Three Picks for June

This month covers the big three of crime fiction protagonists: cops, private eyes, and criminals.

9780393249644Fateful Mornings by Tom Bouman

Finally, Officer Henry Farell of rural Pennsylvania returns for a second book that somehow tops Bouman’s Edgar-award-winning debut, Dry Bones. After a hippie is found murdered, investigators suspect her abusive relationship as the cause, but they soon expand widen the net as the case becomes a sordid mixture of drugs, class conflict, and more killings. A compelling hero immersed in a vivid place and beautiful writing. Fateful Mornings comes out June 27th. Pre-order now! 

9780062394408She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper

A career criminal crosses an Aryan gang who kills his ex-wife for retribution and now has sights on his eleven year old daughter, forcing him to go on one hellish road trip with her. Harper’s debut novel is a hard boiled rocket ride through a sunburned California of lost societies, violent men, and where love has to be many forms of tough. Jordan will be joining us on our New Voices Of Noir panel with Bill Loehfelm and Rob Hart on July 26th. She Rides Shotgun comes out today! You can find copies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

 

9781616957704Murder in Saint-Germain by Cara Black 

Aimee Leduc, still grieving the loss of her father and consumed by the needs of her new bebe, is one busy detective in Cara Black’s latest. Leduc Investigations is hard at work on a corporate espionage case, much to Rene’s satisfaction. When an old friend reaches out to Aimee after spotting a war criminal in a local cafe, then goes missing, Aimee has even more on her plate. Despite her busy schedule, she’s still the definition of effortless Parisian chic – read this book if you like detectives that can kick butt in 5-inch heels! (In fact, read the whole series.) Cara Black joins us to speak and sign her latest Leduc Investigation on Monday, June 12th, at 7 PM. You can find copies of Murder in Saint Germain on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

 

Supernatural Meets Psychological: MysteryPeople Q&A with Andrew Pyper

  • Interview by MysteryPeople Contributor and Blogger Scott Butki

“I felt like I could isolate the characteristics of the three general types of modern monsters – Undead, Parasite, Psychotic – and trace them back to three novels, namely Frankenstein, Dracula and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. From there, I asked myself: What if one figure combined all three of these characteristics, and directly, personally influenced the authors of those books?” – Andrew Pyper

Andrew Pyper has written a fascinating, disturbing, horrifying, engaging novel, The Only Child. For me, at least, horrifying and engaging rarely go together but they do in this book.

The brilliance of the novel (and the reason I agreed to an interview even before I started the book) stems from this premise: The female lead character is a forensic psychiatrist who often interviews violent psychotic criminals. Then she meets a man who tells her he is more than 200 years old, and was the inspiration behind Frankenstein, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula. Oh, and he lets her know that he is her father who can answer questions about why her mom was murdered when she was a child.

Now THAT is a hook. And the book lives up to that great premise.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story?

Andrew Pyper: By reading. I was following a curious thread in my mind about where our idea of monsters come from and working my way through some of the early gothic tradition, when I had this Eureka! moment. I felt like I could isolate the characteristics of the three general types of modern monsters – Undead, Parasite, Psychotic – and trace them back to three novels, namely Frankenstein, Dracula and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. From there, I asked myself: What if one figure combined all three of these characteristics, and directly, personally influenced the authors of those books? What if he was alive today? What would he want? How would he live? And to me, most interesting of all: What would it be like to be truly unique, truly alone, yet move among humanity as if you belonged?

SB: Which came first: the main character or Lily or the plot?

AP: I think the questions and curiosities I mentioned above came first. After a time of pondering those, characters arrived to embody them, answer them.

SB: How would you describe the main character, the one who says he inspired Frankenstein, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula?

AP: Though he exists without ever being named (in the sense that most of us are given a name at our births, a legacy, a signature) he calls himself Michael (after the warrior angel). Michael is a character who is a combination of characters – part historian, part searcher, part killer. He is someone who has come to justify his existence – and the damage he has done – by way of his singularity, the cost he (and all of us) must pay for the persistence of myth. He is a monster, a real one. But he is also our creation, something of human making, the ghoulish side effect of storytelling itself.

SB: Sorry, but I’m not familiar with your earlier work. How does this new novel compare to the past?

AP: I would describe my body of work as belonging to the psychological thriller tradition. I’ve only written standalones so far, and they are all quite distinct. More recently, however, I’ve more deeply and openly explored the supernatural and its mythologies: demons (The Demonologist), the afterlife (The Damned), monstrosity (The Only Child).

SB: Is this a standalone or is it going to be the first in a series?

AP: A standalone. But never say never…

SB: How did you go about researching this book?

AP: I read a lot. And traveled to every place where the book goes.

SB: What’s it like getting advanced praise including from Megan Abbott, who I understand is one of your own favorites? She wrote, “Andrew Pyper has concocted a darkly entrancing tale that sweeps you off your feet from its first pages. Filled with deliriously clever nods to the grand Gothic tradition, The Only Child is also fiercely original, wildly provocative and utterly satisfying, beginning to end.”

AP: It’s deeply gratifying when a colleague as accomplished as Megan Abbott endorses your work. Writing is solitary, and plagued with uncertainties, so when someone whom you admire says “You’re on the right track” the doubt is (at least temporarily) lifted.

SB: Do you ever get scared or surprised writing your own books?

AP: Yes. The characters surprise me all the time. But what scares me is when I bump up against moments when the events of the story feel like they could be real, that they’re being reported more than invented.

SB: I understand four of your five previous novels are in active development as movies. What’s that like?

AP: Exciting, but also fatiguing. When you’re used to being in charge – I’m the novelist around here! – being a small cog in a huge machine requires the embracing of one’s powerlessness.

SB: Here’s your bonus question: What is something you wish I asked you? Here’s your chance to ask it and answer it.

AP: Will the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup next year? I’m so glad you asked! Why yes, they will!

You can find copies of The Only Child on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: THE FORCE by Don Winslow

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MysteryPeople Double Feature: RAGE IN HARLEM by Chester Himes

MysteryPeople Partners with Authors & Auteurs for Return to Normal: A 50s Film Noir Film Series

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

rtn series

For the past few years, MysteryPeople has highlighted some of our favorite noir cinema based on crime fiction, with discussions following each screening to discuss the book and film. This year, MysteryPeople’s Double Feature film series is partnering with the Author & Auteurs Book Club for a summer of films highlighting the injustices and rot beneath the glamorous veneer of 1950s America. We’re kicking it off with a screening of A Rage In Harlem, Chester Himes’ seminal 1957 crime novel adapted into director Bill Duke’s 1991 movie, this Sunday, June 4, at 2 PM. In some ways the relationship between book and film contradicts the usual film adaptation.

A Rage In Harlem is not only a rollicking, tight, fast moving crime novel, it is a densely packed look at life and culture of the neighborhood in the title. The story follows a somewhat innocent mortician, Jackson, who loses his money and woman, Imabelle, who could easily be part of the scam. To get her back, he enlists his hustler brother Goldie. Their search maneuvers through neighborhoods and cat houses, and past preachers, hotel bell boys, gamblers, and carousers, and connects the brothers to a trunk full of treasure some bad men from Mississippi, Harlem crime boss Easy Money, and hard ass cops Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson (who become the series leads in later Himes novels) are all after.

The film does its best to capture the book. Bill Dike worked with cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita, production designer Steve Legler, and costume designer Nele Samples deliver a Harlem of bright, mostly primary colors. Forrest Whitaker and Gregory Hines play Jackson and Goldie with the broad style of the story, while making them human. Robin Givens goes an underrated turn as Imabelle, that keeps you guessing of her intentions. To capture the absurdity of Chester Himes’ work, several of the supporting characters are played by comic actors.

This is the rare occurrence where the film augments the story of the novel instead of condensing it. Himes’ tight plotting allowed for some explanation of the back story.  The film opens with an intense shootout where we learn about what happened with that trunk in Mississippi. The story is given more heart as we see how Jackson and Imabelle got together.

It is odd to discover that the book from 1957 is raunchier and more violent than a 1991 film. The adaptation proves to be a colorful look at the past, made from a novel that took a detailed look at Himes’ present. The social, political, and racial themes are less overt. The adaptation creates some disconnect, but it is still entertaining.

Double Feature Stats:

Adherence To Plot Of The Book: 4.4 out of 5

Adherence To Quality Of The Book: 3 out of 5

Further Reading: Black Orchid Blues by Persia Walker, Fearless Jones by Walter Mosely, more Chester Himes

Further Viewing: Devil In A Blue Dress, Shaft, Hoodlum

Fun Facts: Roger Ebert viewed an early cut of the film that was muddled, giving it a thumbs down on At The Movies, but after seeing the minute-shorter release version gave it a recommend print review.

The book was first published in France with the title Queen Of Fools.

You can find copies of A Rage In Harlem on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. The Authors and Auteurs Book Club will meet on Sunday, June 4th, starting at 2 PM, to screen the film adaptation of Himes’ classic work.

Film screenings for the Authors and Auteurs Book Club occur on the first Sunday of each month and are free and open to the public. Film screenings will be followed by discussion of the book versus the film. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Lori Rader Day

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Lori Rader-Day first appeared on our radar with her first crime novel, The Black Houra wicked tale of murder in academia that pleased every member of the 7% Solution Book Club when discussed. Her second foray into the genre, Little Pretty Things, takes us into a high school reunion from hell as a former student athlete investigates the murder of her recently returned frenemy, and won the Mary Higgins Clark Award.

In her third crime novel, The Day I Dieda handwriting expert with secrets to hide is recruited to analyze the ransom note left behind after a toddler’s disappearance. Soon, her son’s investigation into his own past and budding teenage rebellion will put this handwriting analyst on a collision course with her own past, leading to a denouement with a surprising amount of both action and heart. The Day I Died is an IndieNext pick for May and Lori Rader-Day will be here at the store to speak and sign her latest this Wednesday, May 31st at 7 PM. 


Molly Odintz: When I first picked up your writing, your voice, more than any plot point, was what initially drew me in. Your books explore ordinary settings in the most hard-boiled of language – did you set out to contrast the banality of the ordinary with the darkness that lurks within?

Lori Rader Day: I set out to tell a story and entertain myself. I never thought of my language as “hard-boiled.” That’s fun. But I do enjoy ordinary settings—Midwestern settings—being tainted by violence. Darkness within that leaks out into bad decisions and bad deeds.

I see what you mean about the hard-boiled language now.

MO: I’ve read a series of books recently exploring the instability of female identity and the dynamics between female friends – you go beyond the Bechdel Test in your latest to use a mystery to investigate one woman’s relationship, not with other women, but with herself at different stages. What did you want to explore about our changeable natures?

LRD: You are giving me a lot of credit here, but I like your interpretation. I wanted to write about a person willing herself into another identity—a strong woman character, we call them, right? But she’s so strong and so good at separating herself from the path she’d been on that there’s nothing in front of her. The future is wide open but by that, I mean it’s empty. I wanted to write about a character who is strong enough to survive the worst and then also doubt her choice.

MO: Atmospheric setting plays an important part in The Day I Died – which came first, the setting or the story? How did the setting influence the story (or vise versa)?

LRD: The story came first, because this story started as a short story. Thirty pages, forty. And then when one of my writing instructors told me it was a novel instead of a short story, I had to figure out what the story would be beyond the ending of the short version. For a long time, I didn’t know the setting would be so crucial to the plot. I know at one point I was shopping around for a location to set Anna’s hometown but then realized I knew exactly where it should be. I based the town on a place I had been vacationing for years in north Wisconsin, way up where it’s easy to disappear, which fed me all kinds of ideas about how Anna would feel about her home and about not being there.

MO: The Day I Died is certainly a mystery, but it’s also a book about motherhood, and the extremes to which one will go to protect one’s child (or someone else’s child). With May the month of Mother’s Day, what did you want to say about parenthood with your latest?

LRD: I’m in awe of people who become parents and take it seriously, like my friends and my sister. I’m no one’s mother. I have a dog. I started writing this story ten years ago, so maybe I was exploring the what-if of parenthood that I was not choosing.  Probably more likely, I was looking around at what my friends were choosing, and thinking what-if… that’s how the writer-brain works. You write what you know but you write what you don’t know, too.

MO: Without giving away anything about the ending, it seems like the theme of the story is personal change. Your main character has transformed her identity before, but the act of running has, in a way, restricted her identity into a mere alias, while those characters the reader expects to be frozen in time have actually changed significantly over time. To ask the broadest question possible, can any of us really change?

LRD: I think we can, in some ways. Just as a for-instance, I used to be very shy. I would have done anything to avoid public speaking. At one point I had given up writing for five years, just by letting time pass me by. And now my daily life is that I write fiction and then go talk to strangers about it.

In the book, I was careful (I hope) to leave some of these calls up to the reader. Anna doesn’t make these judgments, either, but she makes room for the judgments to be made.

MO: Your main character has an intriguing profession – why a handwriting expert, and what kind of research did you do to prepare your character for the role? Should I be glad I’m typing these questions to you rather than hand-writing them?

LRD: Back in 2007 when I was in my master of fine arts program in creative writing, I went to the library to troll for story ideas and came out with a book about handwriting. So handwriting was the origin of the entire story, and the character and everything else came after. I read that book and did some online research. Since the book was written, I’ve had the chance to talk to a handwriting specialist—who says I got it right, good news—but I never took any classes in the subject or anything. I feel like I’m disappointing people when I admit this. So you can send me a handwritten note and I won’t analyze it—I don’t know how.  

I can tell you that when I was deep in the middle of the research, my own handwriting suffered a bit. It sometimes still happens that I’ll be writing something and, mid-word, will get self-conscious and muff whatever I’m writing. Sometimes it’s my own signature.

MO: I’ve followed your crime fiction for a few years now, and I’ve watched your name become increasingly prominent. What did it feel like to win the Mary Higgins Clark award for Little Pretty Things?

LRD: It was amazing, of course, to stand on the Edgars stage accepting an award (the first year the Mary Higgins Clark was given out at the Edgar Awards). I was especially humbled because I had read all the nominated books. Reading Mary Higgins Clark books was part of my writer’s education growing up, so it was extra special to me for that reason.

MO: Your main character has suffered in her past, and in ways that (if I interpret the novel correctly) were known to her small town, yet her neighbors failed to provide her with assistance in confronting the brutality in her life. What did you want to explore about small town violence, and secrets that aren’t really secrets?

LRD: I’m really interested in small towns, having grown up in a few, but also small communities of any making, how they operate, how they break down. If violence and tragedy can bring out the best in us, it can also bring out the worst, or at least cause us to freeze and withdraw into the isolation that’s so easy out in the country. Oh, sure, we’ll have opinions, but we might not voice them, because we’ll have to live with the fall-out. So…isolation or making nice. That’s the Midwestern way, anyway. Maybe Texas does it differently.

MO: You can start to see the main character’s tattered past in the ways she reacts to the present, even before the reader is given concrete details about the character’s past – her stunted reaction to the kidnapping of a young child, and potential sympathy for the kidnapper, immediately makes her a more interesting character (to me, anyway). Which came to you first, the present-day kidnapping or the character’s backstory?

LRD: I started writing this story as a short story in 2007, so forgive me if the details of construction are a little hazy. I know I started with the handwriting and then gave that job to the character, but I think Anna’s backstory developed alongside her present self simultaneously. I enjoy ironies and parallels in my characters, so when I decided the story would be about a kidnapping, I went searching for ways that Anna might have encountered kidnapping before. I probably chose her backstory from there because it was the most complex. Writers like to give ourselves interesting assignments; I gave myself such a difficult assignment, in fact, that I had to put the book away and let my skills develop for eight years before I could write it the way I imagined it. And now I’ve given away all my writing secrets.

You can find copies of The Day I Died on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Lori Rader Day comes to BookPeople to speak and sign her latest on Wednesday, May 31st, starting at 7 PM. 

A (Partial) Atlas of Texas Crime Fiction

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

A hard land with a difficult history, Texas has always lent itself well to crime fiction. From the crime fiction greats who helped define the genre to those writers shaping the landscape of crime fiction today, Texas has a long tradition of social critiques and sendoffs of hypocrisy (the hallmarks of Texas crime fiction, in my opinion) delivered via murder mystery. Tales of Texas history may gaslight their audiences into believing in the state as a land of triumph, but we crime fiction readers know the dark, murderous truth about the land we call home….

Below, you’ll find an incomplete (of necessity) guide to Texas crime fiction, brought to y’all in honor of Texas Mystery Writers Month (that is, May). Emphasis is placed on well-known classic writers and the wide array of new crime fiction released in the past few years. We know we’re leaving out quite a few of the Texas mystery writer greats, and many of the good one-off novels. Some have gone out of print; others have simply dropped off our radar as we find new voices to champion.

(Nearly) all of the books cited in this piece are available on BookPeople’s shelves, and all are available for special order via BookPeople’s website. Here’s a link to a resource guide to Texas cozies (woefully neglected in this piece, and we do apologize). Stop, You’re Killing Me! has an impressively thorough guide to Texas mysteries.  The Whitliff Collection has also put together an excellent resource guide to Texas mysteries as part of their Southwestern Writers Collection – you can view a pdf bibliography of Lone Star Sleuths here.

As a Texas Monthly article pointed out in this piece from 2013, Patricia Highsmith once lived in Dallas, a setting defined by capital-S Society, and made her career as the Henry James of pulp fiction, stripping back the beautiful veneers of characters to get to the rotten motivations and churning anxieties of the 1950s. Jim Thompson used his cheerful killers and sadistic sheriffs to critique the racial divides of the South, and in The Killer Inside Me, even has us cheering on his equal opportunity killers, as they forgo bigotry in favor of a more universally-minded corruption. Rick Riordan in the 80s and 90s helped define a city-based Texas crime fiction for a new era of start-ups and Californians, starting with Big Red Tequila, while Kinky Friedman’s hilarious and idiosyncratic Hill-Country-set detective novels helped define the rural romps that have complemented Thompson’s brutally dark portraits of East Texas.

These are the two main threads of Texas crime fiction still today – tales of the city and the hypocrisy beneath its polite surface, and stories of small town secrets, where no matter how much prejudice is visible on the surface, there’s always more hidden beneath. Joe R. Lansdale continues Thompson’s mantle (with added horror and humor) in his Hap & Leonard series, as well as his stand-alone novels The Thicket and Sunset & Sawdustpreserving the beauty of East Texas speech and nature while not shying away from the crass, casual brutality of East Texas lives, all while pointing out the absurdities of his setting and his characters.

Melissa Lenhardt’s Jack McBride series take place in similar territory, but in a much different context. Set in the fictional East Texas town of Stillwater, the series was inspired by a talk Lenhardt heard about Texas civic history comparing two towns over time. “One town was a boom and bust town, whose fortunes relied on the success of the latest industry, usually oil and gas. The other town focused on steadier, slower growth. They never got so caught up in the boom that they neglected to nurture other aspects of their economy,” she explained to us in an interview earlier this year. Her novel’s criminal kingpin ” likes the boom and bust model because he’s gotten rich from it either way. When people are doing well, they use his legitimate businesses. When things are going poorly, his illegal business is there to make people feel better.” Meanwhile, her more civically minded characters understand that “the boom and bust path isn’t sustainable, especially when young people are leaving, instead of moving in.”

Speaking of boom towns, Houston’s the happening place for several recent crime novels, each adding another layer to our understanding of sin in the sunset city. The oil towns of Houston and Beaumont provide particularly rich settings for crime fiction – Southern power dynamics come up against energy politics, inspiring tales of corruption and alienation, set in boardrooms, back rooms, highways and highrises.

Attica Locke, of Empire fame, has written two novels, Black Water Rising and Pleasantvillefollowing lawyer Jay Porter as he fights for civil rights, uncovers vast political conspiracies, and solves quite a few murders. Her highly anticipated upcoming novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, is due out in September.  Melissa Ginsberg explores alienation and jealousy on the Houston highways in her sultry debut, Sunset CityAmy Gentry uses the Houston suburbs as the perfect setting to explore instability of identity in her debuGood As Gonedetailing the fallout caused by a kidnapping victim’s return home after many years.

Over in Beaumont, Lisa Sandlin turned the PI formula on its head with her novel The Do-Right, featuring a naive private detective assisted by a world-weary secretary. Nic Pizzolatto, of True Detective fame, takes us on the run from New Orleans to Galveston in the violent and aptly named Galvestonwhile the writing trio Miles Arceneaux ventures up and down the Gulf Coast and back and forth in time in their salty tales.

The Hill Country is defined by the subgenres of fish-out-of-water tales and humerous stories continuing Kinky Friedman’s legacy. Austin music legend Jesse Sublett’s bass-playing, skip-tracing sleuth Martin Fender took the musician mystery to dark places and new heights in three now classic tales, while his most recent foray into crime writing explores the outrageous antics of the Overton Brothers, real-life football players-turned-robbers, in 1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime That Rocked The Capital. 

Terry Shames’ Samuel Craddock mysteries explore small-town central Texas secrets, drawing occasional inspiration from the Texas of Shames’ childhood but containing a set of intertwined mysteries all its own. Samuel Craddock, Shames has said, is based on her own grandfather, a trusted problem-solver in his town even after giving up the mantle of legal authority.

George Wier’s charming and humerous small town novels – his website describes his works as a “Texas take on pulp adventure,” and we couldn’t agree more. Helen Curry-Foster’s Hill-Country-set Alice MacDonald Greer novels draw upon the author’s career as an environmental lawyer for a series sure to please all who appreciate the beauty of Central Texas, and the quirky figures that live there. Ben Rehder’s satiric Blanco County mysteries feature a central Texas game warden involved in an inordinate number of murders, despite his wish to stay out of trouble.

Austin-based lawyer and writer Mark Pryor mainly sets his tales overseas, but his latest, Hollow Manfeaturing a musician and sociopath, continues the tradition of Austin mysteries grounded in a world of live music and the occasional dead body. Manning Wolfe, also a lawyer, has recently launched her Merit Badges series with Dollar Signs: Lady Lawyer vs. Boots Kingan eclectic and entertaining legal thriller.

Gabino Iglesias, in Zero Saints, takes the reader from Mexico to Austin with protagonist Fernando as he flees danger at home, only to find more violence in his new city. Lisa Lutz’ latest novel, The Passenger, also stops off in the capital city, following a woman on the run after the suspicious death of her hated husband. She finds herself in Austin just long enough to switch identities with a woman named Blue in a bar, only to find herself pursued by Blue’s enemies.

South Texas has surprisingly few crime novels given how many stories the region has to tell – or at least, we weren’t able to find many while preparing this piece. The Land Grant, by Carlos Cisneros, is a legal thriller diving into a long-term dispute between heirs to an estate and the Catholic Church along the border.  Rick Riordan helped bring San Antonio as a setting to mystery readers with his Tres Navarre series (before he moved into the world of children’s fiction). Although known for his San Antonio setting, we highly recommend his tale of murder, intrigue and copyright in the wild west of 90s start-ups, The Devil Went Down To Austinto all Austinites. The tale is particularly notable for its hilariously dated technological threats combined with completely contemporary cutthroat competition.

West Texas is better represented in the genre as of 2017. Minerva Koenig’s tales of a reformed criminal relocated to West Texas as part of the Witness Protection Program celebrates the classic tough Texas heroine with a twist as the transplant grows into her new home. Tony Perez-Giese’s Send More Idiots takes us to El Paso and Juarez as a man searches for his brother, disappeared by a cartel. J. Todd Scott’s The Far Empty takes us into a generational feud between a sheriff and his son over the death of the sheriff’s wife, set against the background of cartels and corruption.

Ever since we wondered who shot J.R., North Texas has been a riveting setting for all kinds of fictionalized murder. Mark Gimenez’s The Color of Law guides the reader through crime and corruption in Dallas, while delivering an impassioned defense of a prostitute wrongfully accused of murder. Kathleen Kent’s The Dime takes us into the Dallas Police Department from the perspective of an outsider just transferred in from New York.

Reavis Wortham’s Red River mysteries explore life in small-town North Texas, as the townspeople experience the vast upheavals of mid-century America (along with a few murders). Alexandra Burt’s The Good Daughter takes us into a small North Texas town where uncovered bodies soon lead to uncovered family secrets. In Julia Heaberlin’s Black-Eyed Susansa woman looks into her own appearance in a Texas field at age 16 and attempts to discover both her identity and the wider implications of her disappearance and reappearance.

Texas crime fiction is defined by ambiguity and ambition – an author may delight in the poetry of Texas vernacular one moment, while instilling horror in its content the next. The casual brutality of Texas history means the reader never has to worry about a murder’s plausibility (unlike Maine), and the complex, layered threads of human lives in Texas make for an endless number of stories. Like with many industries, Texas and California are the powerhouses of US crime fiction, but unlike the two states’ political narratives, the two centers of crime fiction don’t compete – they only complement.

One could argue with the notion of any one thread of Texas crime writing (although the legal thriller does seem to dominate in terms of form). Like the state itself, crime fiction reflects and rejects a number of legends, myths and uncomfortable truths. Texas stories, like Texas lives, do not restrict themselves to the lines on a map. The border is as artificial of a construct in crime fiction as it is in politics, and Texas-set crime novels are as likely to cross the border, or into another state or country, as any other American story.

Texas is not only a setting – it is also a large, nurturing environment for all kinds of writers, including many who choose not to write about Texas. Some would say that it’s easier to write about a place once a writer has moved on to a new location, and some of those best suited to write Texas tales are those with an emotional or physical distancing from the state itself. We haven’t mentioned any of the many authors who call Texas home for some or all of the year, yet set their works outside the state, and writing programs like the Michener Center draw plenty of budding writers to Texas, while the endless experiences lived in this state translate to endless more opportunities for artistic creation.

You can find the works listed above either on BookPeople’s shelves or available for special order via our website. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Ace Atkins

 

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

 Ace Atkins’ latest book featuring Robert B Parker’s Spenser, Little White Lies, sends the Boston PI down south to track down a con man who uses God, guns, and patriotism in his swindles. It is an entertaining and timely novel with a keen and subtle eye directed toward our current society. We stopped Ace for a moment in his exhaustive writing schedule to talk about it some.

MysteryPeople Scott: This is loosely based on an article you worked on for Outside Magazine, The Spy Who Scammed Us, about a con man. What made you want to explore some of the article’s aspects in fiction?

AA: I’ve written about many con men as a journalist. Several in my days as a crime reporter for The Tampa Tribune. The Outside piece didn’t play as much into this story as the national news story on a man named Wayne Simmons. Simmons was recently outed as a CIA fraudster who’d made hundreds of appearances on FOX news. He represented himself as a top Company man with time in black ops who talked about delicate matters of international importance. It turned out, he was a former used car salesman who was never vetted by producers at FOX.

MPS: Did having a con man as the antagonist present anything unique to the story telling?

AA: A con man is always a wonderful character in a novel because their motivation, identity and goals are hidden. I’ve always been long fascinated by them as a journalist wondering how much of their BS do they actually believe. Every con men I’ve ever written about has a degree of sociopath in them.

MPS: It has a lot of elements that would have made for a Quinn Colson novel. What made you choose Spenser for the hero?

AA: Yes! Absolutely. I could definitely have made this a Quinn Colson book but brought it to Spenser’s desk. I thought it was a unique case for Spenser and a great opportunity to take him down South. Also what the character of M. Brooks Welles represents is wholly antithetical to the Spenser code. A con man seldom has a code. Or honor.

MPS: Did Spenser allow you to view the South in a different way as an author, that a native like Quinn couldn’t?

AA: Absolutely. I had a great time bringing Spenser back to Atlanta. He’d been there before but getting to write it as native Southerner was great fun. I got to view the South as an outsider which is always fun.

MPS: I was happy to see Spenser pull Tedy Sapp out of retirement. Was there a particular reason you chose him as back up with Hawk?

AA: In Bob’s book, Hugger Mugger, Tedy was Spenser’s main sidekick. Big, tough, ex military and gay, he was a wonderful Spenser character. When the story wound down to Georgia, I knew Tedy would be on Spenser’s speed dial. It was fun for me — an hopefully fans — to see him again.

MPS: You’ll be at our store on Friday, July 21st, at 7 PM for your latest Quinn Colson book, The Fallen. What can you tell us about it?

AA: The Fallen was written in the first 100 days to Donald Trump. It’s about as current and modern as it gets. Quinn takes on a team of top notch bank robbers who work heists dressed as Donald J. When they hit banks, they announced — Wild Bunch style — “anyone moves and I’ll grab ’em by the p***y!”

You can find copies of Robert B. Parker’s Little White Lies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.