Men In Transition: An Interview with Larry Sweazy

In The Lost Are The Last To Die, Larry Sweazy brings back Sonny Burton, a former Texas Ranger who lost his arm chasing after Bonnie and Clyde. This time he is tasked with helping his ranger son, Jesse, track down an escaped prisoner he has a history with, Billy Bunson, who has taken the warden’s wife. The novel works as both a suspenseful cat and mouse chase as well as a study of the two men and their times as Larry weaves in stories of the two adversaries in their past and how it shaped them, creating a character study of two men in violent times. Larry was kind enough to take some questions from MysteryPeople Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott Montgomery, about the book.

Scott Montgomery: I was very happy to see Sonny back again after a few years. What kind of story needed to click to bring him back?

Larry Sweazy: The Lost Are The Last to Die is based on the short story, “Point Blank, Texas,” (published in the anthology, Lone Star Lawless by Wildside Press). I have a habit9781432857233 of trying out ideas in the short story form, and with this anthology being Texas-themed, I thought it would be a good place to explore a little more of Sonny Burton’s story. After the first book, A Thousand Falling Crows, I thought I was finished with Sonny’s story, but I was wrong. Sonny’s life before he encountered Bonnie and Clyde and lost his arm kept nagging at me. It was like I had a rock in my shoe that I couldn’t get rid of. I needed to know more about Sonny when he was whole in body and mind, who he was when he was younger with his future stretching out before him. I was glad to have revisited Sonny. His life was even more richer than I thought it was.

SM: This could have worked alone as a simple pursuit story, but you go deeper with both Sonny and Billy diving into their pasts. What drove you to that character study side?

LS: Sonny always thought that he could save Billy. But confronting the truth that he couldn’t change him was an acceptance of failure for him, one that paralleled his relationship with his own son. I was interested in the father and son dynamics in this book, about how our actions influence other people in positive and negative ways. Considering that, I had to start at the beginning of the story when Billy was a boy, and when Sonny still hoped he could be the human being he wanted to be; kind, generous, stern, and demanding. The character side is so much more interesting to me than a simple plot story.

SM: You delve into Sonny’s experiences in The Great War. How do you think that affects him, particularly as a lawman?

LS: Sonny’s war experience arches back to the first book. I used Thousand in the title as a9781633880849 term of affliction more than anything else. A lot of men came home with “the thousand yard stare,” including Sonny. He holed up in his house after returning from France. He didn’t want to experience the real world. He had PTSD, shell shock, but there was no treatment for it in 1919. Time and will were the only medicines available, and they didn’t help a lot of men. Being urged back to work as a Texas Ranger saved Sonny, but I think his war experience made him harder, less forgiving in all aspects of his life. He avoided violence after the war as much as he could, which made him more reliant on his mind, on reasoning with a criminal instead of leading with a gun barrel. After the war, Sonny understood what is was like to kill a man. He was able to enter the mind of a killer much easier, tightening that fine line that exists between good and bad. The war gave him tools as a lawman that he didn’t have before. He was on even footing with the bad guy.

SM: By having Sonny work with his son, Jesse, not only is the family and professional tension there, but a comparison of the different era of Texas Ranger. What do you think was the biggest change in the job from Sonny to Jesse’s time?

LS: Along with the father and son dynamic, this book is about transitions, at least for me. The structure demanded that the transitions were clear and concise for the reader to follow along. World War I saw the transition from horse power to tank and mechanical power, as did the world that Sonny lived in throughout the book, between 1909 and 1934. This is a period of huge transitions. When Sonny started out as a Ranger he rode a horse, but as he chased after Billy, he did so in an automobile with a V8 engine. The policing aspect didn’t change much on the surface of things. There were no radios in cars yet, so a Sonny and Jesse were still on their own left to make decisions on the fly without any influence from the higher ups. But there were technological changes that aided police work in the 1930s; the growth of fingerprint analysis, handwriting analysis, the uses of polygraph machines, and the birth of forensics. I think the biggest change for Sonny would have been in the advancements of thought and strategy. Jesse is more by-the-book, influenced by a modern education of professional protocols, while Sonny relies entirely on his experience and his gut.

SM: How did you approach Sonny as a character?

LS: He can be anti-social and aloof, but he has a conscience that guides him out of the darkness. Without empathy, he wouldn’t have cared enough to influence Billy, or Jesse for that matter. So, I approach him as a complicated man, full of contradictions, trying to make his way in an uncertain world the best he can—not as a sociopath. He is opposed to violence, but will engage in it if it means his survival, or someone else’s. He knows he is judgmental, close-minded, jaded by his years of experience, but tries to listen, to understand what he sees in front of him. After the loss of his arm, he struggled with his own self-worth, his wholeness, and fought off the temptation to end his own life. He’s a strong man with a big collection of fragile pieces of his heart that he carries with him wherever he goes. Just like every man, which I hope he is.

 

SM: You reflect Texas in the 1930s as its own world. What did you have to keep in mind about that time and place?

LS: I have always been drawn to the Great Depression. I listened to my grandparents tell stories about the “old days” for hours. I knew people didn’t have a lot, but that didn’t mean they didn’t have drama, sadness, and joy in their lives. Those stories led me to the Dust Bowl in the panhandle, and I was curious about the people who stayed, who didn’t pack up and head west in search of a better life. How would staying in Texas affect them? Where was the hope? And I found a strength that Texans always seem to carry with them. I had to find the pride, the square shoulders, and the determination of not only the people, but the land. Texans never quit. That what’s I found, what I knew had to come through in this novel.


The Lost Are The Last to Die, along with other titles by Larry Sweazy are available for purchase in-store and online now at BookPeople.

larrydsweazy68851About the Author: Larry Sweazy is the author of fifteen novels, He won the WWA (Western Writers of America) Spur award for Best Short Fiction in 2005 and for Best Paperback Original in 2013.  He also won the 2011 and 2012 Will Rogers Medallion Award for Western Fiction for books the Josiah Wolfe series. He was nominated for a Derringer award in 2007 (for the short story “See Also Murder”), and was a finalist in the Best Books of Indiana literary competition in 2010.  Larry was awarded the Best Books in Indiana in 2011 for The Scorpion Trail. And in 2013, Larry received the inaugural Elmer Kelton Fiction Book of the Year for The Coyote Tracker, presented by the AWA (Academy of Western Artists). He also won the 2019 Willa Award (Best Original Softcover). His books have been translated by major publishers in Italy and Turkey.  Larry has published over seventy nonfiction articles and short stories, which have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; The Adventure of the Missing Detective: And 25 of the Year’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories!; Boys’ Life; Hardboiled, and several other publications and anthologies. He currently lives in Noblesville, Indiana with his wife, Rose, and his dogs, where he is hard at work on his next novel.

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