Q&A with C.M. Wendelboe

C.M. Wendelboe’s three novels featuring Lakota FBI agent Manny Tanno has made him a fresh voice in crime fiction. With Hunting The Five Point Killer, he introduces us to Arn Anderson, a former Denver police detective, whose job as consultant for a local television station takes him to his childhood home in Cheyenne, dealing with his past as well as the murders of several lawmen. I caught up with Mr. Wendelboe to talk about character, place, and his books.

MysteryPeople Scott Montgomery: Like Manny in Death Along The Spirit Road, you have Arn return to his boyhood home. What draws you as a writer for this situation?

C.M. Wendelboe: As Thomas Wolfe wrote, “You can’t go back home to your family, your childhood…back home to the escapes of time and memory.” Manny couldn’t force himself to go back home, and neither could Arn, though they both did, both returning to their boyhood homes by circumstances they fought to control. But in the end, circumstances neither resisted as much as they could have. As if each man secretly wished to return to their past. We all would like to go back home again, even if we publicly deny it. We’d all like that second chance, that opportunity to right wrongs, to take that fork in the road we should have taken back in the day. But which is too late for us now.

So Arn, like Manny, does the best he can in the present to do those things that he ought to have done back in the day. I like the idea of my characters confronting their own shortcomings, reflecting on how things might have turned out differently if only they had taken the other fork in the road. But they go on with their lives, knowing they can do little about those decisions that have ultimately forged them into who they are as people. Maybe I’m just suspicious of seemingly-perfect people.

MPS: What did using Cheyenne Wyoming as a location provide for you?

CMW: I wanted to set my contemporary series in a town brimming with western heritage, and Cheyenne definitely fills that requirement. Folks here represent what people think of the West:  still opening doors for others, men still tipping their hat to ladies, drivers pulling over to help a motorist stranded along the road. Cheyenne’s western history dates back to regional Army forts housing soldiers garrisoned to fight Indians, and the Union Pacific making Cheyenne “Hell on Wheels”, and road agents preying on hapless victims. And, as often as not, doing the dangle of death from a stout piece of hemp courtesy of a vigilance committee. But it’s also a place where many men and women go armed, and are prepared to use their weapon when they perceive a threat. Arn has to go about his investigations knowing at any time he may encounter someone armed who takes offence to sticking his nose into their business. So Cheyenne won out over many other town in the Rocky Mountain region.

MPS: While a decent guy, Arn is pretty damaged. What does a wounded
character allow you to do?

CMW: Hollywood is populated with beautiful people: they live in lovely mansions and drive exotic cars and verily shine with charm when out in public. People are drawn to that. But not as drawn to them as when we learn their perfect lives aren’t as wonderful as we thought. When we discover their flaws and their weaknesses, suddenly they are more like us. Human. Arn is a wounded character, which naturally makes him more interesting. We learn that his perfect life as a Denver Homicide Detective is marred by the premature death of his wife. And when Arn moves back to Cheyenne to take a consulting job with the local television station, we discover that the ghosts of his abusive father’s past and an apathetic mother long dead still haunts him. He’s just more interesting with these memories. More interesting with flaws and a painful past.

MPS: Several moments you write from the killer’s perspective. How did you approach those scenes?

CMW: I was a lawman for nearly forty years, and worked the street my entire career. This allowed me to come into direct contact with all manner of criminal. Occasionally, I would interview post-crime suspects that were genuinely sorry for what they had done. Most, though—including most murderers—felt no remorse, and deflected blame for what they had done upon their victim/s. Those interviews helped shape what direction I intended taking my story.

Rarely have I read tales spoken from a killer’s viewpoint, and had no guidance on how to go about it. So, used my knowledge of murderers to get into that role. When I needed to write those passages from the murderers’ point of view, it would take me some preparation to become the suspect’s voice. I would think back to this interview I had conducted, or that suspect telling me things about his crimes, and that’s when the words would begin to flow. These passages from the killer’s POV are short—two pages at the most and many shorter—because it was difficult for me to continue thinking like a sociopath or a psychotic. Perhaps I’ll get the courage one day to write an entire novel from such a point of view.

MPS: I’ve noticed all the Wyoming crime writers populate their books with characters that have some form of a sense of humor. Why do you think that’s an inherent trait in the people who live there?

CMW: When I was a just a young policeman working an off-reservation town in South Dakota, I was assigned with other local officers to respond to Custer, South Dakota, where the town had been taken over by Indian militants. As I sat huddled with other officers from around the state nervously waiting to advance on the rioters, an older deputy sheriff beside me began cracking jokes. I thought he was nuts to be joking at such a serious time. But soon I and those within earshot of the man began to relax, began feeling as if we would be able to perform our job there. The taut tension we’d experienced subsided.

As I write about lawmen—both active duty and retired—I know that an integral part of their world is humor. Much has been written about a policeman’s graveside humor and how disrespectful it is. Not so. Law officers frequently find things amusing at the worst possible times because that’s how they cope with the day-to-day nastiness they have to work around. Call it a defense mechanism for the mind. No one wants to be high on the roller coaster all day. Everyone wants to come down for a breather before the next hill is climbed.

MPS: You have two period books coming out soon, Backed To The Wall and Marshall and the Moonshiner. What can you tell us about those?

CMW: Backed to the Wall was fun to write. I’ve been an avid reader of period westerns since I was a kid, and wrote and published my first short stories in that genre. Writing book-length tales allows me to develop my character in ways that the shorts didn’t. One of those was man tracking. We’re led to believe that all western men were competent trackers. But that wasn’t the case. Like today, those folks who were track-savvy back in the “Old West” were much sought after. There are countless times where tracks were lost, false trails followed, bad men and renegade Indians alike allowed to make their getaway because those following had no track awareness. Not so my man Tucker Ashley. His claim to fame is that he’s an astute tracker, working for the Army when he’s not battling lice in a local lockup.

The story opens with Tucker fighting a hangover in such a jail when he learns a Lakota raiding party has abducted his love interest from her mercantile while Tucker was locked up. He makes his escape, and is hot after the Indians when an old enemy—Deputy Marshal Aurand Forrester—gets on his trail. Between Aurand’s fast gun and his gnarly posse and the Indians trying to kill him to get Tucker off their track, it is doubtful if he’ll survive either one in his pursuit of his woman.

Marshal and the Moonshiner is set during the Great Depression. It begins when U. S. Marshal Nelson Lane is called to the Wind River Indian Reservation in western Wyoming to assist local tribal police with a homicide. When Nelson arrives, he learns two neighboring ranchers had got into an altercation. One shot the other to death before fleeing to relatives in Oklahoma.

This was a time when the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner to the FBI) was in its infancy, and could spare no one to investigate crimes out west. Nelson must travel to Oklahoma, far out of his element in a large town. The local sheriff assigns Nelson his junior deputy, a Cheyenne Indian woman names Maris Red Hat, as Nelson’s liaison and partner in search of the fugitive. Soon, they’re caught up in local corruption in their pursuit of the murderer from Wyoming. If Nelson can keep himself and Maris from being killed, he might just find the murderer and bring him back to Wyoming for justice.


Book Review: 1960s Austin Gangsters

1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime That Rocked the Capital by Jesse Sublett     (Event 3/23/15)

Austin prides itself on individuality. We are both counter-culture and cowboy, known for our own takes on music and food. As Jesse Sublett shows in 1960s Austin Gangsters, even our criminals keep it weird. Sublett chronicles the Overton Gang. They were formed around high school football star Tim Overton, who held a grudge against UT coach Darrell Royal for stopping his chances at being a Longhorn. With fellow football player “Fat Jerry” Ray James, he lead a gang of travelling criminals who burglarized banks and muscled in on vice operations all around Texas, using the new highway system to their advantage, with the Capitol as their base of operations. They were bad men in Elvis haircuts and shark fin Caddies, committing felonies at a rock n’ roll pace.

When it came to Austin history, they were like gangster Forrest Gumps. They hung out at the same club the 13th Floor Elevators played and brushed up against the burgeoning counter-culture. There is even a tense, armed stand-off between Overton and future U.T. tower sniper Charles Whitman.

Sublett uses tons of interviews with the survivors and offspring on both sides of the law. He doesn’t romanticize the gang and doesn’t shy away from describing their brutality, particularly toward their women. However, he does include how some of their victims recall their charming side. He also shows how the methods of overzealous law enforcement almost brought the town back to its wild west roots. Much of the story is told in colorful anecdotes, such as the one about the interaction between a local madam and Overton a few weeks after he robbed and beat her.

1960s Austin Gangsters is a rough, fun ride through Austin’s underbelly during a period of change. Sublett gives us a real world of east side toughs, crooked car dealers, dice men, dogged lawmen, chicken shack patrons, part-time hookers, and elderly brothel matrons.

Yep, even when it came to crime, Austin isn’t what it was.


Copies of 1960s Austin Gangsters are available on our shelves now and via bookpeople.com

Jesse Sublett speaks about and signs his new book here at BookPeople Monday, March 23 at 7pm.

MysteryPeople Review: THE UNQUIET DEAD, by Ausma Zehanat Khan

the unquiet dead

Post by Molly

Ausma Zehanat Khan is a remarkable woman. She has a PhD in International Human Rights Law. She has traveled the world, taught at several universities, and worked as Editor in Chief of Muslim Girl Magazine. And now, she has written a detective novel. Not just any detective novel – Khan’s debut, The Unquiet Dead, synthesizes all her previous subjects of research and life experience into a moody and damning exploration of the legacy of war crimes and the experience of Muslims in Canada. The novel also explores child welfare, the history of Spain before the Reconquista, workplace romance, the enmity of old friends, and much, much more. The Unquiet Dead, like its author, is difficult to define in a single sentence.

The Unquiet Dead begins with an interrupted prayer. Detective Esa Khattack is head of Canada’s Community Policing Section, or CPS, a unit designed to handle cases sensitive to minority populations. He gets a call mid-devotion and goes to meet up with his partner, Rachel Getty, to investigate a suspicious death in a wealthy enclave.

Christopher Drayton, a wealthy retired businessman, has fallen to his death on the treacherous bluffs behind his garden. As Khattack and Getty begin their investigation into Drayton’s carefully constructed life, they find evidence that Drayton was concealing his true identity as a war criminal responsible for heinous and genocidal actions in Bosnia. But Drayton was none too popular in his assumed identity either, and Khattack and Getty must contend with an ever-growing number of suspects on their list, along with the nagging suspicion that Drayton’s death may have been an accident, as their investigation becomes increasingly complex.

Khattack and Getty have their own personal demons as well, and Ausma Zehanat Khan does an excellent job weaving her detectives’ personal stories in and out of the main narrative of investigation. Getty and Khattack work well together – Getty’s bluntness, pragmatism, and distaste for fashion mixes well with Khattack’s urbane and elegant demeanor; echoes of Holmes and Watson sound throughout the novel in the detectives’ interactions. They also serve as a cautious support network for each other; reluctant to share details of personal struggles for fear of damaging their working relationship, they nevertheless act with loyalty and support towards the other whenever possible.

Despite her well-realized main characters, Khan jumps from point-of-view to point-of-view, showcasing both her extraordinary empathy and her gift for psychological insights. Much of the novel draws on her research into wartime atrocities in Bosnia, and her novel contains several heart-breaking excursions into the Bosnian experience. Khan has done what many writers have done before her – she has learned the history of a people targeted for their identity, dehumanized, and massacred, and she has put the medium of fiction to work on their behalf, restoring individualism, humanity, and unique experiences, and creating an opportunity for readers to empathize with, not otherize, the experience of Bosnian Muslims.

Ausma Zahanat Khan taps into something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time – the power of literature to bear witness to human suffering, to condemn those who perpetuate it and those who do nothing, and to help readers come to terms with a past whose effects will not cease to linger, and should not. Fiction may be an escape for many. It certainly is not the same thing as reporting a physical truth. But fiction, unlike history, unlike statistics, unlike any fact, can bring to life voices that have been silenced – in other words, fiction can tell us an emotional truth. Fiction can turn a number back into a human being. Fiction can transform a buried and forgotten past into a haunting present. Ausma Zahanat Khan understands this, and that is why The Unquiet Dead is a stunning novel, a damning critique, and hopefully, the start to a long writing career.

Copies of The Unquiet Dead are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

Shotgun Blast From The Past: HARDCASE, by Dan Simmons


Mulholland Books is doing a great service by bringing back Dan Simmons’ books featuring ex-con PI Joe Kurtz. The first book, Hardcase, came out last fall. it’s a perfect title in so many ways, introducing you to one of the toughest tough guys to hit the page.

The story begins with Joe’s release from an eleven year stretch for murdering a rapist who killed his partner. He goes directly to Don Byron of the Farino mob. Joe uses the fact that he’s been protecting the don’s son in prison to get a job. The don hires him to  find their missing accountant, presumed dead. The search puts him in the middle of a mob war and a battle within the Farino Family itself.

The book is hard boiled heaven. Joe Kurtz is an uncompromising hero in the mold of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Richard Stark’s Parker (It’s alluded to later in the series that he’s Parker’s son.) Whether blasting away at bad men or bedding badder women, Kurtz does it with an uncanny mix of cool and fervor. Simmons is able to give him real emotion without being emotional and creating a believable world around him that avoids the story and style from skirting parody. If there is even a whisper of sentimentality it is quickly hushed.

It is obvious that Simmons is a fan of the genre, creating a homage that has its own original voice.The other two Joe Kurtz books, Hard Freeze and Hard As Nails, will be out this year. Here’s hoping Simmons can conjure up some more dark alleys for Joe to go down.

Hardcase is available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Hard Freeze and Hard as Nails are available for pre-order on our website.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Robert Knott



Robert Knott’s life as a screenwriter and actor led him to adapting Robert B Parker’s Appaloosa into a script with the film’s star and director Ed Harris. When Robert B. Parker passed, his estate asked Mr. Knott to continue the adventures of Southwest gunfighters Hitch & Cole. His third continuation of the series, The Bridge, has our heroes going up against some vicious killers trying to sabotage the construction of a bridge. They must also deal with a group of traveling performers who have stopped in Appaloosa.

We caught up with Bob before he joins us Wednesday, January 14th, at 7 pm, with Mike Blakely, for a discussion of writing about the west. We asked him a few questions about writing the new book and taking over Parker’s characters.

MysteryPeople: The Bridge is aptly titled because much of it deals with the construction and destruction of a bridge. What drew you to making that the central plot point?

Robert Knott: Changes in culture, evolution, innovation I find interesting…Transportation, communication, commerce in the West – the new frontier – is fascinating.

MP: There’s a group of traveling performers in the story… I know your parents were traveling musicians. Did you draw from any of their experiences?

RK: Sure, I had very colorful characters in my family, and knowing that world makes it easy to conceptualize…I’ve written screenplays and theater pieces that deal with this way of life, so I felt this approach would be fun and entertaining.

MP: One thing you bring to this series is a richer flavor of authenticity. How do you go about research when starting a new book?

RK: I love research! I know a lot of writers don’t, but I really like to get into the moment to moment reality…What characters have to deal with, and how they do it, puts us int he moment as well.

MP: One of the the things the series is known for is the laconic back and forth dialogue between Cole and Hitch. How much work does it take to get that cadence right?

RK: Not much – I grew up in Oklahoma and worked in the oilfields for many years, and, well, this laconic communication is pretty much second nature there.

MP: What have you learned about Hitch and Cole in writing the three books that you didn’t know about them when writing the script to Appaloosa?

RK: Well, like all of us, I think the more we travel, the more encounters we have, the more we have seen and experienced, the more we are affected. And so Hitch and Cole gain wisdom along the way.

Copies of  The Bridge are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Robert Knott and Mike Blakely will be speaking and signing their latest Western-themed novels on Wednesday, January 14, at 7 pm on BookPeople’s second floor. The speaking portion of the event is free and open to the public. You must purchase a copy of the authors’ latest to get it signed. Can’t make it to the event, but still want a signed copy? You can buy a copy of the event book ahead of time and get it signed by the author! 

The Hard Word Book Club To Discuss L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, by James Ellroy


This January’s Hard Word Book Club discussion will cover the one crime novel that made BookPeople’s top 100 list, James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential. The third book in his L.A. Quartet, it stands by itself as a noir masterpiece. Those only familiar with the movie have a lot to learn about the rest of the story.

The novel tracks three compromised men in the LAPD during the fifties, brought together through a police brutality scandal, a bloody massacre at a coffee shop, and a serial killer on the prowl. When condensing the story for film, the main plot was removed and many of the characters and relationships were removed, as well as the book’s ending, muting its themes on male identity and brutality. Ellroy took the idea of the hard boiled novel and made it epic.

We will be discussing L.A. Confidential on Wednesday, January 20th, at 7PM on our third floor. The book is 10% off to those who attend. It’s close to five hundred pages so get cracking.

For February we will be discussing Trouble In The Heartland, a collection of short crime fiction inspired by Bruce Springsteen songs, with editor Joe Clifford calling in.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Mike Blakely

Mike Blakely is an accomplished traditional western singer/songwriter as well as an award winning novelist. His latest, A Song To Die For, uses the Austin music scene of the Seventies as its backdrop. Vietnam vet guitar picker Creed Mason is in the midst of building a band for the comeback of  country legend Luster Burnett when he gets in between a Texas Ranger and a mob hitman as they prepare for a showdown. It’s a fun, rollicking tale that oozes with the twang, humidity, and barbecue of its place and time.

MysteryPeople: This is your second book dealing with the Texas outlaw music scene of the Seventies. What drew you to that era?

Mike Blakely: I began performing professionally in a garage band in 1976 at the age of 18, so I experienced the real deal firsthand.   I was able to use quite a few of my own experiences in A Song To Die For.

MP: Are Creed and Luster based on any particular performers of that period?

MB: Both are composite characters based on some famous legends and some lesser-known artists I have worked with over the years.

MP:This is also the fourth book you’ve written with a musician as the central character. What do you want to get across to readers about those folks?

MB: The musically-inclined characters I create are all “lifers.”  They know they can never completely give up making music.  I hope my readers understand through these characters that it’s a tough life and a hard way to make a living but also an endeavor full of occasional rewards and moments of deep satisfaction.

MP: What do most writers get wrong about the music life?

MB: I’m not sure there’s a way to get it wrong in a business where anything can happen.  There are so many paths a musician can take. Some get lucky breaks early on and ride the wave of success for decades.  Others who are just as talented may work for years without much notice.  The music scene can be just as wholesome or as seedy as an individual wants to make it.  It can be a wild romp or a methodical climb to success.  It can be all about the money or all about the music or anywhere in between.

MP: How do you prepare to write a story set in the past?

MB: It starts with historical research, of course.  I read about the era. I read things written during that era.  I seek out objects from the time period so I know how they look and feel.  Every time I sit down to write, I time travel in my mind to the era I’ve chosen.  When writing, I try to assume nothing.  I strive to verify that every detail I insert into the story is authentic.

MP: Do you think the musician influences the novelist side of you and vice versa?

MB: The two disciplines are very different, but they do influence each other.  I’ve written songs about some of my characters in my novels. I have also had characters from my songs find their way into my books. There’s no reason to keep the two creative endeavors completely separated though they are very different in many ways.  When I finish a novel, it may take a couple of years to start getting feedback from the public.  But I can write a song in the morning and play it for an audience that night.

Mike will be joining author Robert Knott on January 14th to talk about writing western fiction and their latest novels (Mike will also be performing a couple of his songs), but we got a head discussing the book and the music life.