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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Coming Up on May 21st: Our Annual Free Crime Fiction Workshop!

 

Presented by Sisters in Crime and MysteryPeople

Our annual free workshop to celebrate Texas Mystery Writers Month with Sisters In Crime will start at 9:15, Saturday May 21st. Throughout the morning and afternoon Texas writers will share their knowledge. It is great for aspiring authors in any genre and for readers curious about the author’s process. This year we have a broad range of criminal wordsmiths. Our schedule is below:

9:15 AM

Orientation

Meet the authors and get a brief overview of the creative day to come!

9:30 – 10:30 AM

George Wier On Action Writing

George Wier, author of the successful Bill Travis series, puts you through the paces of a fine tuned action sequence and shows you how to ratchet up the tension.

11:00 AM- Noon

Terry Shames On Character And Setting Interaction

Terry Shames’ Samuel Craddock novels have been praised for their depictions of small town life. The award winning author shows how to make setting another character with whom your protagonist has a relationship.

Noon – 1:30 PM

Lunch Break

Don’t just use this time to eat. Ask a fellow attendee you don’t know to join you and start networking.

1:30 – 2:30 PM

Brent Douglass & James Dennis On Collaboration

Brent and James make up 2/3rds of the pen name of Mile Arceneux with their friend John Davis. They will show you how to write about murder without killing your partner.

3:00-4:00 PM

Panel Discussion With Authors

Is there something the authors didn’t cover or was there a subject we didn’t hit upon? Here’s your chance. After a quick Q&A with the authors by MysteryPeople’s Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott Montgomery, the authors take questions from you.

Attend which topics you’d like or stay all day. It is completely free. Books by the authors will be on sale. Bring, paper, pen, and your criminal mind.

Guest Post: Miles Arceneaux on Writing the Gulf Coast

With May being Texas Mystery Writers Month we will have several guest blogs during May from crime fiction writers in our home state writing about the Lone Star Life. We start with John Davis, Brent Douglass, and James Davis who together write under the name “Miles Arceneaux.” Here, Miles describes the setting for their books, The Texas Gulf Coast.

Miles Arceneaux will be speaking and signing their latest collaborative effort, North Beachon Wednesday, May 4th, at 7 PM. Miles will be joined by Irish crime writer Paul Charles, touring with his new Inspector Starrett mystery, St. Ernan’s Blues. 

Guest post by Miles Arceneaux

 

Though the issues in my books, including the clash of cultures, the erosion of time, the nature of friendship and loyalty, might (I hope) seem nuanced, the characters at the heart of the story are pretty simple. I write about men and women you can root for and enjoy hanging out with, bad guys who are low-down sons of bitches who get what’s coming to them and supporting characters who make you laugh, shake your head or maybe both.

The dilemma of writing mysteries set on the Texas Gulf Coast isn’t an absence of compelling characters to drive the plot and flesh out the scenery. On the contrary, there’s too damn many of ‘em to ever winnow down, even over the course of four (so far) novels.

It’s an embarrassment of riches, folks. What the Texas coast lacks in terms of sun-kissed white sand beaches, beautiful people and tony resorts (instead of Donald Trump’s sumptuous Mar-A-Lago, we’ve got the No Esta Aquí Lounge, featuring u-peel-‘em shrimp and cockfights on Sundays), we make up for in local color.

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Top Five Texas Authors of 2014

One thing about us Texans, we have a lot of state pride. Luckily we got the talent to back it up. Here’s a list of favorite crime novels this year written by our fellow Lone Stars.


reavis wortham vengeance is mine1. Vengeance Is Mine by Reavis Wortham

Wortham’s Central Springs lawmen and their families deal with violent actions and their consequences when a mob hitman moves into their town. Works as an engaging shoot up as well as a meditation on retribution.

 


nine days2. Nine Days by Minerva Koenig

This highly entertaining debut introduces us to Julia Kalas, whose marriage to her murdered gun-dealing husband has lead her to a small Texas town under Witness Protection. When the new man she’s seeing becomes the main suspect in a murder, she cuts across the state, using her criminal contacts to clear him in this fresh, hard-boiled gem.


a song to die for3. A Song To Die For by Michael Blakely

The Seventies Austin music scene serves as a fun back drop for a guitar pickin’ country legend looking for a comeback (as well as a way to beat the IRS). When a Mafia princess turns up dead, a Texas Ranger goes looking for her murderer and crosses paths with Blakely’s musician protagonist. Blakely, a musician himself, gives us a great look at building a band.


tim bryant spirit trap4.Spirit Trap by Tim Bryant

Fifties Fort Worth PI Alvin “Dutch” Curridge investigates the pilfering of a dance hall and the disappearance of a musician accused of the murder of his family. An involving who-dunnit that gives us a great flavor of the Texas music scene back then.


ransom island5. Ransom Island by Miles Arceneux

A Gulf Coast honky-tonk gets caught between the and the Klan when they get Duke Ellington to play for New Year’s Eve. A fun trip to a lost era and place.

 


All of the books listed above are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Look out for more top lists later in December!

 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Miles Arceneaux

Miles Arceneaux is the pseudonym for authors Brent Douglas, John T Davis, and John R Dennis. Their first book, Thin Slice Of Life, is a fun crime novel set on the gulf Coast in the early ’80s with a ne’er do well Charlie Sweetwater returning home to find out who killed his shrimper brother. Their latest, La Salle’s Ghost, finds Charlie sixteen years later, a shrimper himself now and getting involved with sunken treasure from a French settlement and the shady characters it attracts. Both Brent and James will be in the store tonight at 7PM. In a recent interview, we learned the three of them can not only write but actually answer questions together, as well.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: How was this writing experience different from Thin Slice Of Life?

MILES ARCENEAUX: Well, for one thing, this one didn’t take us 25 years to complete. We managed to get a pretty good work flow established with TSOL, in terms of passing the manuscript back and forth, editing and embellishing on the fly and incorporating input from a handful of trusted readers. It also helped that when we started the book, we had a real-time deadline. The international La Salle museum exhibit was originally supposed to open at the Bullock State History Museum this month (October, 2013), and we had hoped to time the release of La Salle’s Ghost to coincide with the opening. Alas, the exhibition has been pushed back one year, and will open in October 2014. From what we’ve heard, it should be a spectacular exhibit.

MP: How has Charlie Sweetwater changed from the first book?

MA: The book takes place 16 years after TSOL. Charlie is older, though not necessarily wiser. He’s not as given to impetuous gestures and actions as he was in the previous book, but his heart still overrules his head on frequent occasions. He’s also stumbled into a small pile of money, which is pure wish fulfillment on the authors’ part. Among the things that haven’t changed, Charlie remains kind of a magnet for trouble and ne’er-do-wells. But the wisdom that comes with age hasn’t completely escaped him, and he can generally spot trouble on the horizon. He just isn’t much inclined to avoid it.

MP: There is a lot about the history of the French in The Gulf. What kind of research did you do?

MA: Yes, the French flag is one of the famous “six flags over Texas,” but the French role in our history has long been nothing more than a footnote. The excavations of La Salle’s ship, La Belle, and his doomed settlement, Fort St. Louis, created quite a buzz in the archeology world, and the research that resulted from these two discoveries added much to our historical knowledge of a short, but fascinating chapter in our state’s history. The narrative of La Salle and his ill-fated colony offers a great story, particularly since we didn’t have to live through it. We tried to tether our modern story to the historical events surrounding the La Salle expedition, and several times in the book we ask the question, “what would Texas be like today if the French mission had succeeded?”

We relied heavily on three books: From a Watery Grave—The Discovery and Excavations of La Salle’s Shipwreck La Belle, by James Bruseth and Toni S. Turner (Texas A&M Press); The Wreck of the Belle, the Ruin of La Salle, by Robert S. Weddle (Texas A&M Press); and of course, the eyewitness journal of La Salle’s friend and Lieutenant, The La Salle Expedition of Texas, The Journal of Henri Joutel, 1684–1687  (Texas State Historical Association). Additionally, we received excellent feedback from Jim Bruseth, who directed both the La Belle and the Fort St. Louis excavations.

MP: In both books, the Gulf is a character in itself. How do you go about creating a sense of place?

MA: Some stories are just linked to particular places. I mean, Dracula just kind of belongs in Transylvania, and the gothic setting makes the gothic story possible. It wouldn’t work in Kansas. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee anywhere but the Florida coast or James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux outside of Southern Louisiana. And the thing about Texas, and the Coast in particular, is that it spawns a certain type of person which makes a certain kind of story possible. We’ve spent years down on the Texas Coast, and we’re very connected to the people and the history down there.

MP: Do you have further plans for Charlie?

MA: Charlie is in for further adventures, but our next book in the series will take place in the 1950s, and will feature Charlie’s kin, who butt heads with the Galveston Mafia. Charlie is around, but he’s too young to get into serious trouble. He leaves that to his uncles on Ransom Island.

MP: How is three writers a plus?

MA: We can keep each other going when our enthusiasm flags, which is a definite plus. Also, one of the three of us might have a particularly sharp insight on a given character or aspect of the plot, so it’s good to have three people with different expertise to call on. Being three authors, we can—and do—call bullshit on one another when the need arises. It changes your perspective when you begin to think of yourself in the plural, offering a kind of absolution that’s hard to come by even in church. Anytime someone doesn’t like a particular passage or turn of a phrase, we can always blame it on each other, “Yeah, that was Brent”, or “James insisted on it.” Each of us can therefore remain blameless, or at least create a reasonable doubt.

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Meet the guys of Miles Arceneaux here at BookPeople tonight, Wednesday October 2 at 7pm.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Miles Arceneaux

Miles Arceneux is the pseudonym for authors Brent Douglas, John T. Davis, and James R. Dennis. Their manuscript for Thin Slice Of Life won the Writers’ League of Texas award in the mystery category, leading the rollicking story to get published. It’s an often humorous, hard boiled tale set on Texas’ gulf coast that features a brother out for revenge who teams with a stalwart Texas ranger going up against a Vietnamese gangster. When I sent them some questions recently, as their nature, they pretty much answered as one.

The fellas, along with author Stephen Romano, will be here at BookPeople Monday, October 1st at 7pm to talk about their work, take questions, sign books and generally just have a good time.


MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the three of you decide to write together?

MILES ARCENEAUX: A group of friends has been gathering in Rockport, on the Texas Coast, for Labor Day since 1980. As a lark, probably after a quantity of red wine or good whiskey, a bunch of us decided to take turns writing chapters of a serial novel (an earlier collaborative effort by several best-selling authors, Naked Came the Stranger, was an inspiration). It was almost like a dare. We originally had groups of friends writing in Austin, San Antonio and El Paso, where we three principals lived. The prevailing sentiment amongst us was, “How hard can it be?”

Pretty hard, as it turned out. People took a stab at a chapter or two and fell by the wayside until, lo these many years later, the writing team was whittled down to the three of us. (The group of friends in Houston, it should be noted, eventually provided invaluable assistance with cover graphics, website design and layout).

MP: How did you go about collaborating?

MA: We wish we could say it was intentional and the product of a laser-focused creative strategy, but our collaborative process just evolved in an intuitive fashion. Early on, we passed chapters back and forth like teenagers driving around without having much of an idea about where we were going.

But, as we passed the chapters back and forth and edited one another, the tone began to take on a certain seamless quality. It helped that all three of us were able to dish out and accept constructive criticism and suggestions without getting our collective knickers in a twist. The hardest part was editing the manuscript many, many times, until the three writers became a single narrative voice. Although Brent was given the title “Editor In Chief for Life, or 50,000 Miles,” the plot and style was discussed constantly via fax, phone and (midway through the process when the Internet came along) e-mail…and, inevitably, beer joints and barrooms. Spouses (a big shout out here from John T. to the lovely Kathy Cordova), sweethearts and friends helped keep the momentum going.

It evolved that each of us had a particular empathy for certain characters: Brent’s grandfather had been a shrimper, and he himself worked on a shrimp boat in college, so he knew that universe; James Dennis, when he was a lawyer in El Paso, contracted legendary Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson (by then retired) to do some work for his firm, so he got a close-up look at the Ranger history and ethos; John T. has a journalistic background writing about music in Texas, Louisiana and the South, so he was able to bring that expertise to the table

MP: How did the location and time period of the Texas Gulf in 1979 come about?

MA: The original Labor Day gathering was held in the twin communities of Rockport/Fulton, where Brent’s parents had a home, and where his grandfather had worked as a shrimper, so it had appeal for us—and it hasn’t been written about in fiction a great deal.

A couple of things drew us to that late-Seventies period. Most importantly, it was the period of time when Vietnamese refugees began settling on the Texas Coast and moving into the fishing industry, which created a certain churning cultural tension (and, in some cases, outright hostility) as the Vietnamese began to dominate the local fishing industry. It’ was an interesting and turbulent time and place that we wanted to explore. As James says, “I have spent lots of time living on and around the border. The intersection of two or more nations/peoples/values and cultures holds a real fascination for me.”

Additionally, we wanted to be able to isolate our characters, to a certain extent—in that era, there were no cell phones, no computers, no Internet. Fax machines were state of the art in those days. We wanted to have our heroes on their own, so to speak.

MP: While the plot and action is hard boiled, one of your heroes, Charlie, has a whimsical side and there is a lot of humor that runs through the book. What importance do you place on using levity with such a tough tale?

MA: The humor emerged from the characters’ voices; if they are predisposed to view their world in an ironic or irreverent way, that necessarily comes out in the dialogue. We all very much enjoy writers like Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard (and, to a lesser extent, John D. MacDonald) who all injected levity into their tales. We think it provides some needed counterpoint to the tension of the suspenseful sequences and, when juxtaposed against some of the scenes of extreme violence in the book, make that violence that much more shocking. The tone started out lighter originally, but darkened in order for us to remain true to the characters.

But beyond everything else, the irreverent, wisecracking stuff is just plain fun to write.

MP: You explore the Vietnamese society on the gulf, which is rarely depicted. How did you approach writing about that culture? 

Brent lived in Rockport in 1980 after finishing school. He says, “Although there wasn’t a lot of intermingling at that time between the Anglos and the Vietnamese (they were just getting settled in), we did see them, buy bait from them, etc. In addition,. I picked up their accents, speech patterns and backstories after listening to the 50 or so oral history audio recordings from the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History on the U.T. campus in Austin.

“From my perspective,” says James, “Most of what I know about Col. Bao (our villain) and guys like him came from what I read about the war, and the sort of people who tend to capitalize when a society is disintegrating or, in this case, coalescing after a disintegration.”

MP: Where did the pseudonym Miles Arceneaux come from?

MA: Miles was a character in an earlier draft of the book. Our good friend, novelist Stephen Harrigan, gave us invaluable feedback about slimming down and tightening up the manuscript and Miles was, unfortunately, a character that fell by the wayside. We resurrected him, like the Mummy, to be our author. Our original pen name was going to be either “John Grisham” or “Stephen King,” but cooler heads prevailed.

MP: Do the three of you each have separate solo projects or do you plan to continue collaborating?

MA: We are continuing to collaborate. We already have the first draft of a sequel featuring Charlie Sweetwater and some of the TSOL characters completed. It takes place several years after the events in Thin Slice of Life, and is set around the real-life underwater discovery of the La Belle, one of the ships belonging to the famous French explorer La Salle. Intrigue ensues.

We are also halfway through with a prequel of sorts, set in the same area in the 1950s, featuring the older members of the clan butting heads with Galveston mobsters. None of us rule out pursuing individual projects (John T. is working on a musical biography of the Flatlanders for U.T. Press, and James has written in other genres), but at this point, Miles Arceneaux is bigger than the three of us. As he should be.