Interview with S.C. Perkins-Murder Once Removed

Murder Once Removed (Ancestry Detective #1) Cover ImageS.C. Perkins’s Murder Once Removed, winner of The Malice Domestic Award, proves to be an addition to the light mystery subgenre. The protagonist, Lucy Lancaster, operates as a genealogist or “ancestry detective”, giving her many inherent skills for amateur detective work. She needs to put all of them to use when the discovery of one senatorial candidate murdering the relative of his rival in 1849 sparks another murder in the present. S.C. was kind enough to talk about the series and her character.

1.      What drew you to a genealogist as an amateur sleuth?

I have amateur genealogists in my family going back to my paternal great-grandfather, so I grew up hearing stories of my ancestry. When I began thinking of a profession for my protagonist, a genealogist came quickly to mind. If you think about it, there’s a built-in element of mystery of one level or another in researching anyone’s ancestry—and sometimes it makes for a great murder mystery! I thought how fun it would be for Lucy (my main character) to solve some of those mysteries, and have the past affect the present. Plus, I’m a history geek, so getting to include some historical elements made it even more of a no-brainer.

2.      What do you want to explore about ancestry?

There’s many fascinating aspects of researching a person’s ancestry, and I’m curious about them all. Though with DNA testing and forensic genealogy coming into the news more and more, it’s clear things can also get very technical or very dark pretty quickly—we’re talking potentially psychological-thriller-level dark here. However, since I’m writing a cozy mystery series, I’m happy to stay on the lighter end of things to keep the fun and humor coming while still doling out interesting facts about the process of researching a person’s lineage.

3.      Austin is used in a colorful way. What makes it a great city to write about for you?

One of the hallmarks of a good cozy mystery is having a small town with charm of its own, usually inhabited by quirky characters. Austin may technically be a modern, fast-moving city, but it manages to retain a small-town feel—and you can’t beat it for being a place filled with all types of personalities and a fun, anything-goes mentality. Plus, Austin also has all the research facilities a professional genealogist like Lucy needs. There really was no better place than Austin for me to have as Lucy’s home base.

4.      How did Flaco’s Tacos become a touchstone for Lucy?

First, I wanted Lucy to have her own version of a coffee shop or a local bar where she could have a hangout of her own. And since I love to eat—and because tacos rule—it made sense for Lucy to be a bit of a taco addict. The character of Julio “Big Flaco” Medrano actually started out as a bit player in another novel, in fact, but Flaco was such fun to write and I felt he had more to offer, so giving him to Lucy as her scary-seeming, but sweet-hearted taqueria-owning friend just made sense. Plus, Lucy can drown herself in margaritas or queso (or both) at Big Flaco’s Tacos, and no bar or coffee shop can offer that!

5.      You have a lot of fun with Texas culture. What do you think defines the people?

In Texas, we’ve got the whole Southern thing going for us, which I happen to love, but we’re just enough west to have some of that Wild West spirit still running through our veins. We’re as famous for our gumption as we are for our warmth and friendliness, which makes for something extra-special about Texas and Texans that the whole world knows, even if they’ve yet to visit. It makes me incredibly proud to be a Texan for sure.

6.      What can you tell us about Lucy’s next mystery?

If all goes well, Lucy will be delving into a World War II mystery in her next adventure, and there may or may not be an espionage element. I’m very excited about it and I’m definitely having fun writing it!

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH TRIAL OF LIZZIE BORDEN AUTHOR CARA ROBERTSON

In 1990 writer Cara Robertson began her senior thesis on the famous case of Lizzie Borden, accused of killing her father and step mother in 1892. When she finished the thesis she was still fascinated so she kept writing, reading, and researching. Her new book is the result of those decades of work.

9781501168376_a1a7a.jpgThe Trial of Lizzie Borden, her first book, is fascinating and absorbing, as interesting and with as many in depth characters as many great mysteries. In it, Robertson shows how the murder and the case—much of the book is focused on the trial itself—offer a window into the Gilded Age and yet it continues to influence our understanding and interpretation of American crime stories today.  It was also the first tabloid murder spectacle.

Robertson is a lawyer whose writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, the Raleigh News, and Observer, and the Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities. A former Supreme Court law clerk, she served as a legal adviser to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague and a Visiting Scholar at Stanford Law School.

She was kind enough to let me interview her. I’ve heard many references to this case over the years but the more I read the more I realized what I thought I “knew” was wrong, starting with the basic fact I thought she was found guilty.

Scott Butki: What made you decide to not just pick the Lizzie Borden case for your senior thesis but to work on it for over 20 years of research?

Cara Robertson: I was drawn to the mystery—it was both a whodunit and a whydunit—and to the idea of using a public trial as a lens onto the Gilded Age of American history. I liked the idea of working with a combination of primary sources—trial transcripts, newspaper accounts, contemporary diaries to name a few—to create a portrait of an era, and in particular its views of women.

Scott: What are some of the surprises you found doing the extensive research you did?

Cara: I was struck by how little was actually known about Lizzie Borden before the murders. There was a lot of post-trial gossip that led to fanciful stories about her early years. The biggest surprise was finding the sentimental birthday greetings she sent to children of the domestic staff.

Scott: When I told people I’m interviewing you about this case, and what questions they might have, one cropped up several times, as we look at this from the #metoo movement: Is there a chance she and/or family members were being sexually or physically molested?

Cara: Today, in this #MeToo moment, I think the idea of female rage has great resonance, and that affects how we interpret the murders. For example, the most recent film version Lizzie (starring Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart) piles on the motivations so that the murders are the desperate act of someone trapped in an intolerable situation, someone who wants independence from rapacious men.

Many who look at the Borden household wonder about the relationship between father and daughter or perhaps the uncle and the Borden daughters. The apparent intensity of father-daughter bond (symbolized by a ring Lizzie gave to Andrew Borden), the absent mother and powerless stepmother, floor plan (the bedrooms that opened onto each other), and the savagery of the killings all seem to give support to this possible explanation. However, it is worth noting that many of the things that seem disturbing in the Borden household, retrospectively, in light of the murders, would have been true in many households. And it’s not a coincidence that this interpretation gained currency in the 1990s, in the wake of new cultural understandings of incest.

Such interpretations inevitably tell us more about the anxieties of the chroniclers, and the moment in which they write, than any essential truth about the mystery.

Scott: I confess I was surprised that the one thing I thought I “knew”—that she killed others and was found guilty—was completely wrong. Do you think that many have that belief? Is that related, do you think, in all the ways the story has been passed down for years, in music, movies, etc?

Cara: I think there is something so stripped down and mythological about the story that fictionalizers need to add something romantic to the story.

Scott: I usually do interviews for this publication about fictional crime stories. What would you say to those folks, wondering if they should try this true crime book?

Cara: Truth is stranger than fiction and more compelling!

Scott: What lessons or points do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Cara: I hope people realize that when dealing with ordinary people accused of crimes so much of our assessment of character is retrospective, through the lens of the accusation, so that we should be wary of thinking we can understand their personalities or essential characters from those clues.

Scott: I find it interesting that she stayed in town after the trial, just moving to a fancier place and changing her name slightly (From Lizzie to Lizbeth). What do you think made her to make to decide to stay in town?

Cara: It’s one of the most intriguing aspects of her character that she chose to stay in Fall River, shunned by the people she most wished to know, rather than live out her life in anonymity elsewhere. After the acquittal, she moved to a grander house in the elite residential district of Fall River, attended the World’s Fair in Chicago, and was an independently wealthy woman. Yet, she was frozen out of her church, the same church whose spiritual leaders had provided the bedrock of her support during the trial. That set the tone for her treatment in the polite circles of the town. I think her choice to stay in Fall River shows her nerve, the self-possession she displayed at trial, and perhaps also her parochialism.

Scott: I’m intrigued by the fact that all this many years ago there are still files locked away from the public, from one of her defense attorneys, former Mass. Governor George Robinson. Is there any indication when, if ever, this will be made public?

Cara: Their position is that they may not even describe what the files contain, let alone disclose the contents. There is no indication that will ever change.

Scott: Do you think we’ll ever know for sure if she is innocent or guilty?

Cara: No, I think it will always remain a mystery.

Scott: How did your former work as a legal adviser to to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague and a Visiting Scholar at Stanford Law School help or inform this work?

Cara: Working in the arena of crimes against humanity offers ample evidence that ordinary people can commit heinous acts.

Scott: What are you working on next and do you think it will be another 20 year project?

Cara: I’m working on another legal mystery, involving an enigmatic central figures and several trials. I certainly hope it won’t take as long as the last.

MURDER IN THE AFTERNOON DISCUSSES TANA FRENCH’S THE LIKENESS

The Likeness: A Novel Cover ImageThe Murder In The Afternoon book club will discuss the second novel in one of current crime fiction’s more popular series. Tana French has been pulling more and more people into her tales of a Dublin precinct where in each book another member takes on the role of protagonist. In The Likeness, Detective Cassie Maddox moves front and center with a unique and personal case.

Cassie is called to the body of a young woman who looks just like her. Even more creepy is that her identity is of an undercover alias Cassie used when she worked narcotics. To find the killer, she must find out more about the victim and the connection to herself.

The Likeness will give us much to talk about. There are themes of identity, Dublin culture, and Cassie’s relationship with her fellow coppers to delve into. Join us Monday, April 15th at 1pm on BookPeople’s third floor. The book is 10% off for those planning to attend.

S.C. Perkins won the St. Martin’s Malice domestic award for her debut Murder Once Removed. Her amateur sleuth Lucy Lancaster holds the profession of a genealogist, allowing her to touch many of the themes the mystery genre explores. In this first outing, Lucy contends with a murder in the past to solve one in the present and prevent another in the future.

Murder Once Removed (Ancestry Detective #1) Cover ImageA wealthy senatorial candidate hires her to look into his family’s history. The discovery of a daguerreotype and a journal leads Lucy to the possibility that one of his ancestors was murdered in 1849 by a relative of his opponent. When the friend and former employee of Lucy who was holding the daguerreotype is murdered and the picture is stolen, Lucy uses her skills to find the killer . Her search leads her into a conspiracy of land grabs, political assassination and old ghosts.

Perkins uses Lucy’s profession to every advantage. She gives us great detail in how one traces ancestry and the actual art and science that is in involved. The skill plays beautifully into reoccurring themes of the mystery, such as identity and the effects of the past. Perkins also uses it to have fun with Texas mores and pride in ancestry. Lucy’s bread and butter is a site called “How Texan Are You?”

Murder Once Removed is a debut that promises great potential for an amateur sleuth series. Lucy Lancaster proves to be a smart, believable and resourceful heroine. While far from  hard boiled, it avoids steps into being cozy cute. Plus her skill at genealogy allows us to believably take on many different trends in mystery fiction. I look forward to what sordid history Lucy will find in the future.

Three Picks for April

Murder Once Removed (Ancestry Detective #1) Cover ImageMurder Once Removed by S.C. Perkins – Austin genealogist Lucy Lancaster’s discovery of a senatorial candidate’s ancestor having possibly murdered the relative of his rial in 1849 triggers a murder in the present that stolen daguerreotype could be the key to and prevent another homicide. Perkins has a lot of fun with ancestry, Texas ways and the genre itself in this light thriller. She will be at BookPeople June 3rd with Terry Shames.

 

A Bloody Business Cover ImageA Bloody Business by Dylan Struzan – Drawn from the accounts of Vincent “Jimmy Blue Eyes Alo”, the model for The Godfather Part 2‘s Johnny Ola, this sprawling story follows the Prohibition era he came of age in working with the likes of Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano , and Bugsy Seigel. A riveting mob saga that captures all the players and their strategies as well as their violence. Illustrated by the great movie poster artist Drew Struzan.

 

Like Lions: A Novel Cover ImageLike Lions by Brian Panowich – After years of waiting, the sequel to Bull Mountain is out and proves to be worth the time. Sheriff Clayton Burroughs and his wife Kate are still trying to heal from previous events when an oxy ring wants to move in to their town bringing blood and bad history. Violent, poetic, and often humorous, Like Lions examines kin, morality, ghosts from the past  and the effect they have on one another. Brian will be here May 1st to discuss the book.

PICK OF THE MONTH – METROPOLIS BY PHILIP KERR

It is difficult reading Philip Kerr’s Metropolis and not seeing it as a swan song for his series character Bernie Gunther, a pre- and post-war private detective in Berlin, and his creator Philip Kerr. Kerr wrote the novel knowing he had inoperable cancer and this would be his last work. Whether intentional or not, the book becomes a summing up of Bernie and his era by going back to the beginning.

Metropolis (A Bernie Gunther Novel #14) Cover ImageKerr reintroduces us to Bernie as a police detective in Kripo, just being promoted to the Murder Squad. It is the Wiemar era, 1928. Berlin is both decadent and suffering from reparations from The Great War. A killer roams the streets, taking scalps of prostitutes. When homeless, disabled veterans turn up murdered, Bernie believes it to be the work of the same man.

The case weaves Bernie through the culture and corruption of his time and place. Angerstien, a major player in one of Berlin’s crime rings whose daughter was murdered by the killer, assists Bernie and offers to give up the arsonist of an infamous fire if he catches the killer. When Bernie decides to disguise himself as a legless vet, he is assisted by Bridgette, an alluring makeup artist working on Kurt Weill’s Three Penny Opera as it debuts. Bernie constantly mocks the show and its music. He even acts as a technical adviser for screenwriter Thea von Harbou, who is developing a thriller with her husband Fritz Lang about the hunt for a murderer. A viewing of M is a must either before or after reading.

Kerr gets to the core of Bernie by looking at him between the wars. He has already developed his cynicism having fought in the trenches of The Great War and working Vice, yet he still believes that justice is not an elusive thing. He has already developed his sardonic sense of humor. Some of his best quips are in here. However, we see what may be his last chance at real love with Bridgette, before he takes on the trope of the lonely private eye.

Angerstein asks a question to Bernie, foreshadowing of things to come. “When you’re the last honest man in Berlin, will anybody care?”

I couldn’t help but think that Kerr knows how we, the readers, have cared about what we know Bernie will go through, even if everyone in his world doesn’t.

Metropolis looks at Bernie and Berlin when both had a lot in common. they’ve been though a lot, think they’ve seen a lot, but have no idea what is in store. By ending at the beginning, we reflect on the dark, harrowing, insightful, yet entertaining journey Bernie’s and his creator took us on.

Thanks for the trip, Phil.

Reviewing Clifton Adams

Clifton Adams is an author more people should know of. When his name does come up, it is usually associated with one of the many westerns the back to back Spur award winner wrote. I was introduced  to his work when author Craig Johnson gave me a copy of Stranger In Town as a gift. However he wrote five hard boiled crime novels in the fifties that, along with his tales on the dark frontier, made him into and influence to writers in both genres.

Stranger in Town Cover ImageDonald Westlake cited his gem of a western, The Desperado, as an influence on his Parker heist novels he wrote under the name Richard Stark. ” . . . it first introduced me to the notion of the character adapting to his forced separation from normal society.”

In many ways the book comes off as the forming of a Parker in the west. Adams gives us a map of wrong timing and bad choices that turn rancher’s son Tall Cameron into a hardened outlaw. The violence is swift and always carries consequence, with little romance to life on the trail. Noose for the Desperado, a rare sequel from Adams, is practically a heist novel in western dress. Tall rides into an outlaw town and gets involved with a heist, while also spotting his one chance at redemption. Whom Gods Destroy Cover Image
In at least three of his crime novels, reprinted from Stark House, the leads demonstrate few redemptive qualities. Roy Foley in Whom Gods Destroy returns to his hometown for his father’s funeral and decides to stay and become a bootlegging kingpin, since Oklahoma was still stuck with prohibition until the late fifties. The story becomes Scarface in the heartland, depicting Roy’s climb to the top through the operation and how it works. Adam’s detail for the boot legging trade is very much like Don Winslow did for the narco trade in his Cartel trilogy.

While money plays a big part in Roy’s game, he’s mainly out for revenge. He has it out for the town that kicked him around when he was on the other side of the tracks. In particular is the woman who shunned him in high school who is now married to a politician he’s out to control. This lands a strong noir emotional drive to the gangster tale.

The protagonist in Death’s Sweet Song is less complex in motivation, but no less in relationships. Joe Harper owns a failing gas station and motor court. The rare customer arrives with his platinum blond wife. Joe discovers him to be a safe man out to heist the local box factory with the local hood. Joe, a former employee who knows the factory layout pushes  his way into the job to get his piece of the pie. He also wants the blond. You can presume the crime doesn’t go off as planned, but that’s just the start.

Never Say No to a Killer (Black Gat Books #13) Cover ImageRoy Stuart may be Clifton Adams’ most ruthless crime fiction bad man in Never Say Know To A Killer. He murders a guard in the first chapter during a prison break. He’s supposed to meet his old cell mate on the other side but finds his widow instead. The couple ran a blackmail ring and a mark got violent with a cell mate and took him out and is gunning for her. Roy agrees to take care of the guy as long he becomes her partner. When another woman enters into their business, it goes bad.

There is little to like any of these three men. They often carry a chip on their shoulders for not having grabbed that brass ring and often live in the shadow of their fathers. Adams doesn’t use either as an excuse, but simply a means of motivation into dark territory. They rarely have an epiphany or find their way to Heaven with a redemptive sacrifice. These men have put themselves on a fast track to Hell. Adams understood the crime fiction fans didn’t want sermons, they wanted to follow nasty people doing nasty things.
Adams used the familiarity with his Oklahoma home as an advantage. The small town settings prove to be a trap or challenge for his protagonists criminal goals, since everyone knows or recognizes him. It also allows him to punch holes in the myth of small town mores. He often did this in his westerns as well .
He often used interesting ways to evoke mood. His sparseness played into his description of towns, often with a jaundice eye. Few writers used sound as effectively. He uses the tension of approaching horse hooves to open The Desperado.
The Desperado / A Noose for the Desperado Cover Image
I awoke suddenly and lay there in the darkness, listening to the rapid faraway thud off hoofbeats. The horse was traveling fast, and occasionally the rhythmic gait would falter and become uneven, then catch and come on again in the direction of the ranch house. It was a tired horse. It had been pushed hard and for too long. I could tell by the way it was running.
Pa had heard it too. I heard the bedsprings screech downstairs as he got up. The old wall clock began to clang monotonously. I didn’t bother to count the strokes, but I knew it must be twelve o’clock. The hoofbeats were getting louder now.
 
Clifton Adams was one of those great genre writers who came out of World War Two. He served as a tank commander, and one of his other books, The Long Vendetta, deals with a man who served in the same capacity being stalked by someone who may be connected to a tragic mistake he made in war time. He told stories of little sentimentality and unsensentionalized violence. While fun reads, they also give us an interesting view of the era he wrote in, showing that not everyone in the greatest generation was that great.

INTERVIEW WITH JOE R LANSDALE

Our March Pick Of The Month, Joe R Lansdale’s The Elephant Of Surprise, is a non stop action crime novel with his regulars Hap and Leonard  trying to protect a girl with a lot of bad men after her during one of the biggest storms in East Texas. Joe will be here to talk about the book and sign at BookPeople on April 3rd. We got a few early questions in.

1. This is a little different from the normal Hap & Leonard. I couldn’t help think of siege movies like Rio Bravo or Assault On Precinct 13 when reading it. Did you have anything particular in mind when you set out?

The Elephant of Surprise (Hap and Leonard) Cover ImageHap and Leonard often have social issues mixed with the stories, and I wanted in this one to write something that was what I call a Momentum novel, closer to an old fashioned thriller. I love Rio Bravo and Assault, so they may have influenced me. But I have often done the “holed up against greater odds” type of story, so that seems to be in my DNA, and perhaps its from film influence. I never write with film in mind, but this one is very much an action/adventure book verses the usually casual build up that Hap and Leonard have. Though, now that I think about it, some have started off pretty wild. But it felt different to me and I had a lot of fun doing it. I don’t think I’ll do it on the next Hap and Leonard adventure, but it was a nice change of pace, and a nice way to leave the boys while I write stand-alones. I do plan to return to them. I think I have at least three more books I want to write about them.
2. I was curious since it reads so fast if it was one of your quickest to write?
You know, it did come quickly. I write pretty briskly during my three hours of work a day, but this one just jumped out. I was sometimes writing twenty pages a day. I decided to not go too far afield of a momentum story, just keep it rolling. It slows a little, but it picks up again pretty quickly.
3. Manny gets the most time she’s had since she’s been appearing with Hap and Leonard. What did you enjoy about writing for her?

I find Manny appealing, and I think she’s becoming more and more interesting as the series goes on. Look for her to take a larger role in the future.

4. With the exception of Manny, this is basically Hap and Leonard with the rest of the recurring cast sidelined. Did it feel different with it mainly being a boy’s night out?

It did, but that was the intent. I just wanted to get back to the guys and them handling action. They haven’t aged as much as me, but they are in their early fifties, and it’s starting to show, so I wanted to have them have this real strong, physical moment.

5. The weather is almost as much an adversary as the bad guys. What did you have do keep in mind with storm pounding down through most of the story?

It storms a lot here, so that wasn’t hard. Lot of folks think it was influenced by the terrible hurricane in Houston, but I was already writing it and had that to reinforce what I was doing. I also wanted to hint at climate change, and how things unseasonable, and it also helped deal with the storm inside the characters, as well as provide a limitation of movement to make the story more viable.

6. One thing I enjoyed about the this book is that the action is non-stop. What advice would you give about writing a great action sequence?

I don’t know. It came to me as is, and I didn’t think about it much. I do better if I don’t consider on things too much. You have to consider, of course, but I find out things as I go. There were sidelines I could have made to slow it all down, but I didn’t want to do that this time out. Wanted it to rock.