“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!

3 Picks for June

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 Cover Image

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: A Novel Cover ImageBearskin 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 (Sonny Hawke Thriller #2) Cover ImageHawke’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.

June pick of the month: James Ziskin’s A Stone’s Throw

This month’s pick of the month was reviewed by Meike Alana, from the BookPeople event staff and a guest blogger for MysteryPeople. 

A Stone's Throw: An Ellie Stone Mystery Cover ImageJames Ziskin is a perennial favorite here at MysterPeople, so it’s no surprise his latest Ellie Stone mystery, A Stone’s Throw, is our June Pick of the Month. The Edgar-nominated series is set in the early 1960’s and features twenty-something girl reporter Ellie Stone. She’s one of my favorite characters in the canon—wise beyond her years but at times naïve and impetuous, steady as they come with the occasional flare of irresponsibility, deeply moral but hard-drinking and promiscuous. Ellie is a realistically flawed, equally strong and vulnerable female character—in other words an authentic young woman–and that can be a novelty on the darker side of the genre. The fact that she’s penned by a man who is—well, let’s say his 20’s were a few years ago—is nothing short of incredible and speaks to Ziskin’s tremendous talent.

This time around Ellie becomes entrenched in the world of horse racing, particularly the seedier side populated by gangsters and thugs. On a sleepless night she follows a police scanner call about a fire at an abandoned stud farm outside Saratoga. While investigating a story for her newspaper, Ellie almost literally stumbles over two bodies that have been burned beyond recognition. She sets out to discover the identities of the two victims; when she learns the fire was sent intentionally she becomes determined to find their killer as well.

To do so she has to convincingly enter the world of horse racing, one to which she’s had no exposure. She needs a guide, someone who understands the history of the sport and the ins and outs of placing a bet. It turns out that Ellie’s best friend Fadge Fiorello is just such an expert. He does show her the ropes at the track and educates her about the key players; unfortunately he’s too busy studying the Racing Form to realize that this just could have been his chance to really impress Ellie. (Instead he has her worrying about his gambling habits….) Through old-fashioned, methodical detective work Ellie is able to piece together the story that caused those 2 individuals to lose their lives.

One of the unique things about this series is that each installment deals with a particular social issue of the time—homophobia, misogyny, sexism.  Ziskin’s done his research here because he never strikes a false note with his depictions of the past. There’s no nostalgic sugar coating—he’s careful not to cast a rosy glow over what was often a turbulent time. While the world of horse racing can be a glamorous one, it has an unseemly side which Ziskin delves into here.

The Ellie Stone mysteries have been recognized by a slew of awards—winner of the Anthony and Macavity and nominated for the Edgar, Barry, and Lefty awards and all of those accolades are earned. Ziskin is a linguist by training and that shows in the lyricism of his prose. We hope he can come up with many more titles involving the word Stone so we can keep watching Ellie grow.

SHOTGUN BLAST FROM THE PAST – BACKFLASH BY RICHARD STARK

Backflash is the second outing of Richard Stark’s tough as nails robber Parker after his twenty year hiatus. After the few slightly more involved books before it, we get a bare bones, down and dirty heist novel. The simplicity proves refreshing.

Backflash (Parker Novels) Cover ImageWhat makes the story unique is the target. We begin in vintage mid-action Stark fashion with Parker and his cohort Howell going off the road and crashing down a hill during a police chase. Parker goes against his cold blooded nature and leaves Howell pinned in the car for the police, instead of rubbing him out so he doesn’t talk. He hears of his death, but soon gets a message from Howell, telling him to meet a man named Catham. Catham in a state bureaucrat with inside knowledge of a gambling boat that travels down the Hudson. He can give all the details about the boat for ten percent of the score. For Parker a travelling boat is a “cell”, something hard to get in and out with the money and the small amount Catham is asking for makes him suspicious, yet he’s compelled to bring in some folks from previous jobs and a river rat who knows the Hudson and pull off an elegant plan. A few surprises and some hardened bikers prove to get in the way.

Some readers found Backflash too formulaic, but that was part of the enjoyment for me. It took me back to the earlier books when Stark had just invented the formula. Watching Parker pull off a job like this is like watching a trained athlete pull of a feat with a high degree of difficulty, dealing with both foreseen and unseen circumstances. By sticking to the tried and true, the book moves smooth and fast.

Backflash may not be anything new under the sun, but it still shines bright. Even to this day, no one puts a thief through their paces like Richard Stark. Every bad man (fictional) should be so lucky.

Review of Laird Barron’s Blood Standard

Scott reviews Blood Standard ahead of Laird Barron’s visit to the store on Friday, June 1st at 7pm.

Laird Barron, an author mainly known for his horror and weird fiction, has only has dabbled with crime fiction in the past. He has written a novella and a handful of short stories that work as tributes to hard boiled fiction. In Blood Standard, he charges into the genre, guns blazing.

He gives us a great hard boiled protagonist is Isiah Coldridge, a Moana working as a mob enforcer in Alaska.  When a situation over a walrus causes him to high tail it back down to the lower forty-eight, he lays low at a horse farm in upstate New York. Soon the owners’ troubled granddaughter goes missing, and Coldridge sets out to find her along with another hired hand with a violent past due to his time in Afghanistan. His questioning and punching leads him further and further into a dark underworld the girl is trapped in.

Barron proves to be an apparent fan of the genre. Coldridge is cut from the same cloth of David Rabe’s Daniel Port and Dan Lewis’ Jack Carter. The style is terse and straight forward and the world uncompromising. There are few chapters void of an action sequence of some sort.

However, his background in horror allows him to give a special spin on the tale. He injects the anything can happen quality of a horror story, grounding it in a more physical, though still fantastic, world of hard boiled. It places both Coldridge and the reader on less solid footing and allows us to buy into the darker reveals.

Blood Standard proves to be a must read for hard boiled fans, told in a way that would make Hammett proud. Isiah Coldridge is a tough guy with his own voice and several directions to go. I hope Laird Barron more time on this side of the playground.

REVIEW OF WHAT YOU WANT TO SEE BY KRISTINE LEPIONKA

What You Want to See: A Roxane Weary Novel Cover ImageKristen Lepionka got the attention of peers, critics, and readers with her debut novel, The Last Place You Look. The book introduced Roxane Weary, a trainwreck of a private eye, operating out of Ohio. She skillfully delivered a fresh PI plot with a complex lead. Her follow up What You Want To See, proves that could be her trademark.

Roxane takes a job following a fiance who might be cheating. When the client’s check bounces, she drops the case. Soon the client is the main suspect in murdering the woman, mainly due from an argument they had when he discovered she was bilking him. To clear his name, Roxane searches into the victim’s criminal past, discovering a real estate swindle that literally hits close to home.

Lepionka skillfully weaves plot and character together. An admirable trait of Roxane”s is that she develops a bond with her clients. She isn’t just trying to get justice, but wishes to restore their lives. Part of this is tied to the fear of not wanting to be like her domineering father who passed away. Lepionka has made it a strong part of Roxane’s core, making it believable for her to put her at risk, both physically and emotionally.

Both books deftly weave Roxane’s relationship through both books. In What You Want To See, the plot focuses in on the complex relationship she has with her, driven by the pity Roxane has for her. The understanding she gets out of the situation is slight, but no less profound. If this all sounds touchy-feely, know there are a lot of shots fired.

With two books Kristen Lepionka has established herself as one of the major new voices of private eye fiction. She created a character that we root for not only to find the culprit, but to get a clue about what a decent person she really is. I can’t wait for the next step of her journey.