For June, we have two different kind of men dueling it out with Mexican drug cartels in nature in the present and a big city newspaper man finding the truth in a flashy New York of the past. All have struck a great balance between character and pace.
Damon Runyon’s Boys by Michael Scott Cain
In postwar New York, a reporter looks into the murder of a dance troupe leader and uncovers a plot that puts the mob on him. Cain’s vivid recreation of the glitzy Big Apple in its Broadway heyday and appearances by Walter Winchell, an young Truman Capote, and others make this a fun historical hard boiled that pops.
Bearskin by James A McLaughlin
Hiding from a drug cartel, Rice Moore serves as the caretaker of a remote game preserve in Appalachia. When a poaching ring starts butchering bears, he makes new enemies while getting attention of the old ones. A crime thriller that understands the humanity of its characters and the violence they create.
Hawke’s War by Reavis Z. Wortham
Texas Sonny Hawke finds himself lured into a trap in Big Bend National Park, where he has to fend of terrorists and a drug cartel out for revenge. Halfway through this book, you may feel sorry for the bad guys in this fun shoot-em’-up with vivid supporting characters, villains who you can’t wait to get their comeuppance, and a killer pace. Reavis Z. Wortham will be at BookPeople July 8th along with Ben Redher and Billy Kring.
In May the private eyes take over the month. From the iconic to the new, differing in age, race, and sexual preference, all three of these detectives prove the vitality of the genre.
Robert B Parker’s Old Black Magic by Ace Atkins
Spenser is hired by a prestigious museum to solve a twenty year old art theft. With help of his mob-connected ally Vinnie Morris, our Boston PI has to delve into a history of gangsters, art dealers, and double crosses that has resurfaced in the present with deadly consequences. Atkins delivers Parker’s iconic hero into one of the more intricate plots he or Robert B. Parker came up with.
What You Want To See by Kristen Lepionka
When a possible cheating fiance Roxanne Weary tails end up murdered, her client becomes the main suspect. In an attempt to clear his name, she comes up against a real estate scam that literally strikes close to home. This follow up to Lepionka’s brilliant debut, The Last Place You Look, and proves she and Roxanne have what it takes for the long haul.
Blackout by Alex Segura
Pete Fernandez returns to his Miami home to locate a politician’s missing son who resembles someone who disappeared after he was seen with Pete’s high school crush before she was murdered. To unravel the mystery, Pete has to deal with the mob, a political assassination, and old wounds. The book is a great balance of action and emotion. Alex Segura will be at BookPeople May 16th.
Bottom Feeders by John Shepphird
The cast and crew on location in a small, low budget cable movie gets picked off one by one with arrows. It could be anyone from an angry local to the mobsters who invested. Shepphird, a man who has directed his share of low budget enterprises, captures the microcosm of filming while giving us an engaging whodunnit. You can meet him and Billy Bush (The Oaxcan Kid) on May 5th, 2PM, at BookPeople.
High White Sun by J Todd Scott
Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr
Bernie Gunther returns, although under a different name, working as a Munich insurance adjuster in 1958. A claim takes him to Athens, where there is still no love for Germans, and he becomes involved in plot involving war criminals, stolen gold, and a few murders. Kerr continues Bernie’s saga with historical insight, and tragic fallout of Hitler’s plan, tempered by noir humor. Kerr, of course, passed away last week, and we are saddened by that news.
There are a select group of, usually, female writers I turn to in times of crisis, in times of desire, in times of need, woe, loss, hope. These authors include Alison Gaylin, Alafair Burke, Alex Marwood, Megan Abbott, Lisa Lutz, and of course, Laura Lippman. Laura Lippman often stands in a category by herself—she is both the leading writer in transgeneric literary mysteries, but also a powerhouse who generally puts out a book a year—flawless books, beautiful books, books that always end with emotional punches that are eye-opening in startling ways. Other than perhaps Lou Berney and Daniel Woodrell, I find very few male authors approaching Lippman’s league. And do not get me wrong, this review is not a love letter to Laura Lippman. This is a love letter to Dodging and Burning, the brilliant, impeccable debut by John Copenhaver. John Copenhaver, who may or may not eventually become the male equivalent of the heretofore unmatched Laura Lippman.
I was hesitant in beginning this book. OK, that may be a lie. I was eager to start this book, after reading Kristopher Zgorski’s review at the end of 2017 in his year-end review. The book features strong female characters, complicated homosexual relationships, and as Copenhaver himself has recently pointed out to me, a challenge to the patriarchy. There are love triangles, or what might be perceived at first as love triangles, but really, just as in real life, love is much more complicated than it first appears. There is mystery, and intrigue, as one character points out to the two female protagonists that he believes he has found a body (and taken a photograph) of a deceased—really, murdered—woman, somewhere in Virginia.
Whatever your expectations for this novel are, put them aside. You will not be able to predict a single twist or turn to this book. You will also, likewise, not be able to put it down, just as I read it all in one solid sitting—a long sitting, as it’s not a short book, but a delicious, amazing, startling book. Copenhaver balances both a beautiful, poetic style written in many forms (narrative, epistolary letters, among other forms and styles of writing) but Copenhaver never once sacrifices story for style. They are balanced perfectly equally, satisfying everything the reader feels he or she needs in this volume that is too slim for my liking. I wanted more.
This novel has taken Copenhaver years to write, and what an unfortunate note for readers. We will have to wait years more for another book from Mr. Copenhaver, potentially, but that is O.K. by me. There are enough twists and turns, jaw-dropping shocks and surprises, that I do not believe I will ever, ever get tired of Dodging and Burning. This is a book that will never cease to surprise you with its turns and revelations, no matter how many times you breeze through it—and there is a danger in this, the ease with which one can breeze through Copenhaver’s writing without really, truly appreciating it. Copenhaver’s style, his story, his everything is meant to be savored, like a delicious meal—a last meal, on death row, one you might never have again. It needs to be appreciated as such.
The fatal flaw in this book is that it is only one book, one volume. The fatal flaw is that there is not more to appreciate in Copenhaver’s irresistible story and style. It is endless, how fascinating his words are, his characters and their actions, their voices and their thoughts and their yearnings. They come to life on the page. They come to life like no other author I can think of—other than the grand, remarkable, equally undeniably unmatched Laura Lippman.
Perhaps they should start a club.
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’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.