Thirty five years ago, Viv Delaney vanished during the middle of her shift as the night clerk at the Sun Down Motel in Fell, NY. There were hints that she didn’t leave on her own–her car was left behind in the parking lot, her purse (and her money) were left behind in the office. Oddly, no one reported her missing for 4 days. The police made a half-hearted attempt to find out what happened to her, but young girls had a habit of disappearing from Fell in those days.
Her aunt’s mysterious disappearance has always haunted Carly Kirk so she travels to Fell to see if she can come up with any clues. On visiting the run-down motel where Viv worked, Carly sees a notice that the hotel is looking for a night clerk—the same position that her aunt disappeared from—and on a whim she decides to apply, thinking it might give her some insight into what happened to Viv. The seedy motel doesn’t seem to have changed at all since her aunt worked there, and Carly quickly comes to realize that there’s something very wrong with the Sun Down Motel. Lights flicker for no reason, doors fly open all on their own, and there’s a mysterious scent of cigarette smoke even when Carly is sure she is quite alone. Certain the motel holds the key to Viv’s disappearance, Carly goes back every night until she’s thinks she might have figured out what happened all those years ago. But is the motel ready to give up its secrets?
I normally don’t read books that edge toward the paranormal, but the amazing cover on this one pulled me in and once I started I couldn’t put this down. The motel itself is as much a living, breathing character as any of the people in the story. It’s seen bad things over the years, and can sense when bad people come around. St. James does a masterful job revealing the story in alternating time lines, switching back and forth between Carly’s story and that of her aunt Viv. The Sun Down Motel is a captivating and chilling psychological thriller.
Meg Gardiner’s latest UNSUB novel takes FBI profiler Caitlin Hendrix to Los Angeles to track down The Midnight Man, a killer who strikes families, leaving the children behind to tell the tale.The book is our Pick Of The Month and her most chilling yet. Meg will be at BookPeople February 22nd at 5PM to sign her book and be interviewed by author Amy Gentry. We got the chance to talk to her earlier about the book and keeping readers on the edge of their seats.
Scott Montgomery: In the first two UNSUB books, the antagonists were loosely based on real infamous serial killers. Are there any seeds of reality in The Midnight Man?
Meg Gardiner: Yes—the Midnight Man had his genesis in the Night Stalker. I drew on the residual dread I’d felt while living in Southern California during the Night Stalker’s attacks. That was a bright yet chilling time. A killer was loose who could strike anywhere. He silently invaded family homes—sometimes attacking twice in one night. It seemed like there was no way to keep him out, and nowhere to hide from him. He owned the night, and no matter how vigilantly we tried to keep watch, we all had to sleep sometime.
SM: There is a major and unsettling reveal about The Midnight Man’s profile. Was that something you knew from the beginning?
MG: Not consciously. The identity of the Midnight Man gradually became clear to me as I wrote my way into the story. A bit like the way Caitlin Hendrix analyzes the unknown killer and realizes who she’s actually dealing with.
SM: How did you come across the idea of setting it during Christmas?
MG: I wanted to set the novel near the start of winter—to have the the nights grow
longer and colder as the story progresses. That meant it would take place in December. Christmas came along with the dark, starry skies.
SM: This time Caitlin and crew are tracking a killer in L.A. What did that setting provide you as an author?
MG: The glittering sprawl of Los Angeles provides a backdrop for Caitlin and her team that’s both beautiful and disorienting. L.A. has beaches and mountains, skyscrapers and abandoned buildings, nightlife and coyotes. And it’s stitched together with hundreds of miles of freeways. The city is constantly in motion. Which makes it fiendishly difficult to pin down a killer who invisibly roams anywhere and everywhere.
SM: Particularly with the UNSUB series, you’ve developed a reputation for knowing how “to bring the creepy,” yet most of those moments aren’t gory or violent. Are there certain writer tools or things you keep in mind when writing those more unsettling passages?
MG: The thrillers I write aren’t about violence, but about its impact on the characters, and the choices they make in its wake. Novels take readers on an emotional ride, and a little bit of violence goes a long way. I’ve never forgotten something Jeffery Deaver said: Nothing is as vivid as the theater of the mind. Hint at a few details, and each reader will fill in the rest from their own imagination.
SM: What is the most unsettling (in a good way) book you’ve ever read?
MG:The Stand, by Stephen King. It showed me how a novel about an apocalyptic plague could be completely riveting, because it’s all about character—and community, and courage. I read it in college, and even today if I see a crow sitting on a telephone wire, or hear the scuff of cowboy boots on a sidewalk, I shudder and think of the villain, Randall Flagg. That’s great writing.
The Dark Corners of the Night is available for purchase from BookPeople in-store and online. And don’t forget to catch Meg Gardiner in person on February 22nd at 5PM for a discussion and signing of this featured title.
About the Author: Meg Gardiner is the critically acclaimed author of the UNSUB series and China Lake, which won the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original and was a finalist for NPR’s 100 Best Thrillers Ever. Stephen King has said of Meg Gardiner: “This woman is as good as Michael Connelly…her novels are, simply put, the finest crime-suspense series I’ve come across in the last twenty years.” Gardiner was also recently elected President of the Mystery Writers of America for 2019.
The Dark Corners of the Night will be the third novel in her Barry Award-winning UNSUB series, which received three starred reviews from the major trade publications and was sold to CBS Television.
Part-time bookseller and full-time mystery enthusiast Meike reviewed one of 2020’s hottest thrillers, Liz Moore’s Long Bright River for the BookPeople blog. Check out her thoughts on the novel below.
Long Bright River is one of those genre-defying thrillers that straddles literary fiction and crime fiction with a gripping police procedural that illuminates multiple aspects of the opioid crisis.
Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick is a beat cop patrolling the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia—the
same streets where she spent a difficult childhood. Her younger sister Kacey lives on those same streets, turning tricks to feed her addiction.
Once inseparable—the sisters even shared a bed as children in their grandmother’s home—they haven’t spoken in years. But Mickey has always felt responsible for Kacey—
she never stops worrying about her, and always keeps an eye out for Kacey during her patrols.
When a series of mysterious murders rocks the neighborhood, Mickey realizes that she hasn’t seen Kacey in the past few months. Her worries escalate into a borderline obsession with finding her sister — and the killer. Her search forces her to come to terms with trauma that both sisters sustained as children, something that each dealt with differently.
The story is narrated by Mickey, and that makes the narrative a particular gift to the reader — Mickey is not one to share her innermost thoughts with anyone. She’s a woman of action, and keeps her thoughts and fears hidden from most. This structure conveys the bleakness of the deteriorating neighborhood in which Mickey and Kacey have spent their lives. Almost every resident has some connection to the drug epidemic, and has lost someone dear to them. Both Mickey and Kacey have lost pieces of themselves to
Kensington as well.
Long Bright River is available for purchase now from BookPeople in-store and online now!
About the author: Liz Moore is the author of the acclaimed novels Heft and The Unseen World. A winner of the 2014-2015 Rome Prize in Literature, she lives in Philadelphia.
Kathleen Kent, a well respected historical fiction writer, won over crime fiction fans with her novel The Dime, featuring Dallas Narcotics detective Betty Ryhyz. She returns with Betty in The Burn, with our heroine going rogue to figure out the connection between heroin stolen from the Sinola Cartel and confidential informants that are popping up all over town dead. Kathleen was kind enough to talk about the book and writing with Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott Montgomery.
Scott Montgomery: How did it feel writing a second novel with Betty Ryhyz opposed to the first?
Kathleen Kent: This is my first series–all of my previous historical fiction novels were stand-alone—and I had to rethink how to structure not only the book I was working on, but future books in the series. An important thing I learned from my editor was that the “Sophomore book” is crucial to keeping a reader’s interest going forward. You may like the first book, but the second will often determine whether you want to read the third, or fourth. Writing The Dime was an exercise in learning the genre of contemporary crime fiction: pacing, narrative tone, and maintaining suspense. But developing The Burn necessitated a deeper dive into not only Betty’s character, but of those who populated her world. There were a lot of rewrites to The Burn to get it right, and I had to remind myself at times to maintain a balance between the darker themes of the book, of which there are plenty, with lighter, more comedic elements.
SM: I really felt the Dallas streets and the working relationships of the narcotics squad. What kind of research did you do?
KK: I grew up in Dallas but moved to New York once I’d finished college. After living and
working in Manhattan for twenty years, I decided to move back to Dallas. Big D had changed drastically in those two decades in terms of urban development. But a lot had stayed the same and was distressingly familiar in terms of social intolerance. Once I had committed to writing a crime novel, I channeled some of my experiences of feeling like an “outsider” into Betty’s character. Doing research with law enforcement proved to be quite a challenge. While writing historical fiction, I found there were always experts willing to talk about their unique knowledge of history. Active law enforcement, especially those working undercover, can’t speak to a civilian about their operations for obvious reasons. One workaround was to talk to retired police officers, one of whom was the first female detective in Dallas. She gave me a lot of hilarious, and hair-raising stories, that I incorporated into both crime novels. My most important source, though, was a close cousin who, in his thirty-year career, worked both narcotics and vice undercover, as well as SWAT. I was also invited to several police retirement parties, and it’s amazing what you can learn by sitting quietly in a corner holding a glass of Jameson whiskey, and just listening to the stories unwind.
SM: I was happy to see Jackie’s uncle play an important part. He’s one of my favorite characters in the series. What do you like about him as a writer?
KK: He’s one of my favorites as well. There’s something noble about people who, despite their frailties and vices, continue fighting to stay afloat, to be useful, to be of service to other people. James Earle has a dignified past as he served in Vietnam as an MP, and he understands the difficulties and pressures prevalent in law enforcement. In many ways he’s a stand in for Betty’s beloved Uncle Benny, the man who was Betty’s polestar growing up. I’m happy to say that James Earle will be a constant character going forward.
SM: You wrote several acclaimed historical novels and fell into this gritty cop series where you both deliver and subvert the genre goods like somebody who has been writing this kind of book for a decade. Were you a fan of the genre before you started?
KK: I’ve always been a huge fan of crime novels, the darker, the better! My sister and I grew up reading, and watching on TV, a lot of British crime series, which our mother read as well. The three of us used to talk at the dinner table about the finer points of Murder Most Foul, often horrifying our dad with the gruesome details. Even in my works of historical fiction I never shied away from violence. The Heretic’s Daughter is based on my nine-times great grandmother, Martha Carrier, who was hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692. The Outcasts is set in post-Civil War Texas and has hangings, torture and murder. The themes of villainy are often the same, regardless of the time period. The challenge for me as a writer, though, was to change the way the story was presented, which is to say I had to pay close attention to pacing, keeping the reader on the edge of his or her seat. I would liken historical fiction writing to a slow and steady burn, while crime writing is often a bonfire at the beginning with liberal applications of gasoline along the way.
SM: What has writing contemporary novels allowed you to do that you couldn’t in the historicals?
KK: I think writing contemporary crime novels has allowed me to indulge in more absurdist fantasies. In my historical novels, I often tried to stay close to the actual true events of the time. This “reality” construct was used as a framework, or scaffolding, to build my fictional story. In both The Dime and The Burn I felt less constricted to that model. Some of the contemporary narrative started as a newspaper headline, for example, but I was able to move the resulting action in unexpected directions. I’ve really enjoyed bumping riiiight up against what stretches credulity.
SM: Has it presented any challenges?
KK: A lot of readers had grown accustomed to my works of historical fiction. And some were surprised at the seemingly abrupt shift to contemporary crime. So, it was a challenge to entice those people to read these latest two novels, especially if they weren’t enthusiastic crime readers to begin with. But, happily, many of those readers have now eagerly embraced Det. Betty and her adventures. I think it points to the importance of having relatable, courageous characters and compelling stories no matter the genre.
About Scott Montgomery: A legendary crime bookseller, Scott Montgomery runs MysteryPeople, the mystery bookstore within BookPeople. He also runs The Hard Word blog, covering hard boiled fiction. Always a crime fiction fan, Scott worked on the sales staff of the acclaimed and influential The Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles for four years. He is a regular contributor to Crime Reads and his fiction has appeared on the site Shotgun Honey and in the anthologies Murder On Wheels, Lone Star Lawless, and Eyes Of Texas. His Bullet Book, Two Bodies, One Grave, debuted Fall 2019.
The Burnis available for purchase in-store and online now.
Kathleen Kent, known for historical novels, proved her ability to cross genres with The Dime. The gritty police thriller, featuring Betty Rhyzyk, a New York narcotics detective who transfers to Dallas to be with her wife, breathed new life into the cop novel and won her praise from the likes of Joe R. Lansdale. Luckily Kathleen and Betty are back for The Burn.
It’s not too long into the book, Betty’s head-first attitude lands her into desk duty. It and other things are not helping the relationship with Jackie. Her frustrations grow when word on the street hits that several kilos of The Sinola Cartel’s heroine got stolen and confidential informants are popping up dead in the sleazier parts of The Big D. Her colleagues leave her behind as they look for El Cuchillo (or The Knife), a Sinola enforcer with a nasty reputation believed to be behind the killings. When Betty gets information that some of the players could be involved with the department and with Jackie, she jumps out from behind the desk and goes rogue.
Kent builds an exciting world of The Dallas Narcotics division and the Texas toned underworld they operate in. She shows camaraderie between the police with undercurrents of infighting, often disguised as joking around.The cheap motels and dive bars where Betty hunts down answers are gritty and hard, either bathed in shadows or reflecting the glare of the Lone Star sun, everything and everybody plays with perception.
All of this fits into Betty’s point of view.. She charges in, not always looking and a situation with few people to trust leads to some justified paranoia. Since there are very few she can trust, she turns to outsiders, recruiting a pregnant dealer’s girlfriend and Jackie’s Vietnam vet uncle, James Earle, into her cause.
The Burn proves to be even better than The Dime. The plotting is well crafted with strong action passages and a believable, dangerous setting with characters who pop. At the center of it all is a complex heroine who couldn’t give a rat’s ass if you like her or not. Here’s hoping Betty can always get out from behind the desk.
Kathleen Kent’s The Burn is available for purchase from BookPeople in-store and online now!
The Murder In The Afternoon Book Club will be discussing the first book in one of the past decade’s best series. With The Ranger, Ace Atkins introduced us to Quinn Colson, his corrupt town of Tibbehah, and his crazy family. This is crime fiction — Southern style.
Quinn comes home from ranger duty in Afghanistan, for his uncle’s funeral. The man, who served as the town sheriff committed suicide — or at least that’s how the death is reported.. Quinn believes it’s connected to Johnny Stagg, the town’s crime lord and political fixer. With the help of his friends, Deputy Lily Virgil and one-armed, muscle bound vet Boom, he sets out to make things right. he also has to deal with his drug addict sister and Elvis loving mother.
Part crime novel, part western, The Ranger is a mix of many of Ace Atkins’ influences. He plans to call-in to talk about them and anything else in the book. We will be meeting Monday, February 17th, at 1PM on BookPeople’s third floor. The book is 10% off to those planning to attend.
Nick Petrie’s Peter Ash is a series hero for his time. A drifting marine vet, suffering from PTSD and a concern about his enjoyment of the violence he encounters, Petrie has taken the Jack Reacher style character to a more introspective place while never skimping on the bone crunching action and smart pacing.
In The Wild One, Ash goes to Reykjavik to find a missing boy that leads to a government conspiracy. Mr. Petrie was kind enough to talk about the challenges of writing the book and dealing with violence in and action series.
Scott Montgomery: How did Iceland end up as the major location for Peter’s latest adventure?
Nick Petrie: The first time I went to Iceland, I wasn’t planning a novel – I was just backpacking with my son. But Reykjavik is a quirky city, and the rugged, lonely landscape outside the capital is richly evocative of Iceland’s epic history. The whole experience was deeply compelling. And at the end of our trip, as we waited in the airport, an entire novel appeared in my head, beginning to end.
This had never happened to me before, so I grabbed my notebook and scribbled as fast as I could. I got about twenty minutes before the novel disappeared again, and I spent the next eighteen months trying to recreate that strange, singular vision. The result is The Wild One.
SM: Is it easier to write about a location fewer readers know, or is it more of a challenge?
NP: In each of my books, I’ve felt a lot of pressure to get setting right, whether the California’s tech coast, Denver’s cannabis culture, or the richness of Memphis. As a writer, I’m always very conscious that I’m an outsider, and that readers will definitely let me know if I haven’t done justice to the place they call home.
Iceland was more of a challenge than other settings because, in terms of language,
history, and culture, it felt so very different from the U.S. and thus harder to step into, imaginatively, than other places I’ve written about. For me the breakthrough came when someone described Iceland as the Wyoming of Europe. I’ve spent time in a lot of places where the road comes to an end, Wyoming included, and that comparison helped me understand the personality of the place, and that maybe Iceland wasn’t so different after all.
SM: Was there anything about the city or country you were looking forward to portraying?
NP: Writing about place is important to me – I think of setting as another character and treat it as such. So I was really looking forward to seeing Peter, my protagonist, in conflict with the essential, unchanging Iceland, its landscape and weather. What I didn’t anticipate was how much fun it would be to write about strong, stoic, individualistic Icelanders. No matter what I may have planned for a book, the characters always surprise me.
SM: What’s interesting about the plot of The Wild One is that the reader is piecing things together, but they are a little ahead of Peter. How did you pull off that balance?
NP:That was one of the major challenges of the book. The Wild One is really two stories told in parallel, and that form didn’t evolve until fairly late in the writing. The trick was to keep the tension of each storyline intact, even as I alternated between them, simultaneously managing what information the reader gets from each. There was a lot of tweaking at the end to get it just right. Funny, but if I’d actually set out at the beginning with this form in mind, I don’t think I could have done it. Sometimes, when we’re lucky, the choices writers make out of desperation can turn into something sublime.
SM: Is there something you have to keep in mind when writing a character who suffers from PTSD?
NP: When writing about post-traumatic stress, I feel a huge amount of responsibility to those veterans who suffer from it, especially because I’m not a veteran myself. I’ve done a great deal of research and spoken with many veterans about this. PTS is often vastly oversimplified in fiction and on the screen, and I’ve found that veterans really appreciate a nuanced approach not only to PTS but also to the experience of surviving war, with its complex stew of pride, dignity, humility, regret, and shame.
Veterans reach out to me all the time, telling me how well I’ve captured what they’re going through, and that means the world to me. It also means that I get to convey this same feeling to readers who have not served in the military or gone to war. Because of our highly professionalized all-volunteer armed forces, most people have no idea what life after war is like for our veterans, and helping readers understand the hidden cost of armed conflict is part of my personal mission.
SM: While you deliver a lot of action, Peter always carries the weight of his violence, justified as it may be. Do you feel an author has a certain responsibility when portraying violence?
NP: This goes back to your previous question. I don’t know how other authors feel, but the consequences of violence – and the attractiveness of it – is one of the central themes of my work.
People join the military for many reasons, including family tradition, opportunity, and the chance to be of service to something larger than oneself. But there’s a reason that most boys play with toy swords and toy guns from a very early age. The dirty little secret of war, and the secret reason our young men (and it is mostly young men) continue to sign up to fight, is that war is exciting as hell. I’s a chance to test your mettle, to prove yourself in a certain arena. The chance to be a hero and to blow shit up.
But most who join the military have no real idea of the long-term consequences of combat. Yes, there is pride and a sense of identity, not to mention powerful friendships that will last until the end of their days. But many veterans have told me that the experience of combat has never left them. I know many Vietnam vets who still go back to that war in their dreams, night after night, more than fifty years later. And it’s not just military veterans, either. I’ve talked with long-time police officers and firefighters who suffer the consequences of that challenging work, too.
Sometimes violence is necessary, either individually or as a group. To stop bad people, to correct the course of a society gone off the rails. But there are always consequences to that violence, even if it’s not convenient. Good people pay a price. We saw it writ large after Vietnam, and after almost twenty years of war in the Middle East, we’re seeing it again. As a writer interested in capturing a slice of America on the page, that’s compelling stuff. And also, I think, necessary.
Nick Petrie’s The Wild Oneis available for purchase from BookPeople in-store and online now.