An Interview with John T. Davis and Manning Wolfe

losers-gumbo-kindle-360x570-1In Loser’s Gumbo, the latest Bullet Book, Manning Wolfe picked music journalist John T. Davis—and one of the three writers who make up the Miles Arceneaux pseudonym—for a tale of a road weary musician who discovers a body in a drum case. As he has to clear his own name, he gets involved in a fast moving plot tied to a historic lost recording. Manning and John were kind enough to talk to us about collaborating, music, and murder.


Scott Montgomery: How did the both of you come up with the idea of Loser’s Gumbo?

John T. Davis: Given that the over-arching idea was for a murder mystery, we wanted to give it a memorable setting. Because of my experience as a music journalist and affinity for Louisiana and New Orleans and that musical climate, we decided to set the story in that environment.

Manning Wolfe: Growing up in Houston it was a common road trip to scoot down I-10 to Breaux Bridge for the Crawfish Festival or New Orleans for Mardi Gras. When J.T. and I set our reluctant hero on a path back and forth between the high rises of the Houston Medical Center and the cypress knees of the Lafayette Swamps, it was easy to visualize Mack traveling up and down the highway with his band.

SM: John, I’m assuming you’re the one who provided much of the details about a musician on the road. What did you want to get across to the reader about that life?

JT: I wanted to express the uniqueness of that lifestyle, and the commitment it requires to be successful in it. Musicians have a whole other way of relating to the world. To paraphrase a line in the book (which I originally heard from singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard), the world is divided between the “day people” and the “night people,” and it’s the job of the night people to take the day people’s money. Back when I was committing journalism for the daily paper, I naturally developed an affection for late nights and larger-than-life characters.

When I moved to Austin in 1975, it was (and still is) an incubator for all sorts of music and artists. Back then, the longhairs and the rednecks were eyeballing each other’s music with a certain wary curiosity. As a result, rock and country bred a natural, Texas-specific offspring.

As my own musical horizons began to expand, I soon became aware of fascinating sounds emanating from fabled, far-flung regions—zydeco and swamp pop from South Louisiana…greasy, horn-driven rhythm and blues from the inner city wards of Houston…Bouncing soul and street parade sass courtesy of the hoodoo piano professors and marching brass bands from New Orleans…hardcore honky-tonk country from the oilfield towns of Beaumont and Port Arthur, and ancestral country blues from East Texas.

Over the years, mostly in the line of duty but sometimes just for fun, I went out on the road with Jerry Jeff Walker, Marcia Ball, Rodney Crowell, Delbert McClinton, Asleep At the Wheel, Rosie Flores, Stephen Bruton, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and others. All of these guys were lifers. It was music or nothing. No one had a Plan B.

I got to see The Life from the inside of the bus, so to speak. The big festivals and tiny roadside honky-tonks. The shitty motel rooms and the steady diet of convenience store cuisine. The shady promoters and sketchy backstage hangers on. The all-nighters and the mornings after. Jerry Jeff used to say he played music for free; he got paid for all the weary miles traveling the endless highway. “Every place you go,” he once remarked, “You’ve got to be everybody’s Saturday night.” That’s a sentiment to which our protagonist, Mack Mouton, would drink a toast.

SM: As with all of the fiction you’re involved with John, the gulf area really comes alive. What makes it a great location for fiction, particularly crime fiction?

JT: The Gulf Coast region really resonates as a setting for a mystery. There’s something about the coast—the heat and humidity, the colorful characters, the quirky regional culture—that really makes a great venue for a story. Obviously, we’re not alone in this perception as great writers from James Lee Burke to John D. MacDonald to Carl Hiaasen and others have worked the same territory.

SM: Manning, you say you always learn a little from the Bullet Books authors you collaborated with. What did you get from John?

MW: When I wrote my second legal thriller, Music Notes, I incorporated a lot of the history of Texas music and musicians that I loved. I had also enjoyed a lot of jazz around Louisiana. Working with J.T. expanded my musical knowledge further to include the blended sounds that developed between Texas and Swamp country.

SM: John, was there a difference did you have in working with Manning as you did with the Miles Arceneaux crew you’ve known for decades?

JT: The main thing is that Manning and I have a professional relationship, versus the longtime personal  friendship I have with the other two “Miles” authors. That being said, her insights and perspective made for a very rewarding and enjoyable collaboration.

SM: This is a very fun read, what made it a fun one to write?

JT: As for me, I really enjoyed working in the Bullet Books framework—a fast-paced format designed, as Kinky Friedman memorably said of his own mysteries, “designed to entertain Americans in their airports.”

MW: I enjoyed the sassy dialogue that J.T. is so good at writing. Trying to match his voice was challenging, but fun, as I dug deep for my inner Cajun.


Loser’s Gumbo and other titles mentioned in this post are available to purchase from BookPeople in-store and online now.

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.

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Meike’s Top Ten Mysteries of 2016

Meike Alana truly became a trusted member of MysteryPeople this year. As author Josh Stallings said, “She looks normal, but she’s just as crazy as we are.” Her tastes run the gamut to traditional, to thriller, to noir, but as you can see in her top 10 for 2016, she has great taste. The listing is in no particular order.

  • Post by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

97803162310771. You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott 

No one plumbs the depths of teen girl depravity quite like Ms. Abbott and she’s done it again in this gripping tale of psychological suspense.  Gymnast Devon Knox is a prodigy seemingly destined for gymnastics gold, and her family will go to any lengths to help her fulfill those dreams.  When a handsome young man is violently killed, rumors begin to swirl and it becomes apparent that her dreams may be at risk.  

97814516866302. The Passenger by Lisa Lutz

I’ve often thought it wouldn’t be all that hard  to adopt a new identity—cut  and color your hair, get some glasses, throw on a hat and some baggy clothes.  Tanya Dubois must do exactly that after she comes home to find her husband dead—although she knows it was an accident, she’s sure the police will suspect her so she packs a suitcase, changes her look, and heads for Texas.  There she’s taken in by bartender Blue; running from her own past, Blue soon convinces Tanya to trade identities with her and things get a little crazy.

3. Young Americans by Josh Stallings9780996948005

Throw a heist story in a blender with glitter, drugs, and disco; add characters like a stripper who learned the fine art of safe-cracking at her grandfather’s knee and a badass ex-Marine transsexual; you get a rollicking thrill ride of a mystery. Groove to the sound of David Bowie as you blow through the year’s best heist novel! 

978163388205814. The Heavens May Fall by Allen Eskens

When a wealthy socialite is brutally murdered, suspicion immediately falls upon her husband.  Although he claims to have an alibi, a neighbor reports seeing him at the scene on the night of the murder and he’s arrested and charged with murder.  The investigating detective is convinced the police have the right man in custody; his good friend, who is counsel for the defense, is equally certain his client is innocent.  Both men will go to any lengths to prove their position, even though it threatens to destroy their friendship.  Fantastic twists in this one!

97816338817785. The Paris Librarian by Mark Pryor

I’ve been a fan of Pryor’s Paris-based series featuring Hugo Marston, head of security at the US Embassy, since his debut with “the Bookseller” several years ago.  In this latest, Pryor tries his hand at the classic locked room mystery when a body is discovered in the basement of the American Library in Paris and Hugo is called to investigate.  Stock up on croissants, you’ll be craving them with café au lait as you read this atmospheric European thriller.

97816338812666. See Also Deception by Larry Sweazy

Marjorie Trumaine lives on an isolated North Dakota farm with her  disabled husband Hank, where she works as an indexer to make ends meet.  When her friend Calla Eltmore, the local librarian, is found dead the police believe she committed suicide, but Marjorie is certain that’s not the case and sets out to uncover the truth.  In the process she uncovers myriad small town secrets  that put her safety in peril.

97816338818397. Heart of Stone by James Ziskin

Ziskin’s protagonist, Ellie Stone, is one of my favorite characters in the genre—a  confident 1960’s twenty-something girl reporter with a taste for strong whiskey and fast men.  While Ellie enjoys a late-summer holiday at her aunt and uncle’s Adirondacks lake property, two dead bodies are found on a nearby beach.  The local police chief believes these were victims of suicide, and asks Ellie to photograph the bodies as evidence.   But Ellie believes something more sinister may be behind the deaths and becomes determined to find out what really happened.

978163388120418. The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake by Terry Shames

This latest installment of Shames’ series, set in the fictional small Texas town of Jarrett Creek, finds police chief Samuel Craddock investigating the murder of a young  woman who has recently returned to her home town after a lengthy stay in a mental institution.  Craddock soon finds himself dealing with not only murder, but multiple layers of secrets and deception that someone is determined to keep hidden.

978161695610319. His Right Hand by Mettie Ivie Harrison

Harrison is a practicing Mormon and has written an incredibly unique  series featuring Linda Walheim, the wife of a bishop in the Mormon church.  Linda’s tight-knit LDS community is thrown into upheaval when their ward’s second counselor—one of the bishops’ right hand men—is found murdered.  But when the autopsy reveals that this devout Mormon, a loving husband and father who was a pillar of the community, was a biological female, church officials seem more concerned with covering up the murder than with solving it.  Linda must step in, and in the process Harrison explores the LDS stance on gender and sexual identity.  The series provides an unprecedented glimpse inside the secretive Mormon Church and presents multiple sides to some of the complex issues its members and leaders are grappling with today.

978194422500110. Dollar Signs by Manning Wolfe

Austin attorney Merit Bridges likes her wine chilled and her men hot (and on the younger side).  In order to protect one of her clients, she goes after a shady corporation  that’s taking property from innocent people—aided by her bad-ass office manager Betty (she of the Ann Richards hair, motherly attitude, and smart mouth) , uber-fashionable paralegal Val, and investigator Ag (who wants more than friendship from Merit).  A fantastic debut, and Austin residents will have fun identifying local landmarks.

You can find all of the books listed above on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

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

Guest Post: Manning Wolfe on The Drama of the Law

The Drama of the Law: What’s the Origin of the Legal Thriller?

Guest Post from Manning Wolfe

Lawyer and writer Manning Wolfe was kind enough to contribute a piece to our blog on the early days of the legal thriller, plus plenty of recommendations of contemporary and classic legal thrillers. Her debut, Dollar Signsis a legal thriller set in Austin. Come by BookPeople on Tuesday, July 12th, at 7 PM, for an evening with Manning Wolfe, Martin Limón, and Billy Kring. 

Before I began writing legal thrillers, I asked myself why we love the law and what brought about our fascination with civil conflict stories and those involving people in trouble with authority. I went in search of the origins of the genre and found a rich history of chills and thrills.

What is a legal thriller?

John Grisham, the most well-known attorney writing in the genre says: “You throw an innocent person in there, get ‘em caught up in a conspiracy and you get ‘em out.” I think we must include a bit of education about the law and its procedures, possibly a courtroom scene, and that about sums up the legal thriller. The history behind the evolution would take a book or two to recount. Here are the highlights.

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MysteryPeople Q&A with Manning Wolfe

 

  • Interview by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

Manning Wolfe will be joining Billy Kring and Martin Limón for a panel discussion about using your professional experiences to craft great crime fiction on Tuesday, July 12th, at 7 PM. Her debut novel features Austin attorney Merit Bridges. Meike Alana was able to ask her a few questions about the book and her characters before the event.

Meike Alana: Your character, Merit Bridges, is an attorney living in Austin. You’re an attorney living in Austin. What other similarities are there between you and Merit? What are some differences?

Manning Wolfe: Merit and I share a sense of justice, which is probably what brought both of us to the practice of law. We both fight for the underdog and champion women. I am not Merit, however; she is a hybrid of several lawyers – both female and male – that I’ve known over the years. She sleeps with younger men, wears designer gowns on a regular basis, and is chased by dangerous villains. I’m not nearly that glamorous.

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MysteryPeople Q&A with Martin Limon

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

In Ping-Pong Heart, Martin Limón’s latest case for his South-Korea-stationed 1970s Army CID cops, Sueño and Bascom, the two try to save a woman from a murder charge, yet soon get involved in the underworld of North-South Korean espionage. Martin was kind enough to talk with us about the book.

MysteryPeople Scott: What drew you to an espionage story?

Martin Limón: Remember that the George Sueño and Ernie Bascom stories are set in the early to mid-seventies, right in the heart of the Cold War. The North Koreans had plenty of spies in South Korea (and probably still do). The U.S. Army took counter-intelligence (the art of stopping spies) very seriously, not only by having plenty of CI agents around but also by constantly inspecting the security needed to protect classified information. Still, I often wondered how effective those measures were. GIs are notorious blabbermouths, not only when they’re sober but especially after a couple of drinks out in the ville.

“The main effect though was that—because of anti-war demonstrations—the Nixon Administration switched to an all-volunteer force. Deprived of the draft for the first time in memory, the Army panicked. Sub-standard recruits such as felons and men with long rap sheets and people with only a few years of education were allowed to enlist. The crime rate shot up, although as best as I can tell this information was kept hidden from the public. I saw the effects. As did George and Ernie. They had to deal with it.”

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