Manning Wolfe on Lawyers, Sex & Golf

Local author Manning Wolfe joins us Sunday, June 24th, at 2pm to talk with Jay Brandon and our Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery about legal thrillers. She wrote a post for us about how her book, Green Fees, came to be.

A few years ago, I read an article about naked women on a golf course serving up sex at each hole to golfers depending on their score (no puns intended). A news crew got wind of the event, flew over the course, and videotaped the action. Ironically, the charity event was for the Make a Wish Foundation. The play-by-play has gone viral on social media and been the basis of many golf jokes over the years.

Green Fees: A Merit Bridges Legal Thriller Cover ImageShortly after that incident, a young golf professional was referred to my law office asking for legal representation. He wanted to extricate himself from a usurious contract with a promoter, who was a de-facto loan shark. Under the agreement he was obligated to pay half of his earnings to the money lender. In addition, the pro’s hands were scarred from a childhood accident, and discomforting to look at. Surprisingly, they functioned well and purportedly enhanced his golf game.

About that same time, I met Barbara Puett, who became my golf instructor. Barbara was a protégé of Harvey Penick, both of Austin. He wrote Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book and she matched it with alittle green book, Golf Etiquette. I don’t know a single golfer who doesn’t own the Penick book, if not both. 

The three concepts, lawyers, sex, and golf merged together somehow in my misguided mind, and a legal thriller, Green Fees, was conceived.

In Green Fees, young golf pro Mark Green borrows money from the wrong guy to keep his PGA tour dreams alive. He finds himself in so deep with Russian loan shark, Browno Zars, that he begs his lover and attorney Merit Bridges for her help.

Meanwhile, uncertainty and fear grip Austin as a murderer, who the press labels The Enforcer, avoids identification and capture.

After Merit uses every legal trick in her book to extricate Mark from Browno’s grip, she becomes a target of Browno. Merit awakens to find herself hanging from a meat hook in an Austin warehouse and staring into the face of evil.

What unfolds is a story of deceit and betrayal as the identity of The Enforcer is revealed. Merit must then outwit the sinister and dangerous adversary to save herself from torture and certain death.

In the tradition of Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, a Poirot mystery, Harlan Coben’s Back Spin, and Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, Green Fees takes place around the world of golf, but is not a golf mystery. It’s a legal thriller, an Austin mystery, and a cautionary tale about trust.

This week, I saw a news article about Whataburger serving hamburgers on tortillas because of the delivery of bad buns by suppliers.

I remembered a legal case in my office involving swans that had invaded an apartment swimming pool causing a lawsuit with the next-door neighbors.

I saw a graffiti artist being arrested near the South Lamar railroad tracks, carrying a bag of paint cans.

After a little contemplation, I wonder what my misguided mind might do with all that. Buns, Birds, and Body Bags?

Manning Wolfe, an award-winning author and attorney residing in Austin, Texas, writes cinematic-style, smart, fast-paced thrillers with a salting of Texas bullshit. Her series features Austin Lawyer Merit Bridges. As a graduate of Rice University and the University of Texas School of Law, Manning’s experience has given her a voyeur’s peak into some shady characters’ lives and a front row seat to watch the good people who stand against them.

Guest Post By William D. Darling

There are many mysteries in my first book, Morgan’s Point, but none that involved murder. Two sudden, unfathomable and sickening deaths were a part of the story, but I didn’t focus on willful murder. While I don’t exactly think of myself as a pacifist, I had to overcome some trepidation in my second book, Anahuac, and commit a murder—or, at least, commit to chronicling a murder in print.

Anahuac Cover ImageBut even though there is a murder to solve, in the historic and isolated Texas town of Anahuac (Anna Whack is the way a resident would pronounce it) that gives the book its title, the story revolves around mysteries that may be darker than murder.

Most of us abhor violence. Yet mystery, especially when it involves murder, is one of our favorite literary genres. The “why” of its popularity is not so hard to understand when one accepts that the violence and death in a murder mystery are usually purely fictional. We shiver in anticipation as the roller coaster reaches the top of the hill, because the exhilaration of the bottom dropping out is “safe.” Mystery lets us enter into the violent world of murder without actually being in danger. The journey is aided by the fact that our imaginations don’t—in the moment, at least—distinguish between real danger and the imagined.

Make no mistake, my latest novel Anahuac is a murder mystery, pure and simple. If you liked the Coen Brothers movie Blood Simple, you will probably like Anahuac. The mysteries surrounding the living are as dark and complex as the question of what happened to the dearly-departed woman my readers meet (briefly) in the first few pages.

So, how to write about the murder of a human being by another?

Anahuac is a story told in first person. Jim Ward, the series narrator, is not present at the time of the murder—he’s a lawyer called in to defend the out-of-town stranger who is at the murder scene. We learn the details, through Jim’s eyes, in retrospective interviews and testimony.

Solving the crime in Anahuac does not turn on how the deceased was killed. There is more than one person with the means and the motive to have committed the crime. Anahuac is a murder mystery with a heavy emphasis on multiple mysteries. The perpetrator’s identity—a preacher in a sharkskin suit with a following of evangelicals—is the key to there being a story in the first place; but the murder serves as a vehicle to explore dark questions related to greed, religion, and justice. Without the murder, the other dark mysteries explored in the story would never surface.

A murder defendant must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury’s task of judging the credibility of witnesses is most complex when multiple witnesses in the trial have an incentive to have killed the deceased. The paucity of information about the act of murder is often the case in real life crime. As in life, the jury and the reader are called to judge the credibility of the witnesses in Anahuac.

And to complicate matters, the town of Anahuac is about to be illuminated by the glare of big city television news and newspapers, enticed by the strange circumstances around the case. In 1972 Anahuac was a remote town even by Texas standards. Outside scrutiny of the small town’s justice system puts more than the defendant on trial.

Anahuac puts you in the jury box with a jury made up of rice farmers and the local undertaker. The defendant’s version of the events leading to the death of the victim is sketchy, but he has evidence that points to someone else. If there is a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime, the jury must acquit. What if that means that there might not ever be anyone punished for the crime?

I spent time as both a prosecutor and a defense lawyer. Justice is all too often in the eye of the beholder. The rules of evidence don’t care who is guilty. Convicted criminals seldom think that justice was done. Convicted innocent defendants are sure it wasn’t.

I am writing the sequel to Anahuac. The story is set in Austin, Texas in the mid-1970s and recounts a murder involving the cosmic cowboy music scene, politics, romance, and demands for women’s rights. Ah, yet again I am confronted with the violence of the act of murder. I wonder how I’ll handle it this time.   

Guest Post: James Ziskin on historical novels and names

Thanks to James Ziskin for putting together this post about his crime novels, set in the early 1960s, and how that time period impacts what he does. He’ll be here Monday, February 5th, at 7pm with Terry Shames and Laura Oles to discuss his book, Cast the First Stone

I write the Ellie Stone mysteries, a series of traditional-cum-noir crime novels set in the early 1960s. Ellie is a mid-twenties reporter for an upstate New York daily. A self-described “modern girl,” she works twice as hard as any man at the paper, gets half the credit, and all the wolfish leers.

My books are sometimes categorized as historical. The time period is near past, which presents both advantages and challenges when it comes to creating a believable fictional world. The sixties were not so long ago, and the world isn’t all that different, at least not when compared to a hundred or two hundred years earlier. But the things that have changed have done so in sometimes drastic, sometimes subtle ways. Before considering names, let’s look at a few of the obvious differences.

Cars. On the left is Ellie’s 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer and, on the right, its descendant, the 2018 Dodge Lancer.

Ziskin cars

Well, they both have four tires, and they’re both red. Of course, two-toned paint jobs and chrome were all the rage in the fifties. But under the hood and inside the brains of the cars, they might as well be a biplane and a jumbo jet for all they have in common. By the way, Ellie’s car—same colors even—was featured in a Dodge commercial just a couple of years ago. Have a look. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1JeNv0FoPXo

Telephones. The old black rotary phones have gone the way of the dinosaur. Today’s phones are powerful computers, great for doing research or enjoying entertainment.

Ziskin telephone

Fashion. Ellie might have dressed something like this. Today, these ladies look like a mashup of air hostesses, Don Draper’s secretaries, and the Stepford PTA.

Ziskin women (1)

And what would Ellie have been listening to on the AM radio in her car? Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry” topped the charts for three weeks in the summer of 1960. Tastes change. If you don’t think so, listen to this song.

Ziskin song

Sports. Heisman trophy winners Joe Bellino, 1960, and Baker Mayfield, 2017.

Ziskin sports

And then there’s this…

Ziskin hair

But wait a minute. Wasn’t this supposed to be about names?

I was just getting to that.

Take girls’ and boys’ names. There weren’t many Justins, Aidans, or Graysons running around in Ellie Stone’s 1960. You were more likely to find Davids, Michaels, and Jameses. Hmm. What do you know? James. And I was born in 1960… For girls, names were pretty tame back then. Mary, Susan, and Linda were the top three in America. And when Ellie was born in 1937, the most popular were Mary, Barbara, and Patricia. Not one of those three names cracks the top hundred in 2017. And that’s on a list that includes “Luna” at number forty-eight! Last year, neoclassical and old-time names Sophia, Olivia, and Emma topped the list. And, surprise of surprises, neither Sophia nor Olivia made the top hundred in 1937. Emma barely squeezed in under the wire at number eighty-nine.

For Cast the First Stone, I dropped Ellie into 1962 Hollywood. She’s sent to California by her editor to interview a local boy who’s landed the second male lead in a beach picture. First, to avoid lawsuits and hate mail, I decided to avoid using real Hollywood stars in my book—at least none who appear as characters. Of course people mention the odd actor or actress in the course of the story, but no actual celebrities appear in the book. Well, one does, but just for one line, and I’m not telling who it is. (Here’s a useful, hint, though. Dead people cant sue for defamation.) Second, to achieve maximum believability, I wanted to avoid inventing fictional megastars. It’s difficult—but not impossible—to win the reader’s buy-in. Cal Granite, Bart Steele, or Dirk Bogarde just aren’t believable as names. Well, okay, Dirk Bogarde was a real actor, but I almost had you, didn’t I?

So how to create believable names for the period? I lowered my sights. Instead of A-listers, I populated Cast the First Stone with end-of the-dugout directors, no-name producers, and C-list actors. The same is true for the title of the fictional film at stake in the book, Twistin’ on the Beach. It’s 1962, people were doing the twist again (like we did last summer), and teenage beach pictures were just entering their golden age. If there weren’t at least two or three films with that name that year, there should have been.

Now I needed actors for my film. No big names, remember. So I came up with boy-next-door types appropriate for the era. And white-bread white last names. Tony Eberle, Bobby Renfro, Bo Hanson. The female lead in the movie is Carol Haven, though she never makes an appearance in the book.

There’s also the question of using real places whenever possible, and fictional ones where convenient. From the outset of this series, I chose to fictionalize the town where Ellie lives and works. New Holland, New York, cannot be found on any map except the one in my upcoming A Stone’s Throw (June 5, 2018). Making up a small city is no big deal, and it frees me from researching every last detail about a real place. But once Ellie lands in Los Angeles in Cast the First Stone, real locations are necessary to create the impression of that great city. I chose to use the actual Paramount Studios as the site where Twistin’ on the Beach was being filmed. The instant name recognition helps create realism. Everyone’s heard of Paramount, so I didn’t have to labor unnecessarily to convince readers. The Godfather took a different route, probably to avoid potential lawsuits, using a fictionalized studio—Woltz International Pictures—for the famous horse-head-in-the-bed sequence. (Oh, come on. It’s not a spoiler after forty-five years.) As great as that film is, the name of the studio strikes me as less than compelling. We know it’s not real, and no magic is conjured by seeing its name or its unimpressive gate.

I used the same tactic in my upcoming A Stone’s Throw (June 5, 2018). Where possible, I used real names—e.g. Saratoga Race Course—but brought the characters down to a manageable level of fame. Thoroughbreds, jockeys, owners, and gamblers are all fictional, except for a few real horses, mentioned here and there, and Willie Shoemaker making a cameo appearance. Those recognizable names make the time period feel more authentic to the reader. The fictional characters do their job, too, entertaining us with their exploits, while never breaking the spell with their unfamiliar “household names.”

Guest Post: P. J. Tracy on the Enduring Popularity of Crime Fiction

The mother-daughter writing team of PJ Tracy is back with a new Monkeewrench thriller. We could write a review of their latest, titled The Sixth Idea, but the PJ Tracy team does it so much better.  Here they talk about the importance of secrets.

Puzzles and Secrets: Why We Still Read Crime Fiction

  • Guest post from P. J. Tracy

In a recent interview, we were asked about the enduring popularity of crime fiction.  It was one of those simple, straight-forward questions that took us by surprise, because the answer seemed self-evident – who doesn’t want to decipher a puzzle; assess evidence and follow it through to a logical conclusion?  Whether you’re reading a mystery novel, doing the Sunday crossword, or trying to figure out why your dog or cat is eating dirt, you are responding to a biological imperative to solve problems.  It’s a genetically hard-wired skill that has kept our species successful for millennia.  Without it, our race would have perished a long time ago by eating poison mushrooms or mammoth dung.

In a recent interview, we were asked about the enduring popularity of crime fiction.  It was one of those simple, straight-forward questions that took us by surprise, because the answer seemed self-evident – who doesn’t want to decipher a puzzle; assess evidence and follow it through to a logical conclusion?

But the seemingly simple question made us think a little more about the genre, human nature, and how the characters that populate the Monkeewrench series have driven us to keep writing about them.  It suddenly dawned on us that there was another component to the popularity of mysteries: secrets.  Large or small, everybody has them, and the voyeuristic aspect of the human psyche yearns to read about somebody else’s.

Secrets have always been a set piece in the Monkeewrench series, not just within the plot, but within the characters themselves. The Sixth Idea, the seventh and newest novel in the series, is absolutely laden with secrets, some that go back sixty years to the dawn of the nuclear age and the Cold War.  But what makes this novel different from the others is that some of the secrets between the covers are part of our family history.  It’s a work of fiction, but there are many portions of the book that are based on actual events and personal experiences, both past and present.  We hadn’t ever really considered incorporating some of our own secrets into a novel until a spectacular coincidence occurred a few years ago and catalyzed a manic compulsion to record it.  That single, astronomically unlikely event was the genesis of The Sixth Idea.

It suddenly dawned on us that there was another component to the popularity of mysteries: secrets.  Large or small, everybody has them, and the voyeuristic aspect of the human psyche yearns to read about somebody else’s.

To learn more about PJ Tracy, you can visit their website, pjtracy.com. You can find copies of The Sixth Idea on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Guest Post: Mark Pryor Talks Texas Writing for Texas Mystery Writers Month


English-born Mark Pryor is a prosecutor for the City of Austin and, in his spare time, writer of the popular Hugo Marston series., The books follow Marston, head of security for the US Embassy in Paris and proud Texan, as he solves crimes and encounters danger in the narrow Parisian side-streets. Pryor’s fifth book in the series, The Reluctant Matadorcomes out June 2nd, and takes Marston to Barcelona to solve the mystery of a young woman’s disappearance. Mark Pryor is also the most Texan Brit in Austin since Robert Plant left town. You can find copies of all of Mark Pryor’s novels to date on our shelves and via bookpeople.com


– Guest post by Mark Pryor

You know what Texas represents to many English people? The entirety of the United States. It’s true, if absurdly reductionist, that for many people of my generation (born and raised before the Internet) America was a place of cowboys and wide-open spaces, a place where gun-toting good guys rode across the plains and cooked over campfires at night. It was a place where desperate entrepreneurs struck gold, or oil, and where a man could be who he wanted to be, no limits, no restrictions. It’s an old-fashioned portrait of a much more complex place, I know, but even today Texas has that special aura surrounding it, to me and my English friends who come out to visit.

The creation of my series hero, Hugo Marston, didn’t consciously tap into that vein of thinking but as I’ve gotten to know and develop him, and as I look at the way he conducts himself in each story, I think it’s clear that he’s very much a throwback. Sure, he wears a hat and cowboy boots as he walks the streets of Paris, but it’s more than that. He’s a handsome man but he describes himself as a watcher, not a player. And that brings to mind the steely-eyed gunslingers of my childhood, the men who saw right and wrong and acted accordingly, no matter the risk.

And so I wonder if I would’ve written Hugo the same way if I still lived in England, or even in my home of ten years, North Carolina. I think not. It may not have occurred to me to make him a Texan. And what a shame that would have been because there’s something special about the hat and the boots, about the sartorial swagger belonging to a quiet, kind, but strong man from Texas, a crime fighter who carries a badge and a gun, but who fights crime in a foreign city.

I’m often asked about that apparent disconnect, the fact that an Englishman writes a series about a Texan living in Paris, France. To me, it’s not a disconnect at all. It’s just the way things are, and perhaps the way things should be. After all, every book in the series has been written right here in Austin, a place known for being a little weird and a place that’s still Texan enough that a man, even an author, can do his job the way he sees fit, no limits and no restrictions. The old-fashioned way.


And this brings an end to May as Texas Mystery Writers Month. Up next, June is International Crime Fiction Month! Look out for reviews and top lists of international crime fiction, recent and classic, and an interview or two. We’ve also got plenty of events coming up, so keep an eye on the now-entirely-up-to-date events page on the MysteryPeople blog. 

Guest Post: Minerva Koenig Weighs In on Texas Mystery Writers Month

May is Texas Mystery Writers Month, and we’re celebrating with guest posts from Texas authors all month long. Up next, we bring you some thoughts from Minerva Koenig, whose debut novel, Nine Dayswowed us last year. As strong as her characters, Koenig writes plucky heroines well able to take care of themselves – in fact, if you called them plucky, they might throw a drink in your face. Look out for her second novel, coming out in the next year. 


Guest Post by Minerva Koenig

You’re sitting somewhere vast, alone. It’s so quiet you can hear the blood rushing in your ears. You don’t know what to do with your brain. It keeps trying to have a conversation — because you’re human, and that’s what human brains do — but there’s nothing there to answer, not even your own consciousness. It’s busy trying to grok the emptiness around you.

There’s a quiet twitch of awareness that you could die out here with no one the wiser, food for the buzzards. You start to feel the bottoms of your feet, the insides of your thumbs.

“Get a grip,” you tell yourself, and nearly jump out of your skin when you realize you’re talking out loud. A sudden, disturbing affinity for the weirdos you used to see shuffling down Newton Street in mid-soliloquy gets you on your feet.

There’s a roadhouse in the hot distance, a wreck of faded boards and grimy windows that you skipped on your way out, ruling it too sketchy to enter. Now it looks like the Taj Mahal.

“You ever read Dostoyevsky?” the bartender, a fresh-faced tomboy with a tiny diamond in one freckled nostril, asks you as she sets down your cold Lone Star.

You give her a look, and she says, “I never been to Russia, but it almost feels like it, after that dude’s stuff. You know?”

You do know. You felt that way about Texas, reading Goodbye to a River back home in Massachusetts.

God, you love that word: Massachusetts. It makes you remember the ancestors, their warm feet on the cool soil, the sound of that old silence, the way the air must have smelled then. Your sentences used to be like the landscape there; closed and hilly, winding around and turning in on themselves, enchanted and spooky like those girls they burned at the stake.

The conversation your head is trying to have with itself down here sounds different. It’s wider, more relaxed. The words spread out and need more syllables, and the spaces in between keep filling up with these minuscule, unspeakable epiphanies about things that have baffled you in the past. You try to corral them on paper, circle them with words and compress them down into edible parts, but they’re like wild hogs, slipping the noose at the last moment. You start to yearn for the relative simplicity of the things you used to think about before you came down here.

F**king Texas. Between the rattlesnakes, the weather, the long stretches of barren highway, and the freaks who like all of that stuff, the state itself feels lethal. You think about all the ways you could die again, and need half the beer to keep yourself from starting some unholy Socratic dialog with the bartender.

You drop a couple of bucks on the scarred wood serving top and step back out into the blinding heat, grimly optimistic. Somehow, you’ll get it all down on paper. It’s that or lose your mind under this endlessly arching, neon-bright sky.


You can find Minerva Koenig’s debut novel on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.  Look out for more great guest posts for Texas Mystery Writers Month, including a post from Austin-based prosecutor and novelist Mark Pryor. 

Texas Characters – What More Could a Writer Want? Guest Post from Janice Hamrick for Texas Mystery Writers Month

May is Texas Mystery Writers Month, and we’re celebrating with guest posts from Texas authors all month long. Up next, we have one of our favorite Austin mystery writers, Janice Hamrick, whose novels, like her personality, sparkle with dry wit and charming details. We couldn’t celebrate Texas Mystery Writers Month without her.


Texas Characters – What More Could a Writer Want?


Guest Post from Janice Hamrick

Texas is a goldmine of inspiration for writers. Need a setting? Take your pick – coastal fishing village, desert ghost town, hill country honky tonk, or sophisticated metropolis. Need some background? Try crooked politics, ranching dynasties, wild west outlawry, heroic revolution, or high tech scandal. Need characters?  Ah, now that’s where Texas really excels. No people anywhere else on the face of the planet are quite like Texans.

Now don’t get me wrong. Other places have their characters. I’m currently living in Edinburgh, and trust me, you can’t swing a cat on the Royal Mile without taking out someone playing the bagpipes or telling the chilling story of one of the many ghosts who linger in the dark narrow closes of Old Town. But it’s a different kind of character.

“Need characters?  Ah, now that’s where Texas really excels. No people anywhere else on the face of the planet are quite like Texans…”

Texans are as varied as the state itself. Heroes, villains, sneaks, nerds, even ordinary teachers forced to confront a stone cold killer – they are all there, and all just a little extraordinary simply because they are Texan. Something about the grandeur of Texas permeates the atmosphere, makes everyone stand up just a little straighter, live just a little larger, be just a little bit more than they would be in any other location. Spend five minutes talking to the woman serving pie at the Texas Pie Company in Kyle or a minute and a half with the ranch hand holding your horse at Rancho Cortez in Bandera and you have enough inspiration to spark a dozen novels. The very best Texans are open, friendly, and direct – boy, are they direct. But at least they never leave you wondering how they feel about a topic, and if they’ve been Texan for longer than six months, they are proud both of their past and their present (and the more different that is from anything ‘up north,’ the better).

There aren’t many places that inspire such fervent devotion, not many states that people so proudly claim as part of their identity. “I’m a Texan,” is a statement that always draws nods of understanding, even as far away as Europe. I recently met a student from Norway, and in response to my accent, he ventured, “You are from one of the two countries in North America, are you not? I don’t dare guess which.”

I smiled and said, “Yes, I’m from Texas.”

His face lit up, and he said, “Ah, I should have said one of the three countries in North America.”

Damn straight.


You can find Janice Hamrick’s novels on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Look out for more great guest posts for Texas Mystery Writers Month. MysteryPeople is also holding a workshop with three Texas authors, including George Wier, Les Edgerton, and Reavis Wortham, this Saturday, May 23rd, from 10 AM to 5 PM. Come for part or all of the day! The workshop is free and open to the public.