MysteryPeople Double Feature: RAGE IN HARLEM by Chester Himes

MysteryPeople Partners with Authors & Auteurs for Return to Normal: A 50s Film Noir Film Series

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

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For the past few years, MysteryPeople has highlighted some of our favorite noir cinema based on crime fiction, with discussions following each screening to discuss the book and film. This year, MysteryPeople’s Double Feature film series is partnering with the Author & Auteurs Book Club for a summer of films highlighting the injustices and rot beneath the glamorous veneer of 1950s America. We’re kicking it off with a screening of A Rage In Harlem, Chester Himes’ seminal 1957 crime novel adapted into director Bill Duke’s 1991 movie, this Sunday, June 4, at 2 PM. In some ways the relationship between book and film contradicts the usual film adaptation.

A Rage In Harlem is not only a rollicking, tight, fast moving crime novel, it is a densely packed look at life and culture of the neighborhood in the title. The story follows a somewhat innocent mortician, Jackson, who loses his money and woman, Imabelle, who could easily be part of the scam. To get her back, he enlists his hustler brother Goldie. Their search maneuvers through neighborhoods and cat houses, and past preachers, hotel bell boys, gamblers, and carousers, and connects the brothers to a trunk full of treasure some bad men from Mississippi, Harlem crime boss Easy Money, and hard ass cops Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson (who become the series leads in later Himes novels) are all after.

The film does its best to capture the book. Bill Dike worked with cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita, production designer Steve Legler, and costume designer Nele Samples deliver a Harlem of bright, mostly primary colors. Forrest Whitaker and Gregory Hines play Jackson and Goldie with the broad style of the story, while making them human. Robin Givens goes an underrated turn as Imabelle, that keeps you guessing of her intentions. To capture the absurdity of Chester Himes’ work, several of the supporting characters are played by comic actors.

This is the rare occurrence where the film augments the story of the novel instead of condensing it. Himes’ tight plotting allowed for some explanation of the back story.  The film opens with an intense shootout where we learn about what happened with that trunk in Mississippi. The story is given more heart as we see how Jackson and Imabelle got together.

It is odd to discover that the book from 1957 is raunchier and more violent than a 1991 film. The adaptation proves to be a colorful look at the past, made from a novel that took a detailed look at Himes’ present. The social, political, and racial themes are less overt. The adaptation creates some disconnect, but it is still entertaining.

Double Feature Stats:

Adherence To Plot Of The Book: 4.4 out of 5

Adherence To Quality Of The Book: 3 out of 5

Further Reading: Black Orchid Blues by Persia Walker, Fearless Jones by Walter Mosely, more Chester Himes

Further Viewing: Devil In A Blue Dress, Shaft, Hoodlum

Fun Facts: Roger Ebert viewed an early cut of the film that was muddled, giving it a thumbs down on At The Movies, but after seeing the minute-shorter release version gave it a recommend print review.

The book was first published in France with the title Queen Of Fools.

You can find copies of A Rage In Harlem on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. The Authors and Auteurs Book Club will meet on Sunday, June 4th, starting at 2 PM, to screen the film adaptation of Himes’ classic work.

Film screenings for the Authors and Auteurs Book Club occur on the first Sunday of each month and are free and open to the public. Film screenings will be followed by discussion of the book versus the film. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Lori Rader Day

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Lori Rader-Day first appeared on our radar with her first crime novel, The Black Houra wicked tale of murder in academia that pleased every member of the 7% Solution Book Club when discussed. Her second foray into the genre, Little Pretty Things, takes us into a high school reunion from hell as a former student athlete investigates the murder of her recently returned frenemy, and won the Mary Higgins Clark Award.

In her third crime novel, The Day I Dieda handwriting expert with secrets to hide is recruited to analyze the ransom note left behind after a toddler’s disappearance. Soon, her son’s investigation into his own past and budding teenage rebellion will put this handwriting analyst on a collision course with her own past, leading to a denouement with a surprising amount of both action and heart. The Day I Died is an IndieNext pick for May and Lori Rader-Day will be here at the store to speak and sign her latest this Wednesday, May 31st at 7 PM. 


Molly Odintz: When I first picked up your writing, your voice, more than any plot point, was what initially drew me in. Your books explore ordinary settings in the most hard-boiled of language – did you set out to contrast the banality of the ordinary with the darkness that lurks within?

Lori Rader Day: I set out to tell a story and entertain myself. I never thought of my language as “hard-boiled.” That’s fun. But I do enjoy ordinary settings—Midwestern settings—being tainted by violence. Darkness within that leaks out into bad decisions and bad deeds.

I see what you mean about the hard-boiled language now.

MO: I’ve read a series of books recently exploring the instability of female identity and the dynamics between female friends – you go beyond the Bechdel Test in your latest to use a mystery to investigate one woman’s relationship, not with other women, but with herself at different stages. What did you want to explore about our changeable natures?

LRD: You are giving me a lot of credit here, but I like your interpretation. I wanted to write about a person willing herself into another identity—a strong woman character, we call them, right? But she’s so strong and so good at separating herself from the path she’d been on that there’s nothing in front of her. The future is wide open but by that, I mean it’s empty. I wanted to write about a character who is strong enough to survive the worst and then also doubt her choice.

MO: Atmospheric setting plays an important part in The Day I Died – which came first, the setting or the story? How did the setting influence the story (or vise versa)?

LRD: The story came first, because this story started as a short story. Thirty pages, forty. And then when one of my writing instructors told me it was a novel instead of a short story, I had to figure out what the story would be beyond the ending of the short version. For a long time, I didn’t know the setting would be so crucial to the plot. I know at one point I was shopping around for a location to set Anna’s hometown but then realized I knew exactly where it should be. I based the town on a place I had been vacationing for years in north Wisconsin, way up where it’s easy to disappear, which fed me all kinds of ideas about how Anna would feel about her home and about not being there.

MO: The Day I Died is certainly a mystery, but it’s also a book about motherhood, and the extremes to which one will go to protect one’s child (or someone else’s child). With May the month of Mother’s Day, what did you want to say about parenthood with your latest?

LRD: I’m in awe of people who become parents and take it seriously, like my friends and my sister. I’m no one’s mother. I have a dog. I started writing this story ten years ago, so maybe I was exploring the what-if of parenthood that I was not choosing.  Probably more likely, I was looking around at what my friends were choosing, and thinking what-if… that’s how the writer-brain works. You write what you know but you write what you don’t know, too.

MO: Without giving away anything about the ending, it seems like the theme of the story is personal change. Your main character has transformed her identity before, but the act of running has, in a way, restricted her identity into a mere alias, while those characters the reader expects to be frozen in time have actually changed significantly over time. To ask the broadest question possible, can any of us really change?

LRD: I think we can, in some ways. Just as a for-instance, I used to be very shy. I would have done anything to avoid public speaking. At one point I had given up writing for five years, just by letting time pass me by. And now my daily life is that I write fiction and then go talk to strangers about it.

In the book, I was careful (I hope) to leave some of these calls up to the reader. Anna doesn’t make these judgments, either, but she makes room for the judgments to be made.

MO: Your main character has an intriguing profession – why a handwriting expert, and what kind of research did you do to prepare your character for the role? Should I be glad I’m typing these questions to you rather than hand-writing them?

LRD: Back in 2007 when I was in my master of fine arts program in creative writing, I went to the library to troll for story ideas and came out with a book about handwriting. So handwriting was the origin of the entire story, and the character and everything else came after. I read that book and did some online research. Since the book was written, I’ve had the chance to talk to a handwriting specialist—who says I got it right, good news—but I never took any classes in the subject or anything. I feel like I’m disappointing people when I admit this. So you can send me a handwritten note and I won’t analyze it—I don’t know how.  

I can tell you that when I was deep in the middle of the research, my own handwriting suffered a bit. It sometimes still happens that I’ll be writing something and, mid-word, will get self-conscious and muff whatever I’m writing. Sometimes it’s my own signature.

MO: I’ve followed your crime fiction for a few years now, and I’ve watched your name become increasingly prominent. What did it feel like to win the Mary Higgins Clark award for Little Pretty Things?

LRD: It was amazing, of course, to stand on the Edgars stage accepting an award (the first year the Mary Higgins Clark was given out at the Edgar Awards). I was especially humbled because I had read all the nominated books. Reading Mary Higgins Clark books was part of my writer’s education growing up, so it was extra special to me for that reason.

MO: Your main character has suffered in her past, and in ways that (if I interpret the novel correctly) were known to her small town, yet her neighbors failed to provide her with assistance in confronting the brutality in her life. What did you want to explore about small town violence, and secrets that aren’t really secrets?

LRD: I’m really interested in small towns, having grown up in a few, but also small communities of any making, how they operate, how they break down. If violence and tragedy can bring out the best in us, it can also bring out the worst, or at least cause us to freeze and withdraw into the isolation that’s so easy out in the country. Oh, sure, we’ll have opinions, but we might not voice them, because we’ll have to live with the fall-out. So…isolation or making nice. That’s the Midwestern way, anyway. Maybe Texas does it differently.

MO: You can start to see the main character’s tattered past in the ways she reacts to the present, even before the reader is given concrete details about the character’s past – her stunted reaction to the kidnapping of a young child, and potential sympathy for the kidnapper, immediately makes her a more interesting character (to me, anyway). Which came to you first, the present-day kidnapping or the character’s backstory?

LRD: I started writing this story as a short story in 2007, so forgive me if the details of construction are a little hazy. I know I started with the handwriting and then gave that job to the character, but I think Anna’s backstory developed alongside her present self simultaneously. I enjoy ironies and parallels in my characters, so when I decided the story would be about a kidnapping, I went searching for ways that Anna might have encountered kidnapping before. I probably chose her backstory from there because it was the most complex. Writers like to give ourselves interesting assignments; I gave myself such a difficult assignment, in fact, that I had to put the book away and let my skills develop for eight years before I could write it the way I imagined it. And now I’ve given away all my writing secrets.

You can find copies of The Day I Died on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Lori Rader Day comes to BookPeople to speak and sign her latest on Wednesday, May 31st, starting at 7 PM. 

A (Partial) Atlas of Texas Crime Fiction

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

A hard land with a difficult history, Texas has always lent itself well to crime fiction. From the crime fiction greats who helped define the genre to those writers shaping the landscape of crime fiction today, Texas has a long tradition of social critiques and sendoffs of hypocrisy (the hallmarks of Texas crime fiction, in my opinion) delivered via murder mystery. Tales of Texas history may gaslight their audiences into believing in the state as a land of triumph, but we crime fiction readers know the dark, murderous truth about the land we call home….

Below, you’ll find an incomplete (of necessity) guide to Texas crime fiction, brought to y’all in honor of Texas Mystery Writers Month (that is, May). Emphasis is placed on well-known classic writers and the wide array of new crime fiction released in the past few years. We know we’re leaving out quite a few of the Texas mystery writer greats, and many of the good one-off novels. Some have gone out of print; others have simply dropped off our radar as we find new voices to champion.

(Nearly) all of the books cited in this piece are available on BookPeople’s shelves, and all are available for special order via BookPeople’s website. Here’s a link to a resource guide to Texas cozies (woefully neglected in this piece, and we do apologize). Stop, You’re Killing Me! has an impressively thorough guide to Texas mysteries.  The Whitliff Collection has also put together an excellent resource guide to Texas mysteries as part of their Southwestern Writers Collection – you can view a pdf bibliography of Lone Star Sleuths here.

As a Texas Monthly article pointed out in this piece from 2013, Patricia Highsmith once lived in Dallas, a setting defined by capital-S Society, and made her career as the Henry James of pulp fiction, stripping back the beautiful veneers of characters to get to the rotten motivations and churning anxieties of the 1950s. Jim Thompson used his cheerful killers and sadistic sheriffs to critique the racial divides of the South, and in The Killer Inside Me, even has us cheering on his equal opportunity killers, as they forgo bigotry in favor of a more universally-minded corruption. Rick Riordan in the 80s and 90s helped define a city-based Texas crime fiction for a new era of start-ups and Californians, starting with Big Red Tequila, while Kinky Friedman’s hilarious and idiosyncratic Hill-Country-set detective novels helped define the rural romps that have complemented Thompson’s brutally dark portraits of East Texas.

These are the two main threads of Texas crime fiction still today – tales of the city and the hypocrisy beneath its polite surface, and stories of small town secrets, where no matter how much prejudice is visible on the surface, there’s always more hidden beneath. Joe R. Lansdale continues Thompson’s mantle (with added horror and humor) in his Hap & Leonard series, as well as his stand-alone novels The Thicket and Sunset & Sawdustpreserving the beauty of East Texas speech and nature while not shying away from the crass, casual brutality of East Texas lives, all while pointing out the absurdities of his setting and his characters.

Melissa Lenhardt’s Jack McBride series take place in similar territory, but in a much different context. Set in the fictional East Texas town of Stillwater, the series was inspired by a talk Lenhardt heard about Texas civic history comparing two towns over time. “One town was a boom and bust town, whose fortunes relied on the success of the latest industry, usually oil and gas. The other town focused on steadier, slower growth. They never got so caught up in the boom that they neglected to nurture other aspects of their economy,” she explained to us in an interview earlier this year. Her novel’s criminal kingpin ” likes the boom and bust model because he’s gotten rich from it either way. When people are doing well, they use his legitimate businesses. When things are going poorly, his illegal business is there to make people feel better.” Meanwhile, her more civically minded characters understand that “the boom and bust path isn’t sustainable, especially when young people are leaving, instead of moving in.”

Speaking of boom towns, Houston’s the happening place for several recent crime novels, each adding another layer to our understanding of sin in the sunset city. The oil towns of Houston and Beaumont provide particularly rich settings for crime fiction – Southern power dynamics come up against energy politics, inspiring tales of corruption and alienation, set in boardrooms, back rooms, highways and highrises.

Attica Locke, of Empire fame, has written two novels, Black Water Rising and Pleasantvillefollowing lawyer Jay Porter as he fights for civil rights, uncovers vast political conspiracies, and solves quite a few murders. Her highly anticipated upcoming novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, is due out in September.  Melissa Ginsberg explores alienation and jealousy on the Houston highways in her sultry debut, Sunset CityAmy Gentry uses the Houston suburbs as the perfect setting to explore instability of identity in her debuGood As Gonedetailing the fallout caused by a kidnapping victim’s return home after many years.

Over in Beaumont, Lisa Sandlin turned the PI formula on its head with her novel The Do-Right, featuring a naive private detective assisted by a world-weary secretary. Nic Pizzolatto, of True Detective fame, takes us on the run from New Orleans to Galveston in the violent and aptly named Galvestonwhile the writing trio Miles Arceneaux ventures up and down the Gulf Coast and back and forth in time in their salty tales.

The Hill Country is defined by the subgenres of fish-out-of-water tales and humerous stories continuing Kinky Friedman’s legacy. Austin music legend Jesse Sublett’s bass-playing, skip-tracing sleuth Martin Fender took the musician mystery to dark places and new heights in three now classic tales, while his most recent foray into crime writing explores the outrageous antics of the Overton Brothers, real-life football players-turned-robbers, in 1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime That Rocked The Capital. 

Terry Shames’ Samuel Craddock mysteries explore small-town central Texas secrets, drawing occasional inspiration from the Texas of Shames’ childhood but containing a set of intertwined mysteries all its own. Samuel Craddock, Shames has said, is based on her own grandfather, a trusted problem-solver in his town even after giving up the mantle of legal authority.

George Wier’s charming and humerous small town novels – his website describes his works as a “Texas take on pulp adventure,” and we couldn’t agree more. Helen Curry-Foster’s Hill-Country-set Alice MacDonald Greer novels draw upon the author’s career as an environmental lawyer for a series sure to please all who appreciate the beauty of Central Texas, and the quirky figures that live there. Ben Rehder’s satiric Blanco County mysteries feature a central Texas game warden involved in an inordinate number of murders, despite his wish to stay out of trouble.

Austin-based lawyer and writer Mark Pryor mainly sets his tales overseas, but his latest, Hollow Manfeaturing a musician and sociopath, continues the tradition of Austin mysteries grounded in a world of live music and the occasional dead body. Manning Wolfe, also a lawyer, has recently launched her Merit Badges series with Dollar Signs: Lady Lawyer vs. Boots Kingan eclectic and entertaining legal thriller.

Gabino Iglesias, in Zero Saints, takes the reader from Mexico to Austin with protagonist Fernando as he flees danger at home, only to find more violence in his new city. Lisa Lutz’ latest novel, The Passenger, also stops off in the capital city, following a woman on the run after the suspicious death of her hated husband. She finds herself in Austin just long enough to switch identities with a woman named Blue in a bar, only to find herself pursued by Blue’s enemies.

South Texas has surprisingly few crime novels given how many stories the region has to tell – or at least, we weren’t able to find many while preparing this piece. The Land Grant, by Carlos Cisneros, is a legal thriller diving into a long-term dispute between heirs to an estate and the Catholic Church along the border.  Rick Riordan helped bring San Antonio as a setting to mystery readers with his Tres Navarre series (before he moved into the world of children’s fiction). Although known for his San Antonio setting, we highly recommend his tale of murder, intrigue and copyright in the wild west of 90s start-ups, The Devil Went Down To Austinto all Austinites. The tale is particularly notable for its hilariously dated technological threats combined with completely contemporary cutthroat competition.

West Texas is better represented in the genre as of 2017. Minerva Koenig’s tales of a reformed criminal relocated to West Texas as part of the Witness Protection Program celebrates the classic tough Texas heroine with a twist as the transplant grows into her new home. Tony Perez-Giese’s Send More Idiots takes us to El Paso and Juarez as a man searches for his brother, disappeared by a cartel. J. Todd Scott’s The Far Empty takes us into a generational feud between a sheriff and his son over the death of the sheriff’s wife, set against the background of cartels and corruption.

Ever since we wondered who shot J.R., North Texas has been a riveting setting for all kinds of fictionalized murder. Mark Gimenez’s The Color of Law guides the reader through crime and corruption in Dallas, while delivering an impassioned defense of a prostitute wrongfully accused of murder. Kathleen Kent’s The Dime takes us into the Dallas Police Department from the perspective of an outsider just transferred in from New York.

Reavis Wortham’s Red River mysteries explore life in small-town North Texas, as the townspeople experience the vast upheavals of mid-century America (along with a few murders). Alexandra Burt’s The Good Daughter takes us into a small North Texas town where uncovered bodies soon lead to uncovered family secrets. In Julia Heaberlin’s Black-Eyed Susansa woman looks into her own appearance in a Texas field at age 16 and attempts to discover both her identity and the wider implications of her disappearance and reappearance.

Texas crime fiction is defined by ambiguity and ambition – an author may delight in the poetry of Texas vernacular one moment, while instilling horror in its content the next. The casual brutality of Texas history means the reader never has to worry about a murder’s plausibility (unlike Maine), and the complex, layered threads of human lives in Texas make for an endless number of stories. Like with many industries, Texas and California are the powerhouses of US crime fiction, but unlike the two states’ political narratives, the two centers of crime fiction don’t compete – they only complement.

One could argue with the notion of any one thread of Texas crime writing (although the legal thriller does seem to dominate in terms of form). Like the state itself, crime fiction reflects and rejects a number of legends, myths and uncomfortable truths. Texas stories, like Texas lives, do not restrict themselves to the lines on a map. The border is as artificial of a construct in crime fiction as it is in politics, and Texas-set crime novels are as likely to cross the border, or into another state or country, as any other American story.

Texas is not only a setting – it is also a large, nurturing environment for all kinds of writers, including many who choose not to write about Texas. Some would say that it’s easier to write about a place once a writer has moved on to a new location, and some of those best suited to write Texas tales are those with an emotional or physical distancing from the state itself. We haven’t mentioned any of the many authors who call Texas home for some or all of the year, yet set their works outside the state, and writing programs like the Michener Center draw plenty of budding writers to Texas, while the endless experiences lived in this state translate to endless more opportunities for artistic creation.

You can find the works listed above either on BookPeople’s shelves or available for special order via our website. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Ace Atkins

 

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

 Ace Atkins’ latest book featuring Robert B Parker’s Spenser, Little White Lies, sends the Boston PI down south to track down a con man who uses God, guns, and patriotism in his swindles. It is an entertaining and timely novel with a keen and subtle eye directed toward our current society. We stopped Ace for a moment in his exhaustive writing schedule to talk about it some.

MysteryPeople Scott: This is loosely based on an article you worked on for Outside Magazine, The Spy Who Scammed Us, about a con man. What made you want to explore some of the article’s aspects in fiction?

AA: I’ve written about many con men as a journalist. Several in my days as a crime reporter for The Tampa Tribune. The Outside piece didn’t play as much into this story as the national news story on a man named Wayne Simmons. Simmons was recently outed as a CIA fraudster who’d made hundreds of appearances on FOX news. He represented himself as a top Company man with time in black ops who talked about delicate matters of international importance. It turned out, he was a former used car salesman who was never vetted by producers at FOX.

MPS: Did having a con man as the antagonist present anything unique to the story telling?

AA: A con man is always a wonderful character in a novel because their motivation, identity and goals are hidden. I’ve always been long fascinated by them as a journalist wondering how much of their BS do they actually believe. Every con men I’ve ever written about has a degree of sociopath in them.

MPS: It has a lot of elements that would have made for a Quinn Colson novel. What made you choose Spenser for the hero?

AA: Yes! Absolutely. I could definitely have made this a Quinn Colson book but brought it to Spenser’s desk. I thought it was a unique case for Spenser and a great opportunity to take him down South. Also what the character of M. Brooks Welles represents is wholly antithetical to the Spenser code. A con man seldom has a code. Or honor.

MPS: Did Spenser allow you to view the South in a different way as an author, that a native like Quinn couldn’t?

AA: Absolutely. I had a great time bringing Spenser back to Atlanta. He’d been there before but getting to write it as native Southerner was great fun. I got to view the South as an outsider which is always fun.

MPS: I was happy to see Spenser pull Tedy Sapp out of retirement. Was there a particular reason you chose him as back up with Hawk?

AA: In Bob’s book, Hugger Mugger, Tedy was Spenser’s main sidekick. Big, tough, ex military and gay, he was a wonderful Spenser character. When the story wound down to Georgia, I knew Tedy would be on Spenser’s speed dial. It was fun for me — an hopefully fans — to see him again.

MPS: You’ll be at our store on Friday, July 21st, at 7 PM for your latest Quinn Colson book, The Fallen. What can you tell us about it?

AA: The Fallen was written in the first 100 days to Donald Trump. It’s about as current and modern as it gets. Quinn takes on a team of top notch bank robbers who work heists dressed as Donald J. When they hit banks, they announced — Wild Bunch style — “anyone moves and I’ll grab ’em by the p***y!”

You can find copies of Robert B. Parker’s Little White Lies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Denise Mina

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Our Pick Of The Month, Denise Mina’s The Long Drop, looks at the famous Scottish trial of Peter Manuel, a small time thief charged with the murders of three women. We also flash back to years earlier with a pub crawl for the ages, as Manuel takes William Watt, the husband and father of two of the victims, who was also a suspect, out on the town. The book is a dark look at class, media, and crime. We caught up with Denise to talk about those subjects and the period the story takes in.

MysteryPeople Scott: You often use true crime and scandal as a basis for your stories, changing names and details, but here you stuck close to story with part of the fiction taking place in the shadows of the events. What was it it about this murder and trial that made you stick closer to the history with the many of the real events and names?

Denise Mina: I had to stick close to the real story because it simply wasn’t credible as fiction. Usually I take a premise or an interesting idea but this story was so odd I felt it needed told the way it happened. OJ and Polanski set out to ‘turn detective’ and solve the murders they were involved with, so that was transferable, but the rest it was particular to that story. Also everyone in it was dead and they didn’t have kids to upset so I figured it would be okay.

MPS: This was also the first time you went back into a time you went back to a time you didn’t experience yourself. How did you tackle that challenge?

DM: I wrote it as a play originally and it was produced in Glasgow so I was pretty steeped in it even before I began the researched the book. This period is when Glasgow’s reputation was made, Like Detroit in the 1960s and it felt very familiar. I got too into it actually. I could feel that old city more than the pretty, latte-and-sushi hipster place Glasgow of now.

MPS: What did the novel allow you to do that writing it as a play didn’t?

DM: The novel let me tell the story as an internal voice so I could go into the actor’s minds and see how it looked from their POV. Most of the facts presented to the court were obvious lies, everyone came forward because they were trying to do the right thing, even life long criminals, the cops all told the truth because they were cops etc. In serial killer stories what is often most interesting is the way people behave around them, rather than what they do.

MPS: I read in reviews that Watts is less sympathetic in the book than he was in the play. Did you come to a different understanding of him between projects?

DM: In the original play Watt was a nicer guy who has innocently stumbled into a freaky situation. A lot of older people came to see it and they cornered me at the end and told me that I had told it wrong. The official story was that Watt, a prominent businessman, was innocent. That was the finding of the trial. But the old dears said it was more complicated than that. The story in the city was that Watt took the guard dog away from the house on the night of the murders. It was much better.

MPS: Class plays an important part important part of the novel and many of your others. What makes that an interesting theme for you to explore?

DM: Part of the beauty of crime novels is that they can span society. Class is a natural source of conflict but largely unspoken. Class of origin, adoptive social class, aspiration, these are all major sources of social identity. Honestly, I bang on about it so much, I’m starting to feel like a lonely Marxist professor who should have retired years ago.

MPS: Do you think these murders would be just as shocking and be the media sensation today?

DM: Definitely. There is something uniquely creepy about home invasions and eating in a house where you’ve just killed people is revolting, somehow. Of course, the added element as in Bundy, was the fact that Manuel was attractive and represented himself. He was a pretty clever little psychopath.

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

MysteryPeople Q&A with Steve Hamilton

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Last year, prolific and internationally-renowned crime writer Steve Hamilton blew us away with The Second Life Of Nick Mason, about a criminal who gets an early release from prison as long as he does the bidding of Darius Cole, a kingpin who rules his empire from a cell. In the second in the series, Exit Strategy, Nick plots an escape from Darius as he has to carry out his latest chore, kill several witness in Witness Protection all across the country, that are testifying against Darius for his retrial, one his lethal former gunman.

Steve will be doing a live stock signing for us, Tuesday, May 23rd, starting at noon, so come on by to get your books signed and say hello to one of the best in the genre. We caught up with him ahead of time to talk about Exit Strategy and and writing criminals.

MysteryPeople Scott: When writing The Second Life of Nick Mason, did you know you that Nick and Darius had at least another story in them?

SH: Absolutely! In fact, I had the first seven books in this series all laid out in detail, before I ever started.

MPS: How do you think Nick has changed since the first book?

SH: In the first book, Nick Mason was released from prison to become a killing machine. It was something Darius Cole saw in him, something that Nick didn’t even know he had inside him. But now in this second book – as the assignments get more and more brutal – Nick can see it happening. He is becoming this machine and he can’t even help it. That’s what drives him to find his “exit strategy,” before he loses his humanity forever.

MPS: Your books usually stay in one city or town for most of your books. Did going across the country affect your writing in any way?

SH: Where you come from is a big part of you are. For Alex McKnight, it was Detroit. For Nick Mason, it just felt to me like he had to have come from the South Side of Chicago. And in the past few years, I’ve gotten to know and love that amazing city so well. That’s one of the best parts of being a writer.

MPS: What does having a protagonist like Nick allow you to do that you couldn’t with Alex McKnight?

SH: Clearly, Nick Mason lives on the other side of the law, which is the first obvious difference. From the very first page of book one, you have to acknowledge that he’s a career criminal – even if he’s lived by a strict personal code, and even if he takes the deal to get out of prison just so he can see his family again. And now he’s made this choice to do whatever he’s told in his new life – something that Alex wouldn’t be able to do, no matter the stakes. But one of the most overwhelming things about writing this series is how much readers have responded to him, and how much they’re actually rooting for him in these books.

MPS: Darius is one of the best antagonists in recent crime fiction. He is as smart as he is unscrupulous and even has a complex set of justice. What is it like writing for him?

SH: An antagonist like Darius Cole has to be a complex, fully realized character, with his own reasons for doing what he does – reasons that make perfect sense in his own world. Hemingway said the writer’s job is to understand, not judge. I just try to make him as real as possible, and let the reader do the judging.

MPS: There are at least four major characters plotting their fate against each other like chess players. How much pre-planning went into Exit Strategy?

SH: I knew from the beginning where each character would be in the end. The challenge was to make those threads all come together in a way that was both surprising and satisfying at the same time. But that was really the main theme of this book – each character had his or her own “exit strategy,” trying to escape from his or her own personal prison.

Steve Hamilton comes to BookPeople for a public stock signing Tuesday, May 23rd, at 12 PM. You can find copies of Exit Strategy on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Ausma Zehanat Khan

 

Ausma Zehanat Khan first appeared on our radar with her crime fiction debut, The Unquiet Dead, introducing the handsome Esa Khattak and the sporty Rachel Getty. The two are partners in a special Canadian community policing unit dedicated to sensitive cases involving minority communities. In The Unquiet Dead, they tackle a case involving war criminals, Balkan ghosts, and the intersection of private and public suffering. In The Language of SecretsKhattak and Getty go undercover in a a mosque controlled by a charismatic leader suspected of planning a violent attack – and engaged to Khattak’s sister. In Khan’s third novel to feature the duo, Among the RuinsKhattak just wants to enjoy a nice vacation in Iran, but gets recruited by the Canadian secret service to look into the untimely death of a Canadian citizen and activist filmmaker. Ausma was kind enough to let us ask her a few questions about the series. 

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

“I have this set of stories I want to tell based on my background in human rights law and my continuing commitment to human rights issues. It’s important to me personally because these are stories that rarely see the light, or that when they do, they’re depicted through a perspective that I don’t recognize as authentic.”

Molly Odintz: Rachel Getty is my favorite contemporary sidekick – she’s practical, sporty, and is always game to help Esa Khattak both with his assigned work and his efforts to outwit his superiors. She seems to be the average joe of the novel, intended to balance out Esa Khattak’s impressively erudite mind. Is she a Watson, to Esa’s Sherlock? Tell us about the dynamics between Rachel and Esa. 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: That’s such a lovely compliment, thank you! Rachel is definitely Esa’s counterpoint, and her story is as important to the books as Esa’s is. I try to have these characters draw each other out, and to serve as foils for each other—I think Rachel is braver than Esa when it comes to personal conflicts and entanglements. She doesn’t always get things right, but she’s much more willing to take chances than he is, though both characters will continue to develop as they grow closer over time. I see Rachel as quite independent of Esa, and as an equal contributor to their crime-solving efforts. I think she also helps interpret Esa and humanize him to my readers.

MO: Each of your novels begins with a murder, but quickly expands its scope to include international concerns, especially about human rights abuses. How has your work made its way into your writing? 

AZK: I have this set of stories I want to tell based on my background in human rights law and my continuing commitment to human rights issues. It’s important to me personally because these are stories that rarely see the light, or that when they do, they’re depicted through a perspective that I don’t recognize as authentic. So in The Unquiet Dead, I examine the costs of the Bosnian genocide and the ongoing legacy of genocide denial. In The Language of Secrets, I invert the perspective of who gets to comment on terrorism and try to provide some historical context instead of the facile interpretations that are routinely presented to us. In Among the Ruins, I take on the egregious human rights record of the Iranian regime, without denying the agency of the Iranian people, or the beauty and sophistication of Iran’s history, culture and civilization. I talk about these issues through the lens of crime fiction because I think it makes painful and complex realities easier for us to look at—and somehow more personal.

MO: Your series started off presenting Canada as more tolerant than the US – your main character’s work is dedicated to solving cases involving minority communities with sensitivity. Yet in The Language of Secrets, Esa Khattak is manipulated into going undercover in what the Canadian government believes to be a group planning a violent attack, volunteered by others rather than volunteering himself. In the third book in the series, Among The Ruins, Esa is recruited by the Canadian Secret Service for a dangerous international mission, then pursues that mission to the point of endangering himself. Is Esa using his position to represent his community’s interests, or being used himself by his superiors to control his community? Or both? 

AZK: This is a difficult question to answer, I must admit. In recent months, I’ve grown to worry that Canada’s commitment to multiculturalism could be undermined by voices on the extreme right should there be a change in government. At the moment, I can only say that Canada’s political leadership has worked hard to set a tone of inclusiveness and mutual respect, and that divisive, hateful rhetoric has not penetrated Canadian society from the top-down. I am very conscious that that could change and that it takes constant engagement by a broad spectrum of citizens and communities to ensure the rights and freedoms of all Canadians. There are definitely areas of weakness and vulnerability that are open to exploitation that I worry about. And I try to communicate those areas of weakness and vulnerability in my books by showing that Esa is vulnerable to those pressures. It’s very much part of Esa’s job to make sure that his community, and other minority communities, are treated fairly by law enforcement, but I have set him up with this impossible mandate where these two sets of interests don’t necessarily coincide. How minority communities experience policing and how they are targeted by certain kinds of policing is a continuous story I’m interested in exploring in these books.

MO: Among the Ruins is the first in your series to go outside North America – Khattak goes on vacation in Iran, yet quickly finds himself embroiled in local politics and recruited by secret agents to discover the reason behind a prominent Canadian-Muslim documentarian. What drew you to the Iranian setting? Were there any challenges in your research? 

AZK: I’m fascinated by the complexity and sophistication of Iran’s history and culture—I’m married into an Iranian family, so I’ve been richly immersed in Persian culture. And there has been a long exchange between Iran/Persia and the Indian subcontinent, which is where my family is from, that influences the languages I speak and the customs I’ve been exposed to. I wanted to tell a story that drew on these influences in my life.

I’m also troubled by the way we speak about Iran. We view Iran through the lens of Western interests, a lens that disregards our problematic interventions in the region, so I wanted to explore Iran through a different lens—the lens of someone like Esa who values its history, its rich traditions, its stunning civilizational accomplishments. Normally, I would have loved to travel to Iran to do research on the book but because my husband is a well-known critic of the regime, and because my book is so critical of human rights abuses within Iran, I had to rely on secondary sources and my own memories of a childhood trip to Iran.

“It’s very much part of Esa’s job to make sure that his community, and other minority communities, are treated fairly by law enforcement, but I have set him up with this impossible mandate where these two sets of interests don’t necessarily coincide. How minority communities experience policing and how they are targeted by certain kinds of policing is a continuous story I’m interested in exploring in these books.”

MO: While most of Among the Ruins is told from Esa and Rachel’s alternating perspectives, you sprinkled in some intense interludes describing (in first person) a political prisoner’s experiences of torture and confinement. What went into those passages? They were incredibly moving. 

AZK: Thank you so much for saying so. After Iran’s stolen election of June 2009, there was a severe crackdown against protesters by the regime and a short while after that, human rights reports began to emerge about the nature of that crackdown. There are also several political prisoner accounts that have been published, so I read many of those firsthand accounts and the human rights reports to try and capture the reality of what happens to political prisoners once they disappear inside Iran’s prisons—and particularly what happened at that moment after the election. My character’s experience is a composite experience of abuses that actually took place. I also interviewed several Iranians about their direct experience of the protests and the arrests to get a better sense of how visceral and frightening those events were. Little details like the use of the Sonata were gained from these interviews.

MO: In an interview with Brian Bethune for MacLean’s, you highlight the stark difference between Canada and the US in terms of the level of harassment and climate of fear Muslims face in each nation. This interview ran on February 2nd, 2016. What are some of your thoughts, post-election?

AZK: I’ve mentioned that there are also things to worry about in Canada, the difference being that for the moment, the anti-Islam/ anti-Muslim rhetoric isn’t state-sanctioned, and that hate crimes and hateful rhetoric are neither sanctioned by the Canadian government nor tolerated. For Muslim communities in the United States, this is a frightening moment—the future is filled with uncertainty, there’s been a spike in hate crimes against Muslim women, against our mosques, there are all kinds of incursions against our civil liberties, and there’s the sense after the Muslim ban that there’s the potential for things to escalate quickly and become much worse. I live my life differently now, more cautiously, more self-protectively, and I engage in self-censorship which is difficult for someone who’s used to being outspoken about human rights, and who writes the kind of books that I write. Having said that, I continue to give talks and meet with book clubs and other groups, and each of those encounters allows me to meet amazing Americans who are as appalled by the current political climate as I am, and who are active in their own communities on a host of similar issues. I think we’re all conscious that we’re seeing the erosion of democratic norms and that civil liberties are not something that any community should take for granted.

MO: Esa Khattak is talented, attractive, and generally an exceptional human being – yet you provide him with enough faults, challenges, and bumps in the road to keep him out of too-good-too-believe. What has reader response been like with the character? Do you get lots of love letters addressed to him from adoring fans? 

AZK: I think I can safely—and gratefully—say that my readers are extremely fond of Esa, and that he definitely gets his share of fan mail! He has his admirers, and my friends have all claimed him for themselves, which I find so funny. Esa is a joy to write but he’s also a tough nut to crack! In the fourth book in the series, I’m trying to open him up more.

MO: Crime fiction, more than other genres, seems to lend itself either to defending or demonizing the other. Your series falls firmly in the responsible representation category, but there’s plenty of airport paperbacks and military thrillers out there ready to reinforce stereotype rather than challenge it. What different directions (if any) would you like to see the genre go in the future? 

AZK: This is a great question. I don’t challenge anyone’s right to write the stories they think are valuable and important, but I’m fatigued by the way stories of the Muslim bad guy are presented. They lack depth or context, they’re binary, and they seem to have a shallow understanding of language, culture, politics, religion or history—and the complex relationship between all these different factors. So I think if the demand for these kinds of stories continues, it would be great to shift the lens of who’s commenting and to delve deeper to tell a richer, more complicated story that doesn’t resolve into us vs. them, but examines the impact of our actions and policies on a region that we seem to project both our fears and our conquering myths onto. I think it would be a thing of beauty to try and understand the hopes and aspirations of the “Other”, and to realize they’re no different from our own.

You can find copies of Among The Ruins on our shelves and via bookpeople.com