The High Stakes of Poetry and Crime Fiction: MysteryPeople Q&A with Erica Wright and Melissa Ginsburg

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Poetry and crime fiction? As a reader, they don’t seem to have much in common. And yet plenty of crime writers also happen to write, read, and recommend poetry. For National Poetry Month, that is, April, we reached out via email to a few of our favorite crime writers/poets for a fresh take on why the same mind might appreciate two such different genres.

In part two of this series, we sent along some questions to two crime writers also known for their poetry – Melissa Ginsburg and Erica Wright. The two also happen to be friends, brought together by their shared affinity for poetry and pulp. Originally from Houston, Melissa Ginsburg now teaches at the University of Mississippi and, like many of our favorite crime writers, lives in Oxford, Mississippi. She’s published a book of poetry, Dear Weather Ghostand a steamy noir set in Houston titled Sunset City. 

Erica Wright has a long list of publications and credentials – she’s the poetry editor at Guernica literary magazine, as well as one of their senior editors, and she’s written a whole host of poetry books, as well as two crime novels. Her latest work of poetry is All The Bayou Stories End With Drownedand she’s currently two books in to a private eye series set in New York City, featuring a wry, kick-ass heroine – the most recent is titled The Granite Moth.

Before I could figure out what to ask, I first brushed up on the overlap between crime writers and poets in this excellent piece by Janet Hutchings, the editor of Ellory Queen Mystery Magazine (EQMM). She mentions a strong connection between crime fiction and poetry going back to early crime writers such as Frederic Dannay, one of the founders of EQMM, as well as Dorothy Sayers, and also mentions a number of prominent poets interested in writing tales of suspense, including Dylan Thomas and Ogden Nash. I wondered what fascinates a poet about mysteries, or a mystery writer about poetry – the highbrow stature of poetry and the lowbrow status of mysteries seem diametrically opposed, at least to many readers.

 “…Poets and crime writers are working with the same raw materials—with confusion and uncertainty—but their approaches are different,” Erica Wright explains. “Poets are trying to live with chaos, and crime writers are trying to fix it.”

Erica Wright links the two via their shared preoccupation with order and chaos. “…Poets and crime writers are working with the same raw materials—with confusion and uncertainty—but their approaches are different,” she explains. “Poets are trying to live with chaos, and crime writers are trying to fix it.” Wright adds that the two genres are also united by intensity – “Both genres invite high stakes…That’s one of the things that first attracted me to mysteries. If you start with a murder, with the volume turned to 10, where do you go from there?”

Melissa Ginsburg agrees, but takes a different approach as to why. “Both mystery stories and poetry deal with intense emotional states, and they both function by withholding certain information. Crime stories do this to create suspense, to generate curiosity in the reader. My favorite crime writing withholds answers to obvious questions—who did the crime, how, and why?—and in the process of parsing out that information or searching for it, ends up depicting a world and characters that are as compelling as those answers might be. I think poetry can work in a similar way. By subverting or eschewing obvious answers, the poem creates an experience that is emotional, intellectual, and visceral all at once.” Mysteries have always been tied to their ability to surprise (in my own mind, anyway) but the more I thought about Melissa’s words, the more I realized that many a poem comes with a twist end, shifting the perspective of the reader in much the same way as a crime novel might. 

Confusion, chaos, uncertainty – all are hallmarks of the condition of modernity, and of the modern form. I got academic with my next observation –  it seems to me that poetry and detective stories were some of the earliest 20th century forms to fall under the spell of modernism, stripping back 19th century excess in favor of a minimalist ideal containing within it modern themes.

Erika expands on my theory with the gracious added details of someone who teaches this stuff: “Poets created or embraced a range of artistic movements, including Imagism and Surrealism. And later in the twentieth century, they were quick to write about political topics, most notably the Vietnam War. Crime fiction can’t really help but be political to a certain extent. I tell my students that the universal lies in the specific to help them avoid abstractions, and I do my best to apply that same advice myself. I don’t want to get on a soapbox when telling a (hopefully) entertaining story, but it would be equally short-sighted to pretend violence isn’t linked to social issues.”

“I’m drawn to concision in writing. I’m interested in fragments and startling juxtapositions. Noir takes as a starting point the idea that the world is broken, probably irreparably, which is certainly a tenet of Modernism.” – Melissa Ginsburg

Melissa adds, “my own poems and fiction are influenced by Modernist aesthetics. I’m drawn to concision in writing. I’m interested in fragments and startling juxtapositions. Noir takes as a starting point the idea that the world is broken, probably irreparably, which is certainly a tenet of Modernism.”

As a not-very-prolific poetry reader, I felt ill-prepared (although quite enthused) for the task at hand. The main similarity I’d noticed between the two was in my own reaction to the same themes in different forms. Fractured, chaotic, brutal, broken…those terms oft-applied to modernity’s malaise turn into compliments when describing poetry and crime fiction. Most of the poetry I’ve read falls under the category of “poetry of witness,” which is another way of saying poetry that’s as depressing as s**t, and those of you who follow the blog know that my taste in crime fiction could be described as Hobbseian.

I’m convinced that fiction is the best way to obliquely approach trauma – to understand an emotional truth, and incorporate it into previously existing knowledge to layer empathy into fact for a startling combination of beauty and brutality. I asked Ginsburg and Wright (both of whom are known for the sensuous beauty and dark themes of their poetry) what it was about  the spare prose of a detective novel or the stark imagery of a poem that serves so well to describe the indescribable.

Erica Wright highlights the power of a story to create empathy. For years, she opened her Composition classes by teaching a 1978 poem by Carolyn Forche, “The Colonel,” in which “she writes about a military officer in El Salvador showing off his bag full of human ears. He drops them on the dinner table, and Forché describes them as looking like dried peach halves…no student ever missed my question about what looked like dried peach halves.” Facts may fade, but our experience of the suffering of others gleaned from books remains. She continues, “Imagery has this power over us in way that statistics don’t. Similarly, a mystery about, say, a man serving time for a crime he didn’t commit—I’m reading Julia Dahl’s excellent Conviction right now—stays with us. We might forget the number of people who’ve been wrongly behind bars, but a well-told story sticks.”

“Both mystery stories and poetry deal with intense emotional states, and they both function by withholding certain information. Crime stories do this to create suspense, to generate curiosity in the reader. My favorite crime writing withholds answers to obvious questions—who did the crime, how, and why?—and in the process of parsing out that information or searching for it, ends up depicting a world and characters that are as compelling as those answers might be.” – Melissa Ginsburg

Crime fiction and poetry may draw similar reactions or share themes, but when it comes to crafting the two forms, according to Erica Wright, “I rarely write poetry and fiction on the same day or even the same week. The muscles are too different. When writing a poem, there’s a lot of getting up to pace or make tea as I debate “dust” versus “ash.” With prose, I make myself write for a set period of time, trusting that anything awful can be fixed later.”

I asked Melissa and Erica which comes first, the idea or the form. While Erica may not write poetry and prose on the same day, she says “Typically, both a new poem and a new chapter will start with an image for me. Or a line gets stuck in my head, and I worry it around for awhile until it becomes something I can use. I don’t work with an outline until about halfway through a novel when I want to clarify the timeline.” With poetry, Melissa starts with “a piece of language that gets stuck in my head. If it has sufficient strangeness or a compelling rhythm, I’ll build on it. The ideas and the form are secondary to the poetic line. Sometimes I will have an idea first, but if I can’t hear a line, then I’ll abandon the idea; there’s nothing there for me. When I write formal poetry and it works, it’s because the form—a sonnet or pantoum or whatever– has forced me to think differently, in lines that feel alive rather than describe or depict something outside themselves.”

Her response brought to mind the similarly restrictive form of the detective novel, murder mystery, thriller, or any other subgenre of crime fiction. My favorite category of crime fiction are those works that acknowledge the form and then get as creative as possible within that restrictive form. In poetry and crime fiction, just like with cover songs, constraint can inspire creativity – it takes extra skill to craft something familiar that also surprises.

For her crime fiction, Ginsburg finds inspiration outside of form – “With a crime novel, it begins with characters and relationships.” With her debut mystery, Sunset City, Melissa says she “was originally interested in the dynamics between Charlotte and her ex-best friend, but the book started to take shape in my mind when I began to think about Charlotte and Sally, her friend’s mother. I liked that they were drawn together reluctantly, that the things they needed from each other did not match up evenly. There seemed a lot of drama and heartbreak in that situation and I thought I could build a plot and a world around it. The novel I’m working on now also centers around mothers and daughters and relationships that are both loyal and difficult.”

Whether beginning with form or relationships, crime fiction and poetry both lend themselves to exploring the action with the static, the danger under the surface, the tension ripping our connections apart, the endless need that brings us together, and the general instability that characterizes anything that appears solid, down to the whirling electrons that are our building blocks of chaos.

But enough about modernity. Let’s talk about tradition. While Erica’s crime fiction (so far) is set firmly in New York City, when it comes to poetry, she says, “I draw pretty heavily on the Southern Gothic tradition. Gregory Pardlo first recommended that I read Flannery O’Connor, and that suggestion changed my approach to writing. Her stories felt like permission to consider small-town subjects. While I don’t dwell exclusively in that realm, I’m pulled to the strangeness of rural life in the United States, the violence that lives alongside poverty. The supernatural feels more possible when you get beyond a city’s constant hum of electricity. We lost power a lot growing up, and I remember reading by candlelight, wondering if the scratching at a window was animal, tree, or other. There’s a lot of natural beauty, as well, of course. It’s not all ghosts, guns, and opossums.”

Melissa also has a touch of the Southern Gothic in her poetry. She’ll “write short lyrics about what I see around me, what I see out my studio window or on walks. My poems are full of rural Mississippi images because that’s where I live…I use images to talk about emotional states or create landscapes” but she doesn’t use poetry to “depict big cultural ideas.” Her books are more thematic – “the setting is broader, more a depiction of culture and values as well as images.”

Erica’s mention of natural beauty, and Melissa’s no-nonsense approach to the beauty of her environment, leave me feeling a bit abashed at my simplistic focus on the violence of fiction. If my questions seem a bit leading, and therefore a bit limiting, it’s because I don’t like to read happy stories, and because an acknowledgement of suffering unites the two forms in my own mind. For those who write both crime fiction and poetry, the two forms may complement each other rather than directly mirroring each other, and a rural setting has as much potential for joy as suffering. Saying that, I would definitely read an anthology titled “Ghosts, Guns, and Opossums.” As a city girl originally from the soul-sucking suburbs (looking at you, Round Rock!), I’ve enjoyed nature when comfortably caged, but only embrace the wild via cultural products. I tend to read tales of alienation, long highways, and closed-off neighbors, rarely venturing into the small town settings so many crime writers have made their own.

“While I don’t dwell exclusively in that realm, I’m pulled to the strangeness of rural life in the United States, the violence that lives alongside poverty. The supernatural feels more possible when you get beyond a city’s constant hum of electricity. We lost power a lot growing up, and I remember reading by candlelight, wondering if the scratching at a window was animal, tree, or other.” – Erica Wright

I finished up my interview asking a question for those readers like me, shy of poetry and looking for those works which might please a crime writer. Melissa recommends “Alice Notley’s book-length poetry projects The Descent of Alette and Culture of One. They  have a quality of obsessiveness and intensity, and they read like novels. Cynthia Cruz’s poems are dark and full of dread and may appeal to noir fans.”

Erica has quite a few recommendations. “Sometimes I dream about a job where I meet with a poetry skeptic for an hour, then make recommendations. There are so many wonderful contemporary poets. And mystery aficionados are already such prolific readers—it’s a short leap to them being as enamored as I am of folks like Sarah Messer, W. S. Merwin, Ada Limón. My former classmate Camille Rankine’s debut collection, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, is great. I just read and definitely recommend Erika L. Sánchez’s Lessons on Expulsion. I’m looking forward to Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s new collection coming out this fall.”

For poetry readers looking for the gateway drug to crime fiction, Wright recommends “Sara Gran…[as] a good starter drug. Marisha Pessl’s two novels are incredible. Oh, and there are also other poets who write mysteries like Chris Abani and Melissa Ginsburg.” Its nice that she mentions Melissa, because I started reading Wright’s work based on Ginsburg’s recommendation. She ends her answer with her own question, to which I hope this article will be a small part of the response: “How do we make all the poets and mystery writers become friends?” 

 You can find works by Melissa Ginsburg on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

You can find works by Erica Wright on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Crime Fiction Friday: “I Love A Sunburnt Country” by Kieran Shea

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  • Selected and Introduced by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

For Kerian Shea, setting affects everything in a story. His latest novel is a caper novel in space, Off Rock, and he was this month’s Pulp of the Month short story winner on the site Beat To A Pulp with this tale of crime in the dirty down under.

I Love A Sunburnt Country” by Kieran Shea

“Standing on the porch of a vacant one-bedroom weatherboard, Nicky watches Pig rinse dark, orange earth from his hands.

“So, it’s shoulder-deep, then?”

Hunched over, Pig half hears Nicky’s question. He decides it’s not worth it to turn around and keeps washing his massive hands in the stream of water pissing from a plastic cistern set on iron stilts.”

Read the rest of the story.

Hard Boiled Poets: MysteryPeople Q&A with Ken Bruen, Peter Spiegelman and Reed Farrel Coleman

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Many may not see poetry in the hard boiled crime fiction genre created by the likes of Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, and Mickey Spillane. That said, many of today’s best writers in that field come of poetry. Both forms rely on style and word craft. With April being National Poetry Month, I contacted three of my favorite poet/novelists to explore the relationship between the two.

Reed Farrel Coleman’s two main series, featuring protagonists Moe Prager and Gus Murphy contain an emotional immediacy associated with poetry. He examines the facets of emotions in a crystal clear manner and his phrasing has a lyrical quality. “Meter is often overlooked, but the rhythm with which I write helps propel the reader forward. I don’t count out iambs, but I can hear the rhythm of my words in my head.”

Peter Spiegelman’s life as a poet appears to have always put him on the hunt for the perfect word. His writing is sharp with paragraphs that have the perfect conciseness of a poem’s stanza. When asked how poetry influenced his prose writing, he answered. “My interest in the sound of the sentences I write—how they strike the ear when they’re read aloud, their rhythms and cadences—certainly has its roots in writing poetry. So to my concern with language that is concise and that operates on several levels simultaneously—that carries plot forward even as it works to establish and enrich setting and character, and to define the “emotional weather” of the story.”

This can be seen in his series with Wall Street private investigator John March and his latest creation, Skid Row doctor and practitioner of expensive “house calls” to the rich and infamous, Dr. Knox.

It’s easy to see the poet in Ken Bruen’s work. His tight novels, the most famous featuring self destructive P.I. Jack Taylor. Ken plays with word placement, with half of a sentence dropping down to the next line. His creative phrasing creates a rat-a-tat-tat style that starts out pummeling, growing into a unique lyricism linking character and reader together for a fast trip down through Hell. ” Poetry taught me the art of brevity and never, never waste a word.”

I asked each author about the shared aspects of crime fiction and poetry. The commonality Reed found was in it’s diversity. ” Poetry isn’t one thing in the same way that crime fiction isn’t a monolithic entity. Ken Bruen, Peter Spiegelman and I all started out as poets, but our poetry is as different as our prose.”

Ken’s belief fit perfectly with his style of writing. “Crime and poetry share the blessing of immediacy. If done properly, they can leave a sense of quiet awe.”

“The poetry I love best has a lot in common with my favorite crime fiction.” Peter Spiegelman shared. “Both create palpable emotional atmospheres—often in an admixture of their settings and narrative voices. Both also can pivot on the telling detail—a scrap of description or dialogue, an startling image—beautiful or unsettling or both—that casts new light on a character, an action, a relationship, a back story, or that redefines these entirely. And so often both are devious things: misleading, secretive, withholding—guarding their epiphanies until the end.”

Both Ken and Peter thought Baudelaire would have made a good crime fiction author. Ken even wrote a novel titled Dispatching Baudelaire. “He would have been a savage almost Ellroy type of writer.”

When it comes to crime fiction writers who could have made great poets, both Reed and Peter agreed on Chandler, with Peter also citing Ross MacDonald. Ken mentioned contemporary Daniel Woodrell “…a poet on almost every single page of his work.”

When listing contemporaries, Peter Spiegelman brought it full circle like a craftsman poet. “Daniel Woodrell, Megan Abbott, and Reed Farrel Coleman.”

You can find works by Reed Farrel Coleman on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

You can find works by Ken Bruen on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

You can find works by Peter Spiegelman on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Shotgun Blast From the Past: THE LONG HAUL by A.I. Bezzerides

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  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

A.I. Bezzerides’ The Long Haul is a minor classic that should be considered a major one. It owes its status to the fact that the novel can be hard to define. Only technically does it fit the definition of a crime novel. When it comes to working class heroes, terse tone and style, and tight storytelling, The Long Haul gives the best of noir and hard boiled a rune for its money with a jaundiced view of depression-era capitalism.

“If you’re up for it, take this hard trip down a heartless highway.”

Bezzerides used the trucking industry he grew up in as a backdrop to his novel. The Benay Brothers Nick and Paul navigate their way through the one-step-forward-two (sometimes three)-steps-back life of produce truckers, fighting sleep deprivation, blown tires, break downs, and dangerous roads. Even worse, they have to contend with the wholesalers and grocers out to delay payment, under pay, or not pay at all. Nick, the hustler of the two, believes their bad luck can only go so long and they’ll catch a break. Fate and the greed of others puts that to the test.

The Benays’ world is perfectly and precisely described. The reader gets the raucous nature of the markets and the solitude of the highway. You can smell the rotting lettuce and taste the coffee, both hot and cold. Bezzerides’ terse style gives our minds just enough to conjure up everything we need to address the senses.

Bezzerides’ descriptions intensify our perception of Nick and Paul’s struggles. Heat bears down when Nick has to haul butter before it melts. Tension that feels like life and death is created when he has to drive an unlicensed truck. Bezzerides never lets us forget the possibility of a breakdown or a wreck.

The Long Haul takes you to the edge with two men hustling a buck in risky fashion, looking for a break in a capitalist jungle that gives few. If you’re up for it, take this hard trip down a heartless highway.

You can find copies of The Long Haul on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Q&A with Megan Miranda

Megan Miranda, best-selling author of All The Missing Girls, comes to BookPeople to speak and sign her latest tale of psychological suspense, The Perfect Stranger, on Thursday, April 20th, at 7 PM. Before her visit, we asked her a few questions about the book and her upcoming projects. 

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Molly Odintz: The Perfect Stranger, to wildly summarize, is a murder mystery about friendship and identity. What did you want to convey about the (sometimes loving, sometimes competitive) nature of female friendship? 

Megan Miranda: Well, I think every female friendship has their own nuances, but in this case, I wanted to explore the type of friendship that stems from a pivotal moment in someone’s life—and then becomes idealized, in a way, in their mind. I also wanted to explore how friendships can sometimes act as a mirror, where we only see who we are reflected in someone else’s impression of us. And that the flipside can be true as well: sometimes we see what we want to see in another, believing they are who we want or need them to be.

MO: I really enjoyed the casual treatment of male characters by female characters in the novel – I would love to see more depictions of the intense, late-night bonding between women following disappointing one-night-stands. The women in this book, whether friends or relatives, seem to have far more concern for the women in their lives than the men. Even though there are male characters that play important roles in the plot, they are ancillary to the women’s stories that make up the bulk of the novel. Did you set out to focus on a world of women, more encumbered than aided by men? What did you want to say about gendered community? 

MM: I did set out to focus this story around women, mostly because of Leah’s character. The people of importance in Leah’s life at that moment are, largely, a cast of women: Emmy, her sister, her mother, the colleague she most connects with. Meanwhile, men have been more transient throughout her life. Even her father has left and started a new life. So I think she’s biased to build her trust around women. These are the people in her life who can see below the surface of each other—or at least they think they do—because of their shared experiences. I think it’s these shared experiences (not necessarily reflecting gender) that ultimately create tight connections between the characters.

“…there are different ways to know someone, just as there are different ways to tell a story in order to get at the truth. I think it’s definitely possible to know someone without knowing their past, but as Leah realizes, the less you know, the more you may be complicit in creating a version of someone you think you know.”

MO: The Perfect Stranger goes to the heart of how well we can possibly know another. We can know someone’s scent, dreams, habits – all while knowing nothing of their life story. Is to know someone to know their physical presence, their minds, or their past? 

MM: Yes, I think that’s exactly the question, and…I’m still thinking about it! When I started writing this book, this was something very heavily on my mind. I think of a theme sort of like a question to explore—not necessarily that there’s an answer, but that there’s something worth digging deeper into. Which is what Leah has to do in this story. I’d say there are different ways to know someone, just as there are different ways to tell a story in order to get at the truth. I think it’s definitely possible to know someone without knowing their past, but as Leah realizes, the less you know, the more you may be complicit in creating a version of someone you think you know.

MO: The Perfect Stranger is full of manipulative masterminds. Without giving anything away, what did you want to explore about gaslighting? 

MM: There were a few different elements on my mind here. One was to wonder if someone could become so focused on their own goals that they were blinded to what they were doing, and who they were becoming. And then on the other side, I was interested in how difficult it could be not only to recognize that this was happening to you, but also to let yourself believe it. And then, even more so—to prove it.

MO: Like quite a few writers in the mystery section, you’ve plenty of experience with other genres – how did it feel to transition from writing YA to writing crime fiction? 

MM: Honestly, the shift from YA to crime fiction felt like a natural progression, especially because my YA books were in a similar genre. My YA stories center on these big events that happen when the characters are 16 or 17 years old, and a lot of the writing process for those books involved me looking back at that time of my life in hindsight. When I wrote All the Missing Girls, the narrator was doing much the same: peering back at this big event that happened when she was 18, trying to see it with more clarity, in hindsight. It felt like taking a journey together.

“What are the moments that turn what we think we know on its head? It’s rarely one big twist, but lots of little shifts that reposition the pieces, so what you thought you were working toward at the start may not be the end picture at all.”

MO: Both All The Missing Girls and The Perfect Stranger have received praise for their fiendish plotting. What is your advice to mystery writers for how to really blow the minds of their readers? 

MM: For me, plotting is something that develops as I get to know the characters. It’s actually the element I tend to approach last, because the story has to feel authentic for the people and place and backstory first. I usually start with character, a theme, a setting, and start writing. For the mystery itself, I think of the beginning sections as discovering the puzzle pieces. And then the goal is to create the overall puzzle. I do try to think of the major turning points. What are the moments that turn what we think we know on its head? It’s rarely one big twist, but lots of little shifts that reposition the pieces, so what you thought you were working toward at the start may not be the end picture at all.

MO: The characters in The Perfect Stranger have porous, unstable identities, sometimes bleeding into each other, feeding off each other, or transforming those surrounding. The title itself connotes a complete unknown – a perfect stranger – or the exact right kind of stranger, perfect for a purpose. What did you want to say about identity? Can we claim a solid foundation to our knowledge and opinions, or are we more defined by those who think they know us best?

MM: I love this question because this is something I was also thinking about a lot when I started, and also something I thought about in All the Missing Girls as well: How maybe we can be defined more by how others see us than by how we see ourselves. On that same note, I think we can also become different people for different friends, and our identity can shift from relationship to relationship.

I wonder sometimes how much of our identity arises from just ourselves, in a vacuum. Can we be the “perfect” stranger for someone else? Or, are we in fact “a perfect stranger,” always. A chameleon of sorts. Honestly, even after writing this book, I’m still not sure.

MO: What is your next project? Will you continue with the crime genre? (I certainly hope so!)

MM: Yes, I’m working on my next psychological suspense! I can’t say too much about it yet, as it’s still a work in progress. But it has two points of view on the events leading up to and surrounding a crime—with two different suspects. I’m really enjoying writing it!

You can find copies of The Perfect Stranger on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Megan Miranda joins us Thursday, April 20th, at 7 PM, to speak and sign her latest.

MysteryPeople Review: MISSISSIPPI BLOOD by Greg Iles

Greg Iles comes to BookPeople to speak and sign Mississippi Bloodthe concluding volume to his epic Natchez Trilogy, tomorrow, Tuesday, April 18th at 7 PM. Our reviewer Meike Alana has followed the series since its inception, and below you’ll find her take on Iles’ latest. 

  • Review by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

9780062311153It’s finally here—the riveting conclusion to Greg Iles’ Natchez trilogy featuring Penn Cage!  (For a quick refresher on the series, please see the overview prepared by BookPeople’s fantastic blogger Molly Odintz, aka “Mystery Molly”).

In Natchez Burning, revered town physician Dr. Tom Cage is arrested and accused of murdering his former nurse Viola Turner.  Her son believes it was a racially motivated killing, but circumstances indicate it may have been an assisted suicide.  A young reporter uncovers some new leads which suggest links between Viola and the Double Eagles, widely feared and regarded as the most hateful racist group in the state.  Iles unfolds details of the story slowly throughout the first novel and its follow-up, The Bone Tree. 

In Mississippi Blood, Dr. Cage’s trial has begun.  His son Penn continues to search for clues that could clear his father’s name, yet Tom somehow seems determined to end up in prison—even going as far as to remove his son from his counsel team.  As testimony reveals increasingly disturbing details about the past and the relationship between Tom and Viola, long-held secrets become known that threaten the safety of the Cage family as well as the Double Eagles—and the latter won’t hesitate to continue killing to keep the past hidden.

As the trial unfolds, each character relates his or her version of events.  The stories are the same, but the interpretations vary based on each individual’s unique background and experience.  What is the truth, after all, but our own perception of reality?  Rarely has a courtroom drama been as complex and riveting as Iles’ examination of Tom’s actions and culpability in the suffering and death of his former nurse.  As the novel reveals what really happened the night Viola Turner died, the reader is challenged to view issues of guilt and conscience in new and unsettling ways.

Come by the store Tuesday, April 18th, at 7 PM, to hear Greg Iles speak and sign the stunning conclusion to his Natchez trilogy. You can find copies of Mississippi Blood on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Jerry Thompson and Eddie Muller, editors of OAKLAND NOIR

The latest city to get in Akashic’s sights is that tough city by the bay. In Oakland Noir, Jerry Thompson and Eddie Muller have gotten a cadre of authors that reflect the diversity of both the city and the genre. Eddie also contributed a story dealing with one complicated land lady. Both editors were kind enough to do an interview with us.

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

MysteryPeople Scott: What unique quality does Oakland bring to noir?

Jerry Thompson: Oakland is a city with eyes, fingers and a rich memory of events that created some of the most legendary characters in fiction, film.

Eddie Muller: I grew up with an image of Oakland as the most noir city in the world—by which I mean black. African-American. Which was supposed to scare us white folks. After living here for more than 25 years I now see what BS that was, and still is. Sure, scary shit goes on here—but most of it happens inside gangs and on the police force. I’m more wary of City Hall right now than a rough corner of West Oakland.

It’s funny: We got a great review in Kirkus and a so-so review in Publisher’s Weekly. And guess what? Kirkus dug the fact that the stories showed the cultural diversity of the city and offered some surprises—while PW bemoaned the fact that the stories weren’t really all “noir” and there was a lot less crime in them than expected. Somebody was working off some pre-conceived ideas …

“The plan of attack came out of a need to make sure we stayed authentic to the city of Oakland,  Her voice, her silences, her drumming…her shadows.”

MPS: Was there a plan of attack for choosing the authors?

EM: I was only interested in participating in this project if the lineup of authors reflected the actual demographics of the city. The last thing I wanted was to cater to a bunch of self-proclaimed “noir” writers from the outside feeding off a notion that Oakland was a violent, crime-ridden city. Jerry knew the local authors better than I; he had a better sense for achieving that right mix. In large part, Jerry was the “acquiring editor” on the project; I worked more on honing the stories.

JT: The plan of attack came out of a need to make sure we stayed authentic to the city of Oakland,  Her voice, her silences, her drumming…her shadows.  I  started with my phone book. Scouring every page for authors I had introduced, hosted, and worked with over the past 27 years.  Each writer had to live in Oakland or near by, and they had to be in touch with aspects of Oakland’s political, racial, sexual and literary history.  Of course the first names we thought of were legendary writers like Gary Soto, Nichelle Tramble, and Ishmeal Reed,  who I corresponded with from time to time.  He and I would chat when we saw each other on Grand Avenue by Lake Merritt on Sunday afternoons.   He was gracious and encouraging, and happy to listen to the ideas I had about the book but was too busy to come on board as contributor or co- editor, to fine tune to stories.   Eddie and I knew Oakland Noir  first and foremost had to represent the racially mixed community.    We really lucked out with the choices we made.

MPS: What drew you to your story, Eddie?

EM: There are bits of my own life in there—as I’m sure there are for all the authors in this collection. For me, writing “noir” is largely about examining things in your life when a different choice here or there, an exertion of pressure, internal or external, can push you over the edge into darkness, and perhaps tragedy. For me the essential ingredient in noir is empathy. I wanted to write a short story that logically and convincingly followed a character from the prospect of happiness to the pit of despair, while touching on some social issues of the past 25 years that have put many people on that course. I noticed recently, looking back on the fiction I’ve written, that I never write “villains.” Everybody’s got a reason.

MPS: What is the biggest misconception about the city?

JT: The biggest misconception about the city is that it’s chocking with violence and back biting.  I write in the introduction for instance that Oakland is a city that holds a grudge… that’s a misconception because in reality it’s a small town where people know each other somewhat intimately, especially in the black communities.

EM: I don’t know about misconceptions, because I don’t pay much attention to what the media is selling these days. But I do believe that Oakland suffers—on the national stage—from being judged by the expectations that are applied to other more glamorous cities. This is a working person’s town. I hate that it gets looked down on by the elites—just look at what’s happening with the sports franchises here: the Raiders want to move to Las Vegas, the A’s want to move to San Jose, and the Warriors are moving to San Francisco. This after the Oakland fans for years have given these teams nothing but undying loyalty and rabid support. And the owners just spit in their faces and say “It’s just business.” Bullshit. If owners expect loyalty from fans, it should cut both ways.

“Oakland has always been San Francisco’s ugly kid sister. But that’s a very shallow media perception—which is the specialty of our very shallow media.”

MPS: How do you see its relationship with San Francisco?

JT: When I was called to the east bay I felt as if Oakland was looked upon like the folks who lived across the tracks ya know, there was nothing really going on in Oakland except for crimes being committed, people struggle or just getting by.   These days, it’s  like the new frontier, for all the people who have been squeezed out of SF because of the tech industry pioneers and trust fund brats.

EM: As I just suggested, Oakland is like a dog who stays loyal even though it’s kicked in the head routinely. So don’t be surprised when that dog finally bites back. Oakland has always been San Francisco’s ugly kid sister. But that’s a very shallow media perception—which is the specialty of our very shallow media. These days, San Francisco is obsessed with selling its soul to the highest bidder. My hometown is like a whore who’s doing so well she sells herself only to the highest-paying clients, who all look and act alike. Oakland, by contrast, is the woman you make a life with. She may be a businesswoman, a nurse, an artist—she’s a lot of things, and she’s tough.

MPS: What do you think the biggest misconception of noir is?

EM: That it’s violent. At least that’s the perception that bothers me the most. That noir means lots of gunplay and high body counts. Not my noir. I’m into it for the psychological and sociological aspects. Why do people hurt themselves and the people around them? That’s really at the root of every crime story, and lots of crime and mystery fiction exploits that fact very superficially—noir isn’t afraid to explore it.

JT: I feel the biggest misconception of noir is that it’s limited to a specific time, like the 40’s and 50’s.  Exclusively white gangster types and red headed bad girls strapping blades between their thighs…  Not a bad misconception but somewhat narrow.  One immediately thinks of the way films captured noir with pictures like Maltese Falcon, and Don’t Bother to Knock. We are refreshed to know that noir also includes the amazing worlds of Chester Himes, Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim…  Wonderful extremes.

You can find copies of Oakland Noir on our shelves and via bookpeople.com