Our Hard Word Book Club will out our celebration of Mickey Spillane’s 100th year of birth to a climax. His two-fisted, forty-five wearing PI and angel of vengeance Mike Hammer paved the way for both Frank Miller’s Sin City and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. We will be discussing the seventh Hammer novel, The Girl Hunters as well as view the film version that has an interesting leading man.

Spillane wrote The Girl Hunters after a nine year hiatus from the character. We find Hammer in the gutter, drunk and without work. When he learns his former secretary and true love Velda is missing and the quarry for a mysterious assassin known as The Dragon, he has to get his gun, license and attitude back to save her.

The film version we will be viewing presents something rare in an adaptation. It is one of the rare moments to where the author played their lead in the film version.Due to the planed actor falling out at the last minute, this is what happened with Spillane playing Hammer in The Girl Hunters, opposite future Bond lady Shirley Eaton. We will be showing the film as part of the discussion. We’ll be meeting on BookPeople’s third floor at 7PM, Wednesday March 28th. The book is 10% off for those planning to attend.


Stories We Tell Ourselves: An Interview with John Copenhaver about Dodging and Burning

Matthew Turbeville: Wow, John. When Kristopher from BOLO Books first recommended Dodging and Burning to me, I was unsure of what to think. Upon looking further into it, it seemed like the book of my dreams, and it turned out it was.  Can you explain where you got the idea for Dodging and Burning?

John Copenhaver: Years ago, in grad school, I took a class on the invention of photography and its impact on literature. We read Sontag’s On Photography and Barthes’s Camera Lucida, as well as Ellison’s Invisible Man and Chandler’s The Big Sleep. I became fascinated by the relationship between images and the narratives that are used to interpret (or misinterpret) them. So, I thought, why not tell a story about a photograph that continues to be re-interpreted? I’ve always loved crime fiction, and this idea fit the genre really well.

MT:  Dodging and Burning is a novel with a lot of unique styles and methods of storytelling.  Can you elaborate on the way you went about telling this fantastic story, and how you decided to approach the novel in such a broad, unique fashion?

JC: Essentially the book is a series of stories, each deeper and wider (and darker) than the one that proceeded it, all related to the essential bit of evidence—the crime scene photograph of poor murdered Lily. So, there needed to be lots of different modes of storytelling: a photo, journals, memoirs, pulp fiction, oral, even coded information. I love Margaret Atwood’s brilliant use of different modes of writing in The Blind Assassin. Also, D. M. Thomas’s heartbreaking and truly remarkable novel, The White Hotel, unfolds through different modes, the truth becoming clearer with each new kind of writing. I really admire those books, so I was chasing a similar effect in my own novel.

MT: I really loved all the characters, even at their worst.  And the story never stopped twisting and turning.  I suppose my next question is how did you first start composing this novel: through character, through story, or in some other way?

JC: Although I began with the photograph idea, when I actually sat down and started writing it, I focused on character, specifically Bunny Prescott. Then, about a fourth of the way through, I stopped and outlined the entire story. I also discovered a lot through revision. In particular, the final twist came to me. It gave me chills. The novel I’m working on now had a similar moment. I can’t say enough about the importance of revision! (Sorry, the teacher in me is coming out.)

MT:  I usually save the heavy-hitter questions for later on in the interview, but I’m dying to ask: you’ve expressed you’re a feminist, supporting women adamantly, and also that you are extremely pro-gay, and also anti-patriarchy (I guess I’m swooning by this point).  What I’m getting at is, without giving away any spoilers, how do you feel this is reflected in the novel, and what were you trying to say in stating these viewpoints and ideas?

JC: Patriarchy is a system under which everyone suffers, most prominently gay men, trans persons, women, and any person of color. But I also think straight white men suffer too. In a patriarchal culture it’s not just that you’re not permitted to say or do certain things, but that you’re not permitted to feel certain things, which is a sort of culturally reinforced, self-inflicted violence. Straight white men, because of their dominant status in our culture, are perhaps the most limited in this respect. Broadly speaking, this confounding of emotion is where their rage comes from. In my novel, you’ll see that the source of most of the violence comes from straight men, but it can be passed on to women, gay men, etc. A sort of chain reaction.

MT: I know that Dodging and Burning took you a long time to write.  Were there ever moments when you truly felt you were going to give up? What advice do you give new and upcoming writers, people who want to make it “big” like how you are doing—or about to do upon the release of this novel in early 2018?

JC: Yes, this book has been long journey. My advice to less experienced writers is simple: If you truly enjoy writing, if you really need it, you will have no choice but continue to do it. Trust in the urge to write, in that compulsion, and it will see you through. Accept that you will always be growing as a writer and accept the fact that you need your friends, your family, your beta testers, your agents, and your editors to see you through the rough places in your work and in getting your work out into the world.

MT: I’ve compared this novel to Laura Lippman’s later, greatest work. Who are your favorite crime novelists (especially women) and novelists in general who have influenced this completely amazing and unique book?

JC: My favorite crime novelists (in no particular order) are Patricia Highsmith, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, Val McDermid, Tana French, Sarah Waters, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Ross Macdonald. My literary favorites are Margaret Atwood, Iris Murdoch, Truman Capote, Shirley Jackson, Ian McEwan, Vladimir Nabokov, John Fowles, W. Somerset Maugham, and Virginia Woolf … All of whom steal from the crime fiction for inspiration.

MT: I’m trying to avoid giving away any spoilers from Dodging and Burning, because that would be a major disservice to readers. But I do want to ask: how do you view the novel and its ending? Is this a tragedy or a triumph? What do you think crime fiction reflects in general: hope or despair?

JC: We tell ourselves the stories we need to make sense of our world. At times, though, those stories are challenged and disrupted. To move forward, a new story needs to emerge. At the end of Dodging and Burning, the characters uncover what they believe to be a re-interpretation of the past (which is a quality of a lot of crime fiction), but their interpretations differ, because they both need different things to move forward. We can collect as much evidence as we can about the past, but it’s really up to us to decide what story we’re going to tell about it. So, it’s not necessarily tragedy or triumph, but a logical extension of character.

MT:  Returning to your writing habits, can you describe your writing process from day-to-day? Are you a morning or night writer? Middle-of-the-day perhaps? By pen or pencil or computer? How many words or hours per day?

JC: I’m a high school teacher, so I’m a whenever-wherever-I-can-write writer, usually weekends and vacations and snow days. I would love to write every day, but that’s simply not possible given my workload … Always computer. I loathe my handwriting.

MT:  Not that Dodging and Burning needs advertisement, advocacy, or support, as it’s just a frankly amazing novel, but could you pitch to our readers in a sentence or two (or three) why it is absolutely necessary to read this book?

JC: Dodging and Burning isn’t just a historical mystery. It’s a novel about our relationship with the past, a past in which women and gay people were oppressed and marginalized, a past which today feels increasingly present. It’s also a book about storytelling, so it has to have a story full of lots of twist and turns!

MT: While the book is set, in part, decades and decades ago, sometimes it feels like the issues you address haven’t changed much.  How do you reflect upon this?

JC: Back to my earlier comment about patriarchy: Clearly it’s still a big problem. Think about all the sexual assault and harassment perpetrated by men in powerful positions. Yes, we’ve made progress since the 1940s, but we’re far from there.

MT: Continuing on the importance of this book—and it’s a very important book—what do you think the average American, or even President Trump, should take away from Dodging and Burning? There’s obviously a lot I can think of, but I want to hear your central message, the general idea you would want to get into his head.

JC: I hope Dodging and Burning communicates a sense of the struggle that gay men went through at war and on the home front during WWII, and our responsibility to tell their stories, as fragmented as they are, for posterity.

MT: One central theme or issue in Dodging and Burning is the issue America faces with homosexuality and other forms of sexuality.  What do you think is the state of gay literature in America? What do you think Dodging and Burning will do for it? And more importantly, what is the place of the gay man in the crime genre? That seems really important, especially in this book.

JC: There are a lot of wonderful books being written by LGBTQ writers. We need to continue to support great organizations like Lambda Literary and join forces with our allies in the publishing industry. Also, LGBTQ writers need to continue to hone their craft and move beyond coming out stories and erotica. There’s nothing wrong with either, but there’s so much more to be written about. We need to look hard at gay culture. We can celebrate it, but we also need to critique it. Speaking from the standpoint of a high school teacher, we need to get serious LGBTQ books into the classrooms, either as shared texts or as independent reading. YA has made some inroads, but adult LGBTQ literature still stands at the fringes. As for the gay man in crime fiction, he has had a place for many years and will continue to have a place: Think of the novels of Greg Herren, Michael Nava, Joseph Hanson, etc. My hope is that those writers and other LGBTQ crime writers will be read by a wide and diverse readership. The readers are out there, but we need to build a bridge to them.

MT: If there was one thing you could change about Dodging and Burning now that it’s being published, what would it be? I know what I would change: I’d have it last forever.  I just couldn’t stop reading it (three times, so far).

JC: I can’t really think about changes at this point. It’s just not a mental space I can access. That ship, my friend, has sailed.

MT: Do you have another book in the works? I know that Dodging and Burning took a while, but I’m hoping that we’ll get a new John Copenhaver novel soon, as the world (and me too) truly needs your writing.  When will we see another book by you, and what might it be about?

JC: I’m polishing up a novel manuscript, set in post-WWII DC, about two teenage girls, one of whom is (perhaps) a budding sociopath. They work together as amateur detectives to unwind the mysterious connection between an assault on their favorite teacher and the brutal murder of a classmate. I like to think of the novel as a femme fatale’s coming of age story: What were Cora Papadakis and Kathie Moffat like as young women? Can we have sympathy of the succubi?

MT: John, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to MysteryPeople.  We are loving your debut novel, and encourage—even more so than usual—readers to go out and buy a copy of this lovely, stunning, and groundbreaking novel (trust me, reader, you won’t regret it).  Thank you so much for giving us some insight into your thought process and also your novel itself.   I look forward to reading Dodging and Burning a fourth and a fifth and, given I have time, a sixth time.

Murder In The Afternoon celebrates Mickey Spillane’s 100th With One Lonely Night

For March, our Murder In The Afternoon book club will celebrate the month that marks the hundredth year of hard boiled writer Mickey Spillane’s birth. With the creation of tough guy detective Mike Hammer, Spillane launched the paperback boom that gave us a new generation of great genre writers. We will be discussing his fourth Hammer book, One Lonely Night.

The story begins with Mike walking along the bridge on a rainy night after a judge has read him the riot act about his tactics. A woman runs toward him chased by a gunman. He shoots the man down, but frightens the woman so much, she jumps off the bridge. Out of a mix of guilt and blood lust, he tracks down those responsible in a back alley trail of thus, politicians, and (this being the fifties) communists.

There will be a lot to talk about with One Lonely Night – how Spillane reacted to his critics, Hammer’s relationship with violence, and genre fiction in the age of The Red Scare. We will also be showing a documentary — Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane, directed by friend and fellow writer Max Allan Collins featuring authors like Lawrence Block, Sara Paretsky, and Walter Mosley. We will be meeting in BookPeople’s Third Floor at 1PM, Monday the 19th. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer Volume 2 that contains One Lonely Night is 10% off to those who plan to attend.

For more Spillane, the Hard Word Book Club will be discussing The Girl Hunters on the night of March  28th at 7PM, along with viewing the film version starring Spillane as Mike Hammer.

Interview with Meg Gardiner

Into The Black Nowhere is the second book in the Meg Gardiner’s Unsub series featuring Caitlin Hendrix. Now a newly minted FBI agent, Caitlin and her team are sent to Texas to face off with a charming serial killer. Meg will be at BookPeople in conversation with Mark Pryor tomorrow, January 30th, at 7pm. She was kind enough to answer some of our questions in advance.

MysteryPeople Scott: How did the title come about?

Meg Gardiner: The novel is a psychological thriller. Its heroine, FBI agent Caitlin Hendrix, journeys into frightening and unexplored territory as she pursues a devious, charismatic killer. I wanted the title to reflect that—to pull readers along as Caitlin tracks the killer and, eventually, as the case forces her to look deep into herself.  

MPS: You’ve loosely based this killer on Ted Bundy. What drew you to him as a template?

MG: Bundy was a singular monster—a killer in All-American guise. Clean cut, an aspiring lawyer, beneath the “mask of sanity,” he was a voracious murderer. His immaculate camouflage made him fascinating. And dangerous.

MPS: This is the first time you’ve used Texas extensively as a backdrop. Did anything about your new home state come into cleared view when writing about it?

MG: The contrast between the vast size of the state and the intimacy of its small towns. The glorious, never-ending sunsets. The true, wondrous bounty of Austin’s tacos.

MPS: You did several stand alone books before Unsub. How does it feel returning to a series character?

MG: I love it. Every time I finish writing a novel, I hate saying goodbye the the characters. When I can come back to one—like Caitlin—it feels like meeting up with a close friend. And it’s exciting to continue exploring Caitlin’s mission and her world. She’s young, driven, dedicated, and still has a lot to learn. I want to take her on that trip.

MPS: Is there a different way of approaching a character like Caitlin who you plan to have in a series of books?

MG: A stand alone novel is often about a hero facing the singular defining event of his or her life. That’s why an every-man caught up by forces beyond his control can make a terrific standalone protagonist. But a series heroine needs a reason to return. She needs a story that will carry her through multiple novels. And skills to do the job. She must have a strong identity that will stay true to its core, while being able to grow—without morphing into a completely different person. Series characters need secrets, and a future, and unfinished business. Because you want readers coming back to find out what happens next.

MPS: You will be doing an event with us on January 30th with Mark Pryor. Would Caitlin find his psychopath Dominic a challenge?

MG: Caitlin would find Dominic a dangerous challenge. He’s smart, cunning, and brilliantly disguised as a straight-shooting prosecutor. He’s ruthless, and he loves to win. Caitlin would have to throw everything at him. It would be close. He’d scare her. But she’s a deadly adversary. She’d scare him, too.


All Too Real: The Power of Voice and Sisterhood in Julie Buntin’s Marlena

Marlena by Julie Buntin made my top ten list for 2017 and with good reason.  Marlena, Buntin’s debut novel, is anything but a beginner’s work.  It is filled with wisdom, finely crafted, and utterly heartbreaking in the best of ways.  This is a book I have read countless times, one of those books I turn to for comfort and solace even if sometimes they hold exactly the opposite of this.  Buntin’s novel is a miracle and a masterwork, and the reasons behind this are both incredibly obvious and entirely elusive.

The novel revolves around a woman named Cat, who now lives and works in New York City, but once lived in a podunk town in Michigan where she was forced to struggle to get along with a dysfunctional mother and a less than satisfactory life.  Eventually—well, almost immediately—Cat meets Marlena, and a beautiful but terrifying friendship begins.  It is known from the beginning that Marlena will die.  It is known from the beginning that her death will be tragic, and that it will haunt Cat for the rest of her life.  It is known from the beginning that this is not a happy story, and perhaps these are the reasons I consider it a genuinely real crime novel: the fact that this book is filled with the inevitable darkness that envelops us all, the ways our mistakes come back to haunt us, and of course, you know, there’s crime in the novel.  So, there’s that.

Buntin is a master at writing.  Her prose is lyrical, and there have been several sentences I have read again and again (having read the book maybe six times now easily since its publication last year) where I have said, aloud, to myself or my partner, “I wish I had written that. I wish I could write that. Write like this.” It’s true. I wish I could write as effortlessly, as flawlessly, as Julie Buntin. There is no doubt this novel was years in the making, but it feels as effortless as a quickly jotted down diary entry (that has been meticulously planned, scrutinized and understood again and again to perfection).  The perfection of the prose is not off-putting or unfortunate in any way.  Instead, it feels like a woman trapped in a past that is imperfect, telling her story in the most brilliant way possible.

How many stories have we read about young women and their friendships gone wrong? Megan Abbott has a novel coming out this year (and Abbott has praised Marlena, if that’s not a reason to purchase it alone) about a friendship turned upside down by a crime.  There are, of course, numerous—maybe innumerable—other novels, including other books coming out this year.  But Marlena stands out to me in a way similar, but different, than Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand.  It is a divine examination of a friendship gone wrong, a love lost—not necessarily a romantic love, not necessarily I say again, but something more profound.  An instant in one’s life that has changed this woman forever, and that she can never get back, and never be unchanged by.

Similarly, I cannot be unchanged now that I have read Julie Buntin’s beautiful book.  Cat’s voice is as alive as the voice in my head.  Buntin’s first novel more than delivers: she excels, she succeeds, she is the Superman of debut novelists.  I do not regret a single time I’ve read Marlena again and again.  The most beautiful part of the novel is how genuine and authentic the novel feels, like this is a true story—and who knows, there may be lots of truth to it.  No, I take this back—any book this real, this alive, leaping from the pages, has to be based on some experience Buntin or any other remarkable writer has felt in his or her life: we are lucky to have Buntin to express this truth for us.

Interview with Robert Crais

Robert Crais has been publishing great mystery-thrillers for more 30 years and with his new book, The Wanted, he’s as good as ever. He consistently has mixed well-developed characters in books with good plots with excellent plot twists.

I last interviewed Crais here for MysteryPeople for a book, The Promise, where he mixed his usual protagonist, the always cool private investigator Elvis Cole and his partner Joe Pike with some new characters in a prior book and it gelled nicely.

For The Wanted it’s back to the usual set up of Cole and Pike fighting some bad guys and some good folks who have made, let’s say, bad life choices.

As the book starts a single mother hires Elvis Cole to help with her troubled son who for inexplicable reasons suddenly has lots of cash and she’s worried he’s dealing drugs. A little investigation and Cole realizes that the son and two of his friends are responsible for some high-end burglary. Gradually it becomes clear that a pair of fascinating, disturbing bad guys are on the tail of the burglary threesome. Will Cole be able to find the three and save them before they are harmed by pair? You’ll have to read to find that out.

Crais was nice enough to let me to interview him by email.

Scott Butki: Thanks for the interview. How did you come up with the story for the latest novel featuring my favorite detective duo, Pike and Cole?

Robert Crais: Lots of crime in Los Angeles these days – burglaries and home invasions are on the rise, and many of these crimes are perpetrated by teenagers and young adults.

Elvis Cole is attracted to cases where he believes he can make a real difference, and the idea of helping a single mom find out the truth of what’s going on with her son and save him is right up his alley.

SB:  I always like how you do dialogue and humor in your books. Do you think your early work writing for TV shows including “Hill Street Blues” helped you write dialogue and humor? What are other ways your TV writing help you as a novelist?

RC:  I’m just a funny guy. TV writing helped me block out a scene, visualize the action, write authentic dialogue.  It helped me to shape a story.  It helped me to see how much more I could do as a novelist.

SB:  Having written for TV – including “Miami Vice” and Cagney and Lacey, Quincy, and Baretta – I assume you pay attention to current TV shows.  What are some of your favorites and why?

RC: My taste in TV shows is all over the board. Loved “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” love “Game of Thrones” (duh!), “Stranger Things,” thought “Handmaid’s Tale” was incredible.

SB: The book deals with loyalty, unconditional love and what it means to be a parent. Is there something you hope readers take away from the story?

RC: I hope readers are entertained and connect with the characters.  Most parents have experienced the feeling of unconditional love. In this story a mother is forced to imagine the worst case scenario.  If her son has committed a terrible crime, will she still love him?  How much can a parent forgive?  

SB: Why did you decide to dedicate your book to Otto Penzler? 

RC: Otto has been a friend, fan and supporter of mine since my first book, The Monkey’s Raincoat.  In a way, all my books are dedicated to him.

SB: I enjoyed, if that’s the right word, your terrible pair of dangerous, perverse guys, Harvey and Stemms. How did you come up with those characters?

Villains need to be as fascinating and as formidable as your hero. I wanted to create “bad guys” that had real personalities, who were many-sided, and who were also interesting.  These guys, like Elvis and Joe, have history together, have shared a lot of adventures.


Thanks to Robert Crais for answering our questions. His new book, The Wantedis on our shelves now!

Top of Her Game: Alafair Burke’s The Wife

There comes a time in every prolific author’s career when one has to ask “Is there any way for this author to get better? To improve upon their most recent work? To actually write something better than this?” For some writers, they go downhill after their peak—other authors only rise, never reaching that peak exactly (see wonderful examples like Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, Alex Marwood, and Megan Abbott).  The question now is: has Alafair Burke reached her peak? I sincerely doubt it—a writer of her talent can most likely reach unimaginable heights—yet it is incredibly hard to fathom Burke improving upon her most recent masterpiece, The Wife.

Burke kicks off the year in the grandest fashion, with a book that will compel you to the very end, even without a murder in its very beginning.  From the moment the book begins, we know that Burke’s protagonist has committed perhaps the ultimate betrayal—that against herself, lying for her husband’s defense. I have read this book countless times, as I tend to do before beginning a review, and it never ceases to amaze me—the language is fluid and nearly flawless, drawing the reader in.  The narrator, while incredibly deluded and not necessarily the picture-perfect definition of a feminist, is incredibly relatable.  The book speaks to the issues of our times, many of them dealing with women, rape, infidelity, and the permanence of love.

From the very beginning of the novel, I was roped in.  The reader is startled by the way Burke can transform the most mundane scenes into something extraordinary, ripping out incredible portions of her character’s psyches in ways you would never expect.  I was floored again and again as revelation after revelation was revealed, chapter after chapter.  The book is such a quick read that, when finished, I felt compelled to start it over immediately, unsure if I had finished the novel or just begun.

This is not to say the novel is without a conclusion.  Boy, does it have a conclusion.  Alafair Burke is a master at revealing tiny little secrets that are actually big explosions, unraveling and unraveling her characters and plot until, once untangled, the reader is finally able to uncover the truth.  You think you know the truth from the beginning, and then you might change your mind in the middle, and then be completely floored by the end of the book by the smallest, slightest turn of the story: this is how The Wife works.  And I’m not afraid to call it a new masterpiece of the crime genre.

This past award season, Alafair Burke was nominated for the Edgar for The Ex, which works as a sort of companion novel to The Wife.  They feature similar characters, they are placed in similar settings, but these novels are completely different (and equally brilliant).  Here’s the only issue: this is the year of the female crime writer.  So while I would say that Alafair Burke has the Edgar in the bag, with masterpieces like Laura Lippman’s Sunburn and Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand being released soon, it’s hard to tell which author will come out on top.  What’s amazing about the crime community is: no one cares.  Each of these authors are improving daily, each new book proving that the preceding novel was only a precursor to something much more amazing and fantastic than the book that came before.  And Alafair Burke proves this beyond a doubt.  From the very beginning, you are hooked.  From the very beginning, you are roped in.  And it’s all Alafair’s fault.

Burke’s newest novel is mind-blowing, spine-tinglingly good and awe-inspiring in ways that very few authors can aspire to be.  Pick up this book and find yourself lost in it.  Pick up this book and hours later, wonder where you have been, and how you got there.  This is the magic that Alafair Burke works in The Wife, which may very well be the Book of the Year.