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.

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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.

 

“WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT…” By Tim Bryant

Thanks to Tim Bryant for writing a guest blog post for us about his books and where Wilkie is headed. Tim will be here Saturday, June 16th at 2pm with Mike Nemeth to discuss their work. 

Wilkie John Liquorish has turned out to be every bit the handful I wrote him to be and then some.

Kensington Books put out the first book in the Wilkie John Western series, A World Of Hurt, in November of last year. The second, Dead And Buried, just followed at the end of May. I had just written the fourth book (Old Mother Curridge) of my Dutch Curridge Mystery series in which a flawed anti-hero private detective fought both society’s and his own worst ills in an attempt to level the uneven playing field of 1950s Fort Worth. With Wilkie John, I decided, I would push my protagonist as far as I could. Unfortunately, this also pushes the reader along with him.

Wilkie John is a seventeen-year-old boy, thrown into a violent and unforgiving world of 1880s Texas with no father, and worse, no moral compass at all. He’s trigger happy, and that’s just about the only kind of happiness he really knows. He shoots two people in the first chapter. The body count grows. At one point, he gets a job as a gravedigger, a job that seems to suit his abilities, as he can always kill someone if he needs the work.

There is a black humor to Wilkie John and to the book in general. He doesn’t wear a white hat. If that’s a problem for him, it seems to also be a problem for his readers. Reviews for the first book have proven divisive. One reviewer thought the tale completely unredeemable, even though he threw the book against a wall and failed to finish it. And, may I add, he did get all of his facts completely correct. I couldn’t disagree with much of what he said, although he did leave a great deal unsaid.

Is Wilkie John redeemable? Well, the reader will have to keep reading, but the protagonist does back his way into a job with the Texas Rangers. I finally came to the conclusion that readers who have trouble with the Wilkie John books dislike them mostly for their authenticity. Wilkie John is wild and a little wooly, but in a way very much like Billy the Kid. I started him off at the age of seventeen, both as a nod to Billy and as a way of giving myself lots of room to develop him. With that much room, I decided, I could also give him a lot of need for developing as well.

If the second book does as well as the first, we’re certainly hoping for a third in the series. I’ve learned to like Wilkie John just fine, so I do believe you can too. He’s got some growing up to do, but didn’t we all at seventeen?   

The other thing of note about the Wilkie John westerns is that they’re based around the section of Fort Worth known as Hell’s Half Acre. The 1880s were the era when that outlaw section of town was gaining its fierce reputation. Other wild men like Butch Cassidy and Wyatt Earp (some people now misbelieve that he was a white hat wearing true blue good guy, but he was nothing of the sort) were gambling and carousing in the saloons and brothels there. It’s a fascinating time and place to throw a young morally-compromised boy like Wilkie John into.

In an example of getting the cart before the horse and pulling backward into the past, my Dutch Curridge detective books were also set in Hell’s Half Acre, years before I even thought of writing the westerns. They, however, were set during the sundown of that fabled place, as it was making way for the spiffed-up Fort Worth that we know today. In fact, Gary Goldstein at Kensington read those Dutch Curridge books and then gave me the opportunity to write for Kensington. He never stipulated that they be set in Fort Worth or in any specific location though. Of course, I had done a great deal of research on Fort Worth by that time, and I knew it was prime placement for a 1880s western series.

The Dutch Curridge books were successful enough to get me to where I am today. If you’re interested in the colorful history of Fort Worth or Texas in general, you might enjoy them. You might also enjoy the Wilkie John westerns, A World Of Hurt and Dead And Buried. All they really require is the love of a good story about real people. It might help if you lean more toward Elmer Kelton than Louis L’amour. (Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained and The Good Old Boys are still two of my favorite westerns.) As Elmer himself used to say, “I can’t write about heroes seven feet tall and invincible. I write about people five-foot-eight and nervous.” Wilkie John is five-foot-one with a king-size inferiority complex.

Texas in the 1880s was a wild and lawless place. It could still be that way in the 1950s. There are lots of tales about those days. Some aren’t tall at all. Sometimes they pack a pretty mean punch. Sometimes they shoot first and aim second. Sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction. Other times, fiction rings truer than any newspaper article or history book. Whether you like it or not.

 

Review of Laird Barron’s Blood Standard

Scott reviews Blood Standard ahead of Laird Barron’s visit to the store on Friday, June 1st at 7pm.

Laird Barron, an author mainly known for his horror and weird fiction, has only has dabbled with crime fiction in the past. He has written a novella and a handful of short stories that work as tributes to hard boiled fiction. In Blood Standard, he charges into the genre, guns blazing.

He gives us a great hard boiled protagonist is Isiah Coldridge, a Moana working as a mob enforcer in Alaska.  When a situation over a walrus causes him to high tail it back down to the lower forty-eight, he lays low at a horse farm in upstate New York. Soon the owners’ troubled granddaughter goes missing, and Coldridge sets out to find her along with another hired hand with a violent past due to his time in Afghanistan. His questioning and punching leads him further and further into a dark underworld the girl is trapped in.

Barron proves to be an apparent fan of the genre. Coldridge is cut from the same cloth of David Rabe’s Daniel Port and Dan Lewis’ Jack Carter. The style is terse and straight forward and the world uncompromising. There are few chapters void of an action sequence of some sort.

However, his background in horror allows him to give a special spin on the tale. He injects the anything can happen quality of a horror story, grounding it in a more physical, though still fantastic, world of hard boiled. It places both Coldridge and the reader on less solid footing and allows us to buy into the darker reveals.

Blood Standard proves to be a must read for hard boiled fans, told in a way that would make Hammett proud. Isiah Coldridge is a tough guy with his own voice and several directions to go. I hope Laird Barron more time on this side of the playground.

A Little Bit of Blues and Trouble

Thanks to author Richard Bush for writing this blog post.

Way back in the day (talking late 60’s, so, yeah, I’m an old soul), I fell off into the blues. Back then blues was imported from across the pond by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton. Sure, they were rock bands, but the always included ample examples of blues music, and it was those songs that grabbed me and held on. They spoke in reverence of the bluesmen whose songs they covered and I wanted badly to drink from the source, but albums by those cats just were not available in small town Texas.

BUT, while majoring in journalism at Southwest Texas State University (yes, I still call it that) and shooting pool at Cheatham Street Warehouse a hippie walked in offering to sell a trunk full of albums for a dollar each to raise his rent money. That trunk was loaded with boxes of blues albums, so I sacrificed twenty dollars of my own rent money for records by Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Lightning Hopkins, etc…and never looked back.

After college, I took up sucking and blowing blues on a harmonica and began seeking out bluesmen who did the same. Over the years I interviewed them, wrote articles about them and reviewed their recordings for various publications. Some of those can be found at www.bushdogblues.blogspot.com, my way too neglected blog.

So…naturally, when I decided to write a novel, blues and trouble just had to be in the mix. An idea that had swirled around my brain for a number of years sprung from the murders of three extremely talented and influential blues harp players from the 40s/50s and 60’s. Little Walter Jacobs, John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson and Henry ‘Pot’ Strong all met their demise on the streets of Chicago. Their murders have gone unsolved, except Strong’s. His wife was arrested for stabbing him, but she claimed innocence. So, I used those incidents as a jumping off point for my first foray into fiction. I just had to write it. Getting it published and read was secondary in my mind. Just planned to share it with blues fans.

My debut novel, River Bottom Blues, is that book, featuring two blues harmonica musicians determined to track down the evil responsible for killing a good buddy. The same protagonists find murder and mayhem in the two books that followed, The Devil’s Blues and Howling Mountain Blues. All of my crime fighting bluesmen stories are set in Texas. The third one does venture down to a Belize blues festival and the boys do find evil to stomp out before they leave.

The Oaxacan Kid is a standalone and offers up a different protagonist in the form of a blues record collector intent on finding an obscure harmonica musician he discovered on one of his finds. Blues and trouble rise their familiar heads when he finds that a few very bad people have the same goal and he’s stirred a pot that puts him directly in their cross hairs.

Richard Bush will be at BookPeople, along with John Shepphird on Saturday, May 5th at 2pm.

Review: Walter Mosley is back at it with DOWN THE RIVER UNTO THE SEA

Walter Mosley is one of the most prolific mystery writers working today — this is his 53rd book. Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery reviewed his latest ahead of his event here Saturday, March 3rd, at 6pm

No matter what genre or subgenre Walter Mosley brings to us, you can always expect it to be smart and have a voice. His use of style conveys emotion and thought to connect the individual protagonist with his larger society, connecting the reader to it all. With Down The River Unto The Sea we get a new detective and different style, but the voice is there.

Joe “King” Oliver operates a little one man agency in New York with his teen daughter Aja acting as a gal Friday. Two cases come his way. One involves getting an activist known as The Free Man off death row for killing two police officers. The other ties to his past, connected to a woman who helped frame him for a sexual assault charge that got him bounced off the force.

This may all sound familiar, but Mosley weaves it into a prescient novel. King appears to be the least angst ridden of Mosley’s detective heroes, resembling more of Hammett’s Sam Spade than Chandler’s world weary Marlowe who his Easy Rawlins often reflects. Even the tighter prose style reflects Hammett, making it even more effective when the character drops some knowledge at the end of a paragraph. Oliver’s attitude and actions beautifully entwine, particularly when they seem to run counter to each other.

As always, the author uses setting perfectly, though it is different from the shadow societies created by the people the mainstream has pushed to the side. King inhabits an increasingly gentrified New York with unwashed nooks and crannies in the form of diners and dive bars he ducks into for information and salvation. While races mingle it is on tectonic plates that could shift any minute.

 

In this book, Mosley tries to hold out on the theme until the climax, or at least appears to. As he uncovers the mystery and the deeds of his former fellow boys in blue, he faces harsher truths, 

and the reader is presented with harsher questions about living in today’s world. He is driven to make a decision that asks how far we will go in correcting an injustice when it is perpetrated by institutions that are supposed to provide justice. While King’s decision provides a satisfying arc that doesn’t betray the character, Mosley still asks us to question it.

Mosley takes many tried and true tropes of the detective genre and molds them into a tale for our times. When we feel a need to mobilize with the oligarchs gaining more ground, he asks us how far are we willing to take the fight. We may need that tarnished knight errant to go down those mean streets more than ever.

Guest Post: V.P. Chandler reviews Lone Star Lawless

From the piney woods of East Texas to the dry landscape of West Texas, the Austin Mystery Writers and friends anthology Lone Star Lawless: 14 Texas Tales of Crime has it covered. The anthology takes us across the state with various law breaking. You can meet many of the contributors February 4th at 5pm when they come to BookPeople for a reading! 

The Lone Star Lawless project was headed by the exuberant Austin Mystery Writers member Gale Albright. Albright describes the anthology perfectly in her introduction, writing, “The stories in this volume cover motel hell, medical menace, mortuary mayhem, sharp knives, kidnapping, theft, murder, assault by food, dangerous exercise, fickle fingers, and bad attitudes.” Not to mention a retelling of the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, full of crime and a Texas twist. Now who could pass up that?

“One More Time” by V.P. Chandler, is set at the end of the Wild West era. A girl is kidnapped from a small West Texas town and the town wants the aging Texas Ranger, Ephram Babcock, to retrieve the girl before she’s taken across the border to Mexico. Babcock reluctantly agrees. As he pursues the duo across the plains, he’s haunted by a decision he made in his youth. The memory and regret become stronger as he gets closer to his quarry. It’s a race to the border, a race to save the girl, but can he run from his past?

“Wild Horses” by Alexandra Burt is the story of Brad, who is running from trouble and his temper. Once a man has served time, he has only so many options available. He takes a job at a convenience store when things take a dark turn. Will Brad stay mum or will he find a way to break free?

“The Life of the Party” by Mark Pryor is a story filled with tongue-in–cheek mortician’s humor. The reader sees the world through the eyes of mortician Andrew Banks as he prepares for a party. As the story proceeds, the tension builds in the same vein as Edgar Allan Poe or Alfred Hitchcock stories. The reader will be compelled to see the story to the end!

“Archangel Towers” by Gale Albright begins with a woman receiving a frantic phone call from her grandmother who is in the hospital. The grandmother makes crazy, nightmarish allegations about the staff and is adamant that they happened. Is the grandmother getting dementia? What is a granddaughter to do?

“Baggage Claim, Part 1: The Devil’s Luggage” was penned by Janice Hamrick. The memory of a college prank never left Tyler Fenton. Even though he failed at the prank, he always remembered the thrill of it. Itching to try it one more time, he goes to the Austin-Bergstrom airport to steal an unclaimed bag. But it isn’t a small bag that grabs his attention, it’s a large trunk. Unfortunately for him, he’s not the only one who wants that trunk.

“Baggage Claim, Part 2: Carry On Only” by Laura Oles also involves stealing a bag from the Austin-Bergstrom airport. But this story quite different from Part 1. Stealing bags from the airport is only one of the many things that Max does to supplement his income, and he’s quite adept at it. But when he gets the bag home, he and his friend Belk make a discovery. Then comes the anonymous phone call, “I saw what you did.”

“The Texas Star Motel” by Terry Shames follows the tale of an abused wife, Mona, as she’s made her recent escape from her husband. She’s shaken and has his gun, but needs to stay out of sight to complete her escape. Then she hears through the hotel’s old and thin walls a woman being beaten in the room next door. Should she intervene or lay low?

“Point Blank, Texas” by Larry Sweazy is another tale about an old Texas Ranger. This story is set in 1934. Ex-Ranger Sonny Burton has lost his arm in a shootout with Bonny and Clyde and he’s ready to retire after decades of service. Then Jonesy, the local sheriff shows up and tells Burton that his long-time nemesis, Billy Bunson, has not only escaped from prison, he has kidnapped the warden’s pregnant wife. They turn to Sonny for help since he knows Bunson better than anyone else. As Sonny investigates, he gets the nagging feeling that not everyone is telling the truth.

“The Widow Black” by Kaye George is set in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Marjorie lost her first husband due to an accident. Then the handsome and smooth Victor moves to town and starts schmoozing Marjorie and she feels young and sexy again. As things heat up, not everything seems to be as perfect as she thought they’d be.

“The Sandbox” by George Wier takes place around College Station. Jimmy Cook is a young real estate agent who works for the slimy Ray Milberger. One day Jimmy sees first hand how Ray has cheated his way to success. Jimmy takes a stand and Ray says Jimmy is ready for a new business venture. “You have a bright (future), kid, if you stick with me. You have to know where your bread is buttered…” As the story progresses the tension builds. Is Ray really going to include Jimmy in a business deal or does he have something else in mind as they head to a secluded area of the woods?

“Texas Toast: The Case of the Errant Loafer” by Manning Wolfe features Dr. and Mrs. Edward Littman, who are avid cyclists. As they cycle with their pack through downtown Austin, Dr. Littman is hit by a bakery van. The driver of the van, Zach Glover, swears he didn’t veer out of his lane. Kim Wan Thibodeaux, also known as the Asian Cajun, is the defense attorney for the Glover. Who is telling the truth? This story is a courtroom drama that would make Perry Mason proud.

“When Cheese Is Love”, by Kathy Waller. Love heats up between the timid librarian, Tabitha Baynes and the suave chef, Gonzalo. Tabitha has been on a stringent diet and worked hard obtain and maintain her svelte figure, but his food is so excellent! And no woman can say no to Gonzalo. At the launch of his new menu, showcasing Tabitha’s favorite foods, Gonzalo declares his love for Tabitha. Finally! What could go wrong?

“The Bird”, by Scott Montgomery is the gritty story of Jimmy Davis and Frog Lee. Frog is always getting in trouble and now is no exception. He slept with the wife of bad guy, Slick Jim (You’ve got to be stupid to sleep with the wife of someone named Slick Jim) and now Frog has a $200,000 bounty on his head. Fortunately Davis knows exactly where to find him. Frog is in Austin because he’s with Davis’ sister, Stacy. Now if only Frog and Stacy would get smart, Davis may be able to save their lives and collect the 200 grand.

“Little Red” by Gale Albright ends the anthology with a bang with Albright’s Texas rendition of Little Red Riding Hood. Complete with crazy East Texas lingo and a voodoo hairdresser named Verna Lee, “Little Red” is a quick and inventive romp that’s sure to make you laugh out loud.

And now for a bit of a personal note. We would be remiss if we didn’t also mention the editor, Ramona DeFelice Long, who has worked her magic on the book. We are grateful for her enthusiasm and her attention to detail. This anthology has a special place in our hearts because Gale Albright passed away before its completion. She infused life, humor, and drive to our group. We aren’t the same without her. So it is dedicated to her and the online proceeds will go toward the Port Aransas library that was heavily damaged in Hurricane Harvey.