Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott Montgomery, talked to his closest crime writing pals and asked them to speculate what they think their series’ heroes have been up to during the age of COVID. Read on to see what they thought.
COVID-19 has affected all of our lives and lifestyles. It made us wonder how some of our favorite crime fiction characters would fare. We reached out to some of their creators for answers.
Joe Lansdale conveys that Hap and Leonard are getting by in East Texas: “My guys had a situation. Leonard’s boyfriend got the virus, so Leonard had to stay with Hap. It hasn’t been entirely happy. Reading has gone on, some TV shows. A bit of a jog around the block, some punching of the bag in the garage, light sparring. Then the vanilla cookies ran out at the house, and even decked out in mask and gloves, Leonard discovered the store was out. It’s been cranky. But they’re doing okay.”
Laura Lippman gave us an update on Baltimore P.I.’s Tess Monaghan and her sidekick Crow: “Tess and Crow would be struggling with distance learning with Carla Scout, and they would be extremely stressed out about money, as both livelihoods would be affected, although Tess would start hearing from spouses who are convinced that their partners are cheating despite the pandemic. They would be watching a lot of old movies together and they would be particularly grateful to live on the edge of a beautiful, not very busy park, where Carla Scout and the dogs could at least run free. I think they would also take the opportunity to get the training wheels off Carla Scout’s bike so the family could take bike rides together.
Mark Pryor described Parisian lockdown with head of security for the American Embassy Hugo Marston: “As a man comfortable with himself, and a rules-follower, Hugo has complied with all stay-indoors and curfew rules and is trying to take advantage of the time as best he can. He’s learning Italian on a free app, reading more, and since the rules have just been relaxed, he’s taken some welcome strolls through Paris. (He sticks to the wider boulevards, not his preferred narrow streets, for social distancing purposes.) He misses his best friend Tom, who was in America when the world shut down, but is also deeply relieved he’s not had to share his quarantine time with the wild, rule-breaking maverick. Deeply relieved. Every Friday night, he shares a glass or two of wine with Claudia via Facetime, and rather wishes he was cooped up with her…”
Craig Johnson gave us news from the area of one of our favorite sheriffs- With only two cases of COVID-19 in Absaroka County, Wyoming, Sheriff Walt Longmire continues to do his sworn duties along with visits to the one case at the Durant Home For Assisted Living and the second, a musician who contracted the illness at a Cowboy Poetry Festival in Pocatello, Idaho. Everyone is hoping for the best concerning the octogenarian, but community sympathy for the musician is mixed in that he is an accordion player…
While not series characters, some of us at MysteryPeople had to ask what the Dare Me cheerleaders were doing. Megan Abbott was kind enough to give an answer: “Boy, based on the inspiring teen activism I’ve seen in recent weeks, I’d like to think the young women of Dare Me would be out there marching in the streets, masks on. That’s what I’d want for them!”
You can purchase titles by these authors online at BookPeople today. And while you’re at it, remember to stay safe and indoors when possible, wear a mask, and keep a safe distance from the folks you’re not already cooped up with when you go out.
Lockdown: Stories Of Crime, Terror, And Hope During A Pandemic captures our very recent times in a collection of short stories. The anthology put together by authors Steve Weddle and Nick Kolakowski show how several different people from different backgrounds deal with an ongoing pandemic. Proceeds go to BINC, which helps out independent booksellers. Steve and Nick were kind enough to take a few questions about the project.
Steve Weddle: As the lockdown started and began to take a toll on folks’ mental health, I thought it would be a nice distraction if someone would start up an exquisite corpse, in which one person would write a chapter and pass it along to the next who would add to it, and so forth. A number of people thought it sounded like a good idea, and Nick offered to partner with me on it.
At that point, we considered publishing the final product as a fundraising book for a worthy cause. We talked about who we might approach, and before you know it, Nick and I were talking with Jason Pinter at Polis about doing a group project, but with authors doing individual stories as opposed to one longer story. So we took the exquisite corpse, made that thriller that involved two dozen authors, and set to work chatting with Jason for a pandemic anthology to benefit a worthy cause.
Nick Kolakowski: Jason wanted a diversity of viewpoints thrown into the anthology, and we couldn’t have agreed more. Sometimes the risk with anthologies is the stories begin to blend together; but we approached horror writers, suspense writers, noir writers, and more for their own takes, and that helped us collectively craft some stories with a lot of variety.
Scott Montgomery: What parameters did you give the authors?
SW: We only asked for quality.
NK: The stories in the anthology take place against a background of a fictional pandemic. The virus is respiratory, but we told the authors that they could mutate it in order to fit the needs of their particular tale. The horror writers in particular really ran with that idea.
SM: It’s rare that something with this quick a turnaround has this high quality. How were you able to execute this?
SW: Thanks to Nick’s hard work, we were able to read through the stories a couple times and work with authors if anyone had any suggested edits. We were fortunate that the stories came in very well written and clean. Jason must have had that time-stopping pocketwatch from that TV movie because he was able to get the cover done and the layout done, and so forth, quicker than should have been possible.
NK: Steve and I churned through each story as soon as it came in, instead of waiting for everything. That was a huge help. Authors were also excellent about turning around edits, which is amazing when you consider that, in that March-April period, everyone was also wrestling with their own version of self-quarantining.
SM: Were there any stories that shocked or surprised you?
SW: Each story had its own shocks and surprises, but what struck me most was how varied they were, and how they ordered themselves pretty well chronologically, once Nick had them all laid out in a way that made sense. While you can read any story in any order, working from the front of the book to the back shows an incredibly dynamic progression of the pandemic itself, until the final piece.
NK: I was amazed at how creatively some authors riffed off the central theme. Some of the stories really plunge deeply into their characters’ emotional landscape, making you feel in a very raw way how they react to extreme circumstances. Others are extremely fantastical—we have werewolves and zombies—while maintaining that same emotional core.
SM: Can you each talk about how you came up with your own stories?
SW: I had started a tough-guy noir story about ventilators having been stolen and one of those smart-talking, seemingly bulletproof anti-heroes stealing them back for the hospital his brother works at. I wasn’t happy with how that one turned out, so I went with more of a John Cheever meets Stephen King kind of short story, focusing on the changing atmosphere as a neighborhood goes further and further into lockdown. That most of the scaffolding of the story is based on true events within our own home during this period certainly helped.
NK: I was reading a lot of news stories about how the mega-rich were fleeing to their compounds in the Hamptons in order to escape the virus, and unleashing havoc in the communities out there in the process. As my household settled into its strict self-quarantine in NYC, meanwhile, I was taking mini-procrastination breaks by watching old Anthony Bourdain travel episodes, because the focus on community and food was really comforting. Those strands—cooking, rich people fleeing to isolated beach communities, and chaos—all came together in my story.
SM: Do you think the pandemic and the lockdown has had an effect on crime fiction?
Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott M., sat down with author James Wade ahead of Wade’s virtual event with BookPeople on Thursday, June 18th at 7PM CDT. The two discuss the novel’s main themes and talk a bit about the narrative choices made. It’s a novel at the top of MysteryPeople’s favorites of June 2020.
Read the interview below.
James Wade sets his take on the vengeance tale, All Things Left Wild, in a place and people caught between the fault lines of two periods. In 1910 Texas, Caleb Bently is on the run toward Mexico after his older brother, Shelby, kills the son of Randall Dawson when they attempt to rustle horses from the man’s ranch. Goded by his wife, Dawson, more poet and scholar than gunman and cowboy, pursues them with the help of a ranch hand, Tadpole, and Charlotte, a Black woman who knows her way around a pistol. As the two parties close in, they travel across borders of land, identity, and societal norms.
Mr. Wade was kind enough to talk about his world and the people and ideas he populated it with.
Scott Montgomery: How did you choose the particular time period for All Things Left Wild?
James Wade: I liked 1910 for the book because it’s a great example of the disconnect between the “civilized” America we think of by that point in history and the American West, which stayed wild for much longer than the rest of the country. That was due in part to the geographic challenges and lack of transportation infrastructure, but there were also murky legal standards because much of the Southwest was still divided into territories rather than states. This is also the year when political tensions in Mexico boiled over into the first battles of the Mexican Revolution.
So it was a tumultuous time, but something I hoped to show is how even during historical turning points, individuals are still struggling with very personal, very human issues. We tend to think of people in the past only as they relate to whatever event or movement was taking place at that time. In reality, most people were also dealing with the same issues we face: family, finances, finding a purpose, etc. But those things obviously don’t take up the same historical real estate, so they aren’t focused on as much.
SM: Like Blood Meridian, this book uses a historical period to create an other worldly feel. How did you use research of the time to build your fictional world?
JW: Researching this time period was fascinating. The country was only one generation removed from the Civil War, and yet it was also at the beginning of what would be the most remarkable century of progress in human history. We were essentially trying to find our footing as a nation, while also seeing the world around us modernize at an unprecedented pace. This sort of disruptive technology, disruptive forward momentum, is something we’ve dealt with ever since. And in the Southwest, you had a remarkably large, unregulated swath of land and resources. This became a breeding ground for corruption. And, as a result, we begin to see the gap between rich and poor growing rapidly during this time– much like it has in recent years. From the post-Civil War 1870s through the Great Depression, the country saw a massive income inequality, which led to economic anxieties, which ultimately led to more crime. I tried to create a world where economic tension was always present in the background. For example, almost every supporting character we encounter is poor. And if they are rich or have power, they are most likely corrupt.
SM: Did splitting the point of view between Caleb and Randall provide any challenges?
JW: I actually believe the split narrative made it a little easier to tell the story, and certainly made it easier to create some of the moral ambiguity I was hoping for. I wanted readers to get to know both characters, and see the flaws and redemptive qualities of both of these men, then have to decide who was right and who was wrong– or decide if it was more complicated than that. The decision to have Caleb tell his story in first-person, and Randall’s story be told in third-person, was based on the evolution of the characters. Caleb, despite his youth, pretty much knows who he is, and pretty much understands the way of the world. So he is competent enough to tell his side of things. Randall goes through a confusing transformation, which makes it more appropriate for someone else to describe, as Randall himself may not quite understand what’s happening to him until much later.
SM: Male identity plays a big part of the novel. What did you want to explore with that theme?
JW: Another great question, and a theme that no one else has asked about yet. I definitely wanted male identity, particularly conventional masculinity, to be pulled through the mud on a short rope. Almost all of the women in the novel come off as more rational, mentally tougher, and more patient, than the men. That wasn’t on accident. One of the real tragedies, in my opinion, is the shift we see that takes place in Randall. He starts out as a kind, sensitive man, but the circumstances and the world essentially turn him into a much different person by the story’s end. The tragic arc of Tad’s character is driven by his need be a conventional, masculine hero. With Shelby, he sees fear as a type of power to hold over others– another masculine trope. Even Randall’s wife plays a role in the perpetuation of toxic masculinity by chiding Randall for not being “manly” enough, which Charlotte later debunks as foolishness. Basically, the pitfalls of male identity are all over the book, and I hope folks take notice.
SM: One of your stand out characters is Charlotte. How did you construct her?
JW: There’s a strength to almost all the women in the novel, but certainly Charlotte is the bellwether of that strength. Her character was built by asking myself: who is the complete opposite of Randall in terms of wealth, privilege, and survival skills? Charlotte– a poor, black female, gunslinger– fit the bill. But once I wrote her first scene, I started to expand on her past and her experiences, and I think it really opened her up more and better informed her eventual relationship to Randall and Tad. Her ability to be a badass, but also maintain a softness for the world, is something that sets her apart from most of the other characters.
SM: Much of the violence is described very swiftly and often happens off page. What prompted this approach?
JW: I went back and forth on this, particularly the shootout between the Lobos and the Rangers, but decided to have some violent portions of the story take place off page for a couple of reasons. One, there is still a good deal of violence that is described, and I didn’t want to lessen the impact or significance of those scenes by having the reader become numb to it. And two, the majority of violence in the world is not some Hollywood, dramatized event. Rather, it’s quick and shocking and then it’s over and we’re left to pick up the pieces. One of the less visible themes of the novel is how we all believe our stories are the only stories or the most important stories, but to everyone else, it’s just another story. One of the few times– maybe the only time– I put my foot down during the editing process was insisting we keep the scene where two nameless Rangers are having a conversation in the aftermath of the big shootout. For readers, something huge has just happened, but for the Rangers– who are much further removed from the story– it’s a pretty casual day at the office. Playing with the notion of what the reader gets to “see” and what they don’t, is another way of driving home the point that the world doesn’t bend itself to our narratives.
All Things Left Wild is available for purchase from BookPeople today. And don’t forget to register for our free virtual event with James Wade on Thursday, June 18th at 7PM CDT.
NOTE: Because this is a virtual event that will be hosted on Zoom, you will need access to a computer or other device that is capable of accessing and sufficient Internet access. If you have not used Zoom before, you may consider referencing Getting Started with Zoom.
Scott Phillips is one of those authors other authors revere (or are downright jealous of). He often uses the crime novel as a frame for satire, but never lets his characters simply fall into types or symbols. His latest target is Southern California with attorney Douglas Rigby, who lost all of his money, actually his last client’s money, on a drug deal. To get it back, he hatches an art fraud scheme involving his wife, mistress, and a forger dealing with a painting owned by the client, Glenn Haskill, a t.v. producer in sixties and seventies with fond memories of his casting couch. The book is funny, profane, and engaging as all hell. Scott will be joining Jon Bassoff and Jason Pinter for our Crime Writing Outside The Lines discussion on March 16th, but went solo for this interview we did with him.
Scott Montgomery: You’re mainly known for covering the Midwest, what set your sights on L.A.?
Scott Phillips: I lived there for more than a decade. It’s really about Ventura and Santa Barbara than LA, about an hour to two hours away, depending on traffic. I think I can only write well about places I’ve lived or spent lots of time. Parts of this one are set in St. Louis, where I live now. This was one I couldn’t have set entirely in the Midwest — the old TV producer, Haskill, wouldn’t have fit in, for one thing. Also the desperation of the real estate business and the equally desperate need for a certain kind of Southern Californian to maintain a level of conspicuous consumption.
SM: What is the major difference in writing about the two areas?
SP: There’s a certain kind of ruthlessness to life in Southern California, be it show business or real estate or the law or getting your kids into the right school.
SM: How did you come upon art fraud as the center of the story?
SP: I’ve always wanted to write a book about art forgery. Forgers like van Meegeren, the Vermeer forger who’s mentioned in the book, and Elmyr de Hory, about whom Orson Welles made his documentary F for Fake, have always fascinated me. Originally the book was much more about the forgery and the relationship between Paula Rigby and the old forger, but that didn’t work for me so I trimmed it way back and made it more of a crime novel.
SM: This crime novel has even more moving parts to it than The Ice Harvest and The Rake. How do you approach something like this without the characters being drowned out by the plotting? SP: As I said, this book was originally much more about the forger and Paula, with the other characters being much more minor. When I started concentrating on the plot, each of the characters started taking on more heft. Because a character like Keith, the golf pro, becomes more important to moving the plot forward (one thing I always knew was that he and Rigby were going to have a beat down of some kind), I have to dig a little deeper and figure out what motivates him.
SM: Glenn, the old producer, is a character I like despite myself. How did you go about constructing him.
SP: One thing that I love about Southern California is the presence of the ghosts of Hollywood. I know and knew some old character actors, and they all had great stories about the old days in TV and movies. The fact is that predatory creeps like Haskill were all over the place then, and they’re all over the place now, as the Weinstein trial just demonstrated. Haskill’s not based on any one person, but there were lots of guys just like him. I wanted him to have a little kernel of humanity, which shows through his devotion towards his nephew back in the Midwest, a devotion that doesn’t work out very well for him.
SM: I was happy to hear that SOHO is also reprinting two of your earlier books, The Walkaway and Cottonwood. How would you describe these books, particularly
SP: The Walkaway is a followup to The Ice Harvest, more than a sequel. I started with the premise of the money in the satchel–what happens to that money? It all started one day when I was getting on the 405 freeway near the VA hospital (where my grandfather used to work as a barber) and I saw an elderly man in a suit trying to hitch a ride on the onramp. Later it occured to me that he might have been attending a funeral at the National Cemetery nearby, or he might have just walked out of the VA hospital. SO that was the hook: man with dementia walks out of a nursing home looking for some money he vaguely remembers having hidden years earlier. Cottonwood is the story of the Bloody Benders, serial killers on the Kansas prairie, and it’s also the story of the birth of a town. Its protagonist, Bill Ogden, is the ancestor of a lot of characters in my other books, mostly illegitimately. I’m really grateful to SOHO for bringing them back.
That Left Turn at Albuquerque is available for purchase in-store and online today through BookPeople. And be sure to catch Scott Phillips alongside Jason Pinter and Jon Bassoff for MysteryPeople’s Crime Writing Outside the Linesdiscussion of crime fiction on March 16th at 7PM!
Jon Basoff’s latest, The Lantern Man, is a mix of different media, created news clippings, repots, and diary, as well as prose that tell a gothic psycho noir story of a family whose three children suffer much dark fate. Jon will be attending our Crime Writing Outside The Lines panel discussion with Scott Phillips and Jason Pinter. He was kind enough to take a few questions from us about this different sort of book.
Scott Montgomery: The Lantern Man is a very unique story, especially in its telling. How did it come about?
Jon Bassoff: I’ve always been somewhat obsessed with the narrative techniques of novels, maybe more so than plot or character or anything else. I don’t have anything against conventional narratives, but I get excited when I read works by Nabokov or Danielewski or anybody who pushes the envelope of what a narrative can be. With The Lantern Man, I knew the basic story I wanted to tell, knew that I wanted it to take place in Leadville, Colorado, but it took me a while to figure out how I could effectively use a multitude of point-of-views in a relatively fresh way. I decided to use footnotes and journals and artifacts. Basically, you’ve got the main narrative, which is a journal written by a girl shortly before a rather awful death, but you’ve also got the detective’s investigation, told through the footnotes and artifacts. It’s up to the reader to put all the pieces together, namely, to determine how much of the journal can be believed and how much of the investigation the detective is getting right.
SM: What was the biggest challenge in writing it?
JB: Keeping all the pieces of the puzzle straight. Different characters know different things at different times. Different characters have different motives for being dishonest (or honest). And, as with every novel, a huge challenge was determining how much to reveal to the reader at various points in the narrative. That balance is tricky. I hope I did it right.
SM: One of the themes of the book is about storytelling. What did you want to explore about telling tales?
JB: One of my favorite lines in the novel is this one: “We all need a narrative. Something to get us through the day.” From the time we’re old enough to understand language, we’re told stories. Hell, religions, entire civilizations are based around them. In a lot of ways, The Lantern Man explores the power of stories, not just how they can be used to comfort, but also to frighten and manipulate. The characters are manipulated by the stories. And so, I think, are the readers.
SM: How did Leadville get chosen as the backdrop?
JB: For the better part of the past decade, I’ve gone up to Leadville every summer to write. It’s an anomaly in Colorado—a living, breathing mountain town without skiing or gambling. It’s got an amazing mining history and plenty of secrets buried beneath the dirt. I always knew I needed to write a story that took place there. And when I stumbled upon this old abandoned railroad tunnel, called Hagerman Tunnel, I knew where I wanted the heart of my story to take place.
SM: Is The Lantern Man based on any urban legend?
J.B. : Well, there are mythical creatures referred to as lantern men, and I expanded on that myth to make it my own. More generally speaking, my particular lantern man is based on the boogie man, which has a place in most societies, and in most children’s imaginations. But it comes back to storytelling. That’s what the boogie man is. A story. An archetype. And in my story, he represents the evil that we all possess, depending on the right circumstances.
SM: You live in Colorado where there seems to be a concentration of dark and offbeat crime authors. What’s in the water?
JB: It’s true! We’ve got a lot of strange ones here. Ben Whitmer and Steven Graham Jones to name a couple of the stranger ones. I don’t know if it’s the water. Maybe the high altitude? Messes with our cognitive functioning? But, yeah, I’m glad to have discovered the crime fiction/horror community in Colorado.
The Lantern Man is available for purchase in-store and online today through BookPeople. And be sure to catch Jon Bassoff alongside Jason Pinter and Scott Phillips for MysteryPeople’s Crime Writing Outside the Linesdiscussion of crime fiction on March 16th at 7PM!
Jason Pinter’s Hide Away introduces Rachel Marin, a mother of two who, after a horrifying incident, molds herself into a vigilante. A murder of the former mayor draws her into a plot that puts her up against the two police detectives investigating it and risks her life as well as her children.
Jason, also the founder and editor of the acclaimed indie press Polis Books, will be joining Scott Phillips and Jon Bassoff for our Crime Writing Outside The Lines discussion panel on March 16th at BookPeople. He was kind enough to do this pre-interview with us.
Scott Montgomery: How did the character of Rachel Marin come about?
Jason Pinter: I had been thinking about starting a new series, and Rachel’s character came to me shortly after the birth of our first daughter. I was fascinated by the notion of a protagonist who was smart, capable, and strong but also incredibly vulnerable. And I don’t think you ever feel more vulnerable in your life than when you are literally responsible for the lives of others. So the gears started turning—how would someone balance being a brilliant criminalist with raising two children? How would she deal with the trauma in her past, and how would she try to help her children with it? But I also wanted to know how and why she became who she is. Why did she feel the need to train her mind and body obsessively? Answering all those questions for myself was an intriguing prospect, and I thought readers would enjoy learning them too.
SM: Is there a challenge writing a character who is a vigilante and single mother?
JP: Absolutely. There’s a reason Batman is single with no kids. Can you imagine if he went out every night with the possibility of getting shredded in a million different ways, but also had a spouse and/or children to care for, who loved him? I really wanted to explore the conflict Rachel felt in being someone who was capable of solving crimes, but in doing so could also jeopardize the tranquil life she’d created for her family. And she doesn’t always make the right decision. And when she does, there are more lives at stake than just hers.
SM: You have two story lines, the murder mystery and Rachel’s origin story. Is there a certain rhythm you developed from going from one to another?
JP: It was very important to me that we saw how Rachel got to the point where we see her in the opening chapters. We know something terrible happened to her, and we know that, down the road, she’s very, very capable. But how did she get from point A to point B? I thought it of like Sarah Connor in the first two Terminator movies. How did the waitress become the warrior? I didn’t want the “flashback’ scenes to overwhelm the narrative—after all, the inherent existence of a flashback means the story isn’t being driven forward—so I had to be very judicious about when I used them and how, and that they only came when they needed to.
SM: All of your characters are indelible. How do you go about constructing them?
JP: That means the world to hear. First and foremost, I hate “stock” characters. People who exist in a book (or movie, or show) just for the sake of existing, or to further the plot. I wanted my main cast of characters to have full lives. This was most important when it came to creating the two police detectives, John Serrano and Leslie Tally. They are at odds with Rachel a great deal of the book, but I didn’t want them to be stereotypical “cops who get in the way of our hero” types. They both have interesting lives and interior motives. They could each be the protagonist of their own novel. And because of that, we understand them and can sympathize with them, which creates more conflict with Rachel. Serrano and Tally are quite competent, and because of that it allows us to doubt Rachel just a bit.
SM: Has being a publisher affected your writing at all?
JP: Absolutely, the most in terms of time. I essentially put my writing career on hold
while I was launching Polis Books because, frankly, there are only so many hours in the day. I always wanted to, hopefully, work on both sides of the desk, but I needed to concentrate on the company for a fairly lengthy period of time to get it up and running. Nowadays, I’m very careful about how I wear both hats, especially when I’m at a conference or convention when I might be promoting both Polis titles and my own. It’s hugely hugely important to my authors at Polis that they know I keep my writing and publishing separate—I do not use one to benefit the other. It’s impossible for there to be no overlap—that would be easier if I was, say, a publisher and an auto mechanic. But being a publisher also inspires me, in that we have so many writers telling incredible stories, and it’s a privilege just to work in the same industry as them.
SM: I’ve heard Rachel is going to be a series character. What can you tell us about the future you have in store for her?
JP: I actually just turned in the last edits for the second book in the Rachel Marin series. It’s currently titled A Stranger at the Door, and it’s scheduled to come out in early 2021. After that, I have an idea for the third book that’s hugely exciting to me, and whether that comes out depends on how readers react to the first books. The great thing about writing the second book in the series is that you’ve established the world and the main characters, and now you can go about expanding and exploring that world, deepening the readers’ relationship with the characters you’ve already introduced, while also sprinkling in new ones to spice things up. So I hope I can keep adding to that stew as long as readers are hungry for it.
About the Author: Jason Pinter is the bestselling author of six novels: the acclaimed Henry Parker series (The Mark, The Guilty, The Stolen, The Fury, and The Darkness), the stand-alone thriller The Castle, the middle-grade adventure novel Zeke Bartholomew: SuperSpy, and the children’s book Miracle. His books have over one million copies in print worldwide. He has been nominated for numerous awards, including the Thriller Award, Strand Critics Award, Barry Award, and Shamus Award.
Pinter is the founder of Polis Books, an independent press, and was honored by Publishers Weekly‘s Star Watch, which “recognizes young publishing professionals who have distinguished themselves as future leaders of the industry.” He has written for the New Republic, Entrepreneur, the Daily Beast, Esquire, and more. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with his wife, their two daughters, and their dog, Wilson.
Russ Thomas has created a much talked about debut with Firewatching, featuring D.I. Adam Tyler. Tyler catches a high profile case when the body of a loathed businessman is discovered walled in his own estate. Tyler was picked up by the man’s son the night before. Paired with the funny and feisty Det. Amini Rabbani, Tyler pursues the case his lover could be a part of that is also connected to several fires being set around Sheffield. Thomas will be at BookPeople on March 3rd at 7PM to sign and discuss Firewatching, but was kind enough to volunteer for this advance grilling about this character driven and moody police thriller.
Scott Montgomery: Firewatching is a very unique police thriller and very character driven. Which came first, DS Adam Tyler or his adversary?
RT: Hmmm. Interesting question. Stories always start with character for me but in this case it was the character of Lily which came first. I wrote a short story about her many years ago, and she stayed with me. I think I always planned to revisit her and try and tell more of her story. Then, when I realized I was writing a police procedural novel, the rough idea of DS Adam Tyler was formed. It took a long time, many, many rewrites, and a name change or two before I got him right. The book was called Firewatching from very early on though and the concept of an arsonist setting light to various places around the city hasn’t changed all that much. So I suppose the concept of Tyler came first but it took me a while to fully realize him.
SM: The way you deal with Tyler’s homosexuality is deft. It’s definitely a part of him and he has obstacles because of it, but it doesn’t define him. What did you want to explore with that aspect of the character?
RT: I always saw Tyler as a gay character, right from the start but I really didn’t want the story to be about the fact that he’s gay. Growing up gay myself in the 1980s and 90s I always wondered why, when they included gay characters in TV shows/books/films (which was rarely), the story always had to be about them struggling with their sexuality or coming out. I’m not saying those stories aren’t important, I just feel they’ve been very well-explored and that there are other gay stories to tell. After all, LGBTQ+ people are also husbands and wives, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons; they are police officers and fire-fighters too. I wanted to write a story with a gay character where his sexuality is just one part of who he is and not necessarily the driving force of the plot. Yes, he has issues with his sexuality in the workplace, and his love life puts him in a very tight corner in this book, but his bigger problems stem from his past and who he is as a person. If he’d been a straight man in this story I think the outcome would have been the same, pretty much.
SM: Rabbani is already a character readers of the book love. How did you construct her?
I didn’t really construct her, she just turned up fully formed. I wanted another voice in the book, someone who could show us a side of Tyler he perhaps doesn’t see himself. And someone who would be his ally in the novel, even though he doesn’t necessarily think he needs one. So I wrote the scene near the start of the novel where he turns up at the crime scene and the officer on duty tells him he isn’t allowed in. I made her a woman, for contrast, and Asian for much the same reason, and also because there’s a large Asian community in Sheffield, much as there is in most major cities in the UK and it felt right to reflect that. But other than that I didn’t plan her character. She just turned up, got in Tyler’s way and suddenly began to steal the show. I love her so much.
SM: History plays an important part in the novel. Where there any challenges of dealing with the past?
RT: I had one major problem, which was Lily and Edna’s ages. Without giving too much away, it was crucial that they met during World War II but that made them a little older than I would have liked. It’s one of the reasons the book is set a few years in the past. Some people are very fit well into later life but Lily has to be quite able-bodied in the story and I was stretching credulity a little bit. Other than that, not really. I did some research of course but mainly into the famous fires detailed in the blog posts. The flashback scenes with Lily and Edna came almost wholly from my imagination so if I’ve got some historical detail wrong it’s entirely my fault.
SM: This being your first book, did you draw from any influences?
RT: I’m sure I did in all sorts of ways both conscious and unconscious. There are definitely shades of the Golden Age of crime here. I read an awful lot of Agatha Christie when I was young and I love that way she had of presenting a small cast of characters as suspects in a locked-room mystery. That’s much harder to do across a city landscape but I’m sure there are reflections of that, especially in the village of Castledene and its dubious residents. I read a lot of Lee Child and I’m in awe of his ability to leave you breathless as the story rattles along. If I’ve managed to echo that even slightly then I would be happy. Finally, there’s a definite nod to Chandler and the gumshoe detective. I like to think of Oscar as an homme fatale, dangerous and seductive, with an agenda the reader is not quite sure about.
SM: Do you have another case for DS Tyler ready?
RT: Yes, indeed. The second book is already written. Nighthawking picks up a few months after the end of Firewatching and we discover that Tyler is a little preoccupied by something Doggett has told him about his past. Then a body is dug up by a metal detectorist in Sheffield’s Botanical Gardens and… well, I’d better leave it there for now.
For her second novel, Follow Me, Kathleen Barber has written a thriller that is based on a scary but true fact: That with the right technology and software, people can be watched through their computer.
In the book’s introduction Barber explained how she learned of this alarming fact and concludes: “I was so deeply unsettled by the thought of an anonymous ratter lurking around my computer that I did two things: first I covered my laptop’s built-in webcam with a sticker, as Mark Zuckerberg and James Comey both reportedly do, and then I began writing this story.”
Scott Butki: Follow Me is a wild story based on true, scary, sobering facts. Can you tell the story of how you come to discover that some people are able to watch others through cameras on computers and other places including home security cameras?
According to the article, it was fairly easy for these guys to remotely install something called a remote administration tool (or “RAT”) on your computer, which would then grant them access to your hard drive and webcam. The men who installed the RATs (nicknamed “ratters”) had different goals. Some had the relatively innocent plan of playing pranks, while some were after credentials and financial information. And then there were the ratters who really terrified me: those who made a game of collecting “slaves” (their name for the women they spied on) and then trading or even selling access to the “slaves” amongst themselves. I was so shocked and disgusted, I had to read it a couple of times just to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood—and then I immediately covered the camera on my computer.
SB: Once you got over the shock of that how did you go about turning that information into a novel?
KB: I had such a visceral reaction to the article about the ratters that I instantly knew I wanted to write about it. Moreover, I wanted to explore how it felt to be on both sides of a webcam that had been compromised like that—and so I created both Audrey, the woman who unwittingly downloads the RAT onto her computer, and “Him,” the man who uses it to spy on her. I had also been interested in doing something with oversharing on social media and the accompanying casual disregard for personal safety, and that felt like a natural fit with this story.
SB: This is a pretty mind-blowing topic. Did this ever get too wild and you needed to take a break from it?
K.B. : I wouldn’t say that I ever needed to take a break from it, but I was thoroughly unsettled. It made me think more about what I’m posting online—something that is especially important to me now that I’m a mother and have more than my own personal safety to consider.
continued searching for other information about these RATs and how they could be used. I have to admit, I was a little worried about getting flagged for searching things like “how to spy on women online.” Additionally, I did some research on influencer culture—which was a lot more fun than the research about RATs!
SB: Did you encounter much skepticism as you told people about this story, from folks sure that this must not be a real thing that happens?
KB: I found the opposite, actually! I’ve heard so many stories now about other wifi-enabled devices that can be used to spy on us in our own homes. I find the stories about video baby monitors being hacked particularly frightening!
SB: What do you hope readers will take away from this book, besides that they may want to cover up the camera in their computers?
KB: I hope people will think more carefully about what they post online. I feel that, as social media has become more pervasive and an integral part of our daily lives, we have become more complacent about online safety. Many of us unintentionally give away dozens of tiny details that, when put together, could reveal a starting amount of information about us and our routines. For example, in Follow Me, Audrey often posts from the same coffee shop, which enables her admirer to learn where he can find her.
SB: This is your second novel. What was it like having your first novel, Are You Sleeping, picked up and turned into the Apple TV+ series, Truth Be Told? How involved are you in that production?
KB: It was an absolute dream come true to have my debut novel adapted for the screen! I can’t properly describe what a thrill it was to see my characters reimagined and brought to life onscreen—especially by the incredibly talented cast. Octavia Spencer starred as investigative reporter Poppy Parnell, and I thought she did such an incredible job. Plus, Lizzy Caplan was exactly how I had pictured the Buhrman twins (especially Lanie) and Aaron Paul was my dream casting for Warren Cave. I wasn’t involved in the production, but I did visit the set and watch a couple of days of filming, which was an amazing experience.
SB: You come from a background as a former attorney. How did that background help you write this book?
KB: When I practiced law, I focused on corporate restructuring, so not much of that subject matter makes its way into my fiction. But the communication skills I learned in law school and while working in a law firm have definitely improved my fiction writing. Among other things, they taught me to be very precise and economical with my language—quite a change from the paragraph-long sentences I used to write!
SB: I like to end my interviews with a bonus question: What question do you wish interviewers would ask you? Here is your chance to ask and answer it.
KB: I like talking about other people’s books even more than my own, I always love to be asked what books I recommend. Some of my books that I’ve recently been telling all my friends about are Behind Every Lie by Christina McDonald, Miracle Creekby Angie Kim, Jar of Heartsby Jennifer Hillier, and The Swap by Robyn Harding (which comes out in June 2020).
About the Author: Kathleen Barber’s first novel, Truth Be Told(formerly titled Are You Sleeping), has been adapted for television by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine. Kathleen was raised in Galesburg, Illinois, and is a graduate of the University of Illinois and Northwestern University School of Law. She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and son. Follow Me is her second novel.
It’s difficult to read Don Bentley’s debut novel, featuring Matt Drake — a former ranger pulled back into a mission for The Defense Intelligence Agency. He’s returned to the place that brought about his PTSD, got men killed, and crippled his friend Frodo who now helps him out. Mr. Bentley flew Apache helicopters in Afghanistan as was awarded The Bronze Star and Air Medal. It was an honor to talk to him about his novel.
Scott Montgomery: Which came first, Matt Drake or the plot?
Don Bentley: Great question. Matt definitely came first. I wrote three books that didn’t sell before writing Without Sanction, and I like to say that each book brought me closer to Matt. I’m a huge fan of Nelson DeMille and what he does with his witty, first person protagonists, especially his John Corey series. I remember reading Plum Island the first time and telling my wife that I would read a book about John Corey going to the grocery store, just so that I could listen to him talk. I decided to give something similar a try while writing my third book, and while that book didn’t sell, it did give me Matt. Looking back, I think that was a pretty good bargain! In the military thriller/espionage genre, plot is what keeps your readers turning the page, but characters are what bring them back for the next book. Hopefully, Matt resonates enough with readers to keep them coming back for the next book.
SM: You show a relationship between Matt’s mission and a crisis in the White House. What did you want to explore with that?
DB: Thank you for noticing! The technology that connects warfighters to civilian decision makers has improved exponentially since September 11th. Even so, there’s still a dissonance between what the men and women on the ground are seeing and thinking and what is going on in a crowded situation room thousands of miles removed from danger. In the best of circumstances, decision makers give warfighters their marching orders and then stay out of the way while the professionals do their jobs. Often times this isn’t the case. Sometimes this is because the decision makers truly are privy to details that warfighters aren’t. But in the worst of scenarios, politicians make short-sighted, politically motivated decisions that result in devastating consequences for warfighters operating in harm’s way. This is what happens in Without Sanction.
SM: Frodo is a great character. How did you go about constructing him?
DB: When I started writing Without Sanction, I knew that Frodo was going to be an integral part of Matt’s story. Frodo needed to be from Matt’s world, but still wholly different from Matt. One of the things I cherished about my time in the Army was the opportunity to serve with people from every creed, color, and religion. It didn’t matter where we grew up or whether we went to church on Sunday. What mattered was that we all wore the same green uniform and swore the same oath to defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. I wanted the relationship between Matt and Frodo to reflect this dynamic. Frodo and Matt are two very different people, who if not for the military, would have never crossed paths. But through love of country and a desire to serve, they become brothers in arms.
SM: As somebody who was in combat situations abroad, what did you want to convey about that experience?
DB: That’s a hard question. I don’t know that I set out to convey anything about combat as much as I wanted to give the American public a glimpse of the men and women who are fighting on their behalf. I am not Matt Drake, but I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know some people who could be. Three of my close friends are veterans of the Army’s storied 75th Ranger Regiment, just like Matt. Rangers are famous for a great many things, including their strict adherence to the Ranger Creed. Non-Rangers might mistake the six stanzas comprising the Ranger Creed for just another organizational mission statement or HR-generated set of values, but nothing could be further from the truth. To a Ranger, these simple, yet powerful words form a code which still governs their lives long after they leave the military. Less than one percent of Americans serve in the military. This means that most American’s don’t have a veteran as a close friend or family member. I would love to help bridge that gap.
SM: How do you deal with the challenge of writing about events and regions that are changing with the news on a daily basis?
DB: It’s not easy. I took much longer than I should have to lock down Without Sanction, and in an earlier version of the book, ISIS played a more substantial role. While I certainly celebrated the destruction of the Caliphate, it caused me no small amount of rewrites! That said, I don’t try to “beat the headlines” or base my story on something that could change tomorrow. My novels are character driven, so if I have to change a few details here or there, it shouldn’t adversely affect the novel.
SM: This being your first book, did you draw from any influences?
DB: Absolutely. There are so many excellent writers in this genre, and I feel lucky just to be able to share shelf space with them. People like Tom Clancy, Brad Thor, and Vince Flynn built the modern version of this genre, while authors like Brad Taylor and Mark Greaney have brought even more readers into the fold. I’m also thankful for writers like Alistair MacLean and Jack Higgins who were their predecessors. The Eagle Has Landed is still one of my all-time favorites, and I grew up wanting to be Clint Eastwood’s character in the movie version of Where Eagles Dare. Still, of all the great authors I mentioned, Nelson DeMille and Daniel Silva have been particularly impactful. Nelson DeMille’s witty, first person protagonists gave me the courage to find Matt’s distinct voice. In the same vein, I think that Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series has some of the best story telling the genre has to offer. I tend to re-read Daniel’s books when I’m editing or just need inspiration. He’s a true craftsman, and my life’s ambition is to be counted as a friend of Gabriel Allon!
Meg Gardiner’s latest UNSUB novel takes FBI profiler Caitlin Hendrix to Los Angeles to track down The Midnight Man, a killer who strikes families, leaving the children behind to tell the tale.The book is our Pick Of The Month and her most chilling yet. Meg will be at BookPeople February 22nd at 5PM to sign her book and be interviewed by author Amy Gentry. We got the chance to talk to her earlier about the book and keeping readers on the edge of their seats.
Scott Montgomery: In the first two UNSUB books, the antagonists were loosely based on real infamous serial killers. Are there any seeds of reality in The Midnight Man?
Meg Gardiner: Yes—the Midnight Man had his genesis in the Night Stalker. I drew on the residual dread I’d felt while living in Southern California during the Night Stalker’s attacks. That was a bright yet chilling time. A killer was loose who could strike anywhere. He silently invaded family homes—sometimes attacking twice in one night. It seemed like there was no way to keep him out, and nowhere to hide from him. He owned the night, and no matter how vigilantly we tried to keep watch, we all had to sleep sometime.
SM: There is a major and unsettling reveal about The Midnight Man’s profile. Was that something you knew from the beginning?
MG: Not consciously. The identity of the Midnight Man gradually became clear to me as I wrote my way into the story. A bit like the way Caitlin Hendrix analyzes the unknown killer and realizes who she’s actually dealing with.
SM: How did you come across the idea of setting it during Christmas?
MG: I wanted to set the novel near the start of winter—to have the the nights grow
longer and colder as the story progresses. That meant it would take place in December. Christmas came along with the dark, starry skies.
SM: This time Caitlin and crew are tracking a killer in L.A. What did that setting provide you as an author?
MG: The glittering sprawl of Los Angeles provides a backdrop for Caitlin and her team that’s both beautiful and disorienting. L.A. has beaches and mountains, skyscrapers and abandoned buildings, nightlife and coyotes. And it’s stitched together with hundreds of miles of freeways. The city is constantly in motion. Which makes it fiendishly difficult to pin down a killer who invisibly roams anywhere and everywhere.
SM: Particularly with the UNSUB series, you’ve developed a reputation for knowing how “to bring the creepy,” yet most of those moments aren’t gory or violent. Are there certain writer tools or things you keep in mind when writing those more unsettling passages?
MG: The thrillers I write aren’t about violence, but about its impact on the characters, and the choices they make in its wake. Novels take readers on an emotional ride, and a little bit of violence goes a long way. I’ve never forgotten something Jeffery Deaver said: Nothing is as vivid as the theater of the mind. Hint at a few details, and each reader will fill in the rest from their own imagination.
SM: What is the most unsettling (in a good way) book you’ve ever read?
MG:The Stand, by Stephen King. It showed me how a novel about an apocalyptic plague could be completely riveting, because it’s all about character—and community, and courage. I read it in college, and even today if I see a crow sitting on a telephone wire, or hear the scuff of cowboy boots on a sidewalk, I shudder and think of the villain, Randall Flagg. That’s great writing.
The Dark Corners of the Night is available for purchase from BookPeople in-store and online. And don’t forget to catch Meg Gardiner in person on February 22nd at 5PM for a discussion and signing of this featured title.
About the Author: Meg Gardiner is the critically acclaimed author of the UNSUB series and China Lake, which won the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original and was a finalist for NPR’s 100 Best Thrillers Ever. Stephen King has said of Meg Gardiner: “This woman is as good as Michael Connelly…her novels are, simply put, the finest crime-suspense series I’ve come across in the last twenty years.” Gardiner was also recently elected President of the Mystery Writers of America for 2019.
The Dark Corners of the Night will be the third novel in her Barry Award-winning UNSUB series, which received three starred reviews from the major trade publications and was sold to CBS Television.