INTERVIEW WITH J. TODD SCOTT

J Todd Scott’s latest novel, This Side Of Night, has his returning protagonist Sheriff Chris Cherry dealing with the politics of his first election and a possible cartel war spilling over the border. Teaming up with DEA agent Joe Garrison and backed up by his deputies like America, takes on bad men from every side. Mr. Scott will be at BookPeople July 18th to discuss This Side Of Night, but took some questions in advance from us.

This Side of Night Cover ImageI felt Chris Cherry has grown some since The Far Empty.

I’d say he’s definitely “growing into” the badge he wears. And, frankly, he’s a little more world weary by now. He never wanted to wear a badge and struggles with both the authority and the responsibility, neither of which he takes for granted. In each of the three books, I’ve given Chris a mentor, an older cop he can learn the job from, both the good and the bad. In The Far Empty it was Stanford Ross. In High White Sun, it was Ben Harper. Now, in This Side of Night, it’s Joe Garrison. These are men whose lessons and philosophies Chris can emulate or reject, so maybe what we’re really seeing is Chris grow into his own.

It’s interesting you and Don Winslow both used the same true life massacre of a busload of protestors in Mexico as the inciting incident for your books this year. What did you want to explore with that crime?

We’re both writing about Mexican cartels and the border, covering some of the same terrain (literally and figuratively), so it’s no surprise we were both drawn to that tragic event.  For someone like me, who’s worked on the border for nearly half of my DEA career and, until the Ayotzinapa massacre, truly believed I had seen it all, I discovered I can still be horrified by cartel violence. Nothing I could ever write could ever explain what happened, or honestly, add much new to the conversation, but I hoped by including it in This Side of Night, I could—in some small way—draw attention to those still lost and the families who still grieve for them.

America has become one of my favorite characters in the series. As a writer, what do you enjoy about her?

I’ve said it in other contexts, but America has always been the “center of gravity” of the books, and when we optioned them and began the long (and still ongoing) process of bringing them to the screen, every discussion at every studio has involved America’s prominent role as a “co-lead” with Chris Cherry. Also, as the father of three girls, I wanted to portray a strong female character who has her own agency, and I hope I’ve done that with America. She’s tough and determined and easy to root for, but she’s far from infallible, and that’s the best sort of character to write.

As a DEA agent who works with local law and other agencies, what do you want to convey to readers about those in law enforcement?

It’s tough because I don’t want my career to serve as a broad-brush generalization of law enforcement or those who carry a badge and gun. My only experience is twenty-five years as a federal agent, both overseas and domestic, with about half of that on the Southwest border. I’ve never been a homicide detective or state trooper or a patrol officer; never had to notify or interview the next of kin in a murder investigation or answer a domestic violence call. However, I’ve known many, many, others who have done all those things and more, and all of us in law enforcement share a certain bond through our unique calling. I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the best criminal investigators in the world, and by and large, all of them have been a credit to the badge they wear—unfortunately, those aren’t the ones I tend to write about!

As grim as things get, I noticed more humor in this book, than the previous two. What do you think allowed for that?

I’d like to think I’m far funnier in person than ever comes across on the page, but I don’t know that I tried to “lighten up” in this third book! I do think this story had a few more characters who lent themselves to that. Cops and agents—and criminals—often have a gallows humor, and since this book more than any of the others really deals with “cops and criminals,” it’s no surprise that more of that sharp-edged humor found its way to the page.

Have you discovered anything that both your profession as a writer and your one in law enforcement share?

Patience. Drug cases aren’t made overnight and neither are writing careers. That being said, there’s also a fair amount of creativity involved in catching people who desperately don’t want to be caught, and before I started writing again, catching bad guys was my only creative outlet. However, it’s a helluva lot safer writing about cartels and criminals than facing that out on the street.

Interview With Alison Gaylin, Author of Never Look Back

Never Look Back: A Novel Cover ImageAlison Gaylin’s latest thriller to deal with family, media, and murder, Never Look Back, centers on the the crime spree by two young people dubbed thrill killers in the seventies, Gabriel LeRoy and April cooper, and the effects of their crimes on the present. Quentin Garrison, whose aunt was murdered by them, is doing a podcast about the two. His research leads to the possibility that April may still be alive under a different name. His investigating leads him to Robin Diamond, April’s possible daughter. Not soon after he gives Robin the news, someone breaks in and attacks her parents, leading to an unraveling of dark secrets. Alison is a good friend and I’ll be interviewing her at BookPeople July 15th. She was kind enough to take some early questions from me though.

The story of Never Look Back is a mix of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, Branch Dividian, pop and podcast culture. How did it come about? 

I’ve always been fascinated by the Starkweather murders, mainly because it seems to me that Caril Ann Fugate was so clearly a kidnapping victim, yet she was tried and convicted—at barely 15—as an accessory to murder. I wanted to explore this type of destructive, consuming relationship, though I couldn’t make April the way I perceive Caril to have been—a true victim in every sense. I wanted to create somebody who was a bit more of a survivor, someone a little more empowered by the hate she feels for the man who abducts her, someone who changes drastically with each murder. There’s definitely a Branch Dividian element to the Gideons too—that’s a great observation on your part. I think with all of these other elements in the book, it’s just the case of me writing about things that I’m obsessed with. As you know, I’ve always been obsessed with pop culture, and I really, really love so many of these true crime podcasts—particularly the very personal way in which so many of the stories are told.

What spurred the devise of April’s story by her writing the journal for her future child?

I had initially thought about making those entries diary entries, but one of April’s most telling qualities is that she sees herself as motherly and longs to be a mother. She has these protective, maternal feelings for her little sister, and I feel like the person she would find it easiest to talk to wouldn’t be herself (as in a journal/diary.) It would be her future child. I think she sees her future child as her ultimate confidante. I also liked starting it off as a school assignment. It intrigued me, the idea of this young girl trying to focus on a school assignment as her entire life has been pulled out from under her.

This is the third book in a row where examining the media is part of the book. What about that subject draws you to it?

I have my masters in journalism and have been a magazine writer for years. So, in a way, for me getting into the head of a journalist is “writing what you know.” I also have long been fascinated by the way things like magazines, TV news, social media and more recently podcasts relay “facts”—how these media are often the most subjective and unreliable of narrators.

You have an odd structure that works where one protagonist sort of hands the story off to another. How did you deal with that challenge?

I realized that the story is equal parts Quentin’s, Robin’s and April’s. (with a few others thrown in for reasons that are spoilers.) I like choosing the point of view of a character who has the most at stake, and in this story, it’s definitely these three. I initially began telling the story from Robin’s point of view, and then went back in time a little bit when I switched over to Quentin. But then I realized that the story is already so complicated, it made a lot more sense to give it a simpler, more linear structure. That meant starting off from Quentin’s point of view.

I was happy to see Brenna Spector pop in a cameo. Ever plan to use her again in the future?

I’m glad you liked seeing Brenna! I was happy to be able to include her and Nick Morasco, and I definitely will continue to do that when my setting allows. I keep thinking I want to pick up on Brenna’s story, but these standalone ideas keep coming to me!

What other authors would you recommend to fans of your work?

There are so many great psychological suspense authors out there that everyone knows about, but as far as someone who might like me wanting to find someone new, I just started reading a new book called No Bad Deed by Heather Chavez—I think it comes out early next year. I am really finding it very suspenseful and love the family relationships she explores.

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.