Moments of Incredible Brutality: MysteryPeople Q&A with David Joy

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

David Joy caught our attention with his brutal and poignant debut, Where All Light Tends to Go, hailed as a modern classic in the growing genre of rural noir. His next book, The Weight of the World, is our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month, and comes out today! David Joy was kind enough to answer a few questions about his latest book and his philosophy of writing. 

MysteryPeople Scott: The Weight Of This World deals with three characters on the bottom rungs of society who’ve made some bad life choices, but you never feel like your look at people in a white trash zoo, you have an understanding of them. Can you talk about how you approached Thad, Aiden and April?

David Joy: I remember one time hearing George Saunders say, “Fiction is empathy’s training wheels.” That idea has always stuck with me. I think the most important job I have is to show the humanity of every character I write. When you’re telling the kinds of stories I tell about the types of people I’m writing about, you carry a tremendous obligation to get to that humanity, and that’s not an easy thing to do. We’re talking about drug addicts and thieves, people capable of committing horrifying acts of violence. We live in a world where we’re able to put a great deal of distance between “us” and “them” for the sake of comfortably. We live in a word where it’s easy to demonize those people, to say to ourselves, “I’m nothing like them.” The problem with that is it leaves little room for dislodge, and without conversation you can never address a problem. I was reading a review recently and a woman said, almost angrily, “He made me care about these people!” That’s about the highest compliment I could ever hope for. I made them care. The reality is, as much as I wish it weren’t true, that’s a very hard thing to do.

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MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: THE INNOCENTS by Ace Atkins

9780399173950– Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Ace Atkins’ latest Quinn Colson novel, The Innocents, burns with anger even as it delivers the fun dialogue and bad ass action you expect. At first, I thought the title was ironic, since just about every character is guilty of something. Atkins has focused on an issue of Southern culture, race, religion, politics, in each book. Here he covers everything and has a bone to pick with all topics included, even football.

The book picks up roughly a year after Quinn being kicked out as sheriff in The Redeemers. He returns home from training Afghani security forces policing techniques. He takes a new job as deputy under the new sheriff, his friend, Lillie Virgil.

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MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: THE FAR EMPTY by J Todd Scott

  • Review by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9780399176340The Southwest has become a popular backdrop for crime fiction of late. It operates in both the parallel worlds of modern drug trafficking and historic legend of the old west. Authors utilize a brutal landscape and its history in combination with the brutality of humanity. J Todd Scott, a former DEA agent who worked in that area, uses it to full effect in his debut novel, The Far Empty.

Each chapter follows the point of view of one of the citizens of of the fictional Murfee, Texas or one of their neighbors on the other side of the border. The first one is if Caleb Ross, an awkward teenager and the only person whose side gets told in first person. He discusses his life and the disappearance of his mother. Caleb believes it was murder and knows who the killer is, his father Stanford “Judge” Ross, Murfee’s mythic sheriff.

New deputy Chris Cherry, a young man who returns home after his football career and marriage have been waylaid by an injury, discovers a decomposed, flex-cuffed body. Caleb is convinced it is his mother. Soon, they are in a deadly dance with the judge, pulling a school teacher, drug runners, and others into their tempest of violence.

Scott’s Murfee appears to be a stand in for Marfa, Texas, a town that shares some of its sordid history and mysterious light formations. He uses the state’s legends, history, and its legacy of bloodshed. He examines violence by what parks it and creates a circle of it, avoiding literary distance by tying violence to his characters and making it utterly human.

The Far Empty is is a look at a land and how its history shapes those who live on it today. It’s a place where even the innocent become corrupted. The big land is empty of many things, especially mercy.

The Far Empty comes out Tuesday, June 7th. Pre-order now! J Todd Scott, joined by C J Howell, will be speaking and signing his debut on Friday, June 10th, beginning at 7 PM. All BookPeople events are free and open to the public. 

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: SUNSET CITY by Melissa Ginsburg

Melissa Ginsburg joins us here at BookPeople on Saturday, April 30th, at 3 PM, to speak and sign her debut Houston-set noir, Sunset City. You can find copies of Sunset City on our shelves or via bookpeople.com starting April 12th, or pre-order now! All BookPeople events are free and open to the public. 

  • Review by Molly Odintz

9780062429704At the start of Sunset CityCharlotte Ford, Houston barista and general slacker, gets a call to have drinks with an old friend, Danielle Reeves. She also gets a pleading visit from Danielle’s mother, desperate to speak with her daughter about a lucrative real estate deal. When Danielle turns up murdered, Charlotte is at the top of the list to be interviewed by the police. While the cops quickly dismiss her as a suspect, Charlotte conducts her own investigation, her loyalty to her childhood friend trumping any sense of personal danger.

With only a debut under her belt, Ginsburg is already establishing herself as a superb feminist crime writer. Sunset City begins, like many a detective novel, with a dead sex worker. Unlike in much of the genre, however, she has a name – Danielle. She is not a hooker, but an adult film star; she is not an excuse for a plot, but the source of the plot itself; she is defined, not by sexual relationships, but through her strong friendships with other women.

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MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: HONKY TONK SAMURAI by Joe R. Lansdale

 

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  • Review by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

When Joe Lansdale writes a Hap and Leonard novel, you know you’re in for a good time. The misadventures of the red neck liberal and his gay black Republican partner-in-crime supply a lot of laughs and action. With Honky Tonk Samurai, the boys are back and joined by all their rowdy friends.

By now in the series, Hap and Leonard are officially private eyes. Hap’s girlfriend, Brett, has bought the agency from their friend, Marvin Hanson, who is now chief of police. Their first case is for a salty old woman who wants to find her granddaughter. The clues quickly lead to a used car/prostitution/extortion ring. when the bad guys call on an inbred family of psycho-assassins to do their dirty work, the boys put out the call, rounding up their friends like good ol’ boy PI Jim Bob Luke, reporter Cason, the beautiful and highly skilled hitwoman Vanilla Ride, and Cason’s sociopath friend Booger, like the magnificent seven with fewer and weirder members.

For the fans of the series, it is like getting together with an old friend, especially the one that just got out of prison.

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MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: WOMAN WITH A BLUE PENCIL by Gordon McAlpine

  • Post by Molly

woman with a blue pencil

In college, I developed an obsession with the film El Otro Francisco, a multi-layered Marxist retelling of a romantic abolitionist novel, and have looked for years for something as satisfying in its combination of story and critique. I’ve finally found that in our November Pick of the Month – Gordon McAlpine’s latest novel, Woman with a Blue Pencil, out from Seventh Street Books on November 10.  

In the film El Otro Francisco, more easily found in academic articles than on a dvd, three narratives are presented. The first, based on the abolitionist novel Francisco (Cuba’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin), tells the story of two slaves, Francisco and his lady love, both in relatively privileged roles on their plantation. The plantation owner’s son falls in love with Francisco’s lover, leading to tragedy for all. The second narrative reinterprets the first with a Marxist lens – enslaved characters pursue freedom, not romance, and the plantation owner’s son is not motivated by lust, but by greed. A third narrative depicts Francisco‘s author, Anselmo Suárez y Romero, distorting the reality of slavery in order to gain a sympathetic elite audience.

The film uses dialectical materialism – the thesis of the first narrative, the antithesis of the second, and the synthesis of the the third – to retell the novel’s story for a modern audience. Read more about this filmLike El Otro Francisco, the novel is divided into three interwoven parts: a series of letters from an editor in New York to a young Japanese author, interned during WWII; a jingoistic spy novel that follows a Korean detective on the search for Japanese fifth columnists; and a second, sub-novel, following two characters cut out of the interned author’s initial draft, trying to figure out why they no longer exist.

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MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND by Stuart Neville

Stuart Neville joins Jesse Sublett, Mike McCrary, and Gabino Iglesias for our upcoming Noir at the Bar. Come by the Penn Field Opal Divine’s this October 6th at 7 PM for books, booze, and readings from each author, plus some murder ballads from writer-musician Jesse Sublett. Those We Left Behind, Stuart’s latest novel, is our October Pick of the Month here at MysteryPeople. 

  • Post by Molly

those we left behindStuart Neville is one of the major voices in Northern Ireland’s new wave of crime fiction, dubbed “Ulster Noir” by the Guardian.  The whole of Ireland has become a power-house in crime writing over the past few decades, producing some of the best in international crime fiction from such voices as Ken Bruen, Lee Child, Tana French, and Adrian McKinty, and earning a reputation for Scandinavian-style dark, atmospheric tales. Neville’s latest novel, Those We Left Behind, is our October MysteryPeople Pick of the Month. Neville joins us for our bi-monthly celebration of books and booze, Noir at the Bar, this upcoming October 6th.

Stuart Neville’s many novels have run the gamut in subject matter. The Ghosts Of Belfast and Collusion are steeped in the legacy of sectarian violence and use mystery conventions as an approach to truth and reconciliation. Ratlines explores the lingering effects of Ireland’s semi-neutrality during WWII, while The Final Silence uses a mystery trope – a serial killer in the family – to explore how sectarianism opened the way for casual violence and perpetuated a culture of secrets. The Northern Ireland of The Final Silence, more-so than his previous novels, is one influenced by the past, but as much concerned about contemporary, general European issues as with problems specific to Northern Ireland.

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MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: ZAGREB COWBOY by Alen Mattich

zagreb cowboy

Post by Molly

When Alen Mattich first left Croatia as a child, he (probably) had no idea that he would spend the next few years in exile, eventually settling in London with a career as a financial journalist. He also (probably) never suspected that, twenty years after becoming a citizen of the world, he would merge his experiences, those of his countrymen, and crime novel conventions in Zagreb Cowboy, a rollicking good ride through the black market wilds of collapsing Yugoslavia, just before its constituent parts embarked on years of nationalist and ethnic conflict.

There is no official moment when current events become history, losing their immediate emotional impact in favor of the perspective of distance. Is it five, ten, twenty, or fifty years, before we can bear to touch the wounds of the past, to process their long-term impact, and to preserve the experiences of the past in the fiction of the present? What form do these narratives take? Are they tragedy, bitter satire, or small, humanistic stories? In 2015, as we experience the twentieth anniversary of the official cessation of hostilities post Yugoslavian break-up, several novels, including at least three detective novels, set in former Yugoslavia have been released.

Phillip Kerr continued his Bernie Gunther series with WWII-era Croatia as part of his setting, in The Lady From Zagreb. Kerr dives into the conflict between the nationalist and anti-communist Četniks, the anti-fascist and communist partisans, led by Tito, and the Croatian fascist puppet government of Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, the Ustaše. Ausma Zehanat Khan, a Canadian professional multi-tasker (novelist, media maven, human rights expert, etc.) released her debut mystery novel in January, The Unquiet DeadThe novel addresses the Srbrenica Massacre, asylum for war criminals, and the long-term impact of the conflict on its perpetrators and victims. Over in the general fiction section, Sarah Novic, in Girl At War, uses her own experience of exile to tell the fictionalized tale of a young woman’s return to Croatia and her experiences as a child soldier.

Zagreb Cowboy, while sharing a setting with the books listed above, chooses to focus not on emotional processing or revenge for deeds done. Rather, Mattich has a tear-it-all-down mentality to the Yugoslavian system. He fills the novel with fascinating and often humorous insights into how a corrupt and criminal system functions, then ceases to function, all in a very short time. The title is particularly apt, indicating the lawless, wild west atmosphere of a territory in between rulers.

His protagonist, Marko della Torre, begins the novel working for the Yugoslavian secret police’s internal investigations department. He sells the information he gathers to an outside source, who then uses the files stolen by Marko to blackmail government officials. When Marko’s business partner goes rogue and steals some dangerous information for himself, Marko must go on the run from several corrupt and powerful forces, including organized crime and the secret police.

Marko della Torre is Istrian, and has a rather blase attitude towards national affiliation. Della Torre remarks at one point in the novel that his grandmother managed to live in several countries without ever setting foot outside her home province, shuffled back and forth between empires throughout the 20th century. Della Torre’s wife is one of the last Jews left in Yugoslavia, and she doesn’t have a particular dog in the fight over Yugoslavia’s inevitable split either. Della Torre and his wife represent groups preserved by one empire, destroyed by another; casualties of nationalism, yet supporters of national autonomy.

A review from the Bowed Bookshelf blog called the novel “more than a little farcical,” and in all these novels that have been released so far this year, none other than Mattich’s have taken a satirical approach. The Lady From Zagreb‘s few scenes set in Croatia read a bit like a horror novel, and it’s focus on WWII-era Ustase war crimes provides a very different look at Yugoslavian dynamics than novels set during the post-Communist disintegration. Girl At War focuses on the tragedy of wartime experiences and the difficulty of returning home, while The Unquiet Dead takes a step back for a police procedural deeply concerned the long-term effects of genocide.

There’s a long tradition of farce and satire used by authors as the only way to make sense of the dogma of the totalitarian state or the chaos of civil war (see Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, or Orwell’s Animal Farm, just for starters). Mattich’s novel, through its cartoonish violence and absurd officials/criminals, fits right into this tradition. Zagreb Cowboy is also a classic gangster flick, with a complex plot, a series of unexpected reversals and setbacks, breakneck pace, and oh-so-satisfying conclusion.

By the end of Zagreb Cowboy you’ll be rooting so hard for the collapse of Yugoslavia, you won’t care what’s about to happen, and perhaps this is part of Mattich’s point – of course a large, multi-ethnic country dissolved into conflict after the end to a long, enforced period of cooperation and rule by a corrupt and repressive government.

You can find copies of Zagreb Cowboy on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Pick Of The Month: THE FRENCH CONCESSION by Xiao Bai

french concession

– Post by Molly

Xiao Bai has been known for his diverse writing projects in his native China for some time – his work ranges from essays, to novellas, to literary fiction. His literary spy novel, French Concession, is his first to be translated into English. According to ShanghaiDaily.com, the novel “sold…moderately well in China, but it has…elements that appeal to Western readers,” and while, after finishing the novel, I can’t speak for Chinese readers’ lack of enthusiasm, I can certainly agree with the Shanghai Daily that French Concession seems tailor-made for Western readers of espionage fiction. French Concession is such an impeccable thriller, I’ve chosen it as our July MysteryPeople Pick of the Month.

The novel takes place in 1931, predominantly in the French Concession, a French-controlled section of Shanghai. Xiao Bai has created a dizzyingly epic spy thriller, with a vast cast incorporating revolutionaries, spies, gunrunners, informants, refugees, colonial police, assassins, crime lords, prostitutes, cameramen, Russian, French, Chinese, Japanese, and every combination of the above. Xiao Bai juggles his complex plot and array of characters deftly, and his writing has a cinematic touch. French Concession is reminiscent of Lust, Caution in its mind-bending portrayal of East Asian espionage and revolution. Although Bai’s setting is complex, and his characters multifaceted, Bai includes maps, historical notes, and a tight, explosive conclusion to wrap one of the best international espionage thrillers I have ever read.

The novel begins with the recruitment of a young, French-Chinese photographer by the French Concession police, who want him to spy on his arms-dealer White Russian girlfriend. Meanwhile, a revolutionary cell led by a ruthless Soviet-trained Chinese communist plans an assassination attempt. When the photographer begins a new romance with a beautiful member of the underground cell, he continues spying for the French Concession while also spying on the police for the revolutionary cell. The photographer’s divided loyalties, conflicting loves and multiple professions serve as metaphor for the impossible choices facing China immediately before the Japanese invasion. His playboy nature, amoral collaboration with any and all, and semi-redemption through romance all harken back to the greatest of revisionist World War II movies, Lacombe, Lucien.

“Each major character shifts loyalty at least once, and their romantic entanglements are no more set then their political allegiances.  Xiao Bai’s story has no heroes – only those flexible enough to survive, or dogmatic enough to seek death.”

In order to understand why Shanghai in 1931 is such a brilliant choice of setting for an espionage thriller, some historical context is necessary. Shanghai is one of the largest cities in the world, a powerhouse of trade and politics for centuries. During the 19th century creation of “open” European-dominated trading centers in Chinese port cities, Shanghai became a hot-bed of revolution and a bewildering jurisdictional nightmare. After the end of the first Opium War, the British Empire established an International Settlement, composed of French, British and American zones, taking up large swathes of the city.

After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 and the end of the Warlord Era of the teens and twenties, Shanghai came under the nominal control of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists, but with a strong Marxist underground movement determined to challenge nationalists and imperialists alike for control of the city. To translate this into noir-speak, Shanghai, in 1931, had four official police departments, four official secret services, and many other spies representing the interests of countless nations and individual parties. In contrast, occupied Berlin has served as a setting for numerous spy novels, despite having only four zones of occupation and far less jurisdictional overlap.

The complex scenario of a single city controlled by several political authorities allows each character in Bai’s narrative to play enemies against one another. Each major character shifts loyalty at least once, and their romantic entanglements are no more set then their political allegiances.  Xiao Bai’s story has no heroes – only those flexible enough to survive, or dogmatic enough to seek death.

Xiao Bai lushly portrays Shanghai at the peak of colonialist development and right before decades of invasion, decolonization, revolution and civil war would change the city represented in his book almost unrecognizably. He brings the city’s geography to life, even including a few maps so the reader can be sure to understand the choreography of each thrilling sequence.

“Xiao Bai juggles his complex plot and array of characters deftly, and his writing has a cinematic touch. French Concession is reminiscent of Lust, Caution in its mind-bending portrayal of East Asian espionage and revolution.”

The longtangs, in particular, are a unique neighborhood design, usually consisting of a lane entered through a decorative archway with gated residences facing onto the lane on either side. Xiao uses the longtang to great effect in chase sequences and to represent the tight-knit communities of Shanghai and the divided nature of the “Sphere of Influence” model of imperialism. Longtangs also serve as a metaphor for the city’s mixture of Western and Eastern, traditional and new, and open and closed. The longtang is a self-contained neighborhood defined by its open entrance and narrow side alleys; at once conquered and unconquerable.

French Concession has an incredible amount of research put into it, as well as spatial awareness of the city at the time. Xiao includes notes at the end detailing both the depth and limits of his research, and the novel is an exercise in the power of historical fiction to bring history alive. From the barest outline of intrigue found in crumbling French Concession police files, Xiao fills in the blanks to create additional emotional power and bring history to life, in a perfect example of what great historical genre fiction can be.


You can find copies of French Concession on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. The historical information included above has been gleaned from Wikipedia articles, and while a reader can enjoy French Concession with or without additional historical context, I strongly encourage readers of this novel to supplement the background information above with their own research, since the history behind this book is so incredibly entertaining.

MysteryPeople Pick of The Month: THE CARTEL by Don Winslow

the cartel

Ten years ago, Don Winslow gave us his masterpiece, The Power Of The Dog, Winslow’s look at the first twenty-five years of our war on drugs. His portrayal of a feud between two former friends, DEA agent Art Keller and cartel boss Adán Barrera, gave us vivid characters and strong action while showing the United States’ mismanagement of and Mexico’s corruption in that war. It entertained and enraged. With his sequel, The Cartel, (release date June 23. Pre-order now.) Winslow tells us those twenty-five years were just the beginning.

The book picks up with our adversaries where we left them, throwing away the relative peace they had achieved at the end of the previous book. After escaping from a Mexican prison, where he was actually living pretty well by bribing the system, Barrera starts making moves to hold his power and territory. One rash order is to put a million dollar price on Keller’s head. This pulls Art out of the monastery where he had found sanctuary and thrusts him back into the life as he blackmails the DEA to put him back in the field and after Barrera. The two circle around one another, each fueling the cartel wars between such figures as the practically psychotic Zetas and a violent Christian cartel, and each scorching the earth and soul of Mexico.

Several indelible characters get swept up in this war. One of the first is Magda, a supermodel-turned-trafficker who becomes Adan’s mistress and a strong power player. A lot of the novel’s black humor comes from a narcissistic Texan who plays all the angles. His preppy attire leads to the name ‘Narco Polo’. One of the scariest and saddest characters is Chuey, a teen enforcer whose first kill is at thirteen.

“In the world of The Cartel, grace has been obliterated. Nothing is sacred.The cartels have become militarized. Women and children have moved from collateral damage to actual targets for murder and torture. Citizens either have to take the law into their own hands or become part of the evil. Indifference becomes the main villain in the book.”

Winslow peppers his novel with characters both symbolic and inspired by real figures. Marisol Cisneros, Keller’s new girlfriend, a doctor who leads a revolution of women against the cartels and Mexican corruption, is based on María Santos Gorrostieta Salazar, the former mayor of Michoacán, who was also the basis for the main female character in Chis Irvin’s Federales. The heart and soul of Juarez, Mexico is represented in Pablo, a local journalist. The Cartel‘s dedication is to a list of journalists who were murdered or disappeared covering the drug wars during the period of the book. The list fills over a page and we are told there are more.

In my review of The Power Of The Dog, I described the novel as about people finding grace in Hell. In the world of The Cartel, grace has been obliterated. Nothing is sacred.The cartels have become militarized. Women and children have moved from collateral damage to actual targets for murder and torture. Citizens either have to take the law into their own hands or become part of the evil. Indifference becomes the main villain in the book.

Winslow lets few off the hook. The DEA is as responsible as the cartels, cutting deals with some traffickers to catch others. The US is just as culpable as Mexico, creating the demand for drugs and supply of guns across the border. All operate with the help of Keller and Barrera as they fan the violence, barely aware of their responsibility when the drug war affects their loved ones.

Winslow deftly uses violence in the novel, fully aware of how much he asks the reader to act as witness. He uses the right amount of detail; many key events, including a raid in a mountain village and the climax of the book, seamlessly integrating all sides. The denouement gives The Wild Bunch a run for its money in the final showdown category. He builds up to these moments beautifully, creating emotion and setting the stage for visceral attitude when such scenes explode. In other sequences, he only briefly covers events, or shows the gruesome aftereffects, to portray a country exhausted by brutality yet dedicated to witnessing such brutal acts.

For a mammoth novel, The Cartel moves. Winslow never loses his humanity and rage as he sweeps across a decade of rough shadow history to the wounded grace note it ends on. It captures everything great about crime fiction and makes it epic.


The Cartel hits the shelves June 23rd. Pre-order now!