To celebrate International Crime Fiction Month we’re giving our Crime Fiction Friday slot over to Akashic Books, known for their anthologies of noir tales that all take place in a particular city, and their Monday’s Are Murder post with a crime story that also takes place in a city and has to be under 500 words. One of their regular contributors is Irish writer Seamus Scanlon. Here, he looks at a murder in Galway where you’ll never hear a certain Neil Young song the same way again.
For June, we have two different kind of men dueling it out with Mexican drug cartels in nature in the present and a big city newspaper man finding the truth in a flashy New York of the past. All have struck a great balance between character and pace.
Damon Runyon’s Boys by Michael Scott Cain
In postwar New York, a reporter looks into the murder of a dance troupe leader and uncovers a plot that puts the mob on him. Cain’s vivid recreation of the glitzy Big Apple in its Broadway heyday and appearances by Walter Winchell, an young Truman Capote, and others make this a fun historical hard boiled that pops.
Bearskin by James A McLaughlin
Hiding from a drug cartel, Rice Moore serves as the caretaker of a remote game preserve in Appalachia. When a poaching ring starts butchering bears, he makes new enemies while getting attention of the old ones. A crime thriller that understands the humanity of its characters and the violence they create.
Hawke’s War by Reavis Z. Wortham
Texas Sonny Hawke finds himself lured into a trap in Big Bend National Park, where he has to fend of terrorists and a drug cartel out for revenge. Halfway through this book, you may feel sorry for the bad guys in this fun shoot-em’-up with vivid supporting characters, villains who you can’t wait to get their comeuppance, and a killer pace. Reavis Z. Wortham will be at BookPeople July 8th along with Ben Redher and Billy Kring.
This month’s pick of the month was reviewed by Meike Alana, from the BookPeople event staff and a guest blogger for MysteryPeople.
James Ziskin is a perennial favorite here at MysterPeople, so it’s no surprise his latest Ellie Stone mystery, A Stone’s Throw, is our June Pick of the Month. The Edgar-nominated series is set in the early 1960’s and features twenty-something girl reporter Ellie Stone. She’s one of my favorite characters in the canon—wise beyond her years but at times naïve and impetuous, steady as they come with the occasional flare of irresponsibility, deeply moral but hard-drinking and promiscuous. Ellie is a realistically flawed, equally strong and vulnerable female character—in other words an authentic young woman–and that can be a novelty on the darker side of the genre. The fact that she’s penned by a man who is—well, let’s say his 20’s were a few years ago—is nothing short of incredible and speaks to Ziskin’s tremendous talent.
This time around Ellie becomes entrenched in the world of horse racing, particularly the seedier side populated by gangsters and thugs. On a sleepless night she follows a police scanner call about a fire at an abandoned stud farm outside Saratoga. While investigating a story for her newspaper, Ellie almost literally stumbles over two bodies that have been burned beyond recognition. She sets out to discover the identities of the two victims; when she learns the fire was sent intentionally she becomes determined to find their killer as well.
To do so she has to convincingly enter the world of horse racing, one to which she’s had no exposure. She needs a guide, someone who understands the history of the sport and the ins and outs of placing a bet. It turns out that Ellie’s best friend Fadge Fiorello is just such an expert. He does show her the ropes at the track and educates her about the key players; unfortunately he’s too busy studying the Racing Form to realize that this just could have been his chance to really impress Ellie. (Instead he has her worrying about his gambling habits….) Through old-fashioned, methodical detective work Ellie is able to piece together the story that caused those 2 individuals to lose their lives.
One of the unique things about this series is that each installment deals with a particular social issue of the time—homophobia, misogyny, sexism. Ziskin’s done his research here because he never strikes a false note with his depictions of the past. There’s no nostalgic sugar coating—he’s careful not to cast a rosy glow over what was often a turbulent time. While the world of horse racing can be a glamorous one, it has an unseemly side which Ziskin delves into here.
The Ellie Stone mysteries have been recognized by a slew of awards—winner of the Anthony and Macavity and nominated for the Edgar, Barry, and Lefty awards and all of those accolades are earned. Ziskin is a linguist by training and that shows in the lyricism of his prose. We hope he can come up with many more titles involving the word Stone so we can keep watching Ellie grow.
Backflash is the second outing of Richard Stark’s tough as nails robber Parker after his twenty year hiatus. After the few slightly more involved books before it, we get a bare bones, down and dirty heist novel. The simplicity proves refreshing.
What makes the story unique is the target. We begin in vintage mid-action Stark fashion with Parker and his cohort Howell going off the road and crashing down a hill during a police chase. Parker goes against his cold blooded nature and leaves Howell pinned in the car for the police, instead of rubbing him out so he doesn’t talk. He hears of his death, but soon gets a message from Howell, telling him to meet a man named Catham. Catham in a state bureaucrat with inside knowledge of a gambling boat that travels down the Hudson. He can give all the details about the boat for ten percent of the score. For Parker a travelling boat is a “cell”, something hard to get in and out with the money and the small amount Catham is asking for makes him suspicious, yet he’s compelled to bring in some folks from previous jobs and a river rat who knows the Hudson and pull off an elegant plan. A few surprises and some hardened bikers prove to get in the way.
Some readers found Backflash too formulaic, but that was part of the enjoyment for me. It took me back to the earlier books when Stark had just invented the formula. Watching Parker pull off a job like this is like watching a trained athlete pull of a feat with a high degree of difficulty, dealing with both foreseen and unseen circumstances. By sticking to the tried and true, the book moves smooth and fast.
Backflash may not be anything new under the sun, but it still shines bright. Even to this day, no one puts a thief through their paces like Richard Stark. Every bad man (fictional) should be so lucky.
Ruth Ware’s fourth book, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, is another one of her great psychological thrillers.
Ware previously wrote three excellent novels: In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, and The Lying Game. The latter two were on the top ten bestseller lists of The New York Times and the U.K.’s Sunday Times. All three books have been optioned for screen.
This book is good, similar fare full of twists and suspense. The story revolves around Hal, a young tarot card reader, down on her luck. She attends the funeral of a woman who has left her a mysterious inheritance. But it appears Hal was not truly the intended recipient which leads to many complications, plot twists and difficult situations
Ware was nice enough to let me interview her by email. My sister, Ellen Butki, helped me formulate the questions. Thanks to both of you.
Scott Butki: How did this story about this young woman develop?
Ruth Ware: I always find it hard to unpick all the threads that come together to make a story, but I suppose that having written three books about women who found themselves in a life changing situation mostly through no fault of their own, I wanted to write something about a character who brings the action down on themselves – someone who sets out to commit a crime. But I found it impossible to write Hal as a true anti-hero. She makes some questionable decisions, but I liked her more and more as the book went on.
SB: What do you think of those who compare you to Agatha Christie, as both of you not only are famous for twists but also for putting characters into situations that can lead to paranoia and violence?
RW: I take it as a huge compliment! I’m a big fan of Christie and I think her plots are pretty much second to none – so many of the features we take for granted about the genre today, she more or less developed. I would be very happy if I wrote something even a quarter as twisty and genre-defining as And Then There Were None.
SB: In your writing process, which do you see first: the overview (characters/setting/plot), the ending, or the major twist? Do you add more twists while editing?
RW: It’s really hard to pick apart because they all come together more or less at the time, and different books develop differently. With Cabin 10 I had the ship first of all – the first image that came to me was of a woman waking up in the middle of the night in a locked cabin and hearing a splash. But who that woman was and what happened next developed at the same time, because the one influenced the other.
In a Dark, Dark Wood the physical entity of the glass house only came to me quite late on, about a quarter of the way into the book – but again the motives of the protagonists and their particular characters developed hand in hand. Character is plot, and plot is character. What we do and why is shaped by who we are – and vice versa. The twists are a bit separate – I have to figure those out as I go. Sometimes the pieces don’t fall into place until really quite late.
SB: Identity seems to be a common theme in your books. Is that intentional? Do you want readers to take away something about identity or some other lesson while reading your books?
RW: Do you know, I had never really thought about this before, but you are right! I am not sure why that is – except that I’m endlessly fascinated by people and the versions of themselves that they show to the world versus the people they are inside. I guess it’s that fascination showing. I don’t really write with an intentional lesson or message in mind – I would never presume to dictate to my readers what they should or shouldn’t find in my books, though of course there are always subjects I’m interested in, and I suppose I do often hope to make people think and question some of their assumptions.
SB: Do you believe that deeply buried secrets will/must always be revealed (in books and/or in life)? Where does this belief stem from?
RW: Actually, I am a firm believer in healthy repression 😉 Of course in books secrets usually come out – it’s back to that Chekovian idea of a gun above the mantelpiece. If you reveal that a character has a deep dark secret, there’s no point in putting it in the plot unless it’s going to come out at some point, otherwise you may as well not bring it up at all. In real life, though, we all have secrets – large and small – and bringing things out into the open isn’t always the right course of action. I think my books often show the enormous damage that can be done when secrets surface.
SB: What are you working on next?
RW: Another book of course! It’s a bit too early to talk about it though – I don’t want to jinx myself.
Scott reviews Blood Standard ahead of Laird Barron’s visit to the store on Friday, June 1st at 7pm.
Laird Barron, an author mainly known for his horror and weird fiction, has only has dabbled with crime fiction in the past. He has written a novella and a handful of short stories that work as tributes to hard boiled fiction. In Blood Standard, he charges into the genre, guns blazing.
He gives us a great hard boiled protagonist is Isiah Coldridge, a Moana working as a mob enforcer in Alaska. When a situation over a walrus causes him to high tail it back down to the lower forty-eight, he lays low at a horse farm in upstate New York. Soon the owners’ troubled granddaughter goes missing, and Coldridge sets out to find her along with another hired hand with a violent past due to his time in Afghanistan. His questioning and punching leads him further and further into a dark underworld the girl is trapped in.
Barron proves to be an apparent fan of the genre. Coldridge is cut from the same cloth of David Rabe’s Daniel Port and Dan Lewis’ Jack Carter. The style is terse and straight forward and the world uncompromising. There are few chapters void of an action sequence of some sort.
However, his background in horror allows him to give a special spin on the tale. He injects the anything can happen quality of a horror story, grounding it in a more physical, though still fantastic, world of hard boiled. It places both Coldridge and the reader on less solid footing and allows us to buy into the darker reveals.
Blood Standard proves to be a must read for hard boiled fans, told in a way that would make Hammett proud. Isiah Coldridge is a tough guy with his own voice and several directions to go. I hope Laird Barron more time on this side of the playground.