MysteryPeople Q&A with Lori Rader-Day

  • Post by Molly

Lori Rader-Day’s first novel, The Black Hour, established Rader-Day as an author to keep an eye out for and was heartily approved of by the 7% Percent Solution Book Club here at BookPeople. Her second novel, Little Pretty Thingsuses a murder case as a jumping off point to explore the nature of female competition and friendship while building to a thrilling conclusion. She was kind enough to answer some questions about Little Pretty Things. Read our review of the novel. 


Molly O: Juliet and Madeline, as their high school’s two biggest track stars, are the best of frenemies, spending all their time together, understanding each other’s experience, yet held back from true friendship by their mutual jealousy. Friendship sullied by the nature of competition, and redeemed through female community, is a common theme in narratives exploring female relationships. What inspired the particular relationship of Madeleine and Juliet? 

Lori Rader-Day: I can’t say that I’ve ever had a friendship quite like the one Juliet and Maddy had when they were young, but I’ve definitely had close friends—or I thought so, anyway—turn out not to be life-long parts of my life. And I think it’s quite easy to feel envy for people you love and only want the best for. I’ve told this story a few times already, but I got serious about writing only after a friend of mine from high school published a novel. I was so simultaneously proud and envious of him that I was spurred to action. His name is Christopher Coake. You should read his books; they’re excellent. I don’t think I’ve had a real frenemy before. I only have friends and archenemies. No one in between. That’s a joke, just in case the harsh black and white of the internet doesn’t convey it.

MO: Another theme in Little Pretty Things is the vulnerability of the young, talented and neglected. To riff off of my previous question, Madeline’s talent and beauty, through the jealousy they inspire in other women, isolate her from her peers. Why explore talent not as an asset, but as a trap? 

LRD: It’s more interesting, isn’t it? We all wish we had talent, but most pluses have a minus. And of course all the people we think have it all together have their own dark secrets. We forget it, though. We still do the thing where we compare our insides to everyone else’s outsides, and find ourselves lacking, every time. I thought of Maddy as that woman who is so proud of the fact that she’s better friends with a bunch of dudes than another woman. There’s a reason for that, in my opinion. I’ll leave it at that, because I’m already going to get letters.

MO: Little Pretty Things, like The Black Hour, tells the stories of characters feeling trapped, who are released from their humdrum lives by the horror of assault or murder of someone close, and are able to reclaim a sense of ownership over their own destiny through being forced into action. Noir had been described as, “starts bad, gets worse,” but the heroines of your novels tend more towards the “stuck in a rut, experience a trauma, kick some ass, and move on to bigger and better things” model of detective novel. How do you combine noir style and feminist empowerment so nicely?

LRD: Oh, wow, my writing has never been described like that, but I love it. You’re hired. I like dark stories, but I also like stories that end well and maybe even a little hopeful. I think there must be room on the shelf for stories about women facing some real-life shit (as the character Yvonne says in Little Pretty Things) without having to go on suffering forever. I like to punish my characters, but then when they run the maze, they get the treat. I also want to write women characters who win in the end. We don’t, always, and we usually don’t win at all in crime fiction. All those nameless, trait-less dead women in crime fiction… but I digress. There are plenty of feminist crime fiction writers and feminist crime fiction characters—I don’t know that I’m inventing anything here. But I like being in that kind of company, and I think the readers I care about do, too.

MO: Noir generally implies a hero or anti-hero with an addiction, traditionally of the alcohol and cigarettes model. Lately, I’ve noticed a change in the kinds of addictions in detective novels – an addiction is, after all, anything you push too hard at and feel like you can’t live without, and you insert cross-country running into the place previously occupied by less healthy addictions. Did you set out to write Juliet as a character who drives herself with exercise rather than alcohol? Does the modern detective need to overdo at least one thing in their life in order to be a compelling, noir figure? 

LRD: Well, Juliet has given up running when we meet her and she has a new obsession, but I imagine her new twitch is the same kind of thing. She swipes things people have left behind in the motel rooms, lost objects, orphans that nobody else wants or have forgotten. She believes these things will be her downfall eventually, but she can’t help herself. It’s like a drug for her. I feel like we’ve gotten so carried away with the flaws our detectives have to have. They all have to be highly idiosyncratic at this point—seems like a very high standard to keep up with. But really we just want our detectives—all of our characters—to be real people. Well rounded, complex, troubled. They don’t have to be one foot in AA anymore. They just need to have a complex relationship with happiness, like every person you know. When the good guys are interestingly bad, a bit, we know we’re going to go on a ride, with someone else (maybe slightly damaged) driving. That’s what we pick up books for, right?

MO: As someone who has taught mystery writing, and also is now two books in to an authorial career, what’s some advice for aspiring detective novelists? 

LRD: Write the book you want to read. Read a lot and write a lot, as Stephen King says. Bad first drafts are OK, as Anne Lamott says. I just reference a lot of other people, you see. I love writing books, looking for the best way to phrase and remind people of things they need to keep hearing. Most people who want to write study all this advice like tea leaves, so they know it intellectually, but they need to hear reminders and encouragement to keep them moving forward and working. It’s a long game, and they need to hear that, too. The truth is sometimes really hard to hear but then when it IS a difficult, at least they know it’s supposed to be that way. The other best advice is to find some writers to share pages and encouragement. You just need one person, but if you can find a community, even better. For aspiring mystery writers, Mystery Writers of American and Sisters in Crime are really fantastic places to find your tribe.

You can find copies of Little Pretty Things on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Review: LITTLE PRETTY THINGS by Lori Rader-Day

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– Post by Molly

Lori Rader-Day burst onto the literary detective novel scene last year with her murder-in-academia debut, The Black HourI could tell from the first paragraph that Lori Rader-Day is not just a good writer – she has a perfect handle on noir style, and understands how to marry the toughness of the traditional private eye with the deep psychological insights of, well, a mature female protagonist.

What’s more, she taps into many of the themes prevalent in the wave of recently published domestic thrillers made possible by Gillian Flynn’s runaway success with Gone GirlThe Black Hour takes on class, sex, female community versus competition, and that most controversial of all academia subjects, funding, for a gleeful send-off of modern academic institutions, culminating in a thrilling fight sequence during the college setting’s annual regatta.

 Little Pretty Things, her recently released second novel, takes on a different setting, but many of the same themes. Maddy and Juliet, both former cross-country stars, spent high school as the best of frenemies, and then drifted apart after school. When Maddy shows up at the dingy motel where Juliet splits her time between cleaning and bartending, just in time for their ten year high school reunion, Juliet feels only envy for Maddy’s escape from their small, impoverished town. Plus, she still has a chip on her shoulder from a high school track career spent always getting second place to Maddy’s first.

Juliet and Maddy don’t get much of a chance to work things out, for Maddy is found murdered the day after her arrival in town. Juliet sets out to discover the culprit and clear her own name of suspicion, delving into their complex relationship as she seeks out Maddy’s secrets from a decade before. Through her investigation, Juliet gains new appreciation for all those things she thought she never had, including support from her family and her friendship with Maddy. She even discovers a hidden talent for coaching, and begins to appreciate that Maddy’s exceptional talents, on and off the field, increased Maddy’s vulnerability, while Juliet gained protection and perspective from her own mediocrity.

In Lori Rader-Day’s novels, men are ancillary. They exist, and they play important roles, but a reader is never in doubt – these are supporting roles. Strong female characters pervade Rader-Day’s work, and it’s hard to find a chapter in her work that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. Her female characters have names. They are powerful. They talk to each other about many subjects, and they don’t just talk – they act. They are also vulnerable and problematic. Even Rader-Day’s protagonists are far from deified – they make plenty of mistakes, have selfish motivations, and are blinded, at least at first, to the crimes of those they love. I’m a huge fan of tough prose, strong women, and a moody atmosphere, and Lori Rader-Day’s novels make the cut.

Little Pretty Things reads rather like a combination of Grosse Pointe Blank and The Loneliness of the Long Distance RunnerOr like a re-write of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion where Romy gets murdered in the first five minutes and Michele forgets all about blue binder guy and spends the whole movie solving Romy’s murder while reexamining every facet of her and Romy’s life. Readers of Megan Abbott, Tana French, Mette Ivie Harrison, and Jamie Mason should get plenty of enjoyment out of Lori Rader-Day’s work, but there’s a limit to any exact comparison – Lori Rader-Day’s got a style and sensibility all her own. But don’t take my word for it – thanks to Seventh Street Books and their affordable paperback releases, you can find out for yourself.

You can find copies of Little Pretty Things on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Bouchercon 2014 Wrap-Up!

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With Brad Parks and his Shamus Award

Long Beach, California is known for sunny weather and soft breezes. Thursday, November 13th it became gloomy and overcast with rain. Some blamed this on the hoard of crime fiction fans, writers, publishers, and booksellers recently arrived in town. It was the first day of the 2014 Bouchercon, the world’s largest mystery conference, where we talked about dark stories under an eventually bright sky.

The first night, I had the honor of being invited to a dinner for the authors and supporters of Seventh Street Press, celebrating their second anniversary. It was fun to hang out with my friend Mark Pryor, creator of the Hugo Marston series, and meeting Allen Eskens, whose debut, The Life We Bury is a must-read for thriller fans, and Lori Rader-Day. Terry Shames arrived late, but had the excuse of winning The McCavity Award for best first novel on her way to dinner.

With Richard Brewer and Bobby McCue
With Richard Brewer and Bobby McCue

At the most entertaining panel I attended, titled Shaken, Not Stirred, writers discussed their use of drinking and bars in their work. Con Lehane, a former bartender, opened the discussion by stating that James Bond’s vodka martini is not really a martini because it is shaken. After he described the process of making a vodka martini, no one argued. Johnny Shaw said the more his characters drink, the more they surprise him. Eoin Colfer spoke of how he loved bars because a bar is a great equalizer, where anybody can walk through the door. When asked about the new smoking ban in Irish pubs, he said “It’s horrible. You can smell the men.”

The most enlightening panel I attended was Beyond Hammett, Chandler, and Spillane. Peter Rozovsky moderated a panel of learned crime writers and scholars who picked an author they felt deserved their due. Max Allan Collins, one of my favorite hard boiled writers, talked about Ennis Willie, who wrote about mobster on the run Sand in the early Sixties. Collins described  the books as a Mickey Spillane imitation, but also discussed how these novels had a lot in common with Richard Stark’s Parker, who debuted the same year. Sarah Weinman, editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, an upcoming anthology of stories by female thriller authors of the forties and fifties, introduced me to Dolores Hitchens. Gary Phillips gave a history of Joe Nazel, who formed a triptych of Seventies African-American crime writers, along with Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim.

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Bouchercon has proved to be a great source for upcoming books. All of us who met Mette Ivie Harrison couldn’t wait to read her new novel, The Bishop’s Wife, coming out at the end of December. Harrison, who has had an interesting history with the Mormon Church and her own faith, has written a novel based on a true crime set in her community. I also got into a conversation with Christa Faust and CJ Box as Christa talked about the research she’s doing for her next Angel Dare book, where she puts the hard-boiled ex-porn star into the world of rodeo. CJ and I were both impressed by her knowledge of the sport.

There were also personal highlights. I got to hang out with Bobby McCue and Richard Brewer, the two men responsible for hiring and re-hiring me at The Mystery Bookstore, my first book slinging job, and showing me the ropes. It was also probably one of the best Dead Dog Dinners (the meal shared by the people who remained Sunday night after the conference has closed) as we talked about the state of the industry, books that moved us, and plotted 2015 in Raleigh. And if that wasn’t enough, there was this moment with Texas Author Reavis Wortham and a cheerleading squad.