Steven Saylor on writing about history, crime, & more

Steven Saylor’s Ancient Roman detective, Gordianus The Finder, finally takes on the biggest murder of his time in The Throne Of Caesar. He will be discussing it at BookPeople on February 22nd, but our Scott Butki got in some early questions in concerning writing about history and work in the future.

MysteryPeople Scott Butki: Let’s start by talking about how you came up with this seed of an idea that became this novel. You got the idea at a cocktail party with scholars?

Steven Saylor: I was invited to speak to a group of Classical scholars meeting at Baylor—a long way from Rome!—and a professor named James O’Hara, having heard me bemoan the “impossible challenge” of writing a mystery novel around the Ides of March, said to me, “Make it about…X.” In the Author’s Note to The Throne of Caesar, I fill in the blank, but it would be a spoiler to do so here. The point is, I am so lucky to be linked in and to get insights and feedback from some world-class experts on the ancient world. Sometimes all it takes is a single word, as in this case, to get me over the stumbling block and out of the starting blocks.

MPSB: As someone writing about Ancient Rome did you feel you had to write, at some point, about what you call “the most famous murder case in history”?

SS: Once I realized that my first novel Roman Blood (set in 80 B.C.) would become a series, getting to the assassination of Caesar in 44 B.C. seemed a natural goal. It’s such a huge watershed event, a real before/after moment in world history.

MPSB: If anyone thinks they already know how this story will end—it being so famous after all—what would you tell them?

SS: As in most of my novels, there are two plot lines running parallel and simultaneously—the plot on the surface, and the invisible plot. You know how one will turn out, but hopefully the other will give you a surprise.

MPSB: How did you decide how much of Shakespeare to quote in the book?

SS: There’s only one direct homage to the Bard, when a certain character speaks a line lifted directly from Julius Caesar. I reveal the details of that in Author’s Note. It’s a line that works one way in Shakespeare’s play, and a different way in my version, so it’s loaded with irony, and one of many in-jokes sprinkled throughout the book that may amuse history buffs and Shakespeare lovers.

MPSB: Let’s back up now. Why did you start writing novels about Ancient Rome in the first place?

SS: I give a great amount of credit to the sword-and-sandal movies of my childhood, chief among them Cleopatra, written and directed by the great Joseph Mankiewicz. The tale of Caesar, Antony, and Cleopatra became one of the central myths of my imagination. The assassination scene in that movie is pure cinematic genius, unforgettable. I went on to study Classics and history at UT Austin, and then years later had the idea to turn Cicero’s first murder trial into a crime novel; that became Roman Blood. The book found a readership, and I suddenly had a whole career ahead of me.

MPSB: Why did you decide to write erotic thrillers under a different name, Aaron Travis?

SS: That was back in my slacker twenties, which are a bit of a blur now. Hormones ruled my life, and the erotic was my muse. I’ve kept those works available in e-editions for the discerning connoisseur, but I must warn readers that they are not for the faint of heart.

MPSB: When I last interviewed you you said, “I would like to write another historical epic set in Austin some day, about the early days of the Texas Republic.” Is that still on the radar?

SS: Hmmm, off the radar for now, I would say. I have a current project that’s consuming all my research and storytelling. (More about that below.) But every now and then I find myself musing about Mirabeau Lamar and Sam Houston and their competing visions for the Republic of Texas. I still collect books about that period. You never know.

MPSB: As both a graduate of University of Texas and a part-time Austin resident, what are some of your favorite spots around Austin?

SS: My Austin is all about swimming, running, Tex-Mex and BBQ—working up an appetite at Barton Springs, Deep Eddy, Hippie Hollow, the trail around Lady Bird Lake, and the Barton Creek Greenbelt (but not all in the same day!) and then eating at Maudie’s, Green Mesquite, Chuy’s, or The Iron Works. For culture, I love the Blanton Museum; I’m eager to see Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin” structure. And I still drop in on the occasional lecture on the UT campus.

MPSB: What would readers be most surprised to learn about you?

SS: I’ve been with the same guy for well over forty years now, since Rick and I were both at UT back in 1976. Now we’re legally hitched. Such long marriages are not so common these days. I’m very lucky to have had so much emotional continuity in my life. I’ve also had the same editor and agent since forever. I’m very loyal, I suppose.

MPSB: What are you working on next?

SS: My next novel will be the third volume in my family saga series, to follow Roma and Empire. It’s a big chunk of history, taking the family from the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius and his no-good playboy son Commodus (notorious from the movie Gladiator, though my version will be very different) all the way to Constantine the Great, who made Christianity the state religion. Along the way we meet the sun-worshipping, drag-queen emperor, Elagabalus. His reign was quite short, I’m afraid, but he made quite an impression.

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Interview With Don M. Patterson

Don M. Patterson’s Sierra Blanca ended up on my list of favorite Texas crime novels and thrillers of 2017. It features CIA operative Hank Copeland teaming up with a handful of  Lone Star lawmen to take down a Russian plot involving drug cartels on the border in 1984. Its swift storytelling, action-packed plot, and fun characters made it one of last years’ most entertaining reads. Don will be joining us on February 10th with Alex Berenson but was kind enough to answer come questions for us earlier.

MysteryPeople Scott: Sierra Blanca is one of those rare pieces of entertainment that is fresh yet a throwback to earlier books and movies. How did it come about?

Don Patterson: Sierra Blanca began with the idea of creating a spy character that is as Texan (specifically West Texan) as James Bond is British; and that became Hank Copeland.  Once I started playing around with story ideas for a West Texan spy, doing a Western, or neo-Western, was a natural conclusion.  Westerns – the spaghetti variety in particular – and espionage have always been favorite genres of mine, so I set out to create a story that took the recognizable tropes from each and co-mingled them into something new: a Spy-Western.

MPS: You have classic buddy dynamic with Hank Copeland and Sheriff Clearwater. How did you approach that relationship?

DM: The Howard Hawk classic film Rio Bravo was a major influence on Sierra Blanca and I looked at Copeland as Dean Martin to Clearwater’s John Wayne.  Copeland’s lackadaisical attitude to his job provides a foil to Clearwater’s tough lawman demeanor.  But I think what really makes the dynamic work is that I didn’t write Copeland as the driver of the story’s action, but rather the facilitator for other characters to act.  The real heroes of the story are Texas Ranger Burgos and Sheriff Clearwater; Copeland is mostly along for the ride and to hopefully make you laugh.

MPS: Besides the necessary place for the plot, what did the Texas-Mexico border offer to the story?

DM: For me, the golden era of spy stories is unquestionably the Cold War.  I looked for a way to bring the Cold War to West Texas in a somewhat plausible way, and proximity to Mexico and Latin America provided that in.  Latin America in the late 70s and early 80s threatened to become the next major theater in the proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union.  That tension bleeding up to the Mexico-Texas border became a major plot driver.

Growing up in West Texas, I always held a romanticized view of El Paso & Juarez as an international community rife with intrigue, like the Casablanca of the southwest.  So you have this historic metroplex straddling an international border, a perfect setting for a spy story.  And surrounding the cities are beautiful mountains, a sun soaked desert, and the hard-scrabble stretches of the Transpecos region; the perfect setting for a Western.  I’d argue no region could be a better host for a Cold War Western.

MPS: This book felt like one of the best seventies or eighties action films never made. Were you influenced by movies as much as books?

DM: Absolutely, probably more so.  For the spy elements, I was naturally influenced by both the film and literary versions of James Bond – I used Ian Flemings’ books as a style guide as I was writing.  But the Western elements were mostly inspired by film (and some Cormac McCarthy).  As I’ve said, Rio Bravo in particular was a major influence, as was John Carpenter’s modern take on that movie: Assault on Precinct 13.  I wanted the feel of a gritty Sam Peckinpah Western or a grind-house B-action flick packaged as a modern pulp.  Even the cover art was inspired by the title cards of old movies.      

MPS: One reason for that cinematic feel is you write kinetic action passages that the reader can always follow. Is there anything you keep in mind when writing those parts?

DM: Physics, human anatomy, and logic mostly.  People,cars, and things should react realistically when acted upon and the motion should be described in a way that makes sense and is unambiguous.  I viewed my role as the play-by-play announcer calling a game the listener couldn’t see; it’s good to use some flourish, but it has to be clear who’s rounding which bases.  

MPS: Was there anything you had to keep in mind when setting the book in the eighties?

DM: I did more research than one might think is necessary for a short, action novella.  I wanted there to be accuracy in the types of cars law enforcement used in 1984, the weapons and gadgets in use, the politics and cultural touchstones of the time, and even inconsequential things like what was on TV in the summer of ’84.  I found that the 1980s, or any pre-cell phone era, actually helps a great deal with story telling.  Think about how many classic plots would be ruined if the characters had access to a cellphone or the internet.  

 

Guest Post: V.P. Chandler reviews Lone Star Lawless

From the piney woods of East Texas to the dry landscape of West Texas, the Austin Mystery Writers and friends anthology Lone Star Lawless: 14 Texas Tales of Crime has it covered. The anthology takes us across the state with various law breaking. You can meet many of the contributors February 4th at 5pm when they come to BookPeople for a reading! 

The Lone Star Lawless project was headed by the exuberant Austin Mystery Writers member Gale Albright. Albright describes the anthology perfectly in her introduction, writing, “The stories in this volume cover motel hell, medical menace, mortuary mayhem, sharp knives, kidnapping, theft, murder, assault by food, dangerous exercise, fickle fingers, and bad attitudes.” Not to mention a retelling of the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, full of crime and a Texas twist. Now who could pass up that?

“One More Time” by V.P. Chandler, is set at the end of the Wild West era. A girl is kidnapped from a small West Texas town and the town wants the aging Texas Ranger, Ephram Babcock, to retrieve the girl before she’s taken across the border to Mexico. Babcock reluctantly agrees. As he pursues the duo across the plains, he’s haunted by a decision he made in his youth. The memory and regret become stronger as he gets closer to his quarry. It’s a race to the border, a race to save the girl, but can he run from his past?

“Wild Horses” by Alexandra Burt is the story of Brad, who is running from trouble and his temper. Once a man has served time, he has only so many options available. He takes a job at a convenience store when things take a dark turn. Will Brad stay mum or will he find a way to break free?

“The Life of the Party” by Mark Pryor is a story filled with tongue-in–cheek mortician’s humor. The reader sees the world through the eyes of mortician Andrew Banks as he prepares for a party. As the story proceeds, the tension builds in the same vein as Edgar Allan Poe or Alfred Hitchcock stories. The reader will be compelled to see the story to the end!

“Archangel Towers” by Gale Albright begins with a woman receiving a frantic phone call from her grandmother who is in the hospital. The grandmother makes crazy, nightmarish allegations about the staff and is adamant that they happened. Is the grandmother getting dementia? What is a granddaughter to do?

“Baggage Claim, Part 1: The Devil’s Luggage” was penned by Janice Hamrick. The memory of a college prank never left Tyler Fenton. Even though he failed at the prank, he always remembered the thrill of it. Itching to try it one more time, he goes to the Austin-Bergstrom airport to steal an unclaimed bag. But it isn’t a small bag that grabs his attention, it’s a large trunk. Unfortunately for him, he’s not the only one who wants that trunk.

“Baggage Claim, Part 2: Carry On Only” by Laura Oles also involves stealing a bag from the Austin-Bergstrom airport. But this story quite different from Part 1. Stealing bags from the airport is only one of the many things that Max does to supplement his income, and he’s quite adept at it. But when he gets the bag home, he and his friend Belk make a discovery. Then comes the anonymous phone call, “I saw what you did.”

“The Texas Star Motel” by Terry Shames follows the tale of an abused wife, Mona, as she’s made her recent escape from her husband. She’s shaken and has his gun, but needs to stay out of sight to complete her escape. Then she hears through the hotel’s old and thin walls a woman being beaten in the room next door. Should she intervene or lay low?

“Point Blank, Texas” by Larry Sweazy is another tale about an old Texas Ranger. This story is set in 1934. Ex-Ranger Sonny Burton has lost his arm in a shootout with Bonny and Clyde and he’s ready to retire after decades of service. Then Jonesy, the local sheriff shows up and tells Burton that his long-time nemesis, Billy Bunson, has not only escaped from prison, he has kidnapped the warden’s pregnant wife. They turn to Sonny for help since he knows Bunson better than anyone else. As Sonny investigates, he gets the nagging feeling that not everyone is telling the truth.

“The Widow Black” by Kaye George is set in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Marjorie lost her first husband due to an accident. Then the handsome and smooth Victor moves to town and starts schmoozing Marjorie and she feels young and sexy again. As things heat up, not everything seems to be as perfect as she thought they’d be.

“The Sandbox” by George Wier takes place around College Station. Jimmy Cook is a young real estate agent who works for the slimy Ray Milberger. One day Jimmy sees first hand how Ray has cheated his way to success. Jimmy takes a stand and Ray says Jimmy is ready for a new business venture. “You have a bright (future), kid, if you stick with me. You have to know where your bread is buttered…” As the story progresses the tension builds. Is Ray really going to include Jimmy in a business deal or does he have something else in mind as they head to a secluded area of the woods?

“Texas Toast: The Case of the Errant Loafer” by Manning Wolfe features Dr. and Mrs. Edward Littman, who are avid cyclists. As they cycle with their pack through downtown Austin, Dr. Littman is hit by a bakery van. The driver of the van, Zach Glover, swears he didn’t veer out of his lane. Kim Wan Thibodeaux, also known as the Asian Cajun, is the defense attorney for the Glover. Who is telling the truth? This story is a courtroom drama that would make Perry Mason proud.

“When Cheese Is Love”, by Kathy Waller. Love heats up between the timid librarian, Tabitha Baynes and the suave chef, Gonzalo. Tabitha has been on a stringent diet and worked hard obtain and maintain her svelte figure, but his food is so excellent! And no woman can say no to Gonzalo. At the launch of his new menu, showcasing Tabitha’s favorite foods, Gonzalo declares his love for Tabitha. Finally! What could go wrong?

“The Bird”, by Scott Montgomery is the gritty story of Jimmy Davis and Frog Lee. Frog is always getting in trouble and now is no exception. He slept with the wife of bad guy, Slick Jim (You’ve got to be stupid to sleep with the wife of someone named Slick Jim) and now Frog has a $200,000 bounty on his head. Fortunately Davis knows exactly where to find him. Frog is in Austin because he’s with Davis’ sister, Stacy. Now if only Frog and Stacy would get smart, Davis may be able to save their lives and collect the 200 grand.

“Little Red” by Gale Albright ends the anthology with a bang with Albright’s Texas rendition of Little Red Riding Hood. Complete with crazy East Texas lingo and a voodoo hairdresser named Verna Lee, “Little Red” is a quick and inventive romp that’s sure to make you laugh out loud.

And now for a bit of a personal note. We would be remiss if we didn’t also mention the editor, Ramona DeFelice Long, who has worked her magic on the book. We are grateful for her enthusiasm and her attention to detail. This anthology has a special place in our hearts because Gale Albright passed away before its completion. She infused life, humor, and drive to our group. We aren’t the same without her. So it is dedicated to her and the online proceeds will go toward the Port Aransas library that was heavily damaged in Hurricane Harvey.

Sympathy for the Devil: an interview with Mark Pryor

A couple years ago, Mark Pryor took a break from his true blue series hero, Hugo Marston, to crawl into the the dark mind of an Austin prosecutor, musician, and sociopath named Dominic in the acclaimed Hollow Man. He has recently released a follow up, Dominic, with our anti-hero tying up his loose ends. Mark will be joining Meg Gardiner (Into The Black Nowhere) for a discussion of writing fictional psychopaths on January 30th. Mark was kind enough to talk to us early about dealing with his dark creation.
Pryor-Photo-by-Alia-Michelle-Photography3476-33MysteryPeople Scott: Was there anything in particular that drew you back to Dominic?
Mark Pryor: Several things. First, I’m (still) kind of obsessed with psychopaths, and Dominic was and is my way to explore their mentality. So I wasn’t done with the subject matter, and he’s my way in. Second, I kind of missed him. Weird, I know, but he was SO much fun to write that I wanted to do it again. I wanted to know what he could pull off again. I wanted to let the dark side reign and write him again. I think, too, he’s such a change from my Hugo Marston series that writing Dominic gives me a good balance, so in a way it’s healthy creatively for me to write about such a total bastard once in a while.
MPS: This time you split perspectives, which you had never done to this degree in a book. Did that prove as a challenge?
9781633883659MP: Actually, yes. You’re right in that I’ve not done this much before but as I thought about how to tell this story, I knew it was necessary. Put simply, if anyone who read Hollow Man read another book entirely from Dominic’s perspective, they wouldn’t believe a word he was saying. They’d be crazy to! So, I knew I had to corroborate events through other, more reliable, characters. It turned out to be fun, especially overlapping Dominic with the sycophantic Brian, getting two very different takes on one interaction.
MPS: One of the main reasons the book is so unsettling is that the reader feels they are in collusion with Dominic. Did you sometimes feel that way in the writing?
MP: Yes, and I think that’s vital. I mean, in practical terms I’m the one devising his evil schemes but even though it’s all fictional, and even though I could do anything I want, I really do sometimes feel like he takes the lead and does his nasty deed, with me as his note-taker. That may sound weird but it’s how I feel sometimes! I would say, too, that it’s a lot of work for me to get into the head of a psychopath, to abandon the emotion and the feelings, so I myself get that unsettled feeling and it makes sense that the reader would pick up on that.
MPS: How do you write a character with little or no empathy?
MP: Carefully. The biggest factor for me is accuracy. I’ve seen too many movies or shows, books too, where the character is given dabs of empathy here and there and I don’t think that’s realistic. Similarly, over the two books the one thing I wanted to avoid is giving him a character arc, because he’s not capable of it. Obviously, I’ve done a good amount of research to know what he would or would not feel as a psychopath, so there’s a crafty element to creating him, but as I say, I really want him to seem genuine. Genuinely horribly, that is.
MPS: What did you find as a key for writing a suspense novel like this?
MP: This novel and the previous one are much more carefully constructed than my Hugo Marston novels. By that I mean that I am more devious about planting clues and misdirecting the reader. I think the reason for that is knowing where the suspense comes from — the reader is going to be pretty sure that Dominic will achieve his objective(s), the question is how does he get there? Precisely how ruthless is he going to be? And, who will be casualties along the way? These aren’t straight forward mysteries where you can proceed from clue to clue like stepping stones, you have to look under the rocks (and find the snake!).
MPS: Since you are both a prosecutor and an Englishman living in Austin, what is the best way you have found to convince people you are not Dominic?

MP: You know, just between us, I’ve been surprised by how many people give me that side-eye and ask if I’m a psychopath. These are people I’ve known for years, and if you’ve known me for years I think it’s pretty obvious I’m not. So I laugh it off, and tell the story of how I took the psychopath test (yes, there is such a thing) at home, with my wife. Bottom line, the test is 20 questions, and you score 0, 1, or 2 for each. Anything over 30 and you’re a psychopath. I scored 7. Yes, seven. So low I was actually disappointed! I mean, as a prosecutor and crime writer you’d think I’d have something of a callous edge to me, but it turns out I’m a big softy.
The interesting thing to me is that if I’d written a character who was English, a prosecutor, and who had really been the one who killed John Lennon, no one would be asking, “Hey, did you really kill John Lennon?” All in all, I’ll take it as a compliment that I wrote a convincing psychopath, which is satisfying enough to stop me murdering whoever asks that question. Oh, wait, I didn’t mean that…

We hope you’ll join us January 30th at 7pm as Mark Pryor and Meg Gardiner discuss their new books!

Interview with Terry Shames

Terry Shames will be with us twice in February. On the 4th she will be one of several authors involved with the discussion and signing of the anthology Lone Star Lawless and on the 5th you will find her, Laura Oles, and James Ziskin, discussing the thriller and their latest books. Terry’s is A Reckoning In The Back Country that has her hero Samuel Craddock looking into a murdered doctor’s dark double life that includes the crime of dog fighting. We caught up early with Terry to ask her a few questions.

MysteryPeople Scott: You spin several plates with this mystery, was there anything in particular you wanted to explore?

Terry Shames: This book just grew and grew. I once attended a talk by Joan Didion, who said that when you are writing a book, you should put everything you know into it. She said not to be afraid that there won’t be something left over for another book—there always will be. So I didn’t hold back anything in the this book.

The original idea of “Reckoning” came about because I wanted to kill a doctor who injured me in a botched surgery. I had to kill him on the page, so I wouldn’t have to go to jail for doing it in real life. I tried to imagine a terrible death for him—and I think I succeeded. That’s where dog fighting comes in.  The idea of doing a book that involved the awful issue of fighting had been nudging me for a couple of years. Combining the two seemed natural. So that’s two of the plates I juggled in the book. Another was the continuing life of characters in the community. A few of the characters that show up have been in almost every book, but never had an important place. We learn more, for example, about Harley Lundsford, who in most of the books makes a case for toting a gun. I wanted to take a closer at him, and he surprised me.

MPS: Since Back Country deals with dog fighting, you risk that unwritten rule of alienating a reader by harming an animal. Did you have any trepidation?

TS: I absolutely worried about it. As I said, the idea of doing a book that included dog fighting as a theme had been in the back of my mind. After all, it is part of life in many country areas. To ignore it is to be dishonest through omission. I put if off not only because of the “unwritten rule,” but because it seemed like a horrible thing to research. Writing it was very hard. At first, I left out a description of the dog fighting itself altogether, knowing I was being a coward. But my stalwart writer’s group would not allow it. So I set the description in Samuel’s past, a way of lessening the grim reality, since it was observed through the lens of a young boy; and also as a way of illustrating more about Samuel’s upbringing. I decided another way of dealing with the grim nature of it was to give Samuel a puppy as a counterbalance.

MPS: Did writing a four-legged supporting character cause any challenges?

TS: Since I have dogs, and know puppies, the actual puppy part was not hard. But I kept “forgetting” about the puppy and had to go back and make allowances for him when Samuel was going about his business. There’s a funny story about that. When I was editing, I thought there were too many details about the care and concern for the puppy, so I took some out. I got a scolding note from my copyeditor at SSB, telling me that Samuel couldn’t leave the puppy in the car alone. That happened to be a passage I had removed, thinking it was too much fussiness. Apparently not! I had to put it back in.

MPS: You having two women vying for Samuel. What made you think this was the right time to have romance reenter his life?

TS: This is an awful thing to say, and some readers may get mad at me, but I grew not to like Ellen very much. About a year ago, Dru Ann Love invited me to write a piece in her “Day In The Life” blog, in which writers imagine a day in the life of one of their characters. I wrote about Ellen Forester, and discovered that Ellen had a secret. I kept wondering what it might be. When I started writing this book, I realized that the story line with Ellen had grown stale and it was time to shake it up. So I started looking at her secret, and….well, I hope readers enjoy the shake-up!

MPS: What is Sam’s greatest strength as an investigator?

TS: That’s a hard one. I can talk about his strengths as a person:  He’s persistent, honorable, open-minded, has a good sense of humor, and isn’t afraid to admit that he doesn’t know something. That latter may be his greatest strength as an investigator. The old adage that there are no stupid questions works well for investigators—not just of crime, but of science, journalistic endeavors, and history. If you are afraid of asking a question because it might make you look stupid, you’re likely to miss important points. Samuel sometimes prods people to tell him something that everyone assumes he knows, and they are annoyed by what they take to be his naivete. But he has a method to his “stupid” questions, a method that often works to get to the truth.

MPS: You also have a short story in the anthology Lone Star Lawless. What can you tell us about your tale?

TS: I am not really a short story writer. I mean that the form doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m in awe of those writers who gravitate to the short form. They seem to know what is important to move a story along without getting cluttered with details. My natural impulse is to write all the details of character, setting and plot, and to embrace sub-plots. Someone pointed out that the short has to hinge on a single idea, which helped me learn how to keep it trim.

I started “Lone Star Motel” a few years ago, knowing it would be a short story. The story came to me after I talked with someone whom I suspected was being abused psychologically, and maybe physically as well. She was a woman with few options and I imagined what it would be like for her to try to escape her situation. After I wrote the first scene, I let it sit while I went on to other writing. But it never entirely left me. I kept thinking about it periodically. When I was invited to submit a story for Lone Star Lawless it seemed like the perfect opportunity to develop the idea. I ended up liking the story, and I hope readers do, too. This is an anthology with some great stories in it!

NOT SUCH A TOUGH GUY PRIVATE EYE : INTERVIEW WITH MATT COYLE

Matt Coyle brings that classic trope of the tarnished knight/errant private eye to his Rick Cahill series. In the latest book Blood Truth, things get even more emotional than usual when an old flame hires him to follow her possibly cheating husband and he discovers an envelope full of cash and a safe deposit key in his father’s safe. One leads to the murder case that ruined his father, the other to a body in a car trunk. Before Matt joins us for a panel discussion on December 7th with Con Lehane and David Eric Tomlinson, he took some questions from us about the new book and the emotional journey of his hero.

41rq-ux6bul-_ux250_MysteryPeople Scott: What made this the book for Rick to go into his father’s past?

Matt Coyle: I’m not a great planner, so I can’t say this was always going to be the book that solved the mystery of Rick’s father. However, his father’s fall from grace has been a continuing thread, one of the dark clouds hanging Rick’s head since the first book Yesterday’s Echo. I go by my gut a lot and the father story felt right here. The writing and the emotion of Blood Truth was made all the more poignant when my father died suddenly three months before I began writing it. I’d already settled on the story before my he passed, but obviously, his passing made the book more personal than all the other books I’d written.

MPS: What does Moira provide for him other than a partner?

9781608092871MC: Moira is a PI like Rick, except better at it. I introduced her in the second book, Night Tremors. She was in a few scenes and in the next book, Dark Fissures, she had a very small part. I needed her for an early scene in Blood Truth and then she was supposed to go away. But she didn’t. She forced her way into the story and gave the book much more depth and meaning than it would otherwise have had.

Moira gives Rick balance. She looks at all sides while Rick may only see three. In Blood Truth, she is really the conscience of the book. But, her most important contribution to Rick is her friendship. Rick has an ex-girlfriend and an ex-partner, but he had no real friends until Moira showed up. She tries to keep Rick in line and gets angry with him, but she never fails him.

MPS: You really tap into that classic mood of a private eye novel. Who would you consider major influences in the genre?

MC: For me it all starts with Raymond Chandler. I read him as a kid. Of course, I loved the writing and the language, but what first grabbed me was Philip Marlowe. He lived by his own code. He did what he knew to be the right thing even when it pitted him against the police or more powerful entities. I’m a big fan of Ross Macdonald, too. Through Lew Archer, he examined all levels of society just by following clues. Contemporary private eye influences are Robert Crais and Walter Mosley.   

MPS: Besides familiarity, what makes La Jolla a strong setting for the series?

MC: In the first draft of what became my first book, I fictionalized La Jolla. My brother-in-law read it and told me people like reading about real places, so I went with the real town and just fictionalized the police force and a couple other things. Best advice I ever received. La Jolla is a little slice of coastal paradise and is known as a vacation destination around the world. Thus, it attracts a wide variety of people and a lot of wealth. But even wealthy people have problems. They just have money to try to cover them up. When I’m writing about La Jolla, I sometimes think of the opening scene from the movie Blue Velvet with the wide swath of a perfectly manicured lawn…and the dark beetles churning underground. Sometimes paradise is only skin deep.

MPS: The book moves along through many well crafted reveals and reversals that all have a natural feel. How much do you plan out a novel?

MC: Thank you. As mentioned above, I’m not much of a planner. I don’t outline. I start with character and try to find the right catalyst that will move the plot forward and also reveal character. I try to find a case that will force Rick to become emotionally invested. The story really builds around that. I try not to force the plot and let the reveals and plot twists flow up from my subconscious. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I try to let the story come to me instead of chasing it. Sometimes an idea will bubble up in a sentence and I’ll drop it in a scene and I don’t really know what it means. Sometimes it can lead to a whole new angle on the story and other times it’s nothing. I call that dropping anchors. Sometimes, I have to go back and pull up the anchors, but, more often, they stay and improve the story and lead me to the deeper meaning. I know, weird.

MPS: This book I felt Rick came to terms with a lot of the things he was dealing with in the previous books. Do you have a new direction planned for him?

MC: I wish I could tell you I have his whole character arc planned out, but I don’t. He will be carrying a little less baggage than before, but he’s not going to all of a sudden have his life together. Plus, in book five, the one I’m writing now, he’ll have to deal with something that flares up in Blood Truth. However, I do see his relationship with Moira growing and the potential for happiness somewhere down that dark lonely road.

 

MYSTERY WITHIN PROPHECY: AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID ERIC TOMLINSON

David Eric Tomlinson’s The Midnight Man is a unique mystery that covers almost seventy-five years on Choctaw reservation and how a past crime haunts another. David will be joining us December 7th for a signing and discussion with Matt Coyle and Con Lehane. We caught up with him to discuss the book and how the culture he wrote about had an effect on the story.

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MysteryPeople Scott: The backdrop of the story is the Choctaw Nation. What did you want the reader to know about the people?

David Eric Tomlinson: The Choctaw were one of the first civilized tribes to embrace the English language and legal system, in an effort to fight the systematic oppression of the conquering Americans. They studied the treaties they’d signed, and began to argue the finer points of the language in court, often with success. This was a double-edged strategy, though, because by embracing English, some felt that the Choctaw culture and language were gradually being lost.

9781507201091I was also fascinated by the Choctaw tradition of storytelling. It involves manipulating point-of-view to frame a prophecy from some past moment in history. The prophecy then looks forward … from THEN, to NOW … and in this way, reconciles the past with the present. In many ways, this structure influenced what I was trying to do in The Midnight Man … I stepped back to the mid 1990s, and told a forward-looking prophecy to the Oklahoma City bombing.

MPS: How did you manage the multiple points of view?

DET: I spent about a year outlining this book, weaving the various characters into and around one another’s lives. In the end, I wound up rewriting it five times. Multiple storylines and characters were eliminated. But at heart, this is a very simple story: every character has an arc, and everyone eventually realizes they cannot achieve it on their own. To get there, each has to ask for help … and be willing to give it.
MPS: Another backdrop is the nineties, particularly during the O.J. trial. How did that period serve you?

DET: The 90s served as a mirror to today. Back then, we had a new form of communication (the Internet), a grassroots conservative wave sweeping across the country (the Republican revolution), the beginnings of reality TV (Court TV, which was constantly streaming the OJ Simpson trial), violent separatist militias (The Michigan Militia, Koresh’s group in Waco), and right-wing radio jockeys / politicians using language to demonize and label their opponents (Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich).

Consider where we are today. Over time, these forces have become even more divisive. Now we have Twitter and the Bundy Brothers, Make America Great Again and Fake News.

This novel tries to show that political language, by forcing people to choose one side of a wedge issue, inhibits actual communication. Real communication requires empathy, vulnerability, and understanding. It requires being open to changing your mind, or yourself … something all of these characters are struggling to do, some with more success than others.

MPS: What was the biggest thing you leaned about dealing with a time period many of the readers have lived through?

DET: I think the biggest struggle for me was in seeing, on the one hand, how far we MIGHT have come since then – in terms of integrating more diverse racial, sexual, or political views into mainstream American life – and in how short we’ve actually fallen of that promise. This last year has revealed just how powerful and entrenched racism and bigotry are in our politics and culture.

The past is a road map to the present moment. Looking back at the mid 1990s, you can see how we arrived at this uniquely frightening moment in American history. The seeds were all there.

MPS: Family is a major part of the story. What did you want to explore with it?

DET: Family serves as a metaphor for the opposite of this divisive political rhetoric swirling around us every day. Also as a metaphor for teamwork. For various reasons, there’s a lot of basketball in this book. And like a basketball team, there are 5 characters in the novel. Over time, each overcomes his own biases, regrets, and fears, and they help one another evolve into better versions of themselves. It’s a kind of post-racial family unit. This all happens during the course of a capital murder trail, and in the year preceding the tragedy of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. But I wanted to show that tragedy – on a personal level – doesn’t have to be inevitable. Hope is possible.

MPS: What can you tell us about what you’re working on next?

DET: Right now I’m on the second draft of a novel about an Army veteran who runs a suicide hotline for other vets. I guess you could call it literary suspense. It’s an important and very personal story, and I’m hoping to share more news about it soon!