Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott M., sat down with author James Wade ahead of Wade’s virtual event with BookPeople on Thursday, June 18th at 7PM CDT. The two discuss the novel’s main themes and talk a bit about the narrative choices made. It’s a novel at the top of MysteryPeople’s favorites of June 2020.
Read the interview below.
James Wade sets his take on the vengeance tale, All Things Left Wild, in a place and people caught between the fault lines of two periods. In 1910 Texas, Caleb Bently is on the run toward Mexico after his older brother, Shelby, kills the son of Randall Dawson when they attempt to rustle horses from the man’s ranch. Goded by his wife, Dawson, more poet and scholar than gunman and cowboy, pursues them with the help of a ranch hand, Tadpole, and Charlotte, a Black woman who knows her way around a pistol. As the two parties close in, they travel across borders of land, identity, and societal norms.
Mr. Wade was kind enough to talk about his world and the people and ideas he populated it with.
Scott Montgomery: How did you choose the particular time period for All Things Left Wild?
James Wade: I liked 1910 for the book because it’s a great example of the disconnect between the “civilized” America we think of by that point in history and the American West, which stayed wild for much longer than the rest of the country. That was due in part to the geographic challenges and lack of transportation infrastructure, but there were also murky legal standards because much of the Southwest was still divided into territories rather than states. This is also the year when political tensions in Mexico boiled over into the first battles of the Mexican Revolution.
So it was a tumultuous time, but something I hoped to show is how even during historical turning points, individuals are still struggling with very personal, very human issues. We tend to think of people in the past only as they relate to whatever event or movement was taking place at that time. In reality, most people were also dealing with the same issues we face: family, finances, finding a purpose, etc. But those things obviously don’t take up the same historical real estate, so they aren’t focused on as much.
SM: Like Blood Meridian, this book uses a historical period to create an other worldly feel. How did you use research of the time to build your fictional world?
JW: Researching this time period was fascinating. The country was only one generation removed from the Civil War, and yet it was also at the beginning of what would be the most remarkable century of progress in human history. We were essentially trying to find our footing as a nation, while also seeing the world around us modernize at an unprecedented pace. This sort of disruptive technology, disruptive forward momentum, is something we’ve dealt with ever since. And in the Southwest, you had a remarkably large, unregulated swath of land and resources. This became a breeding ground for corruption. And, as a result, we begin to see the gap between rich and poor growing rapidly during this time– much like it has in recent years. From the post-Civil War 1870s through the Great Depression, the country saw a massive income inequality, which led to economic anxieties, which ultimately led to more crime. I tried to create a world where economic tension was always present in the background. For example, almost every supporting character we encounter is poor. And if they are rich or have power, they are most likely corrupt.
SM: Did splitting the point of view between Caleb and Randall provide any challenges?
JW: I actually believe the split narrative made it a little easier to tell the story, and certainly made it easier to create some of the moral ambiguity I was hoping for. I wanted readers to get to know both characters, and see the flaws and redemptive qualities of both of these men, then have to decide who was right and who was wrong– or decide if it was more complicated than that. The decision to have Caleb tell his story in first-person, and Randall’s story be told in third-person, was based on the evolution of the characters. Caleb, despite his youth, pretty much knows who he is, and pretty much understands the way of the world. So he is competent enough to tell his side of things. Randall goes through a confusing transformation, which makes it more appropriate for someone else to describe, as Randall himself may not quite understand what’s happening to him until much later.
SM: Male identity plays a big part of the novel. What did you want to explore with that theme?
JW: Another great question, and a theme that no one else has asked about yet. I definitely wanted male identity, particularly conventional masculinity, to be pulled through the mud on a short rope. Almost all of the women in the novel come off as more rational, mentally tougher, and more patient, than the men. That wasn’t on accident. One of the real tragedies, in my opinion, is the shift we see that takes place in Randall. He starts out as a kind, sensitive man, but the circumstances and the world essentially turn him into a much different person by the story’s end. The tragic arc of Tad’s character is driven by his need be a conventional, masculine hero. With Shelby, he sees fear as a type of power to hold over others– another masculine trope. Even Randall’s wife plays a role in the perpetuation of toxic masculinity by chiding Randall for not being “manly” enough, which Charlotte later debunks as foolishness. Basically, the pitfalls of male identity are all over the book, and I hope folks take notice.
SM: One of your stand out characters is Charlotte. How did you construct her?
JW: There’s a strength to almost all the women in the novel, but certainly Charlotte is the bellwether of that strength. Her character was built by asking myself: who is the complete opposite of Randall in terms of wealth, privilege, and survival skills? Charlotte– a poor, black female, gunslinger– fit the bill. But once I wrote her first scene, I started to expand on her past and her experiences, and I think it really opened her up more and better informed her eventual relationship to Randall and Tad. Her ability to be a badass, but also maintain a softness for the world, is something that sets her apart from most of the other characters.
SM: Much of the violence is described very swiftly and often happens off page. What prompted this approach?
JW: I went back and forth on this, particularly the shootout between the Lobos and the Rangers, but decided to have some violent portions of the story take place off page for a couple of reasons. One, there is still a good deal of violence that is described, and I didn’t want to lessen the impact or significance of those scenes by having the reader become numb to it. And two, the majority of violence in the world is not some Hollywood, dramatized event. Rather, it’s quick and shocking and then it’s over and we’re left to pick up the pieces. One of the less visible themes of the novel is how we all believe our stories are the only stories or the most important stories, but to everyone else, it’s just another story. One of the few times– maybe the only time– I put my foot down during the editing process was insisting we keep the scene where two nameless Rangers are having a conversation in the aftermath of the big shootout. For readers, something huge has just happened, but for the Rangers– who are much further removed from the story– it’s a pretty casual day at the office. Playing with the notion of what the reader gets to “see” and what they don’t, is another way of driving home the point that the world doesn’t bend itself to our narratives.
All Things Left Wild is available for purchase from BookPeople today. And don’t forget to register for our free virtual event with James Wade on Thursday, June 18th at 7PM CDT.
NOTE: Because this is a virtual event that will be hosted on Zoom, you will need access to a computer or other device that is capable of accessing and sufficient Internet access. If you have not used Zoom before, you may consider referencing Getting Started with Zoom.
Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott Montgomery, reviews Laird Barron’s latest, Worse Angels. Read his glowing review and be sure to catch Laird Barron and Scott live on Zoom, Monday, June 22nd at 7PM CDT. More details can be found here.
Not only does Laird Barron serve up a kick ass hard-boiled series with his character Isaiah Coleridge, he examines different aspects of the genre and even storytelling itself. The saga of the former mob enforcer, not trying to do good as a private detective, finds both emotional depth and genre commentary through his journey. In his latest, Worse Angels, Isaiah must deal with the fate of the anti-hero and the price to be paid.
Isaiah is hired by Badja Adeyemi, a former dirty cop heading to prison for his involvement in a scandal connected to his boss Senator Gerald Redlick. Adeyemi’s nephew dies working on a super collider project the senator was behind. The death is ruled a suicide, but all the facts don’t add up. He wants a badass to look into it.
Coleridge and his partner Lionel Robard go to the upstate New York town to where the collider project has stalled. The citizen’s are tight lipped and it takes some work to get some answers, not all of it by the rules. They get deeper into a plot involving a cult and weird science.
Barron doesn’t just dive into crime fiction, he shades it with horror, sci-fi, and even fantasy. Fans of his pre-Isiah work could see this a him returning to earlier weird fiction form a little. It all allows him to look at the anti-hero in all forms. He references the character types’ place in literature, film, and other media, including a salute to Mike Grell’s comic book Warlord.
He never allows it to get too meta, applying it to Isaiah’s own struggle. As somebody who has tried to change his life to be a servant for good, he finds that his darker nature can best solve the problem. He also wonders what he is handing down to Devlim, the son of his girlfriend Meg. Isaiah has become more aware he is most effective in taking on the worst of the worst is when he unleashed his own demons.
Barron deftly uses this theme as a thread to sew Isaiah’s external conflicts. He gives us no easy answers about fighting evil on its level. He doesn’t judge Isaiah’s actions. He does ask us to consider the price that is paid when those actions are taken.
Scott Phillips is one of those authors other authors revere (or are downright jealous of). He often uses the crime novel as a frame for satire, but never lets his characters simply fall into types or symbols. His latest target is Southern California with attorney Douglas Rigby, who lost all of his money, actually his last client’s money, on a drug deal. To get it back, he hatches an art fraud scheme involving his wife, mistress, and a forger dealing with a painting owned by the client, Glenn Haskill, a t.v. producer in sixties and seventies with fond memories of his casting couch. The book is funny, profane, and engaging as all hell. Scott will be joining Jon Bassoff and Jason Pinter for our Crime Writing Outside The Lines discussion on March 16th, but went solo for this interview we did with him.
Scott Montgomery: You’re mainly known for covering the Midwest, what set your sights on L.A.?
Scott Phillips: I lived there for more than a decade. It’s really about Ventura and Santa Barbara than LA, about an hour to two hours away, depending on traffic. I think I can only write well about places I’ve lived or spent lots of time. Parts of this one are set in St. Louis, where I live now. This was one I couldn’t have set entirely in the Midwest — the old TV producer, Haskill, wouldn’t have fit in, for one thing. Also the desperation of the real estate business and the equally desperate need for a certain kind of Southern Californian to maintain a level of conspicuous consumption.
SM: What is the major difference in writing about the two areas?
SP: There’s a certain kind of ruthlessness to life in Southern California, be it show business or real estate or the law or getting your kids into the right school.
SM: How did you come upon art fraud as the center of the story?
SP: I’ve always wanted to write a book about art forgery. Forgers like van Meegeren, the Vermeer forger who’s mentioned in the book, and Elmyr de Hory, about whom Orson Welles made his documentary F for Fake, have always fascinated me. Originally the book was much more about the forgery and the relationship between Paula Rigby and the old forger, but that didn’t work for me so I trimmed it way back and made it more of a crime novel.
SM: This crime novel has even more moving parts to it than The Ice Harvest and The Rake. How do you approach something like this without the characters being drowned out by the plotting? SP: As I said, this book was originally much more about the forger and Paula, with the other characters being much more minor. When I started concentrating on the plot, each of the characters started taking on more heft. Because a character like Keith, the golf pro, becomes more important to moving the plot forward (one thing I always knew was that he and Rigby were going to have a beat down of some kind), I have to dig a little deeper and figure out what motivates him.
SM: Glenn, the old producer, is a character I like despite myself. How did you go about constructing him.
SP: One thing that I love about Southern California is the presence of the ghosts of Hollywood. I know and knew some old character actors, and they all had great stories about the old days in TV and movies. The fact is that predatory creeps like Haskill were all over the place then, and they’re all over the place now, as the Weinstein trial just demonstrated. Haskill’s not based on any one person, but there were lots of guys just like him. I wanted him to have a little kernel of humanity, which shows through his devotion towards his nephew back in the Midwest, a devotion that doesn’t work out very well for him.
SM: I was happy to hear that SOHO is also reprinting two of your earlier books, The Walkaway and Cottonwood. How would you describe these books, particularly
SP: The Walkaway is a followup to The Ice Harvest, more than a sequel. I started with the premise of the money in the satchel–what happens to that money? It all started one day when I was getting on the 405 freeway near the VA hospital (where my grandfather used to work as a barber) and I saw an elderly man in a suit trying to hitch a ride on the onramp. Later it occured to me that he might have been attending a funeral at the National Cemetery nearby, or he might have just walked out of the VA hospital. SO that was the hook: man with dementia walks out of a nursing home looking for some money he vaguely remembers having hidden years earlier. Cottonwood is the story of the Bloody Benders, serial killers on the Kansas prairie, and it’s also the story of the birth of a town. Its protagonist, Bill Ogden, is the ancestor of a lot of characters in my other books, mostly illegitimately. I’m really grateful to SOHO for bringing them back.
That Left Turn at Albuquerque is available for purchase in-store and online today through BookPeople. And be sure to catch Scott Phillips alongside Jason Pinter and Jon Bassoff for MysteryPeople’s Crime Writing Outside the Linesdiscussion of crime fiction on March 16th at 7PM!
Scott Phillips returns with a conniving lawyer at the end of his rope when he loses his only client’s money on a drug deal gone bad. To get back in the black and ahead he hatches an art fraud scheme that depends on a forger, his wife, and his mistress. Tight, funny, and populated with the sleaze bags he writes so well, this caper novel skewers L.A. life with precision. Scott will be joining Don Bassoff and Jason Pinter for our Writing Outside The Lines discussion at BookPeople on March 16th at 7PM.
Bassoff mixes psycho-noir with the gothic tale in the tragic story of the Grenier siblings in Leadville, Colorado. After one is drowned in front of the other two, the brother is arrested for murdering a classmate. The remaining sister’s charred body is found in a burned up cabin along with her diary in a safe that proves nothing may be as it seems. Bassoff uses the diary, newspaper clippings, and other media along with his moody prose style to deliver a unique thriller with one hell of reveal. Jon will also be at the Writing Outside The Lines Discussion on March 16th.
The acclaimed director of films like Dressed To Kill, Blow Out, and The Untouchables collaborates in prose for this entertaining potboiler of a photographer, his two lovers, and a ruthless senator’s aid who weave around each other in a tale of sex, politics, and murder. The book contains the style, pace, and quirky, dark humor of many of the director’s films.
You can shop for all three titles in-store and online this month at BookPeople. And be sure to catch Scott Phillips and Jon Bassoff in-store for their MysteryPeople-hosted panel discussion on March 16th at 7PM.
MysteryPeople’s Scott Montogmery review’s Walter Mosley’s latest Leonid McGill novel,Trouble Is What I Do.
Leonid McGill is quite possibly my favorite Walter Mosely creation. The ex-boxer and former underworld “fixer” who now tries his best to do honest work as a private detective, often reverting to his old ways to get the job done. Leonid is tough, capable, funny, and knows the score. It’s a joy to have him back in the short novel, Trouble Is What I Do.
An elderly black bluesman, Catfish Weary, hires Leonid, on a referral from an assassin McGill crossed paths with. He needs the detective to get a letter he promised to deliver from an old lover to a granddaughter about to be married, revealing her mixed race she knows nothing about. In McGill’s way is the woman’s well connected banker father, who can’t afford to have the secret out. In fact, right after he hires McGil, someone puts three bullets into him. Leonid hits the streets with some of his associates, including his son Twill, who is even more of a rogue — working hustles, alliances, and underground contacts to get around the power broker and his minions.
Mosely demonstrates his brilliance in creating worlds that exist under or to the side of the mainstream one. Leonid McGill negotiates his quest through a colorful array of criminals, killers, and street personalities. They make up a shadow city where everything could end, including your life, with the wrong step or word. It is how our hero moves through it that makes him so cool.
Leonid McGill and Walter Mosley carry this tale on a wonderful voice. McGill’s dialogue and interior thought have the ring of electric blues, capturing his life’s humor, humanity, and violence. It’s great to have this visit with him. I hope he comes around more often.
It’s difficult to read Don Bentley’s debut novel, featuring Matt Drake — a former ranger pulled back into a mission for The Defense Intelligence Agency. He’s returned to the place that brought about his PTSD, got men killed, and crippled his friend Frodo who now helps him out. Mr. Bentley flew Apache helicopters in Afghanistan as was awarded The Bronze Star and Air Medal. It was an honor to talk to him about his novel.
Scott Montgomery: Which came first, Matt Drake or the plot?
Don Bentley: Great question. Matt definitely came first. I wrote three books that didn’t sell before writing Without Sanction, and I like to say that each book brought me closer to Matt. I’m a huge fan of Nelson DeMille and what he does with his witty, first person protagonists, especially his John Corey series. I remember reading Plum Island the first time and telling my wife that I would read a book about John Corey going to the grocery store, just so that I could listen to him talk. I decided to give something similar a try while writing my third book, and while that book didn’t sell, it did give me Matt. Looking back, I think that was a pretty good bargain! In the military thriller/espionage genre, plot is what keeps your readers turning the page, but characters are what bring them back for the next book. Hopefully, Matt resonates enough with readers to keep them coming back for the next book.
SM: You show a relationship between Matt’s mission and a crisis in the White House. What did you want to explore with that?
DB: Thank you for noticing! The technology that connects warfighters to civilian decision makers has improved exponentially since September 11th. Even so, there’s still a dissonance between what the men and women on the ground are seeing and thinking and what is going on in a crowded situation room thousands of miles removed from danger. In the best of circumstances, decision makers give warfighters their marching orders and then stay out of the way while the professionals do their jobs. Often times this isn’t the case. Sometimes this is because the decision makers truly are privy to details that warfighters aren’t. But in the worst of scenarios, politicians make short-sighted, politically motivated decisions that result in devastating consequences for warfighters operating in harm’s way. This is what happens in Without Sanction.
SM: Frodo is a great character. How did you go about constructing him?
DB: When I started writing Without Sanction, I knew that Frodo was going to be an integral part of Matt’s story. Frodo needed to be from Matt’s world, but still wholly different from Matt. One of the things I cherished about my time in the Army was the opportunity to serve with people from every creed, color, and religion. It didn’t matter where we grew up or whether we went to church on Sunday. What mattered was that we all wore the same green uniform and swore the same oath to defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. I wanted the relationship between Matt and Frodo to reflect this dynamic. Frodo and Matt are two very different people, who if not for the military, would have never crossed paths. But through love of country and a desire to serve, they become brothers in arms.
SM: As somebody who was in combat situations abroad, what did you want to convey about that experience?
DB: That’s a hard question. I don’t know that I set out to convey anything about combat as much as I wanted to give the American public a glimpse of the men and women who are fighting on their behalf. I am not Matt Drake, but I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know some people who could be. Three of my close friends are veterans of the Army’s storied 75th Ranger Regiment, just like Matt. Rangers are famous for a great many things, including their strict adherence to the Ranger Creed. Non-Rangers might mistake the six stanzas comprising the Ranger Creed for just another organizational mission statement or HR-generated set of values, but nothing could be further from the truth. To a Ranger, these simple, yet powerful words form a code which still governs their lives long after they leave the military. Less than one percent of Americans serve in the military. This means that most American’s don’t have a veteran as a close friend or family member. I would love to help bridge that gap.
SM: How do you deal with the challenge of writing about events and regions that are changing with the news on a daily basis?
DB: It’s not easy. I took much longer than I should have to lock down Without Sanction, and in an earlier version of the book, ISIS played a more substantial role. While I certainly celebrated the destruction of the Caliphate, it caused me no small amount of rewrites! That said, I don’t try to “beat the headlines” or base my story on something that could change tomorrow. My novels are character driven, so if I have to change a few details here or there, it shouldn’t adversely affect the novel.
SM: This being your first book, did you draw from any influences?
DB: Absolutely. There are so many excellent writers in this genre, and I feel lucky just to be able to share shelf space with them. People like Tom Clancy, Brad Thor, and Vince Flynn built the modern version of this genre, while authors like Brad Taylor and Mark Greaney have brought even more readers into the fold. I’m also thankful for writers like Alistair MacLean and Jack Higgins who were their predecessors. The Eagle Has Landed is still one of my all-time favorites, and I grew up wanting to be Clint Eastwood’s character in the movie version of Where Eagles Dare. Still, of all the great authors I mentioned, Nelson DeMille and Daniel Silva have been particularly impactful. Nelson DeMille’s witty, first person protagonists gave me the courage to find Matt’s distinct voice. In the same vein, I think that Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series has some of the best story telling the genre has to offer. I tend to re-read Daniel’s books when I’m editing or just need inspiration. He’s a true craftsman, and my life’s ambition is to be counted as a friend of Gabriel Allon!
Thirty five years ago, Viv Delaney vanished during the middle of her shift as the night clerk at the Sun Down Motel in Fell, NY. There were hints that she didn’t leave on her own–her car was left behind in the parking lot, her purse (and her money) were left behind in the office. Oddly, no one reported her missing for 4 days. The police made a half-hearted attempt to find out what happened to her, but young girls had a habit of disappearing from Fell in those days.
Her aunt’s mysterious disappearance has always haunted Carly Kirk so she travels to Fell to see if she can come up with any clues. On visiting the run-down motel where Viv worked, Carly sees a notice that the hotel is looking for a night clerk—the same position that her aunt disappeared from—and on a whim she decides to apply, thinking it might give her some insight into what happened to Viv. The seedy motel doesn’t seem to have changed at all since her aunt worked there, and Carly quickly comes to realize that there’s something very wrong with the Sun Down Motel. Lights flicker for no reason, doors fly open all on their own, and there’s a mysterious scent of cigarette smoke even when Carly is sure she is quite alone. Certain the motel holds the key to Viv’s disappearance, Carly goes back every night until she’s thinks she might have figured out what happened all those years ago. But is the motel ready to give up its secrets?
I normally don’t read books that edge toward the paranormal, but the amazing cover on this one pulled me in and once I started I couldn’t put this down. The motel itself is as much a living, breathing character as any of the people in the story. It’s seen bad things over the years, and can sense when bad people come around. St. James does a masterful job revealing the story in alternating time lines, switching back and forth between Carly’s story and that of her aunt Viv. The Sun Down Motel is a captivating and chilling psychological thriller.
Meg Gardiner’s latest UNSUB novel takes FBI profiler Caitlin Hendrix to Los Angeles to track down The Midnight Man, a killer who strikes families, leaving the children behind to tell the tale.The book is our Pick Of The Month and her most chilling yet. Meg will be at BookPeople February 22nd at 5PM to sign her book and be interviewed by author Amy Gentry. We got the chance to talk to her earlier about the book and keeping readers on the edge of their seats.
Scott Montgomery: In the first two UNSUB books, the antagonists were loosely based on real infamous serial killers. Are there any seeds of reality in The Midnight Man?
Meg Gardiner: Yes—the Midnight Man had his genesis in the Night Stalker. I drew on the residual dread I’d felt while living in Southern California during the Night Stalker’s attacks. That was a bright yet chilling time. A killer was loose who could strike anywhere. He silently invaded family homes—sometimes attacking twice in one night. It seemed like there was no way to keep him out, and nowhere to hide from him. He owned the night, and no matter how vigilantly we tried to keep watch, we all had to sleep sometime.
SM: There is a major and unsettling reveal about The Midnight Man’s profile. Was that something you knew from the beginning?
MG: Not consciously. The identity of the Midnight Man gradually became clear to me as I wrote my way into the story. A bit like the way Caitlin Hendrix analyzes the unknown killer and realizes who she’s actually dealing with.
SM: How did you come across the idea of setting it during Christmas?
MG: I wanted to set the novel near the start of winter—to have the the nights grow
longer and colder as the story progresses. That meant it would take place in December. Christmas came along with the dark, starry skies.
SM: This time Caitlin and crew are tracking a killer in L.A. What did that setting provide you as an author?
MG: The glittering sprawl of Los Angeles provides a backdrop for Caitlin and her team that’s both beautiful and disorienting. L.A. has beaches and mountains, skyscrapers and abandoned buildings, nightlife and coyotes. And it’s stitched together with hundreds of miles of freeways. The city is constantly in motion. Which makes it fiendishly difficult to pin down a killer who invisibly roams anywhere and everywhere.
SM: Particularly with the UNSUB series, you’ve developed a reputation for knowing how “to bring the creepy,” yet most of those moments aren’t gory or violent. Are there certain writer tools or things you keep in mind when writing those more unsettling passages?
MG: The thrillers I write aren’t about violence, but about its impact on the characters, and the choices they make in its wake. Novels take readers on an emotional ride, and a little bit of violence goes a long way. I’ve never forgotten something Jeffery Deaver said: Nothing is as vivid as the theater of the mind. Hint at a few details, and each reader will fill in the rest from their own imagination.
SM: What is the most unsettling (in a good way) book you’ve ever read?
MG:The Stand, by Stephen King. It showed me how a novel about an apocalyptic plague could be completely riveting, because it’s all about character—and community, and courage. I read it in college, and even today if I see a crow sitting on a telephone wire, or hear the scuff of cowboy boots on a sidewalk, I shudder and think of the villain, Randall Flagg. That’s great writing.
The Dark Corners of the Night is available for purchase from BookPeople in-store and online. And don’t forget to catch Meg Gardiner in person on February 22nd at 5PM for a discussion and signing of this featured title.
About the Author: Meg Gardiner is the critically acclaimed author of the UNSUB series and China Lake, which won the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original and was a finalist for NPR’s 100 Best Thrillers Ever. Stephen King has said of Meg Gardiner: “This woman is as good as Michael Connelly…her novels are, simply put, the finest crime-suspense series I’ve come across in the last twenty years.” Gardiner was also recently elected President of the Mystery Writers of America for 2019.
The Dark Corners of the Night will be the third novel in her Barry Award-winning UNSUB series, which received three starred reviews from the major trade publications and was sold to CBS Television.
Kathleen Kent, a well respected historical fiction writer, won over crime fiction fans with her novel The Dime, featuring Dallas Narcotics detective Betty Ryhyz. She returns with Betty in The Burn, with our heroine going rogue to figure out the connection between heroin stolen from the Sinola Cartel and confidential informants that are popping up all over town dead. Kathleen was kind enough to talk about the book and writing with Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott Montgomery.
Scott Montgomery: How did it feel writing a second novel with Betty Ryhyz opposed to the first?
Kathleen Kent: This is my first series–all of my previous historical fiction novels were stand-alone—and I had to rethink how to structure not only the book I was working on, but future books in the series. An important thing I learned from my editor was that the “Sophomore book” is crucial to keeping a reader’s interest going forward. You may like the first book, but the second will often determine whether you want to read the third, or fourth. Writing The Dime was an exercise in learning the genre of contemporary crime fiction: pacing, narrative tone, and maintaining suspense. But developing The Burn necessitated a deeper dive into not only Betty’s character, but of those who populated her world. There were a lot of rewrites to The Burn to get it right, and I had to remind myself at times to maintain a balance between the darker themes of the book, of which there are plenty, with lighter, more comedic elements.
SM: I really felt the Dallas streets and the working relationships of the narcotics squad. What kind of research did you do?
KK: I grew up in Dallas but moved to New York once I’d finished college. After living and
working in Manhattan for twenty years, I decided to move back to Dallas. Big D had changed drastically in those two decades in terms of urban development. But a lot had stayed the same and was distressingly familiar in terms of social intolerance. Once I had committed to writing a crime novel, I channeled some of my experiences of feeling like an “outsider” into Betty’s character. Doing research with law enforcement proved to be quite a challenge. While writing historical fiction, I found there were always experts willing to talk about their unique knowledge of history. Active law enforcement, especially those working undercover, can’t speak to a civilian about their operations for obvious reasons. One workaround was to talk to retired police officers, one of whom was the first female detective in Dallas. She gave me a lot of hilarious, and hair-raising stories, that I incorporated into both crime novels. My most important source, though, was a close cousin who, in his thirty-year career, worked both narcotics and vice undercover, as well as SWAT. I was also invited to several police retirement parties, and it’s amazing what you can learn by sitting quietly in a corner holding a glass of Jameson whiskey, and just listening to the stories unwind.
SM: I was happy to see Jackie’s uncle play an important part. He’s one of my favorite characters in the series. What do you like about him as a writer?
KK: He’s one of my favorites as well. There’s something noble about people who, despite their frailties and vices, continue fighting to stay afloat, to be useful, to be of service to other people. James Earle has a dignified past as he served in Vietnam as an MP, and he understands the difficulties and pressures prevalent in law enforcement. In many ways he’s a stand in for Betty’s beloved Uncle Benny, the man who was Betty’s polestar growing up. I’m happy to say that James Earle will be a constant character going forward.
SM: You wrote several acclaimed historical novels and fell into this gritty cop series where you both deliver and subvert the genre goods like somebody who has been writing this kind of book for a decade. Were you a fan of the genre before you started?
KK: I’ve always been a huge fan of crime novels, the darker, the better! My sister and I grew up reading, and watching on TV, a lot of British crime series, which our mother read as well. The three of us used to talk at the dinner table about the finer points of Murder Most Foul, often horrifying our dad with the gruesome details. Even in my works of historical fiction I never shied away from violence. The Heretic’s Daughter is based on my nine-times great grandmother, Martha Carrier, who was hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692. The Outcasts is set in post-Civil War Texas and has hangings, torture and murder. The themes of villainy are often the same, regardless of the time period. The challenge for me as a writer, though, was to change the way the story was presented, which is to say I had to pay close attention to pacing, keeping the reader on the edge of his or her seat. I would liken historical fiction writing to a slow and steady burn, while crime writing is often a bonfire at the beginning with liberal applications of gasoline along the way.
SM: What has writing contemporary novels allowed you to do that you couldn’t in the historicals?
KK: I think writing contemporary crime novels has allowed me to indulge in more absurdist fantasies. In my historical novels, I often tried to stay close to the actual true events of the time. This “reality” construct was used as a framework, or scaffolding, to build my fictional story. In both The Dime and The Burn I felt less constricted to that model. Some of the contemporary narrative started as a newspaper headline, for example, but I was able to move the resulting action in unexpected directions. I’ve really enjoyed bumping riiiight up against what stretches credulity.
SM: Has it presented any challenges?
KK: A lot of readers had grown accustomed to my works of historical fiction. And some were surprised at the seemingly abrupt shift to contemporary crime. So, it was a challenge to entice those people to read these latest two novels, especially if they weren’t enthusiastic crime readers to begin with. But, happily, many of those readers have now eagerly embraced Det. Betty and her adventures. I think it points to the importance of having relatable, courageous characters and compelling stories no matter the genre.
About Scott Montgomery: A legendary crime bookseller, Scott Montgomery runs MysteryPeople, the mystery bookstore within BookPeople. He also runs The Hard Word blog, covering hard boiled fiction. Always a crime fiction fan, Scott worked on the sales staff of the acclaimed and influential The Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles for four years. He is a regular contributor to Crime Reads and his fiction has appeared on the site Shotgun Honey and in the anthologies Murder On Wheels, Lone Star Lawless, and Eyes Of Texas. His Bullet Book, Two Bodies, One Grave, debuted Fall 2019.
The Burnis available for purchase in-store and online now.
Kathleen Kent, known for historical novels, proved her ability to cross genres with The Dime. The gritty police thriller, featuring Betty Rhyzyk, a New York narcotics detective who transfers to Dallas to be with her wife, breathed new life into the cop novel and won her praise from the likes of Joe R. Lansdale. Luckily Kathleen and Betty are back for The Burn.
It’s not too long into the book, Betty’s head-first attitude lands her into desk duty. It and other things are not helping the relationship with Jackie. Her frustrations grow when word on the street hits that several kilos of The Sinola Cartel’s heroine got stolen and confidential informants are popping up dead in the sleazier parts of The Big D. Her colleagues leave her behind as they look for El Cuchillo (or The Knife), a Sinola enforcer with a nasty reputation believed to be behind the killings. When Betty gets information that some of the players could be involved with the department and with Jackie, she jumps out from behind the desk and goes rogue.
Kent builds an exciting world of The Dallas Narcotics division and the Texas toned underworld they operate in. She shows camaraderie between the police with undercurrents of infighting, often disguised as joking around.The cheap motels and dive bars where Betty hunts down answers are gritty and hard, either bathed in shadows or reflecting the glare of the Lone Star sun, everything and everybody plays with perception.
All of this fits into Betty’s point of view.. She charges in, not always looking and a situation with few people to trust leads to some justified paranoia. Since there are very few she can trust, she turns to outsiders, recruiting a pregnant dealer’s girlfriend and Jackie’s Vietnam vet uncle, James Earle, into her cause.
The Burn proves to be even better than The Dime. The plotting is well crafted with strong action passages and a believable, dangerous setting with characters who pop. At the center of it all is a complex heroine who couldn’t give a rat’s ass if you like her or not. Here’s hoping Betty can always get out from behind the desk.
Kathleen Kent’s The Burn is available for purchase from BookPeople in-store and online now!