INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SWINSON

The MysteryPeople Pick Of The Month, Trigger, is the final installment of David Swinson’s trilogy featuring Frank Marr, a private detective who is also a drug addict. We find Frank trying to quit when he is given the job to help clear his former D.C.P.D. partner from an alleged bad shooting. Another part of his past comes into play when he has to work with Calvin, a young black man he mistreated when he was a cop. It is a gritty crime novel with few easy answers but a lot of humanity. David was kind enough to take some questions from us.

Trigger (Frank Marr #3) Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: Did Frank Marr’s attempt at kicking his habit inform the tone of the book?

David Swinson: Yes, since it’s written in first person, present tense, Frank’s voice had to change. Being high on cocaine all the time hid a lot of the real Frank, and I tried to bring more of his true character out in Trigger.

MPS: In the opening chapter I felt that Frank was putting his life more at risk now that he was off drugs and what he was replacing the rush with, than when he was using. Is that a legitimate feeling?

DS: I think Frank put himself more at risk while using. He wasn’t hundred percent. He thought cocaine made him one-hundred percent, but it put him more at risk, both emotionally and in certain situations like hitting a dealer’s house, all because of the powerful need for the drug. Cocaine always comes first so that makes it more dangerous. He’s more calculated now, even tests himself. That, and alcohol is his new high. Still risky, though.

MPS: The main plot deals with Frank getting information to absolve his former partner from a bad police shooting. As someone who is a former police officer, what did you want to convey about those situations that the media reports and debates, but doesn’t fully examine?

DS: I want to show the audience that things aren’t always clear cut. There is a lot of gray. I wanted to touch on that, and try to show the reality of both sides, in particular, what a good cop goes through. Also, that smartphones have changed everything because a lot of officer-related shootings are now caught on camera for everyone to see. That’s not a bad thing, just like I don’t think body cams are a bad thing. The difference is that smartphones catch shootings that the media wouldn’t otherwise know about, and justified or not they are put out there for everyone to see. Every case is different. Some are obviously criminal, but most of them are not. It’s hard for the public to understand that, though, because any shooting that involves serious bodily harm or death is a terrible thing.

MPS: I picked up more humor in this book. Where do you think that came from?

DS: Much of it came from the awkward relationship between Frank and Calvin. I also think Frank sees things a bit differently being off cocaine.

MPS: You’ve said these books were planned as a trilogy. As a writer what did you enjoy most about Frank Marr?

DS: Being able to write about a character that is outside of myself. Before I sat down to start writing The Second Girl, I  took tons of notes. Frank Marr was already in my head, but during the course of writing The Second Girl he took on a life of his own, changed a lot. I always knew who he’d be, but the trick while writing was to figure out how to make him likeable. That I think was the most fun.

MPS: You’ve had several different and varying occupations. Any idea of what you’d being doing now if you weren’t a writer?

DS: Since my teens, I have not imagined myself being anything other than a writer. I knew I’d have to work a job because I wanted to pay bills, but being a writer was always there. I can’t imagine not writing because it has been with me for so long – the desire. I suppose that if I didn’t have the desire, I’d remain happily retired (hopefully), spending time with my family like I do now, but with more time on my hands.

 

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Meike Reviews THE BOOK ARTIST

The Book Artist: A Hugo Marston Novel Cover Image

Mark Pryor will join us at BookPeople on Saturday, February 9th at 6pm to discuss The Book ArtistCheck out our review and join us! 

All of us at MysteryPeople are huge fans of Mark Pryor’s Hugo Marston series and we agree that his latest—The Book Artist—is the best one yet.

Hugo Marston is a former FBI profiler who works as head of security at the US Embassy in Paris. The book takes its title from the opening scenes when Hugo’s boss, Ambassador Bradford J. Taylor, strongly encourages Hugo to attend an art exhibition at the Dali Museum. Hugo is initially reluctant–art isn’t really his thing, he’s more of a bibliophile–but he’s drawn to the exhibition when he learns that it involves sculptures created from rare books. (The fact that the artist is an “indescribably beautiful” young woman doesn’t hurt either.) When a museum guest is brutally murdered, Hugo jumps to help the police find the killer. And when they arrest someone Hugo believes is most certainly not the killer, he feels an even deeper urgency to bring the real culprit to justice.

Meanwhile, Hugo’s best friend Tom is getting himself into a spot of trouble in Amsterdam. In their former lives, Hugo and Tom were responsible for sending a man to prison. That man has been released, and Tom believes he may have traveled to Europe to seek revenge. As the pursuit unfolds, the avid Hugo fan finally learns some hidden truths about Hugo and Tom’s shared past.

It’s difficult to delve much further without divulging any spoilers, because there is one twist after another in The Book Artist. Pryor seamlessly weaves the disparate plot lines together, and his voice demonstrates a new level of assuredness.

Pryor’s characters have become old friends to this series devotee, and the long-time friendship between Hugo and Tom is just so much fun to witness. The hard-drinking, womanizing Tom is the perfect foil to the more serious and straight-laced Hugo. Underneath Tom’s relentless teasing one can sense his deep admiration and love for Hugo, and the affection runs both ways. In The Book Artist we finally get a glimpse into their shared past and learn how they ended up leaving their former employers.

And any discussion about the series has to include the setting. Pryor clearly loves Paris, and his detailed descriptions of the neighborhoods, the restaurants, and the people makes the reader feel greatly tempted to hit up Expedia for the next jet to the City of Light. If your budget won’t allow for that, at least pick up a croissant and fix yourself a café au lait to enjoy while you delve into The Book Artist!

Pick of the Month – TRIGGER By David Swinson

David Swinson’s Frank Marr has become one of my favorite private eyes. A functioning drug addict with a lot of dysfunctional relationships, he is just as likely to go looking for a fix before a suspect. In Trigger, reported to be the end of the Frank Marr trilogy, he takes a case that could lead to redemption or send him spiraling to oblivion.

Marr has quit using, but he doesn’t appear much better. He still raids drug houses, but flushes down the contraband he finds, using the rush as a replacement for the narcotics. The fact that he downs a lot of alcohol throughout the book is also suspect. He walks a razor’s edge asking to get cut.

Leslie Costello, the attorney he works for who is also his ex, gives him a job that hits close. She’s representing his former D.C.P.D. partner Al Luna who is accused of a bad shooting. Al swears he saw a gun, but none can be found at the scene. Frank’s work for the defense has him working with Calvin, a young black man who was at the wrong end of his abuse of authority in his police days. Their search for answers puts them in the middle of a drug war with shifting sides.

Swinson pulls no punches in his depiction of Frank. He follows the hard boiled school of the reader taking the protagonist on his own terms. If you haven’t read the previous books, The Second Girl and Crime Song, you may have difficulty in liking him at first. He is responsible for his own faults and has become a prisoner of them. We root for him to get past his sins and mistakes, allowing the decent man who is in there to fully come to form.

The plot itself also may be challenging to the reader. It almost works inverse to most mysteries, with more understanding, facts, and truth leading to more ambiguity. It reflects the right and wrong of the streets becoming more abstract from what Frank and Calvin learn from one another. It also ties into our concern we have for Frank returning to drugs for the dark confusing world the case leads him through.

If Trigger’s world is dark, it finds light in many of the characters, especially in its lead. His code provides an anchor for his soul on the rough, cold seas. He and others show that an ability to reach out to one another and share perspectives makes the streets easier to navigate. Frank Marr’s life may be harrowing, but there is hope if he can trust others for help.

Meike reviews Last Woman Standing

MysteryPeople contributor Meike Alana has reviewed Amy Gentry’s new novel, Last Woman Standing. Gentry will be in the store Tuesday, January 22nd, at 7pm to discuss her book and sign copies.

Last Woman Standing Cover ImageAmy Gentry wowed us with her debut novel, Good as Gone, and her latest suspense novel is every bit as thrilling. Last Woman Standing introduces us to Dana Diaz, a Latina stand-up comic from Amarillo struggling to make it in a comedy scene dominated by men and rife with sexual harassment. Dana has recently returned to the Lone Star State from LA after a split from her childhood friend and writing partner. She’s grown accustomed to expect little from an industry where she’s continually reminded that a woman (particularly a woman of color) has little value, but her frustrations have reached a critical point. What she has told no one is the real reason she left LA—she was drugged and sexually assaulted by a well-known comic she idealized during a meeting purported to be about discussing her future.

One night during her set she aptly fends off a vulgar heckler. Computer programmer Amanda witnesses the encounter and offers to buy Dana a congratulatory drink. One drink turns to several, and the two women bond over their shared experiences of injustice and misogyny. Soon they strike a kind of Strangers on a Train deal—each will seek revenge on the other’s abuser. Revealing more would be crossing over into spoiler territory, but the ensuing plot twists make for a riveting tale of deceit and paranoia.

There is a definite #MeToo vibe to the book, and Gentry shines a harsh light on the myriad injustices that women face every single day. The novel examines the issues of sexual harassment and assault from a variety of angles, including the confusion that a victim can experience. Dana doesn’t even know how to put words to what happened to her—she knows it was “bad” but doesn’t initially realize that the episode qualifies as assault. When she describes her experiences to her male best friend, he’s dismissive and tells her she’s overreacting–an all too often experience for survivors of these encounters. As she comes to recognize exactly how deeply she’s been violated, she also realizes that a long-buried event from her past qualifies as rape. When she’s finally able to express her anger, Dana is shocked at the level of rage she feels as well as the violence she may be capable of. After all, there never seem to be any repercussions for the male perpetrators—so perhaps women need to take matters into their own hands.

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH NICK PETRIE

I have a theory that if you give an awesome book full of adrenaline, excitement and plot twists to someone who usually needs a cup of coffee to get moving in the morning, the book will do the job. Nick Petrie’s new novel, Tear It Down, is one such book.

Tear It Down (A Peter Ash Novel #4) Cover ImageAs the book, the fourth in Petrie’s Peter Ash series, begins, Ash’s girlfriend sends the restless war veteran to Memphis to help a friend, Wanda, with a situation: she’s receiving strange threats. By the time he arrives her home is under attack, bulldozed by a garbage truck.

Meanwhile, a young homeless musician in Memphis, on the run after a jewelry store heist goes sideways, steals, at gunpoint, Ash’s car and Ash finds himself immersed in a second case with Ash trying to help not just Wanda but also this musician, Eli.

Petrie masterfully advances both stories while fleshing out all the characters.

Petrie’s first novel, The Drifter, won the ITW Thriller and Barry Awards, and was nominated for Edgar, Anthony, and Hammett Awards. He won the 2016 Literary Award from the Wisconsin Library Association and was named one of Apple’s 10 Writers to Read in 2017.  Light It Up was named the Best Thriller of 2018 by Apple Books.

His books in the Peter Ash series are The Drifter, Burning Bright, Light It Up, and Tear It Down. A husband and father, he has worked as a carpenter, remodeling contractor, and building inspector.

Petrie agreed to let me interview him via email. This is the result.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this adrenaline rush of a story?

Nick Petrie: For me, stories evolve in strange ways.  Memphis is near the New Madrid Seismic Zone, and I set out to write a natural disaster tale.  I began to research Memphis and its historical conflicts and challenges, and I had a lot of stories to choose from.  I began with Wanda Wyatt because I’d met a photojournalist with post-traumatic stress, and I thought Wanda would provide a new way of looking at the consequences of war.  Then I remembered an article in a building magazine with a photograph of a dump truck that had crashed into a building, which gave me a way to dramatize a certain kind of conflict.  When Eli Bell showed up, he was so sympathetic and compelling that I knew something else entirely was happening, and the earthquake would have to wait for another book.

Scott: Am I right in guessing this is a story where you did some major outlining? It seems you would need it to explain both the plotline about Eli and the others robbing a jewelry store AND the plotline about Peter Ash helping Wanda?

Nick: That was the challenge I set for myself with this book – to write two separate plotlines that would twine around each other, and relate to each other, simultaneously.  Unfortunately, I’m not a big outliner, I tend to write more organically, and at times I really despaired for the structure of this book. (I often think my writing life would be easier if I could outline.  But I seem incapable of it.) I have a big corkboard on the wall of my office, and after I had most of a draft, I marked up a bunch of notecards, one card for each scene, and used the corkboard to arrange and rearrange until it felt right.  Not very scientific, I’m afraid.

Scott: What was it like to get this praise from Lee Child: “Lots of characters get compared to my own Jack Reacher, but Petrie’s Peter Ash is the real deal…The writing is terse and tense, full of wisdom and insight, and the plot is irresistible.”  How would you compare Ash with Reacher?

Nick: I am a HUGE fan of Lee’s work, so his praise meant the world to me.  Peter Ash definitely shares some DNA with Jack Reacher – both are rootless ex-military heroes who don’t really fit into the modern world, and who are more interested in solving somebody’s problem than in the niceties of the legal system.  But I think the characters’ differences are far more complex. Where Reacher is a wandering loner by choice, Peter longs for a home, but he literally cannot stay indoors for very long. And where Reacher is a kind of superman, who you feel is almost beyond harm – and this is, I think, one of the core appeals of Jack Reacher – Peter Ash, although physically very capable, is still quite vulnerable, which is, I think, why the series has found so many readers, so quickly.  

Scott: How would you describe Iraq war veteran Peter Ash, as well as the character of Eli?

Nick:  Peter Ash is a Marine Corps veteran with post-traumatic stress that takes the form of claustrophobia, which means he can’t be inside for more than a few minutes.  Although he’s working hard to get better, Peter’s combat skills and wartime experiences have made him ill-suited to the modern world. But like many veterans I’ve met, Peter is driven to be useful.  So he dives back into the world, again and again, even if it means risking everything, to help others.

Eli Bell, on the other hand, is a talented young street musician in serious trouble.  He’s allowed himself to be caught up in a robbery scheme with his friends, but when the robbery goes wrong, Eli finds himself on the wrong side of a local warlord and his paid killers.  Eli is smart and proud and resourceful, and he doesn’t want Peter’s help. But he won’t live long without it.

Scott: How did you develop those two characters?

Nick: This might make me sound more unbalanced than I really am, but characters usually appear first as a kind of voice in my head.  I started writing The Drifter, my first book, because I kept hearing the voice of a cheerful, damaged veteran who needed to remove a big, mean dog from under a porch so he could do some repairs.  The whole story evolved from that basic sense of his character. The way Peter got the dog out from under the porch. His reaction when he found a certain Samsonite suitcase. What he did with the dog afterwards.  How he ended up under that porch in the first place. Everything Peter’s done since that scene has been an extension of that first voice in my head.

I have no idea where Eli Bell came from.  One day I started writing about these four black kids living in an abandoned house.  But I became very involved in their complicated friendship, their hopes and sorrows and dreams and ambitions.  And Eli’s voice was so strong that I just kept writing, not knowing where he would fit in the book, knowing only that he would take me somewhere interesting.  He’s fierce and strong and determined and flawed, with everything stacked against him – a writer could hardly hope for a better character.

Scott: Which comes first for you, plot or characters?

Nick: Character, absolutely.  I start with a character’s voice, then drop him or her into a difficult situation with no real idea of what he or she will do next.  Usually the voice tells me what happens next. In Light It Up, for example, I knew I wanted to write about Colorado’s newly-legal cannabis industry.  It made sense that Peter would want to help other veterans to protect the pot growers – protecting and helping others is like breathing for Peter. So I sent him to work one day, to see what would happen.  Unfortunately, some hijackers decided they wanted what Peter’s crew was carrying. Things went downhill from there.

Scott: You do a great job explaining what life is like on streets for Eli. Are you hoping readers will come away with some learning about that? What else are you hoping readers will take away from this excellent novel?

Nick: My primary job is always to entertain my readers, to jack up their adrenaline levels and keep them turning those pages.  That means I have to create characters that readers will care about, then give those characters increasingly difficult challenges.  And because my own life is pretty boring, I’m most interested in writing about people who are not like me, whether that’s a black street kid or a combat veteran or a working-class guy who feels abandoned and adrift.  

If my work can drop readers into the lives and minds and hearts of someone who is not like them? That, for me, is success. Because reading a good book is a radical act of empathy. The world could use a little more of that.

Scott: How do you go about researching a story like this?

Nick:  I begin by reading enough to hear that quiet voice in my head and get me itching to begin.  Then I write forward in the story until it’s clear to me that I need to know more. Sometimes research is more reading, sometimes it’s talking with experts, sometimes it’s talking with people who have lived an experience I’m only writing about.  This happens multiple times during the writing of a single book – sometimes multiple times in a single week. Also, I always make at least one visit to the place I’m writing about. Visiting Memphis had a profound effect on this book – creating a vivid setting is really important to me because setting is a kind of bonus character.  I really want readers to have an immersive experience. My favorite books are those that make me forget myself for a while.

Scott: This is the fourth book in your Peter Ash series. Do you want readers to start with the first one or with this one?

Nick: I’ve written them to be read in any order you find them.  But if you’re the kind of reader that likes to start at the beginning – and I’m actually that kind of reader – you might enjoy seeing the evolution of the characters and the kinds of trouble Peter gets into, starting with The Drifter.  

Scott: How far out do you have this series planned?

Nick: The thing I like the best about writing Peter Ash stories is that they can go anywhere and can take on any subject – as long as they involve vivid characters and a fast, exciting story.  I have some ideas about the larger arc of the series, but I try not to have too many preconceived notions. Following the characters seems to work best. The next Peter Ash book is set in Iceland, where Peter goes to find a missing child amid the dramatic landscape and strange characters of this wild and wonderful place.  Unfortunately for Peter, it doesn’t go well.

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS HAMMER

In Scrublands, Australian author Chris Hammer writes about a journalist, Martin, sent to a drought-ravaged town in Australia where the one year anniversary of an event is coming up: A year earlier a priest, minutes before a weekend service, stood on the church steps with a gun and shot several people before being killed himself.

Scrublands Cover ImageMartin finds things are not as it seems as far as the story told about the incident and, while investigating, there are fires, a fatal car accident and he falls in love with a local resident.

The old journalism rule about not becoming part of the story is broken repeatedly. This book has twist after twist including Martin publishing stories that seem accurate at the time, but soon turn out to be otherwise. This is great writing that will keep surprising you.

Hammer was a journalist for more than 30 years before becoming a full-time novelist with the success of Scrublands.  He served as an international correspondent, the chief political correspondent for The Bulletin and a senior political journalist for The Age. His first nonfiction book, The River, was awarded the ACT Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award.

As a lover of good mysteries and a former journalist myself, I recommend this book

Hammer agreed to let me interview him via email.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story?

Chris Hammer: I have no idea where large parts of the story came from. For example, mass shootings are rare in Australia – those that do occur are typically domestic murder-suicides. I know of no real-life basis for the homicidal priest Byron Swift, here or in the US.

I was a journalist for 30 years, including extensive stints as a roving foreign correspondent, so those helped inform protagonist Martin Scarsden – for example, I did report from Gaza.  But character-wise he is unlike me.

I travelled through large parts of inland Australia about ten years ago at the height of the ‘Millennial Drought’ – the deepest and most prolonged since European settlement – researching my non-fiction book The River. I visited towns where the river had literally run dry. So the setting for Riversend is based on that.

There was a case some years ago involving Australia’s most infamous serial killer, a man named Ivan Milat. He would pick up hitchhikers, torture and kill them. It’s likely one story line grew from that seed.

There are other bits and pieces that may have origins in real life but much of it has bubbled up from the imagination. Which is good – it encourages me to think I can write more books like this!

Scott: Which came first, the priest and other characters, or the plot?

Chris: The idea of the priest, Martin and Mandy came first. The plot changed and changed again, evolving over time. Entire plot lines and several characters were thrown away and new ones developed. I reckon I discarded more than 200,000 words before settling on the final manuscript.

Scott: The press release for your book states, in part: “The ever-growing popularity of Australian authors like Liane Moriarty, Hannah Kent, and Kate Grenville proves that American readers are hungry for stories about the land down under, a country that feels remarkably familiar while remaining a world away. Interestingly, it turns out that Australia has a wild west, too, and it’s strikingly similar to ours.” Do you think this is the case? Also, are Australians interested in America’s “wild west?

Chris: Australia is a large country, but our population is relatively small. In the past, we have been wholesale importers of culture: movies, tv, books, music, particularly from America and Britain. We still are. So Australians are far more familiar with American culture than vice versa. For example, my dad was a big John Wayne fan and his favourite movie was Shane. So yes, Australians are/were interested in the wild west, as they are with other aspects of American culture.

I’m not sure there is anything particularly wild about the west in either the US or Australia nowadays. Certainly not in the sense they are lawless.

I think Australia does capture the imagination of Americans, who might see it as simultaneously familiar and exotic. I have met Americans who hold an almost nostalgic view of Australia: they see it as a more innocent version of the US, like America used to be. They often warn me: “Don’t do this or that, or you will end up like us.”

Scott: As a former journalist myself, I found myself cheering along journalist Martin Scarsden. Is Martin based on journalists you have known and/or aspects of yourself?

Chris: Scrublands is certainly informed by my past as a journalist, although Martin isn’t based on any particular person(s), and certainly not myself. Certainly, much of the journalistic process in the book is familiar to me, as is the way journalists act and the way they view the world and their craft. However, Martin is no exemplar: he is constantly getting stories wrong! This was one of the ideas I had from the start; a protagonist who gets things wrong.

Scott: How has your career of journalism helped you when writing this novel?

Chris: The discipline of writing is there. While some aspiring writers may wait for inspiration and struggle with writer’s block, no journalist can tell their editor that they aren’t feeling inspired and may not file!

I don’t get too attached or sentimental about what I’ve written and I don’t get precious during the editing process. Particularly in television, editing material and parring it back is all part of the process.

For many years I made long-form television reports of around 30 minutes in length. I think this has helped me with pacing and structure and developing through-lines i.e. leading a reader through a story.

Scott:  Do you have any thoughts or questions you hope readers will take away from this book?

Chris: Not really. I hope they enjoy it and that it might fire their imaginations. There is a theme there of inter-generational trauma, but the book is not meant to be didactic.

Scott: Was it hard switching from non-fiction to fiction?

Chris: No, I found it liberating. Now I get paid for making stuff up. How good is that?

Scott: How do you feel about your writing being compared to Jane Harper and James Lee Burke?

Chris: It’s a compliment, of course. I guess it’s natural for debut novelists to be likened to established writers. That said, I certainly haven’t modeled my writing on any other author, at least not consciously. I hadn’t heard of Jane until I’d finished the first draft of Scrublands, but I’m honoured to be compared with her. And grateful. I think the success of The Dry has almost certainly helped other Australian crime writers, myself included, to find publishers and readers in the US and elsewhere.

Scott: Are you hoping this will be the start of a series?

Chris: Yes. I am well into the follow up to Scrublands (which was published July 2018 in Australia). We have a tentative Australian publication date of late 2019 for the next one. It again features Martin and Mandy. And there’s likely to be a third book as well.

Pick Of The Month- In A House Of Lies by Ian Rankin

When Ian Rankin brought back Rebus, the books had a feeling of old home week. The surly DI getting back with former partner Clarke and facing off with her new one, Fox (who Rankin wrote about in two books before Rebus’ return) play on the idea of the history we’ve had with these characters and fondness for them. Even “retired” crime boss Cafferty was a welcome sight. With In A House Of Lies, Rankin takes a slightly different tact with our feelings and knowledge of these people.

In a House of Lies (A Rebus Novel) Cover ImageThe discovery of the remains of a private detective’s body in a rusted V.W. leads back to an old unsolved missing persons case where there were questions of police neglect. The fact that the ankles are handcuffed support the allegations. Clarke catches the case and Fox, with his experience in Complaints (the Scottish version of Internal Affairs), is to assist. Rebus, who worked with the cops on the missing person case becomes involved too. Soon questions arise if it’s for redemption or obfuscation, particularly when we discover Cafferty is involved as well.

This is his twenty-fifth novel with Rebus, and Rankin demonstrates an ease with the characters that comes with time. He realizes how well the readers know them and their idiosyncrasies and plays with that knowledge. He executes it brilliantly in a chapter where Rebus and Cafferty meet up, and he also uses it to keep the reader off center as Clarke’s investigation points to Rebus’ involvement into the private detective’s demise. Rankin makes it feel like we’re learning something we don’t want to know.

Our knowledge of Rebus and his world allows Rankin to delve into ideas about history and friendship in In A House Of Lies. The clash of Rebus old school investigating with Clarke and Fox shows how facts of the past can be rearranged from point of view, particularly in our modern times. The only thing we can put faith in is our friends, but the author has us questioning that as well.