INTERVIEW WITH MAX ALLAN COLLINS

Max Allan Collins is probably the crime fiction author who has had the most impact on me. In my teens I discovered his private eye Nate Heller and was hooked. In following his work, a real life character pops up through the years, famed Untouchable Eliot Ness. It came as little surprise he wrote a biography about the federal agent and his fight with Capone along with historian A. Brad Schwartz, Scarface and the Untouchable:  Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago. It was great honor to talk to one of my heroes about one of his.

Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: You’ve used Eliot Ness in your fiction for over three decades and wrote and produced a play about him. What draws you to him?

Max Allan Collins: As a kid I saw the original Desilu Playhouse production of “The Untouchables” with Robert Stack, which led to the TV series.  I was a huge fan of the show and fascinated by the basis in history, although as we know the series played fast and loose. I was already a Dick Tracy fan, and Ness seemed to be a real-life Tracy. Years later I would discover that Tracy’s creator, Chester Gould, actually based Tracy on Ness and the Untouchables.  My Nathan Heller private eye novels, which are fact-based and set in Chicago, seemed to cry out for Ness to be my PI’s police contact. After his appearances in the Heller series, Ness starred in four books I did about the Untouchable’s Cleveland years, as well as comics appearances in Road to Perdition and a Batman graphic novel, Scar of the Bat.  I intended the play to be my last word on the subject…until my co-author came along.

MPS: Prohibition era Chicago is one of those places and times that are iconic in our history and captures our imagination, like 1870s Dodge City and San Francisco in the sixties. What is do you think the appeal is?

MAC: It was a specific time — like the Old West, it didn’t last long — and the misguided social experiment of Prohibition led to a wild period in which criminals often became anti-heroes and the public was largely in on the law-breaking, by way of ignoring the 18th amendment.

MPS: What the book reminded me is how young both Capone and Ness were when they started out. Do you think their youth helped define the kind of gangster and lawman they were?

MAC: I do, and that aspect of their combined story has always fascinated me — particularly since Hollywood traditionally cast much older actors in the roles.  My co-author, A. Brad Schwartz — who is a Princeton history major in the doctorate program — is about the same age as Ness when he took Capone on.

MPS: Did you learn anything about the two in working on the book that surprised you?

MAC: The similarities were striking — immigrants with fathers who had made good, honest lives.  But also there were the fun facts, like straight-arrow Ness lying about his age to land a federal job, and Capone and Ness living on the same Chicago street for many years.

MPS: There have been several books on Capone. Was their a certain way Mr. Schwartz and you wanted to approach him for yours?

MAC: Not to disparage all of the books, but many were weak or poorly researched, particularly where Eliot Ness is concerned.  Authors seemed to love taking Ness down a bunch of pegs from the Hollywood version, but didn’t bother really digging into who and what this man really was.

MPS: Outside of Ness and Capone did you discover another person in the book you found fascinating?

MAC: Edward O’Hare, father of the war hero O’Hare Airport was named for, was a fascinating, shifty fixer, who has often been painted positively by historians when in fact he was a manipulative, slippery character.

MPS: Did you find anything that contradicted Eliot Ness’ memoir The Untouchables?

MAC: The memoir has been much criticized, yet a lot of it really happened.  The co-author, sports writer Oscar Fraley, took great liberties by moving historical material around for dramatic effect.  Things Ness did prior to the Untouchables — the Chicago Heights investigation, for example — were depicted by Fraley as happening after the formation of the Capone squad.  Ness was at the end of his life, needing money desperately, and allowed the book to be essentially a non-fiction novel.

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WITHIN A GENERATION OF THEIR EXTINCTION: AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID JOY

Our Pick Of The Month, The Line That Held Us, is David Joy’s third book to take place in his home of Jackson County, North Carolina. It concerns Calvin Hooper who helps his friend Darl Moody hide a body he accidentally shot. The body belongs to the brother of Dwayne Brewer, the county’s most vicious criminal. What occurs is a tense thriller that also looks at family, friendship, and search for grace in a place that is going through a lot of changes after it seems to have changed little for over a hundred years. We got a chance to talk about the book with David Joy himself.

MysteryPeople Scott: As in all of your books, family plays a major part in the story. Dwayne is avenging his, and Calvin is trying to save his before it even gets started. What makes the dynamics rich subject matter for you?

David Joy: Maybe more than anything it’s the idea of unconditional love that interests me. I think familial bonds, and deep-seated friendships that become familial, make for some of the richest ground to plow. People will do things that defy reason and that defy even their own morality to protect the ones they love. That’s an interesting place to put a character. There’s immediate conflict. There’s this “I know I shouldn’t do this but I’d do anything for you” kind of conflict. Any time you can create that kind of tension in a story you’re going to have movement, and that’s what a story has to do. It has to move.

MPS: Family seems to be a staple in Southern literature. Do you feel it has a special place in the culture?

DJ: That’s definitely true about Southern literature, but I think the reality is that it’s less a matter of the South or the North or the Midwest, and much more a matter of the rural nature of the setting. Family is an integral part of the rural identity. You could go anywhere in the country and if you get far enough out to places where people are largely isolated and seldom leave and that’s all you have is family or families. Take the county where I live, Jackson County, North Carolina. You go back to the late 1800s when that county was formed and the names on that paper the Brysons and Hoopers and McKees and Dills and Fowlers and McCalls and Shulers and Greens and all these names, those names are the same names that are here now. That’s the culture and place that I’m writing about. The work mirrors that reality.

MPS: Dwayne is such a great antagonist, in fact as the book continues he grows more into a counter-protagonist if there is such a thing. Is there any thing you have to keep in mind when writing for a character like him?

Image result for david joy author

DJ: I think one of the scariest things that can happen with a “bad guy” is when they make perfect sense. When, as a reader, you find yourself nodding your head. There’s this great moment in Larry Brown’s novel Father And Son when one of the main characters, Glen, catches this giant fish that everyone had been trying to catch for years. Glen is a bad dude. He’s come out of prison for killing someone. He’s raped at least one woman that we know of. Anyway, he catches this huge fish and he has this moment where he could take it to town and show it off and for once in his life be a hero. Instead, he turns it loose. When they ask him why, the line is something like, “Because that fish never done nothing to me.” Tom Franklin asked Larry about that scene once and he said Larry told him that even the worst people had moments of humanity. I think that’s absolutely right and I think that’s what you’re getting at here. With Dwayne Brewer, I wanted his logic to make sense. I wanted readers to see him doing incredibly horrific things and somehow feel empathy toward those actions. He’s some sort of balance between instinct and reason, between what we feel in our guts and what we think in our heads. At times, we all wash back and forth between those places and that’s part of why characters like that resonate with us. I think he might be the character I’m most proud of. If nothing else, he’s unforgettable.

MPS: In some ways Calvin is even more difficult to pull off. He’s comes off as the friend you want to have and workmate you respect, but I never felt like we had to like or side with him. Is there a way you approach someone like that?

DJ: Calvin Hooper is really an indifferent character altogether, and maybe that’s what you were responding to. He never struck me as a decision maker, as a leader. He reminds me of friends of mine who always wound up in the back of the car riding along to places they had no business going, with people they had no business being with. There were times, especially when I was younger, when I did the same thing. There were times I wound up in the back of a police car because I went along with something someone else wanted to do. Early on in the novel Calvin makes some pretty horrible decisions based on his love and commitment to his best friend, Darl Moody. After those decisions backfire and things go from bad to worse, there’s this sort of detached reaction toward everything. It’s like he just sort of removes himself and thinks if I just leave everything alone maybe it will settle. Well, of course things don’t settle and one of the biggest conflicts in the book is Dwayne Brewer forcing Calvin to acknowledge what he values most and to make a decision based on that acknowledgement. In that way, I think Calvin shows a lot of growth as a character. There’s that question Dwayne asks Calvin toward the end of the book, he asks, “For whom are you willing to lay down your life, friend? Outside of that there is nothing.” I think that question lies at the heart of what this novel is about.

MPS: It seems like with each book, the outside world is closing in tighter on your character’s communities, posing the same cultural threat to the area as gentrification does to cities. Do you see this as an ever-growing problem in real life?

DJ: When a lot of outsiders think about Appalachia, they imagine the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Where I live, that’s not our reality. I’ve said for a long time that unrestricted land development, tourism, rising land costs, and the resulting gentrification, that’s our coal mining. A lot of people refuse to acknowledge tourism as an extractive economy, but it is. It’s not as ugly on the surface as the timber industry was a century ago, or as coal mining was and is, but the result is the same. The result is the destruction of landscape and the displacement of people.

The jobs that are created from tourism-based economies are low paying jobs. What value there is is in the land. There are places here, entire coves, entire mountains, that have belonged to single families for hundreds of years. That land has been divvied up and divided over generations and nowadays its worth more than it ever has been. The thing about that value though is that it forces the hand. Sure you can sell the property to some out-of-state goon looking to build a second or third home that they can come visit for a few weeks out of the year and sure the money you’re going to make on that acreage is more than you’ve ever had in your life, but there’s no lateral move. You can sell the farm but it’s not like you can drive down the road and scoop up another. There’s no other place to go. Those places don’t exist anymore. The family land is broken up and sold and the local people move away. I think we’re looking at the very last remnants of this culture and these people. We’re within a generation of their extinction.

MPS: All three of your books are stand alone novels. Are there any plans for a series, trilogy, or return to any of your surviving characters?

DJ: I’d never even heard that term “stand alone” until I had a book out. I don’t know, I’d just never really thought about books like that. I didn’t grow up reading series. I typically don’t want to stick with characters that long. I like to jump around. I might read something Southern then jump into something South American. Sometimes I’ll read nothing but poetry for months. I won’t say I’d never write something like a trilogy, but the story would really have to warrant the structure. Other than that, my style lends itself more to individual books.

As far as my novels, I do like to throw anecdotes from earlier books into new ones, things that work whether you’ve read the other books or not. So for instance with The Weight Of This World, the time period when that book is set and what’s happening with the methamphetamine culture is largely resulting from the end of the first novel, Where All Light Tends To Go. With The Line That Held Us there’s mention of an event that happened in Weight Of This World. There’s also a lawyer that shows up in Where All Light Tends To Go and The Line That Held Us. The book I’m working on, one of the main characters from The Weight Of This World appears and I don’t know whether that will stick or not, but the point is that I do enjoy playing with things like that.

All of my books are set very specifically in Jackson County, North Carolina where I live and it’s a small place. You get to know people here. It’s the same names in the newspaper week in and week out. When things happen, you hear about them, and when things happen, especially big things, the stories root themselves into the landscape. Nothing is easily forgotten here and I want my books to mimic that reality.

INTERVIEW WITH WALLACE STROBY

We talked with Wallace Stroby about his latest, Some Die Nameless.

MysteryPeople Scott: Some Die Nameless is a bit different from your other work. How did the idea for it come to you?

Image result for wallace strobyWallace Stroby: After the fourth Crissa Stone novel, The Devil’s Share, I decided both she and I needed a break. The end of that book had left her damaged, disillusioned, and on her way to Europe, so it felt like a natural time to do a standalone. I was also interested in writing about the lingering effects of war. The main character, Ray Devlin, is a former mercenary haunted by atrocities in which he’d participated. And one of the chief villains, Lukas Dragovic, is an orphan who lost his entire family in the Balkan wars of the early ‘90s, and bore the effects of that. Lukas has a substantial chip on his shoulder, and for good reason.

MPS: One of the protagonists is a journalist. What did you want to express about your former profession?

WS: I miss it, though the business has changed dramatically – and not for the better – since I left it in 2008, after 23 years. I’d at one point considered pairing Devlin with a female FBI agent, but that seemed too much of a cliche. I realized if I was ever going to write about journalism and newspapers, now was the time. The business has been savaged in the last few years with layoffs, cutbacks and closures. Papers have been gutted by hedge-fund managers, and thousands of journalists have been thrown out of work. Things have only gotten worse since, with a violent attack on a Maryland newsroom in June, and a U.S. president who regularly refers to the free press – a cornerstone of democracy – as “the enemy of the American people.”

MPS: How did you go about constructing a character like Ray Devlin, who could have turned into more of a Jason Bourne type, instead of the more down-to-earth vein you were going for?

WS: I love those types of films and books, but don’t think I could write one. I wanted Devlin to be in his mid-to-late 50s, with physical limitations consistent with his age. He can handle himself in a fight, but not as well as he used to, and the aftereffects last longer. Also, Devlin was never any sort of elite special forces operative. He was just a grunt who left the Army to join a private firm, and whose primary function was to train indigenous forces in basic military tactics.

MPS: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this is the first time you have two protagonists working together. What was that dynamic like for you?

WS: I guess I got tired of writing about isolated loners, and though both Devlin and Tracy are that (Devlin by choice, Tracy not so much), I liked the idea of bringing them together. They each have pieces of the puzzle, without knowing how it all fits together – if it fits together at all. As they figure it out, it puts them both in danger. So they’re wary of each other at first, then drawn together for self-preservation.

Some Die Nameless Cover ImageMPS: You’ve dealt with political corruption before in your books, but not at this high a level. Were you wanting to explore something about our country’s policies? 

WS: I think it was less politics and policies than just the general tone I’m feeling in the country these days. Everyone’s unapologetic-ally on the grift, using their offices to enrich themselves, punish their enemies and reward their friends and investors. Ethics are for losers. It’s disheartening on a daily basis. We left normal in the rear view a long time ago.

MPS: Were there any other books or movies that worked as an inspiration for Some Die Nameless

WS: I wanted to do something where there was a street-level crime linked to a much-bigger conspiracy, an idea I explored a little in Devil’s Share, where a simple truck hijacking was tied to the looting of Iraqi artifacts. So I had that general concept even before I knew what the plot would be. I also had in mind books like William Goldman’s Marathon Man and Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, in which everyday crimes – muggings, dope dealing – were actually part of global conspiracies, but only experienced by the characters at the personal levels in which they were involved.

At the same time, there are homages in there to two of my favorite crime writers – John D. MacDonald and James Crumley. Like MacDonald’s Travis McGee, Devlin lives mostly on a boat (though not a houseboat). And in Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, his detective, C.W. Sughrue, drives a Chevy El Camino. For Devlin, I switched the model to a Ranchero, which was Ford’s version.

MPS: What are you working on next for readers?

WS: Another change of pace. Working on a standalone, a relatively small-scale suspense novel. No title yet. I’ll also have a Crissa Stone short story in an upcoming anthology, At Home in the Dark, edited by Lawrence Block. That should be out at the end of this year or beginning of next. And hopefully at some point she’ll be back in a novel.

 

INTERVIEW WITH ROB HART

Rob Hart has put his hero, unlicensed private detective Ash McKenna, through the wringer both physically and emotionally. He hasn’t even let him stay put in one city —  he has had to leave New York, Portland, a commune in Georgia, and then Prague in each book. In Potter’s FieldAsh returns to his Big Apple home, hoping to get his life together and find peace, but not until his former boss drag queen crime boss.

Potter's Field (Ash McKenna #5) Cover Image

MysteryPeople Scott: What made you want to have Ash in only five books?

Rob Hart: This may sound ridiculous but Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt series was five books, and I got it in my head that five was a good number. But as I was laying out the arc of Ash’s story, it made a lot of sense—three wasn’t enough, five was just right. And as much as I love writing him I needed to have an endpoint. The series is about a kid growing up and finding his moral compass, and it doesn’t work if he never finds it.

MPS: This is the final book, so, did Potter’s Field end up how you thought it would or did it change as you developed the character for the series?

RH: I was actually pretty locked-in early on, in that I knew he would come back to New York in the final book. But I didn’t realize how much of the fifth book would end up on Staten Island—nearly the entire thing, with a brief jaunt into Manhattan. I live on Staten Island and writing Potter’s Field made me realize how much I appreciate it, and this felt like I was doubling down on that. Especially since Staten Island hasn’t always had the greatest portrayals in arts and media. It’s so much more than a giant garbage dump and loud Italians.

MPS: You deal with Staten Island’s drug scene in this book, what did you want to convey about that world?

Image result for rob hartRH: The problem is much bigger than the individual user. If anything, I think users are unfairly demonized. The opioid crisis can be traced back to pharmaceutical companies that knew opioids were incredibly addictive, but did their best to hide that so they could maximize profits. And now a whole generation of people are hooked on heroin because of a bunch of rich craven assholes. I think there needs to be a lot more thought and compassion for what this crisis looks like on the ground level.

MPS: Do you feel New York has changed since Ash left or it is more seen through the eyes of someone who has changed?

RH: It has and it hasn’t. New York is a city of constant change—as much as the people who live here want it to remain the same, that’s not the nature of it. You just have to hold on and go along with it. If anything, that’s the feeling I wanted to get at. In New Yorked, the first book, Ash was one of those people who rages against every old business that closes, so by the fifth book, I wanted him to find that place of serenity, accepting the things he cannot change.

MPS: Ash runs into a couple other detectives as he searches for someone to apprentice with. Were you hinting at any new projects down the road with him?

RH: My publisher keeps reminding me that Dennis Lehane took a ten-year break on the Kenzie and Gennaro books. I am not opposed to writing more Ash, but definitely not for the foreseeable future. I needed those grown-up, real-deal private detectives to ground Ash’s journey and give him a reference point. The series, as a whole, is the origin story of a private detective, but he’s never even met one before.

MPS: How did it feel to finish Ash’s story, at least for now?

RH: Bittersweet. Ash’s voice is like an old pair of sneakers: comfortable to slip on, fits great, and you can walk for miles. But wear them for too long and they’ll break down and fall apart. I’m happy to be moving on to new things, but I’ll keep the shoes in the closet, just in case.

FAMILY AND FIREARMS: AN INTERVIEW WITH ACE ATKINS

The Sinners continues Ace Atkins’ southern crime fiction series with Afghan war vet and Mississippi sheriff Quinn Colson. His jurisdiction of Tibbehah County is hopping with a murder tied to a nemesis of the previous sheriff, Quinn’s dead uncle. His buddy Boom finds himself working for a questionable trucking company. All his tied to Mississippi queen-pin Fannie. If that wasn’t enough, Quinn’s getting married. Ace will be at BookPeople on July 24th with Megan Abbott with her new book Give Me Your Hand to sign and discuss their latest books and crime fiction. We caught up with him early to catch us up with Quinn.

MysteryPeople Scott: Family plays a big part in the series, but especially in this one, with Quinn going after a criminal family who are in some part a result from the sins of his uncle. You also have him getting married. What did you want to explore?

The Sinners (Quinn Colson Novel #8) Cover ImageAA: When I first started this series, I liked the idea of playing with time. Being able to go back into the history of Tibbehah County and seeing the ripple effect of major events really interests me. Or as Mr. Faulkner says, the past is never dead . . .

I hope as the series moves forward to really explore the county — from its founding to the wild days of bootlegging and beyond. The connection to the important – and infamous – families keep us all tied to one big story.

MPS: I was happy to see Boom get a large amount of time as a character. What made you want to put more focus on him?

AA: I figured it was about damn time. Boom has been a supporting figure for far too long. He’s always interested me as a complex man who’s been to hell and back, coming home from Iraq with a horrific injury. I wanted Boom to to have his own story, away from Quinn, and outside Tibbehah County. I’d always like the idea of truckers, a big fan of the trucker films of the 70s, and thought Boom was ideal to take the wheel. I’ve heard about a lot of one-armed truckers who overcame their disability and conquered the road. There was no doubt Boom could do it.

MPS: Fannie grows to be a more complex and interesting character with each book. How did she initially come to creation?

Image result for ace atkinsAA: Oh, I love Fannie, too. She’s so much fun to write. She really came from a few places. Most notably Joan Crawford’s performance as Vienna in Johnny Guitar. I also borrowed a lot from a woman named Fannie Belle, a real life madame, I’d written about in one of my True Crime Novels, Wicked City.

I think her role – in the big picture of all the novels – has certainly grown. And her relationship with Quinn and her cohorts in the Dixie Mafia has only gotten more complex. She is a very strong independent woman in a male dominated world of crime. But she proves time and again, she can outsmart them all.

MPS: There is a great balance of the crime plot and the planning of the wedding, that never feels like a B story. What does that part of the book allow you to do with Quinn?

AA: That was really the toughest part of The Sinners for me. I knew Quinn was going to marry Maggie going back to The Fallen. It’s high time for him to get hitched, although he’ll never settle down. But I didn’t want write anything overly sentimental or melodramatic. And that’s hard as hell with a wedding. I think Quinn getting married, and now having a family with a young son, will only make the stories more interesting.

MPS: Do you think marriage means Quinn is settling down or will provide new struggles for him to deal with?

AA: I’d look at Quinn being married like Spenser with Susan Silverman. Just because a man is monogamous doesn’t mean his life is boring. In fact, I find the the bed-hopping hero to be a little old and unbelievable. Maybe in the sixties. But not now. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rolled my eyes at an author writing a hero who’s irresistible to women.

MPS: You’ll be doing an event with us at BookPeople with Megan Abbott. What makes her a stand-out author to you?

AA: Megan Abbott is simply the best! I admire her writing and her knowledge of the genre a ton. Whether it’s film noir or classic hard boiled heroes, few know more than Megan. We’ve been close friends for a long while and can’t wait to sit down and talk about her novel in Austin. Her latest book — Give Me Your Hand – is just outstanding, gut wrenching and mean as hell. I loved it.

FALLING IN LOVE WITH YOUR MYSTERIES: AN INTERVIEW WITH MEGAN ABBOTT

When it comes to portraying the darkest desires of the human heart and the actions they trigger, Megan Abbott writes about them with grace and elegance that creates eerie noir able to completely connect with the reader. Her latest, Give Me Your Hand, uses the backdrop of the science field to look at the danger of ambition and secrets with two researchers reunited in competition for a research project under an esteemed scientist and a shared confidence severed their bond in high school. Megan will be joining Ace Atkins whose new book is The Sinners for an event here Tuesday, July 24th at 7pm.

Image result for megan abbottMysteryPeople Scott: On first glance, the world of science and the lab seem like an atypical setting for noir. What did it allow you to do with the genre?

Megan Abbott: I guess I’ve always thought of labs as spooky places, full of atmosphere. Slick surfaces, dark corners and the body and mortality. Blood. And once I started to read about the hothouse environment in competitive labs, I knew it was perfect.  

MPS: What was your biggest take away in researching that world?

MA: The stakes are very high there. I became fascinated about stories of “labotage”—researchers sabotaging one another’s work, mixing up slides, dumping results. And it’s also a world where women are still very much in the minority, making it very complicated for women working in that world…which is what we see with Kit and Diane.

MPS: How did premenstrual dysphoric disorder become the research subject?

MA: Given the lack of funding for research into women’s health issues, I knew I wanted them to be studying a “female” condition. And I began reading about PMDD (AKA extreme PMS)—how calamitous it can be for women who suffer from it, how it can rule their lives. The extreme mood swings, the anger, the despair. I’m always drawn to stories that enable you to explore the way women’s bodies are seen as disruptive, dangerous.

MPS: Diane is one of those noir characters you often use who is part a full-fledged person and part the gaze of the protagonist. Do you have to keep anything in mind when dealing with that kind of character?

MA: What a great question. I think, with those characters, they’re mysteries to me during the first stages of writing the book. And then I slowly uncover their secrets—as I did Diane. And then ultimately, I grow to love them—as I did Diane. And that love is the only way the book works, if it does. I have to fall in love with my mysteries.

MPS: How did you get the name Diane Fleming, since it fits both who she is and what people picture her to be perfectly?

Give Me Your Hand Cover ImageMA: Boy, names are so hard. I usually keep changing the name over and over until one finally sticks, feels right. And I admit, this one just came to me. I hadn’t even thought of its larger resonances, but you’re right!

MPS: I couldn’t help but think Severin’s lab with a pool of smart talented people working on a project by an esteemed professional in the field sounded to me what the writers’ room of “The Deuce” might be like. Did you pull anything from your own experience for Give Me Your Hand?

MA: Haha! I don’t think so. But it was a very male environment for Lisa (Lutz) and me, so maybe there’s something to it!

MPS: You’ll being doing an event with us on July 24th with Ace Atkins, a writer who you are a big fan of. What do you admire about him?

MA: His ability to pound bourbon and talk Burt Reynolds movies until all hours of the night? His good looks and charm? Yes, yes, and yes. But most of all, it’s his books. I’ve read them all, I love them all, and The Sinners is Ace at his best. No one paints a world more vividly than Ace. No one has a richer palette of characters. He’s the best.

A conversation with Ashley Dyer

Splinter in the Blood: A Novel Cover ImageIf you like mysteries with lots of twists you need to read Splinter In The Blood, the debut novel by Ashley Dyer.

The story starts out with a bang, literally, with a scene in which Detective Chief Greg Carver, the lead investigator of a serial killer named the Thorn Killer has been shot. He is sprawled on his seat in his own home. OK, maybe there are other mysteries that have started this way.

But I’m not done setting the stage because Carver remembers the shooter standing in front of him. Soon, by the end of the next chapter, he has remembered who shot him: His partner, Sgt. Ruth Lake, who after shooting him takes away his files, compromising the crime scene.

As the book proceeds there become two investigations: Who shot Carver and who is the Thorn Killer? Lake, of course, doesn’t tell anyone what she did, and is not supposed to be working on the former investigation but can’t stay away.

Gradually, we began to understand her motives, her disdain for Carver as a person and as an investigator. And Lake and the Thorn Killer are both fascinating characters.

Ashley Dyer, who is actually two different people working together, agreed to an email interview. One part of the writing duo is Margaret Murphy, a Writing Fellow and Reading Round Lector for the Royal Literary Fund, a past Chair of the Crime Writers Association (CWA), and founder of Murder Squad. A CWA Short Story Dagger winner, she has been shortlisted for the First Blood critics’ award for crime fiction as well as the CWA Dagger in the Library. The other part is Helen Pepper, a Senior Lecturer in Policing at Teesside University. She has been an analyst, Forensic Scientist, Scene of Crime Officer, CSI, and Crime Scene Manager.  She has co-authored, as well as contributed to, professional policing texts. Her expertise is in great demand with crime writers: she is a judge for the CWA’s Non-Fiction Dagger award, and is Forensic Consultant on both the Vera and Shetland TV series. Thanks to them both for chatting with us, and you can read more about them on their website.

Scott Butki: How did you two decide to join up and work together?

Helen Pepper:  I’d done a lot of work with Ann Cleeves. Ann is a member of Murder Squad, a group of crime writers from the north of England, which was founded by Margaret. So we’d met a few times at writing events. Margaret told Ann she was looking for a forensic advisor and asked if I might be interested. I was VERY interested, because I knew Margaret was such a great writer.

Margaret Murphy: I’d written a one-page outline (more of a blurb, really) for Splinter In The Blood in 2014, but it wasn’t until 2016 that I started working on it in earnest. I knew, by this time, that Ruth Lake, one of the two main protagonists, was a former CSI, so naturally, Helen came to mind. You’ve seen her bio, so you will have guessed that she has an ability to bend time – how else would she fit so much into a day? Even so, I was apprehensive that a collaboration of this kind might be a project too far, and I was delighted when she agreed.

SB: How did you go about working together? Some writing partners alternate chapters, others have one do the writing while the other checks the details, for example.

HP: I’m not a writer, Margaret’s the driving force there. What happens is Margaret will come up with an idea, then we’ll get together and talk it through. My job is to come up with ideas as to how we can use forensic science in the story, both to move the story along and maybe to create a few red herrings!

I also advise on police procedure and how things are done in real life, which quite often involves pointing out that, yes, there might be a really fancy piece of kit that will get us a result, but there’s a really straightforward inexpensive way to get to the same result, and police forces don’t have an endless budget.

Margaret then disappears to write the book (a minor job!). Whilst she’s writing we bat ideas back and forth and she sends me completed chapters to check. I love this part of the process, it’s so exciting to see how Margaret makes the story come to life.

MM: When I feel that I have a story idea we could run with, I usually write a short, two-to-three-page synopsis. After that, we bat ideas back and forth, talking about story, forensic procedures that might come into play, police approaches to particular categories of crime, and so on. One example of Helen telling me I can’t have a jazzy piece of kit to do forensics goes like this (no spoilers): I found an academic paper on the use of laser technology to create a 3-D holographic image of a fingermark inside a clear block of material. I took it to Helen, very excited about it, and proud of myself. ‘You could do that,’ she said, ‘but you probably wouldn’t have such an expensive piece of kit, and anyway, why would you, when you could just take a strong flashlight, shine it at an angle through the block, then take a photo?’ (Collapse of stout party.)

After we’ve talked story lines and forensic elements, I mull for a bit, then start on the full outline, which may be 20,000 to 40,000 words long.

SB: How would you summarize the plot and protagonist?

MM: The story begins with an image: a woman standing over a shooting victim; he lies sprawled in an armchair in his own home. She’s holding a gun. By the end of the next chapter, we know that the shooting victim is Detective Chief Inspector Greg Carver and the woman holding the gun is his trusted partner, Detective Sergeant Ruth Lake. By this time, Lake has systematically removed or destroyed evidence and recreated the scene.

For the past year, Carver and Lake have been investigating a series of bizarre, ritualistic killings: five female victims, all tattooed – even the soles of their feet. Over a period of weeks, the “Thorn Killer” inks strange patterns and eyes on the victims – some opened, some closed. Even more cruelly, the ink contains a paralytic which slowly suffocates them. Carver wakes from a coma some days later, and as he struggles towards recovery, he experiences strange hallucinations and ‘auras’ – a form of synaesthesia – caused by the injuries to his brain as he lay near death.

He is lying about how much he remembers and Ruth is lying about what she did at the crime scene – can they catch the killer when they’re lying to each other and everyone around them?

SB: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

HP: Enjoyment, and a need to read the next book!

MM: All of the above, and also one or two instances when they think, ‘Well I didn’t know that!’ Hopefully, akin to the sudden ‘Aha!’ moments in my background reading, when I want to dash out of my office and grab the next person I see to tell them all about it. But I’ve learned to be very careful with those moments as a writer – you don’t want your readers to feel they’re being lectured to – and excitedly approaching a stranger in the street with my latest scientific factoid, doesn’t always end well…

SB: Helen, I’m guessing that as someone who has been an analyst, forensic scientist, scene of crime officer, CSI and crime scene manager you must cringe when watching tv crime shows. Is it thus therapeutic to work on the Vera and Shetland tv series to ensure they got it right?

HP: I don’t watch too many TV crime shows – they tend to make my teeth itch! Though since I’ve been working on Vera and Shetland I’m a little more forgiving than I used to be. I started out thinking that we could make everything absolutely accurate, but it’s just not possible. In real life there’s a huge team, each of whom each make a small contribution. The senior investigator sits in an office juggling budgets and authorizing overtime and detectives spend an awful lot of time filling out forms and writing reports – which doesn’t make riveting TV viewing. So now I see it as my job to guide writers towards realism, but still keeping it interesting.

SB: Margaret, what was the adjustment like going from writing crime fiction on your own versus as a partner?

MM: I’d worked on a few TV and online scripts and story lines in the past which involved ‘round-table’ discussions with visual artists, producers and writers. Although none of these projects were commissioned, I did enjoy the process, so I was looking forward to working with Helen – and she’s made the transition very easy for me.

SB: What were the advantages and disadvantages of co-writing this?

HP: For me there’s only advantages. Working with Margaret gives me an insight into how the writing process works and allows me into a whole different world. I think one thing that CSIs and writers have in common is that we are really nosey – we like poking around in other people’s lives. I love finding out how the writing works, and I adore meeting ‘real’ people at writing events. You might need to talk to Margaret about the disadvantages!

MM: It’s fun being able to share interviews, podcasts and book tours with someone else – it can be lonely on the circuit, staying in motels and watching bad TV for entertainment. From the performance point of view, I can be excitable and expressive, a bit of a mimic, too – whereas Helen is relaxed and very droll, so we riff well off each other, and audiences enjoy the balance.

Disadvantages: Helen has a ‘proper’ job, teaching police and CSIs of the future to solve real crimes, so I sometimes have to curb my need to know something NOW! Immediately! Without delay! while she fulfills her other responsibilities.

SB: Who are some currently working crime fiction writers you’d like more people to check out?

HP: I think Margaret could answer this better than me. I don’t get to read much crime fiction. I’m a judge for the Crime Writer’s Association non-fiction dagger, so I read an awful lot of non-fiction crime. I’m also a university lecturer, so I have to keep up to date with what’s happening in academia – not to mention the TV scripts and Ashley Dyer reading. I have to say, though, that the murder squad writers are all really excellent. Although they all write crime fiction their approaches are really different, so however you like your crime, one of them would have something for you to enjoy.

MM: Dennis Lehane is a master on so many levels. I feel a strong connection to the recurring theme in his books – both series and standalone – that violence has consequences that are individual, generational and societal. But he is able to do all of this in the most stylish, entertaining narratives you will ever find in crime fiction.

Richard Montanari writes menace like no one else. His books are all very different, yet all have a tension and page-turning pace to envy. I’m usually a slow reader, but his prose, sometimes hard edged, sometimes lyrical always has me reading way past my bedtime.

AJ Finn – his debut is a lovely, twisty take on the domestic noir. Though he explores well-recognized tropes, he does it in a fresh, intelligent and witty manner. The Woman in the Window has hugely enjoyable Hitchcockian references and more than one playful nod towards noir films, and the ending is deeply satisfying, too.

SB: What’s it like having publicists comparing your work to Netflix’s Mind Hunters, BBC’s Broadchurch and American TV’s Criminal Minds?

HP: Pretty mind-blowing! It’s such a great feeling when people like what you’ve done.

MM: One word – gratifying.

SB: Are you already working on the second book? How far do you have this planned out?

HP: The second book’s all finished (and it’s an absolute cracker!). We’re just starting out on book three, and I’m really looking forward to it.

MM: Helen has a more objective view (and I hope she’s right!) As a writer, I’m always terribly anxious about submitting a book. We are awaiting our editor’s verdict as we write this…

BTW, we both microblog on our Facebook page @AshleyDyerNovels (we do giveaways and competitions, too!). We’re on Twitter as @AshleyDyer2017 and we even do forensics and background-to the-story videos on YouTube as Ashley Dyer Author – do come and join us!