Today, MysteryPeople celebrates its fifth anniversary with a panel discussion, party, and the official unveiling of the MysteryPeople Top 100 Crime and Suspense novels. Meg Gardiner, Jesse Sublett, Janice Hamrick, Mark Pryor, and reviewer and radio host Hopeton Hay join bookseller Molly Odintz and Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery for a discussion of “Our Life in Crime.” Come by the store at 3 PM for the discussion and stay for the party afterwards!
Jeff Abbott has found success in several of the mystery & suspense subgenres. Whether whodunnits, everyman thrillers like Panic, or his action spy series featuring Sam Capra, Abbott navigates through the genre fluidly to provide thrills, kills and chills. It’s no surprise that his list was one that showed the range of the genre.
~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.
Jeff Abbott is an author who consistently proves you don’t have to pander to the audience to please it. His latest book in the Sam Capra series, Inside Man, is full of action and intrigue that would put any Hollywood product to shame, yet it is also a serious look at family and the power struggles that define it. Jeff was kind enough to take a few questions from us about the new novel and offer a few reading recommendations.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: As the title suggests, you have Sam Capra going under cover for a large portion of the novel. What does a writer have to keep in mind for this scenario?
JEFF ABBOTT: First, being an inside man means playing a role, selling a story about who he’s pretending to be. Sam is weaving his story about his false identity while I’m writing the story about him, so he and I are being storytellers, together. A character like Sam who is living a lie just has this incredible dramatic tension around him, the danger of discovery is constant, a sort of simmering suspense, so it’s great fun to write. It’s also the kind of story where you can throw in a lot of twists and turns, where the slightest accident can have big repercussions. I love stories where someone has to play a role where they could be caught and lose everything like Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar or Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley books.
MP: Family is a major theme that runs through the story. Sam poses as an employee with a powerful family to avenge the death of someone who protected his family when he was young, and he is constantly reminded of his brother. What did you want to explore about family?
JA: My books are often an unusual mix of family drama and international intrigue. And I really think that family aspect surprises readers sometimes; I think that may have been why Inside Man was an O Magazine pick for their summer reading list. In this case, Sam’s gone undercover into this family, the Varelas, but he¹s not sure if they’re actually responsible for his friend’s death. He is surprised when he begins to care for them, and that sets up quite a challenge for him: what does he do if they are responsible? And then he’s caught up in a bigger question: what exactly is this family’s secret, what has made them so dangerous? King Lear, which I think is Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy about family, was a big inspiration to me in writing this book. Readers will see some parallels, although my story is very different in how it plays out. It was an inspiration, not a template. I wanted to explore how a family might try to stay together under pressures that could destroy them. Whether they succeed or not. . .that’s the story. Like Lear, it starts off being about revenge and ends up being about love and death.
MP: This time the setting is Miami. What inspired you to use that locale?
JA: Miami’s a fascinating place. I’d been there many times before, but this time I really got to explore the city. Miami is glamorous and seductive and full of interesting characters and I thought it would be a compelling setting. I love that, in the Sam series, since he owns bars all around the world, I can set the books wherever I please, which means I got to explore a wide range of Miami bars. Books & Books, one of America’s great indie stores, has a cameo in the book. So clearly, if Sam’s ever in Austin, I’ll have to do the same for BookPeople.
MP: You write some of the best action passages around and you have a master craftsman’s sense of structure and a pace that is cinematic. Are you as influenced by film as you are by literature?
JA: Wow, thank you. This is now my favorite interview question ever! I think it’s nearly impossible not to be influenced by TV or film as a writer today, because – guess what – your audience already is. That doesn’t mean everything has to read like a movie. It’s a book; it should be totally true to being a book. I actually try to be kind of sparing of the action scenes, not have too many, and make sure that they happen because of the character’s choices, not because it’s just time for an action scene. We have seen so many well done ones in film – from John Woo to Kathryn Bigelow to the Bourne films – that I really do try and choreograph it carefully in mind, and not repeat myself. There’s a chase scene in Inside Man that is actually very slow. Not fast, like you’d expect. Yet the tension I felt when writing it was huge. In the opening of Inside Man, with Sam in a car plummeting off a cliff, that’s not pure action, there are some subtle hints in that scene about what is to come in the book. People don’t believe this, and reviewers are sometimes dismissive of books that include them, but the action sequences are very hard to write. Like writing a sex scene, it’s easy to do badly. Re-pacing and structure; I really try to keep the story moving at a pace that interests me and recognizes that the reader has a thousand other demands on their time and could put the book down and go do something else. It’s a balance between action and revelation and emotion and trying to forge connections with the characters for the reader. I just want to keep you turning pages. I hope that makes sense and doesn’t sound pretentious. It takes a lot of work, but I love it.
One influence of films: I love to write while listening to film soundtracks. Some of my favorite film scores are The Hours, Inception, Henry V, Oblivion, The Fountain, the Bourne films, and the music to the TV show LOST.
MP: To me, Sam Capra lives in a heightened reality, yet I completely buy everything that happens in it. How do you keep a story grounded that could easily be over the top?
JA: Thrillers reflect the world we live in, but they’re escapism, too. I try to keep Sam emotionally grounded. He’s a young father. He’s a young man who doesn’t have a girlfriend. He’s trying to run a bunch of bars. So, on one side, he has very normal stresses that any reader can relate to: family, loneliness, work. On the other hand, he’s ex-CIA, and he gets pulled into very dangerous situations, with a set of stresses that are definitely the stuff of thrillers. He has this skill set that sets him apart from ordinary people. So I go for a balance, and I hope it works.
MP: I know you’re a big reader. After folks zip through your book, what else should they pick up for reading this summer?
JA: This is a fantastic summer for books. I am very much looking forward to Megan Abbott’s The Fever, Michael Koryta’s Those Who Wish Me Dead, Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm, Taylor Stevens’s The Catch, Meg Gardiner’s Phantom Instinct, and Adam Brookes’s Night Heron.
Jeff Abbott speaks about and signs Inside Man here at BookPeople on Tuesday, July 8th at 7pm. The event is free and open to the public. If you’d like a signed copy of one of Jeff’s books but can’t make it to the event, you can order signed, personalized books via our website, bookpeople.com.
Douglas Corleone’s Good As Gone is a great thriller with a hard-boiled detective edge. We asked Doug a few questions about his new book and new character, Simon Fisk
MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the idea of Simon Fisk come about?
DOUGLAS CORLEONE: My inspiration for Good As Gone came from a one-page article I’d read online about a private investigator in Tampa, Florida, who specializes in retrieving children kidnapped by their estranged parents and taken overseas to countries that don’t recognize U.S. custody decisions. Fortunately, I printed the article and saved it for two years at the bottom of my filing cabinet.
When my agent said that my editor would like to see something new from me, I immediately went digging and had a one-page synopsis for Good As Gone a few hours later.
MP: While Good As Gone has some comic relief in it, it is more somber than your Kevin Corelli series. Did you welcome the change in tone?
DC: I have mixed feelings. It’s fun to write funny, but it’s also very difficult to sustain a significant level of humor for 350 pages. I also love to challenge myself when writing, and I was happy for the opportunity to write a novel substantially darker than my Kevin Corvelli books. So I did welcome the change in tone in many ways, but that’s not to say I don’t miss Kevin Corvelli’s quirks and his unique worldview.
MP: One of the things I loved about Good As Gone was that Simon has a sidekick for almost every country he’s in. How did you approach writing these characters?
DC: Simon Fisk is very much a loner like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. But, I knew he’d need help along the way. You can take a number of risks with a sidekick that you can’t take with a main character, especially the hero of a series.
So, I tried to be fearless in creating characters like the Berlin Private Investigator Kurt Ostermann and the Warsaw lawyer, Anastazja Staszak. I allowed Ostermann to be as hard and as brutal as he seemed to want to be. Ana, well… Ana is based on someone I knew well and who was very special to me. I permitted Ana to be herself, and she was every bit as smart and funny, and courageous and stubborn as I expected her to be. If the real Ana reads the book – and I suspect she might, since it was translated into Polish, and is being released in Poland this fall – I think she’ll immediately recognize herself. And then she’ll insist that I got her all wrong, simply because she’s a contrarian.
MP: There is a lot of globe trotting in the book. How do you go about bringing out the personality of each setting?
DC: I let the characters bring out the personality of each setting. If I accomplished what I set out to, then the reader won’t notice me at all. When I read a thriller, I dread lengthy descriptions of setting. I think the setting’s personality is best established through the hero’s interaction with the place and time he’s in.
If an author knows the place he’s writing about well enough (through firsthand experience and/or rigorous research), then the setting shines through as brightly as the characters and the author’s hand is invisible. Simon doesn’t stop to smell the roses; he can’t afford to. But he may spot them from the corner of his eye, and if they’re relevant he’ll tell you about them. If not, he won’t.
MP: Fisk has gone through hell in his back-story. What keeps him going?
DC: What keeps Simon going is empathy. He’s experienced the pain of losing everything; and if he can prevent someone else from experiencing that kind of suffering, he’ll risk life and limb to do so. He’s also keenly aware that he doesn’t want to die without knowing what happened to his daughter. He wants to know who took her and why; and he’ll never stop looking.
MP: Your books are a unique mix of sub-genres. Does a writer as unique as you have any influences?
DC: I have many influences and they come from a variety of genres and sub-genres. Readers might catch the reference to Patrick Bateman, Bret Easton Ellis’ anti-hero from American Psycho. Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson were major influences on Kevin Corvelli’s sense of humor. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is a major influence on Simon Fisk. Other influences of mine are Ken Bruen for his Irish noir, Jeff Abbott for his jet setting, David Rosenfelt for his wisecracks, and the late great Elmore Leonard for his dialogue, just to name a few…
When I think of summer action now, my first thought isn’t the Hollywood blockbusters, it’s the latest book in Jeff Abbott’s Sam Capra series. The ex-CIA agent with thirty three bars around the world and a penchant for trouble gives thriller readers the entertainment they crave. With his latest, Downfall, Abbott once again delivers fun reading under the sun.
The plot kicks off with a classic girl-walks-into-a-bar. Actually, she’s being chased into Sam’s SanFransico place by a Russian thug. Sam intervenes and the thug’s dead, the girl’s gone, and several bad guys are gunning for him. He and his alluring and lethal comrade Mila go from frying pan to fryer to whatever’s even hotter than that in a story involving a missing writer, some movers and shakers in business and politics, and a file known as Downfall.
After setting up Sam in Adrenaline and The Last Minute, Abbott is now able to cut loose with Sam without being saddled with an origin story. He gives us a great new villain in Belias, a super hacker who roots for the James Mason character in North By Northwest, He also utilizes Sam’s bars in a fun way as he hops across the country.
The action is stand out. Abbott uses point of view to great effect, as when showing how Sam overpowers a Russian thug who is twice his size. Another fun passage occurs when he uses his parkour skills in a crowded city. Everything is cleanly written and easy to follow, giving the feel of both the adrenaline and danger of each moment.
Downfall is smart, unpretentious, escapist fun. It gives us a lead both human and heroic with incredible action you never question. I can’t wait for next summer.
Abbott speaks about and signs Downfall here at BookPeople tonight at 7pm. Copies of Downfall are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
Jeff Abbott has brought back his ex-CIA bar owner and all around hero Sam Capra in Downfall, the Statesman Selects pick for July. The book kicks off with one of a thrilling girl-walks-into-a-bar beginning that leads Capra to a missing writer, power players in business, Belias (a super hacker who roots for the James Mason character in North By Northwest), a file known as “Downfall”, and some old enemies. We’re proud to be hosting Jeff’s book launch here at BookPeople on Tuesday June 16th, 7PM. We caught up with him to ask a few questions.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: This is really the first time you’ve written about Sam Capra after fully establishing his origin story. What did you want to explore about him in Downfall, now that you’ve basically established who he is?
JEFF ABBOTT: I very much wanted Sam’s ownership of his bars around the world to play into the story, and the idea that he was in a position to help a person who needed Sam’s special brand of help, and since he’s firmly out of the CIA now I wanted him to face a different set of antagonists. But I also wanted to set up a conflict between the life he’s known for so long and the idea of the American dream, the house in the suburbs, the family, and so forth. He’s never had a normal life and he’s trying to have what he thinks is a normal life, and it may not be want he wants.
MP: I thought The Downfall File was a great McGuffin. How did it come about?
JA: Without giving too much away, I think we’ve seen people who have had success have a massive fall from grace. And we wonder, how did that come about? And I started to think about what would the logical extension of an old boys’ network be, if you took it to its murderous extreme—they’d be getting rid of anyone in their way. What kind of people could do that, how could they engineer the fall of others for their own benefit? It’s always fun, and terrifying, to come up with a set of villains we haven’t seen before. But in a way, we have: Downfall is kind of a classic Faustian, deal-with-the-devil story, made into a modern thriller.
MP: Belias is a fun villain, in fact I might have been rooting for him in another book. How do you go about constructing a character like that?
JA: I have one rule about antagonists: they must believe they are the heroes of the story. They think they are doing what’s right, or what’s justifiable, that their needs trump all. At first he was going to be a typical computer hacker, but then I thought it would be so much more interesting, so much fresher, if he was, as he puts it, a person who doesn’t hack computers, but hacks people’s lives. He really plays God with the lives of others in a sneaky, terrifying way, and it was interesting to come up with his psychology, to understand how he made the personal choices that got him to this point, to this need of his to play God. The weird thing is—I could totally see a John Belias rising from the ranks of the best computer hackers. Someone who decides to turn information into actual power. He was great fun to write, but he’s also a very scary guy.
MP: As usual, Mila, Sam’s alluring and lethal compatriot, is a standout. Other than providing back up for when the bullets fly, what else does she provide for Sam?
JA: In several ways, she’s really Sam’s only friend who he believes he can trust one hundred percent. He’s endured so much betrayal and so many lies in the first two books, she’s kind of his rock. And that’s because they know what the other is capable of—there’s a lot of mutual respect. But it’s nearly impossible for two people like Sam and Mila to be fully honest with each other, and so I think their relationship has a lot of territory to explore. I never could have predicted the reader response to her; readers really love her. But I think readers who thought after The Last Minute that we knew all her secrets are going to continue to be surprised by her.
MP: Earlier thiller authors like Ludlum and Ian Fleming seemed a few steps from reality. Now, even with the exotic settings, action, and daring heriocs, authors like Lee Child, Taylor Stevens, and yourself seem more grounded in today’s reality. Do you think authenticity has become more important or have current events become more like a thriller?
JA: I’m creating a world for the reader to enter and I’m trying to have fun with that. I think a lot of readers want an escape from the real world, for a few hours, and I give them enough detail to make them ponder, to make the world I create plausible, but I am not a journalist. This is fiction. It’s supposed to be fun. I am in the entertainment business.
MP: When setting out on a new book, what is your major goal?
JA: To keep you turning the pages, promising yourself just one . . more. . .chapter. If I’ve done that, I’ve done my job.