We’re happy to be hosting Terry Shames tomorrow, January 24th, at 7 PM, right here at BookPeople, for a panel discussion on small town crime fiction with Melissa Lenhardt and James W. Ziskin. Her latest, An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock, looks into the earlier days of the central Texas police chief. Meike Alana was able to ask Terry a few questions before the event.
- Interview by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana
Meike Alana: An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock takes us back to Samuel’s earliest days in law enforcement. What made you feel it was time for a prequel?
Terry Shames: After my first book, A Killing at Cotton Hill, came out, my editor said he would like me to write a prequel. I loved the idea, but I already had several current stories in mind, so I put it on the back burner. Eventually I had enough Craddock books published so that people knew Craddock and were invested in him, so it seemed like the right time for the prequel. I knew all along that I wanted to explore how Samuel became the kind of man he is in the later stories, a man of integrity and responsibility, with compassion and a strong sense of ethics. And I also knew the true story that I was going to base the book on.
MA: When your series debuted Samuel was an aging widower, and fans of the series know of the deep love and admiration he had for his late wife Jeanne. In this novel, we get to witness their relationship in its earliest formative period. Was Jeanne as a character already fully formed in your imagination, and was this a chance for the reader to get to know her too? Or was the novel an opportunity for you to explore and discover what Jeanne was really like?
TS: I always knew that Jeanne was not the person the readers saw in the first novels through Samuel’s eyes. He was grieving, and as many people do when they are in the first stages of grief, he made her into something of a saint. I knew that as the books progressed he would start to remember her more clearly. When I tackled the sequel, I knew there would be some things about the young Jeanne that might surprise people. It may even upset some readers who thought they knew her. You have to understand I actually see my characters as real people. If they didn’t have some negatives traits, they would be boring. And as a writer, I feel strongly that sometimes you have to surprise readers with a little dose of reality.
MA: Samuel initially takes the job as police chief thinking it will an easy gig; right away he’s confronted with a multiple murder, drug dealing, and corruption—all while dealing with family drama surrounding his brother. Without giving anything away, can you tell us about how these contribute to Samuel’s character development?
TS: Samuel did not have an easy upbringing, and that could have made him a bitter and irrational person. But he stepped out of that life and went into the Air Force and on to college. Both are institutions that take over of a lot of the choices people have to make while they grow into adults. In a way they are protected from the outside world because there are strict rules that have to be followed if you are going to succeed. When Samuel comes back to Jarrett Creek, he is a different young man than the one who left. He hasn’t decided what he’ll do with himself, and in fact his choices are limited in a small town.
When the job of chief of police is offered to him, he thinks it will be easy—after all how much can a small town of 3,000 people get up to? It turns out they can get up to the same things people get up to in cities. When a horrendous murder is committed in his town, he is not actually responsible for the investigation. State law enforcement agencies are responsible for that. Only when he realizes that the person who in charge is going to do a shoddy job does he confront himself with his choice—will he be a man of character who pursues the true guilty party, or will he let it slide? To force the issue, I conjured up a reporter who is ten years older and who is fiercely dedicated to reporting the truth. She challenges Craddock, and it moves him ever closer to his crisis. I loved this part. It says so much about people and circumstances.
MA: In the titular unsettling crime, a local black man is arrested for murder and Samuel is certain that he’s been wrongfully accused. Knowing that the law works differently for black men, he goes to grea lengths to clear the man’s name despite receiving threats. The racial themes resonate even (or maybe especially) today. What was your inspiration for tackling such a difficult and complex topic?
TS: I grew up in Texas at a time when racial prejudice was rampant. But I grew up with high regard for my grandfather, who once said, “I don’t care what color a man is. If he can work alongside me, he’s okay by me.” That made a great impression on me. I know that Texas has gotten much better at racial inclusion, but there’s still a lot of racism and bigotry alive and well. Not just in Texas, but all over the United States. I really think that as a serious writer, it is up to me to explore these issues. You say it’s difficult and complex, but in reality, Samuel has a core of decency that made the book easier to write than you might think. When decent people take it on themselves to confront a corrupt system, things can be rectified.
“I think for many of us the place where we grew up is deeply embedded. I do return to the town where these books are set and I always have a strong sense of homecoming. The smells peculiar to the town; the taste of the water; the sights of pickup trucks and gravel and the railroad tracks and the vegetation; the sounds of people’s accents are all familiar.”
MA: Which character from Samuel’s past was your favorite to explore?
TS: I enjoyed trotting out Samuel’s mother. I hoped she would not become a caricature. I have actually known people like that who never seem to be able to say a kind word and who live with resentment and bitter judgment. It might have been interesting to explore why she is the way she is, but this story was not hers.
MA: “Terry” is one of those names that could be masculine, and when I started your series I was quite certain it was written by a man living in Texas. I was pretty surprised to learn you are actually a lady living in (of all places) California. I know you spent your younger years in Texas, but you write so convincingly about a place that isn’t actually still your home. Do you write just from memory? Do you make frequent research trips to Texas?
TS: I think for many of us the place where we grew up is deeply embedded. I do return to the town where these books are set and I always have a strong sense of homecoming. The smells peculiar to the town; the taste of the water; the sights of pickup trucks and gravel and the railroad tracks and the vegetation; the sounds of people’s accents are all familiar. That said, Jarrett Creek is really a town that lives in my head. I first wrote about it in the 80s when I wrote some short stories set there. The town in my head bears a lot of resemblance to the real one, but there are also “convenient” differences. For example, in the book I’m working on now I’ve erected a whole line of homes near the lake that don’t actually exist. That’s the value of not sticking to reality.
MA: Can you tell us what you’re working on next?
TS: I’m working on the next novel in the series, set in current time. It has a very dark core. I usually like to add humor into the books, but his one is going to take some work to put in light moments. The last Craddock book I wrote was a prequel, so I haven’t written about Samuel Craddock in current times for two years! I found it hard slogging to get back to things as they are now. I keep wanting to refer to people that were in the prequel, but they aren’t part of the story anymore. It wasn’t a problem I envisioned, and it’s slowly subsiding. The book is called A Reckoning in the Back Country. I’m interested when certain words crop up in book titles. Only after I had settled on the title did I hear of another book with the word “Reckoning” in the title, Louise Penny’s current book. It gives me a chill to think of that word roiling through the current zeitgest and cropping up in titles.
You can find copies of An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Terry Shames comes to BookPeople to speak and sign her latest on Tuesday, January 24th, at 7 PM. She’ll be joined by James W. Ziskin and Melissa Lenhardt, fellow masters of the small-town mystery.