If you’ve noticed a bit of radio silence on our blog these past couple weeks, that’s because MysteryPeople’s Scott Montgomery, Meike Alana, and I took a road trip to the Big Easy for the “Blood on the Bayou” Bouchercon, one of the world’s largest gathering of mystery writers, fans, bloggers, agents, editors, marketers, librarians, booksellers and publishers. The breath of those titles pales in comparison to the diversity of day jobs talked about, past and present. Poison experts mingled with ex-cops, ex-cons, ex-journalists, and expert martial artists. This year’s conference, due to its desirable locale, was busier than most, so trust me when I say that the memories I’ve brought back represent a small slice of the enormous number of great experiences had over the weekend at Bouchercon.
Bouchercon exists on many levels. First, there are the official events: the panels, the awards, the signings, the book room; in short, plenty to entertain a mystery lover. There’s also plenty of behind the scenes industry action, as publishers celebrate anniversaries, authors celebrate book releases, and meetings galore happen across the city. Then, there’s that special camaraderie that only occurs from geeking out about mystery with folks just as weird as we are. That part seems to happen mainly in the hotel bar.
Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
In The Second Girl, author David Swinson introduces us to private detective and drug addict Frank Marr. While robbing a drug den for their stash he inadvertently rescues a young girl, making him a reluctant hero. He is soon asked to look for another abducted girl. His search tests his skills and will, challenged by his addiction. We reached out to Mr. Swinson to see if he’s take some questions from us.
MysteryPeople Scott: What drew you to a detective like Frank Marr?
David Swinson: As a retired police detective I am a man of rules and procedure. I’m not the guy you want to watch certain crime shows or movies with because if they don’t follow correct procedure it drives me nuts. On the other hand, as a crime writer having to be bound by all those rules can be a burden. Frank Marr freed me from all that. He still has somewhat of a police code so he doesn’t do anything so stupid it’s drive me crazy, but also he’s not bound by those rules so he breaks some of them. That’s what made it fun.
Mulholland Books is doing a great service by bringing back Dan Simmons’ books featuring ex-con PI Joe Kurtz. The first book, Hardcase, came out last fall. it’s a perfect title in so many ways, introducing you to one of the toughest tough guys to hit the page.
The story begins with Joe’s release from an eleven year stretch for murdering a rapist who killed his partner. He goes directly to Don Byron of the Farino mob. Joe uses the fact that he’s been protecting the don’s son in prison to get a job. The don hires him to find their missing accountant, presumed dead. The search puts him in the middle of a mob war and a battle within the Farino Family itself.
The book is hard boiled heaven. Joe Kurtz is an uncompromising hero in the mold of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Richard Stark’s Parker (It’s alluded to later in the series that he’s Parker’s son.) Whether blasting away at bad men or bedding badder women, Kurtz does it with an uncanny mix of cool and fervor. Simmons is able to give him real emotion without being emotional and creating a believable world around him that avoids the story and style from skirting parody. If there is even a whisper of sentimentality it is quickly hushed.
It is obvious that Simmons is a fan of the genre, creating a homage that has its own original voice.The other two Joe Kurtz books, Hard Freeze and Hard As Nails, will be out this year. Here’s hoping Simmons can conjure up some more dark alleys for Joe to go down.
Joe R. Lansdale is one of our favorite authors, in and outside of the mystery section. He is the author of dozens of books and stories, including the wonderful Hap Collins and Leonard Pine mysteries. He recently wrote a piece calledThe Workplace, Wet or Dry on his early days as a writer for the Mulholland Books website. Not only do you get a look inside his writing past, you also get a look at his approach to the craft.
One of our recent stories was a Lawernce Block tale featuring Matt Scudder, the PI hero featured in the film adaptation of A Walk Among The Tombstones.This Friday we have a short story written by the writer-director, Scott Frank, that was on Popcorn Fiction. Scott Frank is the screenwriter of the acclaimed films Little Man Tate, Dead Again and The Lookout. He has also adapted a number of titles for the screen, including Get Shorty, Out Of Sight, Minority Report and most recently, Marley & Me.
“As Ivan slowly let Rima slip from his grasp, he had no idea that her fall would become the stuff of Big Top legend everywhere. If you could have seen his face that night, you would have seen that Ivan’s mind was clearly somewhere else. Before this particular night, Ivan had caught Rima over thirty-five hundred times without incident. Theirs was a relationship based on trust; Rima knew that Ivan would always be there with strong hands and perfect timing. And Ivan knew that Rima would always be there, hanging in space, reaching for him. Sure, there were many close calls: Rima would step on his shoulder, scrape his ear with the point of her heel. Ivan would flinch from the pain, and loosen his hold on her leg, but in the end, he would always catch her. And sure, there had been hundreds of times where he almost dropped her. But he had never completely let go before. He was always there. He had always caught her. But, unfortunately, on that fateful night in Jnimski, he was thinking about something else.”
If you’ve read my review or talked to me lately, you know I’ve become a huge fan of the adaptation of Lawrence Block’sWalk Among The Tombstones. For fans of the the New York PI, Matt Scudder, here’s a short story involving Matt from when he worked for the NYPD that appeared on the Mulholland Books website. Block gives the reader a good sense of what his hero’s morals were like at the time.
“When the phone call came I was parked in front of the television set in the front room, nursing a glass of bourbon and watching the Yankees. It’s funny what you remember and what you don’t. I remember that Thurman Munson had just hit a long foul that missed being a home run by no more than a foot, but I don’t remember who they were playing, or even what kind of a season they had that year.
I remember that the bourbon was J. W. Dant, and that I was drinking it on the rocks, but of course I would remember that. I always remembered what I was drinking, though I didn’t always remember why…”
Reed Farrel Coleman is one of our favorite authors, Mulholland is one of our favorite publishers, and noir is one of our favorite subgenres. When Reed recently posted a list of noir books you should read on Mulholland’s website, we had to share the link.
These are lesser known books that definitely deserve the attention. You can check out more about them right over here.
We were thrilled to have Marcia Clark as one of our guests for our L.A. themed Noir At The Bar last Saturday at Opal Divines (along with Josh Stallings, Timothy Hallinan, and Jesse Sublett). Her Rachel Knight series is a store favorite. It skillfully blends the legal thriller with police procedural. We talked with Marcia about her latest, Killer Ambition, what it’s like to try high profile cases, and some of her favorite current crime fiction.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: This is the first time you have Rachel trying a case in court. I had to fight myself from skipping ahead to find out the verdict. In a pop culture of Grisham books and Law & Order reruns, how did you go about making it fresh and give that tension?
MARCIA CLARK: What you don’t usually see in novels or on TV shows is an insider’s view of what it’s like to be on the inside of a media case. Having lived it, I was able to bring that experience to bear in showing what it’s like from the prosecutor’s point of view. Every trial is a daily roller coaster ride. No matter how much you prepare, every day presents surprises. You never know exactly how a witness will come across, or what minefield will present itself. And when it’s all televised, those moments are beamed straight into living rooms across the country.
I didn’t plan to write about handling a high profile trial. Simpson was a crazy circus, but that was a long time ago. Time to move on. But over the years since then, I was forced to acknowledge that criminal trials have become an established source of entertainment. The “genre” seems to be here to stay. So it seemed almost anachronistic not to write a story that spoke to that cultural reality.
MP: This case involves many in the Hollywood upper class. What’s the difference when questioning and prosecuting the elite?
MC: Their expectation of special treatment, and their ability to get it. The rich and powerful (not just in the industry in Hollywood, but in any field) have layers of assistants and lawyers whose job it is to shield them from “distractions.” Just getting an interview with a witness like that can be a nightmare, because it has to be scheduled way in advance to accommodate the calendars of not just the witnesses, but their lawyers and agents and PR people, etc.
And when the upper class person is a suspect – forget it, it’s crazy town. Every single move, no matter how routine – i.e. having the defendant fingerprinted at booking – engenders a battle royal. The lawyers want to make a good show of it, even if that show involves silly, useless arguments. And it’s not just because they’re being paid handsomely, it’s also because they know their potential future clients are watching.
MP: The trial is a media circus. As someone who has experienced those, what did you want to convey about prosecuting in the spotlight?
MC: So many things – among them the impact the media can have on public opinion, and the way the media can be used by people with their own agendas to manipulate the message. For example, in Killer Ambition, I show people slamming the prosecution to the press and picketing the courthouse in support of the defendant so they can curry favor with him because he’s a Hollywood power player. I also show how the publicity makes life tougher for the prosecutors in particular, because unlike the rich and famous, they don’t live behind gates or have a coterie of bodyguards and assistants to protect them from – if nothing else – overzealous reporters.
MP: The relationship and banter between Rachel and her police friend Bailey is great. Besides a smart professional partner, what else does she provide Rachel?
MC: Bailey is usually the voice of reason when Rachel’s single-minded focus leads her into reckless territory. As a result of Rachel’s childhood trauma, the quest for justice is more than a mission, it’s an intensely personal, all consuming obsession. One that sometimes causes her to overlook the danger in a situation. And Rachel has personal issues that can crop up to cause problems in her love life – as shown in Guilt by Degrees. S. Bailey, who came from a healthy family, doesn’t have those issues, so she tries to give Rachel a reality check. Sometimes she succeeds. Sometimes she doesn’t. When it comes to the emotional issues in a relationship, rationality can wind up stuffed into a back pocket. At least for the moment.
MP: I’ve noticed you like having some of your supporting characters, particularly those on the other side of the law, turn up again. As a writer, what do you enjoy about your outlaws?
MC: I love that you used the word “outlaws.” It’s perfect. It conveys the fact that they engage in, shall we say, extra-legal activities, but they’re not inherently bad people. Working for so many years as a criminal lawyer on both sides of the courtroom, I learned that some are just schlemiels, some don’t know how else to get by, and others are actually looking for a way out. I love showing that human side – the side you’d enjoy having a drink with. One of the recurring outlaws in my series is Luis Revelo, the head of a gang, who’s working on his MBA. He’ll probably wind up as CEO of some investment banking group. But until then, he still has a large family to support, so he’s still a shot caller for the Sylmar Sevens. This means he’s less than thrilled when Rachel calls on him for information. It’s not good for his “rep” to be seen with “the man.” Nevertheless, as shown in Guilt by Association, Luis owes Rachel. And Rachel never fails to remind him of it when she needs his help. So when Rachel calls, he picks up. Eventually.
MP: You’re also a really knowledgeable fan of crime fiction. Anybody you’ve been reading lately that you really like?
MC: I just finished The Double by George Pelecanos, which was excellent. I highly recommend it. I’m now reading Jeff Abbott’s latest, Downfall, and loving it.
Signed copies of Killer Ambition are now available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. We ship all over the world.
We’re looking forward to hosting Charlie Huston tonight at BookPeople. With books like Caught Stealing and The Mystic Arts Of Erasing All Signs of Death, he has been the crime fiction voice of his generation. His latest, Skinner, is a spy thriller featuring an assassin raised by scientists in a “Skinner box”. The lack of human contact makes him an efficient killer who carries some heavy emotional damage. In true action thriller fashion, we caught up with Charlie as he was driving and asked him a few questions.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the decision to write Skinner in the present tense come about?
CHARLIE HUSTON: Originally, I thought it lent itself to third person past tense since it went back and forth to different points of view. As I got into it, I noticed it was one of my densest books. There’s a lot of verbage. The present tense seemed to goose the narrative.
MP: How did you come across the idea of using the Skinner box?
CH: I read an article about scientists who incorporated children into their experiments. Most were benign, but the idea of the Skinner box freaked me out. Then I took it to its most extreme.
MP: What is your writing routine?
CH: I’m a schedule guy. I get my daughter off to school, then bike for exercise, then I’m at my desk by noon and I stay there until 6pm. There may be only three hours worth of actually writing, but I don’t leave that desk and I’m working out the story.
MP: What do you want people to take away from Skinner?
CH: Of course I want them to be entertained, but I’m a sucker for a melancholy story, so I’m always out to break your heart. I want that emotional connection, but have some optimism in the balance. In the end I want people to feel that the world right now may seem like a bad place, but it doesn’t have to be this way. People can find the right side and fight for it, no matter how small a group they are.
Huston appears at BookPeople tonight, Wednesday, July 24 at 7pm, to speak about and sign Skinner. The event is free and open to the public. If you can’t make it, you can order a signed copy via bookpeople.com.
With her Rachel Knight series, Marcia Clark gives us a fresh take on the legal thriller. The books work more as buddy procedurals than courtroom dramas, as the L.A. special prosecutor and her police pal Bailey Keller find the evidence to put the bad guys away. With her latest, Killer Ambition, Clark breathes new life into her own series.
The story starts with a dark prologue, then Rachel and Bailey are called to a kidnapping case. The victim is the daughter of a powerful director. The case hits Rachel hard. Her sister went missing when she was young. Clark captures the Hollywood life with it’s assistants and indulgences. Counselor and cop manipulate both as they manuever through the story’s well crafted plot twists and turns, meeting the girl’s friends and her father’s associates. The kidnapping leads to a double murder trial.
This is the first time Clark has had Rachel Knight try a case in court and she gives us a great insider’s look at a prosecutor’s job. Much is focused on the jury, both the selection and the connection a lawyer has with certain members. As someone who has known her share of high profile trials, she shows the stress of working in that spotlight. She shows how the media, the pundits, and politics all come into play. You know how many classic private eyes like Marlowe and Lew Archer once worked in the DA’s office? Clark gives you an idea of why they may have left.
I can’t get into much detail about the book without giving away it’s strong reveals and surprises. I can say that the story delivers a narrative tension that had me fighting the need to read ahead for the jury’s verdict. In Killer Ambition, Maria Clark presents further evidence that in the current crop of L.A. crime writers, she is one of the best.