Like Raymond Chandler or Joe lansdale, Frank Bill has a knack for taking the regional dialect of where he writes (for him, the area where southern Indiana and Northern Kentucky meet) and fully incorporating it into his novel. It can be seen in his believable post apocalyptic novel, The Savage, that came out last year or this story we plucked from Beat To A Pulp.
There are many mysteries in my first book, Morgan’s Point, but none that involved murder. Two sudden, unfathomable and sickening deaths were a part of the story, but I didn’t focus on willful murder. While I don’t exactly think of myself as a pacifist, I had to overcome some trepidation in my second book, Anahuac, and commit a murder—or, at least, commit to chronicling a murder in print.
But even though there is a murder to solve, in the historic and isolated Texas town of Anahuac (Anna Whack is the way a resident would pronounce it) that gives the book its title, the story revolves around mysteries that may be darker than murder.
Most of us abhor violence. Yet mystery, especially when it involves murder, is one of our favorite literary genres. The “why” of its popularity is not so hard to understand when one accepts that the violence and death in a murder mystery are usually purely fictional. We shiver in anticipation as the roller coaster reaches the top of the hill, because the exhilaration of the bottom dropping out is “safe.” Mystery lets us enter into the violent world of murder without actually being in danger. The journey is aided by the fact that our imaginations don’t—in the moment, at least—distinguish between real danger and the imagined.
Make no mistake, my latest novel Anahuac is a murder mystery, pure and simple. If you liked the Coen Brothers movie Blood Simple, you will probably like Anahuac. The mysteries surrounding the living are as dark and complex as the question of what happened to the dearly-departed woman my readers meet (briefly) in the first few pages.
So, how to write about the murder of a human being by another?
Anahuac is a story told in first person. Jim Ward, the series narrator, is not present at the time of the murder—he’s a lawyer called in to defend the out-of-town stranger who is at the murder scene. We learn the details, through Jim’s eyes, in retrospective interviews and testimony.
Solving the crime in Anahuac does not turn on how the deceased was killed. There is more than one person with the means and the motive to have committed the crime. Anahuac is a murder mystery with a heavy emphasis on multiple mysteries. The perpetrator’s identity—a preacher in a sharkskin suit with a following of evangelicals—is the key to there being a story in the first place; but the murder serves as a vehicle to explore dark questions related to greed, religion, and justice. Without the murder, the other dark mysteries explored in the story would never surface.
A murder defendant must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury’s task of judging the credibility of witnesses is most complex when multiple witnesses in the trial have an incentive to have killed the deceased. The paucity of information about the act of murder is often the case in real life crime. As in life, the jury and the reader are called to judge the credibility of the witnesses in Anahuac.
And to complicate matters, the town of Anahuac is about to be illuminated by the glare of big city television news and newspapers, enticed by the strange circumstances around the case. In 1972 Anahuac was a remote town even by Texas standards. Outside scrutiny of the small town’s justice system puts more than the defendant on trial.
Anahuac puts you in the jury box with a jury made up of rice farmers and the local undertaker. The defendant’s version of the events leading to the death of the victim is sketchy, but he has evidence that points to someone else. If there is a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime, the jury must acquit. What if that means that there might not ever be anyone punished for the crime?
I spent time as both a prosecutor and a defense lawyer. Justice is all too often in the eye of the beholder. The rules of evidence don’t care who is guilty. Convicted criminals seldom think that justice was done. Convicted innocent defendants are sure it wasn’t.
I am writing the sequel to Anahuac. The story is set in Austin, Texas in the mid-1970s and recounts a murder involving the cosmic cowboy music scene, politics, romance, and demands for women’s rights. Ah, yet again I am confronted with the violence of the act of murder. I wonder how I’ll handle it this time.
Thanks to author Richard Bush for writing this blog post.
Way back in the day (talking late 60’s, so, yeah, I’m an old soul), I fell off into the blues. Back then blues was imported from across the pond by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton. Sure, they were rock bands, but the always included ample examples of blues music, and it was those songs that grabbed me and held on. They spoke in reverence of the bluesmen whose songs they covered and I wanted badly to drink from the source, but albums by those cats just were not available in small town Texas.
BUT, while majoring in journalism at Southwest Texas State University (yes, I still call it that) and shooting pool at Cheatham Street Warehouse a hippie walked in offering to sell a trunk full of albums for a dollar each to raise his rent money. That trunk was loaded with boxes of blues albums, so I sacrificed twenty dollars of my own rent money for records by Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Lightning Hopkins, etc…and never looked back.
After college, I took up sucking and blowing blues on a harmonica and began seeking out bluesmen who did the same. Over the years I interviewed them, wrote articles about them and reviewed their recordings for various publications. Some of those can be found at www.bushdogblues.blogspot.com, my way too neglected blog.
So…naturally, when I decided to write a novel, blues and trouble just had to be in the mix. An idea that had swirled around my brain for a number of years sprung from the murders of three extremely talented and influential blues harp players from the 40s/50s and 60’s. Little Walter Jacobs, John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson and Henry ‘Pot’ Strong all met their demise on the streets of Chicago. Their murders have gone unsolved, except Strong’s. His wife was arrested for stabbing him, but she claimed innocence. So, I used those incidents as a jumping off point for my first foray into fiction. I just had to write it. Getting it published and read was secondary in my mind. Just planned to share it with blues fans.
My debut novel, River Bottom Blues, is that book, featuring two blues harmonica musicians determined to track down the evil responsible for killing a good buddy. The same protagonists find murder and mayhem in the two books that followed, The Devil’s Blues and Howling Mountain Blues. All of my crime fighting bluesmen stories are set in Texas. The third one does venture down to a Belize blues festival and the boys do find evil to stomp out before they leave.
The Oaxacan Kid is a standalone and offers up a different protagonist in the form of a blues record collector intent on finding an obscure harmonica musician he discovered on one of his finds. Blues and trouble rise their familiar heads when he finds that a few very bad people have the same goal and he’s stirred a pot that puts him directly in their cross hairs.
Richard Bush will be at BookPeople, along with John Shepphird on Saturday, May 5th at 2pm.
I met Philip Kerr thanks to that great matchmaker, the fellow who (as much as anyone I know) brings writers together, and also introduces them to readers: BookPeople’s own Scott Montgomery. It was at the store, Phil was doing a reading and a signing, and afterward Scott introduced us and invited me to join the two of them at dinner.
Immediately, Phil and I hit it off, and I was thrilled because he was, and still is, one of my favorite writers. (When Philip died this week, the personal loss was compounded by the knowledge that I will have just one more Bernie Gunther book, the one just published, left to read.) That friendship is why, I’m sure, Scott asked me to write a little about Phil to mark his passing, to honor our mutual friend.
But I want to start not by talking about the man, but about his Bernie Gunther books, to linger on those for a moment. Why? Because they are Phil’s legacy, wonderful gifts of brilliant story-telling and if you’ve not read them, I want to explain why you should (and if you have, you’ll be nodding along in agreement).
They are all about the man, Bernie Gunther. He’s a policeman in Berlin, and the books are set in and around the Second World War. Sounds pretty grim, right? But that was part of Phil’s genius, taking one of the darkest times in human history and infusing them with the wit, charm, and sometimes-disguised morality of his detective. Bernie himself is no angel, that’s always made clear—he drinks and smokes and chases women. He’s not afraid to pull the trigger, either, but he only does so when necessary and in the search for justice for some poor murder victim, or to save his own skin from someone infinitely more callous, someone genuinely wicked. In my opinion, and I’ve only been reading crime fiction for forty years, so what the hell do I know, Bernie Gunther is one of the most compelling characters ever in the genre.
Phil’s books are more than just adventures for Bernie, though, they are also phenomenal explorations of history. Every book will teach you something new about the period in which it is set, and each time it’s a delightful learning experience, a revelation of fascinating sub-stories, not a dry info dump or a preachy pedagogical exercise. Always filled with characters from the era that we recognize, so many bad Germans, who are complemented by colorful characters created by the devious, mischievous mind of Philip B. Kerr. And reading them you will travel to places like Germany, France, Russia, and Argentina.
Now, about Phil. He’s actually a hard man to write about, partly because I know that he’d shrink away from the accolades and public praise that have come from every corner of the literary world since his death. I can see him now, a little smirk on his face that says, “Go on, write something that I can’t pick apart as phony.”
I’ll try. The first time I saw him was that reading at BookPeople, and I call it a reading not because he read from his new book but because he literally read his talk to the audience. I thought that odd, he was so charming and funny it was hard for me to understand why he needed to read his presentation.
Afterward, we talked about the touring he has to do for each book, and he admitted that he was an introvert and didn’t always enjoy public appearances. He found them challenging sometimes, I think, for the added reason that he was almost always the smartest man in the room (his law degree was topped off with post-graduate studies in German law and philosophy) and he had an inability to suffer fools (at all, let alone gladly).
Example: at a subsequent event at BookPeople where I hosted Phil and lobbed dumb questions at him, I’d turned it over to the audience and some eagle-eyed reader asked him about mistakes in the book that we were discussing, some minor factual or temporal error. Phil was curt, and made no apology for either his tone or the mistake. His response, in effect, was, “I’m human and humans make mistakes. If you want error free books read one written by a robot. Next question.”
As a relatively new author myself, and certainly not anywhere near Phil’s level of success, I was momentarily taken aback at his raw honesty. But that’s what it was, honesty. And, for the record, he was right. I, too, have endured pointers to alleged mistakes and, even though the person challenging me was wrong (you can buy strawberries in the Pyrénées mountains in winter!), I was still polite and even mildly apologetic. But not Philip Kerr. He didn’t need to pander to an audience member asking what he thought was a silly question. He was honest enough to say what many of us might have thought, but probably wouldn’t say.
But don’t think he wasn’t kind. He was. I’ve told this story many times, and I’ll tell it again because it shows what kind of person he was. He was talking about the publisher-arranged drivers who ferry him from the airport to the hotel and to the book events. This quiet, brilliant, introvert told me that should I ever be the writer being picked up by a volunteer, I should always sit in the front passenger seat and never the back seat. If someone is giving you their time because they love your books, don’t you dare treat them like a hired taxi driver. This from the man who, I am convinced, would every time liked to have sunk into the back seat with his thoughts to enjoy some peace and quiet.
I am so sad that I won’t get more advice from him, and that there will be an end to the Bernie Gunther books. I am angry, even, that I didn’t get to say good bye and that we won’t have one more drink at the Four Seasons bar and comment inappropriately about half of the people in the room. As a prosecutor, my humor is blacker than most people’s but Phil was one person I could share it with, without shame or reticence.
Yes, I am both sad and angry, but I am also grateful. Grateful for his books that have given me so much pleasure, that have inspired me to be a better writer myself. But also for those moments of quiet amusement we shared. The sushi and beer we consumed on South Congress, the car rally we enjoyed that same night. The twinkle in his eye when I handed him an AR-15 with laser scopes at a range south of Austin. His gentle laughter when I choked down some oysters at his favorite restaurant in London. His stories of meeting Tom Hanks and drinking with Gerard Depardieu. That was the thing about Philip Kerr, he knew how to tell a story, be it over 300 pages of a book, or over a gin and tonic in the pub. It was his gift.
There was one story we wanted to share together—it was an idea for a TV show, one that excited us both for a while, based right here in Austin. Charlie Sector, it was to be called. A cop show that we both threw ideas at, and he wrote a treatment for. It didn’t get off the ground but that didn’t stop us talking about it every time we saw each other. There’s always so much left undone, isn’t there? So much left to do.
I’ll miss you, Phil, but thanks. Thanks for everything.
Mark Pryor’s latest novel is Dominic.
Inspector Rutledge is driving aimlessly when he comes across a crime scene. A man has been shot and the only witness is a woman who claims that her companion stopped for a man in the road who walked up to him, asked him a question, and then shot him through the heart. Rutledge returns in the morning to find a beautifully carved wolf at the scene. Another richly atmospheric and moving work by Charles Todd that provides enough clues to keep the most diligent reader of mysteries enraptured. This book is about deep family secrets and the way that we cannot really know what goes on in another person’s mind. A fine chapter in one of my favorite mystery series.
Help I Am Being Held Prisoner by Donald Westlake
Compulsive practical joker Harold Kunt’s latest stunt causes a ten car pile up and embarrassment for a couple of politicians caught with their mistresses, resulting in a prison stint. However, he isn’t completely incarcerated. The prison has a tunnel system a few select prisoners use to visit the nearby town to drink at the bar, pick up women, or commit a crime or two since no one would suspect them. The only catch is that Harry has to help these prisoners rob two banks at the same time or else. Thanks to Hard Case Crime, this novel by Donald Westlake at his funniest and most inventive is back in print. It has been stuck in my memory for over three decades.
Cut You Down by Sam Wiebe
Vancouver private detective Dave Wakeland is hired by a professor and possible lover of a student who disappeared and may have taken half a million dollars worth of school funds. The trail leads to a suburban mob, a crooked cop from another case, and a trip south of the border to Washington state for a violent showdown. Wiebe delivers a fresh spin on the tough yet emotionally vulnerable private eye and populates the Canadian underworld he travels navigates with indelible characters.
Each month we choose one book you absolutely can not miss. This month Meike has reviewed that pick, Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, for the blog. It’s out February 20th and you can pre-order now.
Laura Lippman’s latest, Sunburn, just might be the perfect beach read. It takes off gradually, allowing the tension to build slowly, until the story plunges the reader into a roller coaster thrill ride with countless twists and turns before smoothly bringing him or her to a satisfying conclusion. You can no more put this book down than you can stop the ride from hurtling forward.
But Sunburn is so much more—it’s a masterwork of modern noir, invoking the style of James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice). Make no mistake—this is a dark tale of secrets and lies with its share of dead bodies. It’s not the coaster at a shiny clean mega theme park; the tone reflects a slightly more frightening rickety coaster ride at a second-rate theme park that has seen better days. Lippman masterfully evokes the shadier side of summer with this searing tale of secrets and passion.
The story begins with Polly, a mysterious redhead who is passing through a small town when she stops in at a bar and meets the equally mysterious Adam; the first thing he notices about her is her sunburned shoulders. We soon learn that Polly has just abruptly left her husband and young daughter in the midst of a family beach vacation. The reader also learns that Adam is a private investigator who has been hired to find Polly, but we don’t know by whom. They both realize that a relationship between them threatens the secrets they’re trying to keep, yet they succumb to their mutual attraction and a heated affair ensues. They decide to stay in town for a bit and take jobs in the local diner. As their relationship unfolds, each is unsure about the other’s motivations; we slowly learn just how many secrets each is keeping from the other. There are no heroes here—both characters are deeply flawed, and we’re not really sure to what extent each is simply playing the other. Lippman keeps the reader guessing until the very end.
Laura Lippman was a reporter for twenty years before turning to writing full time. She is the critically acclaimed author of the Tess Monaghan series as well as nine standalone crime novels. Her body of work has received countless awards and Sunburn is sure to receive its share of accolades.
Thanks to Laura Oles for writing the following guest post about her new book, Daughters of Bad Men. She’ll join us February 5th at 7pm to talk about the book along with Terry Shames and James Ziskin.
Jamie Rush has been following me for years. She lurked in the background as I worked, as I ferried my kids to school, and as I handled the ordinary demands of daily life. I couldn’t shake her, couldn’t get her off my trail. I worried I didn’t have the time I needed to tell her story, but it didn’t matter. She wouldn’t go away. I would need to give her the proper attention she deserved so she would get out of my head.
It turns out she now occupies more space than ever.
Jamie Rush is a skip tracer in the island town of Port Alene, Texas, and is the protagonist in Daughters of Bad Men. In this first book in a new series, Jamie and her partner, Cookie Hinojosa, take on the emotional task of finding Jamie’s missing niece. Accepting Kristen’s case isn’t an easy ask. Jamie’s relationship with her con artist family is a complicated one. She doesn’t trust them, and for very good reason. Still, when Kristen goes silent, she agrees to take the case because…well, she’s family. You don’t turn your back on family.
Jamie’s domestic dynamics are an important part of the story because they have shaped her into the person she is today. Trust comes slowly to her. A handful of people comprise her true family, including Cookie, a pub owner named Marty, and Erin, an underground bookie for the Winter Texans living in Port Alene until their own northern hometowns are free from the cruel confines of the season. These people are her world, and Jamie would do anything to protect them.
Although Jamie knows the dangers of searching for Kristen-emotional entanglements can cloud judgment–she has no choice. She digs deeper into Kristen’s life and uncovers her niece’s most guarded secrets. Exposing the truth will put a target on Jamie’s back and endanger the lives of those she loves.
Port Alene, Texas, is a fictional version of Port Aransas, a place my family considers a second home. It made perfect sense to create Jamie’s world in this town’s image, but Port Alene is a far grittier and darker place than its inspiration. Jamie is running from her past and Port Alene has offered her a chance to start over, to finally plant roots and stay awhile. Her business searching for small time skips who owe debts to those dependent on them being repaid is a steady one. She has finally found where she belongs, although she still keeps a ditch bag under her bed. Even now, she has one eye on the door.
Writers often say that their characters become members of their family, and that’s the case with mine. They are part of my tribe. I get lost in their world. I sometimes hear dialogue in my head. I can’t turn it off and wonder if I should consult a doctor. Although it’s sometimes inconvenient, it’s also welcome. I want to know what they’re up to next, what dangers lie in wait, what will come of each of them as they grow older, grow wiser, more jaded, more hopeful.
Since I started working on Daughters of Bad Men, Hurricane Harvey roared across the coast and took a terrible toll on Port Aransas. Writing the Jamie Rush series allows me to spend time in my favorite island town until its namesake can once again host company. I visited this past weekend and found there are only a handful of restaurants open and still fewer places to stay. The town is rebuilding but it will take time. So, I will continue to write her fictional sister Port Alene–and she will remain untouched by natural disaster. There are enough storms brewing for Jamie already.
If you’d like to help the rebuilding efforts in Port Aransas, please find out how here. In particular, The Ellis Memorial Library lost its entire collection of books. Everything is lost and they need donations of books and money so that they may once again serve their community. You can find out more about how to help here.