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.
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.
Our last Noir At The Bar of 2014 (happening tonight, November 24, at 7pm at Opal Divine’s) has us going out with top talent. The line up is composed of first offenders and hardened felons. We’ve got both rural and southwestern noir authors and a guy who mashes up so many genres that we don’t know what the hell to call him. And of course, we’ll be joined by our own Jesse Sublett
C..B. McKenzie is the recent winner of the Tony Hillerman award for Bad Country. The book introduces us to cowboy-turned-private eye Rodeo Grace Garnett. McKenzie gives a rough and tumble feel to an unromanticized American west.
Glenn Gray’s The Little Boy Inside And Other Stories has been getting great buzz. The tales, which range from crime (especially involving illegal steroid use) to sci fi to body horror, are almost always funny and disturbing. Don’t eat while Glenn reads.
Matthew McBride instantly became a MysteryPeople favorite with his gonzo hard boiled debut Frank Sinatra In A Blender. He has received more rave reviews for his intense rural crime novel A Swollen Red Sun. The book deals with the repercussions of corruption in a Missouri county overrun by meth and violence.
Austin author and musician Jesse Sublett will perform some of his murder ballads, as well as reading (his latest is Grave Digger Blues) and everyone will be on hand to sign books afterwards. Before you’re put upon by holiday cheer, join us at Opal’s and celebrate the noir side of life.
We have the honor of hosting Rob Brunet with Terry Shames this Monday, November 10th. His novel Filthy Rich is getting great buzz as one of the best debuts of the year, combining crime and comedy brilliantly. In this story, originally a part of the anthology Down, Out, & Dead, serves as a prequel to Filthy Rich.
By Rob Brunet
Perko Ratwick needed a change in plans like he needed hemorrhoids. He rocked his Harley onto its kickstand and walked to the water’s edge where a man stood fishing.
“Biting today?” he asked.
The man grunted and looked at the white bucket beside him. Perko peeked in and saw what had to be half a dozen scaly creatures, gills flapping on the top ones.
“These good eating?” Making conversation when he’d much rather knee-cap the fisherman. Four months of planning, a twenty-thousand-dollar down payment so this bugger could set up a suburban grow op, and now he calls to say the deal’s off? No explanation?
“Free food.” The man finished reeling in his line, shook a clump of weeds from its green and yellow lure, and cast again.
Perko didn’t get it. Nghiem had to be worth a couple million, maybe more. He’d arrived from Vietnam a decade ago and was running at least six grow houses in the suburbs north of Toronto, one of which was supposed to supply Perko. Surely he could afford dinner. “We coulda met in a restaurant,” said the biker. “I’d a picked up the tab.”
Nghiem said, “Sense of obligation. No need.”
“So what’s the deal? Your message said something changed.”
“I said no deal. Go find new grower.”
Perko said, “I don’t understand. You’re saying—”
“What so hard? NO GROW FOR YOU.”
Perko watched as he tugged and reeled, pulling the lure through the shallows. Nghiem’s plain white van sat forty feet away, backed in off the road. With cars passing every minute or so, there was no way to drag him over without being seen. Besides, chances were the guy had a couple goons inside the van in case their boss needed help delivering bad news.
“I’ve already lined up the sale,” Perko said.
Nghiem’s rod bent suddenly. He let a little line run out then started reeling again, still smooth and slow. “Cops busted two houses. One guy third time. He’s not coming out soon.”
The Vietnamese grower ran a straightforward game. Buy a nondescript house on a quiet street, grow three or four cycles of skunk weed. Fresh coat of paint, and sell the house to some sucker who wouldn’t know it was full of mold until long after the check had cleared. Toughest part of the guy’s operation was finding people fool enough to live in the houses while tending the plants, yet straight enough to fit in.
“What happened,” Perko asked.
“They get nosey?”
“Kid got lonely. Had a barbecue.”
“You gotta be kidding.”
“Cost me crop, both houses. Now I have to pay lawyers.”
The Vietnamese sighed. “They are the breaks.”
“Them,” said Perko. “Them’s the breaks.”
“Problem is, my down payment.”
“House is a crime scene. No can sell. Have to wait.”
“Waiting ain’t my specialty.”
“I pay. Five thousand a week. You have in no time.”
“I’d rather the weed. We had a deal.”
“Your money.” Nghiem nudged the white bucket with his foot. “Take it.”
“There’ll be interest.”
“See you next week. No problem?” The man grinned, mouth full of yellow teeth. Perko imagined yanking them one by one with a set of pliers. Nghiem glanced over his shoulder to the white van. No question he had backup. His rod bent double, and he started reeling fast. Perko looked at the dying fish piled on top of one another. He tilted the bucket on its side to reveal a sliver of pink plastic bag. Pinching it between his thumb and two fingers, he tugged. As it pulled free, two fish started flopping, slapping his forearm, making it slick with slime.
He walked back to his bike and wiped his hands and the bag in the grass. He watched Nghiem land a rock bass, bang its head against the ground, and drop it in the bucket. Driving away, Perko was relieved to find the fish smell disappeared in the wind.
Bad enough Nghiem’s screw-up messed with Perko Ratwick’s plans to move a few hundred kilos of high grade pot. Business was business and the biker had talked his way out of worse corners before. The New York buyers would still be there once he found a new supply. It wasn’t about one deal, though. Perko had a real shot at making Road Captain in the Libidos Motorcycle Club. Launch himself into the big leagues—a guy who brokered deals between rival gangs and lined the Libidos coffers without taking on real exposure. Kind of like an investment banker, only quicker. And less paperwork.
He set a meet with a guy named Frederick who wanted into the Libidos in a bad way.
“Maybe it’s a good thing the gook fell through,” Perko said.
“Maybe I been coming at this wrong.”
The men were sitting at a picnic table in dead quiet downtown Bobcaygeon. The ice had barely broken up and the locks wouldn’t be operational for a few weeks yet. Perko said, “These locks run, what, five months a year?”
“’Bout dat,” said Frederick.
“And when they do, they’re only open something like eight, ten hours a day?”
“So, the water never stops flowing.”
“’Course not,” said Perko. “They control the water level, but they don’t kill the flow.”
Frederick looked from the locks to Perko and said, “What you mean?”
“Do I gotta paint the whole picture? Instead of waitin’ for some other guy to deliver supply, I could be growin’ myself. Year-round. Much as I like.”
“So you take on more risk.”
“Not if I do things right. Arm’s length,” Perko said. “That’s where you come in.”
“How come me?”
“You wanna patch Libido some day? Earn your stripes. Couple things I need you to do.”
Frederick nodded slowly.
“First, find me a grower,” Perko said. “Make sure he’s no fool.”
“And the other thing?”
“It’s a little more complicated,” Perko said, and told him about Nghiem’s rate of pay.
Perko decided to go all pro. Thinking about Nghiem’s lonely grower and the barbecue, he wasn’t about to put his own name on the deed for some suburban shack on a street full of busybodies. Besides, once he got the gig going, he’d need two houses, then four. Before he knew it, he’d be back begging product from the fish-frying bastard. Never mind how many growers he’d wind up hiring. The more he thought about it, the less his plan felt risk-free. The Libidos would let him run with it, take their cut, but his ass would be hanging way out there. No, what Perko needed was a large-scale operation. Leverage.
He found a farm.
Mildred Perrigrew owned the farm and had lived on it for nearly sixty-five years, starting when she married Orvus Perrigrew the week she graduated from Grade Ten. Orvus was twenty-two at the time and had only stayed in school himself until Grade Six, dropping out to work the farm with his uncle until the elder Perrigrew passed away. When Orvus inherited the land, he immediately looked around for a mate. Marrying Mildred was a real coup: he got himself a young wife as well as a capable bookkeeper, since Mildred had taken both accounting and typing classes for the two years she was in high school.
All of this Perko Ratwick learned from Mildred herself when he responded to her ad in the Peterborough Examiner:
FARM FOR RENT
Good barn. Better house. Not much of a woodlot, but good water and some apple trees. $3,000 monthly. Cash only. Contact Mildred at Hillview Retirement Residence, Peterborough.
Perko tried telephoning, but the attendant said Mildred had left strict instructions that she intended to meet potential renters in person.
“You can tell a lot about a man from looking in his eyes, my daddy always told me,” Mildred said to Perko over a cup of coffee in the Hillview sun room. “Did I already say ‘Thank you’ for the donuts? Well, thank you, kindly, anyway. What a nice young man you are.” Perko had brought a dozen Krispy Kremes. Between the two of them, he and Mildred had already eaten half the box.
“I gave Orvus four children, don’t you know,” Mildred said. “Two girls and two boys, before I lost Orvus during childbirth.” She paused and watched Perko pick up flakes of dried honey from the table top with his fingertip. She gave a little shrug and continued: “It happened when I went into labor with Jeremy. Orvus sent our eldest, Marianne, to fetch the doctor. Doc Grainger lived about five miles up the main road. Marianne was only nine at the time, but we were used to trusting her with important errands. She was pretty independent and knew how to handle a horse.”
“Right. So, do I gotta give the rent money to this Marianne or to you?” Perko asked, scratching his chin.
“To me, young man. It’s my farm, not the children’s.” She squinted at him and stuck out her lower lip. “Now, where was I? Oh, yes. I told Orvus, go get some hot water and clean towels. And step on it, I said, ’cause you know that number four is like as not to come along even faster than number three did. So Orvus tells Baxter—he was six, no, seven years old—to build a fire in the woodstove. Baxter ran straight out to the woodshed to get some logs. Then, don’t you know it, Greta—she was barely two and a half—well she decides she wants a bottle, and she started to cry.
“‘Don’t you be worried about me, Orvus Perrigrew,’ I told him. ‘You just give Greta her bottle and then come back with some water for me to drink. The doctor will be here soon enough. Besides, it isn’t as if I’m new to childbearing.’
“So off he goes and leaves me in the bedroom, and Greta follows him out to the kitchen. There was a jug of milk left from breakfast because I always made sure we kept enough for the afternoon. I guess Orvus must have been pouring the milk into a saucepan to heat it on the stove, because I heard Greta get all excited. I figure she was hanging on his pant leg the way she liked to do some times, because I heard Orvus say, ‘No sweetheart. We can’t play airplane right now. Poppy’s got to take care of Mommy.’
“The next thing I hear is Baxter shouting out as he stomped back in the kitchen: ‘Here’s the wood, Poppy.’ I figure the door must have struck Orvus on the backside because, well, Baxter told me later, Orvus just spun around, with Greta hanging onto his pants for dear life. I heard her shrieking, but it was for joy, you know, the way babies do. Baxter stumbled and I heard the logs he was carrying spill onto the kitchen floor. Baxter told me Orvus’s feet flew out from under him when he stepped on one of the rolling logs. He landed flat on his back. That was one very loud crash, mercy me. I jumped right out of the bed, labor or no labor, and walked across the bedroom so I could see into the kitchen. The saucepan had flown out of Orvus’s hands and clattered down beside him. There was milk everywhere. Greta was bouncing up and down on Orvus’s belly and shrieking, ‘Again, Poppy! Again! Do fly-fly again!’
“Orvus wasn’t moving and I figured he must have smacked his head on the corner of the stove.”
“So, was he dead?”
“Dead? Dear me, no! It would take more than a knock on the noggin to do in Orvus Perrigrew. He was fine stock, my husband.” Mildred reached for another donut, took one bite and then licked her fingers as she passed it back and forth between her hands. Perko sighed and scraped some dirt from under his thumbnail.
“After just a moment or two, Orvus’s eyes fluttered open and he said, ‘I better get some more milk.’
“Well, it was early in the day to be milking a cow for the second time, but Orvus wasn’t about to leave his baby girl without her bottle, so he picked up the milk jug and headed out to the barn. And that’s the very last I saw of him.”
“So he just took off on you? Left you with the kids? End of story?” Perko asked, trying not to sound too hopeful.
“Of course not! What a silly question. He would never do such a thing. Besides, like I told you, Orvus died during childbirth.” She paused to eat half the donut. Perko grabbed one himself and shoved it whole into his mouth, pushing the last bit in with his thumb and wiping his fingers on his jeans.
“See, I got the pains again right after he left the house and so I made my way back to the bedroom. Baxter did his best to take care of me, and Marianne arrived with Doc Grainger soon enough. No one even noticed Orvus was missing until after Jeremy was born, cleaned up, and in my arms. Except Greta, of course, but her crying didn’t get a whole lot of attention once my pains began in earnest, and I was making all my own noises and such.
“Then Doc Grainger said to Baxter to go get his pa so he could meet his new son, and Baxter went out and came back white as a ghost two minutes later. He said, ‘Poppy’s under Bessie’—she was our cow—‘and he don’t look too good at all and he’s not talking or nothing.’
“Seems somehow Orvus must have tripped up Bessie while trying to milk her, or maybe she was real upset at getting milked a second time so early in the day. Whatever the case, Bessie’s leg was broken and all fifteen hundred pounds of her were laying on top of Orvus. Baxter said he had an awful grimace frozen on his face. Like he knew he was done for when it happened—and just how much Bessie was worth to our family. But there isn’t a whole lot a soul can do when a cow lands on you.”
Mildred quietly finished her donut and licked the honey off her fingers once more. She fixed Perko Ratwick in the eye and said, “So that’s how come I raised my children all alone on the farm. And maybe having to work so hard while they were growing up is why one by one they left the land as soon as a better opportunity came along—not that I blame them—and now I’m just too old to live out there but still I can’t bring myself to sell it because, well, you know, you just never know, do you. Maybe one of the grandkids will want to revive the farm. Or maybe they’ll just sell it once I’m in the ground, but that will be the kids’ decision, not mine. Now, what did you say you wanted to do out there, Mr. Smith?”
Perko shoved the last donut into his mouth, took a gulp of coffee and resumed staring at Mildred with his best attempt at an interested look. Half a minute passed before it dawned on him that the old biddy had stopped talking.
“Mr. Smith? I say, why is it you want to rent my farm?”
“I’m a…ahem…a painter,” he said. “I’m looking for a place where I can get close to nature. I especially like plants.” He paused and blinked slowly. Mildred stared at him like he was speaking in a foreign tongue. “Some of my canvases are really big, so I figure I’ll set up my operation in your barn.”
Mildred continued to stare. She asked, “Couldn’t you just rent an apartment or something? What do you need with a farm?”
“It’s real important to me to find peace and quiet. Money’s no object where my creativity is concerned.”
“You do realize the hayfields have already been rented to the neighbor.”
“I just need the barn.”
“It comes with the house, too.”
“Fine by me.”
“I’d feel better if you had a look at it first. I don’t want any landlord-tenant headaches at my age.”
“No really, I—”
The look in Mildred’s eye made Perko shut up and listen. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been put in his place quite so firmly. She said, “Here’s the key. You go have a look around and come back and tell me what you decide.”
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” he said.
“I’m not going anywhere.” She pushed herself to her feet and shuffled across the room to where a game of Snap was getting started. She gave him one last look, jerked her chin toward the door, and said, “Deal me in.”
Perko sat in the bow of the fishing boat wearing a floppy hat bedecked with lures. Using the electric motor, Frederick navigated close to the rocky shore. The water was deep enough he could have used the outboard but a silent approach was critical. They got within twenty feet of Nghiem before he even realized he had company. He smiled, waved, and cast his line in the opposite direction. When he noticed the boat was nosing up against the causeway he warned them to watch out for the bottom. Even when Perko jumped in the knee deep water and scrambled across the zebra mussel-encrusted rock, it was clear the Vietnamese took him for just another fisherman until he got a good look at his face. By then it was too late. Perko clocked him with a paddle and Frederick leapt ashore to help drag him into the boat. Frederick insisted on snatching the white pail full of fish. It wasn’t until he fired up the outboard and buzzed out onto the lake that there was any sign of movement from the white van facing the road. If Nghiem’s bodyguards did fire their guns, they missed. Perko couldn’t hear a damn thing over the two hundred twenty horsepower engine’s roar.
Drifting in the middle of the lake, Perko prodded Nghiem with his foot and splashed water on his face. “Scream and I’ll cut you some gills,” Perko said.
The man just lay there on his side in the boat’s hull, his eyes blinking like a bass.
“You’re gonna make a phone call,” Perko said. “My cash gets delivered, with a ten thousand kicker, before morning. All of it. If it don’t, the rest of your houses are going down, and we’ll find out how well you swim with your hands tied to your feet.” Perko asked him what number to dial then held the phone to his ear.
Frederick baited a hook and dropped a line off starboard.
“Well, isn’t this a pleasant surprise, Mr. Smith,” Mildred said, flipping open the fresh box of Krispy Kremes.
Perko Ratwick remained standing. There were plenty more donuts where those came from, and he wasn’t in the mood to hear about life—nor death—on the farm he was about to rent. “Everything checks out,” he said. “I’ll take it.”
“Do sit, Mr. Smith. Tell me about your paintings.”
He leaned in close and said quietly, “I noticed a little unconventional wiring in a couple of the outbuildings. Mind if I clean that up while I’m out there?”
She nibbled a donut and looked as though she hadn’t heard.
“Mrs. Perrigrew, I’d like to rent your farm.”
“Like the ad said, it’ll be three thousand dollars a month, in cash, and I would very much like it if you brought a box of these donuts with you each time you come to pay me.” Perko offered Mildred his hand and she shook it. “You know, you do smell rather like Orvus did. A real manly smell. Have you been fishing?”
Forcing a smile, Perko took a thick wad of bills out of his jacket pocket. Mildred’s eyes sparkled wide when she saw the money, then narrowed again suddenly. “First and last month’s rent, of course,” she said.
Perko grinned and nodded. It wasn’t like he’d be coming back any time soon.
“And did I mention that there would be a damage deposit? I can’t very well be chasing after a young buck like you at my age, now can I?”
“Here’s the first eight months rent,” he said, thumbing a stack of bills and laying them on the table. “And other five grand damage deposit.”
Mildred’s eyes darted left and right as she swept the money off the table and tucked it into a large pocket on the front of her frock. She seemed satisfied nobody had witnessed the transaction.
“Well, now, that’s mighty thoughtful of you, Mr. Smith.”
As Perko turned to leave, she said, “Mr. Smith, could you do me a favor?”
He forced his shoulders to relax and pasted what he hoped was a friendly smile on his face. “What?”
“On your way out, kindly tell that nice young man at the front desk I will be taking the bus to the Horned Owl Casino this evening, after all.”
Guest Post by Rob Brunet, author of Stinking Rich
Growing Up On a Beach Outside Ottawa
I often get asked about the characters I write about. Where do they come from? Do I know people like that? Often I point to the time I’ve spent in the country as if the whackos populating my stories are somehow representative of the people I know there. If you’ve read what I write, you’ll know that’s unlikely. I’m not sure that makes the reference a cop-out. It’s just incomplete.
Not unlike the tropes that drive country music, characters like Perko Ratwick or Terry Miner are painted a tad vibrant on purpose. If I’ve done my work right, they’ll engage my readers’ emotion, yet remain off-kilter enough to amuse.
Part of them is anchored in my experience down dirt roads stretching right back to my formative years on a beach upriver from Ottawa. In a lot of ways, I grew up on that beach. My city-kid lens skewed much of what I saw, but by the time I was a teenager, the barriers between the cottage kids and the locals broke down. There’s nothing like sitting on a log around a bonfire drinking underage beer to make everyone equal.
Until then, I’d naively seen the local kids—those who lived in cottage country year-round—as the lucky ones. I was oblivious to the boredom afflicting life at the end of the school bus run. Once summer ended and the population thinned to next-to-no-one, these guys had little to do. Breaking-and-entering to them was as common as road hockey to my pals in the city: a little wintry fun on a Saturday afternoon.
Between that and minor illicit behaviour sprinkled with occasional violence, more than a few of them experienced youthful run-ins with the local constabulary. In fact, if a guy hadn’t been sent to the detention centre at least once by the time he turned fifteen, his friends thought him “slow”.
I’m not suggesting petty criminality was universal, but its prevalence was higher than what you’d find in the city. And no one considered it a big deal.
I remember sitting round the fire one summer catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen since the previous fall. He asked me whether it was true my father had bought the cottage next to ours—a real fixer-upper my dad purchased as a defensive move when he’d learned the prospective new owner intended to park construction equipment on the property.
I told my friend my friend, yes, that cottage was now ours, and waited for the jab about how us city slickers were always buying things up and lording it over the locals. Instead, my pal hung his head just a little and apologized, telling me they’d never have broken into it that past winter if they’d known it was ours.
Later, my father told me he’d noticed a few things moved around. More than a squirrel might do. And he shrugged at the idea a few of the local boys had busted in. “There was nothing worth stealing in there anyway,” he said. And nothing more needed be done about it.
Another summer, I had a girlfriend up there. Well, for a week or so anyway. Her other boyfriend had gone off on vacation with his wife or something. He left this girl with a case of beer and the keys to a car. She was fifteen. I know my mother was happy that one didn’t last. Come to think of it, so am I.
Country had a way of aging people different from the city. More than once, I was surprised to learn someone was two or three years older than their apparent learning or behaviour would suggest. On the other hand, a lot of them had full-time jobs and something passing for real responsibility before they’d reach the end of high school.
I’m sure I could have found parallel worlds in the city and the reality is, I sometimes did. But something about the directness of life in the country stuck with me. It resonated in positive ways, and now finds its way into my writing. The characters in Stinking Rich may seem a little warped from an urban standpoint, but I trust their connection to their setting rings true.
For November, we have three paperbacks for fun and affordable reading as the cooler weather settles in.
Jack Carter & The Mafia Pigeon by Ted Lewis
Now, the Jack Carter trilogy is fully restored by Syndicate Books with this novel appearing for the first time in the States. This time, the London mob enforcer is tricked by his employers into being the bodyguard for an American Mafia boss at a Spanish villa. Throw in two beautiful women, one the wife of Carter’s boss who he’s seeing on the sly, and expect a lot of scheming and shooting under the sun.
Easy Death by Daniel Boyd
A holiday tale for the hard boiled set. In 1951, two World War Two vets are sent out into a December blizzard by a small town crime boss to rob an armored car. The money, mishaps, and presence of a female park ranger make for a great retro crime novel. Boyd, a Ohio police officer, knows his cops and criminals.
2014 Best American Mystery Stories edited by Otto Penzler and Laura Lippman
One of the best from this annual edition. One feels the presence of guest co-editor Laura Lippman’s sensibility in this great range of contemporary crime fiction that leans toward the character driven. There are stories by MysteryPeople favorites like Megan Abbott and Dennis Tafoya, as well as work by general fiction authors Annie Proulx and Russell Banks. Austin author, Ed Kurtz, has a story as well. A great stocking stuffer.
Last Winter, We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura
~post by Molly
Fuminori Nakamura is part of a new generation of Japanese detective novelists known for their spare prose and dark explorations of alienation in modern society. His novel, The Thief, was his first to be translated into English and won prizes all over the world for its terrifying beauty and relentless pace. His latest novel, Last Winter, We Parted, is our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for November, and for me, this is a perfect novel for a Texas November. I recommend reading it at a coffee shop at twilight when the chill finally begins to settle in – at such impersonal thresholds much of the book takes place.
Last Winter, We Parted is structured as interviews, archives, and letters – the notes for a book that a young journalist has been assigned to write about a notorious serial killer on death row. The murderer, Yudai Kiharazaka, was renowned as a photographer before becoming fixated on life-like dolls and later, burning models alive to get the perfect photograph. The journalist soon finds an intense connection with Kiharazaha’s sister, Akari, and begins to discover that in Kiharazaka’s case, things are not what they seem.
Nakamura has crafted a noir Heart of Darkness; Kiharazaka warns the writer early on that by listening to him, he may take on some of the killer’s morbid fixations. As the journalist learns more about the killer and his sister, Akari – about, as Nakamura phrases it, their “true selves” – his own self become subsumed and taken over. The young journalist’s arc is shaped as a warning. By spending time too close to a psychopath, the writer takes on some of their thoughts and compulsions, most dramatically expressed in the journalist’s growing interest in Kiharazaka’s sister, Akari, also an object of unhealthy attachment to the killer himself.
As the writer becomes entangled in the distorted lives of brother and sister, abandoning his professionalism to get closer to the object of his unwholesome infatuation, the serial killer and his sister, in turn, delight in bringing out the darkness hidden within the minds of those fixated upon them. Like Hannibal Lector, Yudai and Akari believe in quid pro quo.
This is a novel concerned not only with solving a crime, but in understanding our darkest impulses. In that sense, Last Winter, We Parted evokes Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the genre of true crime in general. Nakamura references In Cold Blood throughout the novel, and the book is in some ways a tribute to Capote while also a warning against mirroring Capote’s actions. The novel both warns against the psychological effects of spending time trying to get into the head of a murderer, and condemns the hypocrisy of judging the actions of another while also using their crimes as a mass object of fascination. Nakamura delves deep into the unsettling motivations behind societal obsession with the mind of a serial killer. In the novel, as in real life, there is no easy separation between those who commit crimes and those who spend their time learning about the crimes of others.
Kiharazaka’s crimes also serve as a metaphor for alienation in modern society. Kiharazaka’s fixations represent an attempt at basic human connection, warped by the photographers lens, the purchase of lifelike simulacra in the form of dolls, and other ways of simulating and disrupting connection with the real through the use of the artificial.
Fuminori Nakamura brings to mind the haunting elegance and sordid conspiracies of David Peace, and like the best exploitation movies, blurs the line between poetry and violence. The characters Nakamura portrays are trapped – caught by their obsessions, their fantasies, and their addictions in an endless web of repeating behavior and insincere apologies. They can’t even quit smoking, much less control their other, more violent unhealthy impulses. Nakamura’s writing is as psychologically astute as it can be while also representing a vision of the world twisted and screwed, without joy or happiness. In other words, Last Winter, We Parted is the epitome of literary noir.
Last Winter, We Parted is now available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com
Billy Kring is known as an author with a feel for life on the Texas-Mexico line where he worked as a border agent. His debut, Quick, captured it in all it’s gritty glory. In this story published on Shotgun Honey, he goes to Cajun country.
“Henri Arceneaux said, ‘Member what I teach you, you.’ He straddled the body in the bottom of the pirogue, making the small, green boat bob like a cork, ‘We want dem to stay down, so we gots to tickle dem diaphragm.’ He was seventy years old and shirtless, his chest and stomach marked with old scars from knife and bullet. He looked hard, like he was made of gristle and bone. He motioned at me with a finger, ‘Take off dat shirt, it’s too hot dis morning.'”
~post by Molly and Scott
MysteryPeople’s Molly Odintz and Scott Montgomery were invited to be moderators at the 19th Annual Texas Festival Of Books held at the state capitol last weekend. It was Scott’s fourth time moderating at the festival and Molly’s first time ever. They both survived to tell the tale to report back.
Crime fiction had its strongest presence yet at the festival with six panels and three one-on-one interviews with the likes of Walter Mosely and James Ellroy. Even before the actual festival got underway, I got to sped some time with the authors. Timothy Hallinan, author of the Junior Bender and Poke Rafferty series, shared some BBQ as we talked books and his time working with Katherine Hepburn. I also got to spend some time with friends Harry Hunsicker, Mark Pryor, and the three authors who make up the pseudonym Miles Arceneaux before they went to their panels. Then I had my own.
First up was an interview with Craig Johnson, who’s latest book, Wait For Signs, is a collection of all the short stories featuring his Wyoming sheriff hero, Walt Longmire. He told the audience that Walt’s last name came from James Longmire who opened up the trail near Washington’s Mount Rainer and had the area named after him. He felt the combination of the words “long” and “mire” expressed what his character had been through. He added it also passed the test for a western hero name in that it could easily be followed by the word “Steakhouse.”
My panel discussion, Risky Business, had Jeff Abbott and debut author Patrick Hoffman looking at the art of thriller writing. The discussion got interesting when when it got into the topic of being categorized in a genre. Jeff said he wanted to get pigeon holed, “That way I know I’m selling.” He added it has never interfered with the type of book he wanted to write. We also got into an interesting talk about use of location. Patrick Hoffman talked about how he would often use his company car to drive to the location of his San Fransisco centric, The White Van, and write there on his lunch hour. Jeff and I also had fun drawing as much attention we could to our friend, author Meg Gardiner, who was in the audience and should have known better.
By the time the festival was over my body dehydrated, my voice was shot, and my blood alcohol content was questionable. Can’t wait til’ next year.
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of moderating two mystery panels at the Texas Book Festival. This was my first try at moderating panels and I am so thankful to MysteryPeople and the Texas Book Festival for giving me the opportunity to channel an NPR interviewer.The first, a panel on International Crime, featured authors Kwei Quartey, on tour with his latest Darko Dawson novel, Murder at Cape Three Points, and Ed Lin, with his new novel Ghost Month. Kwei Quartey’s novels take place in Ghana and increasingly focus on the economic and social imbalances of modern day Ghanaian life. Ed Lin has previously written novels depicting the Asian-American experience, including his Detective Robert Chow trilogy, set in New York City, and Ghost Month is his first to take place outside of the country.
We talked about what it means to write international crime fiction, the place of food in the detective novel, fiction as a method of dealing with historical and current societal trauma, and how to escape from a crashing helicopter. Both authors are published by SoHo and you can find their books on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
The second panel, looking at crime noir, brought together authors Rod Davis, with his latest, South, America, and Harry Hunsicker, with his new novel The Contractors. South, America follows a Dallas native living in New Orleans as he finds a dead body, gets tangled up with the dead man’s sister, and must go on the run from mobsters. The novel reaches deep into the twisted Louisiana web of racism and poverty to write a lyrical portrait of two desperate people.
Harry Hunsicker is the author of many previous novels, and his latest, The Contractors, explores the blurred lines between public and private when it comes to law enforcement. His two protagonists are private sector contractors working for the DEA and paid a percentage of the value of any recovered substances. They get more than they bargained for when they agree to escort a state’s witness from Dallas to Marfa with two cartels, a rogue DEA agent, and a corrupt ex-cop following them.
We talked about the meaning of noir, the craft of writing mysteries, the purpose of violence in fiction, and stand-alones versus series. South, America and The Contractors are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
One of our recent stories was a Lawernce Block tale featuring Matt Scudder, the PI hero featured in the film adaptation of A Walk Among The Tombstones. This Friday we have a short story written by the writer-director, Scott Frank, that was on Popcorn Fiction. Scott Frank is the screenwriter of the acclaimed films Little Man Tate, Dead Again and The Lookout. He has also adapted a number of titles for the screen, including Get Shorty, Out Of Sight, Minority Report and most recently, Marley & Me.
“As Ivan slowly let Rima slip from his grasp, he had no idea that her fall would become the stuff of Big Top legend everywhere. If you could have seen his face that night, you would have seen that Ivan’s mind was clearly somewhere else. Before this particular night, Ivan had caught Rima over thirty-five hundred times without incident. Theirs was a relationship based on trust; Rima knew that Ivan would always be there with strong hands and perfect timing. And Ivan knew that Rima would always be there, hanging in space, reaching for him. Sure, there were many close calls: Rima would step on his shoulder, scrape his ear with the point of her heel. Ivan would flinch from the pain, and loosen his hold on her leg, but in the end, he would always catch her. And sure, there had been hundreds of times where he almost dropped her. But he had never completely let go before. He was always there. He had always caught her. But, unfortunately, on that fateful night in Jnimski, he was thinking about something else.”