It’s been a while since we checked in with our friends at Shotgun Honey to see what new flash crime fiction they’ve gathered lately. We discovered newcomer B.L. Conrad with a clean writing style and proves he knows how to open and close a story. Check out “Home Invasion.”
The Murder In The Afternoon book club will get a glimpse of current Detroit for our March discussion. Stephen Mack Jones got the attention of many with his debut, August Snow. The title character and his relationship to the city show great possibilities for a long-running series.
August is an ex cop returning to Detroit a few years after stirring things up. He won an eight million dollar lawsuit for being wrongfully fired after he blew the whistle on the mayor and some brothers in blue. He moved into his parents’ home in Mexican town, flipping other properties in the neighborhood as well as serving as its unofficial protector. When a finance magnate offers to hire him to look into questionable practices at her bank, he declines, but her suspicious “suicide” after draws him into a plot involving shady real estate and old enemies.
August Snow is a unique riff on the detective novel. We could talk about August himself for an hour. Join us Monday, March 18th, at 1pm on BookPeople’s third floor. The book is 10% off to those planning to attend.
Greg Iles, the bestselling author of the Natchez Burning trilogy, returns with a new novel, Cemetery Road, about friendship, betrayal, and shattering secrets that threaten to destroy a small Mississippi town.
I was captivated by the Natchez Burning trilogy with deep characters, a fascinating protagonist in Penn Cage, lots of plot twists and an interesting exploration and investigation of white supremacists in the south in the past and present.
For this new book the main character is Marshall McEwan. He vowed never to return to his hometown after leaving at 18. The trauma that led to his departure won him journalism praise. As a former reporter I approve of Iles’s descriptions of journalism in this and other books.
But now events in McEwan’s hometown have conspired to make him return: His father is dying, his mother is struggling to keep the family newspaper from going under, crime rates are high, to name a few.
Mr. Iles, the author of 16 books and a novella, was kind enough to let us interview him by email for his new book, which comes out today. He worked for several years as a guitarist, singer and songwriter in the band Frankly Scarlet. He quit the band after he got married and started writing his first novella. He, along with Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan and others, is a member of the literary musical group The Rock Bottom Remainders.
Scott: Where or how did this story come to you?
Greg: Cemetery Road actually grew out of the shocking secret revealed at the novel’s conclusion. I don’t want to say more than that, but the core of my novels is always psychological and emotional, rather than depending on the externalized structure or details.
Scott: How would you describe your protagonist, Marshall, and his struggle in this book?
Greg: He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington, D.C. journalist, who is forced to leave his career at its height to return to the small Mississippi town where he was raised. Because of a bad relationship with his father, he swore he would never go back. But when his father is dying, he must return to run the family newspaper until it can be sold. This is what throws him into contact with the corrupt group of men who run the town, much as their ancestors had since the Civil War. To his surprise, the crimes he uncovered there stretch all the way back to Washington, D.C.
Scott: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Greg: That much of what we see around us in life is dictated by knowledge that remains hidden. At bottom, this is a book about secrets between parents and children, husbands and wives, and siblings.
Scott: Did it feel weird to be doing a book other than Penn Cage after your amazing trilogy?
Greg: It was actually a relief after the ten-year struggle that it took to produce the trilogy, which ended up exceeding two thousand pages.
Scott: I really enjoyed your three volume trilogy set in Natchez, Miss., which I only recently learned you wrote while recovering from a terrible car accident. What did the folks of Natchez, the city where you grew up and now live, feel about your portrayal of it?
Greg: A critic once wrote that I do my hometown the backhanded compliment of setting my novels there. In general, the people of Natchez have been great about what I have written. That may be partly because the novels have ended up generating a fair amount of tourism for the city.
Scott: When does your next Penn Cage book come out and what’s it about? I read you said there was still more you wanted to write about Penn Cage. Will we found out what that means in that book?
Greg: A lot of readers were a bit disturbed by the fate of Tom Cage at the end of the trilogy. I always intended to return and deal with the rest of Tom’s thread. The Fates aren’t quite finished with Penn and Tom, and I think readers will be glad to learn that.
Scott: I have read that you long avoided writing series. What changed your mind on that?
Greg: Nothing changed my mind. The first Penn Cage was intended to be a standalone. Seven years later I wrote Turning Angel, thinking it would be the last. Seven years after that, Penn tapped me on the shoulder, and the Devil’s Punchbowl was the result. And when I decided to deal with the Ku Klux Klan in Louisiana and Mississippi, Penn and Tom Cage turned out to be the ideal characters to do that.
Scott: As a Southern writer do you feel an obligation to tackle the mythology and stereotypes about the south?
Scott: How does your work as a musician affect or help you as a writer?
Greg: As a musician and a songwriter, you learn a great deal about the rhythm of language and develop the ability to say a lot with very few words. I write very long books, but I can hit readers in the solar plexus when I need to.
Scott: What is the status of the films being adapted from your books?
Greg: There has been a lot of interest all along, and some abortive deals made, but nothing is headed into production at this moment.
Scott: What are you working on next?
Greg: I’m working on at least three other things. I don’t want to give away what they are, but they are all very different from each other. There is one more Penn Cage novel to come. A lot of readers were unhappy with where Penn’s father ended up at the end of the last novel. So that will come, but it’s unlikely to be the next novel.
When it comes to straight up entertainment, few authors can hold a candle to Joe Lansdale. His working class East Texas voice provides both a perfect and unique bed for action and humor, and few characters are as entertaining as liberal redneck Hap and his gay, black, Republican buddy Leonard. The two have been in more scrapes and exchanged more quips than both the real and fictional Butch and Sundance. Joe’s latest foray with the boys, The Elephant Of Surprise, proves to be one of the most entertaining in the series.
The story is stripped down and simple. Hap and Leonard are trying to get home before a storm hits and comes across an Asian American woman with her tongue sliced halfway through with a short kung-fu expert and a big guy who’s good with guns after her. Since they’re good guys and Texans, they help the lady and soon have more bad men after them. Things escalate from chase, siege, more chases, and a showdown in a bowling alley as the storm builds.
In many ways, this is Joe getting back to basics.With the exception of a couple of calls Hap makes to his wife Brett and their deputy pal Manny helping out, any of the usual supporting characters only appear in the last chapter. Joe keeps the plot simple, although he makes us wonder how the damsel in distress’s story is on the up and up. It allows for a great amount of forward momentum with danger escalating as they get more and more outnumbered. Lansdale taps deeper into the pulp and fifties paperback roots of the earlier books in the series.
The Elephant Of Surprise is like a master blues man’s acoustic set. It’s taking everything to its bad ass bare essentials. Joe Lansdale shows that’s all he needs to rock.
Mark your calendars to join us April 3rd at 7pm when Joe is here to speak and sign copies.
Don Winslow delivers a conclusion to his epic trilogy at our war on drugs and it’s effect with Mexico with The Border. It puts DEA agent Art Keller as the director of the agency, devising a sting to strike at the cartel’s money and that could involve a presidential candidate, as well as dealing with the cartel wars that have risen to fill the vacuum created by the death of his nemesis Adan Berrera. This is a story told on a large canvas with several major characters, looking at every side of the narcotics epidemic. Mr. Winslow was kind enough to take a few questions from MysteryPeople about it.
1.Since this was never planned as a trilogy, what brought you back to the drug wars for a third time?
Boy, if I really knew the answer to that question, I might not have written the book. Because, you know, as you alluded to in your question, I swore that the second book that was it, I was done. The problem was, the story wasn’t done. We were looking the worst violence in Mexico since they started keeping track, the heroin epidemic here in the US, the immigration issue . . . there was just more to talk about, and, as in the first two books, I thought I had something to say about them through the medium of crime fiction. Also, if I’m being really honest, I somehow knew that I wasn’t through with the main character, Art Keller, that he had to come to some kind of reckoning with himself.
- While the title is The Border, this is the book in the trilogy that spends the most time in the United States. What lead the story in that direction?
I’ve long and often said that the ‘Mexican Drug Problem’ isn’t the Mexican Drug Problem but the American Drug Problem. We’re the consumers, we’re the ones funding the cartels and fueling the violence. That truth dictated that the story come home. As I mentioned above, I wanted to write about the heroin epidemic—to, yes, explain its Mexican connection—but also to describe it in personal terms. I also wanted to write about the current political environment here. It’s too easy to point the finger at corruption in Mexico, but we don’t look at corruption here at home.
- This is the first time you follow some addicts as main characters. Was there something that spurred that on?
Sadly, yes. I’ve been writing this story for over twenty years, and in the course of that I’ve come to develop a lot of relationships. Some were with addicts. You know that it’s rarely going to end well. (There are, there were, thank God, exceptions.) But that knowledge doesn’t really prepare you for their deaths. The ‘heroin epidemic’ is a headline, we talk a lot about numbers—and we should—but I wanted to get beneath the statistics and try to show the life of an addict from a personal level. I hope I did that, I don’t know.
- Since you killed Adan Barrera in The Cartel and The Border deals with the players filling the vacuum, how did you go after this story without the obvious Cartel kingpin antagonist?
Well, that was the point. A big part of the real-life story I wanted to tell was what happened in the post-Chapo Guzman era, the chaos that ensued as the players were trying to figure out how to fill the vacuum. That was my literary challenge as well—could I make a cast of characters as compelling as a single ‘villain’? I also wanted to write about the next generation of narcos, who were very different people than their fathers. These were kids who grew up amidst incredible wealth—how would they deal with adversity and conflict? You know, Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V are obviously great plays about a powerful king, but Henry VI, about what happens after his death, is more complex, in some ways more interesting.
- I sort of hate myself for enjoying Eddie Ruiz so much. His actions are horrible, but he’s smart, funny, and has an entertaining perspective on the life he has chose. How did you go about constructing him?
That’s funny, so do I. I always felt a little moral contempt for myself for enjoying writing the Eddie scenes so much. You know, Eddie goes back to Cartel, and I wrote him in that way because I felt I had to bring an American perspective to bring American readers into the Mexican world of the cartels. He was sort of a tour guide. In The Border, I used him in that role—to guide us through the world of prisons, Mexican gangs, money laundering. He’s also a guy who crossed the border and came back again. Dante had to go to the Inferno, but he had to come back in order to tell us about it.
- After writing and researching the drug wars for over twenty years, what is your biggest take away of it?
That we need to end the War On Drugs, legalize drugs and treat them as the social health problem that they are. Every horror story you can tell me about drugs (and, believe me, I’ve seen my fair share of them personally) have happened while drugs were illegal. What we’re doing hasn’t worked, isn’t working—the drug problem is worse than ever, more Americans died last year from drugs than in car accidents—and will never work. We will never solve the drug problem on the production end, we can only attack it on the consumption end. But to do that is going to take some deep, serious soul-searching, and I don’t know if we’re ready for that kind of honesty.
The Name of the Game Is Death is considered one of the hardest of the hard hard boiled. It’s right up there with Paul Cain’s Fast One, packed with action, tough guy dialogue, and dangerous dames. What really makes it quintessential to the genre is the hard case at the center of it.
A bank robber going by the name Earl Drake, admitting it’s not his real one, is introduced to us in the middle of one of the most exciting robberies put on paper. The job goes haywire when the getaway driver loses his cool. Earl gets shot in the arm and tells the only other survivor, Bunny, to take the money and send it to him in thousand dollar increments. When the cash quits coming, Earl goes to the return address in Hudson, Florida under the guise of a tree surgeon to find out what happened to Bunny and the loot. While digging he gets involved with the local barmaid and later on a blond post mistress tied to a sociopathic sheriff’s deputy who apparently climbed up from the Jim Thompson novel below on the spinner rack. The result is a hard boiled masterpiece that leads to an ending that could only be in a fifties or sixties crime paperback and sets us up for the even more violent sequel, One Endless Hour.
Earl Drake or whoever he calls himself at the given moment is the perfect anti-hero narrator. Like a shark he constantly moves through the story and we’re always aware how dangerous he is. He has a talent for trouble, no respect for the law, and outside of animals, little love for anyone. Even his back story from childhood up to the day of the fateful robbery is told at a quick clip and wrung of any sentimentality. However, Marlowe provides just enough human shading to avoid his falling into a tough guy parody. His narration provides the book’s drive as well as observations like “I’ve been around x-ray machines that couldn’t see as deep into a man as a woman’s eyes.”
Stark House Publishing has put out The Name of the Game Is Death in an omnibus with One Endless Hour with an introduction by Marlowe biographer Charles Kelly who tells us about the author’s own amazing true life story. Both crime novels are tight and terse with tough guy personality to spare. Dan J. Marlowe and his man Earl Drake are tarnished angels taking you to hard boiled Heaven.
Even though he only planned to write one book about DEA agent Art Keller and the myriad of players in the drug wars, Don Winslow returns to the battlefield for a third time in The Border. Now Art takes a job a head of the agency when the body of his nemesis, Adan Barrera is discovered. However, there are both old and new enemies out there and many come in the form of his allies.
In many ways it’s déjà vu all over again. Art finds himself with the heroin epidemic as when he started out in the seventies in The Power of the Dog. One of Barrera’s last actions was switching to the crop. As in real life it is the result of two things, marijuana legalization killing cartel profits from that crop and big pharma getting people hooked on opioids where they can move in and undercut the market.
After reconnecting with and marrying his love Marisol, a doctor turned mayor who survived five bullets from a cartel assassination attempt in Winslow’s The Cartel, Keller takes the director job in hopes of doing it right and seeking redemption. There is also the fact he knows of nothing else. There is a feeling of responsibility he has for the current wars in Mexico with the cartels muscling into the vacuum Barerra’s death created. As it says—He killed the wolf, now all the coyotes are out.
Art’s main thrust is to go after the money that finances and gets laundered from the cartels. He puts his eyes on a bank believed to do this with New York real estate, involved with in a deal with Jason Learner, the owner of a high rise that’s underwater. As luck would have it (good or bad, it’s hard to say), Learner is the son-in-law of a presidential candidate who has been attacking Keller on twitter. If you are a fan of our current president, you may be angry with this book. Even his name, John Dennison, has a connection to Trump. When Dennison is elected it creates a ticking clock with Keller having to make a major bust before he is fired.
Like Elliot Ness, he organizes a small trusted team for the job. His right hand man is Hugo Hidalgo, son of Ernie, who his partner Barerra tortured and killed, sparking the feud. He works with Mullens, the New York Police chief who recruits top undercover man Cirello to pose as a dirty cop the Cartels can buy and the chief as well. Many of the Cirello parts echo The Force, Winslow’s previous book.
The operation leads into and touches on a vast number of players both old and new. We follow the life of a junkie Cirello busts so he can get cozy with a New York mobster setting up a deal with Learner, brokered by American Cartel member Eddie Ruiz, a.k.a. Narco Polo, from The Cartel. We also follow others, including a ten year old Guatemalan boy who takes a dangerous trek to the U.S. to avoid the gangs running his slum.
In Mexico, Barrera’s surviving family go to war with the other cartels. They don’t have the skills from building an empire like their predecessors, but have bravado to burn. They are influenced by the pop culture and legends of their ancestors as much as the actual history. The war also pulls in two favorite characters from The Power of the Dog.
Winslow enlarges what was already a a big canvass from the previous books. While over seven hundred pages with a dozen major characters, it is never unwieldy. Each plot line moves into another without contrivance. His poet’s sense of concise word choice allows him to depict person, place, or situation fully in such a sprawling book without tampering with the forward momentum.
Whether intended as a trilogy or not, The Border proves to be the perfect conclusion to this dark epic. Winslow takes the cartel wars and our war on the cartels, dragging it to the U.S. doorstep where it belongs. He offers little hope since he argues that many of the players, especially the ones in Washington, don’t want it to end.