Terrence P. McCauley is a jack of all trades genre writer. He applies great craft to his short stories whether they be prohibition era gangster, modern spy, or private eye. His latest book, Dark Territory, is a action packed western featuring his sheriff Aaron Mackey. In this short story, publisher din Shotgun Honey, he gives us an entertaining crime tale.
As a former journalist and a fan of mysteries I’m a bit biased in favor of books about the news media written by current and former journalists. I thought I should mention that as I introduce an interview about the latest book by R.G. Belsky, Below The Fold.
While those books had a protagonist named Gil Malloy, this new book has an intriguing protagonist named Clare Carlson, a TV news director who still has a reporter’s instincts.
As the book begins one of the news reporters wants to go against the grain and do a news piece on the murder of a woman who is homeless. While that story would often not get much media attention Clare approves a story about this woman who called herself Cinderella.
Soon there are more murders, more victims, more questions.
And with that, let’s get to the interview.
Scott Butki: How did this story come together?
R.G. Belsky: I’ve worked for many years in the media (at the NY Post, NY Daily News, Star magazine and NBC News). We in the media are frequently criticized for only focusing on sensational, high profile crimes in our coverage. Like O.J., Jon Benet, Casey Anthony etc. So I decided I wanted to write a book where a media person—Clare Carlson, news director of a New York TV station—decides to cover a murder that normally would be ignored: the death of a homeless woman on the streets of Manhattan. In this case, a seemingly insignificant death leads to links to powerful and influential figures which turned it into a sensational headline murder. But I wanted to show how every murder victim can have a story, once a journalist goes looking for it.
Scott: Which comes first for you, the characters or the plot?
R.G.: I’m very big on the importance of character. If I like the character, I’ll read a mystery novel even if the story isn’t great. But a great story won’t keep me turning the pages of a book where I don’t relate to the character or characters. So obviously I follow the same approach in writing my own mysteries. Clare Carlson, my character, comes first. I figure if I can get her right readers will follow her wherever the story leads…
Scott: In what ways is the protagonist, Clare, the news director for a New York City TV station, similar and different from you?
R.G.: Well, she’s a woman, and I’m not. I suppose there are some similarities between Clare and me. But I didn’t really create her based on me. I drew my inspiration from a lot of terrific journalists—men and women—that I’ve worked with in newsrooms over the years. People who became obsessed with their jobs and with breaking the big story—even if the rest of their life suffered as a consequence. As I frequently have said, “I’ve known a lot of Clare Carlsons in my life.”
Scott: When I last interviewed you here, you were doing a series starring Gil Malloy. Why did you switch to a series featuring Clare? Did you base Clare on people you have worked with?
R.G.: Clare was not originally meant to be a series. In 2016, the same year as the last Gil Malloy book came out, I won the Claymore Award at Killer Nashville for a manuscript about a woman journalist who is hiding long-buried secrets about a sensational missing child case that she’s been covering. It was meant to be a stand-alone book based on this one story.
But the character, Clare Carlson, worked so well I was asked by my publisher to turn it into a series. I’m sure glad, because I love writing about Clare.
Scott: Did you decide to write about the news media in your novels as a way to draw on your knowledge and experience?
R.G.: Absolutely. I’m a great believe in the “write what you know” approach to being a fiction author. I know a lot about newsrooms and the media, so that’s where I set all my books. Besides, if I wrote about lawyers or spies or anything else, I’d have to do a lot of research. And, believe me, I hate doing research! But seriously, I believe my media background adds an air of authenticity to my books which hopefully makes Clare more interesting to the reader.
Scott: What do you hope readers will take away from your books?
R.G.: That it was a good read! Fun, entertaining, thought provoking—and all that kind of stuff. I write books with the idea that I want them to be like the kind of books that I like to read myself. I figure that if I like my books, other people will too. As a mystery reader, I love reading characters like Harry Bosch, Spenser and Kinsey Millhone. As a TV mystery fan, I loved The Rockford Files and Columbo. So I tried to draw on elements from all that when I created Clare Carlson. I want people to enjoy spending time with Clare.
Scott: What DO you think on the true state of journalism today?
R.G.: Oh, my! We could talk for hours about this. Yes, journalism has changed dramatically since I started my career. Back in the 1980s, we used to sell a million copies a day of the New York Post—and everyone got their news from newspapers or TV. Now print newspapers are shrinking or dying rapidly, and many people get their news from smart phones, tablets, and websites. But I’m not some old “get off my lawn” journalist who wants to tell you how terrible journalism is today. I spent several years recently working as a managing editor with NBC News digital coverage—and discovered all the possibilities that social media opens up for journalists. I mean we still have three newspapers in New York City, but we have many, many more news websites springing up every day. Good journalism is good journalism, no matter how it is delivered to the reader.
Scott: What is it like to get blurbs and praise from such authors as Douglas Preston and Michael Koryta, and Meg Gardiner?
R.G.: Yes, I’m always blown away when someone whose work I admire likes my book! In addition to the ones you’ve mentioned, I’ve also gotten praise for the Clare Carlson series from Lee Goldberg, Hank Phillippi Ryan and Reed Farrel Coleman. I only seek author blurbs from writers whose work I really enjoy reading (I figure that way there’s a decent chance they’ll like my stuff too). A long time ago I even got an author blurb from Michael Connelly. Now if I could just figure out a way to get a copy of my next book to Stephen King….
Scott: Is it true that you helped create the famous “Headless Body in Topless Bar” headline? Tell me about how you come up with it?
R.G.: Yes, I was in the New York Post city room when the most famous—or infamous—tabloid headline ever was written. It involved a holdup man who murdered someone at a topless bar, then cut off the victim’s head. I didn’t write the headline, but my role in that historic journalistic moment is chronicled here.
The funny thing is I’ve worked in journalism for decades, and accomplished some pretty significant things along the way, But, if you google me, you’ll find the most prominent thing is being a part of the “Headless Body in Topless Bar” headline. Go figure!
Scott: What are you working on next?
R.G.: The third book in the Clare Carlson series, The Last Scoop, will be out in 2020. I’m just finishing up the editing on that now. In this one, Clare is on the trail of a serial killer even scarier than Son of Sam or Ted Bundy or the Zodiac. Which was interesting to do because I’ve covered Son of Sam and other serial killers so extensively over the years as a journalist. Of course, there is also ongoing drama surrounding Clare’s personal life, which I love to write about too. If you like Clare in the first two books, I think you’ll want to read this one too!
May is Texas Mystery Month. The crime fiction of MysteryPeople’s home state often has a western or rural feel, yet we have several that take place in our big city. We’re pretty open minded about who we murder here. Just like barbecue, everyone down here has their way of doing it. Here are five must reads by Texas authors, covering East to West Texas and everything in between.
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson—Still one of the most chilling books ever written. Lou Ford is a deputy of a small town in West Texas and a psychotic killer. Thompson gets into Lou’s dark mind as he deals out and covers up his crimes while looking at the society around him that doesn’t appear to be much more sane.
Big Red Tequila by Rick Riordan—Before he created Y.A. hero Percey Jackson, Riordan he gave us Tres Nevarre, an young professor in medieval history who returns to his San Antonio home and is greeted with a murder frame. This book sets up what will become one of the funkiest and entertaining private eye series ever.
Mucho Mojo by Joe R Lansdale—There has to be a Hap and Leonard book in here, and this second in the series is the best and introduces all the main characters and ingredients in a perfect mix. The boys uncover old history, a murder charge, and a few people gunning for them when they discover a boy’s skeleton in the basement of Leonard’s recently deceased grandfather.
The Last Death Of Jack Harbin by Terry Shames—The second book in the series featuring Samuel Craddock has the retired chief of police looking into the murder of the town football hero who returned from Iraq a quadriplegic, only to end up murdered. The emotions ring true in this heart breaker of a novel.
The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott—A new deputy does a deadly dance with his boss, pulling several others in with them, when what could be the body of the sheriff’s missing wife is discovered. Scott, a practicing DEA agent, delivers a gritty, multi-character masterpiece on the border that puts No Country For Old Men to shame.
Last year Laird Barron introduced us to Isaiah Coleridge, a former mob enforcer, doing his best to go straight and be a hero in the series debut, Blood Standard. In the follow up, Black Mountain, Coleridge has set himself up as a P.I. and is hired by his old bosses to track down a vicious killer that leads to a mountain research facility and a lot of dark secrets. Laird will be here to discuss Black Mountain Thursday, May 8th at 7PM on BookPeople’s second floor. We were able to get some questions in ahead of time.
1. This is the first time you’ve taken on a series character. Did you notice any difference writing the next chapter in someone’s story?
I’ve written recurring characters in my horror stories, especially pro final girl, Jessica Mace. Her adventures are more episodic, so yes, working with Coleridge takes me into different territory. I envision the novels as chapters of his saga. Each tells a complete story, but the overarching narrative continues. There’s a certain comfort (even amidst the darkness and trauma that Coleridge endures) in returning to the familiar. It’s also intriguing to realize that if you keep digging, the “familiar” will change into something else entirely.
2. What has series character allowed you to do?
I’m pretty much doing what I’ve always done in terms of storytelling. The scale is much larger. I’m working on the third book in the series to hand in this fall. That’s roughly a quarter million words spent inside the head of one character. It allows me to peel Coleridge, his associates, and the universe he inhabits like an onion.
3. How has Isaiah changed from Blood Standard?
Coleridge went through the fire as a kid. Adversity forged him into a phenomenally strong and tough individual. He’s near the height of his powers in Blood Standard. But times are changing, as Black Mountain and its follow-up will demonstrate. All those broken bones, concussions, and impromptu blood donations have exacted a toll that becomes more apparent by the day. His shooting hand isn’t as steady. He’s lost half a step. And he’s beginning to run into younger, deadlier opponents. The other half of the equation is the idea of redemption. Is it enough for a black hat to go straight? Do current noble actions outweigh evil committed in the past?
I adore the action hero genre. I also want to write about a world where meaningful consequences exist. Where the shit a hero steps in sticks to his heel. Coleridge fulfills the role of a heroic (or anti-heroic) badass. The consequences are that he has an army-length train of baggage, he’s in decline, and the Eternal Footman is holding his coat with a big smile.
4. One of the things that makes Black Mountain an interesting read is that you think it’s one subgenre, then it turns into another, and another. On the page it looks seamless, but did you find it a challenge?
The Coleridge series fuses multiple genres because I write for myself as much as I write for the theoretical audience. It’s another case of taking something I’ve done for years (writing short fiction genre hybrids) and applying it to a novel. My protagonist doesn’t neatly fit into a checkbox and neither does his story. Translating it from my subconscious feels like peering into a kaleidoscope where the central image is crystal clear and distinct while the peripheral elements are fractured and unstable.
The only rule I’ve set for myself is that the backbone of the series is crime/mystery. Horror and weirdness lurk at the margins, but no different than the waking world. We are surrounded by unfathomable mysterious, contradictions, and wonders. Coleridge gets to rub up against that stuff too.
5. Oestryke proves to be a formidable antagonist. How did you approach him?
The Croatoan, as some mobsters have dubbed Oestryke, is a bogeyman antagonist. He’s at the epicenter of a web of mysteries, conspiracy theories, and legends. Ultimately what’s true or apocryphal in regard to the character takes a backseat to the dreadful reputation he enjoys. The less said, the better. He might be listening.
6. When we met last year, I was impressed about your film and book knowledge, even outside the genres you’re known for. How has being an avid reader and student of what you’ve read enhanced your writing?
John D. MacDonald, Robert Parker, Angela Carter, Peter Straub, Kelly Link, Roger Zelazny, and William Goldman made me a better writer. So did Charles Simic, Mark Strand, and Anne Sexton. That’s the short list; the off-the-top-of-my-head list.
If you have a writing question, the greats who came before us (and the ones who are still here, toiling, have already answered it. They even wrote it down for you. The trick is knowing what questions are important and to recognize the corresponding answers are merely representative examples.
I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I pay attention to what the best among us have done and contribute however I am able.
Buckskin is Robert Knott’s latest continuation continuation of the saga of Appaloosa Arizona lawmen Hitch and Cole created by Robert B. Parker. As a blizzard blows in, they have to deal with a war between mining interests, a mysterious killer picking off citizens, and a mysterious one, The Kid, riding into town. Humor is added to the story with the women in Hitch and Cole’s life. Bob will be here May 8th at 7PM on BookPeople’s second floor to discuss and sign Buckskin. He was kind enough to take some early questions from us about the west, western genre, and writing women.
- One of the reasons this became one of my favorite in the series is because the plot deals with Appaloosa’s politics and commerce, which was at the root of many known gunfights and western wars. What made the politics different in a growing western town like Appaloosa from a city on the east coast at the time?
Keep in mind the edge of the universe in 1847 was basically Saint Louis, Missouri. So westward expansion comprised of easterners. Expats or deserters from the east. Not until later, after the Civil War were people actually born in the west. Kit Carson was from Saint Louis; Jesse James from Missouri, his family from Kentucky; William Clark Quantrill was from Ohio; Custer was from Ohio; Hickok from Illinois; Billy the Kid was from New York City. Many westerners were foreigners, like the Irishman and the Frenchman in Buckskin. So these influences are alive and well in the west, and I like to keep them alive in my books. But the difference is, they were gamblers who ventured onto the western frontier seizing opportunity void or and distancing themselves for the Victorian constraints, taxes, and general government rule.
- The women in Hitch and Cole’s lives prove to be just as formidable as the gunmen they go up against. How do you approach writing the women characters, particularly of this period?
I grew up with strong women in my family. I have always been attracted to strong female characters. Characters with a strong point of view but characters whose thoughts, feelings, and choices are as active and important, and in many cases more important, than their male counterparts.
- You have a mysterious killer, The Kid, coming into town to bring even more trouble. How did you come up with him?
Identity, love, and circumstances have always been a theme I like to work with. For the Kid, his life was void of identity and love, and it was circumstances that made him do the things he did, and it was circumstances that made him who he was. I think that telling, is universal. Most trouble and conflict, comes from these basic circumstances.
- One of the things this series gets praised for is the dialogue between Hitch and Cole. Is there anything you try to keep in mind when writing for them?
What they are saying and what they aren’t saying at the same time gives them a richness. They are not just helping tell the story. Their dialogue is not just expositional. Don’t get me wrong, these are men who say what they mean and mean what they say. But there is also their code within their conversations. They own the ground they walk on. They do not back up or apologize, only because they—not like politicians or game show hosts—have nothing to apologize for. Hitch and Cole’s circumstances in life dealt them cards that embolden nobility.
- The two do more detective work on this one. What did you enjoy about that aspect of the book?
I think with all my books they have been more detectives than straight up lawmen. Mainly because it is not always convenient who the antagonists are in these books. It is for H&C to figure that out. Most westerns identify the bad guy, and in the end the bad guy will most often fall. But with these books, Buckskin included, the bad guys are generally good guys gone bad and many times, like with Buckskin we don’t know who they are. Which is really what bad guys truly are. Again circumstances. Circumstances are what fills the prisons or the free streets across the globe.
- One thing about this series is that you always feel like you’ve read a traditional western yet it doesn’t feel like the same thing. Are there any western cliches you try to avoid?
Thanks Scott, I’m glad you see that, feel that way after, and while you are reading. I try to approach everything I do with the intention that what I am doing is not derivative. That is of course impossible, but I try. I want the books, Buckskin included, to have an unexpected quality. Like with this one, you mentioned the women. The true central characters in the western are women. Each with their own important story and none of them are whores or farmers daughters, or homemaking homesteaders. They all have a unique voice and point of view and history and well . . . that is not traditional for the western genre.
The May meeting for The Murder In The Afternoon Book Club will be have a special guest. We will be discussing David C. Taylor’s Night Work, the second novel featuring, postwar N.Y.P.D. detective Michael Cassidy. David will be joining us, live and person at our discussion.
Night Work takes place in the late late fifties, dealing with Cuba. First Cassidy brings multiple murder to Havana right before Castro and his rebels strike. He learns that Dylan, the KGB agent he fell for in Night Life, has been imprisoned by Batista’s men and hatches a plan to get her out. Months after he is pulled off a homicide case to protect Castro during his visit to New York, putting himself in the cross hairs of the mob, CIA, and others interested in seeing the leader killed. David masterfully weaves time, place, and plot together.
He’ll tell us how he does it among other things. He’s a great guy with a long writing history that includes the Rockford Files, Kojak, and the cult movie Get Crazy. Join us on BookPeople’s third floor Monday May 20th, at 1pm. The Book is at 10% off to those who attend.
You can also meet David the day before on May 19th at 2PM as he signs and discusses the follow up to Night Work, Night Watch.
Each of this month’s three picks are written by authors who will be at BookPeople. Stop by, hear how they approached their novel, and get a copy signed.
Black Mountain by Laird Barron—The second Isiah Coleridge novel has the ex-mod enforcer hanging out a private investigator shingle. He’s hired by his old bosses to track down a brutal killer who has taken out some of their men. The search leads to a secret mountain research facility and a government cover up. Laird creates one of the strongest hard boileds out there with a touch of the serial killer and horror tale as well. Laird Barron will be at BookPeople May 9th at 7PM.
Robert B. Parker’s Buckskin by Robert Knott—Appaloosa lawmen Hitch and Cole have to contend with a war between two mines and their hired guns, a mysterious killer in town, and one riding into town, all with a blizzard blowing in. Neither of the women in their lives make it any easier either. Knott brings a little more detective work to this latest entry to the series as well the swift action and laconic banter delivered by it’s two heroes that make it one of the best. Bob will be here May 8th at 7PM.
An Accidental Cuban by Joan Moran—Harry Cisneros, a young Cuban, works at every hustle to get his family to the states. when he thinks he has found a way to his dreams with a shady businessman with a money exchange scheme, it soon becomes a nightmare with Russian mobsters. An entertaining crime novel that gives a vivid look at Cuba in transition. Joan Moran will be joining David C. Taylor (Night Watch) for a discussion and signing on May 19 at 2PM.