A Certain Kind of Ruthlessness: An Interview with Scott Phillips

9781641291095_f585dScott 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 Lines discussion of crime fiction on March 16th at 7PM!

Three Picks for March

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.
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The Lantern Man by Jon Bassoff
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.
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Are Snakes Necessary? by Brian DePalma & Susan Lehman
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.
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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.

Tight and Tough: A Review of “Trouble Is What I Do”

MysteryPeople’s Scott Montogmery review’s Walter Mosley’s latest Leonid McGill novel, Trouble Is What I Do.

9781549121296_62c66Leonid 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.

Trouble Is What I Do is now available for purchase from BookPeople in-store and online now.

In The Worst of Scenarios: An Interview with Don Bentley

9781984805119_e5d4fIt’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.

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Author Don Bentley

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!


Without Sanction  is available for purchase from BookPeople in-store and online now.

Meike Reviews ‘The Sun Down Motel’

9780440000174_212bcThirty 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.


The Sun Down Motel is available for purchase from BookPeople in-store and online now!

“Nothing Is as Vivid as the Theater of the Mind,” An Interview with Meg Gardiner, author of ‘The Dark Corners of the Night

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.

9781982627515_ae431Scott 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

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Meg Gardiner, author of The Dark Corners of the Night (2020)

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?

9780307947307MG: 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.

“A Bonfire at the Beginning with Liberal Amounts of Gasoline Along the Way”: An Interview with Kathleen Kent, author of ‘The Burn’

9780316450553_8fd28Kathleen 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

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The Burn author, Kathleen Kent

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.

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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 Kathleen Kent: Kathleen Kent is the author of the Edgar Award-nominated The Dime, as well as the bestselling historical novels The Heretic’s Daughter, The Traitor’s Wife, and The Outcasts. Kent lives in Dallas, TX.

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 WheelsLone Star Lawless, and Eyes Of Texas. His Bullet Book, Two Bodies, One Grave, debuted Fall 2019.

The Burn is available for purchase in-store and online now.