A (Partial) Atlas of Texas Crime Fiction

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

A hard land with a difficult history, Texas has always lent itself well to crime fiction. From the crime fiction greats who helped define the genre to those writers shaping the landscape of crime fiction today, Texas has a long tradition of social critiques and sendoffs of hypocrisy (the hallmarks of Texas crime fiction, in my opinion) delivered via murder mystery. Tales of Texas history may gaslight their audiences into believing in the state as a land of triumph, but we crime fiction readers know the dark, murderous truth about the land we call home….

Below, you’ll find an incomplete (of necessity) guide to Texas crime fiction, brought to y’all in honor of Texas Mystery Writers Month (that is, May). Emphasis is placed on well-known classic writers and the wide array of new crime fiction released in the past few years. We know we’re leaving out quite a few of the Texas mystery writer greats, and many of the good one-off novels. Some have gone out of print; others have simply dropped off our radar as we find new voices to champion.

(Nearly) all of the books cited in this piece are available on BookPeople’s shelves, and all are available for special order via BookPeople’s website. Here’s a link to a resource guide to Texas cozies (woefully neglected in this piece, and we do apologize). Stop, You’re Killing Me! has an impressively thorough guide to Texas mysteries.  The Whitliff Collection has also put together an excellent resource guide to Texas mysteries as part of their Southwestern Writers Collection – you can view a pdf bibliography of Lone Star Sleuths here.

As a Texas Monthly article pointed out in this piece from 2013, Patricia Highsmith once lived in Dallas, a setting defined by capital-S Society, and made her career as the Henry James of pulp fiction, stripping back the beautiful veneers of characters to get to the rotten motivations and churning anxieties of the 1950s. Jim Thompson used his cheerful killers and sadistic sheriffs to critique the racial divides of the South, and in The Killer Inside Me, even has us cheering on his equal opportunity killers, as they forgo bigotry in favor of a more universally-minded corruption. Rick Riordan in the 80s and 90s helped define a city-based Texas crime fiction for a new era of start-ups and Californians, starting with Big Red Tequila, while Kinky Friedman’s hilarious and idiosyncratic Hill-Country-set detective novels helped define the rural romps that have complemented Thompson’s brutally dark portraits of East Texas.

These are the two main threads of Texas crime fiction still today – tales of the city and the hypocrisy beneath its polite surface, and stories of small town secrets, where no matter how much prejudice is visible on the surface, there’s always more hidden beneath. Joe R. Lansdale continues Thompson’s mantle (with added horror and humor) in his Hap & Leonard series, as well as his stand-alone novels The Thicket and Sunset & Sawdustpreserving the beauty of East Texas speech and nature while not shying away from the crass, casual brutality of East Texas lives, all while pointing out the absurdities of his setting and his characters.

Melissa Lenhardt’s Jack McBride series take place in similar territory, but in a much different context. Set in the fictional East Texas town of Stillwater, the series was inspired by a talk Lenhardt heard about Texas civic history comparing two towns over time. “One town was a boom and bust town, whose fortunes relied on the success of the latest industry, usually oil and gas. The other town focused on steadier, slower growth. They never got so caught up in the boom that they neglected to nurture other aspects of their economy,” she explained to us in an interview earlier this year. Her novel’s criminal kingpin ” likes the boom and bust model because he’s gotten rich from it either way. When people are doing well, they use his legitimate businesses. When things are going poorly, his illegal business is there to make people feel better.” Meanwhile, her more civically minded characters understand that “the boom and bust path isn’t sustainable, especially when young people are leaving, instead of moving in.”

Speaking of boom towns, Houston’s the happening place for several recent crime novels, each adding another layer to our understanding of sin in the sunset city. The oil towns of Houston and Beaumont provide particularly rich settings for crime fiction – Southern power dynamics come up against energy politics, inspiring tales of corruption and alienation, set in boardrooms, back rooms, highways and highrises.

Attica Locke, of Empire fame, has written two novels, Black Water Rising and Pleasantvillefollowing lawyer Jay Porter as he fights for civil rights, uncovers vast political conspiracies, and solves quite a few murders. Her highly anticipated upcoming novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, is due out in September.  Melissa Ginsberg explores alienation and jealousy on the Houston highways in her sultry debut, Sunset CityAmy Gentry uses the Houston suburbs as the perfect setting to explore instability of identity in her debuGood As Gonedetailing the fallout caused by a kidnapping victim’s return home after many years.

Over in Beaumont, Lisa Sandlin turned the PI formula on its head with her novel The Do-Right, featuring a naive private detective assisted by a world-weary secretary. Nic Pizzolatto, of True Detective fame, takes us on the run from New Orleans to Galveston in the violent and aptly named Galvestonwhile the writing trio Miles Arceneaux ventures up and down the Gulf Coast and back and forth in time in their salty tales.

The Hill Country is defined by the subgenres of fish-out-of-water tales and humerous stories continuing Kinky Friedman’s legacy. Austin music legend Jesse Sublett’s bass-playing, skip-tracing sleuth Martin Fender took the musician mystery to dark places and new heights in three now classic tales, while his most recent foray into crime writing explores the outrageous antics of the Overton Brothers, real-life football players-turned-robbers, in 1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime That Rocked The Capital. 

Terry Shames’ Samuel Craddock mysteries explore small-town central Texas secrets, drawing occasional inspiration from the Texas of Shames’ childhood but containing a set of intertwined mysteries all its own. Samuel Craddock, Shames has said, is based on her own grandfather, a trusted problem-solver in his town even after giving up the mantle of legal authority.

George Wier’s charming and humerous small town novels – his website describes his works as a “Texas take on pulp adventure,” and we couldn’t agree more. Helen Curry-Foster’s Hill-Country-set Alice MacDonald Greer novels draw upon the author’s career as an environmental lawyer for a series sure to please all who appreciate the beauty of Central Texas, and the quirky figures that live there. Ben Rehder’s satiric Blanco County mysteries feature a central Texas game warden involved in an inordinate number of murders, despite his wish to stay out of trouble.

Austin-based lawyer and writer Mark Pryor mainly sets his tales overseas, but his latest, Hollow Manfeaturing a musician and sociopath, continues the tradition of Austin mysteries grounded in a world of live music and the occasional dead body. Manning Wolfe, also a lawyer, has recently launched her Merit Badges series with Dollar Signs: Lady Lawyer vs. Boots Kingan eclectic and entertaining legal thriller.

Gabino Iglesias, in Zero Saints, takes the reader from Mexico to Austin with protagonist Fernando as he flees danger at home, only to find more violence in his new city. Lisa Lutz’ latest novel, The Passenger, also stops off in the capital city, following a woman on the run after the suspicious death of her hated husband. She finds herself in Austin just long enough to switch identities with a woman named Blue in a bar, only to find herself pursued by Blue’s enemies.

South Texas has surprisingly few crime novels given how many stories the region has to tell – or at least, we weren’t able to find many while preparing this piece. The Land Grant, by Carlos Cisneros, is a legal thriller diving into a long-term dispute between heirs to an estate and the Catholic Church along the border.  Rick Riordan helped bring San Antonio as a setting to mystery readers with his Tres Navarre series (before he moved into the world of children’s fiction). Although known for his San Antonio setting, we highly recommend his tale of murder, intrigue and copyright in the wild west of 90s start-ups, The Devil Went Down To Austinto all Austinites. The tale is particularly notable for its hilariously dated technological threats combined with completely contemporary cutthroat competition.

West Texas is better represented in the genre as of 2017. Minerva Koenig’s tales of a reformed criminal relocated to West Texas as part of the Witness Protection Program celebrates the classic tough Texas heroine with a twist as the transplant grows into her new home. Tony Perez-Giese’s Send More Idiots takes us to El Paso and Juarez as a man searches for his brother, disappeared by a cartel. J. Todd Scott’s The Far Empty takes us into a generational feud between a sheriff and his son over the death of the sheriff’s wife, set against the background of cartels and corruption.

Ever since we wondered who shot J.R., North Texas has been a riveting setting for all kinds of fictionalized murder. Mark Gimenez’s The Color of Law guides the reader through crime and corruption in Dallas, while delivering an impassioned defense of a prostitute wrongfully accused of murder. Kathleen Kent’s The Dime takes us into the Dallas Police Department from the perspective of an outsider just transferred in from New York.

Reavis Wortham’s Red River mysteries explore life in small-town North Texas, as the townspeople experience the vast upheavals of mid-century America (along with a few murders). Alexandra Burt’s The Good Daughter takes us into a small North Texas town where uncovered bodies soon lead to uncovered family secrets. In Julia Heaberlin’s Black-Eyed Susansa woman looks into her own appearance in a Texas field at age 16 and attempts to discover both her identity and the wider implications of her disappearance and reappearance.

Texas crime fiction is defined by ambiguity and ambition – an author may delight in the poetry of Texas vernacular one moment, while instilling horror in its content the next. The casual brutality of Texas history means the reader never has to worry about a murder’s plausibility (unlike Maine), and the complex, layered threads of human lives in Texas make for an endless number of stories. Like with many industries, Texas and California are the powerhouses of US crime fiction, but unlike the two states’ political narratives, the two centers of crime fiction don’t compete – they only complement.

One could argue with the notion of any one thread of Texas crime writing (although the legal thriller does seem to dominate in terms of form). Like the state itself, crime fiction reflects and rejects a number of legends, myths and uncomfortable truths. Texas stories, like Texas lives, do not restrict themselves to the lines on a map. The border is as artificial of a construct in crime fiction as it is in politics, and Texas-set crime novels are as likely to cross the border, or into another state or country, as any other American story.

Texas is not only a setting – it is also a large, nurturing environment for all kinds of writers, including many who choose not to write about Texas. Some would say that it’s easier to write about a place once a writer has moved on to a new location, and some of those best suited to write Texas tales are those with an emotional or physical distancing from the state itself. We haven’t mentioned any of the many authors who call Texas home for some or all of the year, yet set their works outside the state, and writing programs like the Michener Center draw plenty of budding writers to Texas, while the endless experiences lived in this state translate to endless more opportunities for artistic creation.

You can find the works listed above either on BookPeople’s shelves or available for special order via our website. 

Murder in the Afternoon Book Club Celebrates Texas Writers Month with Joe R. Lansdale

Joe R. Lansdale Calling In for The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club’s Discussion of Sunset and Sawdust

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  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

The Murder In The Afternoon Book Club celebrates Texas Mystery Writers Month by reading one of the state’s best authors. Sunset And Sawdust is one of Joe Lansdale’s most underrated books. We’re happy to shed light on it as well as have Joe be a part of our discussion.

The book takes place in the Depression era sawmill town of Rapture, Texas, where Sunset Jones has just murdered her abusive husband, Pete, while he was trying to assault her. She turns to the only person who can help, her mother-in-law who owns half of Rapture. Knowing her son was no good, she helps Sunset get the job of town constable; newly available since the last person to occupy the position was the now-dead Pete. With the help of a charming Woody Guthrie type hobo and a hulking deputy who is sweet on her, Sunset enforces the law and wades into a mystery involving her late husband, oil, and a baby in a jar.

With this novel dealing with issues of gender, race, and class, creating a vivid portrayal of the depression, and containing characters both entertaining and complex, Lansdale gives us much to talk about. Luckily, Joe will be joining us via conference call for part of the discussion. Join us for the discussion on BookPeople’s third floor, May 15th, at 1PM. The book is 10% off for those planning to attend.

You can find copies of Sunset & Sawdust  on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets to discuss it on Monday, May 15th, at 1 PM. The club meets the third Monday of each month. 

Feb Fatales: a Full Crime Fiction Schedule this February

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Glancing at our list of upcoming events, our newsletter, or BookPeople’s February events schedule, you may have noticed we’ve booked quite a few visitors to please the crime fiction crowd. Here’s the low-down on what’s happening when, all in one place.

On Friday, February 10th, at 7 PM, we welcome two MysteryPeople favorites! Fresh from his Edgar nomination for Where it Hurts, Reed Farrel Coleman joins us with his second Gus Murphy book, What It Breaksanother lyrical tale of Long Island misery, while Robert Knott, two volumes in to his transition from actor to Rennaissance Man, joins us with his fourth continuation of Robert B. Parker’s Hitch & Cole seriesRevelation

Wednesday, February 15th brings a 7 PM visit from K. J. Howe, director of Thrillerfest, and here to speak and sign her debut, The Freedom Brokera tale of kidnapping, privilege and intrigue. On Thursday, February 16th, at 7 PM (the very next evening) come by the store for a return visit from Scottish superstar Ian Rankin, here with his new Inspector Remus novelRather Be The DevilThen that same week, on Saturday, Feburary 18th, at 3 PM come by the store for Sarah Pinborough, presenting her latest work, Behind Her Eyes. We can’t tell you much about this one – we don’t want to ruin the insanely mind-blowing ending.

Then Tuesday, February 21st, at 7 PM, MysteryPeople welcomes a visit from Alexandra Burt, here with her latest crime novel and our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month, The Good Daughterset in Aurora, Texas. Burt’s previous crime novel, Remember Miahas been a national bestseller and we’re happy to say that The Good Daughter is just as compelling a tale! Two days later, on Thursday, February 23rd, at 7 PM, we welcome legendary Texas writer Joe R. Lansdale in conversation with rising Texas star Kathleen Kent. Lansdale joins us to speak and sign his new Hap & Leonard novel, Rusty Puppy, while Kent joins us with her latest work, The Dimefollowing a tough city cop’s trials and tribulations after she moves down to Dallas from the Big Apple.

The fun doesn’t end in February – on March 5th, come by the store to meet the King of Florida Capers, Tim Dorsey, here to speak and sign his latest, Clownfish Blues.  In April, we’re joined by MysteryPeople favorite Phillip Kerr, here to speak and sign his latest Bernie Gunther novel, Prussian BlueWe’ll announce plenty more March and April events coming up, so keep an eye on BookPeople’s events calendar, MysteryPeople’s upcoming events page, or sign up for our MysteryPeople newsletter to be the first to know!

Three Picks for February

February brings with it a host of crime fiction events, and plenty of great new releases!

9780399173042What You Break by Reed Farrel Coleman

Coleman follows his up his Edgar nominated What You Break with the next chapter in the life of broken ex-Suffolk cop Gus Murphy. Hired to look into the daughter of a rich and powerful man as well well as trying to help his friend and co-worker Slava, Gus dives into a realm where evil touches everyone. Coleman strikes the perfect balance of exploring his hero’s interior struggles while pulling off a strong hard boiled tale. Reed Farrel Coleman joins us to speak and sign his latest on Friday, February 10, at 7 PM. He’ll be joined by actor, writer and producer Robert Knott, here with his latest continuation of Robert B. Parker’s Hitch & Cole series. What You Break comes out February 7th – pre-order signed copies! 

9781616957186August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones

Known for his poetry, Stephen Mack Jones has entered the mystery world already possessing the craft to write a complete detective novel, and one which we hope will lead to many more. Set in Detroit, August Snow follows the titular character, an ex-cop and the scion of an African-American father and a Mexican-American mother, as he returns home after a year spent traveling. He’s got millions in his pocket from a successful suit against the town’s corrupt police department and politicians, and he’s ready to use that money for good. Echoes from the past interfere with his future as a full-time do-gooder. When August catches a case that brings up all his old demons, he finally has a chance to lay those demons to rest, and make sense of a string of murders along the way. August Snow comes out February 14th – pre-order now!

9780316311564Rusty Puppy by Joe R. Lansdale

Hap and Leonard return in this entertaining private eye yarn with the boys hired to look into the death of a young black man at the hands of the police in their small, yet violent, East Texas town. Lansdale gives us a great buddy novel, looking at small town corruption, with some great fight scenes and plenty of laugh out loud moments, while taking a serious look at an issue that still plagues us today. Joe joins us Thursday, February 23rd, at 7 PM, along with Dallas writer Kathleen Kent. Rusty Puppy comes out February 21st – pre-order signed copies! 

Top Five Texas Mysteries of 2016

  • Selected by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

The stories below are as diverse and wide-ranging as the state itself, making full use of their setting and the quirky folks residing therein.

97803163294081. Honky Tonk Samurai by Joe R. Lansdale

Hap & Leonard are back as private eyes in a case that involves a used car/escort/blackmail ring, a transgender pimp, and inbred cannibal assassins. Not for the feint of heart, politically correct, easily offended, or those who have anything against shoot-outs, great dialogue, and fun. You can find copies of Honky Tonk Samurai on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.  

97803991763402. The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott

An intimate epic in South Texas between a deputy, crooked sheriff, and the sheriff’s son who believes his dad killed his mother. Scott shows talent for strong characters and hanging the threat of violence over them live one huge black storm cloud ready to rain down. You can find copies of The Far Empty on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

97816338808493. A Thousand Falling Crows by Larry Sweazy

A Texas Ranger who lost an arm chasing down Bonnie and Clyde tracks down a man’s daughter who fell in with a bunch of Dillinger wanna-bes and finds himself up against a serial killer. A moody, character driven crime novel that puts you on a Depression era dirt road in a speeding coupe with the bullets flying. You can find copies of A Thousand Falling Crows on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

97815227491034. Cold Rains by George Weir

A bounty hunter gets tangled up with a Texas cutie in all the wrong ways. A tight entertaining throwback to the Gold Medal paperbacks with a lot of Lone Star flavor. You can find copies of Cold Rains on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

5. Dollar Signs by Manning Wolfe9781944225001

An Austin lawyer goes up against the Texas boot king in a case that starts out over bill boards, but ends up in murder. A fun legal thriller with colorful characters and great use of the Austin setting. You can find copies of Dollar Signs on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: IN SUNLIGHT OR IN SHADOW edited by Lawrence Block

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9781681772455In the upcoming short story anthology In Sunlight Or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper, editor Lawrence Block presents a daunting challenge to his authors: pick a painting by Edward Hopper and write a story about it. Hopper was known as a non-narrative painter. When he used human subjects they come off more of a collection of shapes with few distinctive features than flesh and blood, with their two biggest activities being smoking and reading. What his work does supply is mood, which each of these writers tap into and bend to their own will.

Many use the subject and scene of the paintings as the focal point of the the narrative, telling us there is more than meets the eyes. This is true of the editor’s take on Automat. Stephen King uses A Room In New York‘s sedate appearance as a counterpoint of tension for the goings on behind the door behind the couple. Megan Abbott further explores her themes of female sexuality with the woman in “Girlie Show.” It comes as no surprise that she delves into the noir mood with which many Hopper painting are associated. It also has an opening line Megan wasn’t willing to say in public.

“Each story defies what we see on the the surface of the painting. Many go inside the painting, like a skilled jazz master with a standard, turning it inside out.”

Some add their series characters into the world of a painting, or incorporate multiple paintings into their tale. Michael Conelly uses the famous Nighthawks for a tale that takes us back to his character Harry Bosch’s private detective days, Jeffery Deaver uses Hotel By The Railroad and several other paintings for his cold war thriller.

Some stories have the painting as part of the protagonist’s world. Joe Lansdale makes the usherette in New York Theater the object of desire for his title character, “The Projectionist.” The story’s last line conjures up the loneliness and alienation inherent in much of Hopper’s work. Craig Ferguson’s “Taking Care Of Business” uses South Truro Church as the workplace for his dying lead. it is a funny, human look at friendship, life, faith, and death with another wonderful opening line, “The Reverend Jefferson T. Adams, beloved and respected minister for over fifty years, pulled deeply on the long fragile Jamaican style reefer and held the smoke deep in his lungs.”

In Sunlight Or In Shadow not only shows the in influence of Hopper on the writers, but how their imagination pushed that influence. Each story defies what we see on the the surface of the painting. Many go inside the painting, like a skilled jazz master with a standard, turning it inside out. It is fitting that an anthology concerning Hopper reminds us there is no boundary with art and artists.

In Sunlight or In Shadow comes out December 6th! Pre-order now! 

Bouchercon Recap: Part 1

– Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

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New Orleans is a city known for sin, drinking, and corruption; a perfect place for the 2016 Bouchercon where hundreds of crime novelists, publishers, and fans meet. I’ve been going solo to these things, but this time I was joined by my fellow MysteryPeople, newly named Director Of Suspense Molly Odintz and and MysteryPeople Blogger Meike Alana to divide and and conquer. That said, I was still exhausted after I was done.

Even the panels were more rollicking than usual. When Moderator Laura Lippman spoke on behalf of Megan Abbott on their “Real Housewives” discussion, panelist Greg Herren called up Megan to see if Laura was right. for the record, she was. On a panel on vigilante justice in crime fiction Stuart Neville questioned the authors who talked about the need for a vigilante hero, by saying it is a fascist trope. A panel on the use of violence got interesting when Taylor Stevens, author of The Informationist, talked about the need for it in her writings. “Our characters are gladiators in the arena and our readers want to see them get bloodied.”

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