REVIEW OF A RISKY DEVELOPMENT FOR LORETTA SINGLETARY

When it comes to writing small town crime fiction, Terry Shames is one of the masters. With Jarret Creek Texas, protected by the brought out of retirement Chief Of Police Samuel Craddock, she has created a believable community. In her latest. A Risky Undertaking For Loretta Singletary, a significant member of the community goes missing.

A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary: A Samuel Craddock Mystery (Samuel Craddock Mysteries) Cover ImageNoticing it’s been awhile since Loretta has stopped by his house with her cinnamon rolls to gossip, Samuel goes over to her house. He finds out that she had packed as well as left dirty dishes in the sink. He soon discovers Loretta was meeting a man through a singles website. Further poking around takes Deputy Maria Trevino, and him through the darker side of online dating. They also pick up ties to the Baptists Church wanting to sponsor the goat rodeo with the Catholics.

This is self assured crime fiction writing at its most entertaining. Shames has a clean and direct style and knows her characters. She knows her readers understand the friendship between Samuel and Loretta and relies on that understanding to develop tension as Samuel grows grumpier and more concerned over her. His frustrations with the goat rodeo controversy and the shenanigans of two dim bulb brothers become obstacles that hinder the investigation. Even a tryst with his girlfriend Wendy is bittersweet, as Samuel knows it’s just a respite from getting out of bed to face his worst fears about Loretta’s fate.

A Risky Undertaking For Loretta Singletary is a prime example of Terry Shames as master craftsman. She juggles humor, suspense, character, and setting to whip up a narrative drive that keeps you reading and caring. She once again gives us a welcome return to Jarret Creek.

FIVE GREAT PIECES OF TEXAS CRIME FICTION

May is Texas Mystery Month. The crime fiction of MysteryPeople’s home state often has a western or rural feel, yet we have several that take place in our big city. We’re pretty open minded about who we murder here. Just like barbecue, everyone down here has their way of doing it. Here are five must reads by Texas authors, covering East to West Texas and everything in between.

The Killer Inside Me (Mulholland Classic) Cover ImageThe Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson—Still one of the most chilling books ever written. Lou Ford is a deputy of a small town in West Texas and a psychotic killer. Thompson gets into Lou’s dark mind as he deals out and covers up his crimes while looking at the society around him that doesn’t appear to be much more sane.

 

 

Big Red Tequila (Tres Navarre #1) Cover ImageBig Red Tequila by Rick Riordan—Before he created Y.A. hero Percey Jackson, Riordan he gave us Tres Nevarre, an young professor in medieval history who returns to his San Antonio home and is greeted with a murder frame. This book sets up what will become one of the funkiest and entertaining private eye series ever.

 

 

 

Mucho Mojo: A Hap and Leonard Novel (2) (Hap and Leonard Series #2) Cover ImageMucho Mojo by Joe R LansdaleThere has to be a Hap and Leonard book in here, and this second in the series is the best and introduces all the main characters and ingredients in a perfect mix. The boys uncover old history, a murder charge, and a few people gunning for them when they discover a boy’s skeleton in the basement of Leonard’s recently deceased grandfather.

 

 

The Last Death of Jack Harbin: A Samuel Craddock Mystery (Samuel Craddock Mysteries) Cover ImageThe Last Death Of Jack Harbin by Terry Shames—The second book in the series featuring Samuel Craddock has the retired chief of police looking into the murder of the town football hero who returned from Iraq a quadriplegic, only to end up murdered. The emotions ring true in this heart breaker of a novel.

 

 

The Far Empty Cover ImageThe Far Empty by J. Todd Scott—A new deputy does a deadly dance with his boss, pulling several others in with them, when what could be the body of the sheriff’s missing wife is discovered. Scott, a practicing DEA agent, delivers a gritty, multi-character masterpiece on the border that puts No Country For Old Men to shame.

Pick of the Month: Night Watch by David C. Taylor

David C. Taylor is fast becoming a go-to author—along side Max Allan Collins and James Ellroy—for crime fiction set in the post-war era. His Michael Cassidy, an NYPD  detective in the the fifties whose back ground allows him to be familiar with high society as well as the street, proves to be a complex hero who finds himself caught up in his country’s shadow history. Both author and character have solidified their standing in the latest novel, Night Watch.

This third story takes place between the first and second, Night Life and Night WorkCassidy catches a double homicide that has a precise and unusual M.O. Before he gets any chance to work it, a mysterious assassin is out to get him. His search for both killers involves the CIA and a real government program linked to the days after World War Two.

Night Watch Cover ImageTaylor has created Cassidy as a cross between, Sam Spade, The 87th Precinct’s Steve Carella, and James Bond. He’s a smart, capable cop, who is a bit of a wise-ass (only for those who deserve it), who works well with his fellow detectives. His good looks, charm, and elegance that come from being born into wealth (His father is an immigrant who made his fortune as a Broadway producer.) allow him to move in circles your average street cop can’t and bed many a beautiful women. However the war seems to have affected him. He has an attitude with authority, particularly at the national level, and seems to be in search of a purpose.

Another character that stands out in the series is the New York of that era, and Taylor goes deeper with this story. He gives us the gritty barrios and ghettos that have echoes of early Sydney Lumet films like The Pawnbroker as well as penthouse parties where Gershwin plays. That and everything in between gives off the feeling of the crowd and noise, depicting New York as the center and provider for its country’s culture for that period. If Cassidy believes in anything outside his family, it is protecting his town.

With Night Watch, David C. Taylor has proven the reliability of of the Michael Cassidy series. There is a confidence and clean voice to the writing with a hero who can go in several intriguing directions in plot, history, and his own character journey. Taylor balances both sides of Cassidy and his world, resulting in one hard boiled cop tale with a touch of class.

An Author Worth Waiting For: An Interview with Brian Panowich

Like Lions: A Novel Cover ImageBrian Panowich got the attention with Bull Mountain in the spring of 2015. For four years, many of us have waited for its sequel, Like Lions, and it is finally out. The book picks up some months after the last one with Sheriff Clayton Burroughs still dealing with the fall out of having to face off with his outlaw family. Part of that deals with the vacuum created by his brother’s absence and other players wanting to take over the crime in his county. It also pulls his wife Kate back into the violence, having to face who she is and what she’s capable of. All of this pays off the wait for Bull Mountain fans. Brian will be at BookPeople tomorrow, May 1st. Not wanting to have his wait this time, he answered some questions ahead of time.

  1. When Bull Mountain came out it sounded like the follow up was on it’s heels. What can you tell us about the four year wait?

 

I think enough people have read Bull Mountain, or heard me tell this story in person enough, that I can give you the answer to that without spoiling anything, but in my original manuscript for Bull Mountain, I killed Clayton Burroughs—the main protagonist. The bad guys won. That was the story I wanted to tell, but in the twilight hours of finalizing the book, my agent, and my editor both convinced me to keep him alive, so I altered the ending and the book that came out left a living breathing Clayton Burroughs in the end. The decision was a sound one because a lot of people all over the world fell in love with the character, but the other side to that coin, was that he didn’t fit in at all to the next story I wanted to write, which featured his wife Kate as the main protagonist. In other words, I had a character everyone wanted to read about that I didn’t know what to do with. Like Lions was already fleshed out and it was/is a story about women, so it took me a hot minute to be able to tell the same story I wanted to tell and still include Clayton Burroughs. I also didn’t want to use a shoe horn to do it. I didn’t want it to feel forced, and in the end I feel like I was able to accomplish a decent balancing act. Add publisher issues and the life of a father of four to the equation and the result was a timespan between books that no one was less happy about than me. But the book is finally here so upward and onward.

 

  1. You used the idea of a sequel to deal with the fall out of violence. Was there anything you had to keep in mind about what happened to Clayton in Bull Mountain when you were writing Like Lions?

 

The violence had just become landscape to Clayton by this point in time. He’d seen so much of it, he was hardly fazed by it anymore, even when he’s actively participating. His main conflict is he’s haunted by the death of his older brother and lives in his head with that guilt most of the time. I imagine anyone would. It isn’t until that violence, for the first time ever, comes calling on his own wife and son is he finally shaken hard enough to realize everything isn’t about him or his pain. He has other people counting on him. I believe in that moment, that’s the first time in two books we finally meet the real Clayton Burroughs. Now I kinda love the guy, too.

 

  1. Once again history, particularly family history, plays a big part in the story. What draws you to that theme?

 

Mainly my fascination of people being part of one. I never had that growing up, being a military brat. I never knew the draw of family or the deep roots that were planted. The idea of “legacy” is something I think I’ll be playing with for a long time to come.

 

  1. The women came more to the forefront in this book. Did that have any effect on you writing  it?

 

It had everything to do with it. I explain some of that in my answer to your first question, but everything about this book down to the title revolves around the women involved. I’ve always been appalled by the idea of having to have a white knight come in and save the damsel in distress, or the vixen sidekick to the REAL male villain. I’m been like a broken record about this ever since Bull Mountain. And maybe it’s a good thing it took this long for the book to come out, because if you look around, the revolution has begun. Someone read an earlier draft of Like Lions once it was ready for outside eyes and told me that there was no way a woman could hold her own against a group of evil men the way I’d written it. As soon as I heard that, I knew I got it right, and didn’t change a word.

 

  1. While the book has your voice, I couldn’t help notice the influence of of one of your favorite authors, Elmore Leonard, especially when it came to use of humor. What do you admire about his writing?

 

What is there not to admire? He could turn from hard boiled violent crime to comedy on a dime, from western grit to urban underworld before you know what hit you. He also is the king of dialogue. There is no one better at making you fall in love with a character simply by listening to him or her speak than Dutch. I lean on his stories like text books. The character of Wallace Cobb in Like Lions was directly influenced by Elmore Leonard, and I hope I made him proud.

 

  1. Will we have to wait four years for the next book?

 

Ha! No. I’ve already turned in my third novel and it’s slated for spring of 2020. I’ve found an editor in Kelley Ragland at St. Martin’s and Minotaur that really feels like a partner in crime. With her next to me, I’m finally cooking with gas.

 

INTERVIEW WITH ROB HART

Take-Out: And Other Tales of Culinary Crime Cover ImageWhen Rob Hart discovered that many of his short fiction dealt with food, restaurants, and bars, he put together a thematic collection, Take-Out, crime fiction with a culinary bent. He added a handful of new tales to the mix as well. Each one serves as as a masterclass for story telling craft. Rob was kind enough to to take a break from preparing the push for his much talked about book, The Store, coming out this summer, to chat with us about writing, cooking, and his city.

1. Why do you think cooking and dining play a part in a lot of fiction writing?

There’s a lot of great detail you can play with there—sensory detail, of course, but too, passion. Everyone is passionate about food. Every food has their own customs and cultures related to it. So you can tell a lot about someone based on their likes and dislikes, where they eat, how to prepare a dish. And at the end of the day, food is the only thing we all have in common—even if the dishes are different, customs of hospitality are generally the same. Everyone wants to sit at a table and leave feeling fulfilled.

2. Is there anything you keep in mind when writing about food?

There’s a balance, I think, between getting across the importance and uniqueness of a dish, while at the same time, not burdening the reader, or pulling a Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien would spend six pages describing a meal. For example, in one of the stories in Take-Out, there’s reference to a French omelet, which is very unlike an American omelet, and very difficult to cook correctly—and to get that all across in a way that’s both informative and concise is a little tough. Or in the last story, which is set in Singapore and about the hawker markets there, there’s so much to talk about related to Singaporean food culture… you want to pay respect to that culture, and highlight why it’s important and unique, while at the same time writing a good story… it’s a lot. But it’s also a lot of fun.

3. Your love of New York often plays a part in many of the stories. Other than familiarity, what makes it a great place for a story?

New York is such a huge, diverse city. It’s like a playground. And there’s the stuff most people know, which is great—it creates a baseline of familiarity with readers—but there are also a lot of weird, off-the-beaten-path places you can go, too. You’ve also got every kind of language, every kind of culture, and in the case of Take-Out, every kind of cuisine… honestly it’s probably spoiled me as a writer. Sometimes the city does half the work for me.

4. Is there a particular way you approach a short story?

Short stories tend to hit me like little bolts of lighting. By the time I sit down to write one I am already very excited for it, and pretty much have it fully-formed in my head. In a general sense, I tend to look at them as little Twilight Zone episodes—morality plays with a bit of a twist at the end.

5. When reviewing Take-Out, I felt like a food critic, explaining how one element, interacts with or combines with another. Do you believe in having more than one layer, even in short fiction?

The best kind of fiction is the kind that can entertain, but there’s something rippling below the surface. That’s something I’m always looking for—how to get a reader compulsively turning the pages, and then leave having grown or thought or changed a bit. It’s what I tried to do with The Warehouse, which is my next book. I wanted to write a ripping thriller that was also very anti-late-stage capitalism.

6. What’s the best dish you can cook?

This is tough—I love to cook and consider myself pretty handy with a stove. Stick me in a decently-stocked kitchen and I’ll make you a meal you’ll want to eat again. But if pressed: I make really awesome chili. Though I never make it the same way twice.

Shotgun Blast from the Past: The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes

The Real Cool Killers (Harlem Detectives Series #2) Cover ImageChester Himes is so much more than the first major African-American crime writer. With his own take on Harlem that heightens both its vibrancy and violence, he was a master at world building. He was also one of the first writers to introduce absurdity into the genre. Both of these characteristics are on grand display in his 1958 novel, The Real Cool Killers.

It opens with a great depiction of Harlem life that turns into raucous violent comedy that would be at home in a Tarintino movie. The denizens at a local tavern, enjoying the drink and badass R&B. The author describes it so well, you can hear the music and smell the sweat. When The Greek, a white regular, drops in, he gets the ire of a customer who comes at him with a knife. The man loses his knife and hand to the bartender and his meat cleaver. The Greek runs out and is chased down the street by Sonny Jenkins, a local drunk with a pistol. Sonny fires and The Greek droops dead.

That’s when Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Johnson, Hime’s black Harlem cops, hit the scene. They attempt to arrest Jenkins, but The Real Cool Moslems, a street gang in robes and turbans, descends on them. One tosses a bottle of perfume at Coffin, thinking it is acid, something that scarred his face before, and guns down the youth. The gangs runs off, taking Sonny with them. It becomes more complicated when they discover Sonny’s gun only fires blanks. If that isn’t enough, Coffin’s daughter is in with the gang.

With Coffin sidelined for the shooting, Gravedigger is on his own in the search for The Real Cool Moslems and Sonny. He hits the streets, questioning hookers, shaking down hustlers, and not above resorting to pistol whipping or gunplay in his urban hunt. He works more with his white brothers in blue than he has in the previous books. This allows the character to confront the notions whites have of both blacks and Harlem.

As in most of Hime’s Harlem Cycle, it feels like the story will burst from its tight plot and short page length. He packs it dense with lively verbs and detail to express the neighborhood and its people. He sets the bar for setting, taking what most authors use as local color and creating an unwieldy, living, breathing organism that’s dangerous. It’s somewhat ironic, since Himes never lived there.

Humor is prevalent throughout the book. It is often tied to the violence and casual attitude toward it. The dialogue pops and dances. everyone has a justification for their actions and it’s usually hilarious. Himes said he used absurdity because that is the daily experience of a black man in white America.

The Real Cool Killers shows Himes Harlem as fast and colorful, full of sex, violence, and humor. It moves to hot jazz and low down blues. It’s entertaining to read about, hell to survive.

People Who Don’t Turn the Other Cheek: An Interview with Dylan & Drew Struzan, Author & Illustrator of A Bloody Business

A Bloody Business Cover ImageA Bloody Business is a unique gangster epic in many ways. For one it is from the source of Jimmy “Blue Eyes” Alo, a retired mobster the author Dylan Struzan met in a nursing home. In his teens, at the dawn of Prohibition, he began working for Meyer Lansky and rose up through the ranks during the Roaring Twenties. He became the model for Johnny Ola in The Godfather Part 2. He had rare view of organized crime moving between the strategy meetings between Lansky, Bugsey Siegel, and Lucky Luciano and the street soldiers, which are both depicted in these books as well as their domestic and social scenes. The book also has illustrations by Dylan’s husband, Drew Struzan, mainly known for his iconic movies posters, such as Raiders Of The Lost Ark and The Star Wars film. Both were kind enough to take a few questions from us.

1. (Both Dylan and Drew) Did you immediately see this as a project to work together on?

Dylan: Not really.

Drew: I did, being the husband of the writer. I wanted to support her in what she was doing as she always wanted to be a writer. I thought, gee, a book. I will draw some pictures for her and maybe it will help promote the book and make people want to read it.

Dylan: Once upon a time, we were planning on doing children’s books together. I would write and Drew would illustrate. It sounded like a fun thing to do. This project came along and since it was definitely not a children’s book, I didn’t think Drew would join in with illustrations. Primarily, I didn’t think that publishers would be interested in including illustrations as it adds a lot to the cost of making the book. When he started drawing, I didn’t imagine he would do a piece for each chapter but he did. I figured that even if the illustrations weren’t included in the published work, they would be very helpful in selling the story. When Titan and Hard Case Crime said they wanted to include the illustrations, I rejoiced. It was a boon to the content of the book. I hope everyone enjoys them.

A little side story. Our grandson, Nico, is in the fifth grade. The school has “Author Day.” Nico asked what the subject of the book was. I said “gangsters.” He asked if there were Tommy guns in the story. I told him of course. It’s set back in the ‘20s when Tommy guns were very available. Because of Fortnite, he gave me a great description of the history of the Tommy gun and then asked if there were other guns and violence. Undeterred by the answer, he said, “I guess I can’t ask you to come to school on ‘Author Day’ because there are first graders and the school doesn’t want to scare them.”

I have a very supportive family.

The next three for Dylan

2. What about Vincent Alo’s story made you realize it was worth telling?

Dylan: My initial interest was aroused by the fact that no other man of his stature has spoken (on tape) about his life and the events that occurred during his lifetime. History has always fascinated me and this was an untold story, not just another gangster tale. As Jimmy used to say, the press paints everyone with the same brush. These men were not typical gangsters. Jimmy, as he was known, was partners with Meyer Lansky for nearly 60 years and although this story is about Meyer and Charlie Luciano, Jimmy came into that relationship when he was released from jail after his first offense. He stuck with those two men. Jimmy once said of Meyer, “His philosophy was…you’d be surprised. They had him built up as a villain. He was very far from that. He died a poor man. His philosophy was for the common people. He liked to see justice done. He always thought there was a double standard here in this country. The rich pay the fine and the poor go to jail. He wouldn’t lie about anything. He was a nice fella, a highly principled fella.

3. What surprised you about the mob in that era surprised you when talking to him and doing your research?

Dylan: This is a hard question to answer, there were so many things. The greatest surprise was the personal integrity of Jimmy and Meyer. I’m not suggesting they stepped aside from the things that their world demanded. They did what they had to do. As Jimmy said, “These aren’t the Boy Scouts, you know.” But I was reminded of the Raymond Chandler quote about the mean streets down which a man must go. Jimmy liked to tell the story of his work as a Wall Street runner when he was a kid. How he sat out on the street waiting for the chance to run messages between broker and client. He did this in the scorching heat of summer and the freezing cold of winter. Others were promoted while he was passed over and when he asked why he was told, “Do your job and don’t ask questions.” With that, he turned to crime and then did time. Jail time changed him but he still clung to a gangster’s code of right and wrong. That’s not usually the picture we get when it comes to men of the street.

4. One of my big takeaways from the book was how smart most these guys were. How do you think these mostly young men who grew up on the streets with little formal education could think like chess masters?

Dylan: Meyer was born in Grodno, Poland. Immigration records show that he entered America through Ellis Island on April 4, 1911. They record him as being 8 years old. According to Robert Lacy’s book The Little Man, Grodno was nearly 70 percent Jewish, according to the census of 1887. Communities such as these valued education. Meyer was an avid reader of history throughout his life. As Jimmy said, “He was much smarter than all the guys you got around even then. He had foresight cause he knew history, see. He had foresight and he knew human nature and he knew just how to deal with it.” Meyer followed the trials of Clarence Darrow. Studied the Constitution of the United States. Meyer and Charlie consulted with each other. Charlie knew the ways of the “greasers,” as the old Mustache Petes were called. Such knowledge meant the difference between life and death. They were on a mission not to stake out territory but to take the violence off the streets of NYC so that everyone could earn. They had to come at that job with understanding and wisdom or get killed or imprisoned for their ignorance. I admit, what they accomplished was pretty impressive.

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The next three for Drew

5. Drew, what did this project allow you to do as an illustrator, you hadn’t been able to do?

Drew: First of all, I got to work at my own pace and without any direction from the outside. It was just between me and my wife. I drew what I felt was right for the chapter and I chose things I thought would open people’s eyes just as my wife’s words opened eyes. The illustrations make the book richer. I never had an opportunity to do illustrations within a book. I enjoyed the process.

6. As an illustrator you strike a great balance in capturing the story of the filmmaker or in this case writer. Do you have an approach to this success?

Drew: My illustrations are not meant to give away the story but to enlighten the reader and to get them to want to know more. The pictures are designed to let the reader know there is something here worth seeing, in the case of a film, or listening to, in the case of a story. These illustrations are meant to let the reader know there is wisdom here, understanding, history, something you will want to read.

In trying to decide what to use, rather than just showing a portrait of the Godfather which opens people’s minds to the fact that he is a human being, this is also about a time period.  I live today. I didn’t live a hundred years earlier. Researching it and trying to get people’s mind’s eyes back to that period so that they would understand it with pictorial reference was, I think…it increased my joy. I think it will increase the reader’s joy also. 

8. (Both Dylan and Drew) What do you think draws us to gangster stories?

Drew: There were wonderful movies that were made, but we all know they were fiction. This is the truth. Is the truth any different from what we’ve seen in the movies? It is so obviously different. We’ve got to know why and what. 

Dylan: That’s a good point. My first introduction to gangsters was the movie The Godfather. That’s all I really knew about gangsters for a long time. But that story is one particular vision about one group of people. It is elegantly told to be sure, but it is a small piece of the picture. I’m glad for it. People know the movie inside and out so I don’t have to explain that side of gangster life when I talk about the Italians. The Sopranos gave us a new look at the agony of that life and the toll it takes on families so when I was talking to Jimmy, it was interesting to just focus on his life experience in that world. That was Jimmy’s gift to me and to Tommy (who wrote the foreword to the book and made the recordings with Jimmy) and, hopefully, to everyone that reads the book. He lived that life. He was there and that’s what I tried to bring to the story. Gangsters in general…speaking personally now, after living many years in religion, I was curious about the lives of people who don’t turn the other cheek. What impacts their life? I wanted to know Jimmy’s story and what made him turn to crime. I think we are all interested in that question. It is a moral conversation that we like to have perhaps with ourselves and our friends.

Drew: I was thinking along the same line because we suffered many things in our lives. Jimmy suffered a lot in prison as a young man. One of Dylan’s driving forces was for Jimmy to tell us why he chose this way of life. What was his motivation. They didn’t necessarily choose that life but that life chose them, their circumstances chose them.

Dylan: Yes, and I think part of the interesting thing there is that he had his own moral ethic, too. There will be more on that subject in the next book which is about the gambling years. I’m working on that now. That book will center more around the relationship between Meyer and Jimmy where this book is more about Meyer and Charlie.