Manning Wolfe on Lawyers, Sex & Golf

Local author Manning Wolfe joins us Sunday, June 24th, at 2pm to talk with Jay Brandon and our Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery about legal thrillers. She wrote a post for us about how her book, Green Fees, came to be.

A few years ago, I read an article about naked women on a golf course serving up sex at each hole to golfers depending on their score (no puns intended). A news crew got wind of the event, flew over the course, and videotaped the action. Ironically, the charity event was for the Make a Wish Foundation. The play-by-play has gone viral on social media and been the basis of many golf jokes over the years.

Green Fees: A Merit Bridges Legal Thriller Cover ImageShortly after that incident, a young golf professional was referred to my law office asking for legal representation. He wanted to extricate himself from a usurious contract with a promoter, who was a de-facto loan shark. Under the agreement he was obligated to pay half of his earnings to the money lender. In addition, the pro’s hands were scarred from a childhood accident, and discomforting to look at. Surprisingly, they functioned well and purportedly enhanced his golf game.

About that same time, I met Barbara Puett, who became my golf instructor. Barbara was a protégé of Harvey Penick, both of Austin. He wrote Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book and she matched it with alittle green book, Golf Etiquette. I don’t know a single golfer who doesn’t own the Penick book, if not both. 

The three concepts, lawyers, sex, and golf merged together somehow in my misguided mind, and a legal thriller, Green Fees, was conceived.

In Green Fees, young golf pro Mark Green borrows money from the wrong guy to keep his PGA tour dreams alive. He finds himself in so deep with Russian loan shark, Browno Zars, that he begs his lover and attorney Merit Bridges for her help.

Meanwhile, uncertainty and fear grip Austin as a murderer, who the press labels The Enforcer, avoids identification and capture.

After Merit uses every legal trick in her book to extricate Mark from Browno’s grip, she becomes a target of Browno. Merit awakens to find herself hanging from a meat hook in an Austin warehouse and staring into the face of evil.

What unfolds is a story of deceit and betrayal as the identity of The Enforcer is revealed. Merit must then outwit the sinister and dangerous adversary to save herself from torture and certain death.

In the tradition of Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, a Poirot mystery, Harlan Coben’s Back Spin, and Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, Green Fees takes place around the world of golf, but is not a golf mystery. It’s a legal thriller, an Austin mystery, and a cautionary tale about trust.

This week, I saw a news article about Whataburger serving hamburgers on tortillas because of the delivery of bad buns by suppliers.

I remembered a legal case in my office involving swans that had invaded an apartment swimming pool causing a lawsuit with the next-door neighbors.

I saw a graffiti artist being arrested near the South Lamar railroad tracks, carrying a bag of paint cans.

After a little contemplation, I wonder what my misguided mind might do with all that. Buns, Birds, and Body Bags?

Manning Wolfe, an award-winning author and attorney residing in Austin, Texas, writes cinematic-style, smart, fast-paced thrillers with a salting of Texas bullshit. Her series features Austin Lawyer Merit Bridges. As a graduate of Rice University and the University of Texas School of Law, Manning’s experience has given her a voyeur’s peak into some shady characters’ lives and a front row seat to watch the good people who stand against them.

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Jay Brandon on writing a legal thriller

Jay Brandon’s Against the Law features Edward Hall, a lawyer stripped of his license due to a criminal act in the court house. When his sister is brought to trial for murdering her estranged husband, he takes to her defense.  Mr. Brandon will be joining fellow lawyer turned novelist Manning Wolfe at BookPeople on June 24th at 2pm. We caught up with him early to discuss the court system and writing about it.

Against the Law: A Courtroom Drama Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: How did the idea for Against the Law come about?

Jay Brandon: I hadn’t written a legal thriller in a while, I wanted to write other kinds of books.  One day when I was visiting Houston, where I went to law school, an old friend of mine took me to their Criminal Justice Center, a twenty-story building filled with courts and so many defendants.  The elevators were a problem, he said. They were so slow and so crowded it took forever to get up or down. The local joke was “the Justice Center, only twenty minutes from downtown Houston.” That gave me an idea: a crime inside a courthouse.  Who would naturally commit such a crime? A lawyer. That was the beginning. I’ve never had a courthouse itself figure so prominently in a novel. Ironically, by the time the book came out the Justice Center was non-functional, knocked out by Hurricane Harvey.

MPS: Edward possesses a jaded look out on his sister’s case. Is that due to the system or his circumstances?

JB: It’s because of his experience within the system.  He knows that the vast majority of defendants are guilty of their charge.  Worse, the system doesn’t know how to treat one who’s not: “the irregularly shaped pebble that rolls down the conveyor belt with all the other peas, into the can.”  Besides, Amy is the perfect candidate. When one member of an estranged couple is murdered, where do you look for your prime suspect?

MPS: Because of the nature of Edward’s case, sibling dynamics are explored. What did you want to explore in that?

JB: That just grew out of the material.  Edward is disbarred after having been convicted of his crime.  I tried to think of a case that could bring him back to the legal world; a family member in jeopardy seemed right.  I’ve written about families before, it’s a fascinating subject, but this time, maybe because the book is set in Houston, the family is rich and well-known.  Edward and Amy’s father is a world-class diagnostician. Amy has followed in his footsteps to become a doctor too, and married a doctor as well. Edward, who started out as the favored son, fell into disfavor a little when he became a lawyer, and a criminal lawyer at that.  His prison stint sealed his status as the black sheep of the family. But the case brings Edward and Amy closer than they’ve been since they were children. They learn secrets about each other, they depend on each other – even against their parents to a certain extent. But of course Edward can’t forget that she’s very likely a murderer.  But wouldn’t you try to help your little sister escape prison even if she was.

MPS: The book has a lot of twists and reveals that fit so well with the pace and flow of the story. How much was planned ahead?

JB: I used to outline novels very rigorously, 20 or 30 page outlines.  Now I just take a lot of notes and when I feel I have a good grasp of the idea (usually about 10-15 single-spaced pages of notes), I start.  So much of the plot is planned, but a lot of it develops as the story grows. I love creating characters, it may be my favorite thing about writing.  Plotting is harder, it’s like algebra problems. At a certain point the characters start taking over. They do what they’re going to do, not what I had planned for them.  If they don’t start taking over their own lives and stories, they’re not very good characters.

MPS: As a lawyer, was there anything you wanted to get across about your profession?

JB: What a village the courthouse world is.  Most lawyers aren’t criminal lawyers, most lawyers seldom or never go to court.  Criminal lawyers do almost daily. So that building is its own world. Gossip sometimes seems to be the primary business of the courthouse.  We all know each other’s business, or think we do. It’s great for storytelling. There are romances, rivalries, intrigues. It’s like high school, except they’re also sending people to prison.

MPS: What do writers who are non lawyers get wrong?

JB: One other thing I wanted to convey that non-lawyers often don’t understand about the adversarial system of trials is that people can oppose each other vigorously without being hostile.  Once I tried a case, defending someone accused of vehicle theft, and I won. It wasn’t exactly a technicality, but it was some creative lawyering, I have to say. The judge said “not guilty,” I turned to my client, he said, “What now?” and I said, “Now you get to leave.”  He thanked me and started walking out while I stayed at the counsel table. He looked back to see the two prosecutors I’d just won against converging on me and he looked anxious for me. What he didn’t see after he went out was the prosecutors shaking my hand and congratulating me.  We knew each other, we’d worked together in the past, and they didn’t begrudge my victory.

The prosecutor in Against the Law embodies that.  He and David were competitive colleagues in the DA’s office and now they’re pitted against each other.  But the prosecutor isn’t a jerk about it. He knows how important the case is to Edward, but he has to do his job.  But he does it in a collegial way. It’s not always that way in the practice of law, but when it’s done right it is.

Q&A with Mike Nemeth: institutions as the enemy

The Undiscovered Country Cover ImageMike Nemeth uses the thriller in interesting and unique ways. He often has an institution as the enemy. With his second Randle Marks novel, The Undiscovered Country, it is the combination of family and the health care system. We talked to Mr. Nemeth, who will be at BookPeople June 16th at 2pm with Tim Bryant about how he tackles this form of crime writing.

MysteryPeople Scott: Did you know you had another novel in Randle Marks after Defiled?

Mike Nemeth: Yes, I had planned three standalone stories, all with Randle as the protagonist. Basically, a series of life challenges, told as thrillers, that illustrated the themes I wanted to make readers aware of.

MPS:  Elmore Leonard said he always liked using someone out of prison as a protagonist because they could go anywhere morally. What did that part of Randle allow you to play to?

MN: Elmore Leonard is my inspiration for dialog and pacing, so I’m happy you brought him up.

In The Undiscovered Country Randle says, “I had picked up an abiding lesson from prison: I had a license to be disinhibited. I could do most anything to survive. Everyone in prison learned the same lesson.” He had been to hell and back so he feared no punishment for his behavior. He had complete freedom, and so did I as his director. He’s the scoundrel we root for.

MPS: One could argue you took a Pat Conroy-style southern family drama and gave it a thriller plot. What about family did you want to explore?

MN: Pat Conroy? I’m blushing! Southerners have an exaggerated sense of tribe combined with a deep-seated need for self-discovery and those characteristics drive the story along.

MPS: The Georgia setting also plays an important part, particularly when Randle investigates his family’s past. Was there anything you wanted to say about the south?

MN: My friend Johnnie Bernhard, a writer from Mississippi, said it best: “In the South, the past is never past.” I wanted the ambiance as well: heavy air, sultry nights, passion always close to the surface.

MPS: What impresses me about your books is how when most crime fiction and thriller authors have their hero take on the system, it’s usually in the form of one antagonist or two, but you are able to portray the whole bureaucracy, whether the legal system or health care, as the enemy. How do approach that aspect of your novels?

MN: I personalize the institutions. In Defiled, Tony Zambrano (Randle’s lawyer), Judge Matthews-Bryant, and Lieutenant Callahan behave generically to represent the legal system but in a specific, very personal circumstance for Randle and Carrie. In The Undiscovered Country, Dr. Metzger and Dr. Kaplan are the medical establishment. So we do have antagonists, but they abide by the universal truths of their institutions. I want the reader to get the point of the story, but I always want the reader to feel that Randle is battling specific people.

MPS: I’ve heard you’re planning a trilogy with Randle Marks. Can you tell us anything about the final chapter?

I regret now calling this a trilogy because there are so many interesting challenges I could give Randle. The next installment is about the decline of the middle class in America. Randle takes a job in the high tech industry and faces the moral dilemma of whether all advances in technology are intrinsically “good” despite their impact on society. Outsourcing, automation, artificial intelligence and robotics are relentlessly stripping away the jobs on which the middle class depends. Without a super-consumer middle class, where would America be in the world order? The thriller plot revolves around the return of Carrie to threaten Randle’s life reboot and his discovery of his true identity. Of course there will be murders to solve.

 

Mike Nemeth’s The Undiscovered Country

The Undiscovered Country is an odd, yet satisfying thriller. It rests partly on a murder nobody knows has occurred. Yet author Mike Nemeth knows the mechanics of this genre and tells it like a master craftsman.

The main character, Randle Marks, has been recently paroled from prison for a crime he did not commit, and is on his way to getting his life back together. When he learns that his mother is seriously ill, he goes back to his Georgia home to help. What he gets in return is being caught in the crossfire of his feuding siblings, each angling for a large chunk of her estate, and questioning the practices of his mother’s care givers. He handles both by searching and researching uncovering secrets about his family and himself.

Nemeth lays a southern family drama over a thriller’s structure and pace. It owes more to Pat Conroy than Patterson. However, his thriller skills show through the pace of reveals and resolutions, to a classic finale with Randle revealing the final major truth to everyone he has called into  a room. He often hits the story beats with an emotion that feels real rather than melodramatic.He taps into situations many of us deal with to connect with the suspense he creates.

The Undiscovered Country is that rare thriller where the reader can relate. He uses real frustrations we have with both the health care system and those closest to us to explore themes of identity and secrets that reverberate from the past. The result is a one of a kind story in the best way.

If you want to know more, join us this Saturday at 2pm as Mike Nemeth joins Tim Bryant here in the store for a discussion of their books!

MURDER IN THE AFTERNOON RETURNS TO MARSIELLES WITH CHOURMO

Our June Murder In The Afternoon book club will be celebrating International Crime Fiction Month with a discussion by one of France’s most celebrated crime writers. Chourmo is the second installment of Jean Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy. Once again, the romantically tarnished knight Fabio Mantale navigates this port city of many cultures on a quest for private justice and other things unattainable.
Mantale has left the force, mainly due to the events from the first book in the trilogy, Total Chaos, but the cousin he used to be in love with puts him back on the streets. Her son who was having a Romeo & Juliet style affair with an Arab girl has gone missing. The search involves organized crime, religious extremism, the city’s politics, and early on the murder of his informant, Serge, creating a second mystery.
Chourmo deals with several different themes, both old and new love, intolerance, the culture of Marseilles. We will try to cover as much as we can. Join us with your thoughts Monday the 18th1PM, on BookPeople’s third floor. Chourmo is 10% off for those planning to attend.
Next month, July 16, we will be discussing Craig Johnson’s Dark Horse with the author calling in.

3 Picks for June

For June, we have two different kind of men dueling it out with Mexican drug cartels in nature in the present and a big city newspaper man finding the truth in a flashy New York of the past.  All have struck a great balance between character and pace.Damon Runyon's Boys Cover Image

Damon Runyon’s Boys by Michael Scott Cain

In postwar New York, a reporter looks into the murder of a dance troupe leader and uncovers a plot that puts the mob on him. Cain’s vivid recreation of the glitzy Big Apple in its Broadway heyday and appearances by Walter Winchell, an young Truman Capote, and others make this a fun historical hard boiled that pops.

Bearskin: A Novel Cover ImageBearskin by James A McLaughlin

Hiding from a drug cartel, Rice Moore serves as the caretaker of a remote game preserve in Appalachia. When a poaching ring starts butchering bears, he makes new enemies while getting attention of the old ones. A crime thriller that understands the humanity of its characters and the violence they create.

 

Hawke's War (Sonny Hawke Thriller #2) Cover ImageHawke’s War by Reavis Z. Wortham

Texas Sonny Hawke finds himself lured into a trap in Big Bend National Park, where he has to fend of terrorists and a drug cartel out for revenge. Halfway through this book, you may feel sorry for the bad guys in this fun shoot-em’-up with vivid supporting characters, villains who you can’t wait to get their comeuppance, and a killer pace. Reavis Z. Wortham will be at BookPeople July 8th along with Ben Redher and Billy Kring.

SHOTGUN BLAST FROM THE PAST – BACKFLASH BY RICHARD STARK

Backflash is the second outing of Richard Stark’s tough as nails robber Parker after his twenty year hiatus. After the few slightly more involved books before it, we get a bare bones, down and dirty heist novel. The simplicity proves refreshing.

Backflash (Parker Novels) Cover ImageWhat makes the story unique is the target. We begin in vintage mid-action Stark fashion with Parker and his cohort Howell going off the road and crashing down a hill during a police chase. Parker goes against his cold blooded nature and leaves Howell pinned in the car for the police, instead of rubbing him out so he doesn’t talk. He hears of his death, but soon gets a message from Howell, telling him to meet a man named Catham. Catham in a state bureaucrat with inside knowledge of a gambling boat that travels down the Hudson. He can give all the details about the boat for ten percent of the score. For Parker a travelling boat is a “cell”, something hard to get in and out with the money and the small amount Catham is asking for makes him suspicious, yet he’s compelled to bring in some folks from previous jobs and a river rat who knows the Hudson and pull off an elegant plan. A few surprises and some hardened bikers prove to get in the way.

Some readers found Backflash too formulaic, but that was part of the enjoyment for me. It took me back to the earlier books when Stark had just invented the formula. Watching Parker pull off a job like this is like watching a trained athlete pull of a feat with a high degree of difficulty, dealing with both foreseen and unseen circumstances. By sticking to the tried and true, the book moves smooth and fast.

Backflash may not be anything new under the sun, but it still shines bright. Even to this day, no one puts a thief through their paces like Richard Stark. Every bad man (fictional) should be so lucky.