MysteryPeople’s Scott Montgomery joins us on the blog just before year’s end to share the ten best—in his opinion—crime novels of 2020.
Crime fiction writers came through in a year where we needed them the most. They helped us escape and examine our times with some of their best writing. It was also a year of discovering either debut authors or ones that finally got the limelight they deserved. Here are my eleven favorites I was able to squeeze into a top ten. I could easily give ten more.
In another year, I may have put one of the darker novels below in this spot, but if there was ever a time for smart comfort reading Craig Johnson rode in like The Lone Ranger with this funny and warm mystery that also delivers an engaging history lesson. Walt Longmire, Craig’s Northern Wyoming sheriff, becomes involved in the world of western art when it appears the famed Custer’s Last Fight painting, believed to have been lost in a fire, is actually still around with several shady characters out to find it. While entertaining, Johnson uses the tale to examine points of view in history, war, and the men who fight in them with a humanistic eye.
Both of these authors used their culture to infuse excitement into the traditional hard-boiled novel. Cosby gave a much needed Black voice to rural noir with his story of a former getaway driver pulled back into one last job to save his family and dignity. Weiden introduces us to Virgil Wounded Horse, a half-Lakota enforcer citizens hire on the Rosebud reservation to get justice, forced to hunt down the people who bring in heroin into the rez to clear his nephew. Both use the crime novel to examine family, race, and male identity.
This book starts with the murder of two twelve-year old girls and gets bleaker as the working class mother of one of the girls seeks justice in her small town, coming up against the local police, her mother who she always feared of becoming, and her own dark past. Engel keeps the story tight and focused in her heroine, finding grace notes in the unlikeliest of places.
A reclusive hunchback musician witnesses a murder during a chemical leak that plagues his Appalachian town, setting off several events that force him to face his life and make human connections. Farmer finds a sad humanity in all of his characters, creating one of the most poignant reads of the year.
Boyle creates a literary mural with several people effected and entwined from a past murder in a Brooklyn neighborhood. Funny and tragic, Boyle creates a story of the inertia of a community told in a style somewhere between Scorsese and Altman.
A middle class doctor—adopted as a child—discovers her birth mother was a prostitute and victim of a serial murderer. As she uncovers her mother’s killer she also gets to know the woman she never knew. Mina’s latest masterpiece is one of class, society, and crime.
This collection of new novellas from one of crime fiction’s best range in mood, style, and sub-genre. He introduces us to new characters and revisits old ones, some we haven’t seen in a long time, linking them into a shared world that spins a little faster than our own.
Scott Phillips returns with a jaundiced, funny vengeance in this tale of California scheming with a down-and-out attorney devising an art fraud plan with a questionable group of characters, reminding us he mixes black humor, sex, crime, and scumbags like no other.
My favorite private eye novel of the year introduced Russell Avery, a former reporter who used to uncover police corruption, now working as an investigator who specializes in clearing cops. When asked by a political activist to look into a questionable shooting of a drug dealer, his ideals and life get put on the line as he navigates a no man’s land between cops and criminals where even the closest to you are hard to trust. I hope this isn’t the last time we see Avery.
You can find the titles listed here online at BookPeople today.
Bookseller, former Events Host, and avid mystery reader Meike dishes on her ten favorite reads of the year. How does your stack compare?
2020 saw the (hopefully temporary) elimination of my role as an Event Host at BookPeople, but the folks over there were kind enough to ask me to weigh in on some of my favorite titles of the year. If there was any silver lining to this otherwise miserable year, it was the remarkable quality and diversity of the crime fiction titles that were released—and the extra free time allowed me to take full advantage by reading more widely than I might have otherwise. Narrowing my favorites down to only 10 was a challenge—there are many more that deserve to be mentioned in any summary of the year’s best. Below are some highlights which I’ve listed in alphabetical order only because rating them in any other manner would be almost impossible.
Private investigator Grayson Sykes is hired for her first big case at Rader Consulting—to find Isabel Lincoln, the missing wife of Dr. Ian O’Donnell. But Isabel seems to have left virtually no trace, so part of the mystery is whether her absence is intentional. While this is a cleverly-plotted PI procedural, Howzell Hall tackles issues ranging from race to domestic abuse to toxic masculinity to the lasting effects of childhood trauma—all of which to conspire to leave the reader solidly hooked into a compelling and eye-opening drama.
This will be on almost every top 10 list you see this year, and with good reason—it’s an adrenaline rush that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let up. Beauregard “Bug” Montage, like his father before him, was once one of the best getaway drivers in the South but he’s worked hard to leave that life behind. He wants to succeed where his own father failed–he loves his wife and kids deeply and desperately wants to make an honest living. More than anything he wants to give them the stable family life he himself missed out on. But the odds are stacked against people like Bug, and he just can’t resist that one more “can’t miss” opportunity—which of course does exactly that to spectacular effect.
I was living in a small Texas town when my sons’ football team won the state football championship, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this debut. Joel Whitley couldn’t get out of his home town of Bentley fast enough when his homosexuality was outed in a most humiliating way. But when he receives a troubling message from his younger brother Dylan, the star quarterback of Bentley’s high school football team, he reluctantly returns—only to have Dylan go missing a short time later. As he hunts for Dylan some long-buried secrets come to light—and some people will go to any lengths to make sure those secrets stay deeply buried. Framm nails the small town obsession with high school football but this is no Friday Night Lights—Friday Night Darkness might be more apt.
Newlyweds Sam and Annie leave NYC behind so that Sam can establish a therapy practice in his small upstate New York hometown. The practice is thriving—Sam’s a popular therapist, especially with his female clients—but Sam doesn’t realize that every word of his sessions can be heard in the room upstairs through a vent in his office ceiling. One day he leaves for work and doesn’t come home, and Annie is left wondering how well she really knows her husband. It’s tough to say more about this book without revealing spoilers, but there are some fantastic twists that absolutely blindsided me.
This is the third installment in Panowich’s Southern Noir trilogy set in the fictional North Georgia McFalls County. Ex-arson investigator Dane Kirby is pulled into an FBI investigation when a mutilated body is found in Jacksonville, Florida. The investigation circles around to a gambling ring run by some of the baddest Southern outlaws imaginable; Dane has a history with these men and must learn to come to terms with a tragedy that threatens to destroy him. It’s a dark and gritty tale filled with bad men, but balanced by complex female characters that give heart to the saga.
Downing’s My Lovely Wife (about a married couple keeping things spicy by committing murder) made my list in 2019, and her sophomore effort does not disappoint. Siblings Beth, Portia, and Eddie haven’t seen each other in years but when their wealthy grandfather dies they are not only forced to reconnect—they’re required to reenact the road trip their grandfather took them on as kids. As if a long car ride with your siblings isn’t enough reason to commit murder, some long buried secrets come to light and confrontations ensue. (Personal note: I raised 3 kids and loved seeing someone explore the fraught emotions of adult sibling rivalry. I’m considering re-writing my will.)
This gritty and gripping police procedural illuminates multiple aspects of the opioid crisis and its wide-ranging effects. Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick is a Philly beat cop patrolling the deteriorating Kensington neighborhood where she grew up, and where almost every resident’s life has been affected by the booming drug trade. When a series of murders rocks the neighborhood Mickey realizes that she hasn’t seen her younger sister Kacey in several weeks. Kacey has been living rough, turning tricks to support her addiction. Although the adult sisters are estranged, as children they were inseparable and Mickey has always felt responsible for Kacey. As she hunts for both Kacey and the killer, Mickey is forced to come to terms with the long tail of trauma both girls experienced as children.
As a bookseller, I absolutely love Pryor’s Hugo Marston series because I can recommend it to just about anyone looking for a good mystery. The series is set in Paris and features Hugo Marston, a cowboy-boot wearing Texan transplant who works as head of security for the American embassy—so lovers of espionage enjoy the international intrigue. The books have just the right amount of violence—they satisfy lovers of darker tales while not upsetting devotees of more cozy fiction. Although the main characters are the straight arrow Hugo and his freewheeling best friend Tom, they’re balanced by the sophisticated and independent Claudia—the kind of strong, complex female character that’s often under-represented crime fiction. And then there’s the setting–Pryor’s deep love of Paris is evident in his references to its beauty and history (not to mention the occasional glowing descriptions of its culinary offerings). Hugo’s latest challenge is to find out who attacked a young woman at a historic Paris chateau on the same night four valuable paintings are stolen while facing considerable media and police attention. Pryor’s books are best enjoyed with a café-au-lait and croissant at hand—you are welcome.
Five very different women who live in the West Adams neighborhood of South LA are connected by a serial killer—but this is their story, not his. Told in a kaleidoscope of overlapping viewpoints, this beautiful story shines a light on women who are frequently overlooked and examines why their stories often don’t seem to matter to everyone.
I love reading about the history of indigenous people and I love reading crime fiction—so I was thrilled by this debut novel that both entertains and educates. (It was my pick for this year’s BookPeople Holiday Catalog.) Virgil Wounded Horse works as a kind of private enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation is South Dakota—when the tribal council and US law enforcement fail to prosecute crimes (often those committed against women and children) family members hire Virgil to exact his own unique type of punishment. (The book kicks off with a bang as Virgil beats the CRAP out of a rapist behind a bar!) His vigilantism takes a personal turn when his nephew becomes ensnared by the booming drug trade on the reservation. Wanbli Weiden is an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota nation and brings an authenticity to the issues faced by his Native American characters. The fact that he’s such a talented storyteller results in one of the most exciting debuts of 2020.
You can find each title listed in-store and online at BookPeople.
Meike joined us on the blog earlier this week to discuss her ten favorite mystery reads of 2020 so far. Now it’s Scott M.’s turn to chime in. Read on to see what he’s been vibing with during this…unusual…year. It’s no mystery that books have been sustaining us all throughout this ordeal.
This year the halfway point list seems more important than ever. Many great books got lost when the pandemic hit. MysteryPeople was down, unable to crow about many of these fantastic reads. So here are the books that impressed me the most in the first six months of 2020.
A waitress looks for answers and justice in her Ozark town after her twelve year-old daughter is murdered along with her friend. The deeper she goes, the more she becomes the woman she’s always feared being- her criminal mother. This rural noir packs one hell of a punch.
The author delivers a half dozen short stories that look at the formative years of his characters, Hap and Leonard. The stories run the gamut from fun genre romps, bittersweet nostalgia, and poignant character studies, showing some sides you haven’t seen from them.
A hunchback songrwriter is pulled out of his reclusive life during a storm that causes an enviromental disaster in his Appalcahian town from the chemical plant leak and leads to him witnessing a murder. Farmer hits to the emotional bone of his wounded characters.
Winslow delivers five novellas that range from a fun cat and mouse game between a cop and thief to a gritty story about a family of New Orleans police out for vengeance. He introduces us to new characters and revisits old favorites, proving in each piece the master storyteller he is.
Detective Betty Rhyzyk returns in this exciting police thriller. When informants are getting murdered and word on the street that several kilos have been stolen from the cartel, Betty has to escape from desk duty when the killings hit close to home with one of her fellow cops possibly involved.
A lawyer has to make up the money lost on a drug deal gone wrong through an art scam. His partner in crime, his wife, mistress, and an oddball forger all make this crime being far from perfect. Funny and profane with characters you love either despite or because of their lack of morality.
8. Lockdown edited by Nick Kolakowski and Steve Weddle & Both Sides edited by Gabino Igesias
These two anthologies, one dealing with a year-long pandemic and the other looking at the many angles of human migration, run the gamut of tone, style, and perspective. Some are funny, many horrifying, and all break down their subject to its most human elements.
Mosley brings back New York PI Leonoid McGill as he tries to get a message from an old Black bluesman to his soon-to-be-wedded granddaughter. He has to use his street smarts and contacts to get past the woman’s rich and powerful father who wants to keep his mixed heritage a secret. A great, tight piece of pulp, packing social weight.
Scott examines the human devastation of the opioid epidemic in this gritty, epic thriller of a one violent day that entwines a Kentucky lawman, DEA agent, and EMT. Some of the most vivid writing about the drug war since Don Winslow.
These titles and more are available to order from BookPeople today.
You can refer to this page to understand availability and find our more about curbside pickup service here.
The first half of the year is in the books and Meike’s ready to unveil her ten favorite mystery titles of the year…so far! Read on to see what Meike’s been savoring and see how your personal list compares to hers.
Long Bright River is a genre-defying thriller that straddles literary fiction and crime fiction with a gripping police procedural that illuminates multiple aspects of the opioid crisis. Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick is a Philly beat copy in the deteriorating Kensington neighborhood where she grew up, and where almost every resident now has a connection to the opioid epidemic. When a series of mysterious murders rocks the neighborhood, Mickey realizes she hasn’t seen her sister Kacey in several weeks. Kacey has been living on the streets, turning tricks to support her drug habit. Although the sisters are estranged, they were inseparable as children and Mickey has always felt responsible for her younger sister. As she hunts for both Kacey and the killer, Mickey is forced to come to terms with the long tail of trauma both girls experienced as children.
This darkly hilarious crime spree features a cast of characters who are all pretty terrible people, but you just can’t help but root for them. At the book’s heart is attorney Douglas Rigby—he’s facing bankruptcy as his latest shady deal falls apart, so he comes up with yet another swindle that will put him back on top. He enlists the help of his wife (who’s cheating on him with the local golf pro), his girlfriend (who happens to be the wife of his recently deceased business partner), an art forger, the embittered nurse of his last remaining client, and that client’s money-hungry nephew. What could possibly go wrong? Everything, to riotous results.
Any avid reader of crime fiction will love this homage to some of the most well-crafted mysteries of all time. Malcolm Kershaw is pretty much living my dream life—he’s the owner of The Old Devil’s Bookstore in Boston, with a capable staff that allows him the freedom to come and go as he pleases (and the financial security to live within walking distance to the store and enjoy the occasional excellent glass of wine). But the dream is threatened when an FBI agent comes calling—it seems there have been a series of murders that bear an unusual resemblance to a blog post Malcolm once wrote called “Eight Perfect Murders” and which extolled the virtues of some of literatures most unsolvable murders (from Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train to Christie’s ABC Murders, the best of the best are well-represented).
Marin Machado led a charmed life until the day 16 months ago when her young son Sebastian (“Bash”) went missing. Marin was holding his hand in a crowded Christmas market; she only let go of his hand long enough to answer a call from her husband Derek, but suddenly Bash had vanished. Clues have dried up and the FBI have all but given up, so Marin hires a private investigator to resume the search. But what the PI finds isn’t Bash—it’s the younger woman named Kenzie that Derek is having an affair with. Determined not to lose her husband as well as her son, Marin enlists the help of her best friend Sal to fix the Kenzie problem—for good. Hillier is masterful at exploring the dark thoughts hidden in her characters’ psyches; this time around she ratchets up the tension and then blindsides the reader with a gut-punching twist.
Part domestic suspense, part legal thriller (the perfect “marriage,” if you will) this book examines just what compromises, secrets, and even lies are sometimes required to keep a marriage intact. Against her better judgment, attorney Lizzie Kitsakis agrees to defend her former law school classmate Zach Grayson when he’s accused of the brutal murder of his wife Amanda. She soon learns that Zach and Amanda’s seemingly perfect marriage was anything but, and along the way she’s forced to confront the cracks in her own marriage. Anyone who has ever even contemplated marriage will enjoy this exploration of what exactly a “good” marriage entails. Fans of Big Little Lies will love this one!
This one might not technically be crime fiction, but it crosses into thriller territory and couldn’t be more timely. A novel coronavirus breaks out in Asia and threatens to spread across the globe (sound familiar?), and epidemiologist Henry Parsons races to contain the virus before it decimates the human population. Wright’s eerily prescient imagining of how a pandemic might play out in the lives of ordinary people throughout the world is backed by extensive research— the reader will come away both highly entertained as well as better informed about the major historical event of our time. Wright is a masterful storyteller and his journalistic background lends a chilling realism to the novel.
Five very different women who live in the West Adams neighborhood of South LA are connected by a serial killer—but this is their story, not his. Told in a kaleidoscope of overlapping viewpoints, this beautiful story shines a light on women who are frequently overlooked and examines why their stories often don’t seem to matter to everyone. Pochoda imbues these women, who are often dismissed by society, with grace and dignity.
This is the third installment in Panowich’s Southern Noir trilogy, set in the fictional north Georgia McFalls County. Ex-arson investigator Dane Kirby is pulled into an FBI investigation when a mutilated body is found in Jacksonville, Florida. His investigation soon circles around to his own backyard where he’s forced to confront some of the baddest Southern outlaws imaginable while at the same time coming to terms with a tragedy that threatens to destroy him.
Naomi Taboada, a wealthy and glamorous young debutante, receives an urgent letter from her newlywed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom. Naomi heads to her cousin’s new home, High Place, an isolated manor in the Mexican countryside. Her cousin’s new husband—an enigmatic and handsome Englishman—and his family are far from welcoming, and Naomi soon learns that High Place is rife with secrets and danger. Naomi is a fearless heroine facing an unimaginable horror, and the resulting chills are a delightful diversion.
It’s late summer 1963 and “girl reporter” Ellie Stone has travelled to Italy to attend a symposium honoring her late father. She’s invited to spend the weekend at an elegant villa just outside Florence, and a possible German measles outbreak means no one can leave. But when the symposium organizer is found floating in the Arno and foul play is suspected, Ellie begins to wonder if any of her new friends could be capable of murder. If you spent your quarantine time anywhere but an Italian countryside villa well-stocked with delicious food and drink then you’ll want to read this wonderful novel to see what might have been…
These titles and more are available to order from BookPeople today.
You can refer to this page to understand availability and find our more about curbside pickup service here.
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.
Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott Montgomery, reviews Laird Barron’s latest, Worse Angels. Read his glowing review and be sure to catch Laird Barron and Scott live on Zoom, Monday, June 22nd at 7PM CDT. More details can be found here.
Not only does Laird Barron serve up a kick ass hard-boiled series with his character Isaiah Coleridge, he examines different aspects of the genre and even storytelling itself. The saga of the former mob enforcer, not trying to do good as a private detective, finds both emotional depth and genre commentary through his journey. In his latest, Worse Angels, Isaiah must deal with the fate of the anti-hero and the price to be paid.
Isaiah is hired by Badja Adeyemi, a former dirty cop heading to prison for his involvement in a scandal connected to his boss Senator Gerald Redlick. Adeyemi’s nephew dies working on a super collider project the senator was behind. The death is ruled a suicide, but all the facts don’t add up. He wants a badass to look into it.
Coleridge and his partner Lionel Robard go to the upstate New York town to where the collider project has stalled. The citizen’s are tight lipped and it takes some work to get some answers, not all of it by the rules. They get deeper into a plot involving a cult and weird science.
Barron doesn’t just dive into crime fiction, he shades it with horror, sci-fi, and even fantasy. Fans of his pre-Isiah work could see this a him returning to earlier weird fiction form a little. It all allows him to look at the anti-hero in all forms. He references the character types’ place in literature, film, and other media, including a salute to Mike Grell’s comic book Warlord.
He never allows it to get too meta, applying it to Isaiah’s own struggle. As somebody who has tried to change his life to be a servant for good, he finds that his darker nature can best solve the problem. He also wonders what he is handing down to Devlim, the son of his girlfriend Meg. Isaiah has become more aware he is most effective in taking on the worst of the worst is when he unleashed his own demons.
Barron deftly uses this theme as a thread to sew Isaiah’s external conflicts. He gives us no easy answers about fighting evil on its level. He doesn’t judge Isaiah’s actions. He does ask us to consider the price that is paid when those actions are taken.
The blog spot My Book The Movie asked William Boyle who he would cast in his latest and our Pick Of The Month, City Of Margins. Bill knows his movies, founding the site Goodbye Like A Bullet that focused on crime films from the seventies. City Of Margins captures the grit, tone, and language of those films.
While our doors remained closed to the public through March 29th, you can grab your copy of City of Margins by ordering online or giving us a call at (512) 472 – 5050 to request curbside pick-up service.
Are Snakes Necessary? is the novel debut of director and screenwriter Bran DePalma along with his producing partner Susan Lehman, released in the states by Hard Case Crime. DePalma has often been criticized as being a filmmaker high on style, but of little substance. In Are Snakes Necessary? he proves, when executed properly, style alone can engage your audience.
The plot moves through the lives of several interlocking characters. At the center of this perfect storm of sex, politics, and violence stands Nick Scully, reminiscent of heores in DePalma’s Blow Out and Body Double. A photographer of middling talent, riding on a lucky shot he got during the Ferguson riots. The two women he becomes involved with provide the tendrils for the plot that relies on a fir amount of happenstance and coincidence.
The first he falls for is Elizabeth DeCarlo who kicks the story off, involving herself with a
blackmail scheme that works for Barton Brock, a political hack, but backfires on her. Nick meets her a few years later on a Vegas flight where they end up falling in love. Unfortunately she is now married to a casino mogul who could destroy them both. The last time he sees Elizabeth is her going into one of her husband’s casino to snag a painting that will fund her escape. He never sees her come out and that last image burns in his mind.
To lick his wounds, he takes a job as a still photographer in Paris where his old girlfriend is starring in a remake of Vertigo. (It wouldn’t be a DePalma tale without a Hitchcock reference.) There he meets Fanny, a videographer who ran away from her lover, the senator Barton Brock works for. The aid drives much of the story with his conniving and committing his first murder. Elizabeth, now lying low as an advice columnist, also plays an integral part at the end.
The characters have the depth and nuance as something scripted without the actors fleshing them out.
If this sounds hard to follow, it isn’t. The authors keep the plot mechanics twisting and turning cleanly and clearly. The characters have the depth and nuance as something scripted without the actors fleshing them out. Fanny is described as being “in her full flush of carnality”. However nuance is not what a story like this hinges on and it may have bogged down it’s twenty-four-frames-a-second pace. Through bits of dialogue, action, and some cinematic descriptions, we are connected enough to who we need to be to care about.
That connection is all that is required as DePalma and Lehman put the Rube Goldberg plot into action. Much of the suspense comes from how each of these characters will affect the other, even when they are thousands of miles apart. The construction is reminiscent of many of the films DePalma scripted like Sisters, Dressed To Kill, and Blow Out, delivered with his quirky, perverse humor. One reviewer wrote that it should have been written as a parody to the potboiler. I’d argue it is, but not done in a brash tone and it is also in love with the kind of story they are telling.
It moves at a cinematic clip, bouncing from one character to another, through the romantic, violent, tragic story, that wraps up with some poetic justice.
Much like Samuel Fuller’s Brainquake that Hard Case also published, Are Snakes Necessary? is like one the filmmaker’s movies in book form. It moves at a cinematic clip, bouncing from one character to another, through the romantic, violent, tragic story, that wraps up with some poetic justice. If only DePalma could figure out how to do split screens on the page.
While our doors remained closed to the public through March 29th, you can grab your copy of Are Snakes Necessary? by ordering online or giving us a call at (512) 472 – 5050 to request curbside pick-up service.