MysteryPeople Q&A with Reavis Z. Wortham

Reavis Wortham’s latest Red River Mystery, Dark Places, has half of the Central Springs law enforcement solving a murder at home while the other half searches on Route 66 for their runaway relative Pepper. It brings Wortham’s look at the Sixties into full bloom. We talked to the author about the book and the period.

Reavis Z. Wortham joins us Monday, September 28th, at 7 PM here at BookPeople for a Lone Star Crime panel. He’ll be speaking and signing his latest novel alongside Ben Rehder and Bill Crider. You can find copies of Dark Places on our shelves and via bookpeople.com


MysteryPeople Scott: You said your editor suggested you follow Pepper on the road more after she read the initial manuscript. What did that provide the story?

Reavis Z. Wortham: Both of my editors at Poisoned Pen Press read the first draft and felt something was missing. It was when we were talking over their edits that Barbara Peters realized that I’d completely missed a plot line. I’m thick-skinned when it comes to editing my work, and I listened to what she had to say. I re-read the manuscript yet again, this time with her suggestions in mind, and realized that I’d used fourteen-year-old Pepper to spark a series of events, but didn’t follow her adventures. There’s no spoiler here, because if you read the inside flap, you’ll know she runs away from home to join the counter culture movement in the late 1960s.

We needed to find out what happened after she hit the road.

The best way to get to California from northeast Texas is to pick up Route 66 in Amarillo. I’d been on that road a number of times when I was a kid in the 1960s, and had great memories of such things as the long, straight highways through the desert, kitschy tourist attractions, motels, trading post souvenir shops and anything else likely to draw travelers off the road to spend a few bucks.

I’d briefly visited what is now known as the Mother Road in Vengeance is Mine the year before, but realized there was a lot about that highway that I wanted to use. So fourteen-year-old Pepper runs away and uses Route 66 as an escape route. Unfortunately, the youngster finds that fleeing the life she despises isn’t what she expected.

Once I finished the re-writes, I realized that this plotline was the foundation of the entire novel. I’m thankful for the suggestions from both my editors, Annette Rogers and Barbara Peters. They’re great at their jobs, and in turn, makes my work that much better.

MPS: Music plays a large part in your books, but Dark Places practically has its own soundtrack. Why is it important for the reader to know what was playing in the background?

RZW: Music plays a large part in my books because it plays a large part in our lives. We’re surrounded by music on a daily basis, on the radio, in movies, on television, in advertisements, our phones, iPods, satellite radio, and even appears when our local ice cream truck comes around the corner.

Think back. When you hear a song, it reminds you of a place, a person, an event, or a specific time in your life. Each person’s life has a personal soundtrack. Mine is varied, beginning with the Beatles and “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. Of course I remember songs that came earlier like “Wake Up Little Susie” by the Everly Brothers, and the early Elvis songs, but those Beatles songs yank me back to the early 60s when I heard them today, and that’s the period that started the Red River series.

Fourteen-year-old cousins Top and Pepper are like all kids in that era. The music was changing by 1968, the setting for Dark Places, evolving from earlier upbeat soda pop rock and roll to something more dark and revolutionary. The music defines the kids, as it helped define us. Top is still a fan of the early Beatles music, and comes to enjoy lighter rock and roll. Pepper is drawn to the edgy sounds, the new hard rock that’s the siren song for the San Francisco scene.

It’s my hope that when you run across the mention of a song in Dark Places, your own memories will give you a better sense of time and place in that chapter or setting.

MPS: What is the biggest effect the Sixties had on towns like Center Springs?

RZW: Small towns are microcosms of life in the United States. Tiny rural communities like Center Springs are even more distilled examples of our country. Those communities in the 1960s were mostly struggling to survive. Before WWII, this country was 80% rural and 20% urban. Today it is exactly opposite, and that much of that shift occurred in the Sixties. Many towns and communities were dying as the young people graduated from those rural schools and migrated to the cities, shrugging off their family’s way of life and going “where the money was.” I wish I had a nickel every time I heard someone say “there’s no money in pulling a cotton sack,” or “there ain’t no money in pumping gasoline,” or even, “the money is in Dallas.”

At the same time, the changing culture of the 1960s was pouring into our living rooms through static-filled black and white TVs. Each night we saw the daily body count from Vietnam. The news was filled with riots, sit-ins, the civil rights movement, war, drugs, and the counterculture movement. All that filtered in to communities all across this country and the old folks shook their heads and clucked while the kids steeped themselves in the counterculture and rock and roll, and drooled at the thought of changing that messed up world into a peaceful Utopian society. “Peace, man.”

Far out.

The Old Folks struggled to maintain their way of life, while the kids welcomed it with open arms. The times they are a changin’, whether good or bad, was the way of the 60s.

MPS: You introduce a new deputy, Anna Sloan. What did you want to add to the mix with this character?

RZW: People are surprised when I tell them I have no control over what happens in my books, and that lack of control extends to the appearance, and sometimes the disappearance of characters. I was honestly surprised when Deputy Anna Sloan arrived, because I have enough people to keep track of as it is. As Readers know, my books are full of minor characters that quickly come and go, slapping the story one way or another and them stepping offstage, so the last thing I needed was another person to deal with.

I quickly realized that my subconscious had been working overtime, though, and for a very good reason. Anna Sloan filled a hole that I didn’t know existed. Changes were everywhere in the 1960s, and women in law enforcement, especially in rural areas, were few and far between. Anna brought a fresh insight into the series, allowing us to see what women had to deal with. By 1968, the setting for Dark Places, women’s lib was in full swing. Anna chose to change the world in her way, not by burning her bra, but by working hard and proving that females had a place in law enforcement.

With that, Anna brought new issues to light, and allowed us to see how a woman operated in a particular set of circumstances. Where Constable Ned Parker, Sheriff Cody Parker, and John Washington tend to plow ahead and bull their way through a case, Anna is more detail oriented and she figures things out by following clues and leads that others might miss.

But it led her into a very dark place, and as a result someone had to cut off that bra she never thought of burning to save her life.

MPS: Another new character I like was Crow, a man with a mysterious agenda who helps Ned on Route 66. How do you make a character engaging when he’s that enigmatic?

RZW: That’s exactly what makes Crow engaging. He’s mysterious and difficult to interpret. The guy is an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Who is he? Why does he want to help Ned, someone he’s never met? One minute he’s a tough guy, and the next he’s a chick magnet. He looks like a hippie, but is far from a pacifist.

As the novel progresses, little tidbits of Crow’s life give the Reader new insights into the man. We don’t know how old he is, but he’s comfortable with the hippies. We know he’s Indian, an Oklahoma Choctaw, but he knows Route 66 like the back of his hand. When push comes to shove, he’s the guy you want on your side in a gunfight. Smooth, cool, he has John McClane’s (Diehard) toughness, Bret Maverick’s, and Martin Riggs (Lethal Weapon) charm.

All these questions and components draw the Reader into the mystery that is Crow and his role in the search for Pepper.

MPS: Can you hint at what you have in store for the Center Springs gang?

RZW: I’m nearly finished with the first draft of a manuscript titled Unraveled. The last two or three books in the Red River series began in rural northeast Texas, and Center Springs, and expanded as far west as California and as far south to Mexico. Unraveled goes back to the roots of this series, and like my first novel, The Rock Hole, the entire story remains in Lamar County. I think fans of my first book will enjoy this return to the original taproot of this series.


Reavis Z. Wortham joins us Monday, September 28th, at 7 PM here at BookPeople for a Lone Star Crime panel. He’ll be speaking and signing his latest novel alongside Ben Rehder and Bill Crider. You can find copies of Dark Places on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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