Austin prides itself on individuality. We are both counter-culture and cowboy, known for our own takes on music and food. As Jesse Sublett shows in 1960s Austin Gangsters, even our criminals keep it weird. Sublett chronicles the Overton Gang. They were formed around high school football star Tim Overton, who held a grudge against UT coach Darrell Royal for stopping his chances at being a Longhorn. With fellow football player “Fat Jerry” Ray James, he lead a gang of travelling criminals who burglarized banks and muscled in on vice operations all around Texas, using the new highway system to their advantage, with the Capitol as their base of operations. They were bad men in Elvis haircuts and shark fin Caddies, committing felonies at a rock n’ roll pace.
When it came to Austin history, they were like gangster Forrest Gumps. They hung out at the same club the 13th Floor Elevators played and brushed up against the burgeoning counter-culture. There is even a tense, armed stand-off between Overton and future U.T. tower sniper Charles Whitman.
Sublett uses tons of interviews with the survivors and offspring on both sides of the law. He doesn’t romanticize the gang and doesn’t shy away from describing their brutality, particularly toward their women. However, he does include how some of their victims recall their charming side. He also shows how the methods of overzealous law enforcement almost brought the town back to its wild west roots. Much of the story is told in colorful anecdotes, such as the one about the interaction between a local madam and Overton a few weeks after he robbed and beat her.
1960s Austin Gangsters is a rough, fun ride through Austin’s underbelly during a period of change. Sublett gives us a real world of east side toughs, crooked car dealers, dice men, dogged lawmen, chicken shack patrons, part-time hookers, and elderly brothel matrons.
Yep, even when it came to crime, Austin isn’t what it was.
Copies of 1960s Austin Gangsters are available on our shelves now and via bookpeople.com.
Jesse Sublett speaks about and signs his new book here at BookPeople Monday, March 23 at 7pm.
Our last Noir At The Bar of 2014 (happening tonight, November 24, at 7pm at Opal Divine’s) has us going out with top talent. The line up is composed of first offenders and hardened felons. We’ve got both rural and southwestern noir authors and a guy who mashes up so many genres that we don’t know what the hell to call him. And of course, we’ll be joined by our own Jesse Sublett
C..B. McKenzie is the recent winner of the Tony Hillerman award for Bad Country. The book introduces us to cowboy-turned-private eye Rodeo Grace Garnett. McKenzie gives a rough and tumble feel to an unromanticized American west.
Glenn Gray’s The Little Boy Inside And Other Stories has been getting great buzz. The tales, which range from crime (especially involving illegal steroid use) to sci fi to body horror, are almost always funny and disturbing. Don’t eat while Glenn reads.
Matthew McBride instantly became a MysteryPeople favorite with his gonzo hard boiled debut Frank Sinatra In A Blender. He has received more rave reviews for his intense rural crime novel A Swollen Red Sun. The book deals with the repercussions of corruption in a Missouri county overrun by meth and violence.
Austin author and musician Jesse Sublett will perform some of his murder ballads, as well as reading (his latest is Grave Digger Blues) and everyone will be on hand to sign books afterwards. Before you’re put upon by holiday cheer, join us at Opal’s and celebrate the noir side of life.
Guest Post by Rob Brunet, author of Stinking Rich
Growing Up On a Beach Outside Ottawa
I often get asked about the characters I write about. Where do they come from? Do I know people like that? Often I point to the time I’ve spent in the country as if the whackos populating my stories are somehow representative of the people I know there. If you’ve read what I write, you’ll know that’s unlikely. I’m not sure that makes the reference a cop-out. It’s just incomplete.
Not unlike the tropes that drive country music, characters like Perko Ratwick or Terry Miner are painted a tad vibrant on purpose. If I’ve done my work right, they’ll engage my readers’ emotion, yet remain off-kilter enough to amuse.
Part of them is anchored in my experience down dirt roads stretching right back to my formative years on a beach upriver from Ottawa. In a lot of ways, I grew up on that beach. My city-kid lens skewed much of what I saw, but by the time I was a teenager, the barriers between the cottage kids and the locals broke down. There’s nothing like sitting on a log around a bonfire drinking underage beer to make everyone equal.
Until then, I’d naively seen the local kids—those who lived in cottage country year-round—as the lucky ones. I was oblivious to the boredom afflicting life at the end of the school bus run. Once summer ended and the population thinned to next-to-no-one, these guys had little to do. Breaking-and-entering to them was as common as road hockey to my pals in the city: a little wintry fun on a Saturday afternoon.
Between that and minor illicit behaviour sprinkled with occasional violence, more than a few of them experienced youthful run-ins with the local constabulary. In fact, if a guy hadn’t been sent to the detention centre at least once by the time he turned fifteen, his friends thought him “slow”.
I’m not suggesting petty criminality was universal, but its prevalence was higher than what you’d find in the city. And no one considered it a big deal.
I remember sitting round the fire one summer catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen since the previous fall. He asked me whether it was true my father had bought the cottage next to ours—a real fixer-upper my dad purchased as a defensive move when he’d learned the prospective new owner intended to park construction equipment on the property.
I told my friend my friend, yes, that cottage was now ours, and waited for the jab about how us city slickers were always buying things up and lording it over the locals. Instead, my pal hung his head just a little and apologized, telling me they’d never have broken into it that past winter if they’d known it was ours.
Later, my father told me he’d noticed a few things moved around. More than a squirrel might do. And he shrugged at the idea a few of the local boys had busted in. “There was nothing worth stealing in there anyway,” he said. And nothing more needed be done about it.
Another summer, I had a girlfriend up there. Well, for a week or so anyway. Her other boyfriend had gone off on vacation with his wife or something. He left this girl with a case of beer and the keys to a car. She was fifteen. I know my mother was happy that one didn’t last. Come to think of it, so am I.
Country had a way of aging people different from the city. More than once, I was surprised to learn someone was two or three years older than their apparent learning or behaviour would suggest. On the other hand, a lot of them had full-time jobs and something passing for real responsibility before they’d reach the end of high school.
I’m sure I could have found parallel worlds in the city and the reality is, I sometimes did. But something about the directness of life in the country stuck with me. It resonated in positive ways, and now finds its way into my writing. The characters in Stinking Rich may seem a little warped from an urban standpoint, but I trust their connection to their setting rings true.
For November, we have three paperbacks for fun and affordable reading as the cooler weather settles in.
Jack Carter & The Mafia Pigeon by Ted Lewis
Now, the Jack Carter trilogy is fully restored by Syndicate Books with this novel appearing for the first time in the States. This time, the London mob enforcer is tricked by his employers into being the bodyguard for an American Mafia boss at a Spanish villa. Throw in two beautiful women, one the wife of Carter’s boss who he’s seeing on the sly, and expect a lot of scheming and shooting under the sun.
Easy Death by Daniel Boyd
A holiday tale for the hard boiled set. In 1951, two World War Two vets are sent out into a December blizzard by a small town crime boss to rob an armored car. The money, mishaps, and presence of a female park ranger make for a great retro crime novel. Boyd, a Ohio police officer, knows his cops and criminals.
2014 Best American Mystery Stories edited by Otto Penzler and Laura Lippman
One of the best from this annual edition. One feels the presence of guest co-editor Laura Lippman’s sensibility in this great range of contemporary crime fiction that leans toward the character driven. There are stories by MysteryPeople favorites like Megan Abbott and Dennis Tafoya, as well as work by general fiction authors Annie Proulx and Russell Banks. Austin author, Ed Kurtz, has a story as well. A great stocking stuffer.
Last Winter, We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura
~post by Molly
Fuminori Nakamura is part of a new generation of Japanese detective novelists known for their spare prose and dark explorations of alienation in modern society. His novel, The Thief, was his first to be translated into English and won prizes all over the world for its terrifying beauty and relentless pace. His latest novel, Last Winter, We Parted, is our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for November, and for me, this is a perfect novel for a Texas November. I recommend reading it at a coffee shop at twilight when the chill finally begins to settle in – at such impersonal thresholds much of the book takes place.
Last Winter, We Parted is structured as interviews, archives, and letters – the notes for a book that a young journalist has been assigned to write about a notorious serial killer on death row. The murderer, Yudai Kiharazaka, was renowned as a photographer before becoming fixated on life-like dolls and later, burning models alive to get the perfect photograph. The journalist soon finds an intense connection with Kiharazaha’s sister, Akari, and begins to discover that in Kiharazaka’s case, things are not what they seem.
Nakamura has crafted a noir Heart of Darkness; Kiharazaka warns the writer early on that by listening to him, he may take on some of the killer’s morbid fixations. As the journalist learns more about the killer and his sister, Akari – about, as Nakamura phrases it, their “true selves” – his own self become subsumed and taken over. The young journalist’s arc is shaped as a warning. By spending time too close to a psychopath, the writer takes on some of their thoughts and compulsions, most dramatically expressed in the journalist’s growing interest in Kiharazaka’s sister, Akari, also an object of unhealthy attachment to the killer himself.
As the writer becomes entangled in the distorted lives of brother and sister, abandoning his professionalism to get closer to the object of his unwholesome infatuation, the serial killer and his sister, in turn, delight in bringing out the darkness hidden within the minds of those fixated upon them. Like Hannibal Lector, Yudai and Akari believe in quid pro quo.
This is a novel concerned not only with solving a crime, but in understanding our darkest impulses. In that sense, Last Winter, We Parted evokes Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the genre of true crime in general. Nakamura references In Cold Blood throughout the novel, and the book is in some ways a tribute to Capote while also a warning against mirroring Capote’s actions. The novel both warns against the psychological effects of spending time trying to get into the head of a murderer, and condemns the hypocrisy of judging the actions of another while also using their crimes as a mass object of fascination. Nakamura delves deep into the unsettling motivations behind societal obsession with the mind of a serial killer. In the novel, as in real life, there is no easy separation between those who commit crimes and those who spend their time learning about the crimes of others.
Kiharazaka’s crimes also serve as a metaphor for alienation in modern society. Kiharazaka’s fixations represent an attempt at basic human connection, warped by the photographers lens, the purchase of lifelike simulacra in the form of dolls, and other ways of simulating and disrupting connection with the real through the use of the artificial.
Fuminori Nakamura brings to mind the haunting elegance and sordid conspiracies of David Peace, and like the best exploitation movies, blurs the line between poetry and violence. The characters Nakamura portrays are trapped – caught by their obsessions, their fantasies, and their addictions in an endless web of repeating behavior and insincere apologies. They can’t even quit smoking, much less control their other, more violent unhealthy impulses. Nakamura’s writing is as psychologically astute as it can be while also representing a vision of the world twisted and screwed, without joy or happiness. In other words, Last Winter, We Parted is the epitome of literary noir.
Last Winter, We Parted is now available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com
Billy Kring is known as an author with a feel for life on the Texas-Mexico line where he worked as a border agent. His debut, Quick, captured it in all it’s gritty glory. In this story published on Shotgun Honey, he goes to Cajun country.
“Henri Arceneaux said, ‘Member what I teach you, you.’ He straddled the body in the bottom of the pirogue, making the small, green boat bob like a cork, ‘We want dem to stay down, so we gots to tickle dem diaphragm.’ He was seventy years old and shirtless, his chest and stomach marked with old scars from knife and bullet. He looked hard, like he was made of gristle and bone. He motioned at me with a finger, ‘Take off dat shirt, it’s too hot dis morning.'”
~post by Molly and Scott
MysteryPeople’s Molly Odintz and Scott Montgomery were invited to be moderators at the 19th Annual Texas Festival Of Books held at the state capitol last weekend. It was Scott’s fourth time moderating at the festival and Molly’s first time ever. They both survived to tell the tale to report back.
Crime fiction had its strongest presence yet at the festival with six panels and three one-on-one interviews with the likes of Walter Mosely and James Ellroy. Even before the actual festival got underway, I got to sped some time with the authors. Timothy Hallinan, author of the Junior Bender and Poke Rafferty series, shared some BBQ as we talked books and his time working with Katherine Hepburn. I also got to spend some time with friends Harry Hunsicker, Mark Pryor, and the three authors who make up the pseudonym Miles Arceneaux before they went to their panels. Then I had my own.
First up was an interview with Craig Johnson, who’s latest book, Wait For Signs, is a collection of all the short stories featuring his Wyoming sheriff hero, Walt Longmire. He told the audience that Walt’s last name came from James Longmire who opened up the trail near Washington’s Mount Rainer and had the area named after him. He felt the combination of the words “long” and “mire” expressed what his character had been through. He added it also passed the test for a western hero name in that it could easily be followed by the word “Steakhouse.”
My panel discussion, Risky Business, had Jeff Abbott and debut author Patrick Hoffman looking at the art of thriller writing. The discussion got interesting when when it got into the topic of being categorized in a genre. Jeff said he wanted to get pigeon holed, “That way I know I’m selling.” He added it has never interfered with the type of book he wanted to write. We also got into an interesting talk about use of location. Patrick Hoffman talked about how he would often use his company car to drive to the location of his San Fransisco centric, The White Van, and write there on his lunch hour. Jeff and I also had fun drawing as much attention we could to our friend, author Meg Gardiner, who was in the audience and should have known better.
By the time the festival was over my body dehydrated, my voice was shot, and my blood alcohol content was questionable. Can’t wait til’ next year.
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of moderating two mystery panels at the Texas Book Festival. This was my first try at moderating panels and I am so thankful to MysteryPeople and the Texas Book Festival for giving me the opportunity to channel an NPR interviewer.The first, a panel on International Crime, featured authors Kwei Quartey, on tour with his latest Darko Dawson novel, Murder at Cape Three Points, and Ed Lin, with his new novel Ghost Month. Kwei Quartey’s novels take place in Ghana and increasingly focus on the economic and social imbalances of modern day Ghanaian life. Ed Lin has previously written novels depicting the Asian-American experience, including his Detective Robert Chow trilogy, set in New York City, and Ghost Month is his first to take place outside of the country.
We talked about what it means to write international crime fiction, the place of food in the detective novel, fiction as a method of dealing with historical and current societal trauma, and how to escape from a crashing helicopter. Both authors are published by SoHo and you can find their books on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
The second panel, looking at crime noir, brought together authors Rod Davis, with his latest, South, America, and Harry Hunsicker, with his new novel The Contractors. South, America follows a Dallas native living in New Orleans as he finds a dead body, gets tangled up with the dead man’s sister, and must go on the run from mobsters. The novel reaches deep into the twisted Louisiana web of racism and poverty to write a lyrical portrait of two desperate people.
Harry Hunsicker is the author of many previous novels, and his latest, The Contractors, explores the blurred lines between public and private when it comes to law enforcement. His two protagonists are private sector contractors working for the DEA and paid a percentage of the value of any recovered substances. They get more than they bargained for when they agree to escort a state’s witness from Dallas to Marfa with two cartels, a rogue DEA agent, and a corrupt ex-cop following them.
We talked about the meaning of noir, the craft of writing mysteries, the purpose of violence in fiction, and stand-alones versus series. South, America and The Contractors are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
Wait For Signs by Craig Johnson
2015 will mark ten years for Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series. It’s fitting as we approach the holidays and this anniversary that fans can now get Wait For Signs, a collection of all the short stories Craig has written about the Wyoming sheriff. It fills in the history of the character, catching him at quieter times between all the murders, escaped convicts, and conspiracies. In these stories, the reader learns that Walt’s life is still not totally quiet.
Much of the collection is composed from the annual stories Craig sends to his newsletter subscribers around Christmas, but they deal with more than just the holidays. “Thankstaking” allows Walt’s Cheyenne buddy Henry Standing Bear not only an opportunity to save the day, but the chance to voice his opinion on a certain November celebration. One of the Christmas stories takes place before the series, at one of the lowest points in Longmire’s life, when he is mistaken for the son of God. On New Year’s Eve, he and previous Sheriff Luican Connally solve a crime both old and new at The Durant Home For Assisted Living. Even the Jewish New Year is used for suspenseful and humorous effect. Johnson avoids the schmaltzy trappings of many holiday stories, making them appropriate to read at any time of the year.
There are also other pieces of short work. The very first Longmire story, “Old Indian Trick,” puts the myth of the criminal mastermind to rest. Two e-book specials “Divorce Horse” and “The Messenger” are available in mass print for the first time. “The Messenger”, a comedy of manners, errors, and situation involving Walt, Henry, foul mouthed deputy Victoria Morretti, a bear, and an owl trapped in a Port-A-Potty, is worth the price of the book alone. There is also a new story “Petunia, The Bandit Queen” that tackles domestic discord, Wyoming history, and sheep.
The collection gives a clearer picture of Walt, seeing him more in his day-to-day life. In many of the Christmas stories we get a deeper understanding the effect that losing his wife Martha had on him and how he got through it. Two stories that seem to happen back to back, one with a hitchhiker, the other with a marine, reminds us that Walt’s main goal is to heal, even though he avoids opportunities to find his own peace. We also see more of his connection to spirituality than he typically admits to.
Without the need to deliver the tropes of a mystery, we see Johnson’s strength’s as a writer on full display. Without a grim murder, his use of humor is able to flourish. We also get to fully appreciate his gift for misdirection that we associate with how he takes our attention away from who done it. Here he often shows how it helps provide theme and internal conflict without being heavy handed.
Wait For Signs gives us an extra glimpse at one of the best mystery heroes of this new century. We get a better understanding of his strengths, flaws, and what sustains him. All in all, we get the hope that old fashioned virtue can trump even the most modern problems. Boy Howdy.
Wait For Signs by Craig Johnson is now available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com
One of our recent stories was a Lawernce Block tale featuring Matt Scudder, the PI hero featured in the film adaptation of A Walk Among The Tombstones. This Friday we have a short story written by the writer-director, Scott Frank, that was on Popcorn Fiction. Scott Frank is the screenwriter of the acclaimed films Little Man Tate, Dead Again and The Lookout. He has also adapted a number of titles for the screen, including Get Shorty, Out Of Sight, Minority Report and most recently, Marley & Me.
“As Ivan slowly let Rima slip from his grasp, he had no idea that her fall would become the stuff of Big Top legend everywhere. If you could have seen his face that night, you would have seen that Ivan’s mind was clearly somewhere else. Before this particular night, Ivan had caught Rima over thirty-five hundred times without incident. Theirs was a relationship based on trust; Rima knew that Ivan would always be there with strong hands and perfect timing. And Ivan knew that Rima would always be there, hanging in space, reaching for him. Sure, there were many close calls: Rima would step on his shoulder, scrape his ear with the point of her heel. Ivan would flinch from the pain, and loosen his hold on her leg, but in the end, he would always catch her. And sure, there had been hundreds of times where he almost dropped her. But he had never completely let go before. He was always there. He had always caught her. But, unfortunately, on that fateful night in Jnimski, he was thinking about something else.”