The Best Of Manhunt, a collection of over twenty-five stories from the great crime fiction magazine of the fifties and sixties, was one of our most popular anthologies. We were happy the demand caused a follow up with The Best of Manhunt 2, knowing there were still wonderful crime stories from Manhunt that hadn’t been republished. Editor Jeff Vorzimmer talked with us about making the second dive in.
Scott Montgomery: Besides there being so much great Manhunt material still left to dive into, what made you take on the task again?
Jeff Vorzimmer: We had so many stories left over we couldn’t squeeze into the first volume and the fact that we had so many advance orders on the first volume, it just seemed like a no-brainer. The original selections were decided on by Bill Pronzini, me and Peter Enfantino. Bill and Peter are the only two people I know who have read every Manhunt story. The only thing I insisted on was including every story in the Manhunt anthology published in 1958, but I also wanted to include enough other great Manhunt stories so that any potential reader who had read that volume would still find our anthology worth buying. But I guess the biggest reason for the second volume was that we hadn’t included ten or so of the twenty-seven stories that Bill had wanted to include. Ultimately we included seven more of his selections in the second anthology. A few I vetoed, two sci-fi stories, for example, and two where the author estates didn’t want to include stories.
SM: Do you see any kind of defining differences in the two volumes?
JV: When we did the first volume, we knew that we had to include stories by big-name authors as a draw, which, unfortunately squeezed out a lot of equally good, if not better, stories by lesser-known authors. We knew that if the first volume sold well, we could include these really great stories in a follow up volume, since we would already have an audience, who would trust us enough to read a volume of stories, some of which were by lesser-known authors.
SM: Who are some lesser known authors you were happy to include here?
JV: Jack Ritchie (again), C. L. Sweeney, Robert Edmond Alter (one of my favorite authors) and Edward D. Hoch, who you wouldn’t know unless you were an avid reader of mystery magazines or short story anthologies in the 60s and 70s.
SM: Was there a particular story you wanted in the first one that you put in this one?
JV: Oh, yes, and they were all Bill Pronzini selections—“Protection” by Erle Stanly Gardner, “A Question of Values” by C. L. Sweeney, “Shatter Proof” by Jack Ritchie and “The Old Pro” by H. A. DeRosso, the famous western author.
SM: I was happy to see you had a story featuring William Campbell Gault’s Joe Puma. What do you enjoy about his writing?
JV: Another of Bill Prozini’s selections I had originally wanted to include in the first volume. Part of my growing up was in California in the early- to mid-60s and Gault really captures the essence of what L.A. was like back then. He includes details like the names of real clubs and restaurants.
SM: You also edited a book that unearthed three books about beats. What drew you to that?
JV: As I mentioned, part of my growing up was in California in the early sixties in the L.A. area and in Carmel. At the time Carmel had a laid-back, artist colony vibe to it. Rent was cheap then and the beatniks would gather on the beach every night around bonfires. Joan Baez lived there with her sister Mimi and Mimi’s husband Richard Fariña and Dylan for a while. I thought they were all so cool. I grew up reading Kerouac, Ginsberg, Brautigan, Braly and Ferlinghetti. It was later I discovered Beats-ploitation books—books that were written to cash in on the whole beatnik craze as it went mainstream. These books were, for the most part, crudely-drawn caricatures of the beatnik scene, but yet there was more of a feeling of what it was really like since these writers were as intent on recreating the whole milieu as they were on any story line. I thought it would be fun to reprint some of them.
SM: Any plans for The Best of Manhunt 3?
JV: It’s a good possibility. There are enough good stories left. Peter Enfantino is pushing for it. He and I are currently working on The Manhunt Companion, a book of capsule reviews of every Manhunt story as well as a complete content list of every issue and various indices. There’s even a list of every TV episode created from Manhunt stories. It’s due out in March of next year.
About Jeff Vorzimmer: Jeff Vorzimmer is the editor of The Best of Manhunt. He spent twenty years at The Austin American-Statesman and is currently a member of the team at Stark House Press. His writing has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2600 and Cool and Strange Music.
In Loser’s Gumbo, the latest Bullet Book, Manning Wolfe picked music journalist John T. Davis—and one of the three writers who make up the Miles Arceneaux pseudonym—for a tale of a road weary musician who discovers a body in a drum case. As he has to clear his own name, he gets involved in a fast moving plot tied to a historic lost recording. Manning and John were kind enough to talk to us about collaborating, music, and murder.
Scott Montgomery: How did the both of you come up with the idea of Loser’s Gumbo?
John T. Davis: Given that the over-arching idea was for a murder mystery, we wanted to give it a memorable setting. Because of my experience as a music journalist and affinity for Louisiana and New Orleans and that musical climate, we decided to set the story in that environment.
Manning Wolfe: Growing up in Houston it was a common road trip to scoot down I-10 to Breaux Bridge for the Crawfish Festival or New Orleans for Mardi Gras. When J.T. and I set our reluctant hero on a path back and forth between the high rises of the Houston Medical Center and the cypress knees of the Lafayette Swamps, it was easy to visualize Mack traveling up and down the highway with his band.
SM: John, I’m assuming you’re the one who provided much of the details about a musician on the road. What did you want to get across to the reader about that life?
JT: I wanted to express the uniqueness of that lifestyle, and the commitment it requires to be successful in it. Musicians have a whole other way of relating to the world. To paraphrase a line in the book (which I originally heard from singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard), the world is divided between the “day people” and the “night people,” and it’s the job of the night people to take the day people’s money. Back when I was committing journalism for the daily paper, I naturally developed an affection for late nights and larger-than-life characters.
When I moved to Austin in 1975, it was (and still is) an incubator for all sorts of music and artists. Back then, the longhairs and the rednecks were eyeballing each other’s music with a certain wary curiosity. As a result, rock and country bred a natural, Texas-specific offspring.
As my own musical horizons began to expand, I soon became aware of fascinating sounds emanating from fabled, far-flung regions—zydeco and swamp pop from South Louisiana…greasy, horn-driven rhythm and blues from the inner city wards of Houston…Bouncing soul and street parade sass courtesy of the hoodoo piano professors and marching brass bands from New Orleans…hardcore honky-tonk country from the oilfield towns of Beaumont and Port Arthur, and ancestral country blues from East Texas.
Over the years, mostly in the line of duty but sometimes just for fun, I went out on the road with Jerry Jeff Walker, Marcia Ball, Rodney Crowell, Delbert McClinton, Asleep At the Wheel, Rosie Flores, Stephen Bruton, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and others. All of these guys were lifers. It was music or nothing. No one had a Plan B.
I got to see The Life from the inside of the bus, so to speak. The big festivals and tiny roadside honky-tonks. The shitty motel rooms and the steady diet of convenience store cuisine. The shady promoters and sketchy backstage hangers on. The all-nighters and the mornings after. Jerry Jeff used to say he played music for free; he got paid for all the weary miles traveling the endless highway. “Every place you go,” he once remarked, “You’ve got to be everybody’s Saturday night.” That’s a sentiment to which our protagonist, Mack Mouton, would drink a toast.
SM: As with all of the fiction you’re involved with John, the gulf area really comes alive. What makes it a great location for fiction, particularly crime fiction?
JT: The Gulf Coast region really resonates as a setting for a mystery. There’s something about the coast—the heat and humidity, the colorful characters, the quirky regional culture—that really makes a great venue for a story. Obviously, we’re not alone in this perception as great writers from James Lee Burke to John D. MacDonald to Carl Hiaasen and others have worked the same territory.
SM: Manning, you say you always learn a little from the Bullet Books authors you collaborated with. What did you get from John?
MW: When I wrote my second legal thriller, Music Notes, I incorporated a lot of the history of Texas music and musicians that I loved. I had also enjoyed a lot of jazz around Louisiana. Working with J.T. expanded my musical knowledge further to include the blended sounds that developed between Texas and Swamp country.
SM: John, was there a difference did you have in working with Manning as you did with the Miles Arceneaux crew you’ve known for decades?
JT: The main thing is that Manning and I have a professional relationship, versus the longtime personal friendship I have with the other two “Miles” authors. That being said, her insights and perspective made for a very rewarding and enjoyable collaboration.
SM: This is a very fun read, what made it a fun one to write?
JT: As for me, I really enjoyed working in the Bullet Books framework—a fast-paced format designed, as Kinky Friedman memorably said of his own mysteries, “designed to entertain Americans in their airports.”
MW: I enjoyed the sassy dialogue that J.T. is so good at writing. Trying to match his voice was challenging, but fun, as I dug deep for my inner Cajun.
Loser’s Gumbo and other titles mentioned in this post are available to purchase from BookPeople in-store and online now.
Mark Pryor’s latest Hugo Marston novel, The French Widow, has the head of our Paris embassy’s security involved in a public incident where he takes down a gunman firing into the public, the matter becomes more controversial when evidence points to the man being an American citizen. He also has to deal with a murder on an estate of a family that takes dysfunction to new heights. Mark was kind enough to talk about the book and his hero.
Scott Montgomery: You have Hugo involved in a shooting that pushes him into the public spotlight. As someone you have described as “a watcher’ how does this affect him?
Mark Pryor: He hates it. He’s fine being a hero if no one knows but, as you point out, he does NOT want to be in the spotlight. That makes this plot rather mean, I know, but it’s very intentional: because Hugo is a harder person to get to know, in each book I try to drop him into a new situation, one that makes him uncomfortable and gives us a closer look at a different aspect of his character (in previous books I had him find a recording of his dead wife’s voice, for example). It also allows me to put him in conflict with his best friend, Tom, who just LOVES attention and to that end sticks his oar into Hugo’s business, purporting to make things better for his friend but actually making them worse.
SM: Once again you have him up against two different killers. How does this structure help you as an author?
MP: In this book I wanted to give the Lambourd family a reason to dislike Hugo, and while I didn’t plan it necessarily, his involvement in a high-profile incident like a shooting gave the secretive family every reason to want nothing to do with him (quite apart from protecting each other from law enforcement and consequences). I also think it ups the pressure on Hugo because whichever storyline I’m telling, the other one is hanging like a sword over his head. His attention is always being dragged away from what he’s doing toward the other thing, and I think that tension and pressure helps keep the plot moving along.
SM: There are a handful of chapters in the point of view of one of the killers. How did that decision come about?
MP: I think the only other time I did this in a Hugo book was in The Crypt Thief. Honestly, it’s just plain fun. It’s also a personal challenge to me, in that first chapter which I tell from the killer’s perspective I want to include little nuggets of information, some relevant and some distractions, that the reader can latch onto and begin to figure out who the killer might be. Mostly, though, it’s just good fun writing from the point of a view of a psycho…!
SM: The main mystery is a play on the murder on a country estate. What made you want to play in that sandbox?
MP: Several reasons, really. First, it’s what I grew up reading — Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes books, where country estates were ten-a-penny. In this case, the chateau is based on a real place, both the building and its location. Even the history of the family is taken from a real Parisian family, and I plumped on them because I visited what is now a museum but what used to be their home. It’s the Musee Nissim de Camondo for anyone who wants to look it up. Lovely house with fascinating furniture and art, and nary a tourist in sight!
SM: You have some wonderful moments with Hugo’s girlfriend (though he’s not ready to admit that) Claudia. As a writer what do you enjoy about her as a character?
MP: I like how what we think of as the traditional courting roles are reversed. Here’s the reticent, laid-back Hugo chasing the girl instead of the pretty girl chasing the handsome hunk. I think he likes it that way, too, that’s part of her attraction for him and he doesn’t really mind. I also love that she’s not dependent on him in any way, except when she wants to be — she has more money than him, a bigger house, a great job… yet she’s like him in that these things are accoutrements to her life, not part of her personality. They are both very real, honest, and strong people and they have a genuine admiration and respect for each other. Sure, there’s a physical attraction but their friendship/relationship is so much more than that.
SM: Am I reading (no pun intended) more into this or is Hugo coming out of his shell more in the previous books?
MP: I think that’s a smart observation, and a couple of people have asked similar questions, but I have to admit to that not being intentional. Maybe it’s the natural arc of a series, where the main characters reveal more and more of themselves as the series goes on, such that a point comes where the reader puts down a book feeling like they suddenly know the person better. Again, I’m not clever enough to conjure that process intentionally, let’s be clear about that!
The French Widowis available now from BookPeople in-store and online. You can shop Pryor’s other titles here.
About the Author: Mark Pryor is the author of the Hugo Marston novels The Bookseller, The Crypt Thief, The Blood Promise, The Button Man, The Reluctant Matador, and The Paris Librarian, as well as the novels Hollow Man and the forthcoming Dominic. He has also published the true-crime book As She Lay Sleeping. A native of Hertfordshire, England, he is an assistant district attorney in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife and three children.
Joe R. Lansdale’s latest, More Better Deals, takes a few cues from one of his influences—James M. Cain—who gave us one of the great templates of noir with his books The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. This time the male is Ed Edwards, a used car salesman in early sixties East Texas, carrying a family secret. When he goes to repossess a Cadillac, he soon finds himself in the arms of purchaser’s wife, Nancy Craig. She would like to see her husband gone and Ed would like to have her, and the husband’s businesses as well, as part of some insurance money to help his sister. Yes, the set up is familiar, but Lansdale uses it to create a novel wild, funny, and completely his own.
Joe was kind enough to take some questions about the book, Cain, and the effect of where he lives on his writing.
Scott Montgomery: More Better Deals is an homage to one of your favorite writers James M Cain. You once described him as a “clean writer.” What does that mean to you?
Joe R. Lansdale: His prose is uncluttered. He doesn’t even tell you who’s talking, and you always know. He writes tight, little stories without adornment, but his prose is still fast paced and muscular and understandable.
SM: While I see the classic Cain plot setup, the voice, characters, and theme are all yours. How do you try to use your influences in your work?
JRL: Well, this is a more obvious one than usual. I have wanted to play with the Cain structure—at least the one he developed for his two signature books in my view, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice—then undercurrent it with social commentary without it being too overwhelming, and I wanted to give it my voice and more humor, though it is certainly dark humor.
SM: The setting puts a fine spin on the template. What about East Texas makes it skew a story in a different way?
JRL: It’s my background, and East Texas to me is far more interesting than Los Angeles because it can be deceptive. It’s wooded and lots of water and hospitality, but underneath that hospitality is a razor’s edge and a turd in the punch bowl. Not everyone, of course. Like anywhere, East Texas is a mix of good and bad, but I’m writing crime novels, so the bad are more prominent, but I think there’s a kind of squirming difference here, a mild gothic undertone due to Southern roots, and it not being like the myth of Texas. No deserts, no mountains in this corner of the state. Woods and water and smiling racism, and the old days police work with a black jack and a phone book.
SM: Ed carries a secret that takes this out of the normal Cain template. Were you aware of that going into the story or did it develop as it went along?
JRL : I knew it going in. I don’t know that I thought about it consciously, but I knew.
S.M. : How did you approach Nancy so she wouldn’t be the standard femme fatale?
JRL: I based her on people I knew, who I’m sure didn’t commit murder, but who had inclinations for something better but were living in a time when a female brain surgeon, or any kind of job of that ilk was generally out of the reach of ambitious and smart women. I thought of Nancy as being the kind of woman that had she had a different upbringing and a chance at greater education might well have been more successful, even in those times. I envisioned her as having a burning hunger for what she didn’t get to do, and that, along with her background, gave her a less savory viewpoint.
SM: You also released a very funny road trip book. Jane Goes North. What inspired that story?
JRL: I’m not sure what inspired that. I have written about road trips before and I enjoy books and films about road trips, and it developed out of that. To very different characters traveling across country for very different reasons, not really wanting to be together, but being forced together. They were also the type that were so constantly disappointed that even the most absurd event that occurred they were not truly surprised or shocked. I wanted to write a kind of insane fable. I think they were both good people who had made bad choices and couldn’t get out of what I’ve seen so many people fall into. The repeat of past mistakes with the mythology that next time it’ll work out, when of course repeating mistakes rarely leads to a different outcome. The road trip was their break with those mistakes and a kind of revelation for them. I had so much fun with that book and consider it one of my best.
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.