We continue celebrating International Crime Fiction Month with short stories chosen from the Akashic website’s Monday’s Are Murder. In “The Yellow Dress” Christopher Miguel takes us to Mexico for an elegant story of memory, romance, and, of course, crime.
Local author Manning Wolfe joins us Sunday, June 24th, at 2pm to talk with Jay Brandon and our Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery about legal thrillers. She wrote a post for us about how her book, Green Fees, came to be.
A few years ago, I read an article about naked women on a golf course serving up sex at each hole to golfers depending on their score (no puns intended). A news crew got wind of the event, flew over the course, and videotaped the action. Ironically, the charity event was for the Make a Wish Foundation. The play-by-play has gone viral on social media and been the basis of many golf jokes over the years.
Shortly after that incident, a young golf professional was referred to my law office asking for legal representation. He wanted to extricate himself from a usurious contract with a promoter, who was a de-facto loan shark. Under the agreement he was obligated to pay half of his earnings to the money lender. In addition, the pro’s hands were scarred from a childhood accident, and discomforting to look at. Surprisingly, they functioned well and purportedly enhanced his golf game.
About that same time, I met Barbara Puett, who became my golf instructor. Barbara was a protégé of Harvey Penick, both of Austin. He wrote Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book and she matched it with alittle green book, Golf Etiquette. I don’t know a single golfer who doesn’t own the Penick book, if not both.
The three concepts, lawyers, sex, and golf merged together somehow in my misguided mind, and a legal thriller, Green Fees, was conceived.
In Green Fees, young golf pro Mark Green borrows money from the wrong guy to keep his PGA tour dreams alive. He finds himself in so deep with Russian loan shark, Browno Zars, that he begs his lover and attorney Merit Bridges for her help.
Meanwhile, uncertainty and fear grip Austin as a murderer, who the press labels The Enforcer, avoids identification and capture.
After Merit uses every legal trick in her book to extricate Mark from Browno’s grip, she becomes a target of Browno. Merit awakens to find herself hanging from a meat hook in an Austin warehouse and staring into the face of evil.
What unfolds is a story of deceit and betrayal as the identity of The Enforcer is revealed. Merit must then outwit the sinister and dangerous adversary to save herself from torture and certain death.
In the tradition of Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, a Poirot mystery, Harlan Coben’s Back Spin, and Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, Green Fees takes place around the world of golf, but is not a golf mystery. It’s a legal thriller, an Austin mystery, and a cautionary tale about trust.
This week, I saw a news article about Whataburger serving hamburgers on tortillas because of the delivery of bad buns by suppliers.
I remembered a legal case in my office involving swans that had invaded an apartment swimming pool causing a lawsuit with the next-door neighbors.
I saw a graffiti artist being arrested near the South Lamar railroad tracks, carrying a bag of paint cans.
After a little contemplation, I wonder what my misguided mind might do with all that. Buns, Birds, and Body Bags?
Manning Wolfe, an award-winning author and attorney residing in Austin, Texas, writes cinematic-style, smart, fast-paced thrillers with a salting of Texas bullshit. Her series features Austin Lawyer Merit Bridges. As a graduate of Rice University and the University of Texas School of Law, Manning’s experience has given her a voyeur’s peak into some shady characters’ lives and a front row seat to watch the good people who stand against them.
Jay Brandon’s Against the Law features Edward Hall, a lawyer stripped of his license due to a criminal act in the court house. When his sister is brought to trial for murdering her estranged husband, he takes to her defense. Mr. Brandon will be joining fellow lawyer turned novelist Manning Wolfe at BookPeople on June 24th at 2pm. We caught up with him early to discuss the court system and writing about it.
MysteryPeople Scott: How did the idea for Against the Law come about?
Jay Brandon: I hadn’t written a legal thriller in a while, I wanted to write other kinds of books. One day when I was visiting Houston, where I went to law school, an old friend of mine took me to their Criminal Justice Center, a twenty-story building filled with courts and so many defendants. The elevators were a problem, he said. They were so slow and so crowded it took forever to get up or down. The local joke was “the Justice Center, only twenty minutes from downtown Houston.” That gave me an idea: a crime inside a courthouse. Who would naturally commit such a crime? A lawyer. That was the beginning. I’ve never had a courthouse itself figure so prominently in a novel. Ironically, by the time the book came out the Justice Center was non-functional, knocked out by Hurricane Harvey.
MPS: Edward possesses a jaded look out on his sister’s case. Is that due to the system or his circumstances?
JB: It’s because of his experience within the system. He knows that the vast majority of defendants are guilty of their charge. Worse, the system doesn’t know how to treat one who’s not: “the irregularly shaped pebble that rolls down the conveyor belt with all the other peas, into the can.” Besides, Amy is the perfect candidate. When one member of an estranged couple is murdered, where do you look for your prime suspect?
MPS: Because of the nature of Edward’s case, sibling dynamics are explored. What did you want to explore in that?
JB: That just grew out of the material. Edward is disbarred after having been convicted of his crime. I tried to think of a case that could bring him back to the legal world; a family member in jeopardy seemed right. I’ve written about families before, it’s a fascinating subject, but this time, maybe because the book is set in Houston, the family is rich and well-known. Edward and Amy’s father is a world-class diagnostician. Amy has followed in his footsteps to become a doctor too, and married a doctor as well. Edward, who started out as the favored son, fell into disfavor a little when he became a lawyer, and a criminal lawyer at that. His prison stint sealed his status as the black sheep of the family. But the case brings Edward and Amy closer than they’ve been since they were children. They learn secrets about each other, they depend on each other – even against their parents to a certain extent. But of course Edward can’t forget that she’s very likely a murderer. But wouldn’t you try to help your little sister escape prison even if she was.
MPS: The book has a lot of twists and reveals that fit so well with the pace and flow of the story. How much was planned ahead?
JB: I used to outline novels very rigorously, 20 or 30 page outlines. Now I just take a lot of notes and when I feel I have a good grasp of the idea (usually about 10-15 single-spaced pages of notes), I start. So much of the plot is planned, but a lot of it develops as the story grows. I love creating characters, it may be my favorite thing about writing. Plotting is harder, it’s like algebra problems. At a certain point the characters start taking over. They do what they’re going to do, not what I had planned for them. If they don’t start taking over their own lives and stories, they’re not very good characters.
MPS: As a lawyer, was there anything you wanted to get across about your profession?
JB: What a village the courthouse world is. Most lawyers aren’t criminal lawyers, most lawyers seldom or never go to court. Criminal lawyers do almost daily. So that building is its own world. Gossip sometimes seems to be the primary business of the courthouse. We all know each other’s business, or think we do. It’s great for storytelling. There are romances, rivalries, intrigues. It’s like high school, except they’re also sending people to prison.
MPS: What do writers who are non lawyers get wrong?
JB: One other thing I wanted to convey that non-lawyers often don’t understand about the adversarial system of trials is that people can oppose each other vigorously without being hostile. Once I tried a case, defending someone accused of vehicle theft, and I won. It wasn’t exactly a technicality, but it was some creative lawyering, I have to say. The judge said “not guilty,” I turned to my client, he said, “What now?” and I said, “Now you get to leave.” He thanked me and started walking out while I stayed at the counsel table. He looked back to see the two prosecutors I’d just won against converging on me and he looked anxious for me. What he didn’t see after he went out was the prosecutors shaking my hand and congratulating me. We knew each other, we’d worked together in the past, and they didn’t begrudge my victory.
The prosecutor in Against the Law embodies that. He and David were competitive colleagues in the DA’s office and now they’re pitted against each other. But the prosecutor isn’t a jerk about it. He knows how important the case is to Edward, but he has to do his job. But he does it in a collegial way. It’s not always that way in the practice of law, but when it’s done right it is.
We continue our celebration of International Crime Fiction Month with short stories from Akishic’s Mondays Are Murder posts. William J. Jackson, a writer known for depicting the humanity in the world’s trouble spots gives us the celebration of journalists around the world who sacrifice their lives for the truth.
Mike Nemeth uses the thriller in interesting and unique ways. He often has an institution as the enemy. With his second Randle Marks novel, The Undiscovered Country, it is the combination of family and the health care system. We talked to Mr. Nemeth, who will be at BookPeople June 16th at 2pm with Tim Bryant about how he tackles this form of crime writing.
MysteryPeople Scott: Did you know you had another novel in Randle Marks after Defiled?
Mike Nemeth: Yes, I had planned three standalone stories, all with Randle as the protagonist. Basically, a series of life challenges, told as thrillers, that illustrated the themes I wanted to make readers aware of.
MPS: Elmore Leonard said he always liked using someone out of prison as a protagonist because they could go anywhere morally. What did that part of Randle allow you to play to?
MN: Elmore Leonard is my inspiration for dialog and pacing, so I’m happy you brought him up.
In The Undiscovered Country Randle says, “I had picked up an abiding lesson from prison: I had a license to be disinhibited. I could do most anything to survive. Everyone in prison learned the same lesson.” He had been to hell and back so he feared no punishment for his behavior. He had complete freedom, and so did I as his director. He’s the scoundrel we root for.
MPS: One could argue you took a Pat Conroy-style southern family drama and gave it a thriller plot. What about family did you want to explore?
MN: Pat Conroy? I’m blushing! Southerners have an exaggerated sense of tribe combined with a deep-seated need for self-discovery and those characteristics drive the story along.
MPS: The Georgia setting also plays an important part, particularly when Randle investigates his family’s past. Was there anything you wanted to say about the south?
MN: My friend Johnnie Bernhard, a writer from Mississippi, said it best: “In the South, the past is never past.” I wanted the ambiance as well: heavy air, sultry nights, passion always close to the surface.
MPS: What impresses me about your books is how when most crime fiction and thriller authors have their hero take on the system, it’s usually in the form of one antagonist or two, but you are able to portray the whole bureaucracy, whether the legal system or health care, as the enemy. How do approach that aspect of your novels?
MN: I personalize the institutions. In Defiled, Tony Zambrano (Randle’s lawyer), Judge Matthews-Bryant, and Lieutenant Callahan behave generically to represent the legal system but in a specific, very personal circumstance for Randle and Carrie. In The Undiscovered Country, Dr. Metzger and Dr. Kaplan are the medical establishment. So we do have antagonists, but they abide by the universal truths of their institutions. I want the reader to get the point of the story, but I always want the reader to feel that Randle is battling specific people.
MPS: I’ve heard you’re planning a trilogy with Randle Marks. Can you tell us anything about the final chapter?
I regret now calling this a trilogy because there are so many interesting challenges I could give Randle. The next installment is about the decline of the middle class in America. Randle takes a job in the high tech industry and faces the moral dilemma of whether all advances in technology are intrinsically “good” despite their impact on society. Outsourcing, automation, artificial intelligence and robotics are relentlessly stripping away the jobs on which the middle class depends. Without a super-consumer middle class, where would America be in the world order? The thriller plot revolves around the return of Carrie to threaten Randle’s life reboot and his discovery of his true identity. Of course there will be murders to solve.
Thanks to Tim Bryant for writing a guest blog post for us about his books and where Wilkie is headed. Tim will be here Saturday, June 16th at 2pm with Mike Nemeth to discuss their work.
Wilkie John Liquorish has turned out to be every bit the handful I wrote him to be and then some.
Kensington Books put out the first book in the Wilkie John Western series, A World Of Hurt, in November of last year. The second, Dead And Buried, just followed at the end of May. I had just written the fourth book (Old Mother Curridge) of my Dutch Curridge Mystery series in which a flawed anti-hero private detective fought both society’s and his own worst ills in an attempt to level the uneven playing field of 1950s Fort Worth. With Wilkie John, I decided, I would push my protagonist as far as I could. Unfortunately, this also pushes the reader along with him.
Wilkie John is a seventeen-year-old boy, thrown into a violent and unforgiving world of 1880s Texas with no father, and worse, no moral compass at all. He’s trigger happy, and that’s just about the only kind of happiness he really knows. He shoots two people in the first chapter. The body count grows. At one point, he gets a job as a gravedigger, a job that seems to suit his abilities, as he can always kill someone if he needs the work.
There is a black humor to Wilkie John and to the book in general. He doesn’t wear a white hat. If that’s a problem for him, it seems to also be a problem for his readers. Reviews for the first book have proven divisive. One reviewer thought the tale completely unredeemable, even though he threw the book against a wall and failed to finish it. And, may I add, he did get all of his facts completely correct. I couldn’t disagree with much of what he said, although he did leave a great deal unsaid.
Is Wilkie John redeemable? Well, the reader will have to keep reading, but the protagonist does back his way into a job with the Texas Rangers. I finally came to the conclusion that readers who have trouble with the Wilkie John books dislike them mostly for their authenticity. Wilkie John is wild and a little wooly, but in a way very much like Billy the Kid. I started him off at the age of seventeen, both as a nod to Billy and as a way of giving myself lots of room to develop him. With that much room, I decided, I could also give him a lot of need for developing as well.
If the second book does as well as the first, we’re certainly hoping for a third in the series. I’ve learned to like Wilkie John just fine, so I do believe you can too. He’s got some growing up to do, but didn’t we all at seventeen?
The other thing of note about the Wilkie John westerns is that they’re based around the section of Fort Worth known as Hell’s Half Acre. The 1880s were the era when that outlaw section of town was gaining its fierce reputation. Other wild men like Butch Cassidy and Wyatt Earp (some people now misbelieve that he was a white hat wearing true blue good guy, but he was nothing of the sort) were gambling and carousing in the saloons and brothels there. It’s a fascinating time and place to throw a young morally-compromised boy like Wilkie John into.
In an example of getting the cart before the horse and pulling backward into the past, my Dutch Curridge detective books were also set in Hell’s Half Acre, years before I even thought of writing the westerns. They, however, were set during the sundown of that fabled place, as it was making way for the spiffed-up Fort Worth that we know today. In fact, Gary Goldstein at Kensington read those Dutch Curridge books and then gave me the opportunity to write for Kensington. He never stipulated that they be set in Fort Worth or in any specific location though. Of course, I had done a great deal of research on Fort Worth by that time, and I knew it was prime placement for a 1880s western series.
The Dutch Curridge books were successful enough to get me to where I am today. If you’re interested in the colorful history of Fort Worth or Texas in general, you might enjoy them. You might also enjoy the Wilkie John westerns, A World Of Hurt and Dead And Buried. All they really require is the love of a good story about real people. It might help if you lean more toward Elmer Kelton than Louis L’amour. (Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained and The Good Old Boys are still two of my favorite westerns.) As Elmer himself used to say, “I can’t write about heroes seven feet tall and invincible. I write about people five-foot-eight and nervous.” Wilkie John is five-foot-one with a king-size inferiority complex.
Texas in the 1880s was a wild and lawless place. It could still be that way in the 1950s. There are lots of tales about those days. Some aren’t tall at all. Sometimes they pack a pretty mean punch. Sometimes they shoot first and aim second. Sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction. Other times, fiction rings truer than any newspaper article or history book. Whether you like it or not.
The Undiscovered Country is an odd, yet satisfying thriller. It rests partly on a murder nobody knows has occurred. Yet author Mike Nemeth knows the mechanics of this genre and tells it like a master craftsman.
The main character, Randle Marks, has been recently paroled from prison for a crime he did not commit, and is on his way to getting his life back together. When he learns that his mother is seriously ill, he goes back to his Georgia home to help. What he gets in return is being caught in the crossfire of his feuding siblings, each angling for a large chunk of her estate, and questioning the practices of his mother’s care givers. He handles both by searching and researching uncovering secrets about his family and himself.
Nemeth lays a southern family drama over a thriller’s structure and pace. It owes more to Pat Conroy than Patterson. However, his thriller skills show through the pace of reveals and resolutions, to a classic finale with Randle revealing the final major truth to everyone he has called into a room. He often hits the story beats with an emotion that feels real rather than melodramatic.He taps into situations many of us deal with to connect with the suspense he creates.
The Undiscovered Country is that rare thriller where the reader can relate. He uses real frustrations we have with both the health care system and those closest to us to explore themes of identity and secrets that reverberate from the past. The result is a one of a kind story in the best way.
If you want to know more, join us this Saturday at 2pm as Mike Nemeth joins Tim Bryant here in the store for a discussion of their books!