Reavis Wortham‘s latest Red River novel, Vengeance Is Mine, is a game changer for Wortham’s Red River series. When a Vegas hitman moves to town and befriends some of the lawmen of Central Springs, Texas, they must then deal with the violent consequences of his actions in ways that may change their town forever.
Reavis will be joining Ben Rheder and Tim Bryant for our Lone Star Mystery Discussion on August 6th. We got a few questions in early.
MysteryPeople: Most of the major characters you’ve dealt with before are native Texans. How did you approach the challenge of a Vegas hitman?
Reavis Wortham: Old Vegas has always fascinated me and when I was first thinking about Vengeance is Mine, it kept popping into my head. I wanted to get out of Center Springs for a while, and the idea of Vegas and old Highway 66 was as attractive as a cool swimming pool on a hot Texas day. My bride and I have talked about driving what’s left of that famous old road, visiting the remaining trading posts, and maybe staying in the vintage motels. At the same time, I’d written a short story about San Francisco, with a professional hit man as the main character, but didn’t do anything with it. When I sat down and stared at this blank screen, preparing to start Vengeance, I needed to see something besides a white and a blinking cursor. I pasted the short story onto the first page and read it. Then I deleted the story, kept the hit man idea, and moved the whole thing to Vegas. From there it was research, both online and books. My youngest daughter’s father-in-law lived in Vegas for some time back in the 1970s, so he offered some advice, since he knew folks who’d worked with the mob back then. From there, Tony Agrioli simply gained form and became the character torn between his own demons, mob life, and freedom.
MP: This is some of the best writing you’ve done of Top and Pepper. What did you want to do with them in this book?
RW: What a wonderful compliment. Thanks Scott! I honestly don’t think about what my characters are going to do until they do them. I think that the kids, Top and Pepper, have grown both on the pages and in my mind. As the young cousins have developed, their own desires, fears, and outlook on life have materialized until we all see something we recognize, and maybe in ourselves. It’s been interesting to watch Top struggle to simply grow up in the country. He’s a bookworm, undersized for his age, and enjoying his time as a kid. But at the same time, his first cousin Pepper has already reached puberty and is torn by the times. She’s influenced by the music of the late ‘60s, dark and revolutionary rock and roll, and wants more than a simple country life can offer. She’s precocious, and usually acts on impulse. Like all real kids, I want to see them grow up, happy and safe, but at the same time, I’m watching all the kids I knew back at that time materialize in these characters. They are reflections of the period, and I continue to recall thoughts and experiences as they develop.
MP: The line “Some folks need killing,” comes up again in this book. How do you view that belief in this story?
RW: My granddad, who was a farmer and constable during this time period, had a clear, black and white view of the world. I heard him say that phrase throughout my childhood, and it reflected the thoughts of those people who lived and worked in rural northeast Texas back in those days. He always said the punishment should fit the crime, and had no use for anyone who murdered, robbed, or routinely broke the law. He was also a firm believer in chain gangs. “You’ll never see anyone go back on a chain gang once they serve their time.” If someone murdered another person, and especially if it happened more than once, you could expect him to say, “Some people just need killin’.” It became the brand for the Red River mystery series, because my main protagonist, Ned Parker, is based on Constable Joe Armstrong, from Chicota, Texas.
MP: My father, who is a fan, talked about how the books take him back to the ’60s and living in a small town. What kind of research do you do?
RW: Please tell your dad thanks for me! A lot of what appears in the series comes from my own experiences. I grew up at that time (I was Top’s age in the books as they progress), and knew the people who lived in rural northeast Texas. Occasionally, things find their way in the books that require some research. The Plymouth in The Right Side of Wrong that had a push-button transmission and that was new to me. Of course I didn’t know anything about 1960s Las Vegas. I spent a lot of time online, looking at maps and history sites, but I still needed to get the location of casinos and hotels in my head, and most photos didn’t give me all the info I needed. Then I remembered a movie I watched in the old Grand Theater in Paris, and it became the best piece of research material I could find. The opening scene of the iconic Elvis Presley movie, Viva Las Vegas, was shot from a helicopter, and it was the perfect device to show me what the old strip looked like at the time. From there, it was drive portions of Route 66, and listen to old rock and roll.
MP: You’ve said in a previous interview that little is planned in your writing. Which character has surprised you the most over the course of the series?
RW: That would be Tom Bell, the old man who appeared in The Right Side of Wrong. He was completely unexpected when he arrived in the first chapter’s snowstorm, and everything he did was a surprise, even down to the BAR he owned. Who owns a Browning Automatic Rifle? Tom Bell. And just when you think he’s gone, he reappears, in a sense, in Vengeance. Without giving too much away, I think the ending of The Right Side of Wrong is misleading. Who knows, he may continue to surprise us in upcoming novels, even though some say he died at the end of Right Side. Did he? You’ll have to read it, and then decide. Yeah, I love Tom Bell.
MP: As a Texas native who writes very Texas novels, what do you think is the biggest misconception about our state in literature?
RW: Scott, I don’t think you could have asked a harder question. Maybe the biggest misconception is that Texas lit is always rural and/or western. More and more, I’m seeing references to my Red River series as westerns. It never occurred to me until, during conversations and interviews, that in a sense, my series set in the 1960s may well be modern day westerns. But that could also describe a number of thrillers or mysteries by folks from all across this country. My plots, and those of others, could very well have taken place a hundred and thirty years ago, all ending with the final Hollywood showdown at high noon, or sometimes in my case, at night.
Another misconception may well be that there is no other mainstream literature from the Lone Star State outside of Larry McMurtry, Bud Shrake, J. Frank Dobie, Elmer Kelton, or Americo Paredes. But there are others…many others. How about Fred Gipson, Jonathan Graves, Joe R. Lansdale, Laura Furman, Don Graham, Jan Reid, Katherine Anne Porter, Bill Crider, or Bill Witliff? Then there are those who have made their mark within the last few years, such as Taylor Stevens, Deborah Crombie, Ben Rehder, Tim Bryant, and George Weir. All these authors bring their own brand of writing that defines Texas, and Texans. They are as diverse as the landscape of this huge state itself, and all a reader needs to do is take a chance on an unfamiliar name.
MysteryPeople welcomes Bill Durham, along with Reavis Wortham, Tim Bryant and Ben Rehder, to BookPeople for a conversation about crime fiction on Wednesday, August 6, at 7 pm.