In May the private eyes take over the month. From the iconic to the new, differing in age, race, and sexual preference, all three of these detectives prove the vitality of the genre.
Robert B Parker’s Old Black Magic by Ace Atkins
Spenser is hired by a prestigious museum to solve a twenty year old art theft. With help of his mob-connected ally Vinnie Morris, our Boston PI has to delve into a history of gangsters, art dealers, and double crosses that has resurfaced in the present with deadly consequences. Atkins delivers Parker’s iconic hero into one of the more intricate plots he or Robert B. Parker came up with.
What You Want To See by Kristen Lepionka
When a possible cheating fiance Roxanne Weary tails end up murdered, her client becomes the main suspect. In an attempt to clear his name, she comes up against a real estate scam that literally strikes close to home. This follow up to Lepionka’s brilliant debut, The Last Place You Look, and proves she and Roxanne have what it takes for the long haul.
Blackout by Alex Segura
Pete Fernandez returns to his Miami home to locate a politician’s missing son who resembles someone who disappeared after he was seen with Pete’s high school crush before she was murdered. To unravel the mystery, Pete has to deal with the mob, a political assassination, and old wounds. The book is a great balance of action and emotion. Alex Segura will be at BookPeople May 16th.
Ricky Bush puts his love and knowledge of the blues into his crime fiction. In his latest, The Oaxacan Kid, blues collector Foster Cane is on the hunt for a recording performed by a Latino harmonica player. His search leads to a human trafficking ring and his father’s killers. Billy will be joining author and filmmaker John Shepphird May 5th at 2PM, but we caught up with him earlier to discuss writing and music.
MysteryPeople Scott: Which came first, the character of Foster Cane or the story about the Oaxacan Kid?
Ricky Bush: My story germinated around the idea of a collector of rare blues records intent on tracking down an obscure bluesman. So, I guess I fleshed out Foster Cane first. During the ’60s a folk music revival was afoot and a lot of musicologists began discovering early blues recordings and started scouring the Mississippi Delta looking for those musicians. They recorded them and brought them out of obscurity, which launched a blues revival. The Oaxacan Kid became Foster’s target. Since few Hispanics have recorded blues, I thought I’d add that twist.
MPS: The blues world serves as a back drop for your books and you are an accomplished harmonica player. What do you want to get across to the reader about the music?
RB: Blues music reflects the human condition. The music is much more bipolar than some people realize, swinging from sad and lonely to upbeat and joyful. Yeah, there are a lot of blues about losing a good woman (or man), but plenty more about finding a good woman (or man), and all life experiences in between.
MPS: Do you see anything it has in common with crime fiction?
RB: Crime fiction is all about the blues. The genre reflects the human condition in much the same way. Plenty of blues recordings are crime stories personified. Check out Pat Hare’s version of ‘I’m Gonna Murder My Baby’ from 1954. Sad thing is that he did just that. Another good example is Lazy Lester’s ‘Bloodstains On The Wall’. That’s crime fiction.
MPS: Family runs through the novel with Foster and his antagonists both having to deal with their relations. What did you want to explore in those dynamics?
RB: You’re right. Family dynamics drive the plot and theme throughout The Oaxacan Kid. The Morenos are as tight knit as the Cane family. One is more intent on the preservation of criminal enterprise and the other is intent of the preservation and safety of the family. ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Sopranos’ explored those dynamics in depth. The ‘Breaking Bad’ series dove into the same waters. I think just exploring how far one will go for love of family, whether it’s controlling criminal territory or the attitude of ‘not with my family, you won’t’ will always create the tension needed to drive a story.
MPS: You use Houston well. Other than familiarity what does the city provide you as a writer?
RB: I grew up sixty miles south of Houston and have lived ninety miles east of Houston for over thirty years. My wife’s from Houston, so I know pretty much know the city. Spent tons of time in the excellent blues venues in Houston and my first protagonists are blues harmonica musicians who gig in Houston and those blues clubs serve as models for my first three books. Houston is constantly dealing with human and sexual trafficking and historically has been a conduit for drug smuggling from Mexico. The Oaxacan Kid explores those themes.
MPS: If you were introducing someone to the blues, what three albums would you tell them to listen to first?
RB: Gotta start with the roots. ‘The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson’ is essential because he’s the most influential for those that followed. Muddy Waters ‘His Best 1947-1955′. He took the blues from Stovall Plantation to Chicago, amplified it, and created the greatest blues band ever. He introduced the world to Little Walter, the greatest harmonica player-ever. Howlin’ Wolf ‘The Definitive Collection’. The Wolf’s blues is gritty, down in the alley, gut bucket blues on par with Muddy’s influence on the genre.
John Shepphird is not only an award winning crime author, he also has spent years as a director of movies in the low budget arena for cable networks like SyFy and ABC Family. He puts that to use in his latest novel, Bottom Feeders. A put upon director struggling to shoot a period drama on a shoe string budget not only has to put up with a diva of a leading lady and tight schedule, but soon someone is knocking off members of the cast and crew with a bow and arrow. It’s a classic whodunnit with a fun insider’s look at the temporary community a film crew forms. John will be here on May 5th at 2PM with fellow crime writer Ricky Bush. We found some time to talk with him earlier about crime fiction and film making.
MysteryPeople Scott: As somebody who worked on film sets in the past, you captured the weird bubble of a society it creates. What did you want the reader to know about film work?
John Shepphird: You rarely see the actual world of low-budget film-making represented and I thought I’d write what I know. Having directed nine TV/straight-to-video movies and hours of television, I’m part of the community of artists that create entertainment found on the fringe of your cable guide–SyFy Channel, Lifetime, USA Network and ABC Family. Contrary to what people are led to believe, there is very little glamour in movie making. You have to get up very early. The hours are brutal and schedules change day-to-day. This is especially true in low budget. There have been plenty of books, movies and TV shows depicting the world of stars, agents, limos and personal assistants. That’s all so cliché. I wrote about the people who aspire to bat in Hollywood’s major leagues.
MPS: While edgier, the mystery is in an Agatha Christie amateur-sleuth. Did a tale with a non-professional investigator in the lead present any sort of challenge?
JS: I love a whodunit. It’s the perfect balance of structure and character. That was my jumping off point. The cast and crew on a set becomes a temporary family with many similar dynamics found in an actual family, including all the dysfunction. I like to put my characters in a pressure cooker, then take a deep-dive into their best and worst behavior. Sondra, the San Bernardino County Deputy Sheriff, is the one outsider, a professional investigating the brutal murders — but she is not the primary focus to drive the mystery. She has challenges and flaws of her own and it’s her perspective that serves to escalate enlighten the story.
MPS: While the book has a unique voice and take its roots are hard planted in the traditional whodunit. Did you draw from any influences?
JS: I’d met author Michael Nethercott at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Albany just as his first novel The Seance Society came out. It paid homage to Agatha Christie, but also Arthur Conan Doyle and Rex Stout. I don’t necessarily read cozies. I write dark suspense and noir, but I liked the book so much I bought copies and gifted it to friends and family. I’d been thinking about starting a whodunit but it was this book that inspired me to take a crack. Bottom Feeders started out as an exercise, then the characters took on a life of their own.
MPS: Which character is the closest to you or someone you worked with?
JS:. Every character is derived from people I’ve worked with, and not necessarily on the films I wrote and directed but also the projects I was hired on as a crew member. Director Eddie’s perspective is probably the closest to mine as he tries to navigate the treacherous waters, and not go down with the ship. There’s a lot of things to worry about, believe me. Many who work in film and TV are very passionate about what they do. I have great respect for them. We’re all a little crazy, sure, and most of us will admit it. I dedicated this book to them.
I dedicate this novel to the legions of hard-working craftspeople and performers who have carried sandbags, set lights, cobbled together wardrobe, swung microphones, memorized dialogue, painted sets, dusted faces, pulled focus, teased hair, coordinated chaos, hit their marks, and built it all up only to tear it down again—making something out of nothing. To the dreamers and the schemers in the low-budget trenches, this is for you.
MPS: Did writing about a subject you knew so well actually present any challenges?
JS: If anything I wanted to include more of the details baked into low-budget filmmaking but they don’t necessarily advance the story. Once the action kicked in I couldn’t slow the pace to explore nuance. The technology has changed, but the fundamentals of motion picture production has remained the same–cut to the chase.
MPS: How many times have you wanted to commit murder on set?
JS:. I’ve never had urge to kill cast or crew because they’re like family. There are a few executives and producers I’d considered taking a swing at back in the day. Ultimately nature took its course. In the span of my career three executive producers have been incarcerated for securities fraud including Jordan Belfort, the actual “Wolf of Wall Street” depicted by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film. Another producer was jailed in a surrogacy/medical-tourism scheme. The world of independent film is ripe with personalities. There are hidden agendas. Get movie professionals together and horror stories will be swapped. We’re all just crazy enough to jump back into the flame.
William Boyle has worked his way into becoming one of crime fiction’s talents. I learned about him through both Ace Atkins and Megan Abbott. Tom Franklin is also a vocal fan. In both his short story collection, Death Have No Mercy, and debut novel Gravesend, he chronicles the battered souls of working class East Coast in a way that hits the heart without being maudlin. His second novel, The Lonely Witness, proves he is taking his skills further.
His main character, Amy, appeared in Gravesend as a lover to the female lead Alyssandra. Here, she has put down her party girl ways behind her, delivering communion for the shut-ins of her Brooklyn neighborhood, living in a basement apartment of a lonely older man who would be like to be her surrogate father. The existence of quiet or possible penance is rocked when one of the elderly women she visits worries about a friend’s son, Vinny, who came into her house and rummaged through her things, looking for something to steal.
Amy follows Vinny one night, only to witness him get stabbed. Instead of going to the police, she picks up the dropped murder weapon and looks into the murder herself. Soon, she feels like she is being stalked by the killer. Between the danger she has placed herself in and the return of both Alyssandra and a father she thought was dead, Amy is compelled to return to her old ways.
Boyle subtly taps into noir’s sense of despair and desperation. His Brooklyn shows the neighborhood which gentrification has either ignored or pushed aside. Anybody over thirty speaks of the old ways and listens to old music, even if it was before their time. Everyone is in search of a life whether in the promise of a future or knowing comfort of the past, and crime seems to be the only way out. Most of the reveals in the book aren’t earth shattering, they are small, precise, and painfully human.
The journey Boyle takes Amy through may be small in geography, but he makes the possible falls from the sidewalk to the gutter bottomless. His people commit desperate acts they don’t fully understand to escape their community of decay. What makes William Boyle’s work ring with such a strong and true voice is that he realizes for many daily life is a struggle. His writing prays for them.