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 “hose 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

MysteryPeople Q&A with Megan Miranda

Megan Miranda, best-selling author of All The Missing Girls, comes to BookPeople to speak and sign her latest tale of psychological suspense, The Perfect Stranger, on Thursday, April 20th, at 7 PM. Before her visit, we asked her a few questions about the book and her upcoming projects. 

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Molly Odintz: The Perfect Stranger, to wildly summarize, is a murder mystery about friendship and identity. What did you want to convey about the (sometimes loving, sometimes competitive) nature of female friendship? 

Megan Miranda: Well, I think every female friendship has their own nuances, but in this case, I wanted to explore the type of friendship that stems from a pivotal moment in someone’s life—and then becomes idealized, in a way, in their mind. I also wanted to explore how friendships can sometimes act as a mirror, where we only see who we are reflected in someone else’s impression of us. And that the flipside can be true as well: sometimes we see what we want to see in another, believing they are who we want or need them to be.

MO: I really enjoyed the casual treatment of male characters by female characters in the novel – I would love to see more depictions of the intense, late-night bonding between women following disappointing one-night-stands. The women in this book, whether friends or relatives, seem to have far more concern for the women in their lives than the men. Even though there are male characters that play important roles in the plot, they are ancillary to the women’s stories that make up the bulk of the novel. Did you set out to focus on a world of women, more encumbered than aided by men? What did you want to say about gendered community? 

MM: I did set out to focus this story around women, mostly because of Leah’s character. The people of importance in Leah’s life at that moment are, largely, a cast of women: Emmy, her sister, her mother, the colleague she most connects with. Meanwhile, men have been more transient throughout her life. Even her father has left and started a new life. So I think she’s biased to build her trust around women. These are the people in her life who can see below the surface of each other—or at least they think they do—because of their shared experiences. I think it’s these shared experiences (not necessarily reflecting gender) that ultimately create tight connections between the characters.

“…there are different ways to know someone, just as there are different ways to tell a story in order to get at the truth. I think it’s definitely possible to know someone without knowing their past, but as Leah realizes, the less you know, the more you may be complicit in creating a version of someone you think you know.”

MO: The Perfect Stranger goes to the heart of how well we can possibly know another. We can know someone’s scent, dreams, habits – all while knowing nothing of their life story. Is to know someone to know their physical presence, their minds, or their past? 

MM: Yes, I think that’s exactly the question, and…I’m still thinking about it! When I started writing this book, this was something very heavily on my mind. I think of a theme sort of like a question to explore—not necessarily that there’s an answer, but that there’s something worth digging deeper into. Which is what Leah has to do in this story. I’d say there are different ways to know someone, just as there are different ways to tell a story in order to get at the truth. I think it’s definitely possible to know someone without knowing their past, but as Leah realizes, the less you know, the more you may be complicit in creating a version of someone you think you know.

MO: The Perfect Stranger is full of manipulative masterminds. Without giving anything away, what did you want to explore about gaslighting? 

MM: There were a few different elements on my mind here. One was to wonder if someone could become so focused on their own goals that they were blinded to what they were doing, and who they were becoming. And then on the other side, I was interested in how difficult it could be not only to recognize that this was happening to you, but also to let yourself believe it. And then, even more so—to prove it.

MO: Like quite a few writers in the mystery section, you’ve plenty of experience with other genres – how did it feel to transition from writing YA to writing crime fiction? 

MM: Honestly, the shift from YA to crime fiction felt like a natural progression, especially because my YA books were in a similar genre. My YA stories center on these big events that happen when the characters are 16 or 17 years old, and a lot of the writing process for those books involved me looking back at that time of my life in hindsight. When I wrote All the Missing Girls, the narrator was doing much the same: peering back at this big event that happened when she was 18, trying to see it with more clarity, in hindsight. It felt like taking a journey together.

“What are the moments that turn what we think we know on its head? It’s rarely one big twist, but lots of little shifts that reposition the pieces, so what you thought you were working toward at the start may not be the end picture at all.”

MO: Both All The Missing Girls and The Perfect Stranger have received praise for their fiendish plotting. What is your advice to mystery writers for how to really blow the minds of their readers? 

MM: For me, plotting is something that develops as I get to know the characters. It’s actually the element I tend to approach last, because the story has to feel authentic for the people and place and backstory first. I usually start with character, a theme, a setting, and start writing. For the mystery itself, I think of the beginning sections as discovering the puzzle pieces. And then the goal is to create the overall puzzle. I do try to think of the major turning points. What are the moments that turn what we think we know on its head? It’s rarely one big twist, but lots of little shifts that reposition the pieces, so what you thought you were working toward at the start may not be the end picture at all.

MO: The characters in The Perfect Stranger have porous, unstable identities, sometimes bleeding into each other, feeding off each other, or transforming those surrounding. The title itself connotes a complete unknown – a perfect stranger – or the exact right kind of stranger, perfect for a purpose. What did you want to say about identity? Can we claim a solid foundation to our knowledge and opinions, or are we more defined by those who think they know us best?

MM: I love this question because this is something I was also thinking about a lot when I started, and also something I thought about in All the Missing Girls as well: How maybe we can be defined more by how others see us than by how we see ourselves. On that same note, I think we can also become different people for different friends, and our identity can shift from relationship to relationship.

I wonder sometimes how much of our identity arises from just ourselves, in a vacuum. Can we be the “perfect” stranger for someone else? Or, are we in fact “a perfect stranger,” always. A chameleon of sorts. Honestly, even after writing this book, I’m still not sure.

MO: What is your next project? Will you continue with the crime genre? (I certainly hope so!)

MM: Yes, I’m working on my next psychological suspense! I can’t say too much about it yet, as it’s still a work in progress. But it has two points of view on the events leading up to and surrounding a crime—with two different suspects. I’m really enjoying writing it!

You can find copies of The Perfect Stranger on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Megan Miranda joins us Thursday, April 20th, at 7 PM, to speak and sign her latest.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Jerry Thompson and Eddie Muller, editors of OAKLAND NOIR

The latest city to get in Akashic’s sights is that tough city by the bay. In Oakland Noir, Jerry Thompson and Eddie Muller have gotten a cadre of authors that reflect the diversity of both the city and the genre. Eddie also contributed a story dealing with one complicated land lady. Both editors were kind enough to do an interview with us.

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

MysteryPeople Scott: What unique quality does Oakland bring to noir?

Jerry Thompson: Oakland is a city with eyes, fingers and a rich memory of events that created some of the most legendary characters in fiction, film.

Eddie Muller: I grew up with an image of Oakland as the most noir city in the world—by which I mean black. African-American. Which was supposed to scare us white folks. After living here for more than 25 years I now see what BS that was, and still is. Sure, scary shit goes on here—but most of it happens inside gangs and on the police force. I’m more wary of City Hall right now than a rough corner of West Oakland.

It’s funny: We got a great review in Kirkus and a so-so review in Publisher’s Weekly. And guess what? Kirkus dug the fact that the stories showed the cultural diversity of the city and offered some surprises—while PW bemoaned the fact that the stories weren’t really all “noir” and there was a lot less crime in them than expected. Somebody was working off some pre-conceived ideas …

“The plan of attack came out of a need to make sure we stayed authentic to the city of Oakland,  Her voice, her silences, her drumming…her shadows.”

MPS: Was there a plan of attack for choosing the authors?

EM: I was only interested in participating in this project if the lineup of authors reflected the actual demographics of the city. The last thing I wanted was to cater to a bunch of self-proclaimed “noir” writers from the outside feeding off a notion that Oakland was a violent, crime-ridden city. Jerry knew the local authors better than I; he had a better sense for achieving that right mix. In large part, Jerry was the “acquiring editor” on the project; I worked more on honing the stories.

JT: The plan of attack came out of a need to make sure we stayed authentic to the city of Oakland,  Her voice, her silences, her drumming…her shadows.  I  started with my phone book. Scouring every page for authors I had introduced, hosted, and worked with over the past 27 years.  Each writer had to live in Oakland or near by, and they had to be in touch with aspects of Oakland’s political, racial, sexual and literary history.  Of course the first names we thought of were legendary writers like Gary Soto, Nichelle Tramble, and Ishmeal Reed,  who I corresponded with from time to time.  He and I would chat when we saw each other on Grand Avenue by Lake Merritt on Sunday afternoons.   He was gracious and encouraging, and happy to listen to the ideas I had about the book but was too busy to come on board as contributor or co- editor, to fine tune to stories.   Eddie and I knew Oakland Noir  first and foremost had to represent the racially mixed community.    We really lucked out with the choices we made.

MPS: What drew you to your story, Eddie?

EM: There are bits of my own life in there—as I’m sure there are for all the authors in this collection. For me, writing “noir” is largely about examining things in your life when a different choice here or there, an exertion of pressure, internal or external, can push you over the edge into darkness, and perhaps tragedy. For me the essential ingredient in noir is empathy. I wanted to write a short story that logically and convincingly followed a character from the prospect of happiness to the pit of despair, while touching on some social issues of the past 25 years that have put many people on that course. I noticed recently, looking back on the fiction I’ve written, that I never write “villains.” Everybody’s got a reason.

MPS: What is the biggest misconception about the city?

JT: The biggest misconception about the city is that it’s chocking with violence and back biting.  I write in the introduction for instance that Oakland is a city that holds a grudge… that’s a misconception because in reality it’s a small town where people know each other somewhat intimately, especially in the black communities.

EM: I don’t know about misconceptions, because I don’t pay much attention to what the media is selling these days. But I do believe that Oakland suffers—on the national stage—from being judged by the expectations that are applied to other more glamorous cities. This is a working person’s town. I hate that it gets looked down on by the elites—just look at what’s happening with the sports franchises here: the Raiders want to move to Las Vegas, the A’s want to move to San Jose, and the Warriors are moving to San Francisco. This after the Oakland fans for years have given these teams nothing but undying loyalty and rabid support. And the owners just spit in their faces and say “It’s just business.” Bullshit. If owners expect loyalty from fans, it should cut both ways.

“Oakland has always been San Francisco’s ugly kid sister. But that’s a very shallow media perception—which is the specialty of our very shallow media.”

MPS: How do you see its relationship with San Francisco?

JT: When I was called to the east bay I felt as if Oakland was looked upon like the folks who lived across the tracks ya know, there was nothing really going on in Oakland except for crimes being committed, people struggle or just getting by.   These days, it’s  like the new frontier, for all the people who have been squeezed out of SF because of the tech industry pioneers and trust fund brats.

EM: As I just suggested, Oakland is like a dog who stays loyal even though it’s kicked in the head routinely. So don’t be surprised when that dog finally bites back. Oakland has always been San Francisco’s ugly kid sister. But that’s a very shallow media perception—which is the specialty of our very shallow media. These days, San Francisco is obsessed with selling its soul to the highest bidder. My hometown is like a whore who’s doing so well she sells herself only to the highest-paying clients, who all look and act alike. Oakland, by contrast, is the woman you make a life with. She may be a businesswoman, a nurse, an artist—she’s a lot of things, and she’s tough.

MPS: What do you think the biggest misconception of noir is?

EM: That it’s violent. At least that’s the perception that bothers me the most. That noir means lots of gunplay and high body counts. Not my noir. I’m into it for the psychological and sociological aspects. Why do people hurt themselves and the people around them? That’s really at the root of every crime story, and lots of crime and mystery fiction exploits that fact very superficially—noir isn’t afraid to explore it.

JT: I feel the biggest misconception of noir is that it’s limited to a specific time, like the 40’s and 50’s.  Exclusively white gangster types and red headed bad girls strapping blades between their thighs…  Not a bad misconception but somewhat narrow.  One immediately thinks of the way films captured noir with pictures like Maltese Falcon, and Don’t Bother to Knock. We are refreshed to know that noir also includes the amazing worlds of Chester Himes, Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim…  Wonderful extremes.

You can find copies of Oakland Noir on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Q&A with Robin Yocum

A Welcome Murder, by Robin Yocum, is our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for April. The novel follows the quirky denizens of an industrial town as they plot against each other, their actions resulting in unpredictable and unintended consequences. Our reviewer Meike Alana caught up with Robin Yocum to ask him a few questions about his latest. 

  • Interview by Essential MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

Meike Alana: This book is both hilariously funny yet at times dark and depraved. Did you set out to hit both of those marks (which you did brilliantly, by the way!)? Or did the book start out one way, and then you added elements of the other?

Robin Yocum: When I start writing, I don’t necessarily have a direction in mind. Once I have a premise for a story, I create the characters and let them interact. When the interaction is good, it’s like taking dictation. There are lots of conversations going on in my head, and sometimes the conversations are funny. I am admittedly my own best friend, and I’ll be sitting at the computer laughing along with my characters. The humor seems to appear naturally in their conversations. But, there also is situational humor, too. For example, Johnny Earl gets a new cell mate in prison and it’s this hulking white supremacist. How can there not be humor in the ensuing interactions? Smoochie Xenakis, the town door mat, suddenly thinks he is Vito Corleone. The situation calls for humor. There certainly are dark aspects of the book, such as Dena Marie trying to set her husband up for murder, but the ridiculousness of the premise is funny. She hasn’t thought it out or planned it. Rather, she’s trying to take advantage of the situation. I don’t want to write a book that is so dark and serious that I can’t inject humor. To me, the mixture of the two makes for a much better read, especially if you can surprise the reader.

Read More »

Humor and Horror: MysteryPeople Q&A with Adrian McKinty

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

I’ve followed Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series for years now, ever since I flew through his Troubles Trilogy, only to jump up and down with happiness when I realized he planned to continue the series. With the release of McKinty’s latest, Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly, I found an opportunity to interview the man himself, rather than just talking to the internet about how much I love his books. Thanks to Seventh Street Books for bringing his works to the states, and thanks to Adrian for letting me ask him a series of rather long questions. 

Molly Odintz: So the idea that Sean Duffy can quit smoking is rather laughable to me. Will he ever get his health together in the context of life in such a stressful position? 

Adrian McKinty: I seriously doubt it. I knew many coppers in that era and all of them were huge social drinkers and chain smokers that you would be foolish to try and keep up with. But there’s always hope. I think he’s probably off the cocaine for good now which is nice.

MO: In your latest, you show how entrenched and mafia-like the paramilitaries have become by the late 80s, especially when it comes to drug crimes. By the late 80s, do you think more paramilitaries were motivated by power and money than politics? 

AM: By the early 80s it was obvious that the Troubles were not going to end anytime soon so the smarter/more cynical ones diversified into protect rackets and drugs. At a famous meeting in Belfast in 1985 supposedly mortal enemies the IRA and UVF met to divide Belfast into drug territories. And that is still the case to this very day.

Read More »

Moments of Incredible Brutality: MysteryPeople Q&A with David Joy

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

David Joy caught our attention with his brutal and poignant debut, Where All Light Tends to Go, hailed as a modern classic in the growing genre of rural noir. His next book, The Weight of the World, is our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month, and comes out today! David Joy was kind enough to answer a few questions about his latest book and his philosophy of writing. 

MysteryPeople Scott: The Weight Of This World deals with three characters on the bottom rungs of society who’ve made some bad life choices, but you never feel like your look at people in a white trash zoo, you have an understanding of them. Can you talk about how you approached Thad, Aiden and April?

David Joy: I remember one time hearing George Saunders say, “Fiction is empathy’s training wheels.” That idea has always stuck with me. I think the most important job I have is to show the humanity of every character I write. When you’re telling the kinds of stories I tell about the types of people I’m writing about, you carry a tremendous obligation to get to that humanity, and that’s not an easy thing to do. We’re talking about drug addicts and thieves, people capable of committing horrifying acts of violence. We live in a world where we’re able to put a great deal of distance between “us” and “them” for the sake of comfortably. We live in a word where it’s easy to demonize those people, to say to ourselves, “I’m nothing like them.” The problem with that is it leaves little room for dislodge, and without conversation you can never address a problem. I was reading a review recently and a woman said, almost angrily, “He made me care about these people!” That’s about the highest compliment I could ever hope for. I made them care. The reality is, as much as I wish it weren’t true, that’s a very hard thing to do.

Read More »

MysteryPeople Q&A with Tim Dorsey

  • Interview by MysteryPeople Blogger Meike Alana

Tim Dorsey, known for his mischievous characters and their bizarre adventures, comes to BookPeople to speak and sign his latest novel of Floridian high-jinks, Clownfish Blues, on Sunday, March 5th, at 5 PM. Our Meike Alana interviewed Tim via email to give us all some insight into the weird, wonderful world of Dorsey’s novels.

Meike Alana: Your books include a lot of Florida history, but not the textbook kind–you are a master at revealing the weird and wacky side of the state.  How do you manage to unearth so much fascinating material?

Tim Dorsey: It’s simply a matter of wearing out a lot of tire rubber. I get a map and look for all of the most remote roads. It’s a labor of love driving and poking around at these places.

Read More »