Scott Butki’s Top 5 Mysteries Of 2013

1. The Last Word by Lisa Lutz
I have been bragging about and promoting Lisa Lutz’s Spellman Family series for each of her books  and have interviewed her for each one, as well. The last interview, done when she came to BookPeople in 2013, is available over on blogcritics.org. Her books are as funny as Carl Hiaasen’s Bad Monkey, which almost made this list, and the late Donald Westlake’s. If you need a laugh – and who doesn’t – this will help get you one.

2. A Serpent’s Tooth by Craig Johnson
Craig Johnson’s Longmire series continues to impress and amaze; so it should be no surprise that the television series, Longmire, is also quite good. Johnson is also a hit with BookPeople readers (although the beer that accompanies his annual visits to BookPeople may help). I was at BookPeople the last time he came to town, and I wrote about it over on blogcritics.org.

3. The Broken Places by Ace Atkins
Ace Atkins continues his Quinn Colson series with The Broken Places. He’s also been charged with continuing the Spenser series inherited from the Robert Parker estate following his passing. He manages to impress by continuing to write two deep characters in very interesting stories. The Broken Places finds Quinn Colson, who served as an Army Ranger for 10 years before returning to his home in Mississippi, now in the position of county sheriff. I had the chance to interview Ace Atkins about both.

4. Shadow of the Alchemist by Jeri Westerson
Jeri Westerson’s Crispin Guest series may seem completely different than most mystery series these days. It is, after all, set during the Middle Ages. But, on many levels, they are not so unusual to the average mystery reader. While existing during 14th-century London, Guest still functions as a private eye for hire back before the industry existed. Instead of computers and phone calls Guest has to visit people and use others to help him see what is going on. But he has the same challenges – people lying, law enforcement not being cooperative – that Spenser and Spellman have. Westerson and I recently compared notes.

5. The Yard by Alex Grecian
This book is fascinating due both to an intriguing plot – someone is killing cops – and because of the setting – London in the late 1880s. Scotland Yard had recently been set up to stop Jack The Ripper, but they failed to stop and capture him, resulting in many residents scornful and skeptical of law enforcement. While there are many reasons to enjoy this book, the most notable one I tell to others is its portrayal of the evolution of crime solving and the Yard’s first forensic pathologist, Dr. Bernard Kingsley.

One of my favorite parts of the book – I promise there are no spoilers here – is when Kingsley describes to skeptical police officers his belief that everyone has unique fingerprints. While mocked for the concept, it does pay off. It’s fun to compare where they were at that point compared to where we are now. It can be compared to the, so-called, “CSI effect” when juries are skeptical of someone’s guilt if there is not DNA or other intrinsic evidence of a person’s guilt.

Three New Series For Fans of Janet Evanovich

Do you have a Janet Evanovich fan who’s already bought Takedown Twenty for herself? Worry not. Here are three feisty, funny female characters who are just as entertaining as Stephanie Plum.

Lisa Lutz’s Izzy Spellman
First Book in the Series: The Spellman Files
Latest Book in the Series: The Last Word

Izzy is a professional, if somewhat disorganized, private investigator, in one of the most dysfunctional family firms that’s ever existed. When the Spellman’s aren’t doing surveillance for a client, they spy on each other. Lutz uses the idea of a detective firm to give a satiric yet brutally honest look at relationships and family.

 

Sophie Littlefield’s Stella Hardesty
First Book in the Series: Bad Day For Sorry
Latest Book in the Series: Bad Day for Mercy

On probation after killing her abusive husband with a monkey wrench, Stella has gone into the business of helping women get back at the bad men in her life. Sometimes the work has her running afoul of her sometime boyfriend, Goat, the local sheriff. She also has to juggle her friend and daughter in this series that offers a realistic take on Midwest.

 

Janice Hamrick’s Jocelyn Shore
First Book in the Series: Death On Tour
Latest Book in the Series: Death Rides Again

Jocelyn is a newly divorced Austin school teacher dealing with the men and dead bodies in her life. Janice Hamrick delves into human naure and behavior while delivering a well plotted and entertaining read.

Crime Fiction Remembers Lou Reed

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When Lou Reed died on October 27th, not only did musicians feel the loss, but just about anybody who has fearlessly created since the 1970s. He brought a darker, literary sensibility to rock n’ roll, as he explained in this interview on Night Flight:

It’s no surprise he had a lasting impact on those who write crime fiction.

On the day of his death, Reed Farrel Coleman, author of the Moe Prager series, posted this on facebook:

“Lou Reed taught me a lesson about art, though we never met. It was the mid-70s and I had played the shit out of Transformer and Rock and Roll Animal. I could not stop listening to the latter and thought that I had to go and see Lou Reed live and hear that kickass band of his. Well, when tickets came on sale to see him at what was then the Academy of Music on 14th Street, I got tickets with my friends. The concert was the most disappointing concert I had ever seen and, to this day, is the most disappointing. Lou Reed had completely changed his band. In Steve Hunter’s place was a sax player, not even another guitarist. Reed played almost none of his old music–his own or from the Velvet Undergound. What he did play was all slow tempo and utterly downbeat. Frankly, I hated it, but have thought more about that show than any other concert I have ever been at. I guess in some ways, it is the most memorable show I have ever been at. Art is not always meant to be pleasing to the audience.”

“I discovered Lou Reed as a teenager in a kind of backwards way, through R.E.M.’s covers of Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’, ‘Ill Be Your Mirror’, and ‘Pale Blue Eyes’,” said Megan Abbott (Dare Me). “That sent me on a multi-year fixation with Lou Reed and VU–a writer’s dream, those albums, because they evoke whole, shimmering worlds. You listen to those albums and you are transported, in the truest sense. Every time, over the years, that I have listened to those songs, however dark (maybe especially the dark ones), I wanted “in.” His stories always felt true, earned, and beautiful.”

Josh Stallings, author or the Moses McGuire series, came of age during Reed’s rise as a solo artist. “As a teenager, Reed convinced me I could write about the world around me, the junkies and transvestites I knew had a place to be heard. He did for music what Mean Streets did for film. They spoke directly to me and said it was ok to tell the truth.”

Chandler wrote about LA in the ’30s and ’40s; Lou Reed’s territory was the New York of the ’70s and ’80s. The dangerous New York. Any of the people he sung about could have been questioned by Matthew Scudder, Lawerence Block’s private eye from that era. While using the same style and attitude as Chandler, it could be argued his influence had the inverse effect (like many original artists do). While Chandler looked under the the glossy sheen of his city, Reed looked at the damage and decay that littered New York and saw the poetry in it’s dark misfits.

“Lou Reed was the patron saint of freaks and weirdos. The poet laureate of those who walk margins and push boundaries,” said Chris F. Holm, author of The Collector series. Holm’s work is greatly influenced by the books, movies and music of Lou Reed’s era.

“I came to him from punk, following the smoke back through the decades to the folks who lit the spark.” Holms explained. “But discovering Reed’s work wasn’t a history lesson, so much as a revelation. He was more than simply a precursor or progenitor; his songs painted pictures of a world no one else dared sing about — pictures at once beautiful and grotesque, biting and achingly sympathetic. Reed had the rare gift of being able to simultaneously convey affection and contempt, honesty and artifice. His songs taught me how much weight a single phrase can carry. And they taught me there’s no subject matter so dark, something beautiful can’t be made of it.”

Tim Bryant, a Texas musician, publisher and author of the Dutch Curridge PI series, respected his clarity in the bleakness. “Lou became his character and spoke in a clear voice. You didn’t have to read between the lines or guess what he meant. I heard him mention at least once that he was attempting to bring a novelist’s eye to songwriting. I think he very much succeeded. (Only Warren Zevon comes anywhere close to matching him in this regard.) I likewise took his fearlessness, his willingness to look straight into the dark and not blink as a lesson in my fiction writing.”

Scott Adlerberg (Spiders and Flies) said, “He was fearless in what he chose to write his songs about, something to be admired and emulated. You know that he wrote songs he cared about and wanted to write, audience reaction be damned (a good lesson for writers ideally), and he developed the material in a lot of his songs as narratives, with an emphasis on the telling detail. Also, there’s emotion in his songs but not sentimentality, a distinction always to be remembered, I think, when writing.”

“I don’t know if you ever noticed, but Lou never sang. He spoke his lyrics as though they were short stories.” Tom Pitts (Piggyback) commented. “A song like ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ is a great example of encapsulating characters and delivering them with tight poetic verses. But for me, no song /story of his is as great as ‘Street Hassle’. Especially the version on Take No Prisoners. When he talks about dropping the overdose victim in the street, it pulls you right in to a place in time like no other .”

Jon Steele, author of the Angelus series agreed. “‘A Walk On The Wild Side’ is a novel”

Others mentioned their favorite song or record, as well.

“‘The Gift’ is a great horror story.” Liza Lutz said. “I loved Waldo Jeffers, but maybe because he sounded like John Cage. Now I have to listen to that again.”

Todd Robinson (The Hard Bounce) played him while writing, at times. “I wrote the entirety of my short story Peaches listening to Lou Reed and Velvet Underground to get my mind in a specific New York time and place.

“I did the same with my book The Forty-Two,” said Ed Kurtz. “Loads of Lou, especially New York and ‘Set the Twilight Reeling.'”

The person I knew I absolutely had to ask about Lou Reed was musician and hard boiled author Jesse Sublett, whose book Grave Digger Blues has the edges, satire, darkness, and don’t-give-a-damn attitude of Lou Reed’s work.

“For me, writing and music have always been jumbled up together, so from the first pages of the first detective story I ever wrote, Lou Reed was in there. For starters, there’s the alienation thing, where the detective or the criminal or the victim, take your pick, feels outside of the everyday world, like a fugitive or a stalker or the tarnished knight on everybody’s hit list. And for that, you don’t have to be on drugs, or a criminal, you just have to have stumbled out onto the twilight edge of experience. Since Lou died, I’ve heard from a number of people who knew me right after my girlfriend was murdered in 1976, and they remember me playing Lou Reed’s Transformer 24/7. When I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in 1997 and also, one morning after sitting with my dad in the hospital as he was dying and he had morphine hallucinations and said, “The ceiling is on fire, flames shooting out of the wall, and it’s dripping down on your head,” I walked outside, as I have many times in such situations, and the birds are singing and leaves on trees are glowing with chlorophyll, and I’m thinking, Wow, the world is so beautiful. That’s what I mean by the twilight edge of experience. Lou got that so well. If you’ve been there, you understand. I’ve played “Sister Ray” probably 500 times on stage, “Waiting for my Man” even more, and a dozen other songs. Lou’s songs aren’t all about transvestites and shooting drugs any more than Raymond Chandler is about murder and perversion. And by the way, LouReed was a big Raymond Chandler fan, and when I saw Lou saying something about that, then I saw Bryan Ferry say the same thing, I said to myself, I ought to check out this Chandler guy. Goodnight, Lou. Goodnight.”

Scott Butki: Book Addict, New MysteryPeople Blogger

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I’m going to start blogging book reviews and author interviews for MysteryPeople. I thought I’d introduce myself to you in this piece. The above graphic I found on Facebook sums me up.

I was an early reader, plowing through the Encyclopedia Brown and Three Investigator books as a happily literate lad. I wrote about loving reading and sharing favorite books in this memoir piece promoting literacy for a newspaper special section.

I was a newspaper reporter for more than ten years after concluding it was a safer, better career path than my ideal, dream job – book reviewer for the New York Times. Ironically, a few years ago, I interviewed an author, Patrick Anderson, who is the Washington Post‘s thriller book reviewer and told him I coveted his job.

While a journalist I began writing book reviews and interviewing authors for newspaper publication.  When I left journalism to work in special education – so I could have a more direct, positive impact on society –  I continued writing memoir pieces and book reviews and, more so than both, conducting author interviews. Some of the books I review I request, some I’m sent unsolicited but they turn out to be great, and occasionally I’ll be sent a clunker. I publish them at Blogcritics and Newsvine.

For several years after that career change, I organized an online reading challenge to get others to read more, shooting for 50 books a year, sort of like the 40 book challenge some schools, including mine, have for students. In 2001 I collected most of my reviews and interviews here.

I moved to Austin about 4 1/2 years ago and quickly become a patron of BookPeople. In addition to attending book signings, I participated in both of their mystery book discussion groups, 7% Solution Book Club and Hard Word Book Club. MysteryPeople Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery and I often overlapped, interviewing some of the same authors around the same time (Scott for the MysteryPeople blog, me for the two online sites I write for).

We’ve decided to join forces so I will sometimes be interviewing, for the MysteryPeople blog, authors who are coming to do book signings at BookPeople and other authors we’re interested in. Most of my interviews are with mystery authors, while others are usually with the authors of books related to the news media and memoirs. I read at least 50 books a year and do at least 25 interviews.

I’ve had a sweet gig interviewing most of my favorite authors and being able to ask them whatever I want. I feel lucky just to be able to share thoughts with them. I try to pick questions that are not identical to those everyone else asks, e.g. “What is your writing routine”. Indeed, one of my favorite compliments from an author was this: “You ask unusual questions. I like that.”

My new association with MysteryPeople makes a sweet gig even sweeter.

I want to end by telling you about my five favorite mystery writers, all of whom I have been lucky enough to interview. They are: Craig Johnson, with his fascinating Longmire series (which some of you may know better as a tv series). His characters just get increasingly interesting over time, as opposed to some series where the author, after a while, spins his wheels.

Michael Connelly, especially his Harry Bosch series. I first crossed paths with Michael at a journalism convention in Southern California, where I grew up. This was after the publication of his first novel. The workshop he put on was packed because everyone wanted to know the answer to the same question: How did he, a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, write a popular, award-winning crime novel. He had no magic bullet to share; rather, he said, he did it by writing, in addition to his newspaper job, during hours he would normally be sleeping. I still remember his smile as he shared that he made up some cop lingo for the books (in addition to the lingo he picked up) and, later, heard cops using his phrases.

Lisa Lutz, author of the Spellman family series. She does an impressive job writing what I call comic capers, sort of in the style of the late great Donald Westlake. The characters are funny, the plots are full of  twists and her footnotes alone will crack you up. I have interviewed and promoted her with each of her books and was lucky enough to meet her in person when she spoke at BookPeople earlier this summer.

Ace Atkins, author of the Quinn Colson series about an Army Ranger who is now a county sheriff in Mississippi. Atkins was picked by the Robert Parker estate to continue the popular and entertaining Spenser series after Parker’s death. I’m impressed that Atkins has proved himself quite capable of writing two very different book series with neither suffering for his work on the other.

Lastly, Kate Atkinson, author of a series of fascinating books about private investigator Jackson Brodie. Atkinson, the only Brit in my top five, is less of a pure crime writer than some others I’ve mentioned as her books veer at times into other genres. In her books she will write multiple plotlines which, on the surface, appear to have no connections but somehow they all end up connecting by way of some surprising plot twists. Stephen King, in 2004, called her book, Case Histories,  “not just the best novel I’ve read this year, but the best mystery of the decade.” Her Jackson Brodie novels were made into a PBS series called Case Histories. She honored me by including my interview with her in the paperback version of Started Early, Took The Dog. I have always wanted to be a novelist – for now, being included in the back of a book will have to do.

Runner-ups:; Robert Crais, Ian Rankin, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Lisa Lutz

Lisa Lutz is an author I’ve been hoping to have at our store for some time, so I’m excited to have her here tonight at 7pm with her latest Spellman novel, The Last Word. Lisa was kind enough to answer my questions in advance.

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MYSTERYPEOPLE: You have an interesting set up where Izzy and The Spellman Agency are being framed for embezzlement. It always seems financial crimes can be complicated to plot. Did you find this one a challenge?

LISA LUTZ: Honestly, everything about this book was a challenge. But, yes, I had to be more diligent than usual in figuring out how to deal with the financial crime. I ended up keeping it simple in some ways and trying to focus more on the motivation for the crime than on an elaborate construct. That’s what interests me most, anyway.

MP: One of the things that makes The Last Word relatable is that while Izzy has the case to deal with, she also has to manage the rest of her life, which includes her insane family, the business, and dating. How do you deal with the challenge of having so many balls in the air for a story?

LL: This is the sixth Spellman book and all them have several plots going at once. I think this is one of those things I just figure out organically. Hey, we haven’t heard about plot #3 in a while, I should probably write something. In retrospect it seems so simple. I’m not sure how I’d answer this question if I were still in the thick of it.

MP: One thing that is striking about The Last Word in comparison to so many other comic mysteries is that while it delivers all the laughs, it also takes a straightforward look at having roles switch as parents and children become older. What did you want to get across about Izzy’s relationship with her folks?

LL: With all of the books I want to accurately reflect the passage of time and the responsibilities that often go along with that. As much as I want the books to be entertaining and funny, it’s equally important that they’re about something real.

MP: Her employer, Edward Slater, is a wonderful creation. Even though you don’t ever go into much explanation, he has several shades and believable contradictions. Besides a plot device, what else does he provide for Izzy?

LL: Isabel (and this is a trait I think I might share with her) invites mentorship. Many people manage to wear a cloak of respectability, even if it’s a disguise. Isabel has no cloak. She’s overtly flailing and Edward genuinely wants to help fix her.

MP: Which Spellman do you enjoy writing the most?

LL: It varies book to book. I very much enjoyed writing for Princess Banana in The Last Word. It was challenging making someone with a vocabulary of under 300 words menacing.

MP: When praising The Last Word, Megan Abbott wrote, “The sly trick of Lisa Lutz’s Spellman novels is that they’re so funny and so smart that you’re taken by surprise by all the insights they offer – about loneliness, about the tumult of love and of most of all about the tender chaos of families.” Did you know you were writing something so heavy?

LL: I think there’s a common misconception that comedic novels aren’t novels with substance. I’m a firm believer in using comedy as a front, a subtle and palatable way of exploring more serious issues, like how to deprogram a toddler with a princess obsession.

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Lisa Lutz will be at BookPeople tonight at 7pm to speak about & sign The Last Word. If you can’t make it, you can order a signed copy over on our website.

A Heavy Dose of Humor, Spellman-Style

Lisa Lutz’s Spellman Files series (or documents) are mainly known for their humor, but they also deal with many of life’s tougher struggles head on. No matter how strange PI Isabel “Izzy” Spellman’s cases or the entanglements of her dysfunctional family (who are also her co-workers) get, Lutz is able to make us relate. In her latest, The Last Word, she delves even deeper into the problems of family and work.

It was bad enough when Izzy was working for her parents, Albert and Olivia, but now she’s learning how powerless she is as the boss. The folks haven’t taken well to her hostile take over of the agency and have staged a passive-aggressive rebellion by coming to work in their pajamas and curlers and barely doing their work load. It’s no wonder she does the bidding of her full time client, Edward Slayter, a businessman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and somewhat of a second, more stable father to her. When her younger sister, Rae, adept at surveillance and blackmail, comes back to “help”, Izzy has her suspicions. The plot truly thickens when evidence of embezzlement from Slayter’s company implicates The Spellman Agencey.

In a genre known for putting things in order, Lutz writes about chaos better than anybody else. Besides the takeover of the company, the embezzlement, and whatever Rae is up to, Izzy has a few cases to juggle, a possible new boyfriend, and a family crisis to deal with. Lutz captures the in-over-your-head feeling as she struggles to be detective, boss, and daughter. A subplot with her dating one of Slayter’s lawyers has less to do with romance than a respite from everything tugging at her.

The book does a solid job tackling the politics and emotions of having to switch roles with your parents as you both get older. It studies the resentment such upheaval brings and the division between siblings. Slayter’s Alzheimer’s and his demands add a different flavor to this problem for Izzy. Lutz portrays the stress, bitterness, love and every emotion in between in the situation, along with a heavy dose of humor.

The Last Word tickles your funny bone while it pulls no punches. It frames the isolation of life’s stress and the emotional crimes family love seems to pardon in entertaining fashion. With Lutz, you have to laugh, otherwise all you can do is cry.

Lisa Lutz will be at BookPeople this Wednesday, July 17th at 7pm to speak about & sign The Last Word. If you can’t make it, you can order a signed copy over on our website