Our March Pick Of The Month, Joe R Lansdale’s The Elephant Of Surprise, is a non stop action crime novel with his regulars Hap and Leonard trying to protect a girl with a lot of bad men after her during one of the biggest storms in East Texas. Joe will be here to talk about the book and sign at BookPeople on April 3rd. We got a few early questions in.
1. This is a little different from the normal Hap & Leonard. I couldn’t help think of siege movies like Rio Bravo or Assault On Precinct 13 when reading it. Did you have anything particular in mind when you set out?
I find Manny appealing, and I think she’s becoming more and more interesting as the series goes on. Look for her to take a larger role in the future.
4. With the exception of Manny, this is basically Hap and Leonard with the rest of the recurring cast sidelined. Did it feel different with it mainly being a boy’s night out?
It did, but that was the intent. I just wanted to get back to the guys and them handling action. They haven’t aged as much as me, but they are in their early fifties, and it’s starting to show, so I wanted to have them have this real strong, physical moment.
5. The weather is almost as much an adversary as the bad guys. What did you have do keep in mind with storm pounding down through most of the story?
It storms a lot here, so that wasn’t hard. Lot of folks think it was influenced by the terrible hurricane in Houston, but I was already writing it and had that to reinforce what I was doing. I also wanted to hint at climate change, and how things unseasonable, and it also helped deal with the storm inside the characters, as well as provide a limitation of movement to make the story more viable.
6. One thing I enjoyed about the this book is that the action is non-stop. What advice would you give about writing a great action sequence?
William Ard is an author mainly known to only the most avid genre followers. Dead from cancer by age thirty-seven in 1961, he wrote over forty books in the last ten years of his life. The fact that many of them were under pen names doomed him to further obscurity. Recently Stark House reprinted one of them, You’ll Get Yours in the Black Gat line. It may have originally been under the name Thomas Wills, but the story is pure Ard.
It was the first of two books he wrote about New York private eye, Barney Glines. A publicity agent hires Barney to be the go between to return some stolen jewels from his clients, starlet Kyle Shannon. Barney soon discovers that this is the cover for a blackmail plot and as he gets in deeper he is framed for the murder of a burlesque dancer. There are few people he can trust , including the the ones who hired him.
Barney Glines is very much a detective in the Ard vein. Unlike many writers chasing the popularity of Mike Hammer in the fifties, Ard, like some of his contemporaries, Thomas B Dewey and Ross MacDonald, created a sensitive and more socially aware detective. He could still handle his own in the streets, but he carried sympathy for many he met on them. This liberal empathy allowed the author to tap into the melancholy tone of the genre at a perfect pitch.
His view of women is also more sympathetic to the trials and tribulations of women. Much of what drives the plot is Barney’s love for Kyle and the need to rescue her from the men exploiting her. He also shows a great depth of understanding for the life of the murdered burlesque lady as well. This aspect of his work allows for a heart-breaker of an ending.
You’ll Get Yours is a great way to discover William Ard. I hope Stark House finds a way to publish the other Barney Glines book, Mine To Avenge. Both author and detective prove you can be hard boiled and have heart.
Mercy River, Glen Erik Hamilton’s third outing with ex-Army Ranger and ex (for the most part) thief Van Shaw, plays to his military background. When an army pal is charged for murder, a group of criminally bent rangers hold the evidence to clear him and will give it to Van if he helps them locate contraband that was taken from them. The book is topical with a moody, hard boiled attitude. Glen was kind enough to talk to us about it.
MysteryPeople Scott: With the previous books, you’ve mainly looked at Van’s criminal past, what did you want to explore about his time in the military?
Glen Erik Hamilton: In Mercy River, Van is among hundreds of his fellow Special Ops veterans, and that offers a chance to show both how Van is similar to his brothers in arms – most notably in his unwavering dedication to protect people for whom he cares – and also how he’s not your average Ranger, if there is such a thing. That intense military training forged something unique out of the raw ore of Van’s very unusual upbringing.
Specifically, readers get a view into some of Van’s earliest experiences in the Army – the uncompromising selection process for the 75th Ranger Regiment and the leadership program of Ranger School. These trials formed the foundation for his adult self, stepping away from the criminal perspective of his youth. They also established lifelong friendships, something that the solitary Van needed more than he knew.
MPS: You also took him out of his Seattle stomping ground and put him in a small town. Did that present any challenges?
GEH: Challenges and opportunities. Unlike Van’s established haunts, I had to create the Oregon town of Mercy River and its surrounding Griffon County from scratch. Which of course means I stole aspects liberally from real places. I visited mall towns (and ghost towns) and dramatic landscapes in sparsely populated counties like Wheeler and Wasco. People might have an image already in their mind when you say Seattle or Portland, but for more remote parts of Oregon, a writer needs to paint the picture of these beautiful and somewhat dangerous environs and provide some insight into a town struggling to survive.
The opportunities, of course, come from playing God as a fiction writer. Take a gigantic rock formation here, an abandoned mine from there, unique features of the local towns, and mix and match. I get to place Van’s adventures in the most striking locations imaginable. I also get to invent the history, politics, and law enforcement of the community of Mercy River, all of which play into the mystery Van must solve to save his friend.
As someone who has now lives away from your native Northwest, does it give you a different perspective when writing about it?
Absolutely – moving away from Seattle is what originally inspired me to write about it. The city has changed so dramatically in the past decade, it’s hard to encompass all of its transformations. For example, the gap between the haves and have-nots has become a chasm, and large swaths of the city have been razed and rebuilt, for good or ill. I have to – slash – get to visit Seattle frequently just to try and keep a pulse on current events and the challenges facing the Puget Sound area.
MPS: The book deals with both white supremacists and opioids, two things that have been in the news a lot. Is there a responsibility an author has when dealing with current topics?
GEH: First and foremost, a thriller has to entertain. But when my books involve subjects such as post-traumatic stress, or the opioid crisis, or the encroaching white nationalist movement, then I aim to use those story points as real matters in Van’s world and not just buzzwords. Van’s fictional fight is grounded in our battles to conquer those very real horrors. And if I’m very fortunate, his endurance might offer readers hope for our own victory.
MPS: You have some excellent action and heist sequences in the book. What do you keep in mind when writing those parts?
GEH: Thank you! First and foremost, any action scene has to be very clear to the reader.* That means understanding the geography of location and characters, the immediate danger, and the intent the protagonist has at any given moment. There are some rules of thumb: The faster the action, the slower the pace of the writing, and the shorter the sentences. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the writing will feel faster to readers, and action scenes are all about gut feelings. If my pulse quickens when I’m re-reading a draft – and bear in mind I already know what’s going to happen because I wrote the darn thing – then I’m on the right track.
*The exception to the “clarity” rule is when the protagonist’s head is addled due to getting hit or getting doped. That can be exciting too, as the hero or heroine scrambles to figure out what the heck is happening.
MPS: As a writer, what makes Van Shaw a character coming back to?
GEH: Van has experienced at least one full lifetime’s worth of drama and action, but he’s still a young man. While he might never admit it to himself, a part of him did not expect to survive this long. Instinctively, Van approached his time in Special Operations with the mindset of a samurai, being prepared to die any day. Now that he’s out in the world he’s having to learn skills that aren’t just tactical in nature. For example, forming lasting relationships and being part of a family. He also has to wrestle with his purpose in life, given that what he’s really good at – crime, violence, and ticking off dangerous people – often clash with the moral center he’s trying very hard to hang onto. That’s a lot of fun for me to write. I learn new things about Van with every book, and hope readers enjoy his growth as much as I do.
I’ll be very surprised if William Boyle’s A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself is not on my Top 10 at the end of the year. This humorous and at times harrowing look at a mob widow and retired porn star who connect over a stolen Impala, a bag full of mob cash, and some very bad men is one of the most unique and entertaining crime novels in some time. Boyle steadily building his reputation and in a perfect world, this would put him over the top. Bill was kind enough to take some questions bout it.
MysteryPeople Scott: Rena and Wolfstein are such unique characters. How did they come into mind for the book?
William Boyle: A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself started for me when my neighbor in Brooklyn told my mother and me a story about being invited over to our other neighbor’s house on the corner. When she got over to his house, he put on a porno movie and made a move on her. She left immediately, rushing home to her apartment. My brain was lit up with what ifs. What if she’d lashed out at him? What if she was a former mob wife, now a widow, who had felt protected her whole life but no longer had that sense of safety? My brain went there because the apartment she now lived in, the same one I had grown up in, was where the gangster Gaspipe Casso lived for years. What if, on top of that, she was intensely lonely, estranged from her daughter and granddaughter? That’s how Rena Ruggiero came to be.
The character of Lacey Wolfstein grew out of my desire to explore someone who was the polar opposite of Rena in so many ways: someone who had depended on friendship her whole life, someone who had lived hand to mouth, who had flown by the seat of her pants, who had been daring and wild and who could teach Rena to see the world in new ways. I’d always been fascinated by adult film star Lisa De Leeuw, who faded into obscurity and then disappeared, the legend being that she’d used dying of AIDS as a cover to assume a new identity and exist off the grid. I wanted to imagine an alternate history for someone like her, someone who had struggled after being spit out by the adult film industry and then thrived.
MPS: The thing that sets them apart from most crime fiction heroines is that they are over fifty. What did you want to explore with women of that age?
WB: I love noir about older characters. Louis Malle’s Atlantic City comes to mind. One of my favorite lines in all of cinema is when Burt Lancaster’s Lou looks out and says, “You should’ve seen the Atlantic Ocean back then.” It allows you to do reflection and nostalgia in a different way, to really dig deep with regret. I wanted to explore the mythology of New York City from the perspective of women who know how to survive.
MPS: Your first two novels were a bit more somber. Did you set out to write something funnier?
WB: I like depressing stuff a lot, but I wanted to write something more in line with Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys or Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob and Something Wild. Those films are main go-tos, and they bring me a lot of joy when I’m feeling unsure of things. So, yeah, I wanted to write something that—to me, anyway—was funny. I just didn’t know if it’d be funny to other people.
MPS: What I like about the humor in the book is that it plays to the characters instead of the other way around and it is grounded in some very harsh realities in these people’s lives. Can you tell us how you approach humor with the people you write about?
WB: Thanks! That’s a great compliment. I don’t know if I really have an approach of any kind. There’s a lot of humor in the way people talk to each other, for sure. That comes from people I’ve known, my grandparents, my mother, all this drama in the little things. My mom’s not generally a very funny person (I love her, but that’s just not who she is), but one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard is when a light bulb blew out in her kitchen and she said, “Nothing ever works out.” I laughed my ass off. My grandfather and grandmother were both hilarious. As a teenager, there was nothing I enjoyed more than coming home and have my grandfather recap what he’d watched on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood that morning: “Mr. Rogers took us to the crayon factory today,” or whatever. My grandmother was just fun and lighthearted, even when she was worried as hell. I think much of my sense of humor comes from them, this kind of mix of pessimism and joy.
MPS: Was there a particular reason to set the story in the early two thousands?
WB: Part of the book is set in a Bronx neighborhood where I lived for a couple of years. My wife’s family is all from there. We moved there in 2006. So, for practical reasons, I thought it’d be good to set the book in 2006 since I haven’t been back to that neighborhood since we left in 2008. It’s also a time when not everyone had cell phones yet (I got my first flip phone late in 2006), so I was glad not to have to account for that and still exist a bit in what was left of the old city: getting lost with no map, needing a payphone, whatever. The city’s changed so much in the last thirteen years. It had already started before then, but things really amped up by the late aughts.
MPS: Your mobster characters have a great feel of authenticity. How do you approach them?
WB: I was really fascinated with mobsters as a kid. Of course, I loved Scorsese movies. I read and watched anything I could get my hands on. I listened to neighborhood stories. As I was writing this book, I reread Jimmy Breslin’s The Good Rat to get me in the right head space. But, ultimately, I was just making stuff up, having fun, building off of the sorts of legends I’ve heard my whole life.
It’s been a while since we checked in with our friends at Shotgun Honey to see what new flash crime fiction they’ve gathered lately. We discovered newcomer B.L. Conrad with a clean writing style and proves he knows how to open and close a story. Check out “Home Invasion.”
William Boyle is steadily making a name for himself in crime fiction. He looks at the working and criminal class of his native Brooklyn with both an unflinching and sympathetic eye. In his latest, A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself, he demonstrates his range with that talent.
Rena Ruggerio, a mob widow of “Gentle” Vic Ruggerio, defends the advances of her elderly neighbor Enzio with an ash tray to the head. When he hits the floor and there’s blood everywhere, she panics and takes off in Enzio’s classic Impala to the Bronx where Angela, the daughter she hasn’t seen since she discovered she was involved with Richie, Vic’s right hand man. Angel turns her away but she meets up with her granddaughter, Lucia, at the house next door occupied by Wolfstein, a retired porn star who supplements her income scamming men. Lucia wants to live with Rena, because her mother is hooking up with Richie. Due to Richie’s slaughter of several crime family members, an old mark showing up at Wolfstein’s house, and a bag packed with mob money they end up with the three ladies hitting the road in the Imapala to Wolfstein’s freind Mo in Florida with Richie and a killer named Crea behind them. Oh, and Enzio is still alive and wants his car back.
This book differs in some ways from Boyle’s first two, Gravesend and The Lonely Witness, that both carried more somber tones. They showed the effect of isolation and how people become trapped in their lives and behavior. This story starts that way, with Rena contemplating how anything past her block is foreign to her. However when circumstances pull her with the brasher and more outgoing Wolfstein, she sees a larger world and place for her in it. Boyle tells a believable story of connection, particularly the female variety, and the give and take that plays out in it.
There are a lot more laugh out loud moments than you may be used to in Boyle’s work, but the humor services the characters instead of the other way around, which often happens in books of this type. In fact there is a touch of melancholy to some of it as is Rena and Wolfstein choose to laugh instead of cry at what is dealt to them. These women refuse to be punchlines and he respects that.
A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself is a look at female friendship up against the worst men can produce. It’s funny, thrilling, and scary at times. Boyle may have broadened his canvas, yet keeps that tone grounded and his characters real. If this one won’t get you to love him, I don’t know what will.
The Murder In The Afternoon book club will get a glimpse of current Detroit for our March discussion. Stephen Mack Jones got the attention of many with his debut, August Snow. The title character and his relationship to the city show great possibilities for a long-running series.
August is an ex cop returning to Detroit a few years after stirring things up. He won an eight million dollar lawsuit for being wrongfully fired after he blew the whistle on the mayor and some brothers in blue. He moved into his parents’ home in Mexican town, flipping other properties in the neighborhood as well as serving as its unofficial protector. When a finance magnate offers to hire him to look into questionable practices at her bank, he declines, but her suspicious “suicide” after draws him into a plot involving shady real estate and old enemies.
August Snow is a unique riff on the detective novel. We could talk about August himself for an hour. Join us Monday, March 18th, at 1pm on BookPeople’s third floor. The book is 10% off to those planning to attend.
Run Away by Harlan Coben: A few months ago, Simon Greene and his wife Ingrid made the difficult decision not to go after their drug addicted daughter Paige when she ran away to her abusive boyfriend Aaron. One morning Simon sees Paige in Central Park, a shadow of her former self, playing guitar for tips, but when he tries to talk to her Aaron intervenes. Countless cell phone cameras are there to record their encounter, and the resulting video of a privileged white man who tries to accost a young woman and then beats the homeless man who comes to her aid quickly goes viral. A few months later Aaron is dead and Paige is missing, and Simon is drawn into the dark underbelly of the New York drug scene to try to find her. You just can’t turn the pages fast enough. – Meike
A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself by William Boyle: The incredibly funny yet tough novel follows a mob widow and retired porn star thrown together through fate involving family dysfunction, bad men, and stolen mafia cash. Boyle works the humor toward the characters instead of the other way around and never lets it mute the danger these ladies are in or the people they are. Instead it serves as a way to explore female friendship. Major actresses over forty should be fighting over the film rights. – Scott
The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear: When a young American correspondent named Catherine Saxon is found murdered in her London apartment, Maisie is called in to investigate her death. She’s asked to work with Mark Scott, an American agent from the US Department of Justice–and the man who helped Maisie get out of Hitler’s Munich in 1938. While the blitzkrieg rains terror and destruction on London, Maisie is torn between the need to find Catherine’s killer and the need to love and protect her young ward Anna–and the pull of her feelings for the American agent. – Meike