Cops, Teachers & Swingers: Austin’s Next Noir at the Bar

One of the reasons we put together our Noir At The Bar series is to introduce Austin to crime fiction writers who are not getting the attention they deserve. On Monday, July 7th at Opal Divine’s, we hope to put some top tier talent on your radar with our latest Noir at the Bar. Whether you like police action, hard boiled mystery, or dark, strange stories, we’ll have an author you need to know.

Dan O’Shea writes a cop novel like no other. In the latest book in his series featuring detective John Lynch, Greed, a soldier of fortune brings blood diamonds into Chicago to sell, putting Lynch in the middle of drug cartels, terrorist cells, government agencies, a spoiled actor who puts out a mob contract, and a lot of bullets. O’Shea gives us an intense shoot-out and chase finale that lasts for a hundred pages. Dan’s John Lynch books have a great mix of literary plotting and scope, with a cinematic pace and attitude.

Tim O’Mara’s character is Raymond Donne, an ex-cop who now works as a teacher in a Brooklyn school. The last novel, Crooked Numbers, had Ray looking into the murder of his former student, which involved family, class, and an unusual crime. O’Mara plays with moods and tone like an expert jazz musician.

For something completely different, we have Jonathan Woods. His first short story collection, Bad JuJu, was like a bunch of wonderful experiments brought to life by a mad noir scientist. His new collection, Phone Call From Hell, has crime, kinky sex, barbecue, and an appearance by Charles Manson. As wild and strange as his tales are, there is a skilled level of loose craftsmanship that’s to be admired. One of the stories, “Swingers Anonymous” is being turned into a film.

So come out to Opal Divine’s at 360 South Congress on Monday, July 7th at 7PM to meet these authors. Austin musician and author Jesse Sublett will provide both a music and a reading. Books by the authors will be available for sale. Grab a drink, hold on to your fedora, and prepare to be blown away by a new wave of crime fiction.

Crime Fiction Friday: A BAD DAY FOR BARBECUE by Jonathan Woods

crime scene
We can’t wait to have our friend Jonathan Woods back at our Noir At The Bar On July 7th, reading from his latest collection of short stories A Phone Call From Hell. His gonzo noir tales of crime, murder, and kinky sex remind us how part of genre writing’s joy is subverting convention. Here he does it in a tale originally published in Akashic’s Monday’s Are Murder feature.

“A BAD DAY FOR BARBECUE” by Jonathan Woods

“Jiao Lee, the first female owner of Golden BBQ, stood in the restaurant’s doorway. She watched the morning traffic on Hollywood Road in the heart of Hong Kong Central. Massive apartment blocks rose up the slope of Victoria Peak like giant Lego sculptures. Rain clouds of a winter cold front roiled above.

Mostly antique shops and galleries inhabited Hollywood Road, with an occasional sly, upscale restaurant or bar here and there. As the landlords hiked the rents, the galleries were moving away. Life was ever changeable, thought Jiao.

Golden BBQ had been at its location for five generations, offering succulent, mouth-watering barbecue to its clientele. In the window, a suckling pig, a dozen pressed ducks and a brace of geese—favored for their fatty flesh—hung from metal hooks…”


Click here to read the full story.

MysteryPeople Q&A With Meg Gardiner

meg gardiner
~interviewed by Molly

This coming Saturday, June 28th at 4PM, MysteryPeople will be welcoming Meg Gardiner to the podium to discuss and read from her latest, Phantom Instinct. Molly already reviewed Phantom Instinct, but was able to catch up with Meg before Saturday’s event to get the full scoop.

Molly O.: Your two main characters, Harper and Aiden, are hobbled in their pursuit of justice by Harper’s past as a juvenile delinquent and Aiden’s traumatic brain injury, which leads him to see enemies everywhere. Their flaws drew me in to their characters much more so than any of their more heroic attributes, especially in the case of Aiden. What was your inspiration for creating such flawed characters?

Meg Gardiner: I want to write about characters who have their backs up against the wall. For a novel to be suspenseful, the characters must be vulnerable to real danger. If they have no flaws, no limitations, then they face no real challenge. That story’s boring.

Even Superman has Kryptonite.

The only real way to find out what characters are made of is to crack their world in half. Then you learn whether they can fight their way clear of the debris, rescue people who need help, and rebuild from the wreckage.

Harper Flynn was forced into crime in her teens. To escape, she broke the world she grew up in. It was a dirty getaway. She has always feared that it would come back to haunt her. Now it has.

Aiden Garrison wants justice for the victims of the shootout where he suffered the traumatic brain injury. But that injury has smashed his life as a lawman to pieces. He’s searching for some new way to soldier through.

Phantom Instinct is about how Aiden and Harper try to fight past all these flaws to stop a killer before he gets to them and the people they love.

MO: Where did you get the idea for Aiden’s condition in particular?

MG: Fregoli Syndrome is a kind of face blindness. It causes the mistaken belief that the person you’re looking at is actually someone else in disguise. I stumbled across it while reading, and thought: there’s trouble for a cop. A delusional misidentification disorder.

Aiden can no longer trust his own eyes. And the department no longer trusts him with a gun—after all, at unpredictable moments he becomes convinced that a friend, colleague, or the kid bagging his groceries is actually a hired killer in disguise.

MO: Much of the dramatic tension in Phantom Instinct stems from Harper’s difficulty in convincing anyone that she and her loved ones are in danger, and the suspense is doubled by Harper’s struggle to deal with her life in danger but also to convince others that her life actually is in danger. Do you think that this atmosphere of paranoia and disbelief is integral to the thriller?

MG: Some thrillers work brilliantly when you know exactly who’s good and who’s bad. But this book is about trust. Harper and Aiden are drawn toward each other, but with everything they learn, the less they trust each other. They need to work together, but every secret that’s exposed sends them further off kilter. They have to decide: who should you trust? When do you take a leap of faith? Their lives depend on jumping the right way.

MO: Was Harper’s incredible resourcefulness a motivation in denying her help early on?

MG: Never make it easy. Trouble builds character. That’s Thriller Writing 101.

MO: I particularly enjoyed the combined use of cyber-crime and good, old-fashioned thievery by the modern criminals of Phantom Instinct. Many thrillers focus on technology based crime as entirely separate from thuggery, but in Phantom Instinct, one strategy leads naturally to the other. Do you think that these tactics are indicative of the future of criminality, or do they belong more in a thriller than in reality?

MG: Law enforcement agencies including the FBI will tell you that cyber crime is a growth industry. Street gangs and organized crime have realized they can make serious cash without butchering the competition.

But at some point, thugs gonna thug. As they do in the book.

MO: How much of these tactics did you see in your law career?

MG: My practice was in commercial litigation, not criminal law. The only crooks I wrestle with are the ones I invent.

MO: You’ve written series and stand-alones, and are adept at each. What do you get from writing a stand-alone that you can’t get from a series, and vice versa?

MG: With a series you can explore the characters’ world, build it up, blow it up, and put it back together again. Over the course of multiple books, you have the scope to dive deep into the characters lives, and to let them develop. And some characters need more than one adventure.

But some stories demand to be told that don’t fit with a series. That’s when I write a stand-alone. A novel about an ex-thief who teams up with an injured cop to catch a killer before he kills again… that story needs to have the ex-thief and the cop at its heart. So Harper Flynn and Aiden Garrison are the heroine and hero in Phantom Instinct.

MO: I really enjoyed your strong sense of place when writing about Los Angeles and surrounding Southern California. You lived in the UK for quite some time. Was it the change of place that made you want to revisit your home and explore the territory for darker themes?

MG: I started writing about California when I moved to the UK. I loved England, but missed Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I also came to realize that the British saw Southern California as wildly exotic. I was only too happy to write about a place I adored, and which fascinated my new friends.

MO: What attracts you to writing about Southern California in particular?

MG: There’s a dream version of California: wide open cities, seas, deserts, huge skies, hope and promise and endless possibility. Of course, pain and darkness inevitably churn beneath the bright sun of paradise. The juxtaposition makes California a fertile ground for novels—thrillers, noir, pulp, you name it. It always has. In my novels, empty souls want to drag down those who try to make a place in the sunlit world.

I love California. Now I’m living in Austin, and still love writing about the state where I grew up.

Meg Gardiner will read from & sign her new novel here at BookPeople on Saturday, June 28th at 4PM! You can pre-order signed copies of Phantom Instinct now via, or find a copy on our shelves in-store. Also, check out Molly’s review of Phantom Instinct on the MysteryPeople blog!

International Crime Month: Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö 1
~post by Molly

As Scandinavian detective fiction has exploded onto the international scene over the last twenty years, it is sometimes easy to forget that the genre has been experiencing international renown since the late 1960s. With so much attention paid to contemporary authors, it is time to contextualize the recent history of Scandinavian detective fiction in terms of the region’s most classic crime writers, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

These two authors, over the course of ten years and ten novels, single handedly created the modern police procedural. Their oeuvre has been the model for Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, and pretty much every detective show on television. Their cast of detectives, cantankerous, flawed, and with all the personality clashes of long-time coworkers, have become the template for cop dramas at home and abroad. Their detective, Martin Beck, has been played by Walter Mathau, which by itself indicates their commitment to portraying the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Their story, too, has been the model for many an author’s journey.  The two began in investigative journalism and from there decided to put political opinions to paper in a popular and accessible format. Inspired by the social criticism in such authors as Dashiell Hammett and George Simenon, they chose detective fiction as their medium.

Unusually, however, they wrote as a team – Sjöwall and Wahlöö lived together as a common law couple and each night, after putting their children to bed, each wrote an alternating chapter. The next day, they would switch chapters and edit each other’s work. In this way, they wrote one novel a year, for ten years. In the tenth year of their collaboration, Per Wahlöö died, and Maj Sjöwall never wrote again.

As a collaborative team, they found common ground not only in their mutual affection, but in their shared left-wing politics. They established a model for social criticism in Scandinavia still used today, in which they focused on examining the shadowy nature of capitalism embedded within the post-war welfare state. They wrote in a time of social and political upheaval, especially in terms of gender roles, and the crimes investigated are carefully chosen to match the spirit of the times. Many of the Scandinavian crime writers we most associate with the genre draw heavily from the allegorical nature of Sjöwall and Wahlöö ‘s crimes, and in such pointed pieces as Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo we find increasingly refined and yet somehow less immediate variations on a theme.

Despite their politically motivated message, the two never wrote in a heavy-handed manner, choosing to embrace the simplest prose and the most compelling discourse as a way of creating Marxist critiques accessible to all. Their police procedurals are humanistic and humorous, with plots carefully crafted to entertain and flawed detectives with whom any reader can empathize. Their detectives hem and haw at the demands of the state, try to get out of riot cop duty, and try to solve as many real crimes as possible. When it is winter, and a character smokes too many cigarettes, he gets a cold.

Their vision has endured; forty years after their original publication, their work is still in print. Their message is as immediate and urgent as ever, and their combination of humor and humanism is still unmatched by their peers. Read them in order for the best experience, but to get hooked, start with The Laughing Policeman.

For fans of:

Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Craig Johnson, Carl Hiasson, and or any TV show about cops. Seriously, any. They all draw from this series.

MysteryPeople Q&A With Alison Gaylin

alison gayllin

Alison Gaylin’s latest series features Brenna Spector, a missing persons investigator with complete autobiographical memory triggered by her sister’s abduction. When her own daughter goes missing it ties to her tragic past in her latest, Stay With Me. We caught up with Alison before she joins us with Megan Abbott on Thursday, June 26th at 7PM to talk about the book and writing for such a unique heroine.

MysteryPeople: So much comes to a head in this third book. Did you have the idea of a trilogy when you started?

Alison Gaylin: When I first proposed the series to Harper,  I had planned on Clea being Brenna’s “one armed man” — her disappearance being the one mystery that haunts Brenna and drives her, throughout however many books the series turns out to be. But by the time I  was writing And She Was — and focusing more and more on what happened to Clea myself — I became impatient to tell the whole story. Three books seemed a lot more reasonable, and more satisfying as well.

MP: Family has always played a part in the series, but here it is involved in the plot and practically every sub-plot here, particularly with the female characters. What did you want to explore about dealing with female family members?

AG: I’m so glad you noticed this! Yes, Stay With Me is all about being a mother — the joy and terror of it.  There are all sorts of crimes in this book — abduction and murder included — but to me the most frightening thing in it is the realization that your child is a separate human being just like you are, with complicated emotions and secrets you’ll never know about. You can only keep them so safe. You can only get so close (Wow, I’m scaring myself again….). Anyway, like Brenna, I’m both a daughter and a mother and I wanted to explore those very complicated, very consuming ties.

MP: What made you decide to threaten Trent, Brenna’s womanizing assistant, with fatherhood?

AG: Well, in the previous book Trent was almost killed. I thought, What could throw him even more off balance than a violent brush with death? The positive pregnancy test seemed like the obvious answer. On another level though, I like for all my characters to experience the consequences of their actions — and Trent has seen a lot of action. Being a possible dad-to-be makes Trent have to answer to somebody other than himself. He starts to see the world differently and relate to Maya’s disappearance in a more personal way. Life slaps everybody around in this book, Trent included. It’s sort of interesting to see him take something seriously.

MP: How does having a lead character with total recall influence the writing?

AG: Brenna’s memories are visceral, incorporating all five senses. They take her out of the moment when she is experiencing them, so in order to make them feel more immediate, I write them in the present tense (the present action is told in past tense). I do a lot of editing on the memories and try not to have them go on for too long unless they are integral to the plot, but it is definitely a challenge. I think Brenna’s total recall makes the storytelling a little more complicated than it would normally be.

MP: What did you want to convey about the condition?

AG: It’s perfect autobiographical memory. Not perfect or photographic memory. So, for instance, if Brenna was reading a police report ten years ago but thinking about what she was going to eat for lunch, the contents of the report wouldn’t be in her memory; the lunch plans would. What I wanted to convey in this book is that, despite Brenna’s sometimes enviable condition, there is a lot that she doesn’t know. Brenna’s mother tells her that perfect memory doesn’t necessarily mean she’s right about everything. And that’s a very important idea in the book.

MP: If you could tell Brenna one thing, what would it be?

AG: Well after this book, it would probably be, “Get some rest!”

Alison Gaylin will read from & sign her new novel here at BookPeople on Thursday, June 26th at 7PM. You can pre-order signed copies of Stay With Me now via, or find a copy on our shelves in-store.

MysteryPeople Q&A With Megan Abbott

megan abbott
~interviewed by Molly

Megan Abbott’s The Fever is one of the most talked about books of the summer and is the Statesman Selects pick for June. It portrays a tight family of father, son, and particularly daughter caught in the hysteria of a small town when several of the teen girls suffer mysterious seizures.  Though Megan will be in-store with Alison Gaylin, Thursday, June 26 at 7PM, we took the opportunity beforehand to speak with Megan about her new book and the writing process.

Molly O.: I was struck by the similarities between the behavior of the girls in The Fever and the actions of adolescents during the Salem Witch Trials. I was then surprised to learn that you were inspired by a true story. Were you also inspired by the Salem Witch Trials?

Megan Abbott: I’ve always been fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials, and have been reading about them since I was a kid, so I’m sure that
was hovering there somewhere. And the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shirley Jackson. All these tales of American small towns or communities under siege, with the assault somehow coming from within. I’ve always loved stories where there’s an unidentifiable danger==and because it’s unidentifiable, everyone projects their own fears and desires onto it. Whatever theory a character has for what’s afflicting these girls says a great deal about the character.

MO: You hit on some edgy, controversial topics (vaccines, pollution, teen sexuality) as your characters theorize about what could be making a group of teenage girls sick. Did you set out to write a novel tapping into the zeitgeist? What are you worried about in the world right now?

MA: No. I guess I don’t really write that way—from an intellectual place. I write more from an emotional place. I have loads of thoughts about
the world (too many!) and how hard it is to be a teen or a parent of a teen, but when I write it comes from a different part of my head. I
follow character, and just keep on digging. The nature of the characters in The Fever—in particularly, this close-knit family of father, son and daughter. I saw them as the three investigators and just followed their paths.

MO: Traditionally, noir fiction has incorporated quite a bit of the “male gaze” in terms of a sexualized way of viewing women through a
male character’s eyes. In The Fever, I thought you did an excellent job of reversing that trope through the character of Deenie’s brother
and the way in which girls at his school approach him as an object of desire. This is just one aspect of your complicated and nuanced
approach to sexuality and sexual agency. Is this a life-long mission, to bring female agency, especially in terms of sexuality, to noir

MA: If I’m honest, my only mission is to tell stories that feel true. But I am beyond thrilled with this question—and flattered by it. I really
did see Eli as a kind of “homme fatal”—through no fault of his own (just as it’s not the femme fatale’s fault that males keep falling for her). I really wanted to write about the way girls look at boys. How they foist all kinds of fantasies onto them, just as boys do with girls. And I really wanted the girls in this book to want, to desire… as we all know girls do. I think we’re still so uncomfortable as a culture with girls having sexual desires and acting on them. We either make a joke out of it or make it horror show, instead of just letting it be real, authentic, awkward, overwhelming—all the things that being a teenager is.

MO: Your last few books have all focused on the dangerous lives of adolescent girls. Why this age group?

MA: I guess because there’s so much rich territory to mine there, and it’s still pretty “under-mined.” That age is so powerful, on the cusp of
adulthood but with all the frenzy of youth. Each day is such a whirlwind of emotion, everything matters so much. It’s the perfect place to find character, story.

MO: You come to noir both as a creator and an academic – a rare combination in today’s world of specialization. Which came first, the
urge to write or to analyze? How would you like to see your own work analyzed?

MA: They’re really two separate parts of my brain—and they never speak to each other! I’ve always done both kinds of writing and thinking, but I never apply my analytical lens to my own work if I can help it. In my case, I think that’s deadly to the creativity. As for how I’d like my
own work analyzed? The real answer is any way any reader likes. There’s no “solution” or “right interpretation.” We all bring our own fascinations and experiences and personal histories to whatever we read, and that’s why reading is so intensely personal an experience. And it’s why it matters so much.

Megan Abbott will read from & sign her new novel here at BookPeople on Thursday, June 26th at 7PM. You can pre-order signed copies of The Fever now via, or find a copy on our shelves in-store.

Double Feature Film/Book Series Kicks off this Wednesday with Double Indemnity

double indemnity

On Wednesday, June 25th, at 6PM, we’ll be kicking off our Double Feature screenings. Each Double Feature will include a noir film based on a book, with discussion afterward. We’re starting with the classic early noir, Double Indemnity.

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity is practically a blue print for noir in any medium. The story about insurance man Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger’s scheme of killing her husband for his policy money, barely over a hundred pages, provides a bare basics of the boy-meets-girl, boy-commits-murder-with-girl, (spoiler alert) boy-ends-up-dead-or-in-prison-because-of-girl tale that many writers and filmmakers have put their own spin on. One of the first was screen writer/director Billy Wilder in his 1944 adaptation.

Cain, a former newspaperman, had a clean writing style that stripped a story to its marrow. Indemnity was written as a follow up to his
successful novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. While both of those books share many similarities, Double Indemnity‘s propulsive quality and less-than-humane humanity, bring out a sharper, cynical edge.

And who could have been drawn to a cynical story more than Billy Wilder. He got hard boiled master Raymond Chandler to work on the
script with him. Chandler didn’t much like the book, finding it a sleazy story about amoral people. It appears he found an anchor in making
Neff’s friend and the insurance companies investigator, Keyes, into the conscience of the story. Keyes observations about life and murder
could easily be quoted by Chandler’s private eye, Phillip Marlowe.

There are several other major differences between film and novel, beside changing Keyes’ role and changing Walter and Phyllis’s last names to
Neff and Dietriechson.  One is the relationship  between Walter and Phyllis. With the novel, it deteriorates right after the murder with Phyllis kicking him of the car. Wilder’s direction and Fred MacMurray’s performance suggest Neff as something of a dupe, lured into the scheme of a femme fatale. The book had revealed early on that he was thinking about doing something like this for some time. Cain appears to have them drawn together more by mutual sin than passion, with little left after the murder is done.

The film follows close to the plot, until the third act. It may come as a shock to the reader more familiar with the movie. Wilder kept the corruption personal, between Walter and Phyllis. Cain, the cynical reporter, had all of society in on the scam in a way that Hollywood wouldn’t have been ready to express.

That said, Cain seemed very pleased with the adaptation, saying ” …It’s the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in
it I wish I had thought of. Wilder’s ending was much better than my ending, and his device for letting the guy tell the story by taking out the office dictating machine – I would have done it if I had thought of it.”

Both book and film set the template for the look and attitude of noir. They both present a quality both stripped down and stylized that
contributes to the genre’s malleability. It’s about that short cut to the American dream, that questions the trip and maybe the dream

Double Feature Stats

Adherence To Book (Scale Of 1-5) – 4

Adherence To Quality Of Book – 5

Fun Fact- The supermarket scenes where Walter and Phyllis meet after the
murder had armed guards on the set. It was filmed during World War Two
and due to rationing, the market was afraid  the cast and crew would steal

Other Films- The Prowler, Gun Crazy, Body Heat, and The Last Seduction

Other BooksMiami Purity by Vicki Hendicks; They Don’t Dance Much by
John Ross; Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

MysteryPeople Review: PHANTOM INSTINCT by Meg Gardiner

phantom instinct
Phantom Instinct
by Meg Gardiner
~reviewed by Molly

Meg Gardiner has been known for some time for her strong female protagonists and tense, electrifying plots. She won the Edgar Award in 2009 for her novel China Lake and has continued to produce new, award-winning material almost as fast as her growing fan base can read them (almost). Although Gardiner writes from England, her latest thriller, like many of her others, is set in LA and the surrounding desert. Phantom Instinct slowly ratchets up the suspense, as a young ex-thief and a brain-damaged policeman play cat-and-mouse with a psychopath. Their task is complicated by the system’s refusal to believe such a killer exists. Throughout, Gardiner mixes good, old-fashioned criminality with a fair share of techno-crime, lending freshness and modernity to the thriller genre while still creating compelling human stories.

As Phantom Instinct opens, Harper Flynn, Meg Gardiner’s latest heroine mourns her boyfriend, shot dead in a nightclub attack. On the anniversary of his death, she notices herself being followed by a mysterious figure. She immediately suspects him of being a third gunman from the nightclub; never apprehended at the scene and believed by the FBI to never have existed at all.

Harper has only one ally on the side of the law. Detective Aiden Garrison believes her to be telling the truth. Unfortunately for Harper, Aiden suffers from a traumatic brain injury sustained during the nightclub fire. He now sees false enemies everywhere, obscuring his ability to spot a real threat and occasionally turning him into one.

Harper and Aiden must work together to protect Harper from her unknown stalker and convince the law that anyone is endangering her at all. In the meantime, past revelations about Harper and her relationship with the criminal underworld place her increasingly in danger and her story increasingly in doubt.

In her characterization of Harper and Aiden, Gardiner has created realistic depictions of flawed and vulnerable individuals. In their struggle to resolve enduring questions from the nightclub fire that killed Harper’s boyfriend, they also must resolve their own issues and find new compromise with old and painful memories. Their external struggle mirrors the internal as the two descend further into Harper’s past in order to protect her right to a future. Gardiner makes good use of her native Southern California city glitz and desert starkness to echo Harper and Aiden’s journey. Momentum builds as someone Harper cares for dearly is endangered, and the plot rushes forward at breakneck pace towards Phantom Instinct’s strong and satisfying conclusion.

Meg Gardiner will read from & sign her new novel here at BookPeople on Saturday, June 28th at 4PM! You can pre-order signed copies of Phantom Instinct now via, or find a copy on our shelves in-store.


Crime Fiction Friday: THE SHROUD OF TURIN by Dan O’Shea

crime scene
Crime Fiction Friday

Due to flight canceling weather, Dan O’Shea had to miss our January Noir At The Bar. Luckily, you can’t keep a good hard boiled author down, and he’ll be at our July 7th Noir At The Bar, reading along with Jonathan Woods, Tim O’Mara, and Jesse Sublett. Dan’s series featuring Chicago detective John Lynch (Penance, Greed) are some of the best modern cop book’s written, with an epic, gritty scope, and energy of a great Eighties action film. He also has a great sense of character which he demonstrates in with the story originally published in Needle, A Magazine Of Noir.

(Note: This story contains mature language and content)


Used to be you had a job. Used to be you could pay the bills, or most of them anyway. Used to be, when the kid got bad, you could take him in to the doc, and that stuff the doc prescribed, you could get that over at Walgreens and the insurance would cover most of it. Now, when the crying starts, you wait a day, you hope the kid can tough it out, then you head over to the ER at County and you sit in the waiting room, waiting for a lull in the gunshot wounds and heart attacks, the kid bawling because of how his gut ties up on him on account of the colitis, maybe five or six hours, everybody looking at you like you’re a loser because you were just in there last month and they know the only reason you’re at the ER is because you can’t pay and they have to treat you and that the three figures this is going to add to your tab, they’re going to end up eating that, but they try to be good people, that black lady that works the desk, the one that’s as dark as the inside of your pocket and about the size of the minivan you had until the repo guy took it, she always sticks in that Barney DVD she’s got in her desk, the one the kid likes, and sometimes that calms him down a little, and the bawling backs down to a steady whimper, and you hold the kid in your lap and you stroke his sweaty head and you listen to the purple dinosaur singing about how he loves you and you love him and you’re all a happy family. One time you started crying. Most times, when you finally get in to see the doc, they scrounge up some of the Asacol, send you home with enough to get you by. But this time all you get is a scrip.

The stuff’s eighty bucks at the hospital pharmacy, so you wrap the kid back up, you only have that fall jacket for him, so he’s wearing that, and you’ve got your old Carhartt coat on him over it, that thing stained with ten years worth of construction grime, but it’s the only coat you’ve got, so he’s wearing that and you’re wearing three sweaters ‘cause it’s like ten degrees out, and you hop the bus down to the Walgreen’s where you figure the Asacol will be cheaper, and it is, but it’s still better than sixty bucks, which is twenty more than you’ve got, and you’re six days away from the next government check, all of which is going to the rent anyway.

So you grab the bus back to the apartment, the driver telling you your transfer expired fifteen minutes ago, and you beg for a free ride, the guy giving you that look that used to piss you off, not straight pity, but pity with a little fucking loser thrown in, but you beg for the ride anyway, even though you’ve got the two bucks, because two bucks, Jesus.

When you get home, you ransack the place. Couch cushions, the pockets of every piece of clothing you’ve got, the pockets of the all the clothes Betsy left behind the day she told you she was going to see her sister for a while. That was six months back. After an hour, you’ve found $3.17. The meds from the ER haven’t worn off yet, the kid’s sleeping, probably sleep for a while, seeing as how he’d been up most of the night screaming. So you head down to the storage crib in the basement, start going through the boxes there. Not like you’re going to find any cash, but maybe there’s something left you can hock.

But there’s nothing.

You’re standing at the back of the storage crib looking at the mess on the floor. Boxes you just dumped out. A few baby clothes, wedding pictures, a few books from fifteen years back when you first got married, when the construction thing was a temporary gig because you were taking night classes out at the community college, you were going to be a teacher. But pretty soon Bets was in your ear about how the construction money was better than anything a teacher would make, about how much you were wasting on tuition, so you took a semester off, took the OT instead of the classes, pretty soon you hadn’t been in school for five years, and then the kid was born and Bets quit her job because she said the kid needed a mother at home. Back before the diagnosis, before either of them. She wasn’t so big on being home after that.

The half-dozen boxes of crap you dumped out on the floor, cleaning that up is a bigger job than you’re up to just then. One of the labors of Hercules you might have said, once upon a time. A Sisyphean task, you might have said, back when you still said shit like that. But Bets would always give you that look, the one that said you were showing off, the one that said you were trying to make her feel stupid. And, after a while, the few friends you had who might get it if you mentioned Sisyphus had moved on anyway, had finished school, gotten their downtown jobs, their places out in the burbs.

You put your back to the wall and slump down to the floor, and you just sit there, your mind empty, and not some yoga-class world-peace empty, but a bad empty. An empty-medicine-bottle empty. A no-food empty. You know you have to think of something and you can’t even think, so you just sit on the floor, useless, until your ass starts getting cold and numb.

You reach over to grab one of the wooden slats that wall your storage space off from the next crib so you can pull yourself up, that crib still crammed with stuff left behind by the tenants across the hall who got evicted a month back. As you wrap your hand around the slat you feel something stuffed in behind the boxes, something metallic. You grab it and pull it out between the slats. A gun, an automatic of some kind.

You’ve got no idea how to work it. You fiddle with it a bit, trying everything except the trigger. The trigger seems like a bad idea. You press some button on the side and the magazine drops out. It’s empty. But a gun, that’s worth something, right? You don’t know the rules, but you know there are some, you know you can’t just walk into a pawn shop with it, but it’s worth something on the street, and some of the guys you’d worked with, they’d know where.


“It’s a Colt,” a guy from a couple of the big jobs downtown, back during the boom years, guy that had some shady connections. “It’s a .45, older one, WWII or so.”

You’re at Danny Boy’s in a booth against the back wall, he’s got the gun in his lap. You ordered a water when sat down, your buddy asking what the fuck is up with that, you telling him water is free, they guy shaking his head, telling the girl to bring a couple of Guinness’s. First beer you’ve had in what? Two months? Almost gone, you’re actually feeling it a little.

He pulls the slide back and a round cartwheels out, catches in a fold in his shirt.

“Shit, you said it was empty. Had one in the pipe.”

You shrug. “I don’t know anything about guns.”

“Coulda blown my fuckin’ rocks off.”

“Sorry, man.”

He hands the Colt back to you, you stick it in your pocket.

“Kinda nicked up, nothing special about it. Give me a couple days I can get you a hundred and fifty, two hundred if I find some dumb fuck collector who doesn’t know there’s maybe a million of these around.”

“I need it tonight.”

“Tonight I can get you a hundred,” he says.

“That all?” You’d figured more.

“Bangers don’t like the old .45’s much. Clip only holds seven. They like the new nines. Dumb ass fuckers, most of them can’t shoot for shit. So they like to put a lot of lead in the air. Nines nowadays, hell, fourteen or fifteen round clips anyway.”

Not much to think about. If you’d reached into the next unit and pulled out a hundred in cash, you’d be down at St. Catherine’s now, lighting a fucking candle. So you found a gun and you thought more, so what?

“OK,” you say.

The guy gets up, hands a twenty and a five to the girl. “Bring my friend another Guinness, keep the rest.” She heads back to the bar. The guy zips his coat.

“You know the Citgo a couple blocks up, across from the cemetery?”


“Give me an hour then meet me there. I gotta make a call.”

“Thanks, man.”

“Hey, you landed in the shit. We all end up there some time or another. Chin up, sport. Things’ll turn around.”


The girl comes back with the Guinness, sets it in front of you, smiles at you with no bullshit behind it at all.

“Seen you around,” she says. “You live up by Western, right?”


“I’ve seen you with your boy. You take good care of him. He’s got some kind of problem, doesn’t he?”

“Autism,” you say, “and some stomach trouble.”

She nods. “I see you at the park sometimes. I take my daughter there.”

You’re feeling unsure, like you don’t know how to do this, and you can’t think why, simple enough conversation, just small talk, except this is the first conversation you’ve had with anybody in six months that wasn’t about getting something, getting money, getting medication, getting the super to let you slide a week on the rent. The last six months, since Bets took off, it was all reaction, like you were stuck on some cliff and as far forward as you could think was the next place you were going to put your hand. It was all reflex and need.

“He likes the swings,” you say.

She smiles again, puts a hand on your shoulder. “I know. God, the way he laughs on those swings. My daughter calls him the laughing boy.”

The laughing boy. Some girl who doesn’t even know your son thinks of him as the laughing boy. And you feel bad, feel like that little girl has a better opinion of your son than you do, how you’d probably call him the crying boy, or the needs medicine boy, or the daily reminder of what a fuck up I am boy.

“How old is your girl?”


“My son’s age,” you say.

A voice from up be the bar. “Hey, sweet cheeks!” Rich looking guy, high-end leather jacket, expensive jeans, a pair of sneakers that would pay your rent.

She gives your shoulder a squeeze. “Gotta go.”

And your eyes burn a little, want to tear up, that purple dinosaur shit all over again, the way life can have you down, be putting the boot in, and out of the blue somebody is holding a cool cloth to your face, like that chick in the crucifixion story, that Shroud of Turin thing. You’ve still got most of an hour to kill. You take a long pull on the second Guinness, definitely starting to feel it. You’ve still got forty bucks and change in your pocket, and you’re thinking you might finish this one, flag the girl down for one more, just to talk to her again.

You keep feeling the gun in the pocket of the Carhartt. Before it was making you paranoid, but now it was feeling like it meant something, something more than just a quick payday, like a totem, a charm, a sign even, maybe. You got a guy you knew from work four years back going to bat for you, the girl talking to you, an extra hundred right now, for you that was practically lottery money. Things can’t suck forever, you figure. You got to hit bottom somewhere, and maybe this morning, begging for a free bus ride, wearing three sweaters like some homeless fuck because your kid is wearing your coat because he doesn’t have one, riding the bus home to ransack your place because you’re too broke to buy your own kid his meds, maybe that was it, maybe that was bottom.

Another pull on the Guinness, almost empty. You look toward the bar, ready to flag the girl down. You think of all the times you’ve done that, summer nights, coming off a job, a mess of you from the crew stopping off somewhere, dropping twenty on beers, thinking nothing of it, all the times you’ve held up a glass and wiggled it at some waitress, and all it meant was one more beer, but this time it felt invested with a sacred weight, like some ritual, like she’s going to bring you a beer and somehow that’s going to wash your life clean, going to rinse the stink of degradation and hopelessness off of you and you’re going to walk out of here as a man again..

Crowded up by the bar, Leather Jacket and his posse bunched up, the girl squeezing through, setting her tray down to pick up her next load. Leather Jacket reaches over, squeezes her ass. She spins, slapping his hand away, her face fierce, Leather Jacket’s crew cracking up, Leather Jacket holding his hands up like she’s got a gun on him, the hand that had been on her ass empty, the other one, the one he’d had in his jacket pocket holding a fat money clip with a Franklin on the outside of the roll.

“Easy baby!” he says, talking loud, performing. “Hey, top-shelf stuff like I’m ordering, you oughta be thinking about your tip.”

She holds her ground, holds his eyes, says nothing. He’s the one that looks away.

“Spirit,” he says, still in his stage voice. “This one’s got spirit!”

She starts to walk away, heading for a four-top in the corner. One of Leather Jacket’s boys grabs her arm, holds out a twenty.

“He’s harmless,” the guy says.

She freezes the guy with the same look. “Him grabbing my ass makes him a dick. Me taking your money for it would make me a whore.” She slaps the bill away and leaves.

You wait a bit. You want a little space after that scene, don’t want her talking to you while her head is still full of him. Things calm down, she makes a few runs to other tables, finally she looks back at you. You raise the empty glass, give it a little wiggle, she nods, and you find yourself wondering if you did it right, thinking of all the glasses you’ve wiggled over the years, wondering how much space there was between you and Leather Jacket. Maybe you never grabbed any asses, but you and the boys had sure commented on enough of them, and you’re sure you’d done it loud enough sometimes that the girls heard it, and even if they hadn’t, you’d never thought of a single one of them as anything other than a pair of feet that brought you another beer, except for the times you’d thought about them as a pair of tits. And then you’re thinking maybe you’re going off the deep end here a little, and you see the girl grabbing the Guinness from the bartender, heading for your table, and you’re thinking how you almost got yourself tied up in knots last time just talking about the park, how you better relax or you were going to come off like a retard, and then you remembered you weren’t supposed to say that anymore, thinking of your son, then somehow the girl is setting the glass down when you would have sworn she was still half a room away and you want to ask her to wait a second while you get your shit together.

“Five bucks,” she says. You fish into your jeans for your wallet.

“You OK?” you ask. You tilt your head toward Leather Jacket and his crowd.

She snorts. “Occupational hazard.”

“I’m sorry.” You say it without thinking, too fast.

That seems to confuse her. “For what?”

You feel checkmated, like anything you say will just make you some patronizing prick trying to fix things for someone you know nothing about.

“I dunno. Just that the world sucks, I guess.”

That gets you another smile. “Just sometimes.”

You smile back, before you realize you’re smiling, and you think of your son on the swings, how that seems to be the only place in the world that makes sense to him, the joy he feels then, complete and entire, a kind of joy you’ve never known, you think how being happy always seems just out of reach to you, how it always has, even before everything went to hell, about how you usually think before you smile.

“Yeah,” you say. “Just sometimes.” You open your wallet. A twenty, two tens, a couple ones. Everything you’ve got in the world, except for the .45 in your pocket. You pull out a ten and hand it to her. “Keep it.”

Her face clouds. “Don’t do that.”


“The savior thing. A buck on a five dollar tab is a tip. Five is a gesture.” She counts out five ones and hands them back to you.

“So keep one,” you say.

She takes a one and smiles again, but the smile is flat and generic this time, and you know you fucked up, you know that every other person in the world is carrying their own history of hurt and insult, you know you just stepped on something sore and broken, and now she was pushing you back outside that boundary you had only just crossed. You have this sudden ache, this sense of something possible slipping away, and want to say something before she leaves but she’s already turning to go.

“Can I say thanks at least?” You just blurt it out, like she’s one of those ink blot tests and that’s your first thought.

She turns back. “Thanks for what?”

“For what you said about me and my son.”

A full smile this time, the best smile. “Maybe I’ll see you around the park,” she says.


You take your time with the third Guinness, definitely feeling it. Not drunk, not sloppy. Relaxed, like you like you just exhaled for the first time in months, like you’re finally taking a deep breath. You check your watch. It’s time.

The crowd has thinned out, Leather Jacket and his crew left a few minutes ago. The girl is at the bar as you pass.

“Night,” she says, little smile again, and you keep thinking about what a crap shoot it is every time you open your mouth, so you don’t say anything, you just smile back and wave.

Not as cold out, or at least the wind has died. You turn north, a couple blocks to the Citgo. You clear the end of the building. At the mouth of the alley, Leather Jacket is leaning on the front end of a Mercedes, finishing a smoke. He looks up, smirks.

“What do you want, you sad-sack fuck? Little slut inside send you out to defend her honor?”

Nobody in the lot, nobody on the street, your brain goes bright, like somebody threw a switch, the .45 in your pocket vibrating in your hand. And it’s all reflex. You pull the gun, level it at his head.

“The money clip, asshole. That’s what I want.” Rich fuck squeezing asses, waltzing through a world that for most people is just one long open wound, and all the asshole can do is throw salt around, make everything worse.

The guy smiles. The guy flicks his smoke at you, the butt sparking as it bounces off your jacket. You got a gun on him and he throws his smoke at you? Who does that? The guy unzips his coat and you can see the gun on his hip. Everything is wrong.

“Freeze asshole,” you say, going for hard, going for intimidating, using the line by reflex, the line from all the TV shows.

This time the guy laughs. “Freeze asshole? You arresting me or robbing me?” His arm knocks his jacket open and his hand flies down to the pistol.

You remember the bullet that flipped out of the Colt when your buddy ran the slide, and you try to remember if he ever put it back. It flipped up, landed in his shirt, he fucked with the gun a minute and the slide closed.

The guy’s gun is coming up and you realize that it doesn’t matter, the bullet is there or it isn’t, you pull the trigger or you stand there and get shot. If you do pull the trigger, and if you do have a bullet, then you’re killing some guy you know nothing about, some guy you tried to rob because he acted like a dick in a bar, and if you don’t pull the trigger, then he will, and the cops will be showing up at your place in an hour or so, and the lady upstairs who is watching the boy is going to hand the kid over to them, and the kid is going to go to DCFS, and you’ve heard enough to know what happens to a kid like your son once he goes into the system, and you know you have to pull the trigger and then you don’t know if you did or didn’t, but you’re on your back and you know you’ve been that way for a minute or so at least, because there are feet all around you, and it had just been you and Leather Jacket before, and you can hear Leather Jacket saying “Dumb fuck tried to rob me,” and somebody else saying the cops are on the way, and then you see the girl’s face, and it’s really close because she is kneeling over you and you feel yourself smile, and you feel a tear fall on your face, and you’re all tied up again, trying to think what you can say to her now, nothing coming to mind that seems right, but you want to thank her again for what she said about your son, you want to tell her that laughing boy is the kindest thing anyone has ever called him.

“What?” she says. You realize you’ve been muttering to yourself.

You feel another tear fall on your face, hers you realize, and you don’t want her to feel bad, you want to tell her the Shroud of Turin thing, you want to say that, if you are on your way to Golgotha, then she has been the last good thing, and then you’re thinking maybe you shouldn’t say Golgotha, Bets in your ear again about you showing off, but your mind is a little sluggish now, you can’t think how to rephrase it, then you can’t remember what you were going to say anyway, her face still there, but all the rest of it, the feet around you, the commotion, all going a little foggy at the edges, like how the pictures in Penthouse used to be, and you remember something you read about how that Guccione guy used to rub something on the lens to get that soft focus effect, something ironic about that, hard core in soft focus, and you shake that off, shouldn’t be thinking about Penthouse, not now, and then there’s a noise, a siren, still far away, except it isn’t because the fog is all strobed in red and blue now, and her face is floating above you in this cloud that’s red and then blue, and it’s beautiful, so beautiful, and you see that she’s nodding, her head bobbing in time to your thoughts, and you realize you’ve been talking all along, you’ve been saying all of it, and that feels so unfair, how she got to see inside you like that, she shouldn’t get to see inside you like that, and then there’s a hand on her shoulder, pulling her away, and she reaches down once, her hand dragging along your cheek and then she disappears into the red-and-blue fog, some other face dropping down, a man’s face, saying something to you, but you don’t hear it, don’t even want to hear it, the pain starting then, all at once, like someone hollowed out your chest and filled it with burning coals, and you arch your back a little, like you’re trying to buck the fire out of you, and the new face is yelling something at you, but you can’t hear it – just hold still, you think from how his lips moved, and he unzips your coat and rips your shirt open and now you’re cold, too, but you still feel the fire hollowing out your chest, and you realize you’re crying and you remember your son crying, all last night, this morning, and how you still waited, hoping he would get better, knowing he wouldn’t, but how you waited anyway, and you wish the girl would come back, the last good thing, but you’re not even sure now that she had been there because that image, her face floating in that neon fog, that seems like a dream and the pain is so real and you suck in one more breath, enough to say something loud enough for her to hear if she is real.

“My son,” is all you can manage.

MysteryPeople Review: THE FEVER by Megan Abbott

The Statesman Selects Pick for June:
The Fever by Megan Abbott
~reviewed by Molly

The Fever, Megan Abbott’s latest exploration into the dangerous lives of adolescent girls, depicts mass hysteria in a small town, as popular teenagers begin falling ill from indeterminate causes. At the center of this drama is Deenie, shy, uncertain, ridden with guilt and determined to find the cause of the mysterious plague. On the sidelines, Deenie’s brother and father worry for her health and interpret the situation as best they can.

What could be causing this mysterious illness? The theories are numerous as to the cause of the girls’ condition, and each has its root in a different paranoia of modern-day society. Some suspect vaccines to be at fault. Other theories include pollution, sexually transmitted diseases, and perhaps even biblical retribution. Abbott plays games with mixing all these fears together. When girls discuss receiving the vaccine, the reader might mistake their conversation to be about having sex for the first time. Parents condemn the school for requiring the HPV vaccine in one moment and speculate about the possible sexual origin of their daughters’ illnesses the next.

Fears of vaccines, teenage sexuality, chemical toxicity, and the power of conformity are all contemporary concerns. The book draws much of its inspiration from a real life case of mysterious teenage illness in a New York City suburb. As the town begins to suspect a contagion with no identifiable origin, the CDC intervenes, and their concern becomes futuristic.

The Fever also taps into something much older. In many ways, The Fever reads like a retelling of the Salem Witch Trials, if the accusations of delusional teenagers had led to a thoughtful investigation as well as a mass hysteria. Abbott’s characters use YouTube instead of the pulpit to bring attention to their bizarre sufferings. Some of the characters dabble in mysticism, but all believe in modern science. The convulsions, seizures and accusations, however, fit right in with sixteenth-century style madness, and at the end of Abbott’s novel, we are left with the sense that when it comes to those most intimate connections in our lives – friendship, family, a crush – very little changes over time.

Megan Abbott will read from & sign her new novel here at BookPeople on Thursday, June 26th at 7PM, and will be joined by Alison Gaylin! You can pre-order signed copies of The Fever now via, or find a copy on our shelves in-store.