Top 5 Texas Crime Novels of 2020

MysteryPeople’s Scott M. is back on the blog with a round-up of his five favorite crime reads of 2020 by authors based in Texas. Read on for more.

2020 was a great time for authors in our Lone Star home. They ranged in sub-genre, tone, and region, using Texas as a metaphor for America and life. Here are the five (maybe six) Texas crime novels that struck me most.

 
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One of Texas’ finest landed a one two punch this year, a collection of stories involving the formative years of his series characters Hap & Leonard, and an East Texas-flavored tribute to James M. Cain starring a 1960s used car salesman with more than a few secrets that the author puts his own spin on. Reading both of these is like taking a master class in writing. Plus, he wrote a great female buddy novel, Jane Goes North.
 
 
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All Things Left Wild by James Wade
 
On the border during the early twentieth century, two young horse thieves murder a a rancher’s son and are pursued by the father who is more poet than pistoleer in this look at nature, brutality, and male identity. This mix of crime novel and western haunts the reader like a fine murder ballad.
 
 
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Hard Times by Les Edgerton
 
A tight, tough, and poignant novel of an abused wife who connects with a Black man on the run during the Depression. Edgerton finds the human grace in the bleak circumstances of his characters.
 
 
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The Burn by Kathleen Kent
 
Dallas narcotics cop Betty Rhyzyk is back, having to break out of desk duty when informants pop up murdered all over the city. A tough hard-boiled cop thriller with one of contemporary crime fiction’s most complex lead characters.
 
 
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Lineage Most Lethal by S.C. Perkins
 
This second book to feature Austin genealogist Lucy Lancaster provides something unique—a cozy espionage thriller—when a dying woman hands her a fountain pen. A great use of the state capitol, the nearby town of Wimberly, and the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps.

These titles and other mystery favorites are available online now at BookPeople. Curbside service by phone is available, too. Give us a ring at (512) 472 – 5050.
 

MARRIED FOR THE MATERIAL: AN INTERVIEW WITH LES EDGERTON ABOUT HIS MEMOIR, ADRENALINE JUNKIE

Les Edgerton’s crime novels careen through humor, heartbreak, and harrowing situations with a voice that seems often worn and and lived in. It comes from the fact he’s lived a lot of what he writes about. When his memoir Adrenaline Junkie came out last year, many of us couldn’t wait to read it, wanting to know what he hasn’t shared. It turns out, there was a lot. His life as outlaw, convict, hairdresser, husband to a few wives, and writer has given him a lot to draw from. I was lucky enough to interview Les about Adrenaline Junkie and get a few stories from him. Warning, Les isn’t a politically correct writer and neither is this interview.

Adrenaline Junkie: A Memoir Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: You’re someone who always has lived an interesting life and you continue to do so. What made you think this was the time to write your memoir?

Les Edgerton: Actually, I wrote it several years ago, Scott. I was just waiting for the right publisher. I’ve had several publishers who wanted to take it, but I wanted one who could get it reviewed in the right places and get it placed on bookshelves nationally.

MPS: You’ve used a lot of your experiences in your fiction. Did you notice anything changing in the tone or style as presenting them as actual personal occurrences?

LE: Not at all. I use my same writer’s voice on everything I write, be it various fiction genres or nonfiction. That was the primary concept I voiced in my first writer’s craft book, Finding Your Voice, and I believe that today as much as I did when I wrote that book years ago.

MPS: I’ve told some people that many of the more dangerous and exciting times you had weren’t in prison or as a criminal, but as a hair dresser. What was it it about that life style that put you on the edge?

LE: Yep. You’re exactly right. I was single much of the time I did hair and that means I was getting into lots of women’s knickers. Here’s a true story that illustrates the times. I was working at a salon named Snobs in New Orleans when the movie Shampoo came out one weekend. When I walked into the salon on Monday, there were all these guys in the lobby. I asked the owner, Tony Jones, what the heck was going on, and he laughed and said these guys had seen Shampoo and for the first time realized that not all hairstylists were gay—they were here to check out where their wives and girlfriends were getting their hair done. And, they were right to be suspicious—we were nailing lots and lots of women who came in to get their hair done. In fact, Warren Beatty was really mild in the movie. We daily did a lot more than he did in the movie. He was kind of a piker. There’s something kind of magical that happens when you lay a woman back into a shampoo bowl and begin shampooing her hair—it just creates a sexual bond immediately. I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of sexual experiences with women whose hair I did.  Their husbands and boyfriends were right to check us out…

Here’s a fairly typical experience. I had just opened up a salon in a small Indiana town and was cutting the mayor’s wife’s hair. I was just about finished and we were just talking about everyday things, when out of the blue, she reached over and grabbed my johnson. So we had sex and then she started to leave and I asked her if she hadn’t forgotten something. What? she said, and I said, you forgot to pay. You want me to pay after what we did? she said. Well, yeah, I said. You don’t want me to think of you as a prostitute, do you? She saw I was right so she paid me. She didn’t tip though…

Another time, I had a shop in South Bend, Indiana, and was going to college at IUSB. One day, I’m cutting this woman’s hair and one of my friends, Bob Wensits, was sitting on a waiting couch when the phone rang. It was a man with a pronounced southern accent who began accusing me of screwing his wife. The truth is, I was doing exactly that. I began saying things like, I think you’ve got the wrong number, sir, and I’d never do anything like that—lame-o stuff like that—and finally, he said, I’m coming over there and I’m bringing my gun. I hung up and immediately swung the lady in the chair so she was between me and the front window and hurried up, finished her cut, hustled her out the door and locked it. The instant I locked it, Bob fell off the couch, laughing so hard he was crying and then revealed to me the caller was one of our friends, Fred Sulok. Bob said, I don’t believe what you did—you got that woman between you and the window. Well, I said, do I look like I’ve got a low I.Q. to you?

There were many, many experiences like that… I’ve been shot at and had women try to disembowel me with knives and lots of things like that…

MPS: You devote an entire chapter to the rape you experienced in prison. It feels raw and true, because it came across as you were still processing it. I’m assuming it was the toughest thing to write, so how did you approach it going in?

LE: Well, it was raw and true, so there’s that. I just approached writing it like I do everything else. Just tell it the way it happened. Any writer worth his salt has that “piece of ice” in their heart that Graham Greene talked about and I’m no exception. I can compartmentalize anything that happens to me and separate out my reporting from the emotion of the experience itself. I wouldn’t be much of a writer if I wasn’t capable of doing that.

I guess I could wear a “MeToo” button, couldn’t I?

MPS: The thing I admired most about you in reading Adrenaline Junkie is that you almost always had a close friend around, whether they helped get you into trouble or out of it. Did you learn more or view them any differently when they became part of your writing?

LE: Not sure what you’re asking here, Scott. Do you mean do I view my friends differently when they become part of my writing? If so, the answer is no. All of the people in my life fit what one of my ex-wives said to me after we divorced. She said, you just married me for material, didn’t you? To which I replied, yes. And, that’s the way I’ve always viewed anyone I come into contact with. As material. It’s just what writers do.

MPS: I’ve often heard you say the two things you love the most are writing and talking about writing. What is the most important thing writing has given you?

LE: My life. I wouldn’t care to live a life without writing. What would I do? Mow my lawn and sit around watching TV? No thanks… Have you watched TV lately? Have you ever mowed a stupid lawn? There’s just never been anything else I’ve done that compares to writing. Nothing.

 

REVIEW: ADRENALINE JUNKIE BY LES EDGERTON

When Les Edgerton asked if I wanted to read his memoir, Adrenaline Junkie, I jumped at the chance. The several times I’ve hung out with Les have always been entertaining, partially due to the stories he has told of his outlaw life. I strapped myself in for several wild rides when I opened the book, but even knowing what a master story teller he is, I didn’t expect the journey he took me on.

Adrenaline Junkie: A Memoir Cover ImageWe start out with anecdotes from a Huck Finn-style childhood in postwar Texas. Most of it was under the eye of his grandmother, a tough business woman who had as much affect on him as his parents. One of the first heart breaking moments is when his family has to move away from her.

After some time in the Navy that included a tryst with future international sex goddess Brit Eklund, and college, Les fell into a life of crime with very little need for encouragement. Some involved drugs, but most involved theft. Many of these recollections are funny, like robbing a laundromat, knowing a patrol car is out front, and a shoot out during a heist that has an only-in-real-life twist. Les and his cohorts are far from master criminals. They are mainly guys who don’t want to grow up, feeling that luck is in their favor.

Luck finally runs out and Les finds himself in the prison system. He avoids both portraying his incarceration with macho bluster or overselling the horror of the place. He presents it as existing in a society where both routine and adaptation become a daily part of life.

His avoidance of over dramatization is never more apparent than in the chapter he devotes to being raped by a fellow inmate. Just by recalling the the details he remembers and the feelings he had at the time, Les knows this moment is harrowing enough. He perfectly balances the personal and the subjective as we get the feeling that he is still processing the crime after all these years. By avoiding any grand declarations, he neither belittles the violation or other victims of it.

What completely floored me was how the wildest and most adrenaline fueled parts of Les’s life came in the 80’s as hairdresser who put Warren Beatty’s Shampoo character to shame. Learning the trade in prison, Les built a salon and a national name for himself in the business. The money and success bought him a life of sex, drugs, and dangerous romances that almost put him back behind bars. Les allows you  to laugh at many of these harrowing moments and feel happy they didn’t happen to you.

This part of the book, of bouncing between successful businessman and self-destructive hedonist, becomes more vivid since it embodies the theme Les seems to be writing toward. If there is an antagonist in Adrenaline Junkie, it is boredom. Les is often searching for peace then screwing  it up. His goal is to find grace, but the temptation of chaos constantly knocks at the door. It also reflects his life as writer, working to find order within those experiences. We root for Les, like we would a fictional character, for him to finally get it right, mainly because this colorful life  eventually becomes exhausting.

For a memoir to work, the writer must not only have a life worth writing about, but he must know how to examine it. Les Edgerton seems to be as astonished as we are sometimes, with bemused asides at many of its darker moments. He makes no excuses. If he holds himself up as anything, it’s as a survivor, mainly of himself. He gives us no moral to the story of his life, but shows us how he finally found his grace. As a friend, I’m happy he came out the other side. As a reader, I’m glad he lived to tell the tale.

Bouchercon 2015: Southern Comfort in Raleigh

Scott Montgomery and Allen Eskens
Scott Montgomery and Allen Eskens

Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery gives us the low-down on this year’s Bouchercon, THE mystery convention. 

I met Dashiell Hammett’s granddaughter. That will be my takeaway from this year’s Bouchercon. It made sense to meet her at this conference, held in the scarily clean city of Raleigh North Carolina. Organizers seemed to be interested in crime fiction’s past, present, and future.

Ali Karim should get credit for some of the best panels ever put together at a B-con. Reed Farrel Coleman was moderator for The Private Sector, a discussion of the PI genre that became a discussion about reality versus fiction when it came to the audience Q&A. Michael Koryta, a former private investigator, said he knows a writer is doing their work when they get surveillance right. He also suggested to research the job as if you were going into it as a profession. As detailed as it got, J.L. Abramo, author of the Jake Diamond series, put it all in perspective when he said, “Herman Melville wasn’t a whaler.”

 

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MysteryPeople Q&A with George Wier


George Wier is best know for his pulp influenced yarns involving Austin hired gun, Bill Travis. His latest, Murder In Elysium, is a bit more serious (although there is plenty of humor) following a West Texas sheriff who has to deal with a man returning to town after he got him out of murder charge that he thought was wrong, though many in town believed he did it. We caught up with George Weir before he participates in our May 23rd workshop to ask him a few questions.

MysteryPeople: Murder In Elysium has a much different tone than the work you’re known for. What drew you to the story?

George Wier: The idea of the question of guilt or innocence drew me in, initially. I’m from a small Texas town, originally, and the townsfolk seemed to be 1) a tad insular, and 2) opinionated. If, in their eyes, someone was guilty, then usually their minds were made up and they were already on to “bigger and better things.” It didn’t matter that they weren’t there when the thing happened, or what the weight of the evidence was one way or the other, or even the lack of evidence. If you were guilty, well, that was it. Game over, fellah! But from the point of view of the person on the receiving end of the justice system, I wanted to paint a picture of a guy who was on the inside–and I’m saying all that and trying not to give anything away, of course. I think I managed to do that.

MP: Shane Robeling is much more laconic and says fewer words than most of the heroes you’ve written. How much of a challenge was that?

GA taciturn character is far easier portray when you’re writing in first person. You get to give the character’s viewpoint without a lot of dialogue in the way, and you get to paint the bulk of the picture of the other characters through their dialogue; their interactions with the main character. Most importantly, I didn’t want Shane Robeling to be Bill Travis. Shane has the professional law enforcement background that Travis lacks. He’s an insider in that world and he drew the short straw with the FBI, and this has left him jaded him, somewhat. I wanted that to come out as well. Also, I wanted to take him from his federal cases and put him in a small town setting (such as that where I grew up) and see how he would do. In a small town, everything is far more personal. There isn’t a wall between you and the rest of the world. In a small town, you rely on your neighbors. You know them and they know you. And it’s always a surprise to find out how well they know you. I think Shane does all right in Elysium. I wasn’t so sure when I started out with him, but now I’m rather proud of him. You’re right, he doesn’t say much, and I wanted what he didn’t say to be as salient as what he did.

3. The book reminds me of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series in the colorful deputies and townsfolk who help the characters. Was there any particular one who was fun to write for?

GThe two characters, M.L. “Mucho Love” Harper and Marlene, were my two favorites. I got to throw the kitchen sink into these two characters, even though they have supporting roles. I had so much fun with Mucho Love that I am now mid-way through the prequel, which is tentatively entitled Sentinel In Elysium. It stars Mucho Love as Elysium’s Police Chief (Shane’s role, later on), and all the action takes place in 1975, two years before the Fogel murder, which was the springboard for Murder In Elysium (even though all the action for the first book takes place after the turn of the millennium). In Sentinel, the reader gets to find out why it is that Mucho Love is no longer the police chief, and never will be again. I’m nearing the halfway point in the book, and it’s rather dark, but it’s also humorous and surprising. At this point, it’s my new favorite. Marlene is in there as well.

The town of Elysium, though, is probably the main supporting character for each of these books. In the prequel, I’m latching onto the opportunity to explain everything that’s in Murder In Elysium as far as the layout of the town and its history—how the Blitz Drive-In came about, the community college, the four-plex where the Fogel murder would eventually occur, even why the police department is no longer located in the Courthouse by the time Murder in Elysium rolls around. It’s a lot of fun. No, the town isn’t a thumbnail character sketch. This character has meat on his bones, and skin over the meat, and I did my best to give the skin some real texture. You’ll see. The book will be out, I’m thinking, sometime in May or June. I’m already planning the third book, which will be a proper sequel: the tentative title for which is Elysium Knights.

MP: What draws you to small Texas towns?

GW: I’m originally from a small town. I grew up in the East-Central Texas town of Madisonville during my formative years, and that town has left its stamp on me. I’ll never shake it. Also, there’s a good deal of mystery there. For instance (and this mystery may have long since been solved, but I don’t believe it ever was, officially), we had a firebug in Madisonville all through my childhood and into my adulthood. I believe his reign of terror lasted some thirty years. Every so often there would be a fire on the town square. First, the county courthouse burned when I was no higher than a jackrabbit. Then, spread out every four or five years, each corner of the town square would have a devastating fire. There were never, to my knowledge, any arrests for the arsons, or if there were, it never made any headlines. But…wow! I mean, you go through the town today and you may see the effects of those fires (if you knew about them) but you don’t really see it. Butlet me tell you, those effects are there. So, for me, it’s “what is going on here that nobody sees?” The short answer is, “Plenty!” That’s the real why behind Murder In Elysium. Knowing what I know, how could I not be drawn in?

MP: What is the biggest misconception about them?

GW: The biggest misconception about small towns is that the people are either slow or stupid or some combination of the two. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the most brilliant men I’ve ever known was from a small town. His name was Paul Johnson, and he was a bird colonel in Air Force; he flew with the Blue Angels. By the time I knew him, he’d forgotten more about aviation, engineering, and physics than most people at the top of those field get to know in a lifetime, and he was still a font of hidden wisdom and he was sharp as a tack.

I think people tend to equate silence with a lack of knowledge or basic understanding. After all, the truly slow people don’t say much. But it’s sort of like looking across the surface of a tranquil pond in a pastoral setting. It looks plenty peaceful, but underneath the surface of that little lake there’s life and death struggle going on. It’s brutal and there’s a lot of motion that is unseen above. Small towns are like that. As I speak to in the book, they have a certain tempo, a beat, if you will, that you can’t detect simply by passing through. Don’t ever sell a small town or its citizens short. In a pinch you could quickly find yourself regretting it.

MP: What do you hope the reader gets out of Murder In Elysium?

GW: That goes back to the initial premise—guilt versus innocence. Nothing is cut and dry. I feel that justice doesn’t work well in the hands of human beings. Oh, we all have an innate, uncanny sense of justice, but it’s in the meting out of justice where we fall short. The death penalty, for instance, is a permanent fix for a temporary problem, and can’t be undone. A life sentence precludes the possibility of rehabilitation. Quite often, justice misfires. When it does, the effects are devastating. I wanted to plant a tiny seed, that’s all. I’m not overtly saying we have to tear it all down. I’m not saying that. But everything is subject to scrutiny. “Why” is far more important than “how.”

Thanks, Scott. Your questions, as always, make me think, and I do appreciate that. As you know, I’m basically a lazy person, and I don’t like to have to think so much, so thanks for making me articulate all of these things.


You can find copies of Murder In Elysium on our shelves, along with the rest of Mr. Wier’s oeuvre. Come by Saturday, May 23rd, for a workshop on crime writing presented by Sisters in Crime and Austin Mystery Writers, to find out more about writing from some of the most entertaining personalities in the whole detective-novel-writing world. George Wier will be presenting alongside Les Edgerton and Reavis Wortham. The workshop runs from 10 AM to 5 PM, and is free and open to the public. 

MysteryPeople, Austin Mystery Writers, and Sisters in Crime Host Free All-Day Workshop


To celebrate Texas Mystery Writers Month, MysteryPeople, along with Austin Mystery Writers and Sisters in Crime, is holding a free workshop for the public on Saturday, May 23rd, starting at 10 AM and going till around 5 PM.  Three of Texas’ top talents of crime fiction will each focus on a certain topic of writing crime fiction.


reavis worthamKicking off the knowledge at 10AM is Reavis Wortham. Reavis is a rising star in the mystery scene, due to his Red River series featuring a group of lawmen and their families in a small Texas town during the Sixties. He’ll be covering the subject of story and plot. You can find copies of Wortham’s books on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

les edgertonAt 11:30 AM, we turn it over to Les Edgerton. Les has had stints as a burglar, convict, teacher, and hairdresser as part of his rich life. He’s put many of those experiences to use in his gritty crime novels like The Bitch and The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping. He’s the perfect person to explore the relationship between protagonist and antagonist. You can find copies of Edgerton’s books on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

george wierAt 2 PM, after a lunch break, George Wier will take us through the editing process. George has made himself  an online success with his Austin “fixer” Bill Travis. His latest, Murder In Elysium, gives us West Texas sheriff Shane Robeling. You can find copies of George Wier’s books on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.


At 3:30PM there will be a panel discussion with Les and George to cover any other topics that those attending would like to learn more about. You can come in for individual portions of the workshop or stay the whole day. Books by the authors will be available for sale and signing. Join up and let these professionals teach you some of the tricks from their trade.

All MysteryPeople events are free and open to the public. Check out our newly updated upcoming events list on our blog to find out more about our summer line-up!

Painting it Black: Bouchercon 2013

On the town with Detectives Without Borders blog founder Pete Rovovsky and author RJ Ellory.
On the town with Detectives Without Borders blog founder Pete Rovovsky and author RJ Ellory.

Albany is a quaint city, with rolling hills (I swear I was always walking uphill, even on the way back), historic buildings and friendly people who say, “Absolutely,” when you ask them for a favor. Into this bucolic atmosphere descended thousands of crime fiction writers, publishers, booksellers, and fans like a plague of dark, drunken, philosophical rats from September 19th – 22nd. I can say this because I was one of the them attending this year’s Bouchercon, the world’s largest mystery conference.

Debate went into high gear during the New Noir panel. Moderator Reed Farrel Coleman introduced the idea that there are now two different kinds of noir fiction. One is traditional that relies more on mood and psychology. The newer form relies on violence and shock value. It was probably the most engaging discussion at the conference, with Duane Swierczynski defending the new form along with Jason Starr admitting that his works tend to fall into this category. The discussion wrapped up with a few jokes about Reed’s age and a quip from Hilary Davidson that would make any femme fatale proud.

Les Edgerton’s Pulp Fiction, Baby! panel also discussed playing on the dark and moody side of the street. As happened last year, Les had the best line of the year: “Paint your character black and the light will shine through.”

Josh Stalling talked about how he enjoyed hiding real ideas and social commentary in pulp fiction. He also cited James Crumley’s Dancing Bear and the original Winnie The Pooh as the books most influential in his process. When asked which Pooh character he relates the most with, he answered, “I’m always Eeyore.”

The Shameless Dead Cats & Bad Girls panel hosted by Laura Lippman dealt with taboos in crime fiction. Megan Abbott cited Gone Girl as proof that the mainstream has embraced the type of dark fiction that was more marginalized in the past.

0921131611Discussion of what is taboo in noir fiction was the theme amongst most panels at Bouchercon. Taking advantage of that, David Corbett turned his I Go To Extremes panel into a drinking game with the words, “noir,” “taboo,” “transgressive,” and “Tarantino.” Unfortunately for David, he forgot Todd Robinson, Glenn Gray, and I were in attendance. We’re three guys known for being loud and opinionated even when we’re sober.

The panels definitely covered a lot outside the question of what has become taboo.

I learned more about Austin author Mark Pryor at The Liar’s panel, where they played a game with the audience to guess when Mark was telling a lie, the truth, or a half-truth.

At the WW2 and Sons panel, Martin Limon spoke about how the culture clash he witnessed as a GI stationed in Korea between the locals and the US military lead to writing the Sueno & Bascome series.

In a discussion about writing unreliable narrators, Megan Abbott talked about how she believes noir protagonists will always be unreliable, since they are always attempting to justify their actions. Laura Lippman agreed, adding that the

y are also trying to convince the reader that they would have done the same.

0920130043a
With party hosts, Reed Farrel Coleman, Tom Schreck, and Jon and Ruth Jordan.

You couldn’t let this group of dark, philosophical rats go without a night of revelry. On the first night of the con, authors Reed Farrell Coleman, Tom Schreck and Crimespree magazine’s Jon and Ruth Jordan threw a spectacular party. The Franklin Towers Bar was all shook up with classic rock n’ roll covers flowing from the stage, with Johnny Rebel And The Jail House Rockers at the helm. It was overwhelming to see such a who’s who in crime fiction. The place was so packed, even the sidewalk outside was crowded.

I would love to share more details, but it might be a little too risqué for the blogosphere.

I hung on until the bitter end, so I was able to see every dark nook and cranny of this year’s Buchercon. I went to the annual Dead Dog Dinner with those left over on Sunday night. Then, the next morning, it was breakfast and sightseeing with author RJ Ellory and bloggers Ali Karim and Peter Rozovsky before we had to catch our trains.

I don’t know if we attendees ever answered the question about whether or not we’ve gone too far in noir fiction. Maybe we have.

Will we push it further? Absolutely.