Today is the start of the fiftieth anniversary of Bouchercon, the world’s biggest crime fiction conference. This year it is being held in Dallas with the taoist master, a local favorite, Harry Hunsicker. In a piece written for Akashic, Harry examines how growing up in The Big D influenced him and his writing.
Our Pick Of The Month, Dry County, has been getting a lot of notice. The violent domino effect of a preacher dealing with a blackmail predicment over Easter weekend, gives a dark comic look at faith and small town life. It’s author, Jake Hinkson, was kind enough to take some questions from Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott Montgomery.
Scott Montgomery: While Weatherford is a hypocritical preacher, he doesn’t fall into the stereotype of one. How did you approach him?
Jake Hinkson: With all due respect to Sinclair Lewis, I wanted to go beyond the Elmer Gantry model of the hard-drinking, womanizing, hypocritical preacher. I really see Weatherford as a conflicted man, first and foremost. He wants to be one kind of man, but he’s actually another kind of man, and he’s tortured by the contradiction, and he’s desperate not to have anyone find out. I tried to focus on that aspect rather than just saying, “Here he is being a hypocrite.” We’re all contradictory, every one of us. In some ways, the book is about him having to face who he really is, what he really believes. That’s when things start getting scary.
SM: How did 2016 Easter weekend become the time for the story?
JH: The book actually started with the Easter weekend idea. I’ve always been fascinated with Black Saturday because if Jesus died on Friday and rose on Sunday, then he was dead on Saturday. What was that day like? Mankind had killed god, and on that day it all seemed pretty bleak. I thought, “You know, that would be a good setting for a story about religious doubt.” I started the book in late 2014, and as the election came and went, I thought, “I should set it during the 2016 election.” It seemed like the natural thing to do.
SM: What prompted the use of multiple points of view?
JH: Originally, I thought the book was just going to be told from the point of view of Weatherford and Brian, alternating between the two of them. But as I began to write, it became apparent that the book would work better if these other voices came into the mix. Where it really came together was the voice of Penny Weatherford, the preacher’s wife. She’s kind of the secret center of the narrative. She snuck up on me, and hopefully she’ll sneak up on the reader. Alternating between all these voices was a lot of fun.
SM: By traveling through these characters you get a strong sense of this town and its different social stratas. What did you want to explore about small town society?
JH: Maybe my favorite detective series is Walter Mosely’s Easy Rollins books, at least the first five or so, and one thing I love about them is the way they reveal the co-mingling of the high and low stratas of Los Angeles society. (You find this a lot in Chandler, of course, though I think Mosely, at his best, does it better.) Well, what’s true for the big city is no less true for the small town. You may be a big fish in a small pond, but you’re still stuck in the same pond.
The other thing I’ll say about this is that a small town is a complex organism. Class, gender, politics, religion (and so much more) go into it. And yet even to this day—even with all we know of the opioid epidemic and the fifty-plus year shrinking of the middle class, particularly in rural communities—the popular idea of small towns is still wrapped up in this heartland myth. There’s something uniquely American about that disjunction, between the way we are and the way we insist on seeing ourselves.
SM: In the past you’ve mentioned Flannery O’Connor as an influence. What do you hope to apply to your own writing from her?
JH: Influence isn’t really a matter of making a decision about how you’ll be influenced. Your influences choose you, rather than the other way around. So, I don’t see it as trying to apply something from O’Connor to my own work. I’m not Flannery O’Connor and her beliefs are not my beliefs and her style is not my style. But she’s the writer who taught me that you can write about small towns in the South. I didn’t know that when I was starting out. She taught me that you can write about internal religious conflicts and that you can make those internal conflicts explode into the real world. I didn’t know that either until I’d read her. Until I read O’Connor, I thought I was going to do straight detective fiction. I wanted to be the Robert B. Parker of Arkansas. O’Connor showed me you could write about religiously tormented antiheroes or downright villains if you wanted to. She didn’t really teach me to write like her as much as she gave me permission to write like me.
SM: Dry County has my favorite last line of the year. Were you knowingly writing toward it or did it simply come to you at the end of the book?
JH: I’m so happy you like it. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about the end of the book, and it’s deeply gratifying because it’s my favorite ending of anything I’ve ever written. I think I knew what that last scene was going to be about halfway through writing the book, which, when I hit upon it, really energized me. The last line came about in the writing. I knew I had it as soon as I wrote it.
Jake Hinkson’s Dry County is available for purchase now through BookPeople in-store and online now.
The following essay is a guest blog post by Heather Harper Ellet, author of the debut novel, Ain’t Nobody Nobody. She will be at BookPeople on October 28th at 7PM to read from, discuss, and sign her novel.
Last week at Deep Vellum Books in Dallas, I read from my East Texas crime novel Ain’t Nobody Nobody (Polis, 2019). Afterward, a man in the audience asked in all polite sincerity, “What is it about Texas? Why do all the weird crimes happen here?” The man was from Australia. Even he knew we were famous for something other than Dr Pepper.
The previous day, my mother’s 1000-person East Texas hometown was a top headline on CNN because a man had robbed the bank there to pay for the wedding he was having that weekend. And if you weren’t the terrified teller, it really was kinda sweet. And proved our Australian friend’s point quite nicely.
Admittedly, the Australian’s question stumped me. The Texans in the audience, native and not, looked at each other with the same befuddled look, as if the answer should be obvious but was not at all obvious at the same time.
“Is it the guns?” someone suggested. It’s a fair question of course. I’ve lived in Texas my entire life and there’s a lot I take for granted—the absurd details that blend into the background, the fact that guns are collected like stamps. I can’t get into a family member’s truck without double checking beneath the seat to make sure something doesn’t discharge. (It should be noted my mother-in-law has a bullet lodged in her leg to this day for this very reason.) But I don’t even think about it until somebody asks me to write something like this. We all nodded—“Yes, guns!” —while knowing that this singular fact doesn’t tell the entire story.
I think the flavor of our crimes points to a larger Texas mystique, a brazenness that Texans seem to have in spades. In my small town growing up, a larger-than-life bail bondsman was murdered in his front yard not far from my school during an armed robbery gone horribly wrong. It was incredibly sad and scary but not entirely surprising because even at thirteen-years-old I knew that the victim carried a roll of ten thousand dollars in his boot at all times.
“Maybe it’s the water?” a friend joked later, which is also not far off. I’m reminded of a fascinating 1990 study comparing the trace amounts of lithium in Texas drinking water. The Texas counties with the most naturally-occurring lithium in their drinking water had lower incidences of crime, suicide, and drug addiction. (Also note: my home county ranked on the lower side for lithium.)
Texas’s most bizarre crimes point to a bravado that’s found few other places, I’m told. Funeral director Bernie Tiede kills an unlikeable old woman and the small town of Carthage defends him. A man plants tens of thousands of plants of marijuana in woods that aren’t his. This year alone, I’ve read three stories about crimes involving pet tigers in houses.
As a writer, I have a love/hate relationship with the audacity of Texas. Writing about it is hard because, fair or not, Texas can be a character who takes up too much space in the room. Texas is that best friend you would die for but would think twice about taking to a fancy restaurant in case he gets into a fistfight with the waiter. Texas is like garlic. Even a little bit flavors the entire dish. Texas is so big that sometimes I don’t want to say the word because then, as an author, I have lost all control over the tone of the scene.
Ultimately, it’s that unique Texas audacity that best answers our Australian friend’s question. And I think it is best articulated by the list of stereotypes Lawrence Wright outlines in his face-slappingly brilliant God Save Texas: “cowboy individualism, a kind of wary friendliness, superpatriotism combined with defiance of all government authority, a hair-trigger sense of grievance, nostalgia for an ersatz past that is largely an artifact of Hollywood.”
Or maybe it’s the Dr Pepper.
The Australian nodded politely as we Texans outwardly brainstormed explanations for our lunacy as if this were some sort of party game we played often but he didn’t yet know the rules. Afterward, he bought my book, and we chatted about the plans for his trip—a visit to a small town not unlike the one where my mother was raised. I laughed and signed his copy with “Stay safe in Texas!” and as I scribbled the words, writing TEXAS in swirly cursive like a junior high crush, it pained me to realize just how much I really meant it. Stay safe, friend. Then I watched as he disappeared out the front door and into the dark Texas night.
Heather Harper Ellet will be attending our Place & Crime panel October 28th, 7PM, with L.A. Chandlar and Mark Coggins at BookPeople.
The following essay is a guest blog post by L. A. Chandlar, author of the Art Deco Mystery Series who will be at BookPeople on October 28th at 7PM to read from, discuss, and sign her latest entry in the series, The Pearl Dagger.
My favorite thing about writing the Art Deco Series, is bringing to life the vibrancy, humor and adventurous spirit of the 1930s. That era is often overshadowed by the Depression, but there was so much art, civil rights, humor, and liveliness going on in spite of the hardship. The theme of beauty out of ashes was profound to me. That’s the story I wanted to tell, because that vivacious way of life has something to teach us today.
Art is in the background of each of my novels and in this one, I discovered a work that was a seminal point for art and history and most importantly, for humanity. In 1936, a youthful Orson Welles in tandem with the Federal Works Project formed the first all-black theater cast. They performed Shakespeare’s Macbeth with both professional actors as well as amateur. Despite the incendiary race relations outside the doors, inside the Lafayette theater they performed an eerie, poignant play that was wildly successful. It was sold-out for weeks then toured the country. This was Voodoo Macbeth.
In The Pearl Dagger, many of the characters are moved by the play, but Lane’s love interest, Finn Brodie, is especially affected since it reflected aspects of his own life and some of the ghosts of his past that he must face when the possibility of a crime syndicate rising from the ashes forces them to take an investigative trip across the Atlantic to London. I even have a culmination adventure scene at an actual performance of Voodoo with the real-life actors in attendance. I would do anything to be able to go back in time to witness a show.
Voodoo Macbeth wasn’t the only way that art transcended the divides and barriers of the races in the thirties. There are more examples than I could ever possibly share, but a favorite one is that my characters often dance at the uptown club, The Savoy. With its four-thousand capacity hall and double stages at either end so the music never stopped, it was the first intentionally integrated dance hall featuring Chick Webb, Benny Goodman, and numerous other Jazz and Big Band greats. A Jewish dance hall owner partnered with a black manager to create a place where inside the doors, it didn’t matter if you were black or white, uptown or downtown, Catholic or Jewish. All that mattered was if you could dance. The place was sold out with a line four blocks long the night it opened and stayed that way for years. There’s a famous conversation that I highlighted in my book where in real life someone saw a celebrity walk in. The guy says to his friend, “Hey, Clark Gable just walked in.” His friend looks over and says, “Oh. Can he dance?” Dance was all that mattered.
The power of art is staggering. It draws people together and reminds us of the goodness that is possible. In our own rocky climate, it makes the joy of telling these stories even more wonderful. My favorite quote about the way art overcame the racial tensions of the day was from a woman who danced the night away at The Savoy hundreds of times. In an interview of the documentary Savoy King, with shining eyes she exclaimed, “We fought a war…with music and dance!”
One of my most beloved characters whom readers ask me about all the time, is Lane’s artistic Aunt Evelyn. She actually represents a few artist friends I have in New York City. Aunt Evelyn is a funny mix of high class socialite with eccentric, worldly artist. She has friends in all places high and low. My real-life friends who are successful artists, have this wonderful capacity to draw people to themselves who would otherwise not have anything in common. It’s the art that compels them to unity. One time, I walked into my friend’s studio. He is Japanese American and surrounding him was the most disparate group of men I’d ever seen: a Hispanic college kid with torn jeans, an older white man with a three-piece suit straight from Wall Street, and a middle-aged guy dressed in glorious drag complete with matching shoes and purse. All four of them were enthralled in close discussion. I loved it! This is why Aunt Evelyn is the way she is. (Plus, she enables to me to have fabulous cameo appearances from the first lady, to Diego Rivera, to Albert Einstein.)
Many of my characters were real people, with real lives, real weaknesses and strengths. I am enamored with the way art transcends social and cultural divides. It’s such a joy to share these stories. My dearest hope is that my readers will be inspired and that the joy of the adventure –even in the midst of hard times—will help them believe they can create their own beauty out of ashes.
Hear more from L. A. Chandlar when she stops by BookPeople on October 28th at 7PM for our Place & Crime Panel where she’ll be joined by the likes of Mark Coggins and Heather Harper Ellet for a discussion on setting in each of their new titles.
In The Dead Beat Scroll, Mark Coggins’ private detective, August Riordan, returns to San Fransico to find his former partner Chris Duckworth murdered. His search for justice takes him through the city dealing with sugar daddies, a Chinatown gang boss, and an original Jack Kerouac manuscript. Once again, Coggins delivers a great traditional private eye tale using one of the most classic cities that is often at it’s best when it unabashedly leans into the classic tropes. Mark will be joining Heather Harper Ellet and L.A. Chandlar for our Place & Crime Panel at BookPeople on October 28th, but he took a few questions earlier from us about the book, the genre, and the town it takes place.
Scott Montgomery: With August trying to find his partner’s killer and it tied to a rare artifact, how aware were you that you were in the beginning that you were wadding into Maltese Falcon territory?
Mark Coggins: It was a conscious decision to make a hat tip or three to Hammett in general and The Maltese Falcon in particular. Riordan’s apartment has always been the one that Hammett lived in when he wrote the Falcon and the same one that Hammett placed Spade in for the story. In addition, Riordan’s office is in the Flood Building, which is where the Pinkerton Detective agency had its office in the 1920s when Hammett worked there. I never make an explicit reference to the Hammett connections in the books, but they are there for the savvy reader to pick up on if he or she is familiar with Hammett’s San Francisco.
By the way, you can read more about Hammett’s apartment at 891 Post Street in this essay I have on my website.
SM: How difficult a decision was it to kill off one of your main supporting characters in the series?
MC: It was pretty damn difficult. Chris Duckworth was Riordan’s sidekick for five of the seven books, and many readers found his personality and the byplay between Riordan and him to be one of the most entertaining aspects to the novels. Although Riordan and Duckworth are estranged at the time of Duckworth’s death, I hope that Riordan’s regard for Duckworth and the real grief he experiences come across in the book. I found the process of writing the final scene in the novel—which is a celebration of life for Duckworth—to be particularly poignant. I hope some of that poignancy is transmitted in the text.
SM: How did the Kerouac scroll come to you as the MacGuffin?
MC: Jack Kerouac stayed with Neal and Carolyn Cassady at 29 Russell Street on San Francisco’s Russian Hill for six months in 1952. Neal was the model for the character of Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s most famous work, On the Road.
In addition to Road, Kerouac worked on the novels Doctor Sax and Visions of Cody during his stay. He lived in the attic, writing on a desk made from a sheet of plywood. In The Beat Generation in San Francisco, Bill Morgan catalogs the other attic furnishings, “There was a bed on the floor and a typewriter, paper, Dexedrine, a radio, bongo drums, and a tape recorder for the new spontaneous prose style he was developing.”
I first learned Kerouac had been on Russian Hill when I lived there myself in the mid-90s. A friend pointed out the Russell Street house on a walk in the neighborhood and related its unique place in San Francisco literary history. Later, after I finished my fourth novel, Runoff, I remembered the house and began to toy with the idea of plotting my next book around another Kerouac scroll that is discovered when the Russell house is demolished.
But fate in the form of a trip to Buenos Aires intervened, and I was inspired to write instead about the bizarre story of Evita Perón’s “afterlife” in my novel, The Big Wake-Up. Next came No Hard Feelings, which sent Riordan away from San Francisco to a kind of exile in a double-wide trailer on the outskirts of Palm Springs.
In contemplating how to bring him back to the City by the Bay, I hit on the idea of Riordan being summoned by his old administrative assistant, Gretchen Sabatini, to help locate Duckworth, who has gone missing after taking on a case involving a murderous polyamorous family. I then decided to resurrect the Kerouac manuscript as the MacGuffin that brings the family to town and threw in the Chinatown gang that Riordan mixed it up with in Runoff for good measure.
SM: One thing that is quintessential about the series is your great use of San Francisco. How much has the town changed since The Immortal Game?
MC: The topography of downtown San Francisco, where a lot of the story takes place, has actually changed very little even from the time of The Maltese Falcon. But in the time since The Immortal Game was published in 1999, the influence of big tech has been the catalyst for some major upheaval, if less topographical than socioeconomic.
Although the namesake of the building is fictionalized in The Dead Beat Scroll, Riordan visits the tallest skyscraper in the city, Salesforce Tower. This was built in 2018 for the cloud computer company of the same name. That’s an example of a “topographical” change. But in addition, Twitter, Google, Facebook, AirBnB and Uber (for example) all have a major presence in the city—often snapping up office space that was previously dedicated to other industries—whereas in 1999 the center of gravity for tech was tilted south, toward the Peninsula cities of Palo Alto and Mountain View.
The socioeconomic impact of this has been to bring a lot of well-paid tech workers into the city and to drive out a lot of the folks in lower paying professions, including teachers, artists and musicians. This has resulted in skyrocketing rents, increased homelessness and an arguably less diverse and culturally rich town.
Even the traffic on the streets has increased considerably. I do a lot of street photography in San Francisco and one day I positioned myself at the top of a downtown parking structure to take photos of the people on the street below. Literally every other car that passed had an Uber or a Lyft sticker on it. They are continually orbiting downtown to pick up passengers. Throw in the private buses that companies like Facebook and Google hire to ferry their workers to and from work, the electric scooters the techies ride for “the last mile” and you’ve got nerd gridlock.
I confess I’m part of the problem because I worked in the tech industry for years.
SM: How did you come to the idea of using a photo of the location that each chapter takes place in?
MC: Originally, I was using photography to document street scenes I wanted to describe in my books. Then I hit upon the idea of including the photos I was taking in the books. Later I began to alter the plot of my books to have an excuse to include photos I liked that I had taken without reference to a particular scene.
SM: What I love about the August Riordan series is that there are throwbacks to the traditional private eye tale. Why is that still a vital genre to you as writer?
MC: I’ve introduced Hammett, Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Sue Grafton to much younger readers and to a person they have enjoyed them. There’s still something magical and fresh in the writing. And if an acclaimed modern author like Megan Abbott can say this in response to a question I asked her about Chandler:
“I think he will always be my biggest influence in terms of style. The way, to him, mood mattered above all. Sights, scents, colors, pressures in the air, the way sound can travel. The way it can feel like everything around you is part of you, part of your own longing or fear or trepidation. That if you can strike a mood, it’s far more than a mood. It’s a world you’ve given your reader.”
…then I’m certain the genre still has a lot of gas.
Scott Montgomery: Blood Sugar is one of those books that is hard to define. It’s part crime, horror, coming of age. How did the idea come about?
Daniel Kraus: Like a lot of other kids, I have that stark memory of coming back from trick-or-treating and having my mom sift through the candy and pitching out suspicious-looking treats. It’s a jarring moment for a kid — one second, you’re overflowing with delight about all the free candy your neighborhood just gifted you, and the next second, the possibility exists that one of them might be trying to kill you.
Urban legends are about the only stories that genuinely creep me out. For decades I kept my mind’s eye on the Halloween candy legend, waiting to find a creative way into it. I’m attracted to finding sympathetic elements in unsympathetic characters, so it came naturally to look at the story from the poisoner’s perspective. Would it be possible to humanize a character doing such an inhuman act?
SM: Jody narrates the story in a unique voice. How did you go about designing it?
DK: Generally voices come fairly easy to me. I don’t think I expected the book to be as funny as it came out, but within a few pages of experimenting with Jody’s voice, his humor just started firing. I wrote this short book between several very lengthy books, so I was continually bouncing back to it, and always having to re-read what I’d written, and each time, I’d revise it from the start, and the voice would morph and sharpen. It was so fun. I could have worked on Blood Sugar forever.
SM: Was there any challenge in keeping it consistent throughout the book?
DK: You know, there’s not a ton of plot in the book. It’s all about the voice, so consistency was really the entire job.
SM: Almost everyone in the book is an outsider of some type. What do you want to explore in those kind of characters?
DK: I like the idea of a group of outsiders creating their own world. Most of the characters in Blood Sugar are lacking a ordinary family structure, so they do what they can to survive. Yeah, they fight, but there is a ton of love between them. They have their own customs, their own language, their own food, their own legends, everything. Most of it might seem horrible to a lot of readers, but there’s a lot to be inspired about, too. There’s a lot of joy. I don’t think there’s any question that Blood Sugar, as raw as it is, is my most optimistic book.
SM: You worked with Guillermo Del Toro. Did you learn anything about storytelling through that experience?
DK: The beauty of collaboration is you have no choice but to sort of “become” your collaborator, at least a little. Right from the start of our first book, Trollhunters, I had to learn to let go of some of my ingrained cynicism and embrace Guillermo’s worldview, which was generally more earnest than mine. I think he also taught me to let my characters love and be loved a little more freely.
SM: What advice would you give to writers about writing young characters?
DK: Just avoid being cutesy, you know? Kids are every bit as serious as adults. They just have less experience, and the blows they take from the world are more startling. They also correct against those blows much more dramatically. If I overhear a person saying something mean about me today, it will bum me out. But if the same thing happened when I was ten, you never know — it might guard against it happening again in a way that might change the direction of my whole life. The swerves are so much bigger.
Blood Sugar is available to purchase online and in-store at BookPeople today!
Scott Montgomery: Did the idea of bank robbing GIs come from your military experience or author’s imagination?
Martin Limón: Imagination. Because suddenly it dawned on me that I’d never heard of bank robbery committed by American GIs in Korea—and back in those days there were very few bank robberies committed in the country at all. The elements needed for a successful bank heist just didn’t exist. Very few people, other than the wealthy, owned a car. And in order for a crook to make his getaway, a la Bonnie and Clyde, he needed wheels. And there was total gun control. Only the military and the police were armed. So the occasional bank robbery was virtually always an inside job. Embezzlement rather than armed robbery. But GIs had access to vehicles and they had access to arms. So good old American know-how made it possible for these guys (fictionally) to get away with their crime spree.
SM: How do you go about creating a criminal as dark and believable as the main robber they are closing in on?
ML: Years ago, I briefly worked for a guy who was Armenian. He talked to me about their genocide and diaspora and since he was older than me he sometimes counseled me about reaching my personal goals. The small business he owned was moderately successful but his real dream in life was to paint. He tried to sell those paintings or get them exhibited but hit a brick wall everywhere he went. He was very smart and very kind but he had a dark side. In despair, I believe, he killed himself in a single-victim car crash. So in building my villain, I started with this good person I once knew, made him younger, enlisted him in the army, and gave him a burning desire to build up a nest egg of $5,000, a lot of money for a GI in the early 70s. And I set him to work.
SM: You have a second plot that deals with a general bringing in prostitutes for his men. Was the character influenced by an officer you heard of?
ML: Not specifically, no. But some of the senior ROK Army officers were known to throw lavish entertainments, often including beautiful kisaeng, young women similar to Japanese geisha. I started there and made it even more sordid. By the way, the women wouldn’t be for his “men.” That is, the enlisted men. They would be strictly for the senior officers and their invited guests, often American military brass. And since I was never amongst their exalted rank, I could only imagine what the partying must’ve been like.
SM: Two newspapers play a part in the story. The army’s Stars and Stripes and the Overseas Weekly. What did you want to examine about how things were covered?
ML: The Stripes, as we used to call it, was an officially sanctioned Department of Defense publication. Therefore, more staid and largely without an opinion of its own. The Overseas Weekly, however, was a newspaper owned and operated privately, with a very pro-GI point of view. It covered Vietnam and the rest of the Far East from, I believe, 1966 until going out of business in 1975. Gaudy tabloid headlines were interspersed with plenty of photos of pinup girls in bikinis, so the GIs called it the Oversexed Weekly. They did real journalism, however, and exposed graft and corruption and outright stupidity in the military that really stuck in the craw of those officers with stars on their shoulders.
SM: Katie is a wonderful character to team up with Sueño and Bascom. How did you go about constructing her?
ML: The late Ann Bryan Mariano was the main reporter for the Overseas Weekly in Vietnam. I never knew her, of course, but I located her papers which are archived at the State Historical Society of Missouri and managed to borrow some microfilm with many years worth of editions of the Overseas Weekly. I had her in mind, along with the other truly intrepid female reporters in Vietnam when I created Katie Byrd Worthington. I don’t suppose visiting Austin and Houston last year hurt either; since you’ll notice she’s from Fort Worth. She has the frontier spirit and, unlike me, never gets fooled by anyone.
SM: I’ve noticed more humor in the last few books and you allow more time with Bascom and Sueño to bulls#!t and banter. Are you having more fun with these characters?
ML: Yes. It’s the only fun I have. Other than that, I’m a pathetic old shut-in. But when I’m with George and Ernie, I’m a real boulevardier. A man-about-town. I was gratified to run into a woman last year who told me that my books made her laugh out loud. I thanked her for her compliment but also asked if she had considered seeking out a mental health professional.
The Pearl Dagger, L.A. Chandlar’s third Art Deco mystery features Lane Sanders, an agent for mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who with an intrepid reporter and Irish cop, who is also her lover, take on corruption, often connected to the Red Scroll Society. A racket with pinball machines leads her to England the Society, Tolkien, and secrets from their past.
L.A. will be at BookPeople, along with Mark Coggins and Heather Harper Ellet, on October 28th at 7PM to discuss her books, but Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott Montgomery, got to chat for a bit with Chandlar before her event to discuss her series and the setting.
Scott Montgomery: Which came first for the series, the character of Lane or LaGuardia era New York?
L.A. Chandlar: La Guardia himself actually came first to the scene! When I was about to move to New York City, I was flying there to sign a lease on 9/11. So, obviously, the move didn’t happen that fateful day. However, I moved two weeks later. Around that time, I happened to pick up a biography about New York’s 99th mayor, Fiorello La Guardia. I saw some striking similarities of my own time in a broken and hurting New York, with the era of the Thirties. But it was the way the city handled adversity that floored me. I knew a lot about the Depression era, but what I didn’t know was the resilience, the art, and the humor that was the backbone of New York, just like in my own day. When I started to read about Fiorello, I immediately thought that he was so over-the-top adventurous, funny, daring and the ultimate underdog (being 5’2” and a double minority, half-Jewish and half-Italian)…he would be a fantastic character in a historical novel. So he came first to the table and then the era.
That time is often pigeon-holed into being solely about the Depression. But there was so much more going on than the soup lines. The most favored of all Art Deco buildings, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center…all were built after the stock market crash. I love that beauty out of adversity theme. And women were holding much more prominent positions in the work force, way before the Rosie the Riveters hit the scene. That’s where Lane Sanders, my protagonist and aide to the mayor, comes into play. I wanted to show another side to the 1930s story and I tell it first person through Lane’s eyes. I gave it a lot of thought about writing it first or third person. But one of my main objectives in these stories is to help the reader experience the city and the time. There is something immersive when you read first person. Even if you’re not like Lane, a female in her mid-twenties, you can’t help but put yourself in her shoes when you’re reading it.
SM: Was there anything you had to keep in mind when Lane went over to England?
LAC: Well, the biggest thing was that Europe was ramping up to the second World War much faster than we were. Plus, they were still healing from WWI in ways that America never had to. I have intentionally kept my books solidly in the 1930s so that I can tell that story and not suddenly leap into WWII, of which there are many books. So I had to have enough of both wars in the story in England so that it was an honest view of it, but also not delve right into the serious preparations they were already making for WWII. The oddest thing was the cameo of Winston Churchill. I love having cameos because they give you a holistic sense of a time period, of what other things were going on, who the movers and shakers were, and who wasn’t yet a mover and shaker. At the time, Churchill felt he was in a “political wilderness” in his own words. And he most definitely could have been in the circles where Lane operated. As well as the PM and the head of Scotland Yard (who also have really fun roles in The Pearl Dagger).
SM: How did the use of Orson Welles’ Voodoo MacBeth make it into the story?
I always have a piece of art in the background of all my books. It’s a way to highlight the era and the way art is such a powerful force in our own lives. So I’ve done a lot of research into art in the Thirties, and I happened to just come across Voodoo Macbeth. Orson Welles worked with the Federal Works Project then, and they did all kinds of art programs and were the force behind many of our highest esteemed artists such as Jackson Pollock and DeKooning. Welles put together the first all-black theater cast with both professional and amateur actors from the US and a few from England. They wanted to do Macbeth and set the stage in Haiti where they took the three witches and had a single witch doctor for the role. I personally hadn’t known about this play, and the way the articles described it, it was pure magic. It was sold out for weeks and toured the country. It was extremely successful. It’s one of those seminal events that I would do anything to go back in time to witness it. And in the Thirties. Far before any significant race relations and civil rights were tackled well. But this is what art can do. Outside the theater there were race riots. People were brought together. Each community, the black community, the white community, and the Shakespearean purists, all thought it’d be doomed to failure. And all of them were wrong. Each community loved it. This is one of those brilliant experiences that I wanted to bring to today’s readers. To experience it.
SM: You also embrace the attitude and style of pulp fiction of that era. Are there any authors from that period you consider as influences?
LAC: That’s another way I love to help readers really experience an era and a city, to get a feel for what life was like. Lane loves to read, so I have her reading big novels of the day. In my first book, The Silver Gun, she reads Gone with the Wind, which was billed as a romance novel. I read all the books Lane reads, and yes, there are quite a few authors of that time period that influenced me in different ways. For one, Tolkien of course, but she hasn’t read The Hobbit yet, because it comes out fall of 1937, but Tolkien influences Lane and myself. I love his sense of journey, friendship and also of spontaneity and the freak nature and mystery of life (like the intriguing Tom Bombadil). I’m still a little freaked out by Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here and the actual back cover description. But one of the authors who influenced me a lot, is Karen Blixen, whom Lane will read in the next book. The movie Out of Africa was such a soaring, beautiful film when I was growing up. And I loved Blixen’s daring personality. The love of beauty, the romance of adventure, and the idea of doing for what others say you can’t do has always struck a chord with me.
SM: Who are some historical figures you’d like to see Lane meet in future books?
I want her to have more interaction with the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she meets in prior novels. Albert Einstein made an appearance earlier, too, and it’d be fun for her to need to chat with him about the scientific side of a mystery. Amelia Earhart for sure – she disappears in July of 1937 which is coming up fast in Lane’s time frame. She and Lane would be interesting together. I’d also like to get James Stewart to come over to Aunt Evelyn’s one day. I always liked him a lot.
SM: What do you hope to convey about LaGuardia through the books?
LAR: La Guardia was known as The People’s Mayor. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to write about a real politician, who had foibles and flaws, yet was full of integrity and tried so hard to do what was right for the little guy. His energy and his zeal for life is actually the backbone of the entire series. Everything is reflective of that. But I have a lot of his real efforts and real life publicity stunts that have a lot of panache because they’re so funny and so enjoyable. His world was just as corrupt or more so than ours today, so I would love readers to know that real people can make a difference. When Fiorello died, President Truman wrote Fio’s wife a telegram. It said, “He was as incorruptible as the sun.” Can you only imagine that today?
Be sure to join us on October 28th at 7PM when Chandlar stops by BookPeople with Mark Coggins and Heather Harper Ellet in tow, for their panel-style discussion with Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott Montgomery. The Pearl Dagger can be found in-store at BookPeople and is available for purchase online now.
The book entwines two cases. One is a string of bank robberies apparently committed by U.S. soldiers. Sueño and Bascom want it, but their superiors won’t have it, assigning two brown-noses who will lead the investigation away from Army blame. Instead, they are assigned to look into a general who procured prostitutes for a special meeting near the DMZ. By pushing their way onto one case, when the next robbery takes the life of a teller and following the leads to their assigned one, they get a target placed on both of their backs and wade into what could be an international incident of major consequence.
Limón strikes a great balance between character and story. He hooks us right in at the beginning with the description of the first robbery. The story is able to bring out Sueño and Bascom’s nature as they clash with Army protocols and bureaucracy and work to get information. They also team up with Katie Byrd Worthinington, an American reporter and ire of the brass. She adds to the humor and banter between the two. As they uncover more information, they find themselves up against two of their most dangerous antagonists they’ve come across and coming to a reveal I couldn’t have predicted.
G.I. Confidential is one of the best in a series that gets better and better. You feel close to our two heroes, the themes are bigger and more complex, and even with all that, Limón brings it all in with a tight, well paced tale. I’m already looking forward to the next one.
This week we’re featuring a special guest review from part-time bookseller/event host and full-time mystery lover, Meike. She discusses The Right Sort of Man, the first installment in a new series by Allison Montclair. This is a title that may have flown under your radar when it published earlier this year.
At loose ends after WWII, two very different London women join forces to launch a business venture in hopes it will help them heal the emotional wounds they’re privately nursing. Following a chance meeting, the quick-witted and impulsive Iris Sparks (this firecracker is aptly named!) and the aristocratic and genteel widow Gwendolyn Bainbridge decide to open The Right Sort Marriage Bureau—many Londoners are anxious to marry and begin families to put the horrors of the war behind them, and our heroines hope their firm’s matchmaking can help others while also giving them a sense of independence.
But their new venture is put at risk when their latest client, Tillie La Salle, is found murdered. The police quickly make an arrest, and the accused is none other than Dickie Trower, the man they introduced her to. While the police are quite certain they have their man, Iris and Gwendolyn are equally certain they do not. When the case generates some bad publicity causing them to lose clients, they join forces to find the real murderer and clear the Right Sort’s name—while discovering hidden talents and depths of emotional strength in themselves and each other.
The Right Sort of Man is Montclair’s first installment featuring Iris and Gwendolyn, and one hopes there will be many to follow. The characters couldn’t be more different yet they complement each other perfectly. The reader gets to know them at the same time they’re getting to know each other; each character has hidden wounds from the war that are gradually revealed as the plot progresses and the result is a perfectly paced story. They also each have a unique set of talents that aren’t immediately obvious (Iris is particularly talented with knives!) The dialogue between the characters is whip smart and funny and one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book.
Upon reading the dust jacket, I couldn’t help but being reminded of two of my favorite series—Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs and Alexander McCall Smith’s Number One Ladies Detective Agency. Like the former, this is a solid fusion between mystery and British historical fiction. Like the latter, we get to meet two independent female business owners determined to succeed while never forgetting to be kind. Montclair has crafted the perfect new addition to the mystery genre for fans of both.
You can purchase a copy of The Right Sort of Man today in-store and online at BookPeople.