A (Partial) Atlas of Texas Crime Fiction

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

A hard land with a difficult history, Texas has always lent itself well to crime fiction. From the crime fiction greats who helped define the genre to those writers shaping the landscape of crime fiction today, Texas has a long tradition of social critiques and sendoffs of hypocrisy (the hallmarks of Texas crime fiction, in my opinion) delivered via murder mystery. Tales of Texas history may gaslight their audiences into believing in the state as a land of triumph, but we crime fiction readers know the dark, murderous truth about the land we call home….

Below, you’ll find an incomplete (of necessity) guide to Texas crime fiction, brought to y’all in honor of Texas Mystery Writers Month (that is, May). Emphasis is placed on well-known classic writers and the wide array of new crime fiction released in the past few years. We know we’re leaving out quite a few of the Texas mystery writer greats, and many of the good one-off novels. Some have gone out of print; others have simply dropped off our radar as we find new voices to champion.

(Nearly) all of the books cited in this piece are available on BookPeople’s shelves, and all are available for special order via BookPeople’s website. Here’s a link to a resource guide to Texas cozies (woefully neglected in this piece, and we do apologize). Stop, You’re Killing Me! has an impressively thorough guide to Texas mysteries.  The Whitliff Collection has also put together an excellent resource guide to Texas mysteries as part of their Southwestern Writers Collection – you can view a pdf bibliography of Lone Star Sleuths here.

As a Texas Monthly article pointed out in this piece from 2013, Patricia Highsmith once lived in Dallas, a setting defined by capital-S Society, and made her career as the Henry James of pulp fiction, stripping back the beautiful veneers of characters to get to the rotten motivations and churning anxieties of the 1950s. Jim Thompson used his cheerful killers and sadistic sheriffs to critique the racial divides of the South, and in The Killer Inside Me, even has us cheering on his equal opportunity killers, as they forgo bigotry in favor of a more universally-minded corruption. Rick Riordan in the 80s and 90s helped define a city-based Texas crime fiction for a new era of start-ups and Californians, starting with Big Red Tequila, while Kinky Friedman’s hilarious and idiosyncratic Hill-Country-set detective novels helped define the rural romps that have complemented Thompson’s brutally dark portraits of East Texas.

These are the two main threads of Texas crime fiction still today – tales of the city and the hypocrisy beneath its polite surface, and stories of small town secrets, where no matter how much prejudice is visible on the surface, there’s always more hidden beneath. Joe R. Lansdale continues Thompson’s mantle (with added horror and humor) in his Hap & Leonard series, as well as his stand-alone novels The Thicket and Sunset & Sawdustpreserving the beauty of East Texas speech and nature while not shying away from the crass, casual brutality of East Texas lives, all while pointing out the absurdities of his setting and his characters.

Melissa Lenhardt’s Jack McBride series take place in similar territory, but in a much different context. Set in the fictional East Texas town of Stillwater, the series was inspired by a talk Lenhardt heard about Texas civic history comparing two towns over time. “One town was a boom and bust town, whose fortunes relied on the success of the latest industry, usually oil and gas. The other town focused on steadier, slower growth. They never got so caught up in the boom that they neglected to nurture other aspects of their economy,” she explained to us in an interview earlier this year. Her novel’s criminal kingpin ” likes the boom and bust model because he’s gotten rich from it either way. When people are doing well, they use his legitimate businesses. When things are going poorly, his illegal business is there to make people feel better.” Meanwhile, her more civically minded characters understand that “the boom and bust path isn’t sustainable, especially when young people are leaving, instead of moving in.”

Speaking of boom towns, Houston’s the happening place for several recent crime novels, each adding another layer to our understanding of sin in the sunset city. The oil towns of Houston and Beaumont provide particularly rich settings for crime fiction – Southern power dynamics come up against energy politics, inspiring tales of corruption and alienation, set in boardrooms, back rooms, highways and highrises.

Attica Locke, of Empire fame, has written two novels, Black Water Rising and Pleasantvillefollowing lawyer Jay Porter as he fights for civil rights, uncovers vast political conspiracies, and solves quite a few murders. Her highly anticipated upcoming novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, is due out in September.  Melissa Ginsberg explores alienation and jealousy on the Houston highways in her sultry debut, Sunset CityAmy Gentry uses the Houston suburbs as the perfect setting to explore instability of identity in her debuGood As Gonedetailing the fallout caused by a kidnapping victim’s return home after many years.

Over in Beaumont, Lisa Sandlin turned the PI formula on its head with her novel The Do-Right, featuring a naive private detective assisted by a world-weary secretary. Nic Pizzolatto, of True Detective fame, takes us on the run from New Orleans to Galveston in the violent and aptly named Galvestonwhile the writing trio Miles Arceneaux ventures up and down the Gulf Coast and back and forth in time in their salty tales.

The Hill Country is defined by the subgenres of fish-out-of-water tales and humerous stories continuing Kinky Friedman’s legacy. Austin music legend Jesse Sublett’s bass-playing, skip-tracing sleuth Martin Fender took the musician mystery to dark places and new heights in three now classic tales, while his most recent foray into crime writing explores the outrageous antics of the Overton Brothers, real-life football players-turned-robbers, in 1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime That Rocked The Capital. 

Terry Shames’ Samuel Craddock mysteries explore small-town central Texas secrets, drawing occasional inspiration from the Texas of Shames’ childhood but containing a set of intertwined mysteries all its own. Samuel Craddock, Shames has said, is based on her own grandfather, a trusted problem-solver in his town even after giving up the mantle of legal authority.

George Wier’s charming and humerous small town novels – his website describes his works as a “Texas take on pulp adventure,” and we couldn’t agree more. Helen Curry-Foster’s Hill-Country-set Alice MacDonald Greer novels draw upon the author’s career as an environmental lawyer for a series sure to please all who appreciate the beauty of Central Texas, and the quirky figures that live there. Ben Rehder’s satiric Blanco County mysteries feature a central Texas game warden involved in an inordinate number of murders, despite his wish to stay out of trouble.

Austin-based lawyer and writer Mark Pryor mainly sets his tales overseas, but his latest, Hollow Manfeaturing a musician and sociopath, continues the tradition of Austin mysteries grounded in a world of live music and the occasional dead body. Manning Wolfe, also a lawyer, has recently launched her Merit Badges series with Dollar Signs: Lady Lawyer vs. Boots Kingan eclectic and entertaining legal thriller.

Gabino Iglesias, in Zero Saints, takes the reader from Mexico to Austin with protagonist Fernando as he flees danger at home, only to find more violence in his new city. Lisa Lutz’ latest novel, The Passenger, also stops off in the capital city, following a woman on the run after the suspicious death of her hated husband. She finds herself in Austin just long enough to switch identities with a woman named Blue in a bar, only to find herself pursued by Blue’s enemies.

South Texas has surprisingly few crime novels given how many stories the region has to tell – or at least, we weren’t able to find many while preparing this piece. The Land Grant, by Carlos Cisneros, is a legal thriller diving into a long-term dispute between heirs to an estate and the Catholic Church along the border.  Rick Riordan helped bring San Antonio as a setting to mystery readers with his Tres Navarre series (before he moved into the world of children’s fiction). Although known for his San Antonio setting, we highly recommend his tale of murder, intrigue and copyright in the wild west of 90s start-ups, The Devil Went Down To Austinto all Austinites. The tale is particularly notable for its hilariously dated technological threats combined with completely contemporary cutthroat competition.

West Texas is better represented in the genre as of 2017. Minerva Koenig’s tales of a reformed criminal relocated to West Texas as part of the Witness Protection Program celebrates the classic tough Texas heroine with a twist as the transplant grows into her new home. Tony Perez-Giese’s Send More Idiots takes us to El Paso and Juarez as a man searches for his brother, disappeared by a cartel. J. Todd Scott’s The Far Empty takes us into a generational feud between a sheriff and his son over the death of the sheriff’s wife, set against the background of cartels and corruption.

Ever since we wondered who shot J.R., North Texas has been a riveting setting for all kinds of fictionalized murder. Mark Gimenez’s The Color of Law guides the reader through crime and corruption in Dallas, while delivering an impassioned defense of a prostitute wrongfully accused of murder. Kathleen Kent’s The Dime takes us into the Dallas Police Department from the perspective of an outsider just transferred in from New York.

Reavis Wortham’s Red River mysteries explore life in small-town North Texas, as the townspeople experience the vast upheavals of mid-century America (along with a few murders). Alexandra Burt’s The Good Daughter takes us into a small North Texas town where uncovered bodies soon lead to uncovered family secrets. In Julia Heaberlin’s Black-Eyed Susansa woman looks into her own appearance in a Texas field at age 16 and attempts to discover both her identity and the wider implications of her disappearance and reappearance.

Texas crime fiction is defined by ambiguity and ambition – an author may delight in the poetry of Texas vernacular one moment, while instilling horror in its content the next. The casual brutality of Texas history means the reader never has to worry about a murder’s plausibility (unlike Maine), and the complex, layered threads of human lives in Texas make for an endless number of stories. Like with many industries, Texas and California are the powerhouses of US crime fiction, but unlike the two states’ political narratives, the two centers of crime fiction don’t compete – they only complement.

One could argue with the notion of any one thread of Texas crime writing (although the legal thriller does seem to dominate in terms of form). Like the state itself, crime fiction reflects and rejects a number of legends, myths and uncomfortable truths. Texas stories, like Texas lives, do not restrict themselves to the lines on a map. The border is as artificial of a construct in crime fiction as it is in politics, and Texas-set crime novels are as likely to cross the border, or into another state or country, as any other American story.

Texas is not only a setting – it is also a large, nurturing environment for all kinds of writers, including many who choose not to write about Texas. Some would say that it’s easier to write about a place once a writer has moved on to a new location, and some of those best suited to write Texas tales are those with an emotional or physical distancing from the state itself. We haven’t mentioned any of the many authors who call Texas home for some or all of the year, yet set their works outside the state, and writing programs like the Michener Center draw plenty of budding writers to Texas, while the endless experiences lived in this state translate to endless more opportunities for artistic creation.

You can find the works listed above either on BookPeople’s shelves or available for special order via our website. 

The High Stakes of Poetry and Crime Fiction: MysteryPeople Q&A with Erica Wright and Melissa Ginsburg

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Poetry and crime fiction? As a reader, they don’t seem to have much in common. And yet plenty of crime writers also happen to write, read, and recommend poetry. For National Poetry Month, that is, April, we reached out via email to a few of our favorite crime writers/poets for a fresh take on why the same mind might appreciate two such different genres.

In part two of this series, we sent along some questions to two crime writers also known for their poetry – Melissa Ginsburg and Erica Wright. The two also happen to be friends, brought together by their shared affinity for poetry and pulp. Originally from Houston, Melissa Ginsburg now teaches at the University of Mississippi and, like many of our favorite crime writers, lives in Oxford, Mississippi. She’s published a book of poetry, Dear Weather Ghostand a steamy noir set in Houston titled Sunset City. 

Erica Wright has a long list of publications and credentials – she’s the poetry editor at Guernica literary magazine, as well as one of their senior editors, and she’s written a whole host of poetry books, as well as two crime novels. Her latest work of poetry is All The Bayou Stories End With Drownedand she’s currently two books in to a private eye series set in New York City, featuring a wry, kick-ass heroine – the most recent is titled The Granite Moth.

Before I could figure out what to ask, I first brushed up on the overlap between crime writers and poets in this excellent piece by Janet Hutchings, the editor of Ellory Queen Mystery Magazine (EQMM). She mentions a strong connection between crime fiction and poetry going back to early crime writers such as Frederic Dannay, one of the founders of EQMM, as well as Dorothy Sayers, and also mentions a number of prominent poets interested in writing tales of suspense, including Dylan Thomas and Ogden Nash. I wondered what fascinates a poet about mysteries, or a mystery writer about poetry – the highbrow stature of poetry and the lowbrow status of mysteries seem diametrically opposed, at least to many readers.

 “…Poets and crime writers are working with the same raw materials—with confusion and uncertainty—but their approaches are different,” Erica Wright explains. “Poets are trying to live with chaos, and crime writers are trying to fix it.”

Erica Wright links the two via their shared preoccupation with order and chaos. “…Poets and crime writers are working with the same raw materials—with confusion and uncertainty—but their approaches are different,” she explains. “Poets are trying to live with chaos, and crime writers are trying to fix it.” Wright adds that the two genres are also united by intensity – “Both genres invite high stakes…That’s one of the things that first attracted me to mysteries. If you start with a murder, with the volume turned to 10, where do you go from there?”

Melissa Ginsburg agrees, but takes a different approach as to why. “Both mystery stories and poetry deal with intense emotional states, and they both function by withholding certain information. Crime stories do this to create suspense, to generate curiosity in the reader. My favorite crime writing withholds answers to obvious questions—who did the crime, how, and why?—and in the process of parsing out that information or searching for it, ends up depicting a world and characters that are as compelling as those answers might be. I think poetry can work in a similar way. By subverting or eschewing obvious answers, the poem creates an experience that is emotional, intellectual, and visceral all at once.” Mysteries have always been tied to their ability to surprise (in my own mind, anyway) but the more I thought about Melissa’s words, the more I realized that many a poem comes with a twist end, shifting the perspective of the reader in much the same way as a crime novel might. 

Confusion, chaos, uncertainty – all are hallmarks of the condition of modernity, and of the modern form. I got academic with my next observation –  it seems to me that poetry and detective stories were some of the earliest 20th century forms to fall under the spell of modernism, stripping back 19th century excess in favor of a minimalist ideal containing within it modern themes.

Erika expands on my theory with the gracious added details of someone who teaches this stuff: “Poets created or embraced a range of artistic movements, including Imagism and Surrealism. And later in the twentieth century, they were quick to write about political topics, most notably the Vietnam War. Crime fiction can’t really help but be political to a certain extent. I tell my students that the universal lies in the specific to help them avoid abstractions, and I do my best to apply that same advice myself. I don’t want to get on a soapbox when telling a (hopefully) entertaining story, but it would be equally short-sighted to pretend violence isn’t linked to social issues.”

“I’m drawn to concision in writing. I’m interested in fragments and startling juxtapositions. Noir takes as a starting point the idea that the world is broken, probably irreparably, which is certainly a tenet of Modernism.” – Melissa Ginsburg

Melissa adds, “my own poems and fiction are influenced by Modernist aesthetics. I’m drawn to concision in writing. I’m interested in fragments and startling juxtapositions. Noir takes as a starting point the idea that the world is broken, probably irreparably, which is certainly a tenet of Modernism.”

As a not-very-prolific poetry reader, I felt ill-prepared (although quite enthused) for the task at hand. The main similarity I’d noticed between the two was in my own reaction to the same themes in different forms. Fractured, chaotic, brutal, broken…those terms oft-applied to modernity’s malaise turn into compliments when describing poetry and crime fiction. Most of the poetry I’ve read falls under the category of “poetry of witness,” which is another way of saying poetry that’s as depressing as s**t, and those of you who follow the blog know that my taste in crime fiction could be described as Hobbseian.

I’m convinced that fiction is the best way to obliquely approach trauma – to understand an emotional truth, and incorporate it into previously existing knowledge to layer empathy into fact for a startling combination of beauty and brutality. I asked Ginsburg and Wright (both of whom are known for the sensuous beauty and dark themes of their poetry) what it was about  the spare prose of a detective novel or the stark imagery of a poem that serves so well to describe the indescribable.

Erica Wright highlights the power of a story to create empathy. For years, she opened her Composition classes by teaching a 1978 poem by Carolyn Forche, “The Colonel,” in which “she writes about a military officer in El Salvador showing off his bag full of human ears. He drops them on the dinner table, and Forché describes them as looking like dried peach halves…no student ever missed my question about what looked like dried peach halves.” Facts may fade, but our experience of the suffering of others gleaned from books remains. She continues, “Imagery has this power over us in way that statistics don’t. Similarly, a mystery about, say, a man serving time for a crime he didn’t commit—I’m reading Julia Dahl’s excellent Conviction right now—stays with us. We might forget the number of people who’ve been wrongly behind bars, but a well-told story sticks.”

“Both mystery stories and poetry deal with intense emotional states, and they both function by withholding certain information. Crime stories do this to create suspense, to generate curiosity in the reader. My favorite crime writing withholds answers to obvious questions—who did the crime, how, and why?—and in the process of parsing out that information or searching for it, ends up depicting a world and characters that are as compelling as those answers might be.” – Melissa Ginsburg

Crime fiction and poetry may draw similar reactions or share themes, but when it comes to crafting the two forms, according to Erica Wright, “I rarely write poetry and fiction on the same day or even the same week. The muscles are too different. When writing a poem, there’s a lot of getting up to pace or make tea as I debate “dust” versus “ash.” With prose, I make myself write for a set period of time, trusting that anything awful can be fixed later.”

I asked Melissa and Erica which comes first, the idea or the form. While Erica may not write poetry and prose on the same day, she says “Typically, both a new poem and a new chapter will start with an image for me. Or a line gets stuck in my head, and I worry it around for awhile until it becomes something I can use. I don’t work with an outline until about halfway through a novel when I want to clarify the timeline.” With poetry, Melissa starts with “a piece of language that gets stuck in my head. If it has sufficient strangeness or a compelling rhythm, I’ll build on it. The ideas and the form are secondary to the poetic line. Sometimes I will have an idea first, but if I can’t hear a line, then I’ll abandon the idea; there’s nothing there for me. When I write formal poetry and it works, it’s because the form—a sonnet or pantoum or whatever– has forced me to think differently, in lines that feel alive rather than describe or depict something outside themselves.”

Her response brought to mind the similarly restrictive form of the detective novel, murder mystery, thriller, or any other subgenre of crime fiction. My favorite category of crime fiction are those works that acknowledge the form and then get as creative as possible within that restrictive form. In poetry and crime fiction, just like with cover songs, constraint can inspire creativity – it takes extra skill to craft something familiar that also surprises.

For her crime fiction, Ginsburg finds inspiration outside of form – “With a crime novel, it begins with characters and relationships.” With her debut mystery, Sunset City, Melissa says she “was originally interested in the dynamics between Charlotte and her ex-best friend, but the book started to take shape in my mind when I began to think about Charlotte and Sally, her friend’s mother. I liked that they were drawn together reluctantly, that the things they needed from each other did not match up evenly. There seemed a lot of drama and heartbreak in that situation and I thought I could build a plot and a world around it. The novel I’m working on now also centers around mothers and daughters and relationships that are both loyal and difficult.”

Whether beginning with form or relationships, crime fiction and poetry both lend themselves to exploring the action with the static, the danger under the surface, the tension ripping our connections apart, the endless need that brings us together, and the general instability that characterizes anything that appears solid, down to the whirling electrons that are our building blocks of chaos.

But enough about modernity. Let’s talk about tradition. While Erica’s crime fiction (so far) is set firmly in New York City, when it comes to poetry, she says, “I draw pretty heavily on the Southern Gothic tradition. Gregory Pardlo first recommended that I read Flannery O’Connor, and that suggestion changed my approach to writing. Her stories felt like permission to consider small-town subjects. While I don’t dwell exclusively in that realm, I’m pulled to the strangeness of rural life in the United States, the violence that lives alongside poverty. The supernatural feels more possible when you get beyond a city’s constant hum of electricity. We lost power a lot growing up, and I remember reading by candlelight, wondering if the scratching at a window was animal, tree, or other. There’s a lot of natural beauty, as well, of course. It’s not all ghosts, guns, and opossums.”

Melissa also has a touch of the Southern Gothic in her poetry. She’ll “write short lyrics about what I see around me, what I see out my studio window or on walks. My poems are full of rural Mississippi images because that’s where I live…I use images to talk about emotional states or create landscapes” but she doesn’t use poetry to “depict big cultural ideas.” Her books are more thematic – “the setting is broader, more a depiction of culture and values as well as images.”

Erica’s mention of natural beauty, and Melissa’s no-nonsense approach to the beauty of her environment, leave me feeling a bit abashed at my simplistic focus on the violence of fiction. If my questions seem a bit leading, and therefore a bit limiting, it’s because I don’t like to read happy stories, and because an acknowledgement of suffering unites the two forms in my own mind. For those who write both crime fiction and poetry, the two forms may complement each other rather than directly mirroring each other, and a rural setting has as much potential for joy as suffering. Saying that, I would definitely read an anthology titled “Ghosts, Guns, and Opossums.” As a city girl originally from the soul-sucking suburbs (looking at you, Round Rock!), I’ve enjoyed nature when comfortably caged, but only embrace the wild via cultural products. I tend to read tales of alienation, long highways, and closed-off neighbors, rarely venturing into the small town settings so many crime writers have made their own.

“While I don’t dwell exclusively in that realm, I’m pulled to the strangeness of rural life in the United States, the violence that lives alongside poverty. The supernatural feels more possible when you get beyond a city’s constant hum of electricity. We lost power a lot growing up, and I remember reading by candlelight, wondering if the scratching at a window was animal, tree, or other.” – Erica Wright

I finished up my interview asking a question for those readers like me, shy of poetry and looking for those works which might please a crime writer. Melissa recommends “Alice Notley’s book-length poetry projects The Descent of Alette and Culture of One. They  have a quality of obsessiveness and intensity, and they read like novels. Cynthia Cruz’s poems are dark and full of dread and may appeal to noir fans.”

Erica has quite a few recommendations. “Sometimes I dream about a job where I meet with a poetry skeptic for an hour, then make recommendations. There are so many wonderful contemporary poets. And mystery aficionados are already such prolific readers—it’s a short leap to them being as enamored as I am of folks like Sarah Messer, W. S. Merwin, Ada Limón. My former classmate Camille Rankine’s debut collection, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, is great. I just read and definitely recommend Erika L. Sánchez’s Lessons on Expulsion. I’m looking forward to Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s new collection coming out this fall.”

For poetry readers looking for the gateway drug to crime fiction, Wright recommends “Sara Gran…[as] a good starter drug. Marisha Pessl’s two novels are incredible. Oh, and there are also other poets who write mysteries like Chris Abani and Melissa Ginsburg.” Its nice that she mentions Melissa, because I started reading Wright’s work based on Ginsburg’s recommendation. She ends her answer with her own question, to which I hope this article will be a small part of the response: “How do we make all the poets and mystery writers become friends?” 

 You can find works by Melissa Ginsburg on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

You can find works by Erica Wright on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Hard Boiled Poets: MysteryPeople Q&A with Ken Bruen, Peter Spiegelman and Reed Farrel Coleman

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Many may not see poetry in the hard boiled crime fiction genre created by the likes of Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, and Mickey Spillane. That said, many of today’s best writers in that field come of poetry. Both forms rely on style and word craft. With April being National Poetry Month, I contacted three of my favorite poet/novelists to explore the relationship between the two.

Reed Farrel Coleman’s two main series, featuring protagonists Moe Prager and Gus Murphy contain an emotional immediacy associated with poetry. He examines the facets of emotions in a crystal clear manner and his phrasing has a lyrical quality. “Meter is often overlooked, but the rhythm with which I write helps propel the reader forward. I don’t count out iambs, but I can hear the rhythm of my words in my head.”

Peter Spiegelman’s life as a poet appears to have always put him on the hunt for the perfect word. His writing is sharp with paragraphs that have the perfect conciseness of a poem’s stanza. When asked how poetry influenced his prose writing, he answered. “My interest in the sound of the sentences I write—how they strike the ear when they’re read aloud, their rhythms and cadences—certainly has its roots in writing poetry. So to my concern with language that is concise and that operates on several levels simultaneously—that carries plot forward even as it works to establish and enrich setting and character, and to define the “emotional weather” of the story.”

This can be seen in his series with Wall Street private investigator John March and his latest creation, Skid Row doctor and practitioner of expensive “house calls” to the rich and infamous, Dr. Knox.

It’s easy to see the poet in Ken Bruen’s work. His tight novels, the most famous featuring self destructive P.I. Jack Taylor. Ken plays with word placement, with half of a sentence dropping down to the next line. His creative phrasing creates a rat-a-tat-tat style that starts out pummeling, growing into a unique lyricism linking character and reader together for a fast trip down through Hell. ” Poetry taught me the art of brevity and never, never waste a word.”

I asked each author about the shared aspects of crime fiction and poetry. The commonality Reed found was in it’s diversity. ” Poetry isn’t one thing in the same way that crime fiction isn’t a monolithic entity. Ken Bruen, Peter Spiegelman and I all started out as poets, but our poetry is as different as our prose.”

Ken’s belief fit perfectly with his style of writing. “Crime and poetry share the blessing of immediacy. If done properly, they can leave a sense of quiet awe.”

“The poetry I love best has a lot in common with my favorite crime fiction.” Peter Spiegelman shared. “Both create palpable emotional atmospheres—often in an admixture of their settings and narrative voices. Both also can pivot on the telling detail—a scrap of description or dialogue, an startling image—beautiful or unsettling or both—that casts new light on a character, an action, a relationship, a back story, or that redefines these entirely. And so often both are devious things: misleading, secretive, withholding—guarding their epiphanies until the end.”

Both Ken and Peter thought Baudelaire would have made a good crime fiction author. Ken even wrote a novel titled Dispatching Baudelaire. “He would have been a savage almost Ellroy type of writer.”

When it comes to crime fiction writers who could have made great poets, both Reed and Peter agreed on Chandler, with Peter also citing Ross MacDonald. Ken mentioned contemporary Daniel Woodrell “…a poet on almost every single page of his work.”

When listing contemporaries, Peter Spiegelman brought it full circle like a craftsman poet. “Daniel Woodrell, Megan Abbott, and Reed Farrel Coleman.”

You can find works by Reed Farrel Coleman on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

You can find works by Ken Bruen on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

You can find works by Peter Spiegelman on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Guest Post: Manning Wolfe on The Drama of the Law

The Drama of the Law: What’s the Origin of the Legal Thriller?

Guest Post from Manning Wolfe

Lawyer and writer Manning Wolfe was kind enough to contribute a piece to our blog on the early days of the legal thriller, plus plenty of recommendations of contemporary and classic legal thrillers. Her debut, Dollar Signsis a legal thriller set in Austin. Come by BookPeople on Tuesday, July 12th, at 7 PM, for an evening with Manning Wolfe, Martin Limón, and Billy Kring. 

Before I began writing legal thrillers, I asked myself why we love the law and what brought about our fascination with civil conflict stories and those involving people in trouble with authority. I went in search of the origins of the genre and found a rich history of chills and thrills.

What is a legal thriller?

John Grisham, the most well-known attorney writing in the genre says: “You throw an innocent person in there, get ‘em caught up in a conspiracy and you get ‘em out.” I think we must include a bit of education about the law and its procedures, possibly a courtroom scene, and that about sums up the legal thriller. The history behind the evolution would take a book or two to recount. Here are the highlights.

Read More »

Great Mystery Reads for Black History Month

Post by Molly Odintz

F ebruary is Black History Month, not Black Mystery Month. However, fiction – especially pulp fiction, with its emphasis on raw emotion and experience – can be the best way to approach the sensations, as well as the actual facts, of history. Mysteries today tend to be seen as a mainly white genre, and there’s plenty of statistics, as well as the We Need Diverse Books movement, pointing out that authors of color tend to garner fewer reviews and less promotion than white authors. However, the history of mystery is as diverse as its present.

I’ve been working to learn more about the history of African-American mystery writers myself, and in the process, I wanted to bring some thoughts and recommendations to this blog.  Here are a few recommended mystery reads for the month of February, including classics, historical mysteries, and stories with contemporary settings, yet strong connections to the past.

Read More »

Jenny Milchman’s Top Five Tales of Domestic Suspense

  • Guest post by Jenny Milchman

There’s a new genre in town, and it goes by the name of domestic suspense. Syndicated reviewer Oline Cogdill coined the term family thriller, which also suits it.

A family thriller focuses on a circumstance we can relate to. The kind of tale that could, given a slight twist of the knob, happen to us or someone we love. This novel takes ordinary people and places them in an extraordinary situation. What do they do then?

Read More »

Down and Dirty in the Country: A Quick Look at Rural Noir

Noir is a genre usually identified with the city. Concrete and steel cut off our anti-hero, throwing an endless shadow over him or her. At the same time, however, authors were also looking at the darkness, isolation, and evil in small towns or farms. When we weren’t looking, the sub-sub-genre of rural noir took over like kudzu.

The roots of rural noir come from the Southern Gothic authors. One could argue that William Faulkner was an early practitioner. As I Lay Dying uses many noir tropes with a stylized point of view, family secrets, dark humor, and a bleak look at class. Flannery O’Connor is another author whose influence shows itself in the works of current rural noir authors. Her use of religion and perspective of evil can be seen in the work of Jake Hinkson in such modern classics as Hell On Church Street

“Noir is a genre usually identified with the city…at the same time, however, authors were also looking at the darkness, isolation, and evil in small towns or farms.”

One of the first great examples of rural noir is James Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much. Using Southern speech, much like Chandler used the Southern California dialect, Ross tells the story of jack McDonald, a failed farmer who ends up running a road house owned by schemer Smut Mulligan, who later pulls Jack into a robbery and murder. A power play ends up between the two involving Lola, the wife of the town proprietor Smut is having an affair with. It took the James M. Cain noir structure and themes and put a country spin on it.

Jim Thompson wrote many tales from the city, but some of his best dealt with shady small town lawmen. The Killer Inside Me, still one of the most chilling books ever written, features West Texas deputy and psychopath, Lou Ford. Lou pretends to be a dim hick, who mainly tortures the town citizens, many with their own dark secrets and agendas, by talking in cliches and platitudes. When he develops a brutal relationship with a prostitute, he and the town both violently spiral downward.

“…the violence almost becomes redemptive in this black satire on small town culture and bigotry…”

Thompson took the bad lawmen to new heights in the Sixties with Pop. 1280. MysteryPeople screens Coup de Torchon, French director Bertrand Tavernier’s Algerian-set film version of the Pop. 1280, on Sunday, July 7, as part of our Double Feature Film Series. Screenings will be followed by a discussion of the book and film, and all screenings are free and open to the public. Nick Correy is the lazy, philandering sheriff of a small Southern town during the Nineteen-Teens. When he’s challenged in an election and kills to stay in the lead, we learn how smart and dangerous he is. What is odd is how Nick keeps his genial tone and how the violence almost becomes redemptive in this black satire on small town culture and bigotry. It is interesting to note that Thompson’s father was an Oklahoma sheriff who was caught embezzling when the writer was young.

The author who truly opened the door for rural noir was Daniel Woodrell. Originally writing about Rene Shade, a police detective in a corrupt Louisiana parish, in his Bayou Trilogy, he later moved his settings to the Ozarks, were he was born and raised, in such novels as Winter’s Bone (screened last year as part of our Noir Double Feature Film Series) Woodrell’s novels are somewhat the country cousins to George Pelecanos’ D.C. novels, including the recently released and critically acclaimed The Martini Shot: A Novella and StoriesWoodrell and Pelecanos both create character-driven stories, where criminals are motivated by extreme poverty and drugs (crack for Pelecanos, meth for Woodrell) plague an entire community. Woodrell dives into his stories on a personal level with a poetic prose style. The beginning paragraph of Tomato Red, with its page-long, run-on sentence, is work of great humor and craft. He delves into the lives of the working class and the poor from his area, inspiring a wave of other writers to use their rural background in their noir.

“…rural noir has a strong lineage, an established canon, and the manifest destiny to travel down every back road and tell its story…”

Several of these writers inspired by Woodrell have already established themselves in the rural noir cannon. Frank Bill built a reputation through his short stories dealing with hard men and harder women pushed to the brink of violence and beyond, exemplified in the collection Crimes In Southern Indiana. His debut novel, Donnybrook, is about several characters and the trail of blood they leave behind as they head to a bare knuckle fight. Donnybrook shows how meth in the Midwest has fused the drug and culture together. Another great take on the subject is Matthew McBride’s relentless A Swollen Red Sun. McBride sets a Missouri county aflame when a deputy takes seventy-two thousand dollars from a meth dealer’s trailer in a moment of weakness. The book is reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest in its look at how a corrupt society destroys itself. Benjamin Whitmer’s anti-heroes get ping-ponged from their country homes to the city, trapped by their violent compulsions, developed of necessity but leaving his characters isolated and alone. Both of his books, Pike and Cry Father, are emotional gut punches.

the genre of rural noir is expanding rapidly, and it has room to do it. Both David Joy and Jamie Kornegay have shown new back roads with their novels Where All Light Tends To Go and Soil. Jamie Kornegay joins us Monday, May 4, for Noir at the Bar at Opal Divine’s. Frank Wheeler, Jr.’s debut, The Good Life, set in rural Nebraska, hopefully ushers in a long career writing great rural noir set in Midwestern wastelands. We also have yet to see many female writers and authors of color embrace the sub-genre. As rural noir grows in self-confidence and acclaim, I hope to see many more diverse voices in the genre, but already, rural noir has a strong lineagean established canon, and the manifest destiny to travel down every back road and tell its story. Like Hank William’s country boy, the genre can survive, and even thrive.