Alison Gaylin Defies Genre: If I Die Tonight

Image result for alison gaylin authorAlison Gaylin is one of the many women leading the evolution of the crime fiction genre.  Her prose is precise and glowing, with characters that are alive and, to be cliché (which she never is), “come right off the page.” Less complex but equally as riveting as 2016’s What Remains of Me (still one of my favorite mysteries of all time), If I Die Tonight concerns a hit-and-run, a mysterious young man, and multiple relationships that are only moments away from surfacing as the novel progresses forward.  Gaylin is, once again, at the top of her game in this novel due out in March, 2018. But what makes Alison Gaylin such an amazing writer and why is everyone from Megan Abbott to Laura Lippman singing her praises?

It begins with Gaylin’s plots.  No one plots a novel quite like Alison Gaylin does, and any author or fan will speak up to this fact.  Her novels are so tightly plotted, it’s hard to imagine Gaylin without an outline by her side at any given moment during the writing process.  Yet, when asked about how she goes about plotting out her novels, her process seems more loose and less strict than that of other authors who stick firmly by their pre-written outlines.  Gaylin somehow creates a magic that is bewitching both for the reader and the critic, finding a way to mystify and conjure up a spell that will entrance readers throughout the entirety of the novel, and almost effortlessly so.

Another compelling aspect of Gaylin’s writing is her thoroughly developed characters, all of whom get equal page-time.  There’s Jackie, the mother of Wade and Conner, who’s trying to do her best as a single mother after her husband has left her years prior.   Conner, likewise, is struggling to keep up social appearances while his older brother Wade is somewhat of an outcast, someone who easily becomes suspect when a hit-and-run occurs in the beginning of the novel. Enter the rest of the vivid and vast cast of characters, from the novel’s victim, a high schooler who’s essentially the boy next door, his girlfriend and her friends, along with a pop singer well past her heyday and now desperately clinging to any sort of fame.  Also at the center of this mystery is Pearl, the newbie detective who just wants to have a suitable workplace and also may be running away from a past she cannot escape.

Obviously, there are a million places this novel can go, and Gaylin pushes each of her characters, as well as the plot and the reader, to his or her limits.  Gaylin is not afraid to push the taboo, as seen in What Remains of Me, and here she does so again, proving exactly how dark she can get in an already dark genre.  Those new to Gaylin are well past her breakthrough, what with her Brenda Spector series, and her fantastic standalone novels.  Now it’s simply time for the world to be aware of her genius, which seems as imminent as the ending of her novel: we know something is coming, we may even know what is coming, but when will it hit us exactly, and how?

Try to guess the ending of If I Die Tonight. Try and guess the killer, who is culpable and who is not, and you will find yourself shocked again and again with each turn of the page. In the end, everyone is culpable in one way or another, and no one is left getting off free. This book will warm your heart and rip it out again all in one paragraph, so be forewarned: Gaylin is not for the reader afraid of feeling, afraid of guessing, or afraid of turning into an investigator themselves.

A true master of the genre, each new book by Alison Gaylin is a book to be treasured.  In 2018, a year full of books by masters of the genre like Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, Lori Roy, Alafair Burke, and others, this is truly a book that stands out among the rest.  Give If I Die Tonight a try.  You will not regret it.

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3 Picks for November

This month we have the return of two unconventional series heroes and a return of a crime novel that will hopefully get more attention now that it is back in print.

Murder In The Manuscript Room by Con Lehane

This follow up to Murder At The 42nd Street Library has crime fiction curator Raymond Ambler and his comrades involved in two murders that may be connected one of new coworker and the other of a labor boss that a childhood friend of Ray’s has been serving time for. Ross delivers a streamlined plot and sense of melancholy that echoes Ross MacDonald.

Never Say No To A Killer by Clifton Adams

Stark House reprints this crime paperback masterpiece of a con who breaks out of prison with the help of a benefactor to do a job. When the only person to meet him is his patron’s wife trouble naturally awaits. Adams packs all the twists, sudden violence, sultry women, and cynicism you’d expect in a moody fifties noir and then some.

Fool’s River by Timothy Hallinan

The latest Poke Rafferty novel has the trouble prone travel writer looking for the missing father of his daughter’s boyfriend. Knowing the man enjoyed Thailand’s sex trade, Poke fears the man was taken for his money and has little time before his life follows. Hallinan gives us another provocative look at the city balanced with a very human feel for family.

Pick of the Month: Written in Blood

Going home again seems to be the theme for mystery protagonists lately. Tom Bouman’s Officer Henry Farell licks his wounds by returning to his rural Pennsylvania community. Last month, C.M. Wendelboe’s Hunting The Five Points Killer had Arn Anderson returning to Cheyenne to solve a series of murders. Now, John Layton introduces us to Joe “Preach” Anderson, a former Atlanta police detective now working in his North Carolina hometown in Written In Blood.

Preach got his nickname from being a prison chaplain before his career in law enforcement. Hoping to see less inhumanity on the job, he works for the police department in Creekville, a bohemian town near Chapel Hill where he grew up. As we learn through sessions with his therapist, who is also his aunt, he’s dealing with several compounded trauma’s that have affected his faith and life.

forbioWhen a local bookseller is murdered, Preach is put on the case, since it is the first homicide the department has had in a decade. On the surface Creekville is a quaint town, full of artistic oddballs, akin to Louise Penny’s Three Pines. As Preach digs deeper into the case involving some local authors and several dark crimes, one feels echoes of the underbelly of Blue Velvet’s Lumberton.

The story skillfully weaves Preach’s personal story with the unraveling of the mystery. While the plot deals with many sordid topics, Layton never forgets the human victims involved. As Preach goes deeper, we wonder how he will handle it as we also have been uncovering his vulnerabilities.

Written In Blood is a great cross between a village mystery and police procedural. Lawton has populated Creekville, especially its police department, with fully fleshed out characters, and a hero in the middle of one hell of a journey. I’m already looking forward to Preach’s next case.

Sophomore Triumph: Laura McHugh Strikes Hard in Arrowood

Laura McHugh is a writer to be delighted in—a crime author who both seems old to the genre while creating incredibly new and ambitious works of fiction adored by fans and critics alike.  Her debut novel, The Weight of Blood, won the International Thrillers Writer award, lining up McHugh with the toughest of her competition.  Ms. McHugh is known to be a night writer, and this comes through with many of her scenes in her two novels to date—including her most recent stellar accomplishment, Arrowood.

Arrowood is at once a dark tale of crime and corruption and a vivid family saga.  McHugh incorporates some of the best of her own locale and the history of her characters in creating one of the most vivid and suspenseful reads I’ve come across in quite some time. While The Weight of Blood is frankly flooring, Arrowood takes the idea of memory, family, and the unreliable narrator to such new heights it’s remarkable this novel even exists.

One immediately thinks of fellow-heavyweight Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places when approaching Arrowood’s premise. A young woman returns home after many years—and creating and cultivating many secrets of her own—only to be contacted by the leader of a group of people who try and solve murder mysteries, a man who believes he has solved the mystery of what happened to her sisters decades before. It’s a spicy premise but the similarities between these two great novels pretty much stop here.  Arrowood is a novel not to be defined by comparisons, defying all expectations inside its pages.

Arrowood is at once strikingly brilliant, incredibly frightening (so much it makes one seem vulnerable in the best and worst of ways), intriguing in its mystery and enchanting in its incredibly elaborate setting.  McHugh weaves a nearly perfect narrative, with a pitch perfect voice for the story, around a decades old mystery that seems both impossible and inevitable to be solved.  The reader learns early own how they will be completely satisfied with the conclusion of McHugh’s sophomore effort, if only because of Ms. McHugh’s writing abilities, so all-encompassing and wise-beyond-their-years.

Returning to the comparison between Gillian Flynn and Laura McHugh—and there really is no true comparison, these are two women who write in their own right, in their own way, in their own settings, in their own voices, with stories like loaded pistols ready to be fired right in their readers’ direction—the crossing of ideas and storylines, the telling of two similar stories by two completely different writers seems inevitable here.  Just as Gillian Flynn had to expose the murky, dirty side of one untruth, so Laura McHugh has to expose her own.  If anything is to be learned from McHugh’s novels, it’s that we know nothing, not the novel’s ending, not the novel’s twists and turns, and certainly not ourselves, either as the reader or the narrator.  But what narrator really knows their own story?

As for McHugh’s third book, little is known about the follow-up that can probably only be described as “epic.” Count Laura McHugh with other Lauras (like Ms. Lippman), with the Gillian Flynns and the Megan Abbotts and the Alison Gaylins of the world.  She deserves the credit that’s due to her, and any reader deserves the chance to find themselves lost in the pages of her novels.

7% Solution Book Club to Discuss: STRANGERS ON A TRAIN by Patricia Highsmith

On Monday, October 5th, the 7% Solution Book Club meets to discuss Patricia Highsmith’s debut, Strangers on a Train. November’s book is The Murder of Roger Ackroydby Agatha Christie. As always, book club selections are 10% off at the registers in the month of their selection. 

  • Post by Molly

strangers on a trainPatricia Highsmith, in her long career, became one of the world’s most renowned crime novelists, and was one of the first women to be accepted into the mystery cannon as a master of psychological suspense. She has stayed in print continuously, when most of her female contemporaries had no hope of a classic reissue.

Her often-filmed Ripley stories catapulted her into long-lasting fame; yet even her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, was made into a classic noir by Hitchcock with a large following to this day. While many of the greatest mystery plots have been replicated often enough that it is difficult to notice the creativity of even the original, Highsmith’s unique simplicity of narrative, especially in her debut, stands alone, and feels as disturbingly plausible today as when it was first published.

Highsmith had many obsessions throughout her life, including at times, a preference for the company of snails over that of people. In her writings, she is fixated on obsession itself, and with the violence hidden within an ordinary individual, brought out by the repressive dysfunctions of a conservative society. She concerns herself with the point at which obsession becomes compulsion, and the moment when that compulsion becomes action. Highsmith’s style is almost synonymous with the definition of noir; her novels are characterized by as much atmosphere as action; she follows ordinary people changed by violent acts, and has no easy division of character into good or bad, cop or criminal.

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MysteryPeople Review: THE DEVIL’S SHARE by Wallace Stroby

the devils share

Crissa Stone, created by Wallace Stroby, has gotten to be one of my favorite series characters for this millennium. Stone works as a professional thief, raising funds to get her lover and mentor, Wayne, out of prison. She provides a certain amount of heart to this hard and streamlined heist novel while keeping her professional cool. Both the character and her relationship are tested in Wallace Stroby’s latest, The Devil’s Share.

A collector doesn’t want to give up his ill-gotten Iraqi art, soon to be repatriated. He hires Crissa to  steal it from his own convoy. She can pick her own crew, but the owner’s security consultant and war vet, Hicks, will provide the weapons and act as a chaperon on the job.

The relationship between Crissa and Hicks really makes the book. A night at a bar where they feel each other out is filled with both electricity and tension. As they work closer together, Crissa starts to question her loyalty to Wayne. Since we know to trust no one in these stories, Hicks becomes a formidable and complex ally or adversary.

Stroby hits the genre like a master craftsman, understanding the importance of brevity in the heist sub-genre. His style is concise, driving moving most of the story through action and dialogue. He keeps the emotion below the surface, creating a sense of tension in each character’s relationships. The artful hi-jacking is executed with a smooth efficiency interrupted by a couple of heart-stopping glitches and the coming aftermath tightens on its characters like a vice.

The Devil’s Share is hard-boiled heaven. Stroby gives a fresh take on the tropes we love with more depth than you might expect. The man knows how to mix his style and substance.

You can find copies of The Devil’s Share on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

Book Review: 1960s Austin Gangsters


1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime That Rocked the Capital by Jesse Sublett     (Event 3/23/15)

Austin prides itself on individuality. We are both counter-culture and cowboy, known for our own takes on music and food. As Jesse Sublett shows in 1960s Austin Gangsters, even our criminals keep it weird. Sublett chronicles the Overton Gang. They were formed around high school football star Tim Overton, who held a grudge against UT coach Darrell Royal for stopping his chances at being a Longhorn. With fellow football player “Fat Jerry” Ray James, he lead a gang of travelling criminals who burglarized banks and muscled in on vice operations all around Texas, using the new highway system to their advantage, with the Capitol as their base of operations. They were bad men in Elvis haircuts and shark fin Caddies, committing felonies at a rock n’ roll pace.

When it came to Austin history, they were like gangster Forrest Gumps. They hung out at the same club the 13th Floor Elevators played and brushed up against the burgeoning counter-culture. There is even a tense, armed stand-off between Overton and future U.T. tower sniper Charles Whitman.

Sublett uses tons of interviews with the survivors and offspring on both sides of the law. He doesn’t romanticize the gang and doesn’t shy away from describing their brutality, particularly toward their women. However, he does include how some of their victims recall their charming side. He also shows how the methods of overzealous law enforcement almost brought the town back to its wild west roots. Much of the story is told in colorful anecdotes, such as the one about the interaction between a local madam and Overton a few weeks after he robbed and beat her.

1960s Austin Gangsters is a rough, fun ride through Austin’s underbelly during a period of change. Sublett gives us a real world of east side toughs, crooked car dealers, dice men, dogged lawmen, chicken shack patrons, part-time hookers, and elderly brothel matrons.

Yep, even when it came to crime, Austin isn’t what it was.

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Copies of 1960s Austin Gangsters are available on our shelves now and via bookpeople.com

Jesse Sublett speaks about and signs his new book here at BookPeople Monday, March 23 at 7pm.