Our Hard Word Book Club will out our celebration of Mickey Spillane’s 100th year of birth to a climax. His two-fisted, forty-five wearing PI and angel of vengeance Mike Hammer paved the way for both Frank Miller’s Sin City and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. We will be discussing the seventh Hammer novel, The Girl Hunters as well as view the film version that has an interesting leading man.

Spillane wrote The Girl Hunters after a nine year hiatus from the character. We find Hammer in the gutter, drunk and without work. When he learns his former secretary and true love Velda is missing and the quarry for a mysterious assassin known as The Dragon, he has to get his gun, license and attitude back to save her.

The film version we will be viewing presents something rare in an adaptation. It is one of the rare moments to where the author played their lead in the film version.Due to the planed actor falling out at the last minute, this is what happened with Spillane playing Hammer in The Girl Hunters, opposite future Bond lady Shirley Eaton. We will be showing the film as part of the discussion. We’ll be meeting on BookPeople’s third floor at 7PM, Wednesday March 28th. The book is 10% off for those planning to attend.


Women and Consent: An Interview with Bob Kolker about Lost Girls

Matthew Turbeville: Bob, it’s such a great pleasure to talk with you.  Lost Girls is one of my favorite books of all time.  It’s such an amazing true crime book, and one of those rare gems where the male author has such compassion and understanding for the female victims.  For readers’ awareness, the incomparable Megan Abbott once stated it is the best book of this decade, breaking away from other authors who were asked and chose mostly fiction.  Bob, how did you begin investigating or learning about these murders? What intrigued you most, and why were you drawn to these women?

Bob Kolker: I can’t thank you enough, Matthew. I’m blown away by your praise for the book. And Megan’s, too.

I had started paying attention to the Long Island serial killer case at about the same time that many people did: at the end of 2010, when police found four sets of human remains in the bramble alongside a desolate stretch of highway between Jones Beach and Fire Island. The police had been looking for a young woman named Shannan Gilbert, who had gone missing seven months earlier just three miles from where the four bodies were found. It turned out that she and the other four women were escorts who advertised on Craigslist and Backpage. The police kept searching for Shannan, and by the spring, they started turning up more dead bodies and body parts—and yet Shannan was still missing.

The case was exploding, and the media was everywhere, and the local police weren’t saying anything; they even awkwardly were trying to downplay the case, suggesting that no one ought to worry because the victims were just hookers. That seemed more than a little cavalier to me.

When I talked to family members of the women, I was pretty struck by the bizarre situation they all found themselves in. For months and in some cases years, no one—not the police, not the media—had cared that their daughters and sisters were gone. Even something simple like getting a name on the national registry of missing persons was not happening—not for someone that law-enforcement wouldn’t take seriously. Of course, now that these women were in the middle of an open serial-killer case, the world was beating a path to their families’ doors. So these family members were both furious and exhilarated. They still stung from being ignored for so long, and now they hoped for a break in the case, even as they worried that nothing would come of it.

And then came the horrible hangover of seeing their daughters and sisters in the news, constantly referred to as Craigslist prostitutes. The point they made to me really resonated: These women were more than this.

Only after my article came out did I start thinking that the stories of these five families could be a book. Of course I’d hoped that there would be a break in the case (and I still do, five years later), but the story I would tell wouldn’t depend on that. It would be about five women and their families, and how the women’s murders changed those families forever while, affectingly, bringing them all together. It would be about a new, Internet-driven age of escort work, which for all its convenience manages to present its own dangers. It would be about the obsessive nature of crime ­solving in the Internet age, where conspiracy theories are able to metastasize and amateur sleuths can crowd-source data to remarkable effect. And finally, by implicit suggestion, the story would be about the various forces that made these women vulnerable in the first place.

MT:  What about these women makes them “lost”? Is that a label you’re giving these women or a word America uses to describe them? I feel like it’s such an important and complicated word, even in the title.

BK: The title, and the saying, has been used a lot in various contexts. My publisher and I thought there was some risk in using it. But it had the advantage of multiple possible meanings.

We all have, in our minds, stories that can explain how people become escorts, but most of us have only pop culture as a reference point—and there, we see them fully formed, and often mythologized or romanticized. We don’t see how they got there, so we come up with explanations and backstories: drugs, runaways, childhood abuse. We decide they were “lost” long before they were lost. The problem with this explanation is that it robs the women of their own agency. It suggests they were simply helpless—buffeted by the currents of circumstance or class or economic pressure.

But just as there is no single form of poverty, there also is no distinct set of family patterns or life circumstance that leads to the choices these five women made. No set formula or blueprint exists to explain what brought them all to Gilgo Beach. Human trafficking is, of course, a major factor for some, as is addiction and psychological trauma—and each of these causes affects a few of these women to varying degrees. But if there is one similarity they all share, it’s that while some of them were less proud of it than others, none of these women fell off the grid or lived on the streets the way one might imagine. They all remained close to their families. That’s the other way of looking at the title: They were only “lost” insofar as we—the police, the media, the social safety net—elected to lose them by deciding they were not worth paying attention to.

Serial killers know all about this second meaning, of course. Jack the Ripper targeted sex workers for presumably the same reason that the Green River Killer and Joel Rifkin both have gone on the record invoking: These were women they believed no one would ever go looking for. And more often than not, sadly, they’re right.

MT:  Why did you decide to focus mostly on the women’s lives more than the actual murderer? Which victim compelled you most, and who did you feel the strongest bond with?

BK: I’ve said elsewhere that while I certainly want the killer to be caught, I’m not convinced that we aren’t a little over-invested as a society in what makes these killers tick (though I did like Mind Hunter). It was the women that intrigued me more. I hoped that telling their stories would lead to a greater understanding of what made them all so vulnerable to a predator. Their decision to lead the lives they led felt like another unsolved mystery to me. Why take such a risk?

It wasn’t lost on me that all five women came from struggling parts of America, areas that never really got over the big economic downturn in 2008. By telling the story of these families, I could explore those places, too. My models were Calvin Trillin’s Killings, David Simon and Ed Burns’s The Corner, and Adrian Nicole Leblanc’s Random Family—all books where the procedural elements of true crime share the stage with a close look at places and people that readers would never otherwise know about. While the money wasn’t a complete explanation, it was a major clue. All five women grew up in families where, in the social sense, sex work was not seen as a move up, and yet for each of them, the decision felt like an entrepreneurial one: Rather than surrender their financial fate to a minimum-wage job with no benefits and no future, they decided to go into business for themselves. This was only possible because of the Internet; why share your income with a pimp or escort service, or hang out in a dangerous part of town, when you can run your business from home with a smart phone?

As I learned more about the women, I recognized a certain double edge in each of them—an appetite for risk that made people love them, and also allowed them to feel comfortable making decisions their sisters and friends never would have. And yet they all were different, too. While Shannan seemed so vulnerable to me, Megan’s willpower seemed superhuman. Maureen’s journey—from impetuous naïf to seasoned veteran—was amazing to learn about. Melissa mystified me until I saw just how determined she was not to live the life her mother lived. But I personally found Amber most compelling. Her relationship with her older sister Kim was like nothing I’d ever seen or written about before.

MT:  There is something so unstoppable about the way you write, and the way you describe this long, heart-breaking process of finding a serial killer—and the bodies of his (or her) victims.  Was it difficult to write about these women and their lives?

BK: It’s certainly true that I don’t break away from the story that much to offer long discourses on anything, and for good reason: I’m not so good at that. I really love narrative writing, and I’m more comfortable with that than with, say, writing essays or polemics. From the start, I had a rough structure in mind that I’d hoped would keep the whole thing moving. Part one would tell the stories of all five women, and part two would be about the case. My model there was The Executioner’s Song, which had two very different parts.

I think I was so taken up with the reporting of the whole project that I never thought about what it would mean to focus on these women’s stories for so long. It was only after the book was published that I deflated a little and needed some recovery time. That said, in my magazine career, I’ve spent a lot of time interviewing vulnerable sources—people who have been through many kinds of horrible ordeals—and so I have no pretense that anything I’d personally go through would ever hold a candle to what the people I write about have been through. The people who really deserve the attention are the families of the women, who took a big risk in trusting this story to me. They were very candid and heartfelt, and I can only imagine the leap of faith it took for them to open up the way they did.

MT:  Where do you begin when writing a book like this? How do you find a definite beginning (and, readers, the beginning to this book is jaw-droppingly good, completely brilliant and will undoubtedly drag you into Kolker’s world)?

BK: This is the fun (and horrifying) part of writing a book for the first time. The first section I wrote was a long passage about the history of Oak Beach, the secluded beachfront community where Shannan Gilbert disappeared. I figured that would make a good mysterious prelude. Once the first draft was done, it was clear that whole thing belonged somewhere else. So how would I start the book? My editors, David Hirshey and Barry Harbaugh, suggested something more like a movie trailer: A short scene that would give readers a sense not just of the mystery but of the stakes. That clicked with me. I came up with an action scene of Shannan’s disappearance, plus a quick, carefully crafted rundown of how things only got more bizarre after that.

MT: Do you ever know where exactly to end the book? Do you ever want to end the book, or is it something you anticipate from the beginning of the process of research and investigation?

BK: With a lot of my magazine articles, I’ll be reporting, and somebody will say something, and I’ll sit up suddenly and recognize that it would be a good ending, and that will be that. That happened here, too. I was searching for some sort of grace note that would be at least slightly hopeful, suggesting a certain potential for growth and healing for the people in the book. While I was writing the first draft, I learned about something that happened to Maureen’s sister, and I saved it for the end.

MT:  Could you describe some of the aspects of your research and investigative practices to our readers? What was the most challenging part about investigating these murders? What would you say was the most interesting thing you came across (although please, no spoilers!), or maybe what might have been the most intriguing piece of information you came across in your journey?

BK: I spent a lot of time in the hometowns of each woman, speaking to friends and relatives alike.  I kept coming back to the families in order to demonstrate that I wasn’t just doing a quick take on their lives, but really wanted to take their stories seriously.  I took more time with them than a lot of others, so after a while they opened up in ways that they just never had been given the chance to before. What I hadn’t expected was that I would meet a few old friends of some of the victims who still were engaged in sex work, and that they’d be able to describe in detail how these women lived and worked. I had one particularly tense night in Times Square, where a friend of Melissa’s showed me where she used to work. I won’t say more except that we had a run-in with some people.

MT:  How long did it take you to write this book? And what do you feel is the major difference—other than in obvious ways—between writing fiction and writing nonfiction? Has this changed your viewpoint on crime, especially against women, at all?

BK: I wrote the first draft in a year, and I revised it over the next six months. That tight schedule kept me from going down any reporting rabbit holes, so I’m kind of glad (in retrospect) that I didn’t have more time. One difference between nonfiction and fiction that I think a lot about is that while many novelists sell their books after a complete draft is done, most nonfiction authors (or at least narrative nonfiction authors) sell their books when they’re still very early their reporting. So there’s a certain mystery there: Will the book you end up writing be anything at all like the one you thought you’d write?

MT:  Suppose President Trump were to read this book.  Just suppose.  What would you want him—or anyone in his position—to take away from this specific story? What do you hope people walk away from reading Lost Girls thinking?

BK: One very valid way to read this book is as a book about class. When I read books like The Unwinding by George Packer or Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, I recognize that a lot of the people in those books are experiencing the same pressures the people in Lost Girls experienced. I’d hope anyone reading Lost Girls would see how it’s another way of telling the story of norms being destroyed, society being unjust to those most vulnerable, and those in power not paying enough attention.

Lost Girls also is obviously about gender and consent, and the long debate within feminism about legalizing sex work—is it self-actualizing or self-negating?—and it’s not that far afield from the discussion we’re all having now about sexual abuse and power. This story is about a killer who has victimized women who tried to gain control over their lives and were thwarted at every turn—not just by the killer but by social forces they were born into.

MT: Do you think there will ever be justice for these young women, all lost too soon? Do you believe there are more bodies yet to be discovered? What do you think the future is for these lost girls?

BK: In the short term, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for the Suffolk County police to get much of anywhere. It’s nice that the FBI is finally involved, but they don’t have the resources they used to have for cases like this. But we’ve all read a lot about serial-killer cases that are solved more than a decade later, once some piece of evidence shakes loose or a witness comes forward. I think that’s quite possible here.

MT:  It almost feels like, at the end of the book, there is a sense of hope for the families of the victims.  A sense of moving on. Some family members and friends are accepting the deaths; others are even creating new life and giving birth. How do you feel about the ending of this book? What were you trying to say—if anything—about how people move on, if they move on, and about how the memories of victims do or do not last in the minds of the rest of us?

BK: I did not want to suggest that real satisfying closure exists for any of these families. That wouldn’t have been accurate; it’s just another fairy tale from pop culture, like the murder that’s solved at the end of the one-hour procedural. But everyone’s perspective changes over time, and though the loss of these women will always be an open wound, I’m interested in how the family members processed and viewed their wounds as their own lives inevitably changed. That’s what I was hoping to get at in the final passages of the book.

MT: Lost Girls created a sort of fandom that I’ve never seen before. There are message boards and Facebook groups and so on dedicated to uncovering the killer’s identity.. How does it feel to have had such a powerful impact—to make people aware and also interested in finding the identity of this killer? In finding justice for these young women’s deaths?

BK: I can’t take all the credit! This case had prompted a lot of online activity before Lost Girls was published, and more recently docu-series like A&E’s Killing Season have taken up the case in new and interesting ways. Books, I think, have an interesting role to play in a market that’s more often driven by cable true-crime and prestige docu-series and podcasts. Books end up being source texts that, if you’re lucky, are constantly referred to and drawn from and cited as others take up the reigns and start investigating on their own. I’m really glad this book is playing that role for some people. And I imagine that I’ll be back in the pool, updating Lost Girls when the time is right.

MT: What’s up next to you? How will you follow up such a grand success, a book that has inspired empathy and compassion in so many people? Readers are dying for another book from you.

BK: I’m in the middle of another narrative nonfiction project. This one is more of a family saga and medical mystery about schizophrenia. What’s exciting for me is that, like Lost Girls, it’s a way to be able to tell the story of one family, this time through several generations, and at the same time help readers understand something new.

MT: Bob, thank you for agreeing to talk with MysteryPeople about the book, the women who inspired it, their murders, and the killer who is still at large.  You are truly an inspiration.  Do you have any closing thoughts or remarks regarding this book, crime or true crime books in general, or anything else?

BK: I’m so glad you wanted to talk!  I’ve been as amazed as anyone at how since Lost Girls was published in 2013, Serial and Making a Murderer and The Jinx have all affirmed innovative and unconventional ways of telling stories that move beyond the initial shock of an event and better understand the people and the circumstances and the broader social issues surrounding it. The wealth of true-crime books coming out this year is a testament to the innovation out there. There’s a lot to read now, and that’s exciting.

True Crime at Its Finest: Lost Girls by Robert Kolker

True crime isn’t something we feature often on MysteryPeople, and yet it is a craze and a phenomenon that has been popular much longer than people have acknowledged.  The tradition of the true crime book and its incredible fandom goes back many years, but it’s difficult to place a book that is as popular or widely read as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls.  Lost Girls is special for many reasons, covering the Long Island Serial Killings of recent years.  It is popular mostly for its ability to portray the real lives of the women (who did mostly work as sex workers) and how real their plights were, and how effective and ultimately destructive their deaths were.

I first read Kolker’s Lost Girls a year or so ago, but returned to it recently when I needed some comfort. Kolker’s writing style provides that, not just through lyrical sentences and beautiful construction of images and ideas, but largely through the compassion Kolker feels toward these women.  If watching movies and tv shows made and developed by men who have turned out to be sexual predators depresses you, you might find solace in Kolker’s brilliant and wonderful understanding of the human mind—and the female mind—in this great book. Kolker does not focus solely on the hunt for the serial killer (or, perhaps, serial killers?). Of course, it is an unsolved mystery to this date, and we may never know the truth about these women’s deaths, as unfortunate as that is for the victims and their families.  But that is where Kolker strikes gold in our hearts: he concentrates on the victims, their lives and their hearts, and what made the veins in their bodies pulse as opposed to what eventually ceased all life in them all together.

Kolker somehow remains both neutral and empathetic, showing how sex work is necessary for many individuals who cannot make ends meet, or may seek out the profession for many other reasons (even, perhaps, enjoying the work).  The author is nonjudgmental and as fair with the story as he can be, acknowledging the fallacies in people’s own stories and arguments, and meanwhile struggling to uncover the truth for these women. There is definitely a sense that Kolker wants to champion these lost girls, as the title states, long after their deaths, and have them remembered for the brilliant but complicated lives they lived.

Of course, there is a twist.  In fact, there may be more than one, but I can’t really tell you that.  Why would I spoil what Megan Abbott has claimed is the greatest book of this decade? (Yes, you heard me correctly, she actually said that.) I have purposefully avoided giving details because you need to pick up a copy of this book and give it a try, and you need to reach out to family members and friends and show them the work of Robert Kolker.  This is not solely to appreciate the life and work of Kolker himself, but also to remember the women lost to brutality and an America that only cares for privileged women who can be viewed as “victims,” not lost girls.

Stories We Tell Ourselves: An Interview with John Copenhaver about Dodging and Burning

Matthew Turbeville: Wow, John. When Kristopher from BOLO Books first recommended Dodging and Burning to me, I was unsure of what to think. Upon looking further into it, it seemed like the book of my dreams, and it turned out it was.  Can you explain where you got the idea for Dodging and Burning?

John Copenhaver: Years ago, in grad school, I took a class on the invention of photography and its impact on literature. We read Sontag’s On Photography and Barthes’s Camera Lucida, as well as Ellison’s Invisible Man and Chandler’s The Big Sleep. I became fascinated by the relationship between images and the narratives that are used to interpret (or misinterpret) them. So, I thought, why not tell a story about a photograph that continues to be re-interpreted? I’ve always loved crime fiction, and this idea fit the genre really well.

MT:  Dodging and Burning is a novel with a lot of unique styles and methods of storytelling.  Can you elaborate on the way you went about telling this fantastic story, and how you decided to approach the novel in such a broad, unique fashion?

JC: Essentially the book is a series of stories, each deeper and wider (and darker) than the one that proceeded it, all related to the essential bit of evidence—the crime scene photograph of poor murdered Lily. So, there needed to be lots of different modes of storytelling: a photo, journals, memoirs, pulp fiction, oral, even coded information. I love Margaret Atwood’s brilliant use of different modes of writing in The Blind Assassin. Also, D. M. Thomas’s heartbreaking and truly remarkable novel, The White Hotel, unfolds through different modes, the truth becoming clearer with each new kind of writing. I really admire those books, so I was chasing a similar effect in my own novel.

MT: I really loved all the characters, even at their worst.  And the story never stopped twisting and turning.  I suppose my next question is how did you first start composing this novel: through character, through story, or in some other way?

JC: Although I began with the photograph idea, when I actually sat down and started writing it, I focused on character, specifically Bunny Prescott. Then, about a fourth of the way through, I stopped and outlined the entire story. I also discovered a lot through revision. In particular, the final twist came to me. It gave me chills. The novel I’m working on now had a similar moment. I can’t say enough about the importance of revision! (Sorry, the teacher in me is coming out.)

MT:  I usually save the heavy-hitter questions for later on in the interview, but I’m dying to ask: you’ve expressed you’re a feminist, supporting women adamantly, and also that you are extremely pro-gay, and also anti-patriarchy (I guess I’m swooning by this point).  What I’m getting at is, without giving away any spoilers, how do you feel this is reflected in the novel, and what were you trying to say in stating these viewpoints and ideas?

JC: Patriarchy is a system under which everyone suffers, most prominently gay men, trans persons, women, and any person of color. But I also think straight white men suffer too. In a patriarchal culture it’s not just that you’re not permitted to say or do certain things, but that you’re not permitted to feel certain things, which is a sort of culturally reinforced, self-inflicted violence. Straight white men, because of their dominant status in our culture, are perhaps the most limited in this respect. Broadly speaking, this confounding of emotion is where their rage comes from. In my novel, you’ll see that the source of most of the violence comes from straight men, but it can be passed on to women, gay men, etc. A sort of chain reaction.

MT: I know that Dodging and Burning took you a long time to write.  Were there ever moments when you truly felt you were going to give up? What advice do you give new and upcoming writers, people who want to make it “big” like how you are doing—or about to do upon the release of this novel in early 2018?

JC: Yes, this book has been long journey. My advice to less experienced writers is simple: If you truly enjoy writing, if you really need it, you will have no choice but continue to do it. Trust in the urge to write, in that compulsion, and it will see you through. Accept that you will always be growing as a writer and accept the fact that you need your friends, your family, your beta testers, your agents, and your editors to see you through the rough places in your work and in getting your work out into the world.

MT: I’ve compared this novel to Laura Lippman’s later, greatest work. Who are your favorite crime novelists (especially women) and novelists in general who have influenced this completely amazing and unique book?

JC: My favorite crime novelists (in no particular order) are Patricia Highsmith, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, Val McDermid, Tana French, Sarah Waters, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Ross Macdonald. My literary favorites are Margaret Atwood, Iris Murdoch, Truman Capote, Shirley Jackson, Ian McEwan, Vladimir Nabokov, John Fowles, W. Somerset Maugham, and Virginia Woolf … All of whom steal from the crime fiction for inspiration.

MT: I’m trying to avoid giving away any spoilers from Dodging and Burning, because that would be a major disservice to readers. But I do want to ask: how do you view the novel and its ending? Is this a tragedy or a triumph? What do you think crime fiction reflects in general: hope or despair?

JC: We tell ourselves the stories we need to make sense of our world. At times, though, those stories are challenged and disrupted. To move forward, a new story needs to emerge. At the end of Dodging and Burning, the characters uncover what they believe to be a re-interpretation of the past (which is a quality of a lot of crime fiction), but their interpretations differ, because they both need different things to move forward. We can collect as much evidence as we can about the past, but it’s really up to us to decide what story we’re going to tell about it. So, it’s not necessarily tragedy or triumph, but a logical extension of character.

MT:  Returning to your writing habits, can you describe your writing process from day-to-day? Are you a morning or night writer? Middle-of-the-day perhaps? By pen or pencil or computer? How many words or hours per day?

JC: I’m a high school teacher, so I’m a whenever-wherever-I-can-write writer, usually weekends and vacations and snow days. I would love to write every day, but that’s simply not possible given my workload … Always computer. I loathe my handwriting.

MT:  Not that Dodging and Burning needs advertisement, advocacy, or support, as it’s just a frankly amazing novel, but could you pitch to our readers in a sentence or two (or three) why it is absolutely necessary to read this book?

JC: Dodging and Burning isn’t just a historical mystery. It’s a novel about our relationship with the past, a past in which women and gay people were oppressed and marginalized, a past which today feels increasingly present. It’s also a book about storytelling, so it has to have a story full of lots of twist and turns!

MT: While the book is set, in part, decades and decades ago, sometimes it feels like the issues you address haven’t changed much.  How do you reflect upon this?

JC: Back to my earlier comment about patriarchy: Clearly it’s still a big problem. Think about all the sexual assault and harassment perpetrated by men in powerful positions. Yes, we’ve made progress since the 1940s, but we’re far from there.

MT: Continuing on the importance of this book—and it’s a very important book—what do you think the average American, or even President Trump, should take away from Dodging and Burning? There’s obviously a lot I can think of, but I want to hear your central message, the general idea you would want to get into his head.

JC: I hope Dodging and Burning communicates a sense of the struggle that gay men went through at war and on the home front during WWII, and our responsibility to tell their stories, as fragmented as they are, for posterity.

MT: One central theme or issue in Dodging and Burning is the issue America faces with homosexuality and other forms of sexuality.  What do you think is the state of gay literature in America? What do you think Dodging and Burning will do for it? And more importantly, what is the place of the gay man in the crime genre? That seems really important, especially in this book.

JC: There are a lot of wonderful books being written by LGBTQ writers. We need to continue to support great organizations like Lambda Literary and join forces with our allies in the publishing industry. Also, LGBTQ writers need to continue to hone their craft and move beyond coming out stories and erotica. There’s nothing wrong with either, but there’s so much more to be written about. We need to look hard at gay culture. We can celebrate it, but we also need to critique it. Speaking from the standpoint of a high school teacher, we need to get serious LGBTQ books into the classrooms, either as shared texts or as independent reading. YA has made some inroads, but adult LGBTQ literature still stands at the fringes. As for the gay man in crime fiction, he has had a place for many years and will continue to have a place: Think of the novels of Greg Herren, Michael Nava, Joseph Hanson, etc. My hope is that those writers and other LGBTQ crime writers will be read by a wide and diverse readership. The readers are out there, but we need to build a bridge to them.

MT: If there was one thing you could change about Dodging and Burning now that it’s being published, what would it be? I know what I would change: I’d have it last forever.  I just couldn’t stop reading it (three times, so far).

JC: I can’t really think about changes at this point. It’s just not a mental space I can access. That ship, my friend, has sailed.

MT: Do you have another book in the works? I know that Dodging and Burning took a while, but I’m hoping that we’ll get a new John Copenhaver novel soon, as the world (and me too) truly needs your writing.  When will we see another book by you, and what might it be about?

JC: I’m polishing up a novel manuscript, set in post-WWII DC, about two teenage girls, one of whom is (perhaps) a budding sociopath. They work together as amateur detectives to unwind the mysterious connection between an assault on their favorite teacher and the brutal murder of a classmate. I like to think of the novel as a femme fatale’s coming of age story: What were Cora Papadakis and Kathie Moffat like as young women? Can we have sympathy of the succubi?

MT: John, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to MysteryPeople.  We are loving your debut novel, and encourage—even more so than usual—readers to go out and buy a copy of this lovely, stunning, and groundbreaking novel (trust me, reader, you won’t regret it).  Thank you so much for giving us some insight into your thought process and also your novel itself.   I look forward to reading Dodging and Burning a fourth and a fifth and, given I have time, a sixth time.

Murder In The Afternoon celebrates Mickey Spillane’s 100th With One Lonely Night

For March, our Murder In The Afternoon book club will celebrate the month that marks the hundredth year of hard boiled writer Mickey Spillane’s birth. With the creation of tough guy detective Mike Hammer, Spillane launched the paperback boom that gave us a new generation of great genre writers. We will be discussing his fourth Hammer book, One Lonely Night.

The story begins with Mike walking along the bridge on a rainy night after a judge has read him the riot act about his tactics. A woman runs toward him chased by a gunman. He shoots the man down, but frightens the woman so much, she jumps off the bridge. Out of a mix of guilt and blood lust, he tracks down those responsible in a back alley trail of thus, politicians, and (this being the fifties) communists.

There will be a lot to talk about with One Lonely Night – how Spillane reacted to his critics, Hammer’s relationship with violence, and genre fiction in the age of The Red Scare. We will also be showing a documentary — Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane, directed by friend and fellow writer Max Allan Collins featuring authors like Lawrence Block, Sara Paretsky, and Walter Mosley. We will be meeting in BookPeople’s Third Floor at 1PM, Monday the 19th. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer Volume 2 that contains One Lonely Night is 10% off to those who plan to attend.

For more Spillane, the Hard Word Book Club will be discussing The Girl Hunters on the night of March  28th at 7PM, along with viewing the film version starring Spillane as Mike Hammer.

Scorching Love: Dodging and Burning by John Copenhaver

There are a select group of, usually, female writers I turn to in times of crisis, in times of desire, in times of need, woe, loss, hope.  These authors include Alison Gaylin, Alafair Burke, Alex Marwood, Megan Abbott, Lisa Lutz, and of course, Laura Lippman.  Laura Lippman often stands in a category by herself—she is both the leading writer in transgeneric literary mysteries, but also a powerhouse who generally puts out a book a year—flawless books, beautiful books, books that always end with emotional punches that are eye-opening in startling ways.  Other than perhaps Lou Berney and Daniel Woodrell, I find very few male authors approaching Lippman’s league.  And do not get me wrong, this review is not a love letter to Laura Lippman.  This is a love letter to Dodging and Burning, the brilliant, impeccable debut by John Copenhaver.  John Copenhaver, who may or may not eventually become the male equivalent of the heretofore unmatched Laura Lippman.

Me in hat.jpgI was hesitant in beginning this book.  OK, that may be a lie.  I was eager to start this book, after reading Kristopher Zgorski’s review at the end of 2017 in his year-end review.  The book features strong female characters, complicated homosexual relationships, and as Copenhaver himself has recently pointed out to me, a challenge to the patriarchy.  There are love triangles, or what might be perceived at first as love triangles, but really, just as in real life, love is much more complicated than it first appears.  There is mystery, and intrigue, as one character points out to the two female protagonists that he believes he has found a body (and taken a photograph) of a deceased—really, murdered—woman, somewhere in Virginia.

Whatever your expectations for this novel are, put them aside. You will not be able to predict a single twist or turn to this book. You will also, likewise, not be able to put it down, just as I read it all in one solid sitting—a long sitting, as it’s not a short book, but a delicious, amazing, startling book.  Copenhaver balances both a beautiful, poetic style written in many forms (narrative, epistolary letters, among other forms and styles of writing) but Copenhaver never once sacrifices story for style.  They are balanced perfectly equally, satisfying everything the reader feels he or she needs in this volume that is too slim for my liking.  I wanted more.

This novel has taken Copenhaver years to write, and what an unfortunate note for readers.  We will have to wait years more for another book from Mr. Copenhaver, potentially, but that is O.K. by me. There are enough twists and turns, jaw-dropping shocks and surprises, that I do not believe I will ever, ever get tired of Dodging and Burning.  This is a book that will never cease to surprise you with its turns and revelations, no matter how many times you breeze through it—and there is a danger in this, the ease with which one can breeze through Copenhaver’s writing without really, truly appreciating it.  Copenhaver’s style, his story, his everything is meant to be savored, like a delicious meal—a last meal, on death row, one you might never have again.  It needs to be appreciated as such.

The fatal flaw in this book is that it is only one book, one volume.  The fatal flaw is that there is not more to appreciate in Copenhaver’s irresistible story and style.  It is endless, how fascinating his words are, his characters and their actions, their voices and their thoughts and their yearnings.  They come to life on the page.  They come to life like no other author I can think of—other than the grand, remarkable, equally undeniably unmatched Laura Lippman.

Perhaps they should start a club.