MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: SHOOT THE WOMAN FIRST

shoot the woman first

One of my favorite series in recent years features Wallace Stroby’s Crissa Stone. The professional robber’s capers and their fall outs carry all the great criminal characters, well executed crimes, and violent outcomes we relish from a heist book, with a bit more humanity. The latest, Shoot The Woman First, continues the hot streak of this engaging series.

Crissa and her partner go in with two others to rob a drug dealer. When the two try to double cross them after the job, the partner is killed. With the heat on, Crissa tries to get his share to his family, but the drug dealer, a crooked cop, and the other two involved in the plot are all gunning for the cash.

The characters and their complexities make the book stand out. Crissa is a stone cold pro, but her motivations come more out of compassion and love than survival and greed. The bad guys, which is pretty much everybody in the novel, are as fun as they are dangerous, spouting Elmore Leonard-style dialogue. Burke has a great monologue that is the source of the title.

Like the other two Crissa Stone books, Shoot The Woman First is a heist novel that breathes. It’s tough, fast, and violent, showing the emotional toll a life of crime takes. I’m looking forward to Crissa’s next score.

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Copies of Shoot the Woman First are available on our shelves at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com

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On Shelves Today: HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN

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Louise Penny started out with a fresh mix of police and village mystery in her debut, Still Life. As the Inspector Gamache series continued, the books got more complex, with its lead investigator slowly revealing himself as much as the the mysteries he looks into. Her latest, How The Light Gets In, is a game changer in the series and a culmination of the past eight books.

We find Gamache both personally and professionally alone. Police politics have stripped his unit of many of the top members and his nemesis, Chief Superintendent Francoer, is trying to out him. As a favor, and maybe for a bit of relief, he goes back to Twin Pines to help bookseller Myrna Landers find a missing friend.

The search leads to a dark web of political and family history. Much of it involves a set of quintuplets who were famous in Quebec during the Fifties and Sixties. It also leads to a series of cover ups that tie into Gamache’s troubles in the Surete.

Both plots dovetail elegantly. There is one of those classic but rare moments where you’ll gasp at a major reveal. So much of this has to do with Penny’s sense of craft and understanding of character, particularly of her protagonist. She give echoes of Still Life that reverberate through the book.

How The Light Gets In is an important book in a series that shows a master storyteller’s sense of balance. Gamache’s simple virtues and professionalism cut through the complexity of the plot. It’s a darker book that deals with the corruption of institution, yet shows the hope that the individual provides. While it continues many things from this series, it poses further questions for and about the inspector.

Louise Penny will be here at BookPeople Tuesday, September 3rd at 7PM to speak about & sign How The Light Gets In. The talk is free and open to the public. If you’d like a signed copy of the book, you can order one over on the BookPeople website

MysteryPeople Q&A with Janice Hamrick

Janice Hamrick’s series featuring Jocelyn Shore (or her “Death” series, as you might call it), is a breath of fresh air. It borrows elements from several subgenres and plants them in the traditional mystery form. In her latest, Death Rides Again, the Austin high school teacher is back in her small Texas hometown, dealing with her family and their relationships as much as she does with murder. If that sounds too “cozy” or soft, there’s gun play, drug cartels, and a great action climax with a lion (trust me, it works). Janice was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book, Texas, and family. For the record, she is the only only author I know who redacts her own swear words.

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MYSTERYPEOPLE: Death Rides Again is your most Texas book. As a transplant, what makes living in the Lone Star state a unique experience?

JANICE HAMRICK: I LOVE Texas. Living here is a constant reminder of the American experience and the character and strength of the people that settled the West. I can’t drive five minutes outside the city without wondering how the heck people traveled even half an hour through such harsh country, let alone for weeks on end. The land itself is completely unforgiving. The creeks are dry ninety-five percent of the time; the other five percent they’re flash flooding. The plants are designed to kill you – if they aren’t poisonous, they’re covered in thorns. The animals are worse. Fire ants, snakes, coyotes, hawks – we’ve got ‘em all. We’re actually warned not to leave small dogs outside because they can be scooped up by birds of prey. (I have a little dog, but she’s chunky enough that it would take a pterodactyl to lift her, and the last time I checked even Texas doesn’t have those.) The best thing is that Texans seem to take it all in stride.

MP: What makes it a great state to write about?

JH: Everything’s bigger (and better) in Texas! For one thing, Texans have a real sense of state pride and identity. I travel a great deal, and no matter where I go, everyone “knows” Texas. I think a lot of Europeans secretly believe that we still ride horses and carry guns – an impression I would never try to correct, because on a certain level it just seems right. For writers, Texas is less a setting and more of a character in its own right. Who wouldn’t love writing about it?

MP: One thing I loved about the book is while Jocelyn’s love for her family is evident, she can believe many of them are capable of blackmail and murder. What did you want to explore with family dynamics in this book?

JH: Family dynamics are always rich fodder for a writer. I think most of us deeply believe that we ourselves are completely normal, while other people (especially family members) are bat-sh** crazy. Family members are simply the crazies we can’t avoid, especially around the holidays. Jocelyn is a lot of fun because she has a pretty realistic opinion of people in general and of her relatives in particular. The fact that she believes some family members are capable of blackmail and murder doesn’t in any way lessen her love and probably actually increases her respect for them.

MP: Every time I start to give Jocelyn’s cousin, Kyla, the benefit of the doubt, she does something extremely self centered or puts Jocelyn in an uncomfortable situation. What does the relationship between the two of them provide for you?

JH: Although they’re cousins, Kyla and Jocelyn are closer than most sisters, and they have a certain amount of sibling rivalry going on most of the time. You’ve heard the old joke about an older brother protecting the younger one from a bully and saying “No one beats up my brother…except me.” Kyla is a lot like that.  She loves Jocelyn, but she’s not above poking the bear, whether for her own amusement or because she thinks Jocelyn needs a sharp nudge. For Jocelyn, Kyla is the fun, adventurous, flamboyant soul that she’d like to be, if she had the nerve and the complete lack of social filters. For a writer, that kind of complex relationship provides infinite possibilities.

MP: While you get categorized as a  “cozy” or “light” mystery author, your books have enough gunfire, beatings, corruption, and drug cartels to keep a hard boiled fan like myself engaged. How would you describe the series?

JH: I think of the books as traditional mysteries with a dash of humor and romance, and I think they are a little edgier than the typical “cozy” mystery. I’m actually happy they don’t easily fit into a category, because I’d like readers to consider the stories and characters individually and not start with a lot of preconceived ideas. Of course, it bites me in the…well, you know what…when a reader gets upset by something they weren’t expecting.

MP: What makeS Jocelyn a character worth returning to for you?

JH: I love Jocelyn’s blend of optimism and realism. She has a lot of insight into the people around her, and she is perfectly able to see the darker side of their characters and motivations, but at the same time she honestly likes most of them. Even for people she actually does distrust or dislike, she is still able to feel some empathy or understanding. Her ability to take the good with the bad is the key to all her relationships as well as to much of the humor in the book.  I also really like the way in which she was feeling pretty fragile and damaged after her divorce (in Death on Tour), but has slowly started regaining her sense of confidence and strength without ever turning bitter.

If you have your own questions for Janice, she’ll be here at BookPeople, this Wednesday, June 19th at 7pm signing and discussing Death Rides Again. Join us! 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Tim O’Mara

Tim O’Mara took his background as a New York high school teacher and used it to create Ray Donne, an ex-cop turned teacher who’s out to locate and save one of his missing students in O’Mara’s debut, Sacrifice Fly. The book has a wonderful sense of both place and people and deals with ideas of community. We recently had a chance to talk to Tim about his book, both of his professions, and his home.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: What prompted you to use the story of Sacrifice Fly for your first book?

TIM O’MARA: Sacrifice Fly was inspired by a home visit I was making to the Roberto Clemente Houses to check on a student. It occurred to me that this would be a good opening for a crime novel if I were just a little bit cooler/edgier. So I channeled my brother—Sgt. Mike O’Mara of the Nassau County Police Dept.–and came up with Raymond Donne. I started with the home visit and that led me to the discovery of the murder victim and I let the story and characters take over from there.

MP: Did you draw from any influences?

TO: My writing influences are largely from the mystery/crime genre. I grew up reading Ellery Queen and Encyclopedia Brown. Later in life, I discovered Robert Parker, John D. McDonald, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane and the like. Lately, I’ve been impressed most by Marcus Sakey and Don Winslow. When I started the novel, I also read Blackboard Jungle by Evan Hunter. I read Hammett’s Maltese Falcon—arguably the most under-rated novel in American literature because it’s a mystery—and Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle once a year to remind myself of how it’s done.

MP: One of the things I loved about the book was Ray’s relationship with his community. What does Brooklyn mean to you?

TO: Brooklyn is defined by it’s neighborhoods. When people hear the name Williamsburg, they think about the hip, gentrified place named by many as “the coolest place on Earth.” There’s also the part where I taught: low-income, black and Hispanic, schools surrounded by housing projects, etc. This is the Williamsburg where my book takes place (and a rather cool place on it’s own.) I’m not sure I could write authentically about the other part. What makes the entire Williamsburg section fascinating to me is the way these disparate parts often intersect.

MP: Your hero shares the same profession as you. What did you want to get across to the reader about being a high school teacher?

TO:  As a middle school teacher, I wanted people to know that the single biggest influence on a student’s success is what happens in the home. I wanted to show that influence in the book and also show how teachers can have an effect on the families of their students. Ray obviously goes further than a school teacher should. I also hope that I showed how much fun the teaching profession can be when done right. Ray shares many moments of humor with his kids, as I do with mine.

MP: While you deal with a lot of dark matters, many of your characters are partly defined by their sense of humor. How important is humor in your work?

TO: Humor is the main element of my teaching career. I teach middle school kids for many reasons, but one big one is they get my jokes. School is a chore for many kids and when you can teach and entertain at the same time, I believe they are more likely to take in the information being presented to them.

MP: Can you tell us any future plans you have for Ray?

TO: I’m currently involved in rewriting the second Raymond novel, Crooked Numbers. I’m also sketching out the details for a third, as well. I find Ray and his friends—especially Edgar—a lot of fun to hang around with. I hope that readers and the publishing world—and great independent bookstores—agree. I’m also hoping that Ray has a screen-life in his future. Sacrifice Fly is currently being looked at by “people in the biz.”

A New Voice in the New York Crew

There’s something about modern New York crime writers. The likes of Lawrence Block, Reed Farrel Coleman, and SJ Rozan hit the heart like no one else. Whether it comes from an awareness of loss that can only be conveyed by people who live so close to Ground Zero or the sense of an intense mingling of cultures and community, even if they write about a loner (making the tone even more melancholy), there’s something that sets these writers apart. Tim O’Mara proves to be a welcome addition to the New York crew with his debut, Sacrifice Fly.

O’Mara’s hero is Ray Donne, an ex-baseball player and cop. Ray is embedded in his Brooklyn neighborhood as a high school teacher and fill-in bartender at The Line Up, a local cop bar. He’s so involved with his community he goes looking for one of his students, Frankie, before he’s marked truant and loses an athletic scholarship. When he checks the apartment of the boy’s father, he finds the man dead and Frankie the main suspect.

Ray  uses his police skills and connections (his uncle is the chief of detectives) in his continuing search for Frankie. His personal investigation puts him up against some cops as well as some very religious gangsters. It also forces him to face who he is and the trauma from his police past.

It’s the sense of Brooklyn that shines in this book. Not since Craig Johnson’s work have I read a hero who interacts with his community so fully. Ray’s brothers and sisters have a traditional monthly dinner that I hope will be a staple of the series. The denizens of The Line Up and their banter echoes films like Marty and A Bronx Tale. The story really stands out when Ray is at school. O’Mara, a working school teacher, gives us a feel for this job, both in its grind and in its art. The interactions Ray has with students and coworkers is something I hope he mines in further books.

Tim O’Mara has created a fresh character in Ray Donne. I look forward to revisiting his Brooklyn. It’s tough  and dangerous enough to provide an exciting backdrop, and populated with people who have enough true heart and warmth you want to spend time there.

Book Review: THE SEVEN WONDERS by Steven Saylor

Book: The Seven Wonders by Steven Saylor
Reviewed by: Chris M.

In order to give you an accurate review of my experience with Steven Saylor’s latest novel, I must be honest; historical fiction is not my cup of tea. That being said, mysteries and private investigators are most definitely a cup of tea that I willingly guzzle all the time, and in The Seven Wonders Saylor seamlessly blends the scope and detail of top quality historical fiction with the suspense and brutishness of a good mystery.

The Seven Wonders is a prequel to Steven Saylor’s long running mystery series featuring ancient Roman private eye Gordianus the Finder. This being my first experience with Saylor’s work, I was a bit worried that this novel would leave me feeling like an outsider due to my lack of prerequisites, but that was most certainly not the case. An older, wiser Gordianus narrates the novel, and Saylor does an excellent job of illustrating the youthful wonder of a young man who is seeing the world for the first time. Because of this, the novel feels like the untold beginning of tales of Gordianus, and as a reader I felt welcomed into a strange new world because the world being described is strange and new to the young Gordianus.

True to its name, The Seven Wonders follows Gordianus as he travels to each and every wonder of the world accompanied by his tutor, and world famous Greek poet, Antipater (who has faked his own death and is traveling in disguise). Beginning with the Temple of Artemis, where Gordianus witnesses a most peculiar murder, and ending at The Great Pyramid in Egypt, where the curse of the mummy rears its ugly head, Gordianus and Antipater’s travels prove to be both treacherous and eye-opening.

In all honesty, I never expected to enjoy The Seven Wonders half as much as I did. Steven Saylor’s attention to detail, clever prose, and ability to pack these few hundred pages with mystery after mystery won me over, and now I can’t get enough. This is a truly great introduction to a long-standing character, and from here I plan on reading every Gordianus book I can get my hands on. Do yourself a favor and grab a copy of The Seven Wonders, and join us at Book People on Monday, June 4th 7p when Steven Saylor will be here speaking and signing his new novel.

March Pick of the Month: ‘The Devil’s Odds’ by Milton T. Burton

Last year we lost one of the best crime crime writers in Texas, Milton T. Burton. He had a unique and knowledgeable take on the the state’s people as well as its sordid history. He left us before he had the chance to have the career many of us hoped he’d have. His posthumously published The Devil’s Odds demonstrates his great promise.

The World War Two era novel features Virgil Tucker, an affable stand-up-if-slightly tarnished Texas Ranger who decides to help out a red headed damsel in distress. The lady witnessed a murder and its circumstances, as well as those involved, prevent her from going directly to the police. It’s not long before Virgil is involved in a turf war between the New Orleans mafia and the infamous Maceo Brothers over gambling in Galveston. It also turns out the damsel might not be so innocent. Before it is over, the book becomes a free wheeling game of cowboys and gangsters.

Burton makes this era breathe. You get caught up in the rough glamor of Galveston’s gambling scene and wish you had Virgil’s self confidence as he swaggers into trouble. It’s a fascinating world of “good” and “bad” political corruption, strong frontier women, and western justice that hasn’t died, all done with enough humor to make it human. Welcome to noir, Texas style.

You’ll be missed Milton.