A Little Bit of Blues and Trouble

Thanks to author Richard Bush for writing this blog post.

Way back in the day (talking late 60’s, so, yeah, I’m an old soul), I fell off into the blues. Back then blues was imported from across the pond by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton. Sure, they were rock bands, but the always included ample examples of blues music, and it was those songs that grabbed me and held on. They spoke in reverence of the bluesmen whose songs they covered and I wanted badly to drink from the source, but albums by those cats just were not available in small town Texas.

BUT, while majoring in journalism at Southwest Texas State University (yes, I still call it that) and shooting pool at Cheatham Street Warehouse a hippie walked in offering to sell a trunk full of albums for a dollar each to raise his rent money. That trunk was loaded with boxes of blues albums, so I sacrificed twenty dollars of my own rent money for records by Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Lightning Hopkins, etc…and never looked back.

After college, I took up sucking and blowing blues on a harmonica and began seeking out bluesmen who did the same. Over the years I interviewed them, wrote articles about them and reviewed their recordings for various publications. Some of those can be found at www.bushdogblues.blogspot.com, my way too neglected blog.

So…naturally, when I decided to write a novel, blues and trouble just had to be in the mix. An idea that had swirled around my brain for a number of years sprung from the murders of three extremely talented and influential blues harp players from the 40s/50s and 60’s. Little Walter Jacobs, John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson and Henry ‘Pot’ Strong all met their demise on the streets of Chicago. Their murders have gone unsolved, except Strong’s. His wife was arrested for stabbing him, but she claimed innocence. So, I used those incidents as a jumping off point for my first foray into fiction. I just had to write it. Getting it published and read was secondary in my mind. Just planned to share it with blues fans.

My debut novel, River Bottom Blues, is that book, featuring two blues harmonica musicians determined to track down the evil responsible for killing a good buddy. The same protagonists find murder and mayhem in the two books that followed, The Devil’s Blues and Howling Mountain Blues. All of my crime fighting bluesmen stories are set in Texas. The third one does venture down to a Belize blues festival and the boys do find evil to stomp out before they leave.

The Oaxacan Kid is a standalone and offers up a different protagonist in the form of a blues record collector intent on finding an obscure harmonica musician he discovered on one of his finds. Blues and trouble rise their familiar heads when he finds that a few very bad people have the same goal and he’s stirred a pot that puts him directly in their cross hairs.

Richard Bush will be at BookPeople, along with John Shepphird on Saturday, May 5th at 2pm.

Meg Gardiner at Murder In The Afternoon

Unsub Cover ImageOur April meeting of the Murder In The Afternoon will be a special one. We will have bestselling author Meg Gardiner in person to discuss her book Unsub. Be ready to steel yourself before reading.

Unsub is a serial killer novel that delivers what you want from the sub-genre with fresh twists. The Prophet, who terrorized the Bay Area, resurfaces after twenty years. The FBI tap narcotics cop Caitlin Hendrix to get information from her father, Mack, the detective who came closest to catching the killer and lost his sanity in the process.

There is a lot to discuss, the real Zodiac who inspired the character, starting a series, and researching the material. Meg has a gift for explaining the process, making her a perfect live guest. So meet us all on BookPeople’s third floor April 16th at 1PM. The book is 10% off for those planning to attend.

3 Picks for April

Bottom Feeders Cover ImageBottom Feeders by John Shepphird

The cast and crew on location in a small, low budget cable movie gets picked off one by one with arrows. It could be anyone from an angry local to the mobsters who invested. Shepphird, a man who has directed his share of low budget enterprises, captures the microcosm of filming while giving us an engaging whodunnit. You can meet him and Billy Bush (The Oaxcan Kid) on May 5th, 2PM, at BookPeople.

 

 

High White Sun Cover ImageHigh White Sun by J Todd Scott

Scott continues his South Texas crime saga, following The Big Empty. Chris Cherry, now the sheriff after killing the corrupt former one, investigates the murder of a river guide putting him and his deputies against the Aryan Brotherhood. A gritty, often grim novel that mines lone star life and legend for some strong story telling. J. Todd Scott should be an author on the rise.

Greeks Bearing Gifts (Bernie Gunther Novel #13) Cover ImageGreeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr

Bernie Gunther returns, although under a different name, working as a Munich insurance adjuster in 1958. A claim takes him to Athens, where there is still no love for Germans, and he becomes involved in plot involving war criminals, stolen gold, and a few murders. Kerr continues Bernie’s saga with historical insight, and tragic fallout of Hitler’s plan, tempered by noir humor. Kerr, of course, passed away last week, and we are saddened by that news.

Guest Blog: Mark Pryor Remembers Philip Kerr

I met Philip Kerr thanks to that great matchmaker, the fellow who (as much as anyone I know) brings writers together, and also introduces them to readers: BookPeople’s own Scott Montgomery. It was at the store, Phil was doing a reading and a signing, and afterward Scott introduced us and invited me to join the two of them at dinner.

Immediately, Phil and I hit it off, and I was thrilled because he was, and still is, one of my favorite writers. (When Philip died this week, the personal loss was compounded by the knowledge that I will have just one more Bernie Gunther book, the one just published, left to read.) That friendship is why, I’m sure, Scott asked me to write a little about Phil to mark his passing, to honor our mutual friend.

Image result for philip kerrBut I want to start not by talking about the man, but about his Bernie Gunther books, to linger on those for a moment. Why? Because they are Phil’s legacy, wonderful gifts of brilliant story-telling and if you’ve not read them, I want to explain why you should (and if you have, you’ll be nodding along in agreement).

They are all about the man, Bernie Gunther. He’s a policeman in Berlin, and the books are set in and around the Second World War. Sounds pretty grim, right? But that was part of Phil’s genius, taking one of the darkest times in human history and infusing them with the wit, charm, and sometimes-disguised morality of his detective. Bernie himself is no angel, that’s always made clear—he drinks and smokes and chases women. He’s not afraid to pull the trigger, either, but he only does so when necessary and in the search for justice for some poor murder victim, or to save his own skin from someone infinitely more callous, someone genuinely wicked. In my opinion, and I’ve only been reading crime fiction for forty years, so what the hell do I know, Bernie Gunther is one of the most compelling characters ever in the genre.

Phil’s books are more than just adventures for Bernie, though, they are also phenomenal explorations of history. Every book will teach you something new about the period in which it is set, and each time it’s a delightful learning experience, a revelation of fascinating sub-stories, not a dry info dump or a preachy pedagogical exercise. Always filled with characters from the era that we recognize, so many bad Germans, who are complemented by colorful characters created by the devious, mischievous mind of Philip B. Kerr. And reading them you will travel to places like Germany, France, Russia, and Argentina.

Now, about Phil. He’s actually a hard man to write about, partly because I know that he’d shrink away from the accolades and public praise that have come from every corner of the literary world since his death. I can see him now, a little smirk on his face that says, “Go on, write something that I can’t pick apart as phony.”

I’ll try. The first time I saw him was that reading at BookPeople, and I call it a reading not because he read from his new book but because he literally read his talk to the audience. I thought that odd, he was so charming and funny it was hard for me to understand why he needed to read his presentation.

Afterward, we talked about the touring he has to do for each book, and he admitted that he was an introvert and didn’t always enjoy public appearances. He found them challenging sometimes, I think, for the added reason that he was almost always the smartest man in the room (his law degree was topped off with post-graduate studies in German law and philosophy) and he had an inability to suffer fools (at all, let alone gladly).

Example: at a subsequent event at BookPeople where I hosted Phil and lobbed dumb questions at him, I’d turned it over to the audience and some eagle-eyed reader asked him about mistakes in the book that we were discussing, some minor factual or temporal error. Phil was curt, and made no apology for either his tone or the mistake. His response, in effect, was, “I’m human and humans make mistakes. If you want error free books read one written by a robot. Next question.”

As a relatively new author myself, and certainly not anywhere near Phil’s level of success, I was momentarily taken aback at his raw honesty. But that’s what it was, honesty. And, for the record, he was right. I, too, have endured pointers to alleged mistakes and, even though the person challenging me was wrong (you can buy strawberries in the Pyrénées mountains in winter!), I was still polite and even mildly apologetic. But not Philip Kerr. He didn’t need to pander to an audience member asking what he thought was a silly question. He was honest enough to say what many of us might have thought, but probably wouldn’t say.

But don’t think he wasn’t kind. He was. I’ve told this story many times, and I’ll tell it again because it shows what kind of person he was. He was talking about the publisher-arranged drivers who ferry him from the airport to the hotel and to the book events. This quiet, brilliant, introvert told me that should I ever be the writer being picked up by a volunteer, I should always sit in the front passenger seat and never the back seat. If someone is giving you their time because they love your books, don’t you dare treat them like a hired taxi driver. This from the man who, I am convinced, would every time liked to have sunk into the back seat with his thoughts to enjoy some peace and quiet.

I am so sad that I won’t get more advice from him, and that there will be an end to the Bernie Gunther books. I am angry, even, that I didn’t get to say good bye and that we won’t have one more drink at the Four Seasons bar and comment inappropriately about half of the people in the room. As a prosecutor, my humor is blacker than most people’s but Phil was one person I could share it with, without shame or reticence.

Yes, I am both sad and angry, but I am also grateful. Grateful for his books that have given me so much pleasure, that have inspired me to be a better writer myself. But also for those moments of quiet amusement we shared. The sushi and beer we consumed on South Congress, the car rally we enjoyed that same night. The twinkle in his eye when I handed him an AR-15 with laser scopes at a range south of Austin. His gentle laughter when I choked down some oysters at his favorite restaurant in London. His stories of meeting Tom Hanks and drinking with Gerard Depardieu. That was the thing about Philip Kerr, he knew how to tell a story, be it over 300 pages of a book, or over a gin and tonic in the pub. It was his gift.

There was one story we wanted to share together—it was an idea for a TV show, one that excited us both for a while, based right here in Austin. Charlie Sector, it was to be called. A cop show that we both threw ideas at, and he wrote a treatment for. It didn’t get off the ground but that didn’t stop us talking about it every time we saw each other. There’s always so much left undone, isn’t there? So much left to do.  

I’ll miss you, Phil, but thanks. Thanks for everything.

 

Mark Pryor’s latest novel is Dominic.

Interview with Brad Meltzer

Brad Meltzer has written another great thriller, this one called The Escape Artist. It is about Nola Brown, an army sergeant, who is presumed dead as the book begins in a strange airplane crash that begins the book. But while the government has confirmed her death a mortician, Zig, who knows Nola and feels an obligation to help her figures out that she is alive and on the run,  

The Escape Artist Cover ImageMeltzer has a varied career, not just writing thrillers but also writing books about heroes (Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter, I Am Amelia Earhart and I Am Abraham Lincoln) and writing comic books (including Justice League of America), for which he won the Eisner Award.

Brad agreed to do another email interview about his new book.

Scott Butki: How did this story come together?

Brad Meltzer:  Zig is named to honor a real Zig, but he’s an amalgam of all the amazing morticians I met at Dover. These are men and women who rebuild hands (rather than giving a fake prosthesis), so that a mother can hold her son’s hand one final time…or who spend fourteen straight hours wiring together a fallen soldier’s shattered jaw, then smoothing it over with clay and makeup, just so they could give his parents far more ease than they ever should’ve expected at their son’s funeral. A few of them, like my fictional Zig, will never put in for overtime. Heart. Heart. Heart.

Image result for brad meltzer

SB: Can you speak to what you say in the preface about how this book was partly inspired by a USO trip?

BM: Years ago, I went to the Middle East with the USO, then a few months back, I took another trip to entertain our troops. Dover Air Force Base is a place I never thought the government would let me into. The Dover scenes in the book are all based in reality: Dover is home of the mortuary for the US government’s most top-secret and high-profile cases. On 9/11, the victims of the Pentagon attack were brought there. So were the victims of the attack on the USS Cole, the astronauts from the space shuttle Columbia, and the remains of well over fifty thousand soldiers and CIA operatives who fought in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and every secret location in between. In Delaware of all places, at Dover Air Force Base, is America’s most important funeral home.

In their building, as you see in the book, they make sure our most honorable soldiers are shown the dignity and respect they deserve. In addition, the people there know details about hidden missions that almost no one in the world will ever hear about. Dover is a place full of mysteries…and surprises…and more secrets than you can imagine. As someone who writes thrillers, it was the perfect setting for a mystery.  Plus, in today’s world, we need real heroes. The people here are the real deal. I knew I found my hero.

SB: I’ve heard the last chapter you wrote for The Escape Artist was actually the first chapter. That sounds counterintuitive. Can you explain?

BM: By the time I reach the end of a book, I always have a new view of the beginning. And as I looped around, I saw that opening scene so clearly. It needed the extra punch in the beginning.

SB: Can you tell us about the protagaonist, Nola Brown, and why she is your favorite protagonist? Do you agree with praise that says she could go toe-to-toe with Bob Lee Swagger, Jack Reacher, Lisbeth Salander and others? This is the first of a new series, right?

BM: I appreciate those compliments, but they’re not fair to Jack Reacher, Lisbeth Salander and the others. To me, Nola is Nola. She was born on a specific trip. We were filming the very first episode of our TV show, Lost History and were in the HQ of one of the most obscure jobs in the Army: The Artist in Residence. Since World War I, the Army has assigned one person—an actual artist—who they send out in the field to…paint what couldn’t otherwise be seen. It’s one of the greatest traditions in our military—they call them war artists. They go, they see, and paint, and catalog victories and mistakes, from the dead on D-Day, to the injured at Mogadishu, to the sandbag pilers who were at Hurricane Katrina. In fact, when 9/11 occurred, the Artist in Residence was the only artist let inside the security perimeter. From there, Nola came to life in my head. Imagine an artist/soldier whose real skill was finding the weakness in anything. The Escape Artist started right there. And yes, she’s coming back

SB: What does it mean to you to reach the 20 year mark as a published author?

BM: It means I’m old. And it means I can do one of two things: 1) assume I’m amazing at this and keep doing it…or 2) take a hard look at all I’ve done and try to get better. For this book, that’s what I aimed for: I looked back at which books of mine I liked best. The answers all had one thing in common: amazing characters. So I wouldn’t start this book until I had Nola.

SB: You’ve now done all kinds of different ventures from your thrillers to books about adult heroes for boys and girls do you work on television. How do you keep it all straight and which of those is your favorite to do?

BM: I love them all. The kids books are my soul in book form. But the thrillers are the house I build with my own hands. There’s nothing like building an entire world from scratch.

SB: The quote before the book starts is: “1898, Jon Elbert Wilkie, a friend of Harry Houdini, was put in charge of the United States Secret Service. Wilkie was a fan of Houdini and did his own tricks himself.  It is the only time in history that a magician was in control of the Secret Service.” Can you explain the meaning and/or foreshadowing of that quote?

BM: Let me just say it: I loved that detail. It just haunted me for years. And I also loved when I found out where Harry Houdini donated all his magic books after he died. You’ll see in The Escape Artist. I didn’t make that up.

SB: You did a tremendous amount of research about the Dover Air Force Base. What do you want readers to learn and understand about the place?

BM: It’s so easy to see deaths as just numbers in a war. But it never is. When you’re done with The Escape Artist, you’ll never look at a soldier – or a war — the same way again.

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

BM: For twenty years now, all I’ve been doing is telling my own story. Over time, I’ve realized that: 1) my life takes on new hardships and 2) I’m more honest with myself and my readers. So yes, Nola and Zig—and the broken parts of their souls—are a reflection of my own worst moments and fears. Fortunately, their lives are far more devastating than mine. But their paths out of loneliness and sorrow are exactly the same: It’s the story at the center of every life. We all need to love and be loved. It’s the only way Zig and Nola will ever pull off the hardest magic trick of all: coming back to life after a tragedy.

SB: What are you working on next?

BM: We do have the I am Gandhi graphic novel in May. My new Superman story with artist John Cassaday also comes out in May for Action Comics #1000. Then I am Neil Armstrong comes out in September. And as for the new thriller, I can’t shake Zig and Nola. They talk to me every day. So yes, you’ll see them again soon.

Scott has interviewed about 25 authors a year for more than 10 years. You can see an index of the interviews here.

Pick Of The Month: A Perfect Shot by Robin Yocum

Readers of this blog have likely noticed the diverse tastes reflected by its contributors, so it’s rare that 2 of us will agree on one of our year-end Top 10 selections.  Robin Yocum made it happen last year with A Welcome Murder, so there was a bit of a tussle when the ARC for his latest, A Perfect Shot, arrived in our offices. This writer prevailed, and was definitely not disappointed—the ride was just as wild, with twists and turns that made it a blast.

A Perfect Shot Cover ImageNicholas “Duke” Ducheski is probably the best-loved citizen of the eastern Ohio steel town of Mingo Junction.  Some 20 years earlier, he orchestrated what is remembered to this day as “The Miracle Minute”; in a span of 63 seconds, Duke put up enough points to propel the Mingo Indians’ high school basketball team to the state championship. Hardly a day passes that someone doesn’t want to talk about “the game,” and you can replay the recording on local jukeboxes.

But Duke’s pushing forty and thinks it might be time to leave his high school glory days behind. He decides to capitalize on his popularity by opening a restaurant he christens “Duke’s Place.” Things are popping until disaster strikes—“Little Tony” DeMarco (a known mob enforcer who just happens to be Duke’s brother-in-law) comes into the restaurant and murders Duke’s oldest friend. DeMarco thinks he’s untouchable, but Duke has other plans—he thinks he’s found a way to take DeMarco down, but it would mean leaving Mingo Junction (and his identity as the town hero) behind forever. And if he’s not the Duke of Mingo Junction anymore, then who would he be?

Fans of Yocum’s work will recognize similarities between Mingo Junction, Briliant, and Steubenville (settings of his previous novels). It’s an area Yocum knows well, and the reader senses his deep love and respect for this hard luck region of the country. These towns saw better days when the steel industry was booming; most of its natives have moved off for jobs, and those who stay behind often struggle to get by. For many of them, high school was about as good as it got; in Duke that created a yearning for something more. And when circumstances conspire to keep Duke down, he has to figure out just how far he’ll go and how much he’ll give up to become who we wants to be.