MysteryPeople Q&A with Ausma Zehanat Khan

 

Ausma Zehanat Khan first appeared on our radar with her crime fiction debut, The Unquiet Dead, introducing the handsome Esa Khattak and the sporty Rachel Getty. The two are partners in a special Canadian community policing unit dedicated to sensitive cases involving minority communities. In The Unquiet Dead, they tackle a case involving war criminals, Balkan ghosts, and the intersection of private and public suffering. In The Language of SecretsKhattak and Getty go undercover in a a mosque controlled by a charismatic leader suspected of planning a violent attack – and engaged to Khattak’s sister. In Khan’s third novel to feature the duo, Among the RuinsKhattak just wants to enjoy a nice vacation in Iran, but gets recruited by the Canadian secret service to look into the untimely death of a Canadian citizen and activist filmmaker. Ausma was kind enough to let us ask her a few questions about the series. 

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

“I have this set of stories I want to tell based on my background in human rights law and my continuing commitment to human rights issues. It’s important to me personally because these are stories that rarely see the light, or that when they do, they’re depicted through a perspective that I don’t recognize as authentic.”

Molly Odintz: Rachel Getty is my favorite contemporary sidekick – she’s practical, sporty, and is always game to help Esa Khattak both with his assigned work and his efforts to outwit his superiors. She seems to be the average joe of the novel, intended to balance out Esa Khattak’s impressively erudite mind. Is she a Watson, to Esa’s Sherlock? Tell us about the dynamics between Rachel and Esa. 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: That’s such a lovely compliment, thank you! Rachel is definitely Esa’s counterpoint, and her story is as important to the books as Esa’s is. I try to have these characters draw each other out, and to serve as foils for each other—I think Rachel is braver than Esa when it comes to personal conflicts and entanglements. She doesn’t always get things right, but she’s much more willing to take chances than he is, though both characters will continue to develop as they grow closer over time. I see Rachel as quite independent of Esa, and as an equal contributor to their crime-solving efforts. I think she also helps interpret Esa and humanize him to my readers.

MO: Each of your novels begins with a murder, but quickly expands its scope to include international concerns, especially about human rights abuses. How has your work made its way into your writing? 

AZK: I have this set of stories I want to tell based on my background in human rights law and my continuing commitment to human rights issues. It’s important to me personally because these are stories that rarely see the light, or that when they do, they’re depicted through a perspective that I don’t recognize as authentic. So in The Unquiet Dead, I examine the costs of the Bosnian genocide and the ongoing legacy of genocide denial. In The Language of Secrets, I invert the perspective of who gets to comment on terrorism and try to provide some historical context instead of the facile interpretations that are routinely presented to us. In Among the Ruins, I take on the egregious human rights record of the Iranian regime, without denying the agency of the Iranian people, or the beauty and sophistication of Iran’s history, culture and civilization. I talk about these issues through the lens of crime fiction because I think it makes painful and complex realities easier for us to look at—and somehow more personal.

MO: Your series started off presenting Canada as more tolerant than the US – your main character’s work is dedicated to solving cases involving minority communities with sensitivity. Yet in The Language of Secrets, Esa Khattak is manipulated into going undercover in what the Canadian government believes to be a group planning a violent attack, volunteered by others rather than volunteering himself. In the third book in the series, Among The Ruins, Esa is recruited by the Canadian Secret Service for a dangerous international mission, then pursues that mission to the point of endangering himself. Is Esa using his position to represent his community’s interests, or being used himself by his superiors to control his community? Or both? 

AZK: This is a difficult question to answer, I must admit. In recent months, I’ve grown to worry that Canada’s commitment to multiculturalism could be undermined by voices on the extreme right should there be a change in government. At the moment, I can only say that Canada’s political leadership has worked hard to set a tone of inclusiveness and mutual respect, and that divisive, hateful rhetoric has not penetrated Canadian society from the top-down. I am very conscious that that could change and that it takes constant engagement by a broad spectrum of citizens and communities to ensure the rights and freedoms of all Canadians. There are definitely areas of weakness and vulnerability that are open to exploitation that I worry about. And I try to communicate those areas of weakness and vulnerability in my books by showing that Esa is vulnerable to those pressures. It’s very much part of Esa’s job to make sure that his community, and other minority communities, are treated fairly by law enforcement, but I have set him up with this impossible mandate where these two sets of interests don’t necessarily coincide. How minority communities experience policing and how they are targeted by certain kinds of policing is a continuous story I’m interested in exploring in these books.

MO: Among the Ruins is the first in your series to go outside North America – Khattak goes on vacation in Iran, yet quickly finds himself embroiled in local politics and recruited by secret agents to discover the reason behind a prominent Canadian-Muslim documentarian. What drew you to the Iranian setting? Were there any challenges in your research? 

AZK: I’m fascinated by the complexity and sophistication of Iran’s history and culture—I’m married into an Iranian family, so I’ve been richly immersed in Persian culture. And there has been a long exchange between Iran/Persia and the Indian subcontinent, which is where my family is from, that influences the languages I speak and the customs I’ve been exposed to. I wanted to tell a story that drew on these influences in my life.

I’m also troubled by the way we speak about Iran. We view Iran through the lens of Western interests, a lens that disregards our problematic interventions in the region, so I wanted to explore Iran through a different lens—the lens of someone like Esa who values its history, its rich traditions, its stunning civilizational accomplishments. Normally, I would have loved to travel to Iran to do research on the book but because my husband is a well-known critic of the regime, and because my book is so critical of human rights abuses within Iran, I had to rely on secondary sources and my own memories of a childhood trip to Iran.

“It’s very much part of Esa’s job to make sure that his community, and other minority communities, are treated fairly by law enforcement, but I have set him up with this impossible mandate where these two sets of interests don’t necessarily coincide. How minority communities experience policing and how they are targeted by certain kinds of policing is a continuous story I’m interested in exploring in these books.”

MO: While most of Among the Ruins is told from Esa and Rachel’s alternating perspectives, you sprinkled in some intense interludes describing (in first person) a political prisoner’s experiences of torture and confinement. What went into those passages? They were incredibly moving. 

AZK: Thank you so much for saying so. After Iran’s stolen election of June 2009, there was a severe crackdown against protesters by the regime and a short while after that, human rights reports began to emerge about the nature of that crackdown. There are also several political prisoner accounts that have been published, so I read many of those firsthand accounts and the human rights reports to try and capture the reality of what happens to political prisoners once they disappear inside Iran’s prisons—and particularly what happened at that moment after the election. My character’s experience is a composite experience of abuses that actually took place. I also interviewed several Iranians about their direct experience of the protests and the arrests to get a better sense of how visceral and frightening those events were. Little details like the use of the Sonata were gained from these interviews.

MO: In an interview with Brian Bethune for MacLean’s, you highlight the stark difference between Canada and the US in terms of the level of harassment and climate of fear Muslims face in each nation. This interview ran on February 2nd, 2016. What are some of your thoughts, post-election?

AZK: I’ve mentioned that there are also things to worry about in Canada, the difference being that for the moment, the anti-Islam/ anti-Muslim rhetoric isn’t state-sanctioned, and that hate crimes and hateful rhetoric are neither sanctioned by the Canadian government nor tolerated. For Muslim communities in the United States, this is a frightening moment—the future is filled with uncertainty, there’s been a spike in hate crimes against Muslim women, against our mosques, there are all kinds of incursions against our civil liberties, and there’s the sense after the Muslim ban that there’s the potential for things to escalate quickly and become much worse. I live my life differently now, more cautiously, more self-protectively, and I engage in self-censorship which is difficult for someone who’s used to being outspoken about human rights, and who writes the kind of books that I write. Having said that, I continue to give talks and meet with book clubs and other groups, and each of those encounters allows me to meet amazing Americans who are as appalled by the current political climate as I am, and who are active in their own communities on a host of similar issues. I think we’re all conscious that we’re seeing the erosion of democratic norms and that civil liberties are not something that any community should take for granted.

MO: Esa Khattak is talented, attractive, and generally an exceptional human being – yet you provide him with enough faults, challenges, and bumps in the road to keep him out of too-good-too-believe. What has reader response been like with the character? Do you get lots of love letters addressed to him from adoring fans? 

AZK: I think I can safely—and gratefully—say that my readers are extremely fond of Esa, and that he definitely gets his share of fan mail! He has his admirers, and my friends have all claimed him for themselves, which I find so funny. Esa is a joy to write but he’s also a tough nut to crack! In the fourth book in the series, I’m trying to open him up more.

MO: Crime fiction, more than other genres, seems to lend itself either to defending or demonizing the other. Your series falls firmly in the responsible representation category, but there’s plenty of airport paperbacks and military thrillers out there ready to reinforce stereotype rather than challenge it. What different directions (if any) would you like to see the genre go in the future? 

AZK: This is a great question. I don’t challenge anyone’s right to write the stories they think are valuable and important, but I’m fatigued by the way stories of the Muslim bad guy are presented. They lack depth or context, they’re binary, and they seem to have a shallow understanding of language, culture, politics, religion or history—and the complex relationship between all these different factors. So I think if the demand for these kinds of stories continues, it would be great to shift the lens of who’s commenting and to delve deeper to tell a richer, more complicated story that doesn’t resolve into us vs. them, but examines the impact of our actions and policies on a region that we seem to project both our fears and our conquering myths onto. I think it would be a thing of beauty to try and understand the hopes and aspirations of the “Other”, and to realize they’re no different from our own.

You can find copies of Among The Ruins on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Q&A with Robin Yocum

A Welcome Murder, by Robin Yocum, is our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for April. The novel follows the quirky denizens of an industrial town as they plot against each other, their actions resulting in unpredictable and unintended consequences. Our reviewer Meike Alana caught up with Robin Yocum to ask him a few questions about his latest. 

  • Interview by Essential MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

Meike Alana: This book is both hilariously funny yet at times dark and depraved. Did you set out to hit both of those marks (which you did brilliantly, by the way!)? Or did the book start out one way, and then you added elements of the other?

Robin Yocum: When I start writing, I don’t necessarily have a direction in mind. Once I have a premise for a story, I create the characters and let them interact. When the interaction is good, it’s like taking dictation. There are lots of conversations going on in my head, and sometimes the conversations are funny. I am admittedly my own best friend, and I’ll be sitting at the computer laughing along with my characters. The humor seems to appear naturally in their conversations. But, there also is situational humor, too. For example, Johnny Earl gets a new cell mate in prison and it’s this hulking white supremacist. How can there not be humor in the ensuing interactions? Smoochie Xenakis, the town door mat, suddenly thinks he is Vito Corleone. The situation calls for humor. There certainly are dark aspects of the book, such as Dena Marie trying to set her husband up for murder, but the ridiculousness of the premise is funny. She hasn’t thought it out or planned it. Rather, she’s trying to take advantage of the situation. I don’t want to write a book that is so dark and serious that I can’t inject humor. To me, the mixture of the two makes for a much better read, especially if you can surprise the reader.

Read More »

MysteryPeople Q&A with Gregg Hurwitz

Interview by Scott

Gregg Hurwitz is the New York Times bestselling author of 14 novels, most recently Don’t Look Back, You’re Next, The Survivor, and Tell No Lies. Gregg Hurwitz was a mainstay at the bookstore I worked in LA, so I’m excited to be hosting him at our store Sunday, September 7th at 4PM. I caught up with him for several questions about his latest, Don’t Look Back.


MysteryPeople: How did the idea for Don’t Look Back come about?

Gregg Hurwitz: I love the jungle. And having come off a string of Hitchcockian “domestic thrillers,” I wanted to write something where cell phones and cops and evidence played no role. Where an obstacle was an actual physical obstacle. A boulder that blew out a bridge. A band of sweeper ants that eat everything in their path. A tormenta (tropical storm) that dumps a meter of water a day.

MP: How did Eve come to be the protagonist?

GH: I knew I had to write a female protagonist (for the first time) because this character wouldn’t quit working on my brain. I wanted Eve Hardaway to come up against someone who was not just stronger than she was, but who was immensely more capable and menacing. Because this is an “Everywoman” thriller, it was essential that readers understand just how outgunned Eve is. This is a situation she might not make it out of alive. The “bad man” in pursuit of her has a unique set of skills, all of them geared toward tracking and killing people. Eve is a recently divorced single mother from Calabasas. Their views and priorities and strengths are worlds apart. So I threw them together in the jungle and recorded the mayhem. I always knew that Eve had a hidden reserve of strength that she’d have to dig deep to find. Perhaps that’s true for all of us.

MP: One thing that works well in the book is how you believable you make cutting off all the characters from contacting any sort of rescuers in a modern novel. Did you think it is still possible to be in the middle of nowhere and not be able to contact society?

GH: Thank you. And yes, I do! Because I actually went to the jungles of Oaxaca. And I was as cut off there as I’ve been anywhere in the world. Because I see my job as giving readers a front-row seat to the action, I try to experience what my characters do. So I went to  the humidity-drenched jungles, shot down Class IV white-water rafting runs, hiked through ruins, chased after giant snakes, and saw much of what Eve Hardaway encounters in the course of the book. My hope is that the reader can hear the thunder, feel the rain tapping their skin.

MP: What drew you to Mexico?

GH: I chose Mexico because 1. I love the jungle. 2. It was important for spoiler reasons that the jungle in this story is in close proximity to the US.

A perfect storm! Plus I got to drink mezcal. With worm salt. Mmmmm. Worm salt.

MP: You start out with what seems like a killer in the woods story set in the jungle, but the nature of the killer turns it into something else. What is your approach to the antagonist in your writing?

GH: Give him a strong personal motive and well-rounded world view. Early in my career, I stopped writing villains and started writing antagonists. As has been noted by many a writer, “The bad guy never thinks he’s the bad guy.” So giving him a rationale, or better yet, a rationale we can actually relate to? That’s engaging.

MP: What is your main goal when writing?

GH: To find beauty in darkness.


Gregg Hurwitz will be speaking and signing his latest novel, Don’t Look Back, Sunday, September 7, at 4 pm on BookPeople’s second floor. You can find copies of his new book on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Q&A: DAVID MORELL

David Morrell has written several different kinds of books for over four decades. He gave the world John Rambo with First Blood, wrote one of the most memorable spy novels, The Brotherhood Of The Rose, and recently gave us Creepers, a thriller about urban explorers. His latest, Murder As Fine Art is a historical mystery dealing with Thomas De Quincey. BookPeople’s Joe Turner was able to ask Mr. Morell some questions about this novel and one about his personal favorite.

Joe Turner:  Thomas De Quincey is an extremely interesting and virtually unknown writer to today’s audience. I read somewhere recently that he has contributed the second most amount of words to the English language, that only Shakespeare has coined more words. What was it about this author that inspired you to devote not just a novel but a mystery novel to him? And what book of his would you most recommend to someone who has never read him?

David Morell: When I was in college many years ago, my Romanticism/Victorian professor relegated Thomas De Quincey to a footnote. I suspect that’s because De Quincey was the first person to write about drug addiction in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. In his day, De Quincey was notorious because of that topic, and evidently he remained so to my professor. Only a chance reference to De Quincey in a film about Darwin’s nervous breakdown (Creation) reminded me of him. Someone says, “Charles, people such as De Quincey are saying that we can be controlled by thoughts and emotions that we don’t know we have.” That sounded like Freud, but Freud came a half-century later. Curious, I started to research De Quincey and was amazed to find that he invented the word “subconscious” and investigated the nature of dreams in a way that may have inspired Freud. De Quincey invented the true-crime genre in the “Postscript” to his sensational essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” in which he described the Ratcliffe Highway murders, the subject of Murder as a Fine Art. De Quincey inspired Edgar Allan Poe, who in turn inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes. He’s far more important than literary history acknowledges. The two titles to start with are the ones I mentioned.

JT: Was it a challenge to write about De Quincey and remember to not accidentally ascribe to him ideas that came from Freud and other psychologists who came much later in the 19th century?

DM: In the case of Freud, I didn’t need to worry because De Quincey anticipated him. Basically, though, every scene needed to be watched for anachronisms. At one point, a lock becomes an important plot point, and I almost described the lock from a modern perspective. But then I read a history of locks and discovered that locks at the time didn’t have doorknobs. Nor did they have levers that locked them from the inside. A key needed to be used to secure a door after it was closed. The lock mechanism wasn’t recessed into the door as is the case now. Instead a lock was bolted to the door, on the inside of the building. I spent two years on research. No exaggeration. I have shelves and shelves of books about Victorian life in London in the 1850s. I can even tell you how much a middle- or upper-class woman’s clothes weighed. An astonishing thirty-seven pounds because ten yards of satin were needed to cover the hooped dresses.

JT: At the same time you were telling the story of De Quincey, you were also telling the story of the origins of the modern police force. What were the inspirations for the characters of Detectives Ryan and Becker?

DM: Scotland Yard was founded in 1829. The detective division was founded in 1842. In 1854, when Murder as a Fine Art takes place, London’s police department was still relatively recent. Detective Inspector Ryan is an amalgam of several real-life detectives of the period. Becker, a young man who is trying to make a transition from patrolman to detective, is more my own invention. I enjoy situations in which an older man teaches a younger one. It was interesting to illustrate the crime-scene techniques of the period. Things we take for granted were innovative, such as making plaster casts of footprints and compiling a card catalogue about the physical characteristics of people who’d been arrested.

JT: The ending of the book seems to be left open for more books to come involving these characters. Can we expect more adventures of De Quincey in the future?  Has there been any interest into turning this book into a film?

DM: Nearly everyone who has read Murder as a Fine Art asked if there would be other novels about De Quincey. This caught me by surprise. I’ve written a few sequels (to The Brotherhood of the Rose, for example), but it’s not usual for me. I keep finding new characters that I want to write about. De Quincey and his daughter, Emily, have grabbed me, though. An editor said that it was as if I’d become a ventriloquist for De Quincey. It’s enough to make me believe in reincarnation. I’m almost finished with the second book, and Mulholland Books wants to bring it out, so it appears that I’ll be living in Victorian London a while longer.

JT: And, on a completely different note, are there any plans to reissue The Totem? It’s my favorite novel of yours and I’ve been trying to turn people onto it for a few years now after discovering it in Stephen Jones and Kim Newman’s 100 Greatest Horror Novels.

DM: I’m very pleased that you enjoy The Totem. At the time, the Washington Post called it one of the scariest books of the last 20 years. It was initially published in 1979. A drastically different version was published in 1993. The difference is explained by a disagreement that I had with my then-publisher. A severely edited version first appeared. Later, I had a chance to re-instate my original text. The 1993 version is still available in a gorgeous edition from Donald M. Grant, who did Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Its list price is $24.95. In 1993, that was costly. Now it’s a bargain, given the quality of the bookmaking. Both versions are combined in an e-book. I don’t put supernatural elements in my work, but the eerie mood has given me many fans in the horror community, to the point that I received 3 Bram Stoker Awards from the Horror Writers Association. At the same time, I have a Thriller Master Award from International Thriller Writers, which proves that genres can be fluid. While Murder as a Fine Art is a historical mystery/thriller, those fogbound streets of 1854 London are moody enough that they could be considered as non-supernatural horror. The original Ratcliffe Highway murders certainly fit in that category.

MysteryPeople Q&A: Phillip Kerr

Philip Kerr’s latest novel, A Man Without Breath, has Bernie Gunther working for the war crimes department, looking into the massacre of Polish soldiers so it can be pinned on the Russians. When two German signal corps members are murdered, he is also asked to look into it, finding answers that would create more than a few enemies. This is a fascinating book about class and the “rules” of Nazi Germany and the sins a citizen carries for his country. We can’t wait to discuss it further with Phillip at his MysteryPeople signing event on April 25th at 7pm. Because we are so impatient, we had our first floor Inventory Manager Raul M. Chapa ask him a few questions to sate us before the event.

MysteryPeople: Bernie Gunther is a great character to follow; he is everything we would expect of a detective. What real or fictional detectives have served as a format for Bernie?
Philip Kerr: I don’t know that there are any detectives I’ve consciously used very much. Certainly not of late. In the beginning there was a little bit of Marlowe, but really no one else. With regard to Marlowe I had tried to imagine what kind of book Chandler would have written if after leaving school in England – he attended Dulwich College in South London – he had gone to live in Berlin instead of Los Angeles. In fact I think I am luckier than Chandler in that Berlin in the thirties and forties is so much more interesting that LA to write about; and let’s face it even Chandler thought that LA is as dull and uninteresting as a paper-cup. All he had to write about were a few crooked cops and dodgy mayors; I have the Third Reich. It makes for more interesting scenarios. Also I am only pretending to write crime and detectives; the real thrust of the books is politics. How is it possible to remain a committed and social democrat in a Nazi society? How can you work and stay alive if you are a leftish cop with a fascist boss? Can you keep your mouth shut when you see your country in the hands of your political enemies?

MP: Your use of actual historical events to move the story is fantastic. This story centers on the discovery of the bodies of Polish soldiers executed in the Katyn forest. How much research do you have to do to pin down what you want in your story?

PK: As always I do a lot of reading and then a lot of thinking. There was one detail of the Katyn Forest massacre that I discovered which hadn’t ever been noticed before and this transformed my research and my story. I discovered that the man who had ‘stumbled’ across the bones of a Polish officer in Katyn Wood and who set the whole investigation into motion was Colonel Rudolf Freiherr von Gersdorff. I wanted to know more about this man and soon discovered that this incredibly brave man had – at the time of the discovery of the mass grave – been closely involved in two attempts to kill Hitler in as many months. In the second attempt, he planned to detonate two landmines in his coat pockets as he gave Hitler a personal guided tour of Berlin’s Zeughaus – the Arsenal. It was one research detail that informed everything else.

MP: Bernie always has a love interest; things usually work out for a while in the story, but he seems to have trouble with long term relationships. Is this something you see, as a writer, that would need addressing, or will Bernie always be alone?

PK: I think it is existentially necessary that the detective should remain alone. A cosy domesticity is unthinkable as a milieu for a character like Gunther. It just doesn’t work. And that kind of thing doesn’t interest me. Being alone entails angst which is a very necessary mental state for a good detective. I could go on about The Other and Sartre’s idea of peeping through a keyhole being the essence of describing someone else and these are certainly important facets of what being a literary detective involve. I also like the idea of Bernie as an absurd figure – also existential. What could be more absurd than having a left-leaning detective working for the Nazis. And by the way the Nazis used left-leaning people all the time. Heinrich Muller, the chief of the Gestapo was a former communist; he never even joined the Nazi party; it may even be that he was a Russian spy all along. There in essence is what Bernie is all about.

MP: One of the best aspects of Bernie’s character is his willingness to be blunt about things that someone, at least with an ounce of sense, would not want to bring up before Nazis or suspects. How does this make him, in your opinion, a better detective that what you read in contemporary fiction?

PK: I don’t care for a lot of contemporary detective writing. I don’t care whodunit. I don’t care about policemen in my own country. They don’t interest me in the slightest. I can’t see the point of a lot of it. I find the stories lack ambition. It’s of no interest to me if Inspector Bloggs drinks a lot and investigates crime in wherever. Such a novel provides no opportunity for what I call the operatic echo. I like a story to mean something in a larger context and the Nazis can always be guaranteed to provide this.

Bernie’s humor is a political act and his one opportunity for true resistance. It also marks him out as a typical Berliner: Berliners are a little like the English – maybe that’s we like it so much there – in that their humor is anarchic, cruel, black. In some ways Berliners are ungovernable which is why Hitler – and before him Bismarck and the Kaiser – disliked Berliners so much. They are capable of revolution in a way other Germans never were. That is still true today. If you own an expensive car and leave it parked somewhere inappropriate in Berlin today you are quite likely to have it torched as a political act against ‘gentrification’. In 2011 almost 400 cars were burnt in this way.

MP: If you could trade places with Bernie, actually live within the historical events he finds himself in, would you want to?
PK: No. I would hate to live in Nazi Germany. Perhaps for a day or two. But I would find it horrifying to see anti-Semitism practised on a daily basis. That’s the point of the books. This is not to say I don’t like going to Germany. I love modern Germany. Could I live there? Yes, although I’d prefer to live in Munich.

MP: Going by the years that document Bernie Gunther’s life, the books from Berlin Noir to this new book, it feels like we are approaching the end of the story. Do you have plans to continue stories of his life beyond WWII? If so, what do you see in Bernie’s future after the Nazis are gone?

PK: I already did what you ask. Book 3 is mostly set in 1947. Book 4 is set in 1948. I think I got up to 1954 before I turned around and looked back and thought I could pull off a few stories that take place during the war. A lot depends on sources. When I first started writing – back in the mid 1980s – there was very little information about domestic life in Germany. Now there is a ton. Then I had to stick to 1936 because that year was pretty well documented for obvious reasons. However, I don’t know how many more books I can write about this subject. It’s difficult spending time with the Nazis. I always feel like I need to take a shower whenever I finish a Bernie Gunther book.

MysteryPeople Q&A: Jake Hinkson

Hell on Church Street by Jake Hinkson

Jake Hinkson’s debut novel, Hell on Church Street, blew my mind into unidentifiable pieces. I love the book so much I’ve been forcing it upon just about everyone who will listen. Recently I had the opportunity to ask Jake a few questions regarding his debut, and he was kind enough to supply some great answers.

MysteryPeople: Geoffrey Webb is a bit of an odd character. At first he seems relatively harmless, if a bit devilish in terms of his vices, but he crosses the line almost effortlessly. What inspired you to write this character?

Jake Hinkson: He started out as a voice. He just started talking, “To begin at the beginning, I had an abusive father. I know my kind always does, but we’re a regenerating lot of bastards.” Now, I’ve written some characters that it’s taken me a while to find, but Webb just seemed to be there rattling around in my subconscious. I discovered a lot about him as I wrote, but I didn’t have to force anything out. He just kept telling me new stuff. I felt like a court stenographer recording the confession of a really horrible person.

MP: Hell on Church Street deals with the themes of religion and corruption, are these two things you think go hand in hand?

JH: I think noir fiction is, at its core, about uncovering the rot beneath the rather banal surface of things. People are accustomed to seeing noir used to undercover the rot of politics, the rot of the criminal justice system, the rot beneath the supposed suburban utopia, whatever. For me, though, noir seemed like a very natural mode to talk about religion, and not just any old brand of religion but Christian fundamentalism—which, today, has become the mainstream religion in much of America, certainly in the south where I grew up.

To answer your question more directly, though, I’d say yes. Religion and corruption obviously go hand in hand. They always have. The bible itself is full of stories of corrupt religious officials. The essence of religion is a claim to absolute authority, and that kind of power attracts bad people and corrupts good ones.

MP: Did you pull from any influences while writing this novel?

JH: I like to say that if Jim Tompson had knocked up Flannery O’Connor in a cheap Ozark motel I would have been the offspring. Between his godless Oklahoma and her Christ-haunted Georgia sits my sweaty little slice of Arkansas. I think Hell On Church Street reads like a Thompson character wandered into an O’Connor story.

On a side note, someone the other day said that my second book, The Posthumous Man, reads like a cross between David Goodis’s Black Friday and Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Maybe I just have one foot in noir and one foot in Southern Gothic. That seems about right to me.

MP: The characterization in Hell on Church Street leads me to believe you may know people like the ones you write. Did you base any of your characters on real-life events?

JH: The characters and events in the book are not based on real people or real events. I made it all up. Having said that, I come from a family of preachers and deacons and pillars of the church. I’ve spent a lot of time backstage, so to speak, with preachers and youth ministers and music ministers and evangelists and revivalists. The most common compliment that I get about the book—other than it reads fast—is that it feels like an authentic look behind the scenes at a church. I’m very pleased by that.

Readers always want to know if Geoffrey Webb was inspired by any creepy real life youth ministers. Let’s just say I’ve met some folks who weren’t all they purported to be. Something Webb says in the book is 100% true. Some ministers are good people doing their best to serve god. Others are lazy phonies who just want a cushy job with a three-hour work week. It’s hard to tell the difference unless you know what you’re looking for.

MP: The story is narrated as a flashback and is bookended by present day events. Was this something you wanted to do going into the novel, or did it emerge during the writing process?

JH: That aspect of the book emerged in the writing process. As I mentioned before, I started with Webb’s voice. Once I started writing, I began figuring out where the book was headed. Around the same time, I started writing a short story (or what I thought might be a short story) about a car-jacking. Once I got a little ways into the story, it became obvious that the car-jacking should kick off the book.

After I finished the first draft of the book and began to revise, it dawned on me that the entire book is heading for that final scene. That final scene is really what the whole book is about.

MP: New Pulp Press published Hell On Church Street, what has been your experience working with them?

JH: God, it’s been great. Honestly. Jon Bassoff, the guru at NPP, is a man with a vision. Of course, so was Charles Manson. No one’s perfect.

But Jon’s a straight-shooter. He’s got good taste (or a refined sense of bad taste, depending on your perspective) and he knows what he likes. Our working relationship has been, for me, a joy from start to finish. And I have to say, I look at the catalog of books he’s putting together and I’m proud to be part of it. The author roster of New Pulp Press reads like a rap sheet of degenerate assholes. That’s good company for me to be in.

MP: Any chance you’ll swing by Austin in the future? I’ll buy the beers.

JH: I am going to take you up on that for sure. I have some family in Texas, and I’m hoping to make a trip down there. Probably not this year, but maybe in early 2014. I’ll for sure let you know. Second round’s on me.

Eternal thanks to Jake for taking the time to answer my questions. If you haven’t already grabbed a copy of Hell on Church Street, swing by BookPeople and I will put one in your hands. You can check out my review of HoCS here and you can watch Scott and I get all nerdy about the book’s publisher, New Pulp Press, here. Also, make sure you check out Jake’s blog for some great insight into noir, past and present.