INTERVIEW WITH LOU BERNEY

Lou Berney has created a stand out mix of genres in his latest, November Road. The story deals with two people who meet on the road after the Kennedy assassination. Charlotte Roy, a housewife leaving her alcoholic husband, and Frank Guidry, a New Orleans  mobster who realizes he played a part in the murder and knows the mob will want to cut loose ends. The two develop an intense relationship as they head west while Barone, one of the mafia’s most efficient hitmen closes in. We got to talk to Lou about the book and mixing genres.

November Road: A Novel Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: November Road is a unique book. It is a mix of genres set to a particular week in history that one of the protagonist was unknowingly a part of. What was the first part of it that entered your mind and how did you build on it?

Lou Berney: The book started with the idea of two very different lives colliding – a big-city mafia lieutenant and a small-town mother. I was interested by the notion that we all play different roles, and that by changing roles we might actually change who we are.

MPS: Was there a particular reason you made Guidry cajun and not Italian?

LB: I wanted Guidry to be a little bit of an outsider – a little bit removed and more independent than your typical mob guy. And I also wanted him to have the kind of easy charm that very distinctive to New Orleans and Louisiana.

MPS: Charlotte is a different kind of character for you. What did you enjoy about her as a writer?

LB: I loved how Charlotte developed into a forceful, fearless kind of character. It was always in her, but to see it come out as the pages flew by made me happy. And I really liked her sense of humor, which developed over the various drafts. I didn’t imagine that she would have a lively sense of humor when I conceived her, but she quickly informed me otherwise.

MPS: What did you want to get across to the reader about that week after the assassination?

LB: The assassination was such a detonation, a seismic event in American life. Everyone was affected in one way or another, and often profoundly so.

MPS: Barone is an interesting take on the hitman character. How did you go about constructing him?

LB: A lot of trial and error. I didn’t want Barone to be a cliche. I wanted him to be a fully realized and complex character, but also one who is a scary, relentless killer. Giving him his own point of view and a character arc of his own, a key relationship with another character, made him come alive for me.

MPS: What was the most interesting thing you found in your research?

LB: The morning of the assassination, in his hotel room in Fort Worth, JFK casually mentioned to Jackie that it wouldn’t be hard at all for someone to kill the president. A killer would just need a high-powered rifle and a a spot high in a building,

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INTERVIEW WITH HELEN CURRIE FOSTER

Helen Currie Foster’s latest mystery to feature Texas lawyer Alice MacDonald Greer, Ghost Next Door, starts with her small ranch being invaded by drones and escalates when a food writer is murdered during the first barbecue cook-off her town of Coffee Creek is putting on and the killer has her sights on her. With her gal pal, Red, she is out to unravel this very fun, Texas-flavored mystery. Helen was kind enough to take a few questions from us about the book.

Ghost Next Door Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: With this mystery, you delve the town of Coffee Creek. What did you want to explore with that?

Helen Currie Foster: The Hill Country is beginning to change, but local flavor remains strong. The landscape itself demands character in the people: they’re either dealing with drought or flood, are either baking or freezing. As Molly Ivins put it, “Texas! –land of wretched excess!”

Bland suburbanization continues its inexorable march west, but people still love places like Coffee Creek: the feed store, the post office where everyone picks up the mail, Friday night lights with the bats darting after the bugs and the PTA frying burgers and selling hot dogs…… AND big sky, live oaks, limestone, and secret springs.

MPS: What I really enjoyed about the book was the relationship between Alice and Red. Where you wanting to say something about female friendship?

HCF: Alice knows she’d never have moved to Coffee Creek, much less begun to belong there, without Red. Red’s a long-time friend who lured Alice (at the lowest point of Alice’s existence) out to Coffee Creek to start over again. Alice loves Red because Red speaks truth, declines to put up with any of Alice’s introverted angst, and honors her own deep Texas roots. Red has Alice’s back; Alice has Red’s. Red’s game for adventure, even (or especially) for danger. She also says yes to frivolity. Alice knows she needs Red. Alice’s friendships with Red (and Miranda) are crucial to her survival.

MPS: Cooking, especially barbecue plays a big part in the story. Did you do any kind of research for this?

HCF: Oh, yeah. A lifetime of research. I’m deeply competitive when it comes to brisket. So competitive that, unlike in Ghost Dagger, where I did share a character’s recipe for Scottish pastries, I didn’t share the character M.A.’s recipes in Ghost Next Door for the dry rub or the mop she uses on her prize-winning brisket, or for the secret technique that keeps it juicy and not burned on the bottom. Like many others, I’ve spent decades pursuing the perfect brisket, whether mine or someone else’s. An all-time best was the brisket taco with the “green sauce” from a food truck on the courthouse square in Fort Davis…EPIC. I will share the recipe for that green sauce on the website.

As to the Coffee Creek Cook-Off, the town adapted the actual Lone Star Barbecue Society Rules.

MPS: One of things that makes your books work is how even characters that are just on a few pages pop. Do you have an approach in writing every person Alice encounters?

HCF: Yes. Even when characters get bit parts, they play an important role in the plot. Alice pays attention to them, watches them, listens to them. She picks up key clues from them. So they must be as alive, as vivid, as any main character—but they have less time to make that impression!

Characters reflect people I’ve met, worked with, been scared of, been enchanted by. Real people. Like the south, the southwest revels in its characters. The guy at the garage, the old man who loads hay at the feed store, the plumber planning to start a commercial venture with marijuana, the clerk at the post office—they revel in their independence, they expand into their own stories, they’re comfortable in their own skins. They don’t try to look like everyone, or talk like everyone.

MPS: As a writer, what has made Alice a character worth coming back to?

HCF: Great question. Alice isn’t perfect. She’s insecure, introverted, critical. And she’s driven. As a lawyer she feels absolutely compelled to finish what she signed on for, what her clients need done. She’s sometimes short-tempered and hasty, because she’s infuriated by people who try to intimidate her or her clients. I admire her strong sense of justice. And you know, Alice loves mystery novels…I have to admire a fellow mystery-lover.

 

REVIEW- NOVEMBER ROAD BY LOU BERNEY

November Road: A Novel Cover ImageLou Berney’s third book, The Long And Far Away Gone, proved him to be a major talent. He took two poignant mystery stories, tied them through theme, and deftly examined his characters through use of the detective story. With his latest, November Road, Berney uses the gangster thriller, tying two souls together through an American tragedy.

The story unravels the week after the JFK assassination. Frank Guidry, a Cajun fixer for New Orleans crime boss Carlos Marcello, realizes the murder is tied to the car he was asked to drop off at Dealy Plaza. Knowing he is a loose end Marcello has to cut, he hits the road to Vegas where Carlos’ rivals may help him.

Along the way, he meets Charlotte Roy, whose car has broken down. Charlotte took her two daughter and the dog and left her alcoholic husband. She yearns to make a life where she is more than a housewife. Guidry offers to drive all of them to California, since they will provide great cover. The situations both are escaping and the time on the road leads to an intense relationship, while a mob hitter, Barone, closes in.

Berney plays the plot, period, and each character like  jazz instruments in a melancholy ballad. We spend several chapters with both Guidry and Charlotte so we understand who they are and where they are coming from. Both want the exact opposite of what the other wants, yet embody that desire of the other. The relationship is both believable and bittersweet. The fact that it takes place during a national tragedy lends to the emotions. it also reinforces the story’s theme of fate. Berney looks at how each character faces fate and asks if it can be shaped. He then has Barone turns up in chapters like a steady beat of death growing faster faster. Berney even creates him with care, presenting something more than just a cold professional killer.

November Road is a thriller that taps into honest emotions that enhance the crime thriller it presents. By tying his characters into the JFK assassination, Berney examines loss, evolution, and human connection. In a way it becomes a reverse Casablanca, saying the lives of two people do at least mean a hill of beans. However, there is still an understanding of needed sacrifice.

INTERVIEW WITH MELISSA LENHARDT

Melissa Lenhardt’s Heresy is a smart and fresh take on the western outlaw tale. Several different women from several backgrounds escape the lot post-Civil War life on the frontier has cast them and become outlaws, dressing up as men and conducting well executed robberies. Told through diaries and interviews with historians, Heresy is western shoot em’up with poignancy as it examines “herstory” and female friendship. Melissa will be joining Reavis Wortham (Gold Dust) at BookPeople on October 9th to sign and discuss their books. We were able to get some questions to her early.

Heresy Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: Heresy is such a unique story in so many ways. How did it come about?

Melissa Lenhardt: The simple answer is I saw the trailer for the Denzel Washington version of The Magnificient Seven and while being impressed with the diversity, I wondered why they didn’t go a step further and include women. Which of course led me to say, I’ll write an all-female version. The long answer is that during my historical research for Sawbones, the lack of historical information about women and their experiences was glaring. I wanted to write a book that compared women’s versions of historical events with the official historic record, and in doing so challenge the idea that women were bystanders and played a very little part in the creation of America.

MPS: How did the choice of using diaries and interviews to tell the story come about?

ML: I assumed I would write the story from one point of view as I did with Sawbones. I realized pretty early on that wouldn’t work. There were too many characters, too many points of view that needed to be shared to tell the full story. By staying firmly in one point of view I would be doing to my marginalized characters – a former slave, a woman struggling with her sexuality and her place in the world – what historians have done with women writ large. So, I knew I had to have multiple points of view. I chose to tell the female points of view through journals and an oral history because that is how women’s history is discovered. Of course, I had to have the “official record” as well, to highlight how the truth of a thing is manipulated into myth.

MPS: Did it present any challenges in the storytelling?

ML: Lord, yes. This book was technically the most difficult book I’ve ever written. Telling one story from three divergent points of view, with one told fifty years later, was a challenge in and of itself. Making sure the timeline worked across all versions, but also allowing for different perspectives, different memories, without confusing the reader with too many contradictions. When I finished I thought, “That sucked. I’m never doing that again.” But writing something that challenges you, that pushes you to your creative limits is a bit like childbirth. You swear you’ll never go through that pain again but then you hold your baby in your arms and think, “Yeah, it’s worth it.”

MPS: I enjoyed the fact that the robberies had more of a heist feel than just running in and shooting like a lot of other western bandits.

ML: Before I started writing I thought it would be more of a heist book, like Ocean’s Eleven in the Old West (this was before Ocean’s Eight was announced as a movie). But, my mood and the mood of the country changed drastically six days after I wrote the first word and I knew that I couldn’t tell a lighthearted story. It just wasn’t in me. There was a moment in time when I thought it was going to be about vengeful women cutting a swath of destruction across the West. That idea was way too on the nose for this era. I found a happy medium, I think, in the final story.

MPS: Were there any books and movies in your mind when you were writing it?

ML: It was pitched as Thelma and Louise meets The Magnificent Seven, so those two, obviously. The Magnificent Seven in an obvious way, a gang trying to right a wrong and the final big battle between the good guys and bad. But, I think Thelma and Louise is the bigger influence on Heresy. Thelma and Louise are running from a patriarchal system that is trying to catch them, to control them, a system that will judge their reactions to assault more harshly than the assault itself. Along the way, these two very different women become platonic soul mates, two halves of the same whole. Neither could survive without the other. Friendship, loyalty, and family in its purest form. I wanted to capture that platonic love with Garet and Hattie’s relationship. Really, the entire book hinges on it. Thelma and Louise is the greatest platonic love story ever told, and I strove to capture that essence in Heresy.

PICK OF THE MONTH: THE LINE BY MARTIN LIMON

A sign of a crime fiction series’ maturity is that the stories tend to get looser and in a very good way. There is less emphasis on plot and more faith put into character. The author provides stories for the protagonists to breathe, banter, and live as well as solve the crime. A prime example of this is The Line, Martin Limon’s latest to feature George Sueno and Ernie Bascome two Army CID cops stationed in South Korea during the early seventies.

Limon drops them into one of the best openings of the year. The two are called to investigate a body discovered on the demarcation bridge between North and South Korea. George and Ernie find the crime scene investigation touch and go, caught between the potential crossfire with the North Korean and U.S. Army pointing rifles at one another and the situation escalating.

The shaky political situation hounds them as they try to get proper justice served. They discover the victim to be Noh Jong-bei, a South Korean who is a soldier connected to the U.S. Army. The initial evidence leads to a private, Teddy Fusterman, a friend of Noh’s who was also seeing his sister, something the family didn’t approve of. While Sueno and Bascome believe in his innocence, the army is still more than willing to prosecute, to seemingly cool things down, and assigns them to locating a missing officers wife. The search leads them to the darker parts of Seoul and a possible link to Noh Jong-bei’s murder.

Both mysteries weave skillfully together. Limon places the reveals and reversals like the veteran professional he is and gives many of them emotional resonance. Together both stories give depth and range in the army and Korean society at the time, subtly examining the roles of women in both.

Limon also knows that the main reason we return to these books is because of George and Ernie. He gives them room to argue, discuss army life, women, and each other. We see how each complement the other without over statement and how they’ve developed a bond as brothers for justice in a system that sets that as a low priority. As much as they battle the army, though, it has become their home.

The Line strikes a perfect balance between plot and character. In doing so, it develops themes that are both deep and subtle. The story and the people in it reflect off of one another, creating an engaging mystery with a lot to say about the two clashing cultures it moves in. More importantly, it gives us two heroes we care about and wish we could share a beer with.

AFFECTS ON A BRILLIANT MIND : SHERRY THOMAS’ LADY SHERLOCK

Rachel R., who co-leads the 7% Solution Book Club, wrote about Sherry Thomas’s new Lady Sherlock book and Holmes adaptations ahead of the release of the latest book in the series. 

Sherlock Holmes fandom has been active since the publication of the first short stories. It’s a commonly known fact that the only reason Holmes came back from the dead, for example, is because too many fans wrote angry letters at Arthur Conan Doyle demanding his return. These days, it’s almost as common to see a Sherlock Holmes adaptation as it is to see one of Shakespeare. What tends to make or break a Sherlock Holmes adaptation, in my experience, is not a supposed “faithfulness” to the characters or the cases (though that’s too often used as an excuse for lazy writing), but a thoughtful engagement with the world that Holmes and their ilk inhabit. Take Elementary, for example; many of the cases, if they reference the original stories at all, do so in name only, and Holmes and Watson, though true to the spirit of their Conan Doyle counterparts, live in different places in society. They’re not gentlemen of leisure; the detective work is their livelihood. But what makes Elementary so captivating as a Holmes adaptation is the extent to which the show examines what someone with Sherlock’s capabilities would struggle with in the 2010s in New York City: drug use, mental health, et cetera. At one point Sherlock, speaking during an AA meeting, asks, “Sometimes I wonder if I should have been born in a different time…ours is an era of distraction, it’s a punching drumbeat of constant input, this cacophony which follows us into our homes and even into our beds…In my less productive moments, I am left to wonder, if I had just been born when it was a little quieter out there, would I have even become an addict in the first place?”

This attention to place and its effect on a mind as brilliant as Sherlock Holmes’ is no less acute in Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock series, though she still resides in 1880s London. Charlotte Holmes cannot move about society, restricted by her gender, and instead pretends to be an assistant for her recluse brother, the nonexistent Sherlock Holmes. But this gender reversal doesn’t just serve as a story hook, something cool and new and different—there have actually been several Holmes adaptations in which Holmes or Watson or both have been women over the years—but instead Holmes’ gender fundamentally alters the world in which the story takes place. Holmes, no longer the aforementioned gentleman of leisure, desires and wants things from a world that does not immediately provide them: mostly autonomy, bodily, financial, or otherwise. At one point while trying to figure out her financial situation, Charlotte explains, “I do not like the idea of bartering the use of my reproductive system for a man’s support—not in the absence of other choices.” These wants extend past Charlotte herself; she wants that for her landlady and confidante Mrs. Watson, for her sisters, and the many women of all classes that she encounters in the ins and outs of her cases. By changing Holmes’ gender, Sherry Thomas has done something that Arthur Conan Doyle was never able to do: she has made Sherlock Holmes altruistic.

Thomas is well acquainted with the significance of setting in her work. In her romances, both historical and contemporary, the setting often serves to inform the plot beyond mere contrivance. Her young adult fantasy novels, with their rich worldbuilding, still keep one foot firmly in the “real” world, giving each character who crosses over to the fantastical setting the gift of awe at seeing magic for the first time. It is a delight to be a bookseller who reads across genres, watching her become more and more refined in her craft, as she continues to interrogate what is important about stories, whether they be romance, or fantasy, or mystery.

Sherry Thomas will be at BookPeople Tuesday, October 2nd at 7PM to celebrate the release of the third Lady Sherlock book, The Hollow of Fear. The 7% Solution book club (which I co-lead) will be meeting directly before the event on the third floor to discuss the second in the series, A Scandal in Belgravia, before we attend the event together. All are welcome to join, whether or not you finished the book, although there may be spoilers for the first two novels. We usually meet the first Monday of every month at 7PM; upcoming discussion titles can be found on BookPeople’s website here.

INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE PELECANOS

George Pelecanos’ The Man Who Came Uptown is a book partly about books. Its protagonist, Michael Hudson, has come out of jail with a love of books and a hunger to get his life straight. His goals are threatened by the man who got him out, PI Phil Orzanian, who threatens to put him back in if he doesn’t help him in his sideline of robbing pimps and drug dealers. While Michael struggles to escape the situation, we also see how he escapes his day to day through reading. We caught up to the author of our Pick Of the Month to talk about his book and books in general.

The Man Who Came Uptown Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: One of the reasons why this is going to end up as one of my favorite books of the year is that it looks at the power of books. What did you want to explore about that?

George Pelecanos: I’ve been doing reading programs and leading book club discussions in prisons and jails for many years.  I’ve seen first-hand how books can broaden minds and make people happy. Beyond that, this one was personal for me.  Without going into unseemly detail, I was pretty rudderless when I was young and I saw trouble. Then a teacher turned me on to novels.  It changed the direction of my life.

MPS: Some of my favorite moments is how Michael interacts with a certain title he’s reading. How did you approach those characters moments?

GP: The novels that Michael reads force him to look at his life, and how he leads it, differently.  Willy Vlautin’s Northline, for example, teaches him the importance of small kindnesses. It causes him to forgive someone at a crucial moment in the book.  The implication is that reading can make you a better person because it takes you into the minds of people you might otherwise never have met. “Try to understand each other” is the important Steinbeck quote in the book.  Obviously those words impact Michael Hudson.

MPS: Phil Orzanian is an interesting antagonist. He has an Elmore Leonard quality to him. While I want Michael to get out from under him, he doesn’t come off as a villain and more like a guy who has been playing with fire for too long. Has there a certain idea you had in mind when constructing him?

GP: At the end of the chapters where Ornazian and Thaddeus Ward commit crimes, their internal monologue is always about the anticipation of seeing their spouses or children.  There are few pure villains in my books or in my screen work. People do bad things but they often rationalize the reasons for their behavior. Ornazian deeply loves his wife and kids, and he also robs drug dealers and pimps.  Both sides of him exist at once.

MPS: True Grit is one of the books Michael escapes into and you’ve mentioned it in interviews as a favorite. What makes it such a great book to you?

GP: The story is fantastic, a rousing adventure.  The prose shines. The narrator is an optimist but the feelings invoked are of tragedy.  It successfully tackles the subject of the passage of time, which is the big mystery we all grapple with.  But mostly it’s the voice of Mattie Ross. Charles Portis completely inhabits her. I’ve read the book many times and it’s always a thrilling experience.

MPS: What were some of the books that had an influence on you as a writer?

GP: Many are mentioned in this book.  I continue to be an Elmore Leonard fan and marvel at what he left us.  Steinbeck, with his humanity, is still a favorite. James Salter’s Light Years left a big impression on me.  The best book I read this year was The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. It had ambition and she achieved it.  By influential, I don’t mean to claim that I can write like any of these people. But I can have aspirations. My goal, always, is to be a better writer.

MPS: I have to ask on behalf of my customers and myself if Spero Lucas will be coming back in a new book down the road?

GP: I’d like to revisit the character.  If he knocks on that door in my head, I’ll answer it.