Meike reviews Last Woman Standing

MysteryPeople contributor Meike Alana has reviewed Amy Gentry’s new novel, Last Woman Standing. Gentry will be in the store Tuesday, January 22nd, at 7pm to discuss her book and sign copies.

Last Woman Standing Cover ImageAmy Gentry wowed us with her debut novel, Good as Gone, and her latest suspense novel is every bit as thrilling. Last Woman Standing introduces us to Dana Diaz, a Latina stand-up comic from Amarillo struggling to make it in a comedy scene dominated by men and rife with sexual harassment. Dana has recently returned to the Lone Star State from LA after a split from her childhood friend and writing partner. She’s grown accustomed to expect little from an industry where she’s continually reminded that a woman (particularly a woman of color) has little value, but her frustrations have reached a critical point. What she has told no one is the real reason she left LA—she was drugged and sexually assaulted by a well-known comic she idealized during a meeting purported to be about discussing her future.

One night during her set she aptly fends off a vulgar heckler. Computer programmer Amanda witnesses the encounter and offers to buy Dana a congratulatory drink. One drink turns to several, and the two women bond over their shared experiences of injustice and misogyny. Soon they strike a kind of Strangers on a Train deal—each will seek revenge on the other’s abuser. Revealing more would be crossing over into spoiler territory, but the ensuing plot twists make for a riveting tale of deceit and paranoia.

There is a definite #MeToo vibe to the book, and Gentry shines a harsh light on the myriad injustices that women face every single day. The novel examines the issues of sexual harassment and assault from a variety of angles, including the confusion that a victim can experience. Dana doesn’t even know how to put words to what happened to her—she knows it was “bad” but doesn’t initially realize that the episode qualifies as assault. When she describes her experiences to her male best friend, he’s dismissive and tells her she’s overreacting–an all too often experience for survivors of these encounters. As she comes to recognize exactly how deeply she’s been violated, she also realizes that a long-buried event from her past qualifies as rape. When she’s finally able to express her anger, Dana is shocked at the level of rage she feels as well as the violence she may be capable of. After all, there never seem to be any repercussions for the male perpetrators—so perhaps women need to take matters into their own hands.

Jay Brandon on writing a legal thriller

Jay Brandon’s Against the Law features Edward Hall, a lawyer stripped of his license due to a criminal act in the court house. When his sister is brought to trial for murdering her estranged husband, he takes to her defense.  Mr. Brandon will be joining fellow lawyer turned novelist Manning Wolfe at BookPeople on June 24th at 2pm. We caught up with him early to discuss the court system and writing about it.

Against the Law: A Courtroom Drama Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: How did the idea for Against the Law come about?

Jay Brandon: I hadn’t written a legal thriller in a while, I wanted to write other kinds of books.  One day when I was visiting Houston, where I went to law school, an old friend of mine took me to their Criminal Justice Center, a twenty-story building filled with courts and so many defendants.  The elevators were a problem, he said. They were so slow and so crowded it took forever to get up or down. The local joke was “the Justice Center, only twenty minutes from downtown Houston.” That gave me an idea: a crime inside a courthouse.  Who would naturally commit such a crime? A lawyer. That was the beginning. I’ve never had a courthouse itself figure so prominently in a novel. Ironically, by the time the book came out the Justice Center was non-functional, knocked out by Hurricane Harvey.

MPS: Edward possesses a jaded look out on his sister’s case. Is that due to the system or his circumstances?

JB: It’s because of his experience within the system.  He knows that the vast majority of defendants are guilty of their charge.  Worse, the system doesn’t know how to treat one who’s not: “the irregularly shaped pebble that rolls down the conveyor belt with all the other peas, into the can.”  Besides, Amy is the perfect candidate. When one member of an estranged couple is murdered, where do you look for your prime suspect?

MPS: Because of the nature of Edward’s case, sibling dynamics are explored. What did you want to explore in that?

JB: That just grew out of the material.  Edward is disbarred after having been convicted of his crime.  I tried to think of a case that could bring him back to the legal world; a family member in jeopardy seemed right.  I’ve written about families before, it’s a fascinating subject, but this time, maybe because the book is set in Houston, the family is rich and well-known.  Edward and Amy’s father is a world-class diagnostician. Amy has followed in his footsteps to become a doctor too, and married a doctor as well. Edward, who started out as the favored son, fell into disfavor a little when he became a lawyer, and a criminal lawyer at that.  His prison stint sealed his status as the black sheep of the family. But the case brings Edward and Amy closer than they’ve been since they were children. They learn secrets about each other, they depend on each other – even against their parents to a certain extent. But of course Edward can’t forget that she’s very likely a murderer.  But wouldn’t you try to help your little sister escape prison even if she was.

MPS: The book has a lot of twists and reveals that fit so well with the pace and flow of the story. How much was planned ahead?

JB: I used to outline novels very rigorously, 20 or 30 page outlines.  Now I just take a lot of notes and when I feel I have a good grasp of the idea (usually about 10-15 single-spaced pages of notes), I start.  So much of the plot is planned, but a lot of it develops as the story grows. I love creating characters, it may be my favorite thing about writing.  Plotting is harder, it’s like algebra problems. At a certain point the characters start taking over. They do what they’re going to do, not what I had planned for them.  If they don’t start taking over their own lives and stories, they’re not very good characters.

MPS: As a lawyer, was there anything you wanted to get across about your profession?

JB: What a village the courthouse world is.  Most lawyers aren’t criminal lawyers, most lawyers seldom or never go to court.  Criminal lawyers do almost daily. So that building is its own world. Gossip sometimes seems to be the primary business of the courthouse.  We all know each other’s business, or think we do. It’s great for storytelling. There are romances, rivalries, intrigues. It’s like high school, except they’re also sending people to prison.

MPS: What do writers who are non lawyers get wrong?

JB: One other thing I wanted to convey that non-lawyers often don’t understand about the adversarial system of trials is that people can oppose each other vigorously without being hostile.  Once I tried a case, defending someone accused of vehicle theft, and I won. It wasn’t exactly a technicality, but it was some creative lawyering, I have to say. The judge said “not guilty,” I turned to my client, he said, “What now?” and I said, “Now you get to leave.”  He thanked me and started walking out while I stayed at the counsel table. He looked back to see the two prosecutors I’d just won against converging on me and he looked anxious for me. What he didn’t see after he went out was the prosecutors shaking my hand and congratulating me.  We knew each other, we’d worked together in the past, and they didn’t begrudge my victory.

The prosecutor in Against the Law embodies that.  He and David were competitive colleagues in the DA’s office and now they’re pitted against each other.  But the prosecutor isn’t a jerk about it. He knows how important the case is to Edward, but he has to do his job.  But he does it in a collegial way. It’s not always that way in the practice of law, but when it’s done right it is.

Interview with Meg Gardiner

Into The Black Nowhere is the second book in the Meg Gardiner’s Unsub series featuring Caitlin Hendrix. Now a newly minted FBI agent, Caitlin and her team are sent to Texas to face off with a charming serial killer. Meg will be at BookPeople in conversation with Mark Pryor tomorrow, January 30th, at 7pm. She was kind enough to answer some of our questions in advance.

MysteryPeople Scott: How did the title come about?

Meg Gardiner: The novel is a psychological thriller. Its heroine, FBI agent Caitlin Hendrix, journeys into frightening and unexplored territory as she pursues a devious, charismatic killer. I wanted the title to reflect that—to pull readers along as Caitlin tracks the killer and, eventually, as the case forces her to look deep into herself.  

MPS: You’ve loosely based this killer on Ted Bundy. What drew you to him as a template?

MG: Bundy was a singular monster—a killer in All-American guise. Clean cut, an aspiring lawyer, beneath the “mask of sanity,” he was a voracious murderer. His immaculate camouflage made him fascinating. And dangerous.

MPS: This is the first time you’ve used Texas extensively as a backdrop. Did anything about your new home state come into cleared view when writing about it?

MG: The contrast between the vast size of the state and the intimacy of its small towns. The glorious, never-ending sunsets. The true, wondrous bounty of Austin’s tacos.

MPS: You did several stand alone books before Unsub. How does it feel returning to a series character?

MG: I love it. Every time I finish writing a novel, I hate saying goodbye the the characters. When I can come back to one—like Caitlin—it feels like meeting up with a close friend. And it’s exciting to continue exploring Caitlin’s mission and her world. She’s young, driven, dedicated, and still has a lot to learn. I want to take her on that trip.

MPS: Is there a different way of approaching a character like Caitlin who you plan to have in a series of books?

MG: A stand alone novel is often about a hero facing the singular defining event of his or her life. That’s why an every-man caught up by forces beyond his control can make a terrific standalone protagonist. But a series heroine needs a reason to return. She needs a story that will carry her through multiple novels. And skills to do the job. She must have a strong identity that will stay true to its core, while being able to grow—without morphing into a completely different person. Series characters need secrets, and a future, and unfinished business. Because you want readers coming back to find out what happens next.

MPS: You will be doing an event with us on January 30th with Mark Pryor. Would Caitlin find his psychopath Dominic a challenge?

MG: Caitlin would find Dominic a dangerous challenge. He’s smart, cunning, and brilliantly disguised as a straight-shooting prosecutor. He’s ruthless, and he loves to win. Caitlin would have to throw everything at him. It would be close. He’d scare her. But she’s a deadly adversary. She’d scare him, too.

 

Interview With Meredith Lee

Shrouded Authors Dodge Terrorists & Rack Up Frequent Flyer Miles


The authors of Shrouded, the Austin writing team of Dixie Lee Evatt and Sue Meredith Cleveland, dodged terrorists, persisted even when itineraries almost fell apart, and racked up frequent flyer miles to research their debut mystery. Evatt and Cleveland write under the pen name Meredith Lee.

Mystery People Scott: Shrouded introduces Crispin Leads, a scrappy graduate student with a penchant for finding trouble in some of our favorite European cities. How did you manage the multiple locations necessary for the plot?

Sue: When we began mapping out the plot that became Shrouded, we knew it wouldn’t ring true unless we walked where the characters walked. We were ready to travel. What we didn’t count on was how the havoc of world events and family tragedy would influence our story. Our protagonist studies burial rituals. It became personal for me when I lost a fifth family member during the early days of writing this book. Numb, I planned a trip to France and Italy with friends. Ten days before my departure, terrorists flew into the World Trade Center. I thought long and hard about whether or not to cancel. I decided to step into the unknown and met my traveling companions at Boston’s Logan Airport. The terminal and our flight were nearly empty. Ghostly. Yet, as we toured France and then Italy, people embraced us and raised their glasses to America, as if we were a proxy for an injured nation. I’m sure that sense of tenderness and loss made its way into what I wrote about Italy and France. How could it not?

Dixie: Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica, makes a cameo appearance in our plot, so I made it a point to include a visit to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid while in Spain. The plan seemed innocuous enough. However, a few days before I’d been in Pamplona as a visiting lecturer at the Universidad de Navarra, roaming Old Town one evening, looking for inspiration from the ghost of Papa Hemingway, I wandered into the middle of an ETA demonstration. The militant Basque separatist group set off explosives and police were chasing members through the narrow stone streets. A local woman, who could tell I was a clueless tourist, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me to safety. I’ll confess I was both frightened and exhilarated by the episode. I didn’t realize its full impact until I stood before Guernica a few days later. I’d first seen the painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1970s where it lived on temporary loan because Picasso wouldn’t allow his masterpiece to hang in Spain as long as Franco ruled. Now, instead of making logistical notes (Crispin comes in that door, exits there, etc.) it was as if I was seeing the massacre of Basque innocents for the first time. Influenced by what had happened on the streets of Pamplona, I wrote pages of emotional prose. Most of this stream of consciousness found its way to the “cutting room floor.” As Carol Dawson reminds us, meaning often lingers like a shadow, cast by the words that are no longer on the page.

MPS: In what other ways did your travels influence your writing?

Sue: Two come to mind. Time. Perspective. Travel, spread out over years, took more time than writing, as did the perspective I gained by ruminating on what I’d observed about myself as I navigated other cultures. Whether I travel abroad, or to a neighboring town, it is the history of the place and people that I find riveting. The stories embody the best and worst of what the human race is capable of achieving. Often those stories are found on tombstones and in crypts.

MPS: At the end of Shrouded you give us a sneak preview of the next Crispin Leads adventure, Digging up the Dead. Am I right to assume it takes place in Egypt? If so, did Meredith Lee run into Middle East trouble while scouting location?

Dixie: Of course. I was making plans to go with a tour group to see Giza, Luxor, Valley of the Kings and Abu Simbel at the same time the Bush Administration was beating the drums of war with its WMD case against Iraq. The day before I was set to fly out, every person in the tour group cancelled. I checked with a Syracuse University colleague who had worked at the State Department with Colin Powell. He assured me that as long as I didn’t linger, I would be safe. So I went, a Globus “tour group” of one. My last night in Cairo, the streets were already attracting anti-war demonstrations. Time to go home. A few days later the U.S. launched Shock and Awe.

BookPeople will host a book signing for the authors of Shrouded at 7 p.m. on November 10, 2017.  More information about Meredith Lee and Shrouded can be found at http://www.meredithlee.net.

MP Review: DEATH RIDES AGAIN by Janice Hamrick

Death Rides Again by Janice Hamrick

 

Janice Hamrick’s understanding of human behavior and emotion brings a depth and weight to a subgenre of mystery often referred to as “light.” Her Austin high school teacher protagonist Jocelyn Shore, a realist who would like to be a romantic with a sense of justice and protective love of her own, is willing to get her hands dirty to find the killer. In her latest, Death Rides Again, Hamrick makes murder a family affair. A great opening sentence that sets up plot, tone, and her heroine’s voice:

“The day Eddy Cranny got himself murdered started out bad and went downhill from there…especially for Eddy.”

We first meet Eddy when he’s being threatened with a shotgun by Jocelyn’s uncle Kel. Jocelyn and her cousin Kyla, who often serves as her Watson, have traveled to their hometown of Sandcreek, Texas for a Thanksgiving family reunion. Needless to say, we soon find out they aren’t the Brady Bunch as Jocelyn intercedes the shotgun incident after Kel discovers Eddy has been beating on his girlfriend Ruby June; Jocelyn’s cousin and Kel’s daughter. After the situation is diffused, they discover that Ruby June is gone.

Jocelyn and Kyla’s search for for their cousin takes them around Sand Creek, skillfully rendered by Hamrick in its decorative limbo between Thanksgiving and Christmas, introducing us to its citizens and suspects outside the family. After the search proves fruitless, they return to the ranch where Collin, Jocelyn’s cop boyfriend (or possible boyfriend, which is dealt with in a subplot) is waiting. Later that night, they discover Eddie’s body in his pickup.

The mystery involves corruption, horse racing, drug cartels, and even lions, tigers, and bears. Most of all, it explores family dynamics. As an author introducing so many characters, Hamrick understands the use of stereotypes, as well as how we do this to our own family members, then quickly begins to shade them with dimension. Much of the humor involves how little doubt Jocelyn has in her family being involved with blackmail and murder. Hamrick also looks at the tribalism of family. Jocelyn may refer to half her clan as “rabid hillbillies hopped up on Judge Judy and reruns of CSI”, but nobody else better insult or mess with them.

Death Rides Again shows Janice Hamrick’s skill as an author. Her style serves her characters and story without heavy author flourishes. Being naturally unique, hers is an effortless voice (the kind that much effort and talent are poured into) that easily moves from humorous, romantic, suspenseful, and poignant, because it is so human. It’s a voice I look forward to hearing again.

 

Guest Post: Karin Richmond

Karin Richmond knows what she writes about. Attacked in a downtown Austin hotel by one of the staff, she has fought for stronger legislation to protect hotel guests. She has taken her experience and turned it into the thriller, Blood On The Threshold, a book she will be signing as part of our Local Author Night on Friday, April 12th. Here she writes about using a very tough time in her life as a basis for fiction.

“Did that really happen to you?” has been the reaction most folks whisper when I share my story. “Was that nurse actually there at the emergency room?” “Was your assailant a hotel employee?” “Your nose came off?!” Yes, yes and yes to all of these astonished reactions shared with me over the years. I told the story, or at least parts of the story so many times, I felt as if I needed to write it down. But that was so much easier said than done. While my attack took less than a minute, it took nearly 25 years to spawn my novel Blood on the Threshold.

For the following ten years or so, I really did not want to return to that night and relive that nightmare. The physical scars were healed, but the emotional fear and trepidation still had some hold on me. For years, I did not check into a hotel unless I met the security guard, told him of my plight and had him walk to the room and confirm the room was safe. Eventually, this too faded and I began living without so much fear. I continued to press the Texas Legislature to pass a law allowing hotel management to do a criminal background check on incoming employees. We persevered and now it is Texas statute.

As the harrowing event receded in my memories and my work enjoyed some success, I began to seriously consider writing down my story. I thought about placing the story in another city or state, but it didn’t feel right. So I began the story much as I had told it to friends and legal advisors over the many years. But then I stopped writing. It was still too close for comfort. I picked up where I had left off a year later but this time, I created a protagonist with a fictional name. I could not bring myself to write the story in the first person, it was just too painful. I found that capturing the details through a character was something I could do.

Until I reached the scene where I saw him again in court. I just could not go back there, so the manuscript set on my shelf for another year. Serendipity struck with The Help . I realized I might approach the court room scene through the eyes of my assailant’s mother. She was there – I saw her sitting up front when I took the stand. And I heard another voice in my head speaking about her own disappointment with her son. A tiny crack appeared in my writers block and I rushed in typing furiously. I stopped my day job for several months and was consumed with the project.

Then another roadblock appeared.

Early reviewers were intrigued by all the confounding coincidences. But to a person, they all urged me to move it out of a third person passive voice to a first person active point of view. Well that stopped me cold. My work was shelved for yet another several months until I could wrap my head around the rewrite and how I might continue yet still protect myself from being hurt all over again. I had some help this round with my editor and publisher and together we crafted the story as it appears today. As gut wrenching as it was to go back and write about it first hand, I am glad I did. Blood on the Threshold is stronger for the effort.

Check out the audio excerpt of Blood On The The Threshold here –

https://mail.google.com/mail/?ui=2&ik=87c5d53a54&view=audio&msgs=13dd56e36f06f5d9&attid=0.1&zw