MysteryPeople Q&A with Don Winslow

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

This week fans of crime fiction or good fiction in general will be hitting bookstores in droves for Don Winslow’s eagerly awaited masterpiece (and our MysteryPeople Pick Of The Month) The Force. This story – both intimate and epic – focuses on Denny Malone, a New York cop who heads up an elite unit and who’s corrupt practices catch up with him. The book gives a detailed view of today’s New York through police eyes. Don was kind enough to talk to us about the book and the world that inspired it.

 

MysteryPeople Scott: The Force shares some DNA with Seventies-era NYPD books and films like Serpico, Prince Of The City, and The Seven Ups. What was the main difference of the of the police force at that period and the post 9-11 one you write about?

Don Winslow: I was really influenced by both the books and the films of The French Connection, Serpico and Prince of the City. They’re part of the reason I became a crime writer. In some ways, things haven’t changed – police work is still police work and cops are still cops. But 9/11 did change things, especially in New York City. As the primary target of that attack, the city shifted a lot of resources from organized crime to anti-terrorism. Because of that the Mafia, which had been on the verge of extinction, made something of a comeback. Another major change has been one that has impacted society as a whole – computer-generated data. Police have largely adopted the ‘metrics’ that we see in business and sports, using sophisticated crime statistics to assign personnel, patrols and other resources to high-crime areas. The other major change is also technologically driven – the rise of personal cameras in mobile phones. Police used to work in relative obscurity, but now everyone is a journalist, putting police under an intense public scrutiny which has changed the public perception of police. Police shootings and brutality have always existed – the difference now is that they’re on social media.

“Police used to work in relative obscurity, but now everyone is a journalist, putting police under an intense public scrutiny which has changed the public perception of police. Police shootings and brutality have always existed – the difference now is that they’re on social media.”

MPS: It may be unfair, but you’re often associated with Southern California. Did the New York setting effect your writing or the story any different?

DW: I don’t think it’s unfair, I love Southern California. However, I was born in New York, have worked in New York at various times during my life, usually on the street. So those streets and alleys are part of my DNA as a writer. I was on those streets long before I was on the beach. I’ve always wanted to write a New York cop book. But of course location affects style – the language – the music, if you will – of SoCal and NYC are very different and I wanted to make sure I had the voice right, the feel right. It had to be more clipped, more terse, edgier, tighter. It wasn’t hard – New York City is extremely evocative for me, I hear that voice, that music, in my mind.

MPS: You really feel the lives and the world of these policemen. What kind of research did you do?

DW: In some ways I’ve been researching this book my whole life. I’ve worked with cops, hung out with cops, with their families. I used to frequent a few bars in New York where you couldn’t turn around without bumping into an off-duty cop. But specifically for the book I talked to cops, sat down for drinks and dinners. I went out on the streets with them. I listened to their stories, their frustrations, their victories and defeats, their hopes, their disappointments, their fears. I read a lot of books, a lot of journalism. And I spent time in New York, prowling the neighborhoods in which the book is set.

MPS: Denny is a character full of contradictions. As a writer, how do you approach a character like that, so they don’t read like inconsistencies?

DW: A cop’s life is full of contradictions. They both love and hate the public they serve. They’ll break the law to uphold the law. They’ll commit violence on some people to save others from violence. If they’re undercover, they often feel more connected to their targets than their bosses. Denny is more conflicted than most, but it’s the conflicts that make him interesting for a writer. I don’t find the conflicts difficult to write because internal conflict is part of the human condition. We always torn between our best and worst instincts, but it usually isn’t a simple matter of choosing good or evil. Sometimes we’re tempted to do ‘bad’ things on the service of a greater good – a constant struggle for cops. The difficult characters to write are the ones with no conflicts, no internal contradictions. They become monochromatic, robots. And I tend to push back against this demand for consistency. I think editors are more concerned about that than readers. Readers get it – people are complex, we do contradictory things. It drives me nuts when editors ask me, especially about a criminal character. “Why would he do that? It makes no sense?” Prisons are full of people who have done things that make no sense. Believe, I’ve talked with a lot of them. I’ve knows guys who escaped when they had literally a few weeks left to serve. You ask them why and they shrug. I know one who robbed a gas station on his way home from prison, twenty minutes after he’d been released. Why? Shrug.

“I’ve always wanted to write a New York cop book. But of course location affects style – the language – the music, if you will – of SoCal and NYC are very different and I wanted to make sure I had the voice right, the feel right. It had to be more clipped, more terse, edgier, tighter. It wasn’t hard – New York City is extremely evocative for me, I hear that voice, that music, in my mind.”

MPS: The main drug in the book is heroin, which is coming back. Has the return of the old narcotic changed the narcotics trade at all?

DW: Yeah, ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’. The heroin trade is the same as it was before in the sense that it relies on prohibition to produce a profit. So when marijuana was universally illegal, it was a profitable drug to export. When it was legalized in several states, the profit went out of it and the cartels turned back to heroin, largely because the market had already been created by pharmaceutical opioids and the cartel could undercut by lowering price and increasing quality. The heroin trade has changed in the sense that the drug being produced now is more potent than it was before. An addict can get high for less of the drug and less money, but the danger lies in the heightened danger of overdose. Also, the cartels are competing to raise the potency of their product, so they’re increasingly mixing in fentanyl – increasing the potency by a factor of fifty –and other synthetic drugs. In the past few months, for instance, we’re seeing elephant tranquilizers mixed with heroin. So an addict who thinks that he or she is shooting one product might be shooting something much stronger, which is why we’re seeing an explosion in the number of overdose fatalities. The current chaos in the Mexican drug world, a by-product of the demise of Joaquin Guzman and the Sinaloa Cartel, means that there will be no product consistency (as we saw, for instance, with methamphetamine when the cartel took it over) for the foreseeable future.

MPS: What do you hope people who read The Force take away about the police?

DW: It goes back to your question about contradictions. Society demands that police do contradictory things: We want perfect security at the same time that we want absolute privacy; we want the police to protect us from vicious people by using the techniques of saints; we want them to enforce some laws and ignore others; we want them to be incorruptible in a sea of corruption. The contradictory demands are impossible.
I hope that readers see that the demands have a real effect – cop genuinely feel things, (even as they’re forced to pretend that they don’t) they take their work home with them. Day after day they deal with the worst parts of our society, they do the things that we don’t want to do, and it takes a toll.

You can find copies of Winslow’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: THE FORCE by Don Winslow

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9780062664419I’ve often said Don Winslow dances with his readers. With both ease and flair he moves us through a story, no matter how complex the plot or dark the subject matter, leaving us back in our world entertained and exhilarated. For his latest, The Force, it feels like a samba with intricate, nuanced moves that he leads us through at a quick tempo.

He places us in the point of view of Denny Malone, leader of an elite New York City police unit, often referred as The Force on the streets, tasked with getting drugs, guns, and gangs off the streets of Manhattan North with few questions asked.

A major bust just put them in the headlines, at the cost of one of their men. What the public doesn’t know about Denny and his unit is the bust wasn’t on the up-and-up, they’re on the take from rival dealers, and the Force has a piece of several different pies. When he’s caught in a shady deal with a lawyer on Christmas day, an ambitious prosecutor and a couple of feds pressure him to act as an informant. Denny agrees, as long as he doesn’t rat on any cops. The book covers roughly half a year, centered around Christmas, Easter, and The Fourth Of July, as gang retribution, city politics, and Denny’s personal life put him in a tighter and tighter corner where his loyalties to his men are tested to the brink.

Captivated by Winslow’s skill as a writer and his understanding of themetics, we follow this challenging protagonist step by questionable step. He gives us a sense of Denny’s virtues (such as organizing turkey giveaways at Thanksgiving) and his love for others moments before we delve into his dark vices. To call Denny complicated is an understatement – from the relationships with his estranged wife and his drug-addicted nurse girlfriend to the contradictions of his job and the hustles he pulls with it, Denny’s morality has more shades of gray than the romance section. The Force and his loyalty to it are the only things that provide anything close to clarity for him.

We stick with Denny through his trials and tribulations, not rooting for him to beat them, but to open his eyes to the life he has created for himself. Winslow uses the deceits and politics of others to hinder and further blind him, instead of simply creating a larger evil he can look innocent in comparison to. Suspense comes from us wanting Denny to understand the evil in himself and rectify.

As always Winslow gives us a layered world of color, detail, and distinction to move through. Jazz and hip hop clubs, gansta’ rap moguls, corruptible activist preachers, and a mafia making a comeback are only part of the sprawling concrete jungle kingdom Denny resides over as a lion king surrounded by other predators. Winslow’s meter captures its rhythm and his to-the-heart prose professes his and the character’s love for their city.

The Force taps into the police culture both in its social and personal elements. We follow The Force on their “Bowling Night”, where they let off steam and they dress to the nines for an evening of drinking, dining, and high-end prostitutes. The contradictions hit a personal level when Big Monty, an African-American cop on The Force, tells Denny and the men how he fears his son being shot by a fellow officer.

The Force is a Seventies-style Sydney-Lumet-directed cop story, dropped into the streets of today, that prove not to be that different, and given an epic sweep. I breezed through the first four hundred pages, turning them to the the story’s quick rhythms, then rationing and savoring the last eighty, not wanting it to end. Thanks for the dance, Don.

The Force comes out June 20th. Pre-order now!

MysteryPeople Q&A with Denise Mina

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Our Pick Of The Month, Denise Mina’s The Long Drop, looks at the famous Scottish trial of Peter Manuel, a small time thief charged with the murders of three women. We also flash back to years earlier with a pub crawl for the ages, as Manuel takes William Watt, the husband and father of two of the victims, who was also a suspect, out on the town. The book is a dark look at class, media, and crime. We caught up with Denise to talk about those subjects and the period the story takes in.

MysteryPeople Scott: You often use true crime and scandal as a basis for your stories, changing names and details, but here you stuck close to story with part of the fiction taking place in the shadows of the events. What was it it about this murder and trial that made you stick closer to the history with the many of the real events and names?

Denise Mina: I had to stick close to the real story because it simply wasn’t credible as fiction. Usually I take a premise or an interesting idea but this story was so odd I felt it needed told the way it happened. OJ and Polanski set out to ‘turn detective’ and solve the murders they were involved with, so that was transferable, but the rest it was particular to that story. Also everyone in it was dead and they didn’t have kids to upset so I figured it would be okay.

MPS: This was also the first time you went back into a time you went back to a time you didn’t experience yourself. How did you tackle that challenge?

DM: I wrote it as a play originally and it was produced in Glasgow so I was pretty steeped in it even before I began the researched the book. This period is when Glasgow’s reputation was made, Like Detroit in the 1960s and it felt very familiar. I got too into it actually. I could feel that old city more than the pretty, latte-and-sushi hipster place Glasgow of now.

MPS: What did the novel allow you to do that writing it as a play didn’t?

DM: The novel let me tell the story as an internal voice so I could go into the actor’s minds and see how it looked from their POV. Most of the facts presented to the court were obvious lies, everyone came forward because they were trying to do the right thing, even life long criminals, the cops all told the truth because they were cops etc. In serial killer stories what is often most interesting is the way people behave around them, rather than what they do.

MPS: I read in reviews that Watts is less sympathetic in the book than he was in the play. Did you come to a different understanding of him between projects?

DM: In the original play Watt was a nicer guy who has innocently stumbled into a freaky situation. A lot of older people came to see it and they cornered me at the end and told me that I had told it wrong. The official story was that Watt, a prominent businessman, was innocent. That was the finding of the trial. But the old dears said it was more complicated than that. The story in the city was that Watt took the guard dog away from the house on the night of the murders. It was much better.

MPS: Class plays an important part important part of the novel and many of your others. What makes that an interesting theme for you to explore?

DM: Part of the beauty of crime novels is that they can span society. Class is a natural source of conflict but largely unspoken. Class of origin, adoptive social class, aspiration, these are all major sources of social identity. Honestly, I bang on about it so much, I’m starting to feel like a lonely Marxist professor who should have retired years ago.

MPS: Do you think these murders would be just as shocking and be the media sensation today?

DM: Definitely. There is something uniquely creepy about home invasions and eating in a house where you’ve just killed people is revolting, somehow. Of course, the added element as in Bundy, was the fact that Manuel was attractive and represented himself. He was a pretty clever little psychopath.

You can find copies of The Long Drop on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: THE LONG DROP by Denise Mina

  • Review by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9780316380577Denise Mina has often used true crime and scandal for the basis of her novels. Usually she tears off the headline and runs with it, going further with the ideas and situations it suggests. With The Long Drop, she takes one of Glasgow’s most notorious murder cases, keeping the names of those involved, cutting closer to the bone and going deep instead of far. The result is her finest book to date.

in 1956, three women, Marion Watt, her daughter Viviene, and family friend Margret Brown were found in bed with a bullet in each head. Marion’s husband, William Watt, a man with a known drinking problem was the first chief suspect. Mina creates a fictional account of Watt meeting Peter Manuel, a petty burglar who was eventually put on trial for the murders, in a club arranged by Watt’s lawyer. Manuel agrees to tell him everything about the night of the killings if they ditch the lawyer. The story proceeds to follow their dark pub crawl, interweaving it with Manuel’s trail two years later.

Mina tells the interlocking stories contrasting in tone, yet reflecting off one another for deeper thought and meaning.The night between Watt and Manuel has the feel of a subdued thriller filled with quiet Watt’s quiet desperation as he is at the whims of a quiet mad man. First the novel is about finding the truth, then the nature of truth itself is put to the question. The last part of that question is examined in the sensational trial that captured O.J. level interest in Scotland with Manuel defending himself and Watt testifying on a stretcher. This part starts at a great distance, capturing place and period more by attitude of the time than tossing historical detail at the reader. Mina slowly becomes more intimate, yet cold as we get to know those involved with the case, creating a feel much like Capote’s In Cold Blood especially near the end. For Americans unfamiliar with the case, only look into it after you’ve read the book, since it creates some unintended suspense for us.

Just a little over two hundred pages, the novel is concentrated Denise Mina. Class, a subject she often explores, is examined through Watt’s and Manuel’s interactions. It becomes especially apparent when when Watt mocks in his mind a club that Manuel would find posh even though it is below his tastes. It’s an odd feeling of superiority displayed by a man at the mercy of the other. Forms of guilt and sin are measured. Mina creates a mystery out of Watt’s goal for information. Through Manuel is he trying to find justice for his wife and daughter, simple exoneration, or a deeper absolution? There appears to be enough guilt to go around.

The Long Drop is a well cut, cold hard diamond of a novel, showing off the many facets of its thematics. While much is revealed, we are properly left with more haunting questions than when we started. Denise Mina respects her readers and their emotional intelligence in her acknowledgment that no murder, solved or unsolved, punished or unpunished, ever has closure.

The Long Drop comes out May 23rd – pre-order now! 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Robin Yocum

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

  • Interview by Essential MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

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

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

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MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: A WELCOME MURDER by Robin Yocum

  • Post by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

9781633882638Johnny Earl was once a great high school athlete—perhaps the greatest in the storied history of Steubenville High School, home of the Big Red.  But in 8 short years his star has risen and spectacularly fallen—after a brief stint as a Pittsburgh Pirate (the highlight of which was a triple hit off Nolan Ryan and which ended when he blew out his knee), his second career as a cocaine dealer ended with a spell in the federal penitentiary.

As A Welcome Murder begins, Johnny has been released from prison and has returned to his hometown of Steubenville.  He plans to stay just long enough to retrieve the drug money he hid before his incarceration, then head out for parts unknown– but just moments before he’s ready to hit the road he’s picked up for questioning in the murder of Rayce Daubner, the FBI informant who set him up on drug charges in the first place.  While he’s spending the night in jail, his former cellmate shows up—the white supremacist who wants Johnny’s drug money to help fund the Aryan nation he’s founded somewhere in the wilds of Idaho or Nevada (he’s not quite sure of the location).  He already has a pair of wives waiting for Johnny so he can do his part to further the cause.

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MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: THE WEIGHT OF THIS WORLD by David Joy

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9780399173110David Joy got our attention in 2015 with his debut Where All The Light Tends To Go. The searing rural noir proved there was still a lot to mine from the subgenre. Now Mr. Joy picks up his tools and goes down down even deeper into that dark hole with The Weight Of This World.

Like Where All The Light Tends To Go, this book deals with the double edge sword of friends and family, upping the stakes in complexity of those relationships. A triangle between three people serve as the base for this tale. Thad Broom returns from Afghanistan, finding combat easier to deal with than returning to life in his Appalachian town, even though he struggles to come to terms with his wartime experience. To survive he takes copper from derelict homes and pulls a few petty crimes with his life long buddy Aiden. Soon enough, one of those crimes gets them in the middle of a shoot-out that drops a bunch of drugs in their lap. When Broom’s mother April, who is also Aiden’s lover, hears about this, she tells them to go back to the trailer where it happened, since there should be money. All three see the narcotics and cash as a way to escape their circumstances, but it just puts them all way over their heads.

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