“WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT…” By Tim Bryant

Thanks to Tim Bryant for writing a guest blog post for us about his books and where Wilkie is headed. Tim will be here Saturday, June 16th at 2pm with Mike Nemeth to discuss their work. 

Wilkie John Liquorish has turned out to be every bit the handful I wrote him to be and then some.

Kensington Books put out the first book in the Wilkie John Western series, A World Of Hurt, in November of last year. The second, Dead And Buried, just followed at the end of May. I had just written the fourth book (Old Mother Curridge) of my Dutch Curridge Mystery series in which a flawed anti-hero private detective fought both society’s and his own worst ills in an attempt to level the uneven playing field of 1950s Fort Worth. With Wilkie John, I decided, I would push my protagonist as far as I could. Unfortunately, this also pushes the reader along with him.

Wilkie John is a seventeen-year-old boy, thrown into a violent and unforgiving world of 1880s Texas with no father, and worse, no moral compass at all. He’s trigger happy, and that’s just about the only kind of happiness he really knows. He shoots two people in the first chapter. The body count grows. At one point, he gets a job as a gravedigger, a job that seems to suit his abilities, as he can always kill someone if he needs the work.

There is a black humor to Wilkie John and to the book in general. He doesn’t wear a white hat. If that’s a problem for him, it seems to also be a problem for his readers. Reviews for the first book have proven divisive. One reviewer thought the tale completely unredeemable, even though he threw the book against a wall and failed to finish it. And, may I add, he did get all of his facts completely correct. I couldn’t disagree with much of what he said, although he did leave a great deal unsaid.

Is Wilkie John redeemable? Well, the reader will have to keep reading, but the protagonist does back his way into a job with the Texas Rangers. I finally came to the conclusion that readers who have trouble with the Wilkie John books dislike them mostly for their authenticity. Wilkie John is wild and a little wooly, but in a way very much like Billy the Kid. I started him off at the age of seventeen, both as a nod to Billy and as a way of giving myself lots of room to develop him. With that much room, I decided, I could also give him a lot of need for developing as well.

If the second book does as well as the first, we’re certainly hoping for a third in the series. I’ve learned to like Wilkie John just fine, so I do believe you can too. He’s got some growing up to do, but didn’t we all at seventeen?   

The other thing of note about the Wilkie John westerns is that they’re based around the section of Fort Worth known as Hell’s Half Acre. The 1880s were the era when that outlaw section of town was gaining its fierce reputation. Other wild men like Butch Cassidy and Wyatt Earp (some people now misbelieve that he was a white hat wearing true blue good guy, but he was nothing of the sort) were gambling and carousing in the saloons and brothels there. It’s a fascinating time and place to throw a young morally-compromised boy like Wilkie John into.

In an example of getting the cart before the horse and pulling backward into the past, my Dutch Curridge detective books were also set in Hell’s Half Acre, years before I even thought of writing the westerns. They, however, were set during the sundown of that fabled place, as it was making way for the spiffed-up Fort Worth that we know today. In fact, Gary Goldstein at Kensington read those Dutch Curridge books and then gave me the opportunity to write for Kensington. He never stipulated that they be set in Fort Worth or in any specific location though. Of course, I had done a great deal of research on Fort Worth by that time, and I knew it was prime placement for a 1880s western series.

The Dutch Curridge books were successful enough to get me to where I am today. If you’re interested in the colorful history of Fort Worth or Texas in general, you might enjoy them. You might also enjoy the Wilkie John westerns, A World Of Hurt and Dead And Buried. All they really require is the love of a good story about real people. It might help if you lean more toward Elmer Kelton than Louis L’amour. (Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained and The Good Old Boys are still two of my favorite westerns.) As Elmer himself used to say, “I can’t write about heroes seven feet tall and invincible. I write about people five-foot-eight and nervous.” Wilkie John is five-foot-one with a king-size inferiority complex.

Texas in the 1880s was a wild and lawless place. It could still be that way in the 1950s. There are lots of tales about those days. Some aren’t tall at all. Sometimes they pack a pretty mean punch. Sometimes they shoot first and aim second. Sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction. Other times, fiction rings truer than any newspaper article or history book. Whether you like it or not.

 

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Mike Nemeth’s The Undiscovered Country

The Undiscovered Country is an odd, yet satisfying thriller. It rests partly on a murder nobody knows has occurred. Yet author Mike Nemeth knows the mechanics of this genre and tells it like a master craftsman.

The main character, Randle Marks, has been recently paroled from prison for a crime he did not commit, and is on his way to getting his life back together. When he learns that his mother is seriously ill, he goes back to his Georgia home to help. What he gets in return is being caught in the crossfire of his feuding siblings, each angling for a large chunk of her estate, and questioning the practices of his mother’s care givers. He handles both by searching and researching uncovering secrets about his family and himself.

Nemeth lays a southern family drama over a thriller’s structure and pace. It owes more to Pat Conroy than Patterson. However, his thriller skills show through the pace of reveals and resolutions, to a classic finale with Randle revealing the final major truth to everyone he has called into  a room. He often hits the story beats with an emotion that feels real rather than melodramatic.He taps into situations many of us deal with to connect with the suspense he creates.

The Undiscovered Country is that rare thriller where the reader can relate. He uses real frustrations we have with both the health care system and those closest to us to explore themes of identity and secrets that reverberate from the past. The result is a one of a kind story in the best way.

If you want to know more, join us this Saturday at 2pm as Mike Nemeth joins Tim Bryant here in the store for a discussion of their books!

Q&A with Ricky Bush

Ricky Bush puts his love and knowledge of the blues into his crime fiction. In his latest, The Oaxacan Kid, blues collector Foster Cane is on the hunt for a recording performed by a Latino harmonica player. His search leads to a human trafficking ring and his father’s killers. Billy will be joining author and filmmaker John Shepphird May 5th at 2PM, but we caught up with him earlier to discuss writing and music.

The Oaxacan Kid Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: Which came first, the character of Foster Cane or the story about the Oaxacan Kid?

Ricky Bush: My story germinated around the idea of a collector of rare blues records intent on tracking down an obscure bluesman. So, I guess I fleshed out Foster Cane first. During the ’60s a folk music revival was afoot and a lot of musicologists began discovering early blues recordings and started scouring the Mississippi Delta looking for those musicians. They recorded them and brought them out of obscurity, which launched a blues revival. The Oaxacan Kid became Foster’s target. Since few Hispanics have recorded blues, I thought I’d add that twist.

MPS: The blues world serves as a back drop for your books and you are an accomplished harmonica player. What do you want to get across to the reader about the music?

RB: Blues music reflects the human condition. The music is much more bipolar than some people realize, swinging from sad and lonely to upbeat and joyful. Yeah, there are a lot of blues about losing a good woman (or man), but plenty more about finding a good woman (or man), and all life experiences in between.

MPS: Do you see anything it has in common with crime fiction?

RB: Crime fiction is all about the blues. The genre reflects the human condition in much the same way. Plenty of blues recordings are crime stories personified. Check out Pat Hare’s version of ‘I’m Gonna Murder My Baby’ from 1954. Sad thing is that he did just that. Another good example is Lazy Lester’s ‘Bloodstains On The Wall’. That’s crime fiction.

MPS: Family runs through the novel with Foster and his antagonists both having to deal with their relations. What did you want to explore in those dynamics?

RB: You’re right. Family dynamics drive the plot and theme throughout The Oaxacan Kid. The Morenos are as tight knit as the Cane family. One is more intent on the preservation of criminal enterprise and the other is intent of the preservation and safety of the family. ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Sopranos’ explored those dynamics in depth. The ‘Breaking Bad’ series dove into the same waters. I think just exploring how far one will go for love of family, whether it’s controlling criminal territory or the attitude of ‘not with my family, you won’t’ will always create the tension needed to drive a story.

MPS: You use Houston well. Other than familiarity what does the city provide you as a writer?

RB: I grew up sixty miles south of Houston and have lived ninety miles east of Houston for over thirty years. My wife’s from Houston, so I know pretty much know the city. Spent tons of time in the excellent blues venues in Houston and my first protagonists are blues harmonica musicians who gig in Houston and those blues clubs serve as models for my first three books. Houston is constantly dealing with human and sexual trafficking and historically has been a conduit for drug smuggling from Mexico. The Oaxacan Kid explores those themes.

MPS: If you were introducing someone to the blues, what three albums would you tell them to listen to first?

RB: Gotta start with the roots. ‘The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson’ is essential because he’s the most influential for those that followed. Muddy Waters ‘His Best 1947-1955′. He took the blues from Stovall Plantation to Chicago, amplified it, and created the greatest blues band ever. He introduced the world to Little Walter, the greatest harmonica player-ever. Howlin’ Wolf ‘The Definitive Collection’. The Wolf’s blues is gritty, down in the alley, gut bucket blues on par with Muddy’s influence on the genre.

Q&A with John Shepphird

John Shepphird is not only an award winning crime author, he also has spent years as a director of movies in the low budget arena for cable networks like SyFy and ABC Family. He puts that to use in his latest novel, Bottom Feeders. A put upon director struggling to shoot a period drama on a shoe string budget not only has to put up with a diva of a leading lady and tight schedule, but soon someone is knocking off members of the cast and crew with a bow and arrow. It’s a classic whodunnit with a fun insider’s look at the temporary community a film crew forms. John will be here on May 5th at 2PM with fellow crime writer Ricky Bush. We found some time to talk with him earlier about crime fiction and film making.

Bottom Feeders Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: As somebody who worked on film sets in the past, you captured the weird bubble of a society it creates. What did you want the reader to know about film work?

John Shepphird: You rarely see the actual world of low-budget film-making represented and I thought I’d write what I know. Having directed nine TV/straight-to-video movies and hours of television, I’m part of the community of artists that create entertainment found on the fringe of your cable guide–SyFy Channel, Lifetime, USA Network and ABC Family. Contrary to what people are led to believe, there is very little glamour in movie making. You have to get up very early. The hours are brutal and schedules change day-to-day. This is especially true in low budget. There have been plenty of books, movies and TV shows depicting the world of stars, agents, limos and personal assistants. That’s all so cliché. I wrote about the people who aspire to bat in Hollywood’s major leagues.

MPS: While edgier, the mystery is in an Agatha Christie amateur-sleuth. Did a tale with a non-professional investigator in the lead present any sort of challenge?

JS: I love a whodunit. It’s the perfect balance of structure and character. That was my jumping off point. The cast and crew on a set becomes a temporary family with many similar dynamics found in an actual family, including all the dysfunction. I like to put my characters in a pressure cooker, then take a deep-dive into their best and worst behavior. Sondra, the San Bernardino County Deputy Sheriff, is the one outsider, a professional investigating the brutal murders — but she is not the primary focus to drive the mystery. She has challenges and flaws of her own and it’s her perspective that serves to escalate enlighten the story.

MPS: While the book has a unique voice and take its roots are hard planted in the traditional whodunit. Did you draw from any influences?

JS: I’d met author Michael Nethercott at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Albany just as his first novel The Seance Society came out. It paid homage to Agatha Christie, but also Arthur Conan Doyle and Rex Stout. I don’t necessarily read cozies. I write dark suspense and noir, but I liked the book so much I bought copies and gifted it to friends and family. I’d been thinking about starting a whodunit but it was this book that inspired me to take a crack. Bottom Feeders started out as an exercise, then the characters took on a life of their own.   

MPS: Which character is the closest to you or someone you worked with?

JS:. Every character is derived from people I’ve worked with, and not necessarily on the films I wrote and directed but also the projects I was hired on as a crew member. Director Eddie’s perspective is probably the closest to mine as he tries to navigate the treacherous waters, and not go down with the ship. There’s a lot of things to worry about, believe me. Many who work in film and TV are very passionate about what they do. I have great respect for them. We’re all a little crazy, sure, and most of us will admit it. I dedicated this book to them.

I dedicate this novel to the legions of hard-working craftspeople and performers who have carried sandbags, set lights, cobbled together wardrobe, swung microphones, memorized dialogue, painted sets, dusted faces, pulled focus, teased hair, coordinated chaos, hit their marks, and built it all up only to tear it down again—making something out of nothing. To the dreamers and the schemers in the low-budget trenches, this is for you.

MPS: Did writing about a subject you knew so well actually present any challenges?

JS: If anything I wanted to include more of the details baked into low-budget filmmaking but they don’t necessarily advance the story. Once the action kicked in I couldn’t slow the pace to explore nuance. The technology has changed, but the fundamentals of motion picture production has remained the same–cut to the chase.      

MPS: How many times have you wanted to commit murder on set?

JS:. I’ve never had urge to kill cast or crew because they’re like family. There are a few executives and producers I’d considered taking a swing at back in the day. Ultimately nature took its course. In the span of my career three executive producers have been incarcerated for securities fraud including Jordan Belfort, the actual “Wolf of Wall Street” depicted by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film. Another producer was jailed in a surrogacy/medical-tourism scheme. The world of independent film is ripe with personalities. There are hidden agendas. Get movie professionals together and horror stories will be swapped. We’re all just crazy enough to jump back into the flame.

Review: Walter Mosley is back at it with DOWN THE RIVER UNTO THE SEA

Walter Mosley is one of the most prolific mystery writers working today — this is his 53rd book. Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery reviewed his latest ahead of his event here Saturday, March 3rd, at 6pm

No matter what genre or subgenre Walter Mosley brings to us, you can always expect it to be smart and have a voice. His use of style conveys emotion and thought to connect the individual protagonist with his larger society, connecting the reader to it all. With Down The River Unto The Sea we get a new detective and different style, but the voice is there.

Joe “King” Oliver operates a little one man agency in New York with his teen daughter Aja acting as a gal Friday. Two cases come his way. One involves getting an activist known as The Free Man off death row for killing two police officers. The other ties to his past, connected to a woman who helped frame him for a sexual assault charge that got him bounced off the force.

This may all sound familiar, but Mosley weaves it into a prescient novel. King appears to be the least angst ridden of Mosley’s detective heroes, resembling more of Hammett’s Sam Spade than Chandler’s world weary Marlowe who his Easy Rawlins often reflects. Even the tighter prose style reflects Hammett, making it even more effective when the character drops some knowledge at the end of a paragraph. Oliver’s attitude and actions beautifully entwine, particularly when they seem to run counter to each other.

As always, the author uses setting perfectly, though it is different from the shadow societies created by the people the mainstream has pushed to the side. King inhabits an increasingly gentrified New York with unwashed nooks and crannies in the form of diners and dive bars he ducks into for information and salvation. While races mingle it is on tectonic plates that could shift any minute.

 

In this book, Mosley tries to hold out on the theme until the climax, or at least appears to. As he uncovers the mystery and the deeds of his former fellow boys in blue, he faces harsher truths, 

and the reader is presented with harsher questions about living in today’s world. He is driven to make a decision that asks how far we will go in correcting an injustice when it is perpetrated by institutions that are supposed to provide justice. While King’s decision provides a satisfying arc that doesn’t betray the character, Mosley still asks us to question it.

Mosley takes many tried and true tropes of the detective genre and molds them into a tale for our times. When we feel a need to mobilize with the oligarchs gaining more ground, he asks us how far are we willing to take the fight. We may need that tarnished knight errant to go down those mean streets more than ever.

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.

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.