MysteryPeople Q&A with Wallace Stroby, author of the Crissa Stone novels

  • Interview by MysteryPeople’s Scott Montgomery

Wallace Stroby’s The Devil’s Share is one of my favorite books of 2015, with a reappearance of one of my favorite characters, heistwoman Crissa Stone. In this book, Crissa is hired for an inside job to steal Iraqi art meant for repatriation. Stone is hired by the art’s new, illicit owner, who does not wish to part ways with the artifacts. Hicks, the art collector’s security man, works with Crissa as both ally and spy, creating a new relationship that could be fruitful or deadly. We got in touch with Wallace to talk about the book and his heroine.

the devils shareMysteryPeople Scott: What drew you to Iraqi art as the MacGuffin?

Wallace Stroby: I liked the idea of a big cultural crime – stealing ancient artifacts from their place of origin – being facilitated by a smaller, intimate crime, like hijacking a truck on a desert highway. And certainly there was theft on an enormous scale of priceless artifacts immediately following the invasion of Iraq. In the novel, a corrupt art dealer argues that the stolen artifacts are better off with him in the U.S., then at the mercy of whatever regime is in power in their homeland. And oddly, ISIS has since proved him right, by aggressively destroying artifacts and bulldozing archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria, because it considers them anti-Muslim idolatry. A lot of these items go back to the beginnings of civilization, around 3,000 B.C., and ISIS has released videos of their soldiers cheerfully destroying them with sledgehammers and power tools. All this happened long after the book was written though.

MPS: This was the novel where it appeared Crissa had changed a bit without completely putting my finger on it. At what place do you see Crissa in her life?

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MysteryPeople Q&A with Wallace Stroby

Wallace Stroby’s latest Crissa Stone book, Shoot The Woman First, was our December Pick Of The Month as well as making our top ten. We talked to Wallace about his character, crime, and one of his biggest influences.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: Do you think Crissa has changed since Cold Shot To The Heart?

WALLACE STROBY: She’s had to grow tougher, colder and more ruthless since the events of that first book, just by virtue of what’s happened to her in the interim. At the beginning of COLD SHOT she’d never even fired a gun in anger, much less killed anyone, and there have been a lot of bodies under the bridge since then. I wanted her to be aware of that though, with a sense of the cost she’s paid along the way, and acknowledging the inevitable results of the lifestyle she’s chosen.

MP:You have Crissa caring for a traumatized girl in much of the second act and we know that she has a child living with some of her relatives. Did you want to show what Crissa is like as a mother?

WS:It’s something she’d like to be, but, again, the choices she’s made kind of preclude that. But she can’t help but respond to this little girl, both out of the obligation she feels to the girl’s father, and her own sense of loss over being an absentee mother.

I was also thinking about a lot of the Asian crime/action films I love, and how many of them, from the Zatoichi films on, prominently feature neglected children whom the protagonist attempts to protect. A great recent example is the Korean film THE MAN FROM NOWHERE, which has a really touching relationship between the hero – an ex-secret service agent – and a lonely little girl. In my living room, I have a framed U.K subway poster of John Woo’s film HARD-BOILED that features a shotgun-toting Chow Yun-Fat protectively cradling a baby in one arm.

MP: Your crooked ex-cop Burke is a standout antagonist. How did he come about?

WS: I’d originally intended Burke to be a current Detroit cop, but the logistics of how he would get on Crissa’s trail became too complicated. Making him an ex-cop with a history of corruption seemed to work better, because it made him an outsider as well, with his own issues. And with all that’s gone on in Detroit recently, the police there already have enough on their hands. I didn’t see the need to beat up on them any more.

MP: Much of the action takes place around Detroit, instead of your Jersey and Florida stomping grounds. What prompted the change in setting?

WS: In one way, these books are very much post-recession novels, and I always thought Detroit was the most extreme – and fascinating –example of a major American city fallen on apocalyptic hard times. Trouble was, events there were changing so quickly that it was hard to keep up with them when I was writing the book. When the city filed for bankruptcy in July, the ARCs were already being printed, so I had to squeeze a reference to that into the final version.

MP: Some of your dialogue, particularly with the Detroiters, reminded me of Elmore Leonard’s. I know you were a fan of his. What did you learn from reading his books?

WS: When in doubt, I go back to his “Ten Rules of Writing.” Every single one of them has an exception (No. 1 could be “Never open a book with weather, unless, of course, you’re James Lee Burke”), but taken together, they’re as solid a foundation as you can get for learning how to write well. He’d also mastered how to put the key elements together – character, plot and setting – and do it quickly. His books were straightforward, energetic and uniquely American. That he was able to sustain such a quality output for so many years is amazing. No other American writer – in any genre – has had a career like his, or been so good for so long.

That said, I’m partial to his darker, late-‘70s, early-’80s books such as CITY PRIMEVAL, FIFTY-TWO PICKUP, SWAG and CAT CHASER. I dedicated SHOOT THE WOMAN FIRST to him, both because of its Detroit setting and as an acknowledgment of the debt I owed him. Unfortunately, he passed away before the book came out.

This was a rough year for literary deaths. When it comes to writers who most permeated American popular culture, we lost two giants: Leonard and Richard Matheson. We’ll never see their like again.

MP: While many of your characters are stone cold pros in the spirit of the genre, you get a sense of weariness in their lives. What do you want to convey about a life of crime?

WS: That we’re all capable of making choices which, though they seem right at the time, can lead us down some very dark paths. And that sometimes the things that make us feel most alive are the ones that can kill us quickest.

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Copies of SHOOT THE WOMAN FIRST are available on our shelves at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com.