to discuss Leonard. Join us beforehand at 4pm when we’ll screen Steven Soderbergh’s film version of Out Of Sight starring George Clooney. We’ll be joined in the discussion by author Ace Atkins, who will call in. You can see Leonard’s influence in Ace’s work, particularly his novel Infamous.

Copies of Out Of Sight are 10% off to those who attend. Join us!

Crime Fiction Remembers Lou Reed

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When Lou Reed died on October 27th, not only did musicians feel the loss, but just about anybody who has fearlessly created since the 1970s. He brought a darker, literary sensibility to rock n’ roll, as he explained in this interview on Night Flight:

It’s no surprise he had a lasting impact on those who write crime fiction.

On the day of his death, Reed Farrel Coleman, author of the Moe Prager series, posted this on facebook:

“Lou Reed taught me a lesson about art, though we never met. It was the mid-70s and I had played the shit out of Transformer and Rock and Roll Animal. I could not stop listening to the latter and thought that I had to go and see Lou Reed live and hear that kickass band of his. Well, when tickets came on sale to see him at what was then the Academy of Music on 14th Street, I got tickets with my friends. The concert was the most disappointing concert I had ever seen and, to this day, is the most disappointing. Lou Reed had completely changed his band. In Steve Hunter’s place was a sax player, not even another guitarist. Reed played almost none of his old music–his own or from the Velvet Undergound. What he did play was all slow tempo and utterly downbeat. Frankly, I hated it, but have thought more about that show than any other concert I have ever been at. I guess in some ways, it is the most memorable show I have ever been at. Art is not always meant to be pleasing to the audience.”

“I discovered Lou Reed as a teenager in a kind of backwards way, through R.E.M.’s covers of Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’, ‘Ill Be Your Mirror’, and ‘Pale Blue Eyes’,” said Megan Abbott (Dare Me). “That sent me on a multi-year fixation with Lou Reed and VU–a writer’s dream, those albums, because they evoke whole, shimmering worlds. You listen to those albums and you are transported, in the truest sense. Every time, over the years, that I have listened to those songs, however dark (maybe especially the dark ones), I wanted “in.” His stories always felt true, earned, and beautiful.”

Josh Stallings, author or the Moses McGuire series, came of age during Reed’s rise as a solo artist. “As a teenager, Reed convinced me I could write about the world around me, the junkies and transvestites I knew had a place to be heard. He did for music what Mean Streets did for film. They spoke directly to me and said it was ok to tell the truth.”

Chandler wrote about LA in the ’30s and ’40s; Lou Reed’s territory was the New York of the ’70s and ’80s. The dangerous New York. Any of the people he sung about could have been questioned by Matthew Scudder, Lawerence Block’s private eye from that era. While using the same style and attitude as Chandler, it could be argued his influence had the inverse effect (like many original artists do). While Chandler looked under the the glossy sheen of his city, Reed looked at the damage and decay that littered New York and saw the poetry in it’s dark misfits.

“Lou Reed was the patron saint of freaks and weirdos. The poet laureate of those who walk margins and push boundaries,” said Chris F. Holm, author of The Collector series. Holm’s work is greatly influenced by the books, movies and music of Lou Reed’s era.

“I came to him from punk, following the smoke back through the decades to the folks who lit the spark.” Holms explained. “But discovering Reed’s work wasn’t a history lesson, so much as a revelation. He was more than simply a precursor or progenitor; his songs painted pictures of a world no one else dared sing about — pictures at once beautiful and grotesque, biting and achingly sympathetic. Reed had the rare gift of being able to simultaneously convey affection and contempt, honesty and artifice. His songs taught me how much weight a single phrase can carry. And they taught me there’s no subject matter so dark, something beautiful can’t be made of it.”

Tim Bryant, a Texas musician, publisher and author of the Dutch Curridge PI series, respected his clarity in the bleakness. “Lou became his character and spoke in a clear voice. You didn’t have to read between the lines or guess what he meant. I heard him mention at least once that he was attempting to bring a novelist’s eye to songwriting. I think he very much succeeded. (Only Warren Zevon comes anywhere close to matching him in this regard.) I likewise took his fearlessness, his willingness to look straight into the dark and not blink as a lesson in my fiction writing.”

Scott Adlerberg (Spiders and Flies) said, “He was fearless in what he chose to write his songs about, something to be admired and emulated. You know that he wrote songs he cared about and wanted to write, audience reaction be damned (a good lesson for writers ideally), and he developed the material in a lot of his songs as narratives, with an emphasis on the telling detail. Also, there’s emotion in his songs but not sentimentality, a distinction always to be remembered, I think, when writing.”

“I don’t know if you ever noticed, but Lou never sang. He spoke his lyrics as though they were short stories.” Tom Pitts (Piggyback) commented. “A song like ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ is a great example of encapsulating characters and delivering them with tight poetic verses. But for me, no song /story of his is as great as ‘Street Hassle’. Especially the version on Take No Prisoners. When he talks about dropping the overdose victim in the street, it pulls you right in to a place in time like no other .”

Jon Steele, author of the Angelus series agreed. “‘A Walk On The Wild Side’ is a novel”

Others mentioned their favorite song or record, as well.

“‘The Gift’ is a great horror story.” Liza Lutz said. “I loved Waldo Jeffers, but maybe because he sounded like John Cage. Now I have to listen to that again.”

Todd Robinson (The Hard Bounce) played him while writing, at times. “I wrote the entirety of my short story Peaches listening to Lou Reed and Velvet Underground to get my mind in a specific New York time and place.

“I did the same with my book The Forty-Two,” said Ed Kurtz. “Loads of Lou, especially New York and ‘Set the Twilight Reeling.'”

The person I knew I absolutely had to ask about Lou Reed was musician and hard boiled author Jesse Sublett, whose book Grave Digger Blues has the edges, satire, darkness, and don’t-give-a-damn attitude of Lou Reed’s work.

“For me, writing and music have always been jumbled up together, so from the first pages of the first detective story I ever wrote, Lou Reed was in there. For starters, there’s the alienation thing, where the detective or the criminal or the victim, take your pick, feels outside of the everyday world, like a fugitive or a stalker or the tarnished knight on everybody’s hit list. And for that, you don’t have to be on drugs, or a criminal, you just have to have stumbled out onto the twilight edge of experience. Since Lou died, I’ve heard from a number of people who knew me right after my girlfriend was murdered in 1976, and they remember me playing Lou Reed’s Transformer 24/7. When I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in 1997 and also, one morning after sitting with my dad in the hospital as he was dying and he had morphine hallucinations and said, “The ceiling is on fire, flames shooting out of the wall, and it’s dripping down on your head,” I walked outside, as I have many times in such situations, and the birds are singing and leaves on trees are glowing with chlorophyll, and I’m thinking, Wow, the world is so beautiful. That’s what I mean by the twilight edge of experience. Lou got that so well. If you’ve been there, you understand. I’ve played “Sister Ray” probably 500 times on stage, “Waiting for my Man” even more, and a dozen other songs. Lou’s songs aren’t all about transvestites and shooting drugs any more than Raymond Chandler is about murder and perversion. And by the way, LouReed was a big Raymond Chandler fan, and when I saw Lou saying something about that, then I saw Bryan Ferry say the same thing, I said to myself, I ought to check out this Chandler guy. Goodnight, Lou. Goodnight.”

THE DOUBLE: Worth the Wait

George Pelecanos’ The Cut introduced readers to a new character and a new phase in his writing. The book, which features Spero Lucas, an Iraq war vet who does leg work for a D.C. lawyer and recovers stolen items for forty percent of their value, wedded the fast paced PI novels of his early career with the looser, more socially aware novels that came later. It worked brilliantly, making the two year wait for its follow up, The Double, feel like an eternity. Pelecanos proves it was worth it.

In classic private eye tradition, Spero has two jobs in The Double. The first is to help his law firm defend a man up on murder charges. The case gives us a cold look at the justice system. His off-the-books work is to retrieve a painting taken from a woman by her lover. The thief, Billy King, proves to be more dangerous than your average gigolo con man. It’s in dealing with Billy and his crew where we see Spero in his bad ass glory.

Pelecanos has taken the hero novel associated with the likes of John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee and has both stripped it down and raised it up. He’s brought the genre down to a simpler, grittier street level. By doing so he gives us a greater feeling of realism and more depth to his characters and the issues raised, particularly the subject of returning veterans.

Like McDonald did with McGee, Pelecanos allows his hero to breath instead of just hustling him through one scrape after another. we get to know his adopted mother and school teacher brother. A romantic subplot involving a married woman explores another side of Spero, yet one completely important to who he is as well as who he’s becoming. We get a man trying to find his place, learn his dangerous trade, and develop a code to go along with it.

The Double is a perfect follow up to The Cut. It gives us plenty of tough guy action, while also giving us a believable look at what makes that guy tough. Pelecanos is giving us a fully formed hero on an exciting journey that is more complex than it seems. I can’t wait for Spero’s next step. Let’s hope it takes less than two years.

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Copies of The Double are available on the shelves at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Q&A with David Hale Smith

Our Pick Of The Month, Dallas Noir, is the epitome of an Akashic Noir book, featuring a range of writers who offer a wide perspective on both the city and genre. We were able to ask some questions of the collection’s mastermind, editor David Hale Smith.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the project come about?

DAVID HALE SMITH: I’ve been friends with Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books, for many years. In my “day job” as a literary agent representing a lot of award-winning crime fiction writers, I have a number of clients who have written stories for this noir anthology series. Jonny invited me out for a drink and popped the question. He said when it was time to do Dallas Noir, he thought of me right away.

MP: You are mainly known as a literary agent. How did that help the most in being an editor?

DHS: It was fun to wear an editor’s hat in an official capacity. And to write the book’s introduction. I’m an agent who likes to edit, as necessary, to help begin a piece of writing to top final form. I think it’s one of the most rewarding aspects of the publishing process. A few of these stories are almost to the letter as they were submitted. Some needed a bit more editorial input to make them more noir. Editing an anthology like this also means selecting the final stories for collection and putting it all together. I’m very proud of how this book turned out. Especially when our publisher picked my photo of the new Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge for the cover design.

MP: The stories are broken down into the categories Cowboys, Rangers, and Mavericks. How did you relate those titles to the stories?

DHS: My brilliant wife came up with the idea of using the three main Dallas pro sports teams as our section breaks. It fell pretty naturally after that. Cowboys are wild rides, mavericks break the rules and the rangers deal in nasty surprises.

MP: What makes Dallas a great setting for crime fiction?

DHS: As I write in my introduction, Dallas itself is like a marvelous piece of fiction. The name of the city is of questionable provenance. It’s hard to even figure out why the city exists. It’s a former frontier town turned booming business metropolis, with old forgotten neighborhoods despite a lot of dark history being paved over. People moving in from everywhere, new fortunes being made, and an entrenched old-money elite that still wields power. Perfect noir town.

MP: It seems like the tales that had characters with the least morality took place in the city’s suburbs. Why do you think that is?

DHS: The writers who chose to set stories in the suburbs picked up on the fact that those petty suburbs can serve as a veneer over some queasy stuff, especially when you let your imagination loose.

MP: What I admired most about this collection is that is showed the range of the genre and the different ways the term “noir” can be interpreted. As someone who deals with different writers in the genre, how do you define it? 

DHS: Noir fiction always features massively flawed and morally corrupt (and often corrupting) protagonists. These characters are driven by lust, avarice, or jealousy. Their pursuit of their desires leads them into a figurative if not a literal gutter. Their sorry schemes inevitably go awry. Nobody emerges clean in a noir tale. Darkness pervades. That’s why I love them.

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David Hale Smith appears at BookPeople with several of the writers included in Dallas Noir on Friday, December 6 at 7pm. Copies of Dallas Noir are now available on the shelves at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Q&A with Chris F. Holm: THE BIG REAP

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If you read Chris F. Holm’s Collector series, you know he is one of the most talented writers out there. His latest featuring Sam Thorton, a soul collector for Hell, The Big Reap, has him going up against several former collectors who have turned into creatures who have been living off of humans for centuries. Once again he weaves a great mix of horror and hardboiled into a tale about humanity. As this interview we did with him shows, he’s also one of the smartest writers out there.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: The Big Reap has Sam learning something that could change his life or at least his view of it. Did you think it was necessary to have this discovery early in the series?

CHRIS F. HOLM: I think the timing of that discovery — in which (cough spoilers cough cough) I dangle the possibility of redemption — was vitally important. If I’d done it in books one or two, it might have felt cheap, unearned. If I’d waited until ten books in, it might have felt like a deus ex machina. But three books in, the audience is comfortably settled into the rules that govern Sam’s existence, so it seemed like the perfect time to upend those rules.

MP: Because of the nature of the book, Sam fights several different creatures and it never seems repetitive. How did you approaches these passages so it wasn’t just another monster battle?

CFH: The Big Reap has a classic revenge-tale structure in the vein of Kill Bill or Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast, and like those works, it was important that each of the characters Sam squares off against was unique, and entertaining enough to justify their time on-screen. And further, because his prey are former Collectors warped by the ritual that freed them from hell’s bonds, I felt that they should each represent a potential dark fate for Sam himself. To do that, I turned to an unlikely source: the movie monsters that shaped my childhood. I riffed on a little bit of everything, from Dracula and Frankenstein to Alien and Poltergeist, and in so doing, I was able to create what I hope were some memorable characters that manage to reflect poor Sam’s deepest anxieties back at him. I’m glad to hear, for you at least, the work paid off.

MP: In Dead Harvest, Sam is caught between two warring factions; The Wrong Goodbye has him betrayed by a friend; and The Big Reap has a scene reminiscent of Marlowe’s meeting with Major Sternwood. Do you like to have an echo of the book whose title you’re recreating for the one you’re writing?

CFH: Absolutely. Early on in the series, I realized if I were to hew too closely to the plot of the book from which I take my title, it’d suck the air out of my own story and lend it an air of predictability. But I’m a huge pulp nerd, so I can’t help but leave an easter egg or two for people like you who know enough to spot them.

MP: In the series and some of your short work, you have part of the characters’ back story slamming into their present. What meaning do you think a person;’s past has?

CFH: Phil Dick once wrote, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” And that, to me, is how I view a person’s history. It’s no surprise to anyone who’s read my work that I’m fascinated by the elasticity of self. People adopt so many personae — and wear so many masks — throughout their lives, the question of what’s essential, what’s immutable, interests me to no end. But one thing that can’t be changed, nor ever truly escaped, is our past. It shapes us in countless ways, and colors every aspect of who we are. And yet two people with similar personal histories can make very different choices, lead wildly disparate lives. That friction between fate and free will is, to me, the essence of what it means to be alive.

MP: What makes Sam Thornton worth coming back to?

CFH: Well, for one, I just like spending time with the guy. Profession aside, he seems like he’d be a good dude to grab a beer with. That’s handy whether you’re a writer spending a few years with him, or a reader spending a few hours. But I also think some of his appeal is in the fact that his tale externalizes and makes literal the internal struggle we all face, trying to make sense of a brutal and beautiful world that resists sense-making.

MP: Can you tell us what you have in store for him next?

CFH: At present, I’m not contracted to write another Collector book, but that could change at any time. I will say Sam’s role will shift considerably thanks to the events of The Big Reap, and the temptations he faces in the next book, should there be one, will be of a different sort entirely. He’s proven himself over the course of the first three books to be a man of good intentions… but then again, I hear the road to hell is paved with them.

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

CORROSION: Faulkner’s Southern Gothic Meets Psycho Noir

Jon Basoff is probably best known as the founder of New Pulp Press. which has given us books like Jake Hinkson’s Hell On Church Street and Matthew McBride’s Frank Sinatra In A Blender. One of the first books from New Pulp was his own, under the name Nate Flexer, a pitch black novel called The Disassembled Man. He somehow finds a way to go even darker in his second outing, Corrosion.

The story looks mainly at two characters. Joseph Downs is the main lead. An Iraqi war veteran disfigured from an IED blast, he gets stranded in a southern mountain town where his past seals his fate after he gets involved with a dangerous bar fly. All seems to go down an entertaining, if familiar, noir road, until we’re introduced to Benton Faulk. Raised in a home of twisted religion that makes a Flannery O’Connor character seem secular, he escapes his circumstances into obsessions with a violent comic book character and a woman. Both men have their share of secrets that unravel into a night of violence inside a mountain cabin.

Even though it relies less on shock value than Disassembled Man (though there are still quite a few shocks), the book’s questionable narrators create a much darker mood. Violence hangs in the air even when there is no obvious threat of it. These damaged men are missing a piece of themselves that make them outcasts, driving them to be both resigned to their fate and taking desperate means to be a part of it.

Basoff has given us a hybrid of Faulkner Southern Gothic and Jim Thompson psycho noir with a story both timely and timeless about war and poverty’s damage on society and the individuals it hurts the most. Here we see painful and frightening ways those individuals lash back.

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Copies of Corrosion are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

Shotgun Blast From the Past: LETHAL INJECTION

Jim Nisbet’s Lethal Injection is one of those much admired yet still underrated classics of the neo-noir movement. Published in 1987 under Black Lizard when author Barry Gifford ran the press, the book fits in that era of writers who were influenced by William Burroughs as much as by Jim Thompson.

The book follows Franklyn Royce, a doctor with a failed marriage and practice. For extra cash, he oversees prison executions. After a strange encounter with Robert Mencken, an inmate he delivers a lethal injection to, he believes he may have killed an innocent man. It drives him to track down the real killer.

Dr. Royce heads to Dallas, finding out his road to atonement leads straight to Hell. He soon hooks up with Menken’s partner in crime, Eddie, and his girl, Colleen, a junkie and part time hooker. It’s not long before he falls into a crime spree with Eddie and into Colleen’s bed. They both lead him to hard truths about the murder and redemption.

The pitch black mood in this book is practically a character. Nisbet uses his skill as a poet to deliver a tight tale that has the flow of a dark stream of conscious, moving at a rapid pace. He covers class, race, and addiction through characters instead of thematics. Nisbet relies on us to read between the lines, but those dark spaces are so clear.

Lethal Injection is one of those books that brands itself in your brain. It taps into the visceral side of noir, looking at the genre from a unique perspective. You enter a sinner’s fever dream that culminates in sex, drugs, and violence where the only peace comes from not waking up.
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Copies of Lethal Injection are available on our shelves at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com.

Austin Mystery Writers to Host Free Writing Workshop

Austin Mystery Writers is a group that has been operating in our city under the radar for some time. It made some major strides in the last few months, launching a brand new website and putting together a free writing class with three acclaimed Texas authors. That class is happening here at BookPeople this Saturday, November 9 at 9:30am. We talked to spokesperson Lara Oles about the group.

MYSTERYPEOPLE:  In a nutshell, what is Austin Mystery Writers?

LARA OLES: Austin Mystery Writers is dedicated to creating, promoting and exploring the craft of crime fiction. Acclaimed author Karen MacInerney founded Austin Mystery Writers in 2003 when she submitted an ad to the Writers’ League of Texas newsletter at two in the morning and hasn’t stopped writing since. The group has since grown to include a tight-knit group of writers meeting weekly to discuss, critique and analyze their currents works in progress.

MP: What are some of your goals?

LO: First and foremost, we are committed to strengthening our story-telling skills and learning the art and science of creating crime fiction.  Gathering as a group is important, as writing is largely a solitary existence.  We keep one another accountable and the momentum helps us move our projects forward, in part, because we know our members are counting on us to produce work regularly.

We also strive to support the writing community and local authors whenever possible.  We’ve recently expanded our efforts to include special events and will also work to support other groups and conferences in any way we can.

MP: Will this be helpful to writers who are not Austinites?

LO: Absolutely!  Even though we are based in Austin and support local writers and events, our focus includes outreach to mystery readers and writers everywhere.   We enjoy conversing with other writers and writing groups regardless of their location. Thanks to social media and online networking, we enjoy being able to share ideas, tips, interviews and anything related to crime fiction with others who wish to hone their craft or simply search for a new talented author to read.

We also hope to share information regarding writers’ events including courses, workshops, conferences and other happening in the Lone Star State and beyond.

MP:  You have an event you’re presenting with three authors here on November 9th. Could you tell us about that?

LO: Our first event involves hosting a free crime-writing workshop at BookPeople, our favorite fiction haunt, and we’re so pleased to have secured Karen MacInerney, Reavis Z. Wortham and Janice Hamrick as expert instructors.  They each bring a great deal to the table and we know our attendees are going to take home practical tips and advice they can put to use immediately.

Each author will be sharing a specific specialty and the program is designed to appeal to both mystery readers and writers.  Our panel of highly-acclaimed mystery novelists will give attendees the inside scoop on what it takes to create some of today’s most memorable mysteries. Janice Hamrick, Karen MacInerney and Reavis Z. Wortham will cover topics ranging from plotting and characterization to how to balance action and humor in crime fiction.

We also have some special goodies for our guests.  The first 25 attendees will receive a free Austin Mystery Writers notepad and pen set.  We will also have a raffle for other items including signed books, AMW tote bags and more.  It’s a half-day event–perfect enough to still fit in a busy schedule–and what better way to spend the first half of your Saturday?

It’s scheduled for Saturday, November 9th. Doors open at 9am and the first class starts at 9:30.  You can see the entire schedule and our workshop flyer on our Facebook page.

MP: What is the best way to stay updated by AMW?

LO: We’re just getting our communication efforts off the ground since we have previously been a small private group of writers, but we are updating our Facebook page regularly and we also have a blog that includes event updates, book reviews and convention coverage (Malice Domestic 2013).  We will continue to add articles, tips and other content from our members.  It can be found here.

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The free writing workshop will be held in BookPeople’s third floor event space on Saturday, November 9 at 9:30am. All are welcome to attend, no registration is necessary. For more information, visit BookPeople’s website.