Interview With Meredith Lee

Shrouded Authors Dodge Terrorists & Rack Up Frequent Flyer Miles


The authors of Shrouded, the Austin writing team of Dixie Lee Evatt and Sue Meredith Cleveland, dodged terrorists, persisted even when itineraries almost fell apart, and racked up frequent flyer miles to research their debut mystery. Evatt and Cleveland write under the pen name Meredith Lee.

Mystery People Scott: Shrouded introduces Crispin Leads, a scrappy graduate student with a penchant for finding trouble in some of our favorite European cities. How did you manage the multiple locations necessary for the plot?

Sue: When we began mapping out the plot that became Shrouded, we knew it wouldn’t ring true unless we walked where the characters walked. We were ready to travel. What we didn’t count on was how the havoc of world events and family tragedy would influence our story. Our protagonist studies burial rituals. It became personal for me when I lost a fifth family member during the early days of writing this book. Numb, I planned a trip to France and Italy with friends. Ten days before my departure, terrorists flew into the World Trade Center. I thought long and hard about whether or not to cancel. I decided to step into the unknown and met my traveling companions at Boston’s Logan Airport. The terminal and our flight were nearly empty. Ghostly. Yet, as we toured France and then Italy, people embraced us and raised their glasses to America, as if we were a proxy for an injured nation. I’m sure that sense of tenderness and loss made its way into what I wrote about Italy and France. How could it not?

Dixie: Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica, makes a cameo appearance in our plot, so I made it a point to include a visit to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid while in Spain. The plan seemed innocuous enough. However, a few days before I’d been in Pamplona as a visiting lecturer at the Universidad de Navarra, roaming Old Town one evening, looking for inspiration from the ghost of Papa Hemingway, I wandered into the middle of an ETA demonstration. The militant Basque separatist group set off explosives and police were chasing members through the narrow stone streets. A local woman, who could tell I was a clueless tourist, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me to safety. I’ll confess I was both frightened and exhilarated by the episode. I didn’t realize its full impact until I stood before Guernica a few days later. I’d first seen the painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1970s where it lived on temporary loan because Picasso wouldn’t allow his masterpiece to hang in Spain as long as Franco ruled. Now, instead of making logistical notes (Crispin comes in that door, exits there, etc.) it was as if I was seeing the massacre of Basque innocents for the first time. Influenced by what had happened on the streets of Pamplona, I wrote pages of emotional prose. Most of this stream of consciousness found its way to the “cutting room floor.” As Carol Dawson reminds us, meaning often lingers like a shadow, cast by the words that are no longer on the page.

MPS: In what other ways did your travels influence your writing?

Sue: Two come to mind. Time. Perspective. Travel, spread out over years, took more time than writing, as did the perspective I gained by ruminating on what I’d observed about myself as I navigated other cultures. Whether I travel abroad, or to a neighboring town, it is the history of the place and people that I find riveting. The stories embody the best and worst of what the human race is capable of achieving. Often those stories are found on tombstones and in crypts.

MPS: At the end of Shrouded you give us a sneak preview of the next Crispin Leads adventure, Digging up the Dead. Am I right to assume it takes place in Egypt? If so, did Meredith Lee run into Middle East trouble while scouting location?

Dixie: Of course. I was making plans to go with a tour group to see Giza, Luxor, Valley of the Kings and Abu Simbel at the same time the Bush Administration was beating the drums of war with its WMD case against Iraq. The day before I was set to fly out, every person in the tour group cancelled. I checked with a Syracuse University colleague who had worked at the State Department with Colin Powell. He assured me that as long as I didn’t linger, I would be safe. So I went, a Globus “tour group” of one. My last night in Cairo, the streets were already attracting anti-war demonstrations. Time to go home. A few days later the U.S. launched Shock and Awe.

BookPeople will host a book signing for the authors of Shrouded at 7 p.m. on November 10, 2017.  More information about Meredith Lee and Shrouded can be found at http://www.meredithlee.net.

Review Of Hardboiled, Noir, and Gold Medals by Rick Ollerman

Stark House Press keep so many of the great crime writers, particularly from the fifties and sixties paperback era, alive and well in print. Whether W.R. Burnett and Gil Brewer or even more obscure authors like Jada M Davis or Arnold Hano, they bring some of their best work for today’s readers to enjoy. Crime fiction author and expert Rick Ollerman has contributed dozens of introductions to Stark House reprints. They are much more than a few pages of praise, being highly informative and written with a personal view and opinion that often explores the genre and writing itself. Recently, most have been collected, along with new material, in Hard Boiled, Noir, and Gold Medals.

One can tell Ollerman goes through some deep reading before he writes an intro. One on Harry Whittington, “the king of the paperbacks” runs thirty pages. He finds the best possible way to connect history and critique. when writing about Peter Rabe, he deconstructs an action sequence from Murder Me For Nickels, showing how he inserts the protagonists emotional point for view of the violence, without breaking the flow of the writing. Even if you have loved these writers and books before, you will have a better understanding of why.

Ollerman comes at his subjects from fresh angles. When discussing the two lifelong friends who wrote under the successful pseudonym Wade Miller, he compares them to the two cousins who made up Ellery Queen, who shared a much more fraught collaboration. He puts Texas author Juda M. Davis on my my radar. Born into poverty so rough, his family barely noticed the depression, Davis traded most of his creative years for a lucrative career at Southwestern Bell. As well as shining a light on an author deserving an audience, also uses it as a discussion on a an artists need to create that conflicts with the need to provide for himself and his family.

Ollerman weaves new, more personal pieces through his work, giving it the feel of an educated fan sharing the books he loves with another. He will put you on the trail of new authors and maybe challenge a few of your opinions, all without spoilers. After reading Hard Boiled, Noir, And Gold Medals, Rick Ollerman will need no introduction.

Rick Ollerman will be joining Eryk Pruitt and Mike McCrary for our Hard Boiled Past & Present discussion panel on January 6th, 7PM

Q&A with Eryk Pruitt

Eryk Pruitt’s What We Reckon is a greasy southern mess of violence, drugs, and religion centered around the relationship of con man Jack Jordan and Summer, a couple with a Honda, dreams, and a kilo of cocaine in a hollowed out King James Bible. It continues in the tradition of Pruitt’s wild southern noir. We caught up with the man to talk about the book, his characters, and the region he writes about.

MysteryPeople Scott: The core of What We Reckon is a lovers-on-the-run tale before it explodes into something bigger. What do you like about that sub genre of crime fiction?

Eryk Pruitt: I grew up in a small town with no ironclad guarantee that one day I would leave it. I’d sit out on the highway and dream up every possibility there was to dream about how to get out, and many of those possibilities involved something illegal. I think it was natural that I’d gravitate towards stories where someone chucks everything to throw caution to the wind and take off with somebody else. Stories like Agatite by Clay Reynolds or With by Donald Harington helped scratch that itch.

I think that everybody living on the grid believes they’d be better living off it. And most folks appreciate someone who could co-pilot, that might share their dark sensibilities, or at least enable them for a while. This is why the Bonnie and Clyde story still gets told. Life is full of moments where folks zigged, but wonder what may have happened if they zagged.

Image result for eryk pruittLately, these stories have best been told by Wiley Cash, in This Dark Road to Mercy; Jordan Harper with She Rides Shotgun; and Donald Ray Pollock’s masterpiece, The Heavenly Table. I can only hope my crack at a story within the sub-genre offers enough deviation to stray from what folks might ordinarily expect. Or at least, give them a laugh…

MPS: At times I felt there was touch of Flannery O’Connor to the book, the way religion plays a part. What did you want to explore in the South’s spiritual side?

EP: A long-standing trick I’ve learned since living in the South: when dealing with repairmen of any sort, always be sure to namedrop Jesus. Every time you toss out a “…if the good Lord permits it…” or “blessed be,” a hundred dollars drops off the estimate. It’s a brotherhood, with its own decoder rings and secret handshakes. You have to learn that language and speak it, then be ready for any and all opportunity.

In What We Reckon, every character shares a dark hole inside themselves, and search constantly for a way to fill it. I think this best describes the plight of the religious person. Some people have scratched prosperous livings off nursing that need. Televangelists, cult leaders, and con artists carrying a King James Bible with a kilo of cocaine have very few degrees of separation between them.

We’re no longer surprised by the hypocrisy of Robert Tilton, David Koresh, or the Catholic pederasty. Now it’s more fun to talk about how we call pull one over on the hypocrites, instead of the other way around.

MPS: I also thought of Jim Thompson in the sense that as over the top as the plot got, I always felt grounded with the characters. How do you think you pulled that off?

EP: I feel I ask a lot from the reader when I ask them to sympathize with my characters. I treat their empathy as a very precious commodity, because once I lose it, they will put down the book. There has to be something for them to identify with, to keep them going. Hopefully, they find something inside Jack Jordan or Summer Ashton that speaks to them, and once they’ve locked in on that…we gradually increase the temperature. We slowly close the door behind them.

Both Jack and Summer have started to slip. It’s probably been happening for a while, but the frays are starting to show at the edges. While we may not believe in the things that Summer is seeing with her own two eyes, we can fully empathize that she believes them, and that is what is important. Jack may not really be coming down with every disease in the world, but he’d be the last person to know that.

MPS: Your books are soaked in southern culture. What do you want to convey about the area you grew up and live in?

EP: I love the South. I think it’s a wild, spooky, haunted, terrible, beautiful place and I’d have a hard time enjoying myself anywhere else. It’s my understanding that most folks think of the South and Southerners as a pejorative, but not me. I’m not down with the old ways, but rather what the kids call #NewSouth. A pot that melts. An all-inclusive gumbo of cultural collisions that enjoy a six-month tomato season.

That being said, the South is also a product of that disturbing past and that conflict should continue to churn out good fiction for quite a while. Themes of race and religion have only deepened and it’s been interesting to see how they’ve been dealt with in the past in Southern crime canon by William Gay, Daniel Woodrell, and Ernest J. Gaines. Since those pages have yet to be turned, it will be interesting to see how the newer guys like Greg Barth, S.A. Cosby, and Marietta Miles deal with them.

MPS: Much of the book takes place in Texas. Do find that a different kind of south?

EP: It’s my opinion that East Texas is the strangest place on earth. It’s shares the same collision of cultures enjoyed by much of the South, but in East Texas, it’s done behind the shroud of a heavy, pine curtain. All it’s “crazy” has been kept in the shadows. It’s the reason Joe Lansdale will never run out of material.

I grew up in East Texas, and went to college there. I’d fall short in any attempt to properly describe it, so my best suggestion would be to watch Eric Hueber and Andy Cope’s film Rainbow’s End, or the Carl Crum thesis “East of West.” 

MPS: What makes unsavory characters so fun to write about?

EP: It’s a pressure release to let all those inner, unchecked desires off the leash. Maybe a million dirtbag options fly through our heads at any given fork in the road (maybe they don’t for some people…who knows?), but it’s nice to live through someone else’s mistakes.

Plus, it allows us the ability to vicariously exact revenge. Even if you don’t like the kinds of people that Jack Jordan or Summer Ashton have become, you might stick around to see them get their comeuppance. Chances are, you know someone just like them and, while you were never able to give them the what-for they so truly deserved, you won’t mind turning another page to watch someone else give it to them.

But of course, I don’t find them unsavory. I’ve fallen in love with them both and only root for them.

Eryk Pruitt will be on our panel discussion, Hard Boiled Fiction Past & Present, with Mike McCrary and Rick Ollerman, November 6th, 7PM

Pick of the Month: Written in Blood

Going home again seems to be the theme for mystery protagonists lately. Tom Bouman’s Officer Henry Farell licks his wounds by returning to his rural Pennsylvania community. Last month, C.M. Wendelboe’s Hunting The Five Points Killer had Arn Anderson returning to Cheyenne to solve a series of murders. Now, John Layton introduces us to Joe “Preach” Anderson, a former Atlanta police detective now working in his North Carolina hometown in Written In Blood.

Preach got his nickname from being a prison chaplain before his career in law enforcement. Hoping to see less inhumanity on the job, he works for the police department in Creekville, a bohemian town near Chapel Hill where he grew up. As we learn through sessions with his therapist, who is also his aunt, he’s dealing with several compounded trauma’s that have affected his faith and life.

forbioWhen a local bookseller is murdered, Preach is put on the case, since it is the first homicide the department has had in a decade. On the surface Creekville is a quaint town, full of artistic oddballs, akin to Louise Penny’s Three Pines. As Preach digs deeper into the case involving some local authors and several dark crimes, one feels echoes of the underbelly of Blue Velvet’s Lumberton.

The story skillfully weaves Preach’s personal story with the unraveling of the mystery. While the plot deals with many sordid topics, Layton never forgets the human victims involved. As Preach goes deeper, we wonder how he will handle it as we also have been uncovering his vulnerabilities.

Written In Blood is a great cross between a village mystery and police procedural. Lawton has populated Creekville, especially its police department, with fully fleshed out characters, and a hero in the middle of one hell of a journey. I’m already looking forward to Preach’s next case.