SHOTGUN BLAST FROM THE PAST- UNDERSTUDY FOR DEATH BY CHARLES WILLEFORD

Charles Willeford pushed the boundaries of what we define as crime fiction. Many of his books just skirted with a crime, but his portrayal of characters you had to take on their own terms, examination of life in both quiet and loud desperation, and frank depictions of sex that were rarely romantic placed him as a stalwart of the genre. Recently Hard Case Crime brought back a book that is indicative of Willeford’s style that has been out of print for over half a century, Understudy For Death.

Understudy for Death Cover ImageThe story is driven by Marion Huneker, an upper middle class woman who shoots her two sleeping children, then pulls the trigger on herself. The book opens with the news story in the local paper that even prints the suicide note she left that explains little more than her seeing this place as a cruel world. The editor would like to use the incident for a several issue exposé on suicide and puts his night man Richard Hudson on it.

Hudson reluctantly takes the piece. For one, he is not one of those driven reporters out for the truth and a scoop. He dreams of quitting his job to be a famous Broadway playwright even though he has been working on the same unfinished script for years. He also has no sympathy for a woman who killed her two children.

He interviews several people who knew Huneker. A bartender at her club, a girlfriend, who he has a fling with, and her husband give murky puzzle pieces to her life. Her creative writing teacher, a hack short story man for the magazines, proves the most insightful to the woman as well as probably conveying Willeford’s thoughts on the writing business at the time. Hudson becomes much like the reporter in Citizen Kane, peeling each layer of the woman’s life through the people that knew her, but there is no Rosebud.

In fact, the more Hudson digs, the story becomes more about marriage than suicide. He and his wife Beryl, are in a stale part of their relationship and he chafes at matrimony’s constraints. As the secrets of both the late Mrs. Huneker and Beryl are revealed to him, he ties the suicide to happiness (or lack there of) in being a wife and mother.

Willeford captures the surrealness of a group that lost someone to suicide. He avoids any pat answers and delivers a subtle mood to portray the void that now hangs over everything. As someone who lost a co-worker to suicide the day between finishing the book and writing this review, I can attest to its emotional accuracy.

He also gives us an unconventional point of view to take it all in with Richard Hudson. The reporter is self involved, petty, and commits a handful of misogynistic acts. We mainly follow him because of his worldview and possibly identify with him in ways we would rather not. He embodies a perfect example of suburban ennui. He would love to be a rebel, but he lacks the courage, so he simply holds things in contempt. At the end, we are not entirely sure if he completely learned the lesson or learned it right.

Understudy For Death is elusive in its themes as it is in the reason for Marion Huneker’s suicide. It is the study of a fresh void and the life around it. Like many of Willeford’s novels, it portrays death as that unavoidable thing and the way we deal with it in our lives. Willeford held up a mirror to the reader and didn’t care if you liked what you saw.

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INTERVIEW WITH WALLACE STROBY

We talked with Wallace Stroby about his latest, Some Die Nameless.

MysteryPeople Scott: Some Die Nameless is a bit different from your other work. How did the idea for it come to you?

Image result for wallace strobyWallace Stroby: After the fourth Crissa Stone novel, The Devil’s Share, I decided both she and I needed a break. The end of that book had left her damaged, disillusioned, and on her way to Europe, so it felt like a natural time to do a standalone. I was also interested in writing about the lingering effects of war. The main character, Ray Devlin, is a former mercenary haunted by atrocities in which he’d participated. And one of the chief villains, Lukas Dragovic, is an orphan who lost his entire family in the Balkan wars of the early ‘90s, and bore the effects of that. Lukas has a substantial chip on his shoulder, and for good reason.

MPS: One of the protagonists is a journalist. What did you want to express about your former profession?

WS: I miss it, though the business has changed dramatically – and not for the better – since I left it in 2008, after 23 years. I’d at one point considered pairing Devlin with a female FBI agent, but that seemed too much of a cliche. I realized if I was ever going to write about journalism and newspapers, now was the time. The business has been savaged in the last few years with layoffs, cutbacks and closures. Papers have been gutted by hedge-fund managers, and thousands of journalists have been thrown out of work. Things have only gotten worse since, with a violent attack on a Maryland newsroom in June, and a U.S. president who regularly refers to the free press – a cornerstone of democracy – as “the enemy of the American people.”

MPS: How did you go about constructing a character like Ray Devlin, who could have turned into more of a Jason Bourne type, instead of the more down-to-earth vein you were going for?

WS: I love those types of films and books, but don’t think I could write one. I wanted Devlin to be in his mid-to-late 50s, with physical limitations consistent with his age. He can handle himself in a fight, but not as well as he used to, and the aftereffects last longer. Also, Devlin was never any sort of elite special forces operative. He was just a grunt who left the Army to join a private firm, and whose primary function was to train indigenous forces in basic military tactics.

MPS: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this is the first time you have two protagonists working together. What was that dynamic like for you?

WS: I guess I got tired of writing about isolated loners, and though both Devlin and Tracy are that (Devlin by choice, Tracy not so much), I liked the idea of bringing them together. They each have pieces of the puzzle, without knowing how it all fits together – if it fits together at all. As they figure it out, it puts them both in danger. So they’re wary of each other at first, then drawn together for self-preservation.

Some Die Nameless Cover ImageMPS: You’ve dealt with political corruption before in your books, but not at this high a level. Were you wanting to explore something about our country’s policies? 

WS: I think it was less politics and policies than just the general tone I’m feeling in the country these days. Everyone’s unapologetic-ally on the grift, using their offices to enrich themselves, punish their enemies and reward their friends and investors. Ethics are for losers. It’s disheartening on a daily basis. We left normal in the rear view a long time ago.

MPS: Were there any other books or movies that worked as an inspiration for Some Die Nameless

WS: I wanted to do something where there was a street-level crime linked to a much-bigger conspiracy, an idea I explored a little in Devil’s Share, where a simple truck hijacking was tied to the looting of Iraqi artifacts. So I had that general concept even before I knew what the plot would be. I also had in mind books like William Goldman’s Marathon Man and Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, in which everyday crimes – muggings, dope dealing – were actually part of global conspiracies, but only experienced by the characters at the personal levels in which they were involved.

At the same time, there are homages in there to two of my favorite crime writers – John D. MacDonald and James Crumley. Like MacDonald’s Travis McGee, Devlin lives mostly on a boat (though not a houseboat). And in Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, his detective, C.W. Sughrue, drives a Chevy El Camino. For Devlin, I switched the model to a Ranchero, which was Ford’s version.

MPS: What are you working on next for readers?

WS: Another change of pace. Working on a standalone, a relatively small-scale suspense novel. No title yet. I’ll also have a Crissa Stone short story in an upcoming anthology, At Home in the Dark, edited by Lawrence Block. That should be out at the end of this year or beginning of next. And hopefully at some point she’ll be back in a novel.

 

INTERVIEW WITH ROB HART

Rob Hart has put his hero, unlicensed private detective Ash McKenna, through the wringer both physically and emotionally. He hasn’t even let him stay put in one city —  he has had to leave New York, Portland, a commune in Georgia, and then Prague in each book. In Potter’s FieldAsh returns to his Big Apple home, hoping to get his life together and find peace, but not until his former boss drag queen crime boss.

Potter's Field (Ash McKenna #5) Cover Image

MysteryPeople Scott: What made you want to have Ash in only five books?

Rob Hart: This may sound ridiculous but Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt series was five books, and I got it in my head that five was a good number. But as I was laying out the arc of Ash’s story, it made a lot of sense—three wasn’t enough, five was just right. And as much as I love writing him I needed to have an endpoint. The series is about a kid growing up and finding his moral compass, and it doesn’t work if he never finds it.

MPS: This is the final book, so, did Potter’s Field end up how you thought it would or did it change as you developed the character for the series?

RH: I was actually pretty locked-in early on, in that I knew he would come back to New York in the final book. But I didn’t realize how much of the fifth book would end up on Staten Island—nearly the entire thing, with a brief jaunt into Manhattan. I live on Staten Island and writing Potter’s Field made me realize how much I appreciate it, and this felt like I was doubling down on that. Especially since Staten Island hasn’t always had the greatest portrayals in arts and media. It’s so much more than a giant garbage dump and loud Italians.

MPS: You deal with Staten Island’s drug scene in this book, what did you want to convey about that world?

Image result for rob hartRH: The problem is much bigger than the individual user. If anything, I think users are unfairly demonized. The opioid crisis can be traced back to pharmaceutical companies that knew opioids were incredibly addictive, but did their best to hide that so they could maximize profits. And now a whole generation of people are hooked on heroin because of a bunch of rich craven assholes. I think there needs to be a lot more thought and compassion for what this crisis looks like on the ground level.

MPS: Do you feel New York has changed since Ash left or it is more seen through the eyes of someone who has changed?

RH: It has and it hasn’t. New York is a city of constant change—as much as the people who live here want it to remain the same, that’s not the nature of it. You just have to hold on and go along with it. If anything, that’s the feeling I wanted to get at. In New Yorked, the first book, Ash was one of those people who rages against every old business that closes, so by the fifth book, I wanted him to find that place of serenity, accepting the things he cannot change.

MPS: Ash runs into a couple other detectives as he searches for someone to apprentice with. Were you hinting at any new projects down the road with him?

RH: My publisher keeps reminding me that Dennis Lehane took a ten-year break on the Kenzie and Gennaro books. I am not opposed to writing more Ash, but definitely not for the foreseeable future. I needed those grown-up, real-deal private detectives to ground Ash’s journey and give him a reference point. The series, as a whole, is the origin story of a private detective, but he’s never even met one before.

MPS: How did it feel to finish Ash’s story, at least for now?

RH: Bittersweet. Ash’s voice is like an old pair of sneakers: comfortable to slip on, fits great, and you can walk for miles. But wear them for too long and they’ll break down and fall apart. I’m happy to be moving on to new things, but I’ll keep the shoes in the closet, just in case.

Megan Abbott on misogyny in crime fiction

Megan Abbott not only one of our favorite writers here at MysteryPeople, she is one of the most insightful when in comes to understanding crime fiction. Recently, she a lot of attention from an article in Slate about how she looks as the misogyny in classic crime fiction, particularly with her “first noir love” Raymond Chandler in the MeToo# movement. Tomorrow, you can experience her full genius as she and Ace Atkins (The Sinners) discuss their books and crime fiction.

FAMILY AND FIREARMS: AN INTERVIEW WITH ACE ATKINS

The Sinners continues Ace Atkins’ southern crime fiction series with Afghan war vet and Mississippi sheriff Quinn Colson. His jurisdiction of Tibbehah County is hopping with a murder tied to a nemesis of the previous sheriff, Quinn’s dead uncle. His buddy Boom finds himself working for a questionable trucking company. All his tied to Mississippi queen-pin Fannie. If that wasn’t enough, Quinn’s getting married. Ace will be at BookPeople on July 24th with Megan Abbott with her new book Give Me Your Hand to sign and discuss their latest books and crime fiction. We caught up with him early to catch us up with Quinn.

MysteryPeople Scott: Family plays a big part in the series, but especially in this one, with Quinn going after a criminal family who are in some part a result from the sins of his uncle. You also have him getting married. What did you want to explore?

The Sinners (Quinn Colson Novel #8) Cover ImageAA: When I first started this series, I liked the idea of playing with time. Being able to go back into the history of Tibbehah County and seeing the ripple effect of major events really interests me. Or as Mr. Faulkner says, the past is never dead . . .

I hope as the series moves forward to really explore the county — from its founding to the wild days of bootlegging and beyond. The connection to the important – and infamous – families keep us all tied to one big story.

MPS: I was happy to see Boom get a large amount of time as a character. What made you want to put more focus on him?

AA: I figured it was about damn time. Boom has been a supporting figure for far too long. He’s always interested me as a complex man who’s been to hell and back, coming home from Iraq with a horrific injury. I wanted Boom to to have his own story, away from Quinn, and outside Tibbehah County. I’d always like the idea of truckers, a big fan of the trucker films of the 70s, and thought Boom was ideal to take the wheel. I’ve heard about a lot of one-armed truckers who overcame their disability and conquered the road. There was no doubt Boom could do it.

MPS: Fannie grows to be a more complex and interesting character with each book. How did she initially come to creation?

Image result for ace atkinsAA: Oh, I love Fannie, too. She’s so much fun to write. She really came from a few places. Most notably Joan Crawford’s performance as Vienna in Johnny Guitar. I also borrowed a lot from a woman named Fannie Belle, a real life madame, I’d written about in one of my True Crime Novels, Wicked City.

I think her role – in the big picture of all the novels – has certainly grown. And her relationship with Quinn and her cohorts in the Dixie Mafia has only gotten more complex. She is a very strong independent woman in a male dominated world of crime. But she proves time and again, she can outsmart them all.

MPS: There is a great balance of the crime plot and the planning of the wedding, that never feels like a B story. What does that part of the book allow you to do with Quinn?

AA: That was really the toughest part of The Sinners for me. I knew Quinn was going to marry Maggie going back to The Fallen. It’s high time for him to get hitched, although he’ll never settle down. But I didn’t want write anything overly sentimental or melodramatic. And that’s hard as hell with a wedding. I think Quinn getting married, and now having a family with a young son, will only make the stories more interesting.

MPS: Do you think marriage means Quinn is settling down or will provide new struggles for him to deal with?

AA: I’d look at Quinn being married like Spenser with Susan Silverman. Just because a man is monogamous doesn’t mean his life is boring. In fact, I find the the bed-hopping hero to be a little old and unbelievable. Maybe in the sixties. But not now. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rolled my eyes at an author writing a hero who’s irresistible to women.

MPS: You’ll be doing an event with us at BookPeople with Megan Abbott. What makes her a stand-out author to you?

AA: Megan Abbott is simply the best! I admire her writing and her knowledge of the genre a ton. Whether it’s film noir or classic hard boiled heroes, few know more than Megan. We’ve been close friends for a long while and can’t wait to sit down and talk about her novel in Austin. Her latest book — Give Me Your Hand – is just outstanding, gut wrenching and mean as hell. I loved it.

FALLING IN LOVE WITH YOUR MYSTERIES: AN INTERVIEW WITH MEGAN ABBOTT

When it comes to portraying the darkest desires of the human heart and the actions they trigger, Megan Abbott writes about them with grace and elegance that creates eerie noir able to completely connect with the reader. Her latest, Give Me Your Hand, uses the backdrop of the science field to look at the danger of ambition and secrets with two researchers reunited in competition for a research project under an esteemed scientist and a shared confidence severed their bond in high school. Megan will be joining Ace Atkins whose new book is The Sinners for an event here Tuesday, July 24th at 7pm.

Image result for megan abbottMysteryPeople Scott: On first glance, the world of science and the lab seem like an atypical setting for noir. What did it allow you to do with the genre?

Megan Abbott: I guess I’ve always thought of labs as spooky places, full of atmosphere. Slick surfaces, dark corners and the body and mortality. Blood. And once I started to read about the hothouse environment in competitive labs, I knew it was perfect.  

MPS: What was your biggest take away in researching that world?

MA: The stakes are very high there. I became fascinated about stories of “labotage”—researchers sabotaging one another’s work, mixing up slides, dumping results. And it’s also a world where women are still very much in the minority, making it very complicated for women working in that world…which is what we see with Kit and Diane.

MPS: How did premenstrual dysphoric disorder become the research subject?

MA: Given the lack of funding for research into women’s health issues, I knew I wanted them to be studying a “female” condition. And I began reading about PMDD (AKA extreme PMS)—how calamitous it can be for women who suffer from it, how it can rule their lives. The extreme mood swings, the anger, the despair. I’m always drawn to stories that enable you to explore the way women’s bodies are seen as disruptive, dangerous.

MPS: Diane is one of those noir characters you often use who is part a full-fledged person and part the gaze of the protagonist. Do you have to keep anything in mind when dealing with that kind of character?

MA: What a great question. I think, with those characters, they’re mysteries to me during the first stages of writing the book. And then I slowly uncover their secrets—as I did Diane. And then ultimately, I grow to love them—as I did Diane. And that love is the only way the book works, if it does. I have to fall in love with my mysteries.

MPS: How did you get the name Diane Fleming, since it fits both who she is and what people picture her to be perfectly?

Give Me Your Hand Cover ImageMA: Boy, names are so hard. I usually keep changing the name over and over until one finally sticks, feels right. And I admit, this one just came to me. I hadn’t even thought of its larger resonances, but you’re right!

MPS: I couldn’t help but think Severin’s lab with a pool of smart talented people working on a project by an esteemed professional in the field sounded to me what the writers’ room of “The Deuce” might be like. Did you pull anything from your own experience for Give Me Your Hand?

MA: Haha! I don’t think so. But it was a very male environment for Lisa (Lutz) and me, so maybe there’s something to it!

MPS: You’ll being doing an event with us on July 24th with Ace Atkins, a writer who you are a big fan of. What do you admire about him?

MA: His ability to pound bourbon and talk Burt Reynolds movies until all hours of the night? His good looks and charm? Yes, yes, and yes. But most of all, it’s his books. I’ve read them all, I love them all, and The Sinners is Ace at his best. No one paints a world more vividly than Ace. No one has a richer palette of characters. He’s the best.