SHOTGUN BLAST FROM THE PAST – BACKFLASH BY RICHARD STARK

Backflash is the second outing of Richard Stark’s tough as nails robber Parker after his twenty year hiatus. After the few slightly more involved books before it, we get a bare bones, down and dirty heist novel. The simplicity proves refreshing.

Backflash (Parker Novels) Cover ImageWhat makes the story unique is the target. We begin in vintage mid-action Stark fashion with Parker and his cohort Howell going off the road and crashing down a hill during a police chase. Parker goes against his cold blooded nature and leaves Howell pinned in the car for the police, instead of rubbing him out so he doesn’t talk. He hears of his death, but soon gets a message from Howell, telling him to meet a man named Catham. Catham in a state bureaucrat with inside knowledge of a gambling boat that travels down the Hudson. He can give all the details about the boat for ten percent of the score. For Parker a travelling boat is a “cell”, something hard to get in and out with the money and the small amount Catham is asking for makes him suspicious, yet he’s compelled to bring in some folks from previous jobs and a river rat who knows the Hudson and pull off an elegant plan. A few surprises and some hardened bikers prove to get in the way.

Some readers found Backflash too formulaic, but that was part of the enjoyment for me. It took me back to the earlier books when Stark had just invented the formula. Watching Parker pull off a job like this is like watching a trained athlete pull of a feat with a high degree of difficulty, dealing with both foreseen and unseen circumstances. By sticking to the tried and true, the book moves smooth and fast.

Backflash may not be anything new under the sun, but it still shines bright. Even to this day, no one puts a thief through their paces like Richard Stark. Every bad man (fictional) should be so lucky.

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SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH RUTH WARE

Ruth Ware’s fourth book, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, is another one of her great psychological thrillers.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway Cover ImageWare previously wrote three excellent novels: In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, and The Lying Game. The latter two were on the top ten bestseller lists of The New York Times and the U.K.’s Sunday Times. All three books have been optioned for screen.

This book is good, similar fare full of twists and suspense. The story revolves around Hal, a young tarot card reader, down on her luck. She attends the funeral of a woman who has left her a mysterious inheritance. But it appears Hal was not truly the intended recipient which leads to many complications, plot twists and difficult situations

Ware was nice enough to let me interview her by email. My sister, Ellen Butki, helped me formulate the questions. Thanks to both of you.

Scott Butki: How did this story about this young woman develop?

Ruth Ware: I always find it hard to unpick all the threads that come together to make a story, but I suppose that having written three books about women who found themselves in a life changing situation mostly through no fault of their own, I wanted to write something about a character who brings the action down on themselves – someone who sets out to commit a crime. But I found it impossible to write Hal as a true anti-hero. She makes some questionable decisions, but I liked her more and more as the book went on. 

Image result for ruth wareSB: What do you think of those who compare you to Agatha Christie, as both of you not only are famous for twists but also for putting characters into situations that can lead to paranoia and violence?

RW: I take it as a huge compliment! I’m a big fan of Christie and I think her plots are pretty much second to none – so many of the features we take for granted about the genre today, she more or less developed. I would be very happy if I wrote something even a quarter as twisty and genre-defining as And Then There Were None.

SB: In your writing process, which do you see first: the overview (characters/setting/plot), the ending, or the major twist?  Do you add more twists while editing?

RW: It’s really hard to pick apart because they all come together more or less at the time, and different books develop differently. With Cabin 10 I had the ship first of all – the first image that came to me was of a woman waking up in the middle of the night in a locked cabin and hearing a splash. But who that woman was and what happened next developed at the same time, because the one influenced the other.

In a Dark, Dark Wood the physical entity of the glass house only came to me quite late on, about a quarter of the way into the book – but again the motives of the protagonists and their particular characters developed hand in hand. Character is plot, and plot is character. What we do and why is shaped by who we are – and vice versa. The twists are a bit separate – I have to figure those out as I go. Sometimes the pieces don’t fall into place until really quite late.

SB: Identity seems to be a common theme in your books. Is that intentional? Do you want readers to take away something about identity or some other lesson while reading your books?

RW: Do you know, I had never really thought about this before, but you are right! I am not sure why that is – except that I’m endlessly fascinated by people and the versions of themselves that they show to the world versus the people they are inside. I guess it’s that fascination showing. I don’t really write with an intentional lesson or message in mind – I would never presume to dictate to my readers what they should or shouldn’t find in my books, though of course there are always subjects I’m interested in, and I suppose I do often hope to make people think and question some of their assumptions.

SB: Do you believe that deeply buried secrets will/must always be revealed (in books and/or in life)? Where does this belief stem from?

RW: Actually, I am a firm believer in healthy repression 😉 Of course in books secrets usually come out – it’s back to that Chekovian idea of a gun above the mantelpiece. If you reveal that a character has a deep dark secret, there’s no point in putting it in the plot unless it’s going to come out at some point, otherwise you may as well not bring it up at all. In real life, though, we all have secrets – large and small – and bringing things out into the open isn’t always the right course of action. I think my books often show the enormous damage that can be done when secrets surface.

SB: What are you working on next?

RW: Another book of course! It’s a bit too early to talk about it though – I don’t want to jinx myself.

Review of Laird Barron’s Blood Standard

Scott reviews Blood Standard ahead of Laird Barron’s visit to the store on Friday, June 1st at 7pm.

Laird Barron, an author mainly known for his horror and weird fiction, has only has dabbled with crime fiction in the past. He has written a novella and a handful of short stories that work as tributes to hard boiled fiction. In Blood Standard, he charges into the genre, guns blazing.

He gives us a great hard boiled protagonist is Isiah Coldridge, a Moana working as a mob enforcer in Alaska.  When a situation over a walrus causes him to high tail it back down to the lower forty-eight, he lays low at a horse farm in upstate New York. Soon the owners’ troubled granddaughter goes missing, and Coldridge sets out to find her along with another hired hand with a violent past due to his time in Afghanistan. His questioning and punching leads him further and further into a dark underworld the girl is trapped in.

Barron proves to be an apparent fan of the genre. Coldridge is cut from the same cloth of David Rabe’s Daniel Port and Dan Lewis’ Jack Carter. The style is terse and straight forward and the world uncompromising. There are few chapters void of an action sequence of some sort.

However, his background in horror allows him to give a special spin on the tale. He injects the anything can happen quality of a horror story, grounding it in a more physical, though still fantastic, world of hard boiled. It places both Coldridge and the reader on less solid footing and allows us to buy into the darker reveals.

Blood Standard proves to be a must read for hard boiled fans, told in a way that would make Hammett proud. Isiah Coldridge is a tough guy with his own voice and several directions to go. I hope Laird Barron more time on this side of the playground.

REVIEW OF WHAT YOU WANT TO SEE BY KRISTINE LEPIONKA

What You Want to See: A Roxane Weary Novel Cover ImageKristen Lepionka got the attention of peers, critics, and readers with her debut novel, The Last Place You Look. The book introduced Roxane Weary, a trainwreck of a private eye, operating out of Ohio. She skillfully delivered a fresh PI plot with a complex lead. Her follow up What You Want To See, proves that could be her trademark.

Roxane takes a job following a fiance who might be cheating. When the client’s check bounces, she drops the case. Soon the client is the main suspect in murdering the woman, mainly due from an argument they had when he discovered she was bilking him. To clear his name, Roxane searches into the victim’s criminal past, discovering a real estate swindle that literally hits close to home.

Lepionka skillfully weaves plot and character together. An admirable trait of Roxane”s is that she develops a bond with her clients. She isn’t just trying to get justice, but wishes to restore their lives. Part of this is tied to the fear of not wanting to be like her domineering father who passed away. Lepionka has made it a strong part of Roxane’s core, making it believable for her to put her at risk, both physically and emotionally.

Both books deftly weave Roxane’s relationship through both books. In What You Want To See, the plot focuses in on the complex relationship she has with her, driven by the pity Roxane has for her. The understanding she gets out of the situation is slight, but no less profound. If this all sounds touchy-feely, know there are a lot of shots fired.

With two books Kristen Lepionka has established herself as one of the major new voices of private eye fiction. She created a character that we root for not only to find the culprit, but to get a clue about what a decent person she really is. I can’t wait for the next step of her journey.

Going Home Again: An Interview With William Boyle

The real emotion and strong sense of place made William Boyle’s The Lonely Witness our Pick Of The Month for June. The book concerns his character Amy, who played a smaller role in his debut novel Gravesend, who has put her wilder ways behind her, delivering communion for the shut ins in her Brooklyn neighborhood. The job leads her to witnessing a stabbing and dealing with it in a way that both puts her in danger and has her flirting with her past life.

Bill was kind enough to let us ask him some questions about the book, it’s location, and influences.

MysteryPeople Scott: When you were writing Gravesend, did you know Amy had a bigger story in her?

William Boyle: I wasn’t thinking about a bigger story involving Amy as I was writing Gravesend but when I finished it she was a character that I really wondered and worried about. I named her Falconetti after the actress Renée Maria Falconetti from Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, one of my favorite films, so that—just that great name—was a draw to return to her. Pretty soon after I finished Gravesend, I was thinking about the poster for Hal Hartley’s Fay Grim, that iconic shot of Parker Posey, and I imagined a book called Falconetti. I didn’t know exactly what my approach would be—I didn’t wind up starting work on the book (which became The Lonely Witness) until early 2017—but I saw Amy as some kind of cross between Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and Willy Vlautin’s Allison Johnson. I liked the idea of her and Alessandra having had this whole relationship that we don’t see and then she stays behind in Alessandra’s neighborhood. My grandmother’s 90 and she was getting communion delivered at home, and I just started to see that this was what Amy’s life had become. I knew some things about her past from Gravesend; others revealed themselves as I wrote.    

MPS: You dig into that noir concept of the past coming back in a unique way. What did you want to explore with that concept?

WB: In a lot of ways, I think the book is about the ghost of past identities, how we can be all the versions of ourselves we’ve ever been simultaneously. I like the double action of the title. Amy witnesses crimes, but witness also has religious connotations. The book is haunted and even driven by Amy’s tortured spirituality. It’s not just that she was shaped by the crime she witnessed as a teenager; she was shaped by her mother dying, by her father leaving, by her Catholicism. All of these things are ghosts she can’t shake, which leads to a life of trying on new versions of herself, seeking something that fits. I love the idea of having a character like her driving a noir narrative—someone that’s neither one dimensionally good or bad, but who is a complicated and confused yearner. I just watched this great film, Christina Chao’s Nancy, and Andrea Riseborough’s character in that film really brought me back to Amy in a good way. Nancy does worse things than Amy, but they’re both searching for meaning, trying to understand how to exist in the world. They’re outsiders, on the margins of normal existence.

MPS: Besides familiarity, what does Brooklyn provide for you as a writer?

WB: It’s the landscape of my imagination. I spent—and continue to spend—so much time there that I can just think of a battered house on my block, and it’ll spark a story. It’s familiarity, definitely, but it’s also the mythology of it. To think of all the stories, the way it’s changed and changing. My part of Brooklyn is not the hyper-gentrified part people think of—the changes are interesting and really speak to a lot of what’s still great about New York City. I also like the idea of the way things change around people. My grandparents were in their house for sixty years, and everything changed around them. The house tells those stories. The sidewalk out front tells those stories. The weeds in the backyard tell those stories. I like walking around and seeing old signs that have been covered up or faded away. I also feel this melancholy when I’m back there that, I think, informs everything I write. I’m interested in people who are trapped in the neighborhood, chained to it, who live—essentially—a small town life in a big city.     

MPS: Scott Phillips once told me you can only really write about a place once you left it. Does the distance help you in any way?

WB: That’s definitely been true in my experience. But there’s also something about returning to a place a certain way. I’m back in Brooklyn a lot, probably two months a year, and when we’re there we stay with my mom and we visit my grandma in her nursing home in Coney Island (where she’s been about a year), and there’s something about being there that way that’s so intense, that brings me back so fully to my childhood and formative years, that really feeds my imagination. I’m hanging out with my mother, visiting her at work, meeting people at my grandma’s nursing home, seeing neighbors, taking lots of walks up to the avenue for groceries and coffee and to-go food. I’m back on the ground. I’m seeing all the same religious statues in yards, I’m seeing the same houses, the garbage in the streets, the El rumbling by, and I’m thinking about time in a way that I never quite have. I don’t know what it’d be like if I was totally removed from it—that’s just distant to my personal experience. Frankly, it scares and saddens me to think that someday my connection to Brooklyn might be more tenuous.

MPS: All your characters are vivid, even someone at the end of the bar for one page. Do you have a particular approach when writing those “smaller” characters?

That’s one of the real joys of writing for me. There are many writers and filmmakers I admire who make the most of every bit part, but I don’t know if anyone does it as meaningfully as David Lynch. Look at Twin Peaks: The Return. You’ll meet a character once—like Max Perlich in his brief cameo—and you wonder about him and marvel at his existence in the show. That’s the kind of thing a lot of people would cut—there’s no purpose, they’d say—but it adds layers of mystery and builds the world. You can have this whole story-within-a-story that’s moving and unexpected. I think my approach with those characters is just to see them as fully as I can, to try to witness their pain, to have this whole other story under the surface that brings the world to life. In The Lonely Witness, one of my favorite minor characters is Lou, who hits on Amy at Homestretch. He wasn’t there until he was, and that’s part of the joy, too. Painting away from the edges of the scene in the name of discovery.

MPS: Will the next book be in the shared world of Gravesend and The Lonely Witness or something completely different?

WB: The next book is set in the same Brooklyn neighborhoods with some parts in the Bronx and even a stretch up in the Hudson Valley. It takes place in 2006. It’s pretty much the same world of Gravesend and The Lonely Witness, but there are no direct connections beyond place. It’s really inspired by Jonathan Demme’s great screwball noirs, Something Wild and Married to the Mob, with maybe a little Shane Black mixed in there. It’ll be out this time next year, maybe sooner. The new book I’m working on is set in my neighborhood in 1991. The one I’m thinking about for after that will take place in the ‘80s. Again, the connection there will just be the place, though there might be some very minor character crossovers here and there.                                                                                                                                                         

Interview with Joe Lansdale

CrimeReads, the new crime fiction site, spun off by LitHub and partially overseen by our former Director Of Suspense, Molly Odintz, has been getting a lot of attention in the past few months. Recently, they asked MysteryPeople’s Scott Montgomery to interview his friend Joe Lansdale. So, hopped up on medicine for Cedar Fever, Scott discussed politics, religion, and writing. Check it out if you dare to know the results.