Interview with “The Pictures” author Guy Bolton

Guy Bolton’s The Pictures made my list of the best debut novel of 2017. It is a moody Hollywood thriller with making of The Wizard Of Oz as it’s backdrop.

MysteryPeople Scott: How did The Wizard Of Oz get to be the movie that served as backdrop for the story?

Guy Bolton: Over a decade ago when I was a film student I was supposed to be doing a class on film noir. At the last moment they replaced it with a class on MGM musicals. I was devastated at first but one of the films we studied was The Wizard of Oz, a film I watched on repeat as a child. As I started researching the film I found out all this incredible trivia— it was most expensive MGM movie ever made and took fourteen writers and five directors to bring it to the screen. Then there was a young Judy Garland hooked on drugs, rumors of ‘Munchkin’ sex parties, a Tin Man who almost died from blood poisoning and a Wicked Witch with life-threatening burns from an on-set fire.

It struck me that the making of the movie was almost as interesting as the film itself. And I knew it would make an engaging and unexpected backdrop for a noir thriller.

MPS: Even though you are dealing with a different era, what from your own experience in the film industry did you pull from for the book?

GB: I can promise you none of my experiences have ever felt at all glamorous! In fact the main thing I took from working for ten years (predominantly in television) was bureaucracy. I love David Simon and how he infuses layers of bureaucracy in every strand of “The Wire” and I felt the same experience working in TV. At times it felt to me that decisions were being made by a handful of people at the top that affected everyone below. I brought that over to this Hollywood world of police and studios, as if the major Hollywood players were playing a giant chess game and everyone else were the pawns.

MPS: Jonathan Craine is a very unique protagonist in the sense he is not easy to read right off the bat. How did you go about creating him?

GB: It was important to me that I break convention. Most noir heroes are jaded underdogs who drink scotch and chain-smoke cigarettes. They’ve got a chip on their shoulder but an innate sense of right and wrong. They’ll do anything to uncover the truth. They’re heroes.

For Craine, I wanted to invert expectations on every aspect of his character. He’s a debonair investigator who doesn’t smoke and whose drink of choice is a Champagne cocktail. But more importantly, he’s not a hero. He’s a very flawed man who has spent the best part of his career as a Hollywood ‘fixer’ working for the studios. Only when he’s tasked with covering up the apparent suicide of the producer of The Wizard of Oz does he start questioning his conscience. He discovers inner strength; he finds his resolve.

It was important to me also that this novel also be about fathers and sons. Craine’s wife has recently died and he has a difficult relationship with his little boy. Craine coming to terms with his responsibilities as a father is very much at the core of the narrative too. The Pictures is really his journey of redemption.

MPS: You have your fictional characters interacting with the likes of Louis B. Mayer, Joan Crawford, and Frank Nitti. How did you approach the fictional mixing with the historical?

GB: Almost all of the characters are either based on or inspired by real people and events. I changed names where I felt necessary but I wanted to have genuine Hollywood icons like Louis B. Mayer in there to help my fictional characters come to life. It was crucial to me that my protagonists like Jonathan Craine and actress Gale Goodwin felt like they were real people in a real scenario. So much of what happens in the book is close to what really happened.

However, I had an important rule: beware of featuring real movie stars too heavily. People like Joan Crawford, Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable have such a strong presence on the silver screen. They’ve taken on an almost mythic quality in people’s lives. So I didn’t want readers to lose their suspension of disbelief by bursting that bubble.

MPS: This being your first novel, did you pull from any influences or did you simply expand on your script work?

GB: I was heavily influenced by films like LA Confidential and Chinatown; I also have a background in screenwriting and I’ve noticed people often say they feel it’s “cinematic”. I like the pace and narrative structure of screenplays.

But for me, what was most important was that I avoid cliché. The archetypal detective story is told in a first person narrative in a hard-boiled style. I wanted to tell my story from a few different perspectives (especially female) and write it in a more classic style. I asked myself: “How would John Le Carre or Sebastian Faulks have written a 1930s detective story set in Hollywood?”

MPS: What can you tell us about your next novel with Craine?

GB: (you’re the first person outside of my publisher hear this…!)

The Syndicate is almost finished and should be out later this year.

Eight years have passed since the events of The Pictures. Jonathan Craine has left Hollywood behind him and he and his son are now living on a farm in rural California.

But when infamous Vegas mobster Bugsy Siegel is murdered in Beverly Hills, Craine finds himself tasked by the mob to find out who killed him…

 

Interview with Terry Shames

Terry Shames will be with us twice in February. On the 4th she will be one of several authors involved with the discussion and signing of the anthology Lone Star Lawless and on the 5th you will find her, Laura Oles, and James Ziskin, discussing the thriller and their latest books. Terry’s is A Reckoning In The Back Country that has her hero Samuel Craddock looking into a murdered doctor’s dark double life that includes the crime of dog fighting. We caught up early with Terry to ask her a few questions.

MysteryPeople Scott: You spin several plates with this mystery, was there anything in particular you wanted to explore?

Terry Shames: This book just grew and grew. I once attended a talk by Joan Didion, who said that when you are writing a book, you should put everything you know into it. She said not to be afraid that there won’t be something left over for another book—there always will be. So I didn’t hold back anything in the this book.

The original idea of “Reckoning” came about because I wanted to kill a doctor who injured me in a botched surgery. I had to kill him on the page, so I wouldn’t have to go to jail for doing it in real life. I tried to imagine a terrible death for him—and I think I succeeded. That’s where dog fighting comes in.  The idea of doing a book that involved the awful issue of fighting had been nudging me for a couple of years. Combining the two seemed natural. So that’s two of the plates I juggled in the book. Another was the continuing life of characters in the community. A few of the characters that show up have been in almost every book, but never had an important place. We learn more, for example, about Harley Lundsford, who in most of the books makes a case for toting a gun. I wanted to take a closer at him, and he surprised me.

MPS: Since Back Country deals with dog fighting, you risk that unwritten rule of alienating a reader by harming an animal. Did you have any trepidation?

TS: I absolutely worried about it. As I said, the idea of doing a book that included dog fighting as a theme had been in the back of my mind. After all, it is part of life in many country areas. To ignore it is to be dishonest through omission. I put if off not only because of the “unwritten rule,” but because it seemed like a horrible thing to research. Writing it was very hard. At first, I left out a description of the dog fighting itself altogether, knowing I was being a coward. But my stalwart writer’s group would not allow it. So I set the description in Samuel’s past, a way of lessening the grim reality, since it was observed through the lens of a young boy; and also as a way of illustrating more about Samuel’s upbringing. I decided another way of dealing with the grim nature of it was to give Samuel a puppy as a counterbalance.

MPS: Did writing a four-legged supporting character cause any challenges?

TS: Since I have dogs, and know puppies, the actual puppy part was not hard. But I kept “forgetting” about the puppy and had to go back and make allowances for him when Samuel was going about his business. There’s a funny story about that. When I was editing, I thought there were too many details about the care and concern for the puppy, so I took some out. I got a scolding note from my copyeditor at SSB, telling me that Samuel couldn’t leave the puppy in the car alone. That happened to be a passage I had removed, thinking it was too much fussiness. Apparently not! I had to put it back in.

MPS: You having two women vying for Samuel. What made you think this was the right time to have romance reenter his life?

TS: This is an awful thing to say, and some readers may get mad at me, but I grew not to like Ellen very much. About a year ago, Dru Ann Love invited me to write a piece in her “Day In The Life” blog, in which writers imagine a day in the life of one of their characters. I wrote about Ellen Forester, and discovered that Ellen had a secret. I kept wondering what it might be. When I started writing this book, I realized that the story line with Ellen had grown stale and it was time to shake it up. So I started looking at her secret, and….well, I hope readers enjoy the shake-up!

MPS: What is Sam’s greatest strength as an investigator?

TS: That’s a hard one. I can talk about his strengths as a person:  He’s persistent, honorable, open-minded, has a good sense of humor, and isn’t afraid to admit that he doesn’t know something. That latter may be his greatest strength as an investigator. The old adage that there are no stupid questions works well for investigators—not just of crime, but of science, journalistic endeavors, and history. If you are afraid of asking a question because it might make you look stupid, you’re likely to miss important points. Samuel sometimes prods people to tell him something that everyone assumes he knows, and they are annoyed by what they take to be his naivete. But he has a method to his “stupid” questions, a method that often works to get to the truth.

MPS: You also have a short story in the anthology Lone Star Lawless. What can you tell us about your tale?

TS: I am not really a short story writer. I mean that the form doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m in awe of those writers who gravitate to the short form. They seem to know what is important to move a story along without getting cluttered with details. My natural impulse is to write all the details of character, setting and plot, and to embrace sub-plots. Someone pointed out that the short has to hinge on a single idea, which helped me learn how to keep it trim.

I started “Lone Star Motel” a few years ago, knowing it would be a short story. The story came to me after I talked with someone whom I suspected was being abused psychologically, and maybe physically as well. She was a woman with few options and I imagined what it would be like for her to try to escape her situation. After I wrote the first scene, I let it sit while I went on to other writing. But it never entirely left me. I kept thinking about it periodically. When I was invited to submit a story for Lone Star Lawless it seemed like the perfect opportunity to develop the idea. I ended up liking the story, and I hope readers do, too. This is an anthology with some great stories in it!

Scott Butki’s interview with James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke remains a master of his game, one of the best writers out there. Some of the deserved praise – including getting the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America – is for his writing style, some for how he digs deep with plots and fleshes out his unique characters.

While I have interviewed Burke here for his book featuring protagonist Texas Sheriff Hackberry Holland I, and many Burke fans, prefer his books about Dave Robicheaux. These books are set in the towns and wetlands of Louisiana.

The new book, Robicheaux, as it name implies, features Dave, and while Dave has often faced major obstacles before in this book they seem to come from everywhere and every direction. Burke often writes about Dave going to AA meetings and struggling to not drink, but in this book the struggle is worse as he not only gets drunk but can’t remember what he’s done while drunk.

Meanwhile, Dave is mourning the loss of his wife, Molly, in a car accident. So when Dave encounters the man who caused the car crash…. And when that man is himself murdered… the big question becomes: Did Dave do it? And since Dave was drunk at the time the answer is not entirely clear.

Burke agreed graciously to let me interview by email. Oh, one other note he talks in the book, and in the interview about the Jefferson Davis 8, which you can read more about here.

The book has this author’s note:

“The literary antecedents of this novel lie in two earlier works of mine. The unsolved murders in Jefferson Davis Parish formed the backdrop for the Dave Robicheaux novel titled The Glass Rainbow… These homicides are often referred to in the media as the Jeff Davis Eight.

The bombing of the Indian village in Latin America happened in 1956. I wrote about this incident in the short story titled “The Wild Wide of Life,” published in the winter issue of The Southern Review in 2017.”

With that let’s get to the interview. Thanks to my minister, Rev. Meg Barnhouse, for helping develop some of these questions.

Scott Butki: I am so glad you brought Dave back but boy did you give him some stuff to work on in this novel. Why did you decide to have Dave encounter, and try to investigate the murder of, the man who killed his wife in a car crash?

James Lee Burke: My wife was in a similar accident in New Iberia and almost died.

SB: I’ve always admired how you write about the struggle so many face with alcoholism and using AA. Why did you decide to have Dave fall off the wagon in this book?

JLB: I don’t plan the books. I think they already exist in the unconscious.

SB: In this book Dave seems a haunted man, partly due to what I asked about in the earlier questions. What did you hope to accomplish by putting him through all of this?

JLB: Mortality is not an elective study.

SB: I am happy you brought back some of Dave’s friends in this book. Why did you decide to do so?

JLB: They’re among the most interesting and brave people I have ever known.

SB: What do you want readers to take away from this book?

JLB: To fear an embryonic dictatorship and the divisiveness and racial hatred and self-doubt a dictator can inculcate in an electorate that loses faith in the Republic.

SB: When Dave imagines a just world what does that look like?

JLB: The egalitarian world that Jesus spoke of.

SB: What do you think might have worked in Dave to form his desire to be a hero, to throw himself into the ugliest mess and try to make it right?

JLB: Dave is the Chaucerian good knight. He’s a man of conscience and honor and is not capable of being otherwise.

SB: A friend, Meg, asked me to pass on this comment: “I love Dave as a wounded hero.  I love his violence and how it lives along with his spirituality. I love the descriptions of the weather and the land. I think most of us identify with him as we struggle to be good people while dragging along concrete blocks of illness injury addiction or other complications and difficulties.” Do you get a lot of feedback like that?  

JLB: Yes, I have. I don’t think a writer could receive a better compliment.

SB: In past interviews you have told me you tend to draw from older sources, like the Bible and Greek mythology rather than contemporary ones. Why is that?

JLB: I subscribe to Jung’s notion of inherited memory. I think the great stories are always within each of us. My father once said that both science and art are simply the incremental discovery of what already exists.

SB: One thing many fans of yours, including me, love is your use of language. Was your writing always like that or was there a time when you wrote closer to the traditional mysteries with lots of short sentences with the focus on plot instead of description and language?

JLB: I read the Hardy Boys when I was kid, and Mickey Spillane in high school, but neither had any influence on me. The great influences were John Dos Passos. James T. Farrell, Gerard Manley Hopkins, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, and Robert Penn Warren.

What I’m looking forward to reading in 2018

What I’m looking forward to reading in 2018 by Meike Alana

2017 has been a fantastic year for crime fiction fans, but 2018 promises to be even better.  Here are just a few titles that I can’t wait to get my hands on:

JANUARY

Dominic by Mark Pryor:  Picking up where Hollow Man left off, the titular Austin attorney/musician (who happens to be a psychopath) continues his murderous ways.

A Reckoning in the Back Country by Terry Shames:  When a resident of Jarrett Creek is mauled by vicious dogs, Texas lawman Samuel Craddock suspects a dog-fighting ring may be operating in his town.

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani:  Originally published in France where it became a #1 bestseller and winner of France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, it marks the American debut of an exciting new voice in crime fiction

Into the Black Nowhere by Meg Gardiner:  Following  last year’s smash thriller Unsub, newly minted FBI agent Caitlin Hendrix investigates a series of murders around the Austin area.

FEBRUARY

Sunburn by Laura Lippman:  The New York Times bestselling author returns with a superb novel of suspense about a woman who knows how to play the long game to get what she wants.

MARCH

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell:  A Victorian gothic tale about a young pregnant widow who is sent off to her late husband’s creepy, crumbling, and possibly haunted estate.

If I Die Tonight by Alison Gaylin:  The award-winning Gaylin brings us an addictive story of psychological suspense told from multiple viewpoints.

APRIL

A Perfect Shot by Robin Yocum:  Yocum’s A Welcome Murder was a 2017 favorite of ours here at MysteryPeople and we can’t wait for this tale of a local basketball star in a small Ohio town who tries to remake his life but instead gets tangled up in murder.

MAY

See Also Proof by Larry Sweazy:  Sweazy’s series featuring North Dakota indexer Marjorie Trumaine is another favorite of ours.  As she’s mourning the recent death of her husband during a particularly harsh winter, she helps investigate the disappearance of a neighbor’s disabled daughter.

JUNE

A Stone’s Throw by James Ziskin:  Ziskin’s series features 1960’s news reporter Ellie Stone, who is one of my personal favorite characters in the genre.  This time the intrepid Ellie investigates a double murder set in the glamorous world of horse racing.

JULY

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott:  The queen of noir (part of the writing team behind HBO’s The Deuce) returns with a mesmerizing psychological thriller about how a secret can bind two friends together forever or ultimately tear them apart.

The Three Beths by Jeff Abbott:  Three women, all with the same name, have gone missing from idyllic Lakehaven.  Given that Abbott is one of the best thriller writers of our day, it’s pretty much a given that this is not a coincidence and that there are some sinister goings on here.

Book Review: Robicheaux by James Lee Burke

After close to five years, James Lee Burke brings back his Iberia Parrish sheriff’s detective, Dave Robicheaux, simply using his last name for the title of the hero’s twenty-first mystery. On the surface, Burke appears to be playing many of the series’ old standards: colorful, knuckle-dragging gangsters, old money families, and ghosts of both the Civil War and Civil Rights south. However, changing times have brought those standards to new light with Burke giving them a more complex examination.

He layers plot upon plot, making Dave’s life even more miserable than usual. We find him grieving Molly, the the third wife he’s buried. He confronts the man who hit her in a car accident that killed her, then slips from his sobriety. Dragged out of his drunken black out, he visits the crime scene of a man beaten to death. He recognizes him as the driver and notices the bruises on his own knuckles.

Since he’s a suspect, he can’t be put on that case and has to look into a rape accusation. The accuser is the wife of his friend, Levon Broussard, a novelist with liberal leanings that only come in second to the romanticism of this family’s confederate past. The accused is another contemporary, Jimmy Nightingale, a charmer from an old money family with ambition going in several directions, a senate seat currently one of them. Before his black out, Dave set up a dinner with all involved to help out his train wreck of a buddy Clete. Jimmy held the mortgage on his Clete’s house, but wanted to option one of Levon’s books for a movie he would do with Tony Nemo, a mobster with movie ambitions. Toss in some unsolved murders, a white supremacist leader, a scary hired killer with a code, and a murdered New Orleans pimp that ties most of it together and you have the makings of a quintessential Robicheaux novel. One could argue that the choice of title comes from a delivery of the elements we expect.

As we are hit with many of the reoccurring tropes and themes of the books, hero, writer, and reader now have more complicated views of them. As in one of the more lauded novels, In The Electric Mist With The Confederate Dead, a movie dealing with the Civil War is being filmed, this time with Robicheaux’s daughter Alifair working on the screenplay. As in that book, Dave sees the ghosts of “boys in butternut”, but Alifair wonders if they can make movie heroes out of the Confederates who are “today’s Nazi’s”. Much like Levon, Dave can’t help but hold onto their gallantry. For Levon, though, it goes deeper. It’s where his demons rest and can be easily awakened to challenge his better angels. Jimmy Nightshade uses that heritage and populism to be one of the scariest power brokers Dave’s gone up against. He has an ability to sweep up the masses into believing him as a savior for the new south, especially the disenfranchised. Dave observes his constituents at a rally.

His adherents wore baseball caps and T-shirts and tennis shoes and dresses made in Thailand. Walmart, a smartphone, a Tundra, and bread and circuses were symbols; they were a culture. The poorest neighborhoods in the state always had a coin-operated car wash. In twenty-four hours, a drop in oil prices could take everything they owned. They were the bravest people on earth, bar none. They got incinerated in oil-well blowouts, crippled by tongs and chains on the drill floor, and hit by lightning laying pipe in a swamp in the middle of an electric storm, and they did it all without complaint. If you wanted to win a revolution, this was the bunch to get on your side. The same could be said if you wanted to throw the Constitution in the trash can.

It’s difficult not to think of another politician and election when reading this passage.

With everything going on, the focus of the story is Dave’s relationship with his former NOPD partner Clete Pucel. Clete, working as a private detective, imbibes in every vice Robicheaux struggles to avoid. He often operates as a violent Falstaff to our hero in the series, yet Dave views him as the noblest man he knows. Their friendship is rooted in the that they each understand the other  better than themselves. Clete is the first to see through Jimmy and makes it a personal mission to be a thorn in his side, while Robicheaux is partially taken in by the southern gentility he pretends to reject. Jimmy and Levon are darker mirrors of Dave, with the reflection of Clete being the way to lead him out of the fun house. It is their friendship and acceptance that leads to any form of justice or grace in the book.

Robicheaux proves that James Lee Burke’s hero can be timeless yet delve deep within his time. He is practically a Greek hero, enduring tragedies, stuck between the wars of petty gods, with the Achilles heel of alcoholism. He may be a step behind the times, but only adds to his complexity and character. He has aged well with his humor and full heart intact. May we be so lucky in our worlds that grow more messy and complicated.

January Pick of the Month: DOMINIC

In Hollow Man, Mark Pryor broke from his square-jawed series hero Hugo Marston to enter the mind of prosecutor/musician/sociopath Dominic. The book showed another side and style to his talent. Now, this new year brings us the return of his anti-hero in Dominic.
The book takes place soon after the robbery, cover up, and revenge Dominic committed in Hollow Man, with him facing a few loose ends. A police detective keeps questioning Dominic while Bobby, a young man with his tendencies, keeps getting into trouble, and –most worrisome — Bobby’s sister, who Dominic seems attracted to, keeps reminding him she knows what he did. Add a position for judgeship and our man begins to maneuver.
Pryor seems to have tapped into Hitchcock as he builds his intricate tale. He piles layer upon layer of plot and tension effortlessly, yet never revealing what he intends to do until the moment of truth. Knowing that we’ve learned Dominic’s narration obfuscates from Hollow Man, he gives us differing points of view in each chapter. We are given a clearer view of the persona he exudes and where the cracks in his mask are that add to the tension. It also allows us to feel the moral blow back of Dominic’s crimes since we learn to understand his victims the way he can’t. Much like The Master Of Suspense, Pryor allows our anxiety to move between Dominic getting caught or his victims getting killed.
The book’s succinct prose and stylish black humor cut to the bone and into the dark heart of our anti-hero. We find ourselves colluding with him, even though we know better and feel the results. With Dominic, Mark Pryor once again proves to be at his best when he is writing about the worst.
Mark Pryor will be at BookPeople with Meg Gardiner on January 30th at 7pm — join us!

Review Of Dead Man’s Blues by Ray Celestin

Ray Celestin’s Dead Man’s Blues is the second in a planned quartet of books, following The Axeman. While I haven’t read the previous novel, this tale of private eyes, Chicago gangsters, and jazz has me wanting to go visit that story set in New Orleans. Dead Man’s Blues stands perfectly on its own.

The book has several plot lines with fiction binding historical elements. One involves two characters from The Axeman, Ida Davis, a light-skinned black woman, and Michael Talbot, an ex cop married to a black woman, both now working at Pinkerton’s. They catch a case of a missing heiress known to frequent the jazz clubs and speakeasies of the city’s black section known as Bronzeville. Dante Sanfelippo, a sharp bootlegger out of New York is called in to help a colleague, Al Capone. A traitor in Al’s midst poisoned a batch of booze sent to the mayor and Dante must ferret out who it is.

The plot lines criss-cross through 1928 Chicago, which acts as a character itself, sometimes as an aide, other times as an obstacle to our investigators. It is portrayed as vibrant, dangerous, and intricate to navigate with differing neighborhoods and societies. Celestin’s tour through the stock yards resembles a descent into Hell. Ida covers more ground with the help of her childhood friend, Louis Armstrong.

Celestin sets out a sprawling tale that shifts from part to another seamlessly, racing toward a beautiful big ending, like a great hot jazz number. Celestin is slated to have two more novels, charting the progression of jazz and the mob in America. I look forward to further lessons.