MysteryPeople Review: THE BUTTON MAN, by Mark Pryor

buttonman

 

-Post by Molly

Mark Pryor grew up in England, moved to Texas, and now works as an assistant district attorney in Austin. He is also the author of the Hugo Marston series, and has just released a fourth book in the series. Mark Pryor will join us this Saturday, September 13, at 3pm, to speak and sign his latest release, The Button Man.


Mark Pryor has just released The Button Man, a prequel to his Hugo Marston series. What’s the twist? This one is set in London, not Paris, and Marston has just begun his new career as head of US Embassy security. At the sleepy embassy, he spends much of his time researching Jack the Ripper and trying to link the serial killer with other, American serial killers, in particular the Servant Girl Annihilator of late 19th century Austin.

One night, while on the historical prowl for evidence in a graveyard, Hugo comes across a more recent corpse – a dead woman, hung by the neck, face covered in a white shroud. The corpse turns out to be an American starlet. The starlet’s husband, also an actor, is in jail for killing a farmer while driving drunk. If there was not enough scandal already, the actor, upon release, won’t stay put in the American embassy and Marston must cooperate with British police to find the rogue American before he, too, pops up dead in a graveyard. Marston’s search leads him to a mysterious manor in the countryside used for secretive and rather salacious purposes, and he must get aid from a mysterious young woman with a strange name and a double life.

As Marston continues to search for the American actor, he gains many an opportunity to ruminate over the current state of affairs in society, including such topics as England’s lack of a death penalty, the possibility of redemption for criminals that have served their time, and the extreme susceptibility to exposure and blackmail of those members of society who lead taboo lives. In general, however, Marston pursues his target with vigor, leading to quite a few thrilling chase sequences as Marston grows closer to the truth. Pryor carefully structures the narrative to include just as much conversation as action, and every scene obeys the old writing adage to either move the plot forward or aid in character development.

The stunning English scenery, like the Parisian backdrops of Marston’s previous adventures, shines throughout the book, and Pryor has a particular gift in bringing the spookiness of the old country to an American audience. Pryor makes good use of cemeteries, manor houses, tiny English villages, and even Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum to impeccably meld place and setting. His portrayal of England – sunk under the weight of history – almost makes me glad to be an American, although many of the historical issues with which British characters in the story grapple are still very much part of the American present. Fans of the series will find that despite the difference in setting, Pryor’s latest fits in perfectly with the rest of the Hugo Marston novels, and I look forward to many more Marston stories to come.


You can find all the Hugo Marston books – The Bookseller, The Crypt Thief, The Blood Promise, and The Button Man, on our shelves now and via bookpeople.com. Mark Pryor will read from and sign his new novel Saturday, September 13, at 3 pm, on BookPeople’s second floor. All BookPeople events are free and open to the public.

 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Gregg Hurwitz

Interview by Scott

Gregg Hurwitz is the New York Times bestselling author of 14 novels, most recently Don’t Look Back, You’re Next, The Survivor, and Tell No Lies. Gregg Hurwitz was a mainstay at the bookstore I worked in LA, so I’m excited to be hosting him at our store Sunday, September 7th at 4PM. I caught up with him for several questions about his latest, Don’t Look Back.


MysteryPeople: How did the idea for Don’t Look Back come about?

Gregg Hurwitz: I love the jungle. And having come off a string of Hitchcockian “domestic thrillers,” I wanted to write something where cell phones and cops and evidence played no role. Where an obstacle was an actual physical obstacle. A boulder that blew out a bridge. A band of sweeper ants that eat everything in their path. A tormenta (tropical storm) that dumps a meter of water a day.

MP: How did Eve come to be the protagonist?

GH: I knew I had to write a female protagonist (for the first time) because this character wouldn’t quit working on my brain. I wanted Eve Hardaway to come up against someone who was not just stronger than she was, but who was immensely more capable and menacing. Because this is an “Everywoman” thriller, it was essential that readers understand just how outgunned Eve is. This is a situation she might not make it out of alive. The “bad man” in pursuit of her has a unique set of skills, all of them geared toward tracking and killing people. Eve is a recently divorced single mother from Calabasas. Their views and priorities and strengths are worlds apart. So I threw them together in the jungle and recorded the mayhem. I always knew that Eve had a hidden reserve of strength that she’d have to dig deep to find. Perhaps that’s true for all of us.

MP: One thing that works well in the book is how you believable you make cutting off all the characters from contacting any sort of rescuers in a modern novel. Did you think it is still possible to be in the middle of nowhere and not be able to contact society?

GH: Thank you. And yes, I do! Because I actually went to the jungles of Oaxaca. And I was as cut off there as I’ve been anywhere in the world. Because I see my job as giving readers a front-row seat to the action, I try to experience what my characters do. So I went to  the humidity-drenched jungles, shot down Class IV white-water rafting runs, hiked through ruins, chased after giant snakes, and saw much of what Eve Hardaway encounters in the course of the book. My hope is that the reader can hear the thunder, feel the rain tapping their skin.

MP: What drew you to Mexico?

GH: I chose Mexico because 1. I love the jungle. 2. It was important for spoiler reasons that the jungle in this story is in close proximity to the US.

A perfect storm! Plus I got to drink mezcal. With worm salt. Mmmmm. Worm salt.

MP: You start out with what seems like a killer in the woods story set in the jungle, but the nature of the killer turns it into something else. What is your approach to the antagonist in your writing?

GH: Give him a strong personal motive and well-rounded world view. Early in my career, I stopped writing villains and started writing antagonists. As has been noted by many a writer, “The bad guy never thinks he’s the bad guy.” So giving him a rationale, or better yet, a rationale we can actually relate to? That’s engaging.

MP: What is your main goal when writing?

GH: To find beauty in darkness.


Gregg Hurwitz will be speaking and signing his latest novel, Don’t Look Back, Sunday, September 7, at 4 pm on BookPeople’s second floor. You can find copies of his new book on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Q&A With Ed Kurtz


Ed Kurtz joins us this Friday, August 22nd, at 7 pm, to speak about and sign his new book, The Forty-Two, set in the Times Square of the early Eighties with the feel of the grindhouse movies that played there. Kurtz started out writing horror but has since expanded into noir, and we hope he keeps writing in the mystery section for quite some time. After the event, we will screen Vigilante, a classic of the genre. Ed was kind enough to take some questions from us about the book and the films that inspired it.


MysteryPeople: Which came first, the story or wanting to set one in Times Square?

Ed Kurtz: I’d been wanting to write about the 42nd Street scene the way it was for some time, and between reading Bill Landis’s Sleazoid Express and Jimmy McDonough’s terrific biography of Andy Milligan (upon whom Andy Donovan is based), I decided it was time. The set-up seemed a natural fit to me—a grindhouse fanatic getting involved in a murder right in one of the Forty-Two’s most infamous theaters.

MP: Times Square exists in the story as another character and a complex one at that. How did you go about writing about a place in a previous era?

EK: Quite a lot of research—and quite a lot of maps and photos. As I state (apologize about?) in the acknowledgments, I was born in the wrong time and place to have experienced the Deuce firsthand, but as a lifelong exploitation addict it’s in my blood. That said, I needed to know late 1970s/early 1980s New York well, so I read voluminously, studied all those maps and photographs, and kept my writing space strewn with all of that stuff to completely immerse myself in the milieu. I even got my hands on old copies of the Village Voice so that the films playing in the book are accurate. My biggest fear was messing it all up, of course, so I sent it to a friend and colleague, a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, to give it a brutal analysis once it was done. To my delight he told me I’d only flubbed one minor detail. I’m not saying which.

MP:  At times the book has the feel of a grindhouse film to it. What did you want to take from those movies to apply to your own work?

EK: The down-and-dirty electric energy of the best—or at least most entertaining—of the exploitation pictures from that period is what I wanted to emulate in The Forty-Two. I hope when people read the book they can see the grain and spots and cigarette burns on the celluloid, hear the crackle of the overused film print. I love this stuff every bit as much as Charley does in the novel, and I wanted that little obsession of ours, mine and my character’s, to bleed through the narrative. You have to wallow a little bit to really get what makes the sleazehound tick, I think, and the novel allows the reader to slum with Charley without all the danger he faces!

MP: You’ve been writing a lot of crime fiction lately. What attracted you to it?

EK: I have always loved crime fiction, particularly with a noir bent, for its attention to darker impulses among human beings that tend to be more subtle than that found in a lot of horror. Themes like obsessive love and revenge, for example, strike such deeper chords than buckets of blood—though I’m certainly attracted to that, too! I started out in horror, and I think that much is evident in a lot of my crime output like The Forty-Two, but I also don’t think the two are all that different. I’m interested in the choices people make, good and bad, and how it can change them and affect their circumstances. How choices can bring out the best or worst in a character, which seems to me a crucial part of crime fiction storytelling.

MP: As someone who has written in several genres, do you see the point in those divisions or is a story a story to you?

EK: For the most part, the latter. When I wrote A Wind of Knives, I set out to create a story about love and revenge, and found myself puzzled that to most commentators it was a “gay Western.” I can’t see the need in ghettoizing literature to that extent, apart from pointing out those aspects that might be most interesting to particular readers, I suppose. My love for grindhouse and the Times Square scene comes directly from my love of horror, so the two are inseparable in my head—so although The Forty-Two is a crime novel, the horror aspects are there, too. Sometimes I like to say I write about people doing bad things to each other, if I’m forced to categorize. But even that is probably oversimplifying. It reminds me of how aggravated I get when I hear someone refer to a novel as “literary,” when a novel is by definition literary, whether it’s William Faulkner or Edgar Rice Burroughs.

MP: If someone was wanting to understand grindhouse cinema what three films would you have them start with?

EK: Just three? I could give you three hundred, and I’d be happy to do it, but I’ll play nice. Just to spread things around a bit, I’ll touch on some different genres that were common to the place and time Charley McCormick is haunting the Forty-Two.

Five Fingers of Death, aka King BoxerCheng Chang Ho’s 1973 kung fu classic got a bit lost in the shuffle when Enter the Dragon was released the same year, but it was a mainstay on 42nd Street and one of the very best examples of the sort of violent martial arts extravaganzas that opened the door to the kung fu craze…and was a perfect fit for the grindhouse scene and tastes. Highly recommended.

Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SSDon Edmond’s infamous 1974 smorgasbord of sleaze and poor taste introduced Dyane Thorne in her first turn as the sadistic Ilsa, classlessly using the Nazi era as the backdrop for as much nudity, violence, and kinky sex as he could get away with. By no means suitable for everyone, the film nonetheless was a major presence on the Deuce and paved the way for countless mimics. Predecessors from Italy like Pasolini’s Salo and Cavani’s The Night Porter may have set the stage for this sort of WWII-era degeneracy, but no one did it more outrageously than Ilsa. (Fun fact: it was shot on leftover Hogan’s Heroes sets! Bob Crane probably loved it.)

Zombie, aka Zombie 2 — Intended as a cheap, unofficial sequel to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (which was released in Italy as Zombi), Lucio Fulci’s made this gut-munching gore masterpiece a classic all its own and filled it with so many wild set pieces—from the underwater zombie/shark fight to one of the most stomach-churning bits of eyeball violence you’ll ever endure—that the picture is every bit as unforgettable as the American counterpart it was meant to capitalize upon. Bleak, unrelenting, and gritty as hell, it may not be Fulci’s best outing (which is probably The Beyond), but an unbelievably entertaining piece of trashy 70s Eurohorror and another pillar of the Forty-Two.


MysteryPeople welcomes Ed Kurtz to BookPeople Friday, August 22, at 7 pm on our third floor. He will be speaking and signing his new book The Forty Two. The signing will be followed by a screening of Vigilante, a grindhouse classic. Copies of The Forty Two are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. All BookPeople events are free and open to the public.

Double Feature: WINTER’S BONE

This Wednesday, August 20, MysteryPeople is proud to present the latest and last installment of our summer Noir Double Feature series. For those of you new to the series, each event is a two-parter: we screen a film based on a book available on our shelves and then discuss the book and movie together. For our last screening, we present to you Winter’s Bone, director Debra Granik‘s 2010 adaption of Daniel Woodrell’s book of the same name.

Winter’s Bone, both as a film and as a novel, presents an icy, poetic portrait of Ozark strength and suffering. The film and novel have much the same plot.  The story begins as Ree Dolly, teenage caretaker for her younger brothers and mentally ill mother, finds out that her meth cooker father has put their house up as collateral to make bail. When he fails to appear for a court date, Ree must go on a quest to find him – a quest that proves more dangerous than she could have imagined, as she works her way through relatives and members of the community in an increasingly desperate quest.

Daniel Woodrell lived the world he portrayed, and he understands that teens like Ree Dolly have few options. Ree plans to join the military, something Daniel Woodrell himself did at the age of 17. If she loses her property, she can foist her younger brothers and her mentally ill mother off on relatives. However, she knows that by doing so, she will condemn her brothers to a life of criminality and most likely prison, and she doesn’t trust others to take in her mother long-term. Knowing that she must ensure her family’s safety before she herself can leave means that she will risk any danger to ensure their future well being, and her future escape.

Winter’s Bone portrays a world where men are either obstacles or absent, and women are the forces that preserve their near-destroyed community. As Ree goes from relative to relative looking for her father, she must approach any man through their woman, and it is the women of the community that decide what information to pass on and what to hold back.

Winter’s Bone contains a beautiful reversal of noir tropes – instead of an irresponsible, violent man who has created many of his own difficulties, Woodrell has written a strong young woman who tackles challenges head-on, no matter how insurmountable her difficulties may seem. Winter’s Bone passes the Bechdel test in spades. Ree exist within a fully realized female world where topics of conversation run the gamut. She also has strong bonds of friendship that give her the courage to continue dealing with her extraordinarily difficult life.

Winter’s Bone takes place in a community where predefined roles govern each life from cradle to grave. There are no options other than to mimic the lives of those who have come before, and standing in the community is determined solely by how well you fulfill those roles. Happiness, therefore, can come only through succeeding in your role or in leaving the community entirely.

Winter’s Bone has found universal acclaim both as a novel and a film, and although the film is mostly faithful to the novel, the two compliment each other rather than acting as redundant. Winter’s Bone as a book comes in a long line of critically lauded works by Woodrell. The film catapulted Jennifer Lawrence to fame with her powerful performance, as well as bringing director Debra Granik to prominence. The film does not use sets, but uses actual Ozark houses, and this is just one part of the authenticity of Woodrell’s story and Granik’s production.

Come to BookPeople’s third floor, Wednesday, August 20, for a near-perfect movie and a perfect novel. Our screening starts at 6, and discussion of the book and film will follow the screening. As always, our events are free and open to the public. Copies of Winter’s Bone can be found on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.


 

Double Feature Stats

Adherence to book:

4.5 [out of 1-5]

Recommended films:

Ride with the Devil, In Country, Cold Mountain, Harlan County, USA

Recommended books:

Anything by Daniel Woodrell, A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor, Crimes in Southern Indiana, by Frank BillPike by Benjamin Whitmer

Double Feature: DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS

Devil-in-a-Blue-Dress

This Wednesday, August 6th, at 6 pm, MysteryPeople will host a screening of Carl Franklin’s 1992 noir classic Devil in a Blue Dress, based on Walter Mosley’s book of the same name. The screening is part of our ongoing Noir Double Feature Film Series, a biweekly MysteryPeople event where we screen a film adaption of a noir classic and follow with a discussion of the film versus the novel. Each screening begins at 6 pm and takes place on BookPeople’s third floor.

Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosely’s first novel to star unlicensed private detective Easy Rawlins, follows Easy as he first enters into the finding-things-out-for-money game. A sinister white gangster hires Rawlins to find a blonde bombshell who likes to frequent black clubs, but when Easy gets a little ways into the case, people around him start showing up dead, and it is up to him to find out whodunit before the law decides to go the lazy route and just frame him instead. Easy Rawlins, as a proud veteran of World War II and the mean streets of Houston’s fifth ward, is up to the task. By the end of the book, he may just have found himself a new career and a permanent outlet for snappy one liners.

Mosley’s novel takes place in 1940s LA, like many a neo-noir, and the book is so cinematically written as to form a perfect bond with Franklin’s jazzy interpretation. With a 20 million dollar budget, Franklin creates a vibrant depiction of African-American neighborhoods in mid-century Los Angeles. This, combined with a tight narrative and stunning early performances from Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle, make this a film not to miss.

As a film, Devil in a Blue Dress shares most symmetry with Chinatown – they both take a modern perspective and delve deeply into LA’s sordid history, and the city plays as large a part as any single character. Walter Mosley and Carl Franklin use the groundwork already laid for LA noir, and Devil in a Blue Dress adds a welcome layer to the cosmopolitan patchwork that is representations of Los Angeles in literature and film.

Devil in a Blue Dress is firmly grounded in the hard-boiled detective novel conventions. Corruption, murder, greed, deviance, prostitution, small-time gangsters – Easy Rawlins does not find post-war LA to be a particularly wholesome world. Easy also has all the particular problems of dealing with racism as an African-American in 1948, including police violence, potential lynching every time he talks to a white woman, and a constant stream of indignities and casual racism from almost every white man he meets. Although Rawlins is well established as a hard-working homeowner in a community in which he is known and respected, the admiration of his peers and the constant booze and sex cannot obscure his place at the bottom of society’s totem pole. The film was made shortly after Compton exploded in the aftermath of Rodney King’s beating, and the film struck a particularly heart-wrenching cord upon its release through its portrayal of issues from an earlier time that to this day pervade society.

Detective novels have long been dominated by voices writing from within mainly white communities, where the majority of minority visitors are represented as the other. Devil in a Blue Dress provides welcome relief from such literary tunnel vision – any white visitor to Mosley’s spot-on recreation of 1940s black LA is immediately viewed as a potentially dangerous anomaly. Mosley is, however, certainly not the first detective novelist to represent the African-American experience, and noir set in black communities has a long history stretching back to Chester Himes in the 1950s. Carl Franklin had Denzel Washington read some of Himes’ novels, including Cotton Comes to Harlem, so as to give him a sense of the time and place the film aimed to recreate.

Mosley is one of the  most intriguing authors writing now in any mystery subgenre. His detective novels, like his sci-fi and general fiction, have all enjoyed wide renown and crossover appeal. Luckily for us, he is also one of the most prolific authors writing now, and you can find his work all over our shelves. Mosley himself will be coming to BookPeople this fall on Wednesday, October 22nd at 7PM, so keep an eye out on our events calendar.

MysteryPeople is proud to offer a screening of Devil in a Blue Dress, Wednesday, August 6, at 6 pm, up on BookPeople’s third floor. You can find Devil in a Blue Dress on our shelves and at bookpeople.com. Our next MysteryPeople Noir Double Feature will be Wednesday, August 20. We will screen Winter’s Bone and discuss Daniel Woodrell’s book of the same name.


Double Feature Stats

Adherence to Book [scale of 1-5]: 4

Recommended films:

Chinatown, LA Confidential, Long Goodbye, In the Heat of the Night, Boyz N The Hood

Recommended books:

Anything by Walter Mosley, anything by Chester Himes, Charlie Huston’s No Dominion, anything by David Goodis

MysteryPeople Q&A with Tim Bryant

Tim Bryant’s latest book featuring post-war Fort Worth private eye Dutch Curridge, Spirit Trap, involves theft and the murder of a family, with members of a western swing band as suspects. Tim will be joining us with Ben Rheder and Reavis Wortham for our Lone Star Mystery authors panel this Wednesday, August 6, at 7 pm on BookPeople’s second floor. Tim was kind enough to answer some questions beforehand.


MysteryPeople: Music always plays a big part in the book and this time, Dutch has to deal with a lot of them in this mystery. Being one yourself, what did you want to get a across about a band?

Tim Bryant: There wasn’t a lot of planning that went into Spirit Trap. I experienced it, in some ways, as I would if I were reading it. Still, I brought my history in music to it. I would have to say what came out of that was the dichotomy that, if you look at a band from the outside, it appears very much as a family, a unit that works together. Seen from the inside out, though, it’s made up of a bunch of individuals, each of whom will have their own motives and may see what they’re doing in completely different ways. Both of those things can be useful in writing about life, especially when you’re talking about mystery.

MP: Dutch’s voice is so unique and it carries the book. How did you develop it?

TB: There’s a lot of myself in Dutch, so I didn’t have to invent him from whole cloth. Obviously, we share a dark and rather twisted sense of humor. There’s also a good bit of my grandfather in him, and  people that I remember from my grandfather’s era, men who hung around him. I have an ear for how those kinds of people talk. Not just what they say, but how they say it. I had written a series of short stories with a character called Cold Eye Huffington. Cold Eye was a good bit like Dutch, although he was set in New Orleans. The very first story I ever wrote with Dutch as a character was published in REAL literary magazine, and his voice was pretty much fully formed from the beginning.

MP: Which came first to write about, Dutch or Fort Worth?

TB: After the Cold Eye stories, I wanted to develop a Texas character, because I do consider myself to be a Texas writer. Of course, with Cold Eye, I had the whole New Orleans music scene as a backdrop, and I very much wanted to keep music in the picture. It’s something I know well and enjoy writing about, and there’s endless fodder for storylines. So, looking at Texas, and being a huge fan of both western swing music and jazz, Fort Worth became the obvious setting for Dutch. Fort Worth has such a rich music history, and a lot of people aren’t aware of just how rich it is. I mean, Bob Wills and Milton Brown are both  associated with Fort Worth, but so is Ornette Coleman. Plus, I knew that Dutch would be a little guy going up against bigger foes, and Fort Worth, always being in the shadow of Dallas, fit into that psychology.

MP: One of the things I Iike best about Dutch is his sense of humor. How important is humor in a story when you’re dealing with somber subject matter?

TB: I think it’s important as a writer and a reader to have that spark of humor there in the dark, but it only works because it’s important for Dutch himself to have that humor. It’s a survival mechanism for him, as much as anything. And he’s no longer a churchgoer, but he remembers from childhood that a joke is always funnier when you’re in a place it doesn’t belong or isn’t expected. The humor just comes naturally from what’s going on. I suppose they all come from my mind as I’m writing the story, but it honestly feels as if they come from the mind of Dutch as he goes about things. That’s what makes it natural, what makes it work.

MP: For an author, what makes Dutch Curridge a character worth coming back to?

TB: The fact that I know him like a friend. I not only know what has happened to him in the three novels, but, at this point, I know the day he was born and I know the day he dies. Elvis hasn’t arrived on the scene in the books yet, but I know what he thinks about Elvis. He’s like any friend. I may need a break from him every once in a while, because he’s pretty intense in a lot of ways, but after a while, I start to hear him whispering in my ear, and I start to miss the guy.


MysteryPeople welcomes Tim Bryant, along with Reavis Wortham and Ben Rehder, to BookPeople for a conversation about crime fiction on Wednesday, August 6, at 7 pm. His latest novel, Spirit Trap, is available on BookPeople’s shelves and via bookpeople.com.