A few weeks ago David C. Taylor author of the Michael Cassidy series and Joan Moran, who made a crime fiction debut with The Accidental Cuban, came to BookPeople and talked with crime fiction coordinator Scott Montgomery about their books and use of settings. Taylor’s latest, Night Watch, takes place in fifties New York like his other two, and Joan’s starts in Obama ere Cuba. For those who missed it, here is the discussion—
When it comes to straight up entertainment, few authors can hold a candle to Joe Lansdale. His working class East Texas voice provides both a perfect and unique bed for action and humor, and few characters are as entertaining as liberal redneck Hap and his gay, black, Republican buddy Leonard. The two have been in more scrapes and exchanged more quips than both the real and fictional Butch and Sundance. Joe’s latest foray with the boys, The Elephant Of Surprise, proves to be one of the most entertaining in the series.
The story is stripped down and simple. Hap and Leonard are trying to get home before a storm hits and comes across an Asian American woman with her tongue sliced halfway through with a short kung-fu expert and a big guy who’s good with guns after her. Since they’re good guys and Texans, they help the lady and soon have more bad men after them. Things escalate from chase, siege, more chases, and a showdown in a bowling alley as the storm builds.
In many ways, this is Joe getting back to basics.With the exception of a couple of calls Hap makes to his wife Brett and their deputy pal Manny helping out, any of the usual supporting characters only appear in the last chapter. Joe keeps the plot simple, although he makes us wonder how the damsel in distress’s story is on the up and up. It allows for a great amount of forward momentum with danger escalating as they get more and more outnumbered. Lansdale taps deeper into the pulp and fifties paperback roots of the earlier books in the series.
The Elephant Of Surprise is like a master blues man’s acoustic set. It’s taking everything to its bad ass bare essentials. Joe Lansdale shows that’s all he needs to rock.
Mark your calendars to join us April 3rd at 7pm when Joe is here to speak and sign copies.
All of us at MysteryPeople are huge fans of Mark Pryor’s Hugo Marston series and we agree that his latest—The Book Artist—is the best one yet.
Hugo Marston is a former FBI profiler who works as head of security at the US Embassy in Paris. The book takes its title from the opening scenes when Hugo’s boss, Ambassador Bradford J. Taylor, strongly encourages Hugo to attend an art exhibition at the Dali Museum. Hugo is initially reluctant–art isn’t really his thing, he’s more of a bibliophile–but he’s drawn to the exhibition when he learns that it involves sculptures created from rare books. (The fact that the artist is an “indescribably beautiful” young woman doesn’t hurt either.) When a museum guest is brutally murdered, Hugo jumps to help the police find the killer. And when they arrest someone Hugo believes is most certainly not the killer, he feels an even deeper urgency to bring the real culprit to justice.
Meanwhile, Hugo’s best friend Tom is getting himself into a spot of trouble in Amsterdam. In their former lives, Hugo and Tom were responsible for sending a man to prison. That man has been released, and Tom believes he may have traveled to Europe to seek revenge. As the pursuit unfolds, the avid Hugo fan finally learns some hidden truths about Hugo and Tom’s shared past.
It’s difficult to delve much further without divulging any spoilers, because there is one twist after another in The Book Artist. Pryor seamlessly weaves the disparate plot lines together, and his voice demonstrates a new level of assuredness.
Pryor’s characters have become old friends to this series devotee, and the long-time friendship between Hugo and Tom is just so much fun to witness. The hard-drinking, womanizing Tom is the perfect foil to the more serious and straight-laced Hugo. Underneath Tom’s relentless teasing one can sense his deep admiration and love for Hugo, and the affection runs both ways. In The Book Artist we finally get a glimpse into their shared past and learn how they ended up leaving their former employers.
And any discussion about the series has to include the setting. Pryor clearly loves Paris, and his detailed descriptions of the neighborhoods, the restaurants, and the people makes the reader feel greatly tempted to hit up Expedia for the next jet to the City of Light. If your budget won’t allow for that, at least pick up a croissant and fix yourself a café au lait to enjoy while you delve into The Book Artist!
We’re happy to be hosting Taylor Stevens at BookPeople on January 17th at 7PM. Taylor became a favorite of our with her Informationist series and her Jack & Jill series that she is kicking off with Liar’s Paradox looks terrific. Here she talks about it with author Allison Brennan on The Big Thrill website. Check it out!
Patricia Smiley was kind enough to write a piece for us about creating characters for her books. She’ll join us in the store January 9th for a panel discussion with Matt Coyle & Puja Guha to discuss their various subgenres.
Writers are curious people. We obsess about human behavior and construct theories about what motivates it. Sometimes our stories are personal. Sometimes we use newspaper articles filtered through our own sensibilities. Sometimes we simply make stuff up. That works, too.
Writer curiosity is never more important to me than when I create characters on the page. Finding depth and poignancy in each one is important because I want readers to care about the people in my books. Like many writers, I create a biography for all my characters, even the minor ones, which usually includes a sociological and psychological profile, a back-story, descriptions of speech patterns, gait, quirky habits, and a history of successes and failures that drive his/her behavior.
The essences of real people I know often inveigle their way onto the pages of my novels. This is especially true for Davie, her grandmother, and her boss Frank Giordano. The gender or appearance may change, but the core attributes remain. Character inspiration isn’t limited to friends and relatives. Strangers often make an impression, as well. Once long ago I was stopped at a red light on my way to work. I glanced over and noticed a homeless man on a bus bench, dressed in grimy clothing, gently brushing lint from the shoulder of his well-worn coat. That gesture was a poignant lesson I never forgot—that we can maintain our dignity regardless of our circumstances. Years later, that man’s ethos made its way into the character of Rags Foster, a homeless junkie in Pacific Homicide. When I began researching the second novel in the series, I used the war in Vietnam as a plot element. I interviewed former veterans, fictionalizing the pathos of their stories to craft Outside the Wire. I used the same process for The Second Goodbye, the third novel in the series, and had particular fun with a minor character named Gerda Pittman, a comic version of a former boss.
I’m always on the lookout for characters to populate my stories. For example, several times a week, I walk to the grocery store past a few remaining post WWII bungalows dwarfed by flashy new construction. Along the route I often see a wiry older man with slicked-back gray hair, working in his front yard. I’ve never noticed anyone else with him. Even on the hottest days, he wears a tidy wool suit jacket that has seen better days. The jacket is dark blue with wide lapels, outdated padded shoulders, and is paired with mismatched trousers. His dress shirt is buttoned to the neck without benefit of a tie. The ensemble seems from another world, possibly Eastern Europe or the Middle East.
In this Westside L.A. neighborhood, the summer-ocean breezes once cooled the houses. But the days have become hotter, even in winter, so his front windows are often open to catch any random puff of air. The exterior of the house needs paint and repairs but the gutters along the street are clean and tidy. Many days I see him bent over, sweeping away the debris with a battered kitchen dustpan and brush. Later, when I walk home with my bag of groceries, the area is spotless and any residue that may have crept onto his walkway has been swept away. He never looks up from his task to nod or say hello. I accept his terms.
What piques my curiosity is his front lawn, which is a patch of hard-packed soil except on the rare occasion when it rains. He apparently doesn’t like the look of the weeds that sprout in the aftermath, because he plucks each one out by hand until the area is once again a tidy field of brown dirt, raising all kinds of dramatic questions: Was there ever a lawn? Did the high price of water force him to let it die? Nonetheless, the compulsive weeding tells me he has a keen sense of order. I want to know the story behind his dignity and pride: where he’s from and what’s happened in his life that allows him to find purpose in a small patch of dead lawn.
Someday I’ll answer those questions in a book. The character may not be this man. It may be a woman. Her part may be small but she’ll be a metaphor for something important in the book. I’ll give her a happy ending. Maybe after all she’s been through she deserves that much, at least.
Thanks to author A.R. Ashworth for writing this guest blog post, a conversation with his character DCI Elaine Hope. Ashworth will be in the store Friday, November 2nd at 7pm.
Detective Chief Inspector Elaine Hope runs a Murder Investigation Team in the London Metropolitan Police Service. A.R. Ashworth has written two thrillers about Elaine’s cases: Souls of Men and Two Faced. He’s currently working on the third novel in the series. In early October he sat down for a conversation with Elaine. True to form, she took control almost from the start.
A.R. Ashworth: Thanks for making time, Elaine. I know you’re busy with a new case.
Elaine Hope: I am, but I owe you. You invented me. This won’t take long, will it?
AA: It shouldn’t, but with you I never know. Tell me why—
EH: I bet your readers wonder why you’re writing about me. Maybe because I’m so patient and charming. Or maybe because I’m six feet tall and I don’t give rat’s a—sorry, I forget about tender American sensibilities—I don’t give a rat’s bum about how glamourous I look.
AA: I’m certain that’s not why I write about you.
EH: Not bloody likely. It’s because I’m good at catching killers.
EH: You live in Texas but your stories are set in London. You’re a man, writing about a woman. From what bourbon-soaked, cob-webbed corner of your brain did you conjure me?
AA: Some days I wonder that, too. You’re asking me to explain myself. I don’t think I need to; my stories stand on their own. But here’s a synopsis. I’ve spent a lot of time in London, been to the locations in the books, drank in the pubs. Besides a few mystery writers and some barmen, my Brit friends include two retired Met detectives. I got hooked on Dorothy Sayers back in the ‘70s because her writing was richer and deeper than Christie or Marsh. I’ve loved the darker British-style mysteries ever since. And female authors write about male protagonists all the time.
EH: Sayers. You once told me I have a bit of Harriet Vane in me—that I don’t need a man in my life, but I’ll listen if he makes a good case. I fight the male establishment but I’m not Jane Tennyson in so many ways.
AA: I wasn’t thinking of them when I created you. Maybe Harriet Vane a little, with Peter. But as I got to know you, I saw a few similarities. You’re gritty, strong, assertive, but never a bitch. You can be vulnerable, but never a victim. You evolve and learn on-the-fly. You never back down.
EH: You can tie a ribbon ‘round that. What were you thinking, making Peter the protagonist in the first draft of Souls of Men? I’m glad we had that talk.
AA: We? You did all the talking. I nodded and rewrote it, didn’t I?
EH: You admitted it. Peter’s a helluva guy, but it was me you turned loose on the Srecko brothers. Reviewers said Souls of Men was a strong, smart debut. Gritty, dark, satisfying. You can thank me for that. I don’t tolerate violence against women, and you dumped me right in the middle of those toerags. Talk about gritty and dark. One reviewer compared me to Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. She said we’ve both seen the worst. You were damn hard on me.
AA: That was Karen Keefe from Booklist. You handled it.
EH: Yeah, the world’s full of surprises, innit? It changed my life. In Two Faced I was set on revenge, running a rogue investigation, screwed up with PTSD. Thanks for Fiona. She’s even more messed up than me, but she’s the friend I need. Barefoot Woman. That was a hoot.
AA: I gave you Peter, too. How’s that going?
EH: I miss the hell out of him. Long-distance affairs are hard, even without a six-hour time difference. He plays Sam Cooke songs to me when we Skype, so I think we’re solid. I just hope he won’t go ballistic when he hears—
AA: Stop! We agreed no spoilers. Can you tell me something about your current case?
EH: The one you’re calling If I Can’t Have You. I’m back from compassionate leave, running a murder investigation team, up to my eyeballs in—say, can you give me a hint about who wants to kill Tessa? Didn’t think so. And I’m dealing with that other, erm, possibly ballistic situation. I have a lot on my plate.
AA: You’re a London cop.
EH: I couldn’t be anything else. People need justice. Need the Met. Need me. Time to get back to the nick. You’ll see me tomorrow afternoon. We’ve got scenes to write.
AA: Yes, we do. See you then.
BookPeople made The Line, Martin Limón’s latest mystery with Ernie Bascome and George Sueno, two U.S. Army cops stationed in early seventies Korea, our October Pick Of The Month. It starts with the two called to a murder scene on the demarcation bridge between North and South Korea that leads into a mystery involving the South Koreans that work for the U.S. Army. While trying to find the real killer when an innocent G.I. is locked up, they also have to locate the missing wife an officer. Martin was kind enough to give us some in-depth answers to some questions about the book, the series, and the state of both Koreas. Martin Limón joins us Friday, November 2 at 7pm to talk about the book with author A.R. Ashworth and Scott Montgomery.
MysteryPeople Scott: The Line has one of the best openings of the year. How did it come about?
Martin Limón: I’ve been to the Joint Security Area (JSA) a few times, starting in 1968. It’s always been an intense place and there have been more than a few skirmishes over the years. One of them, the August, 1976 axe murder incident, resulted in two U.S. soldiers being hacked to death by North Korean guards. Ironically, the JSA is also called “the truce village of Panmunjom.”
At some point it occurred to me that this would be a good place to set a murder. Of course, I knew who would be going up there to examine the crime scene, George Sueño and Ernie Bascom. Then all I had to do was decide who would be murdered, what time of day they would be going up there, etc. Once I had all that I decided to place the corpse right on the most contested spot in the world—the Military Demarcation Line—and imagined what would happen. Not difficult. There would be an armed standoff; the North Koreans on one side, the U.S. on the other. Sort of a difficult setting for detectives to exam a crime scene but, undaunted, our boys take up the challenge.
MPS: You have George and Ernie work both a murder and a missing person case. How did you deal with the challenge of two mysteries?
ML: I like plots and subplots, both as a reader and when I’m writing my own stories. The challenge is to get them to blend together in some way that’s (hopefully) believable and, more importantly, for their essences to somehow complement one another. In this case I had the Korean Noh family, who had suffered the grievous loss of their son, in the main plot and the American Cresthill family, experiencing the anguish of marital breakup, in the other. I hope the two stories worked well together. I was actually contemplating a third subplot; that of the Korean-American lawyer, Corrine Fitch, searching for her birth mother. But it was too much for my meager intellect to work out. Instead, it remained implied but not fleshed out.
MPS: I felt this book looks at women in both Korean and Army society. What did you want to explore with the female characters?
ML: Military spouses and other family members often feel isolated. Sometimes physically, as at Fort Irwin in California’s Mojave Desert where the nearest town is forty miles away. Or at 8th Army headquarters in Seoul. Even though the 8th Army Yongsan Compound sat in the heart of a city of over 10 million souls, that city was South Korea’s capital and a teeming Asian metropolis if there ever was one. Some of the Americans on base felt as if they were floating on a small raft atop a churning sea. And the military expects those family members (which they call dependents), and especially the wives, to follow a precise and lengthy list of unwritten rules. Don’t ever dare embarrass your husband, number one. Accompany him to the many and varied command social events where you must smile, smile, smile. Volunteer your time to charities specified by the spouse of the commanding general. Some women rebel, by turning inward. Others act out. I’ve seen it and it is sometimes not pretty, but always very human.
With Corrine Fitch I had the ambition (probably not realized) of depicting the ambivalence of someone returning to the country of their birth but being fundamentally a stranger. What must that be like? What questions must arise? I didn’t take that part of the story as far as it needed to go but it still intrigues me.
MPS: How would you describe George and Ernie’s relationship with the Army?
What George loves about the army is that it gives him a sense of purpose. A job with a very specific aim: to solve crime and rescue the innocent.
What Ernie loves about the army is that it encourages him to replace heroin addiction with the perfectly acceptable alternative of alcoholism. As a bonus, the pomposity of the army brass gives him a world of blowhards to rebel against.
What George hates about the army is their overwhelming bureaucratic desire to cover up any and all bad news. Especially crime.
What Ernie hates about the army is they make him wear a hat, which he believes is a plot to cut him off from the universe.
MPS: Your latest books have been some of your best. What has experience lent to your work?
ML: When I started writing, over 30 years ago, I realized immediately that this was a craft or sullen art (to quote Dylan Thomas) in which I would always keep learning—and never master. I do think my books and short stories are a little better now, mainly because of the help of editors and agents and critics and even the occasional reader. Reader complaints, of which I’ve had some which were extremely bitter, feel like a hot needle shoved into a raw nerve. However, I crave them. First, it proves that the person read and cared about my work. Second, it gives me a chance to evaluate the criticism and decide whether or not it is valid. Usually, it is. And once that needle sinks into tender flesh, I can never forget it. And the next time, when a similar case arises, I’m prepared to do better.
MPS: North and South Korea have been in the news even more. What should people in the U.S. know about the culture?
ML: Someone asked me if I wrote The Line because the North Korean crisis is so much in the news lately. The fact of the matter is that I conceived and wrote the first draft long before Donald Trump ever made his fire and fury or little rocket man comments. In fact, back then when I started no one imagined he’d ever become president.
Since 1953 the Korean DMZ has always been in crisis. In January 1968 a North Korean commando unit unsuccessfully attacked the Blue House, the South Korean version of our White House. In the same month, the North Korean navy committed an act of war by boarding and commandeering the USS Pueblo on the high seas. They held the American crew in a brutal captivity for almost a year. In April 1969, North Korea shot down an EC-121 US Navy reconnaissance plane, immediately killing 31 sailors. And there have been plenty of violations since then. South Korean military deaths, at least back in those days, were common and many of them went unreported in the international press. The US Army averaged about one American death at North Korean hands per year.
Now these friendly fellows have the bomb. I, for one, don’t believe they’ll ever give it up. No matter how many bows and handshakes our president provides.
Culturally, on both sides of the border, the desire for Korean reunification is great, and it’s the official policy of both governments. From what I’ve read, Kim Jong-un’s goal in life is to reunify the peninsula under his regime. To him, mutual nuclear disarmament means that the US would withdraw our troops from South Korea and remove the South Koreans from the protection of our nuclear umbrella. Once that happened, I believe, he’d feel free to start bullying the South Koreans and use political and military pressure to gain his aims. He knows that if he did manage to reunify Korea, even under such a brutal totalitarian state as the one he now runs, his place in Korean history as a great hero would be assured.