Scott’s Top 10 (Okay, 12) Of The Year So Far
We are now in the last month of summer reading. If you want to go out with some quality crime fiction, here are some suggestions of books both talked about and deserving of attention. It was difficult to cut this list down and even when I did, I doubled up on a couple that shared a few traits.
1. The Cartel by Don Winslow
This mammoth, yet fast paced look at the war with the Mexican cartels is epic crime fiction at its finest. Full of emotion, great action, and sharply drawn characters, this book is destined to be on a lot of critics’ list for 2015 as well as becoming a classic. Even more entertaining, is that Winslow’s drug kingpin, Adan Barrera, has a lot in common with current fugitive Cartel boss, El Chapo.
Both of these rural noirs by debut authors show there is still a lot of life in the subgenre. These books view ideas of violence, kin, honor, and retribution with the eyes of an author with decades of experience and the energy of newcomer.
3. The Long & Faraway Gone by Lou Berney
The ambitious novel balances three mysteries to look at the ripples of a violent act and the effect it has on the survivors. Great pacing and clean, accessable style allow for this rich, multi-character story to flow beautifully.
4. The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison
Loosely based on a true crime, this book gives us an inside and very human view of modern Mormon society. Harrison balances both interior monologue and exterior dialogue to give us a main character who doesn’t know if she can always speak her mind.
5. Doing The Devil’s Work by Bill Loehfelm
A routine traffic stop for rookie patrolman Maureen Coughlin leads to a conspiracy involving a black drug dealer, white supremacists, guns, a prominent New Orleans family, and some of her fellow officers. Loehfelm renders the both the drudgery and danger of police work and the web of corruption that even ensnares good cops.
6. Love & Other Wounds by Jordan Harper
These short stories herald a great new voice in crime fiction. Harper has a cutting prose style that reveals the souls of violent men.
7. Soil by Jamie Kornegay
A mix of Southern gothic with psycho noir about a failed young farmer who finds a body on his flooded property. Kornegay knows how to capture people driven by their obsessions and at the end of their rope.
8. Concrete Angel by Patricia Abbott
Abbott’s inverse retelling of Mildred Pierce has a classic feel even though the story about a daughter caught up in her mother’s mania and criminal schemes has a modern psychological bent. A page-turner in the best sense of the word.
Two great hard boiled tales from the criminal point of view. Whether Stroby’s heist woman or Hamilton’s “reformed” criminal out for revenge, these books deliver all the tropes with a fresh take and pathos.
10. All Involved by Ryan Gattis
This tapestry of short stories that take place in L.A. during the six days of the Rodney King Riots is both blistering and human. A historical novel that has a lot to say about the present.
You can find copies of the books listed above on our shelves or via bookpeople.com.
Jamie Kornegay is both an independent bookseller and a debut novelist (needless to say, my new hero). His novel, Soil, has earned a ton of praise since its release last month. The story is about a foiled young farmer, who discovers a body on his property when he is checking out flood damage. His discovery of the body sends him on a paranoid spiral, both comic and tragic. Jamie will be reading at our May 4th Noir At The Bar, which gets going at 7 PM at Opal Divine’s on South Congress. He was kind enough to answer some questions about his book, his setting and how being a bookseller helped him.
MysteryPeople: What drew you to the idea of farming and the earth as a major element in the story?
Jamie Kornegay: I’ve lived most of my life in a rural setting, so the land, for me, has always held intrinsic drama. It lives and changes. It’s your friend and your enemy. So the landscape was first in my mind. Then I conceived a story about a man who finds a dead body on his land, and, since I live in a heavily agricultural region of Mississippi, I made him a farmer. In order to know just a little of what I would be writing about, I planted a garden in my backyard. This was in the late 2000s, when organic farming was becoming a thing, thanks largely to people like Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, who came to my bookstore in 2009 and really got me fired up about growing a kitchen garden. And then I became obsessed, making compost and growing uncommon vegetables and reading about biointensive methods. The first chapter of Soil is the most autobiographical, where Jay develops his ideas about a progressive agriculture. And then he and I part ways, and he goes off the deep end.
MP: Jay is a character that you can easily laugh at and look down at, but you have us hold out hope and root for him. How did you approach him as a character?
JK: My initial image was a man not unlike Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, someone compelled to cover up a crime. In Jay’s case, he didn’t actually commit the crime, so I had to regress and uncover what kind of man would jeopardize everything he has to absolve himself of this crime, or at least the appearance of a crime. Turns out he was a man who had lost everything. And I studied this long and hard, trying to imagine what I would do if I was against the ropes like this so completely. Even given his reasoning, I would have called the police and reported the body. But that’s no fun, so I said, let’s see what would happen if he doesn’t call the police but attempts to solve this himself. It’s a story about self-sufficiency, so it made sense to me that he would do this. If a reader can’t see him or herself making that leap, then they must consider that a man bound up in nature like Jay will often take the more primal course.
MP: Obsession is a character many of the characters share. What drew you to that as a key element?
JK: It’s in tune with motivation, trying to understand who these people are. Any interesting person has a passion, a prevailing interest in something. What’s interesting to me about these characters is how they keep these obsessions to themselves, like secrets.
Little vices. Jay has many, among them marijuana, which only exacerbates his paranoia. For his wife, Sandy, it’s eating. For the deputy, Danny Shoals, it’s sex. These obsessions are their crutch, their way to escape the world and their troubles.
MP: This being your first book, did you draw from any influences?
JK: Certainly there are many influences. For this novel in particular, the primary influences were Dostoevsky and Patricia Highsmith for the dread and psychological intrigue. For the humor, it was Charles Portis and Barry Hannah, my writing teacher in college. For the intricacy of structure, the influences are as diverse as Faulkner and Tarantino. Those are the conscious influences, but there’s no telling what other writers and filmmakers are echoed in this book.
MP: How did working as a book seller influence your writing?
JK: All day I get to talk to readers about the books they love. So I was conscious of the reader as I wrote this — whether it be my wife, a bookstore employee, the loyal little old lady customer who I knew would buy my book, even if I warned her against it. I didn’t let this idea of them limit what I wrote, only to make me get to the point of the story and not belabor it with internal pontification and reams of exposition and long, digressive, paranoid rants. It was fun to try and balance the needs of the reader with honest artistic expression.
MP: Mississippi is like Texas, L.A., and New York City, in that each author has a different take on it. Describe your literary Mississippi.
JK: I think, also, that a writer’s take on a place will change with each story. You characterize Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha by taking into account his dozen-plus novels set there. Likewise, I’d hope that any stories I write set in Mississippi will reflect some different aspect of the place. But as for Soil, I see this version of Mississippi the way an outsider might experience it, without the strong sense of community that is so prevalent here. My version is almost a man against nature scenario, where Mississippi is a writhing jungle bent on destroying a man. It’s a place of easy rolling hills, verdant fields, and stoic rivers, but also tangled vines, dust-choked backroads, and swampy bottomland. A man is never really alone in this place, but he feels a thousand miles from everywhere. The book I’m working on now is also set in Mississippi, though it’s the Delta flats. This place is virtually empty of all but farmland, yet it’s bound by communities where people rely on one another. This state is a varied, layered, and complex place, and I hope to express that as diversely as I can.
Jamie Kornegay joins us for Noir at the Bar Monday, May 4, at 7 pm, at the Opal Divine’s on South Congress. Come join us for a night of booze, books and crime fiction. You can find copies of Soil via bookpeople.com. Copies will also be available for purchase at Noir at the Bar.
So much of crime fiction is connected to setting. Chandler had LA, Ian Rankin is synonymous with Edinburgh, and you can’t think of James Lee Burke without picturing a steamy Louisiana bayou. Our May 4th Noir At The Bar has guests that will take take you to West Texas, Mississippi,and early Sixties Germany.
Bruce Rehburg’s debut novel, November’s Shadow, introduces Army CID cop Steve Bodowski, who must solve the 1963 murder of a child outside his Gietsburg base while dealing with his own checkered past. Rehburg uses his own overseas experience, depicting the clash of U.S. and European cultures and drawing attention to the Nazism fresh in every one’s memory, to create a moody procedural. This will be Bruce’s first reading, so cheer him on. You can find November’s Shadow on our shelves, at Noir at the Bar, and via bookpeople.com. Can’t make it to the event? Pre-order a signed copy!
George Wier, a Noir At The Bar regular, will be introducing a new character as well as a deeper shade to his writing. Murder In Elysium features FBI agent-turned-West-Texas-sheriff Shane Robeling. When Benjamin LeFren returns to town after Shane helps to overturn his murder conviction, Shane takes him on as a ranch hand to protect him from the half of the populace who still believe he did it. As the sheriff observes Ben’s behavior up close and a new murder occurs in town, the sheriff sets to wondering about his own actions and LeFren’s doubtful innocence. Wier’s understanding of small town Texas allows the noir tropes to grow out of his setting’s ground. You can find Murder In Elysium on our shelves, at Noir at the Bar, and via bookpeople.com. Can’t make it to the event? Pre-order a signed copy!
Jamie Kornegay is another debut author. His novel, Soil, follows a failed young Mississippi farmer’s spiral into paranoia and violence after he discovers a body on his flood damaged farm. Kornegay combines Faulker’s southern Gothic with Jim Thompson’s psycho-noir, then dips it into his own unique voice for a truly fresh read.You can find Soil on our shelves, at Noir at the Bar, and via bookpeople.com. Can’t make it to the event? Pre-order a signed copy!
Jesse Sublett will take us back to Austin, reading from his true crime book 1960s Austin Gangsters, a wild romp with the larger-than-life criminals of Austin in the 1960s. His book has already sold out of its initial printing, and is on its second printing now. He will also be kicking off the show with some of his murder ballads. You can find 1960s Austin Gangsters on our shelves, at Noir at the Bar, and via bookpeople.com. Can’t make it to the event? Pre-order a signed copy!
The authors will hang around to mingle and their books will be on sale to be autographed. Join us at 7PM, Monday The 4th, at Opal Divine’s on 3601 South Congress and get to say you met these rising stars back when.
Noir is a genre usually identified with the city. Concrete and steel cut off our anti-hero, throwing an endless shadow over him or her. At the same time, however, authors were also looking at the darkness, isolation, and evil in small towns or farms. When we weren’t looking, the sub-sub-genre of rural noir took over like kudzu.
The roots of rural noir come from the Southern Gothic authors. One could argue that William Faulkner was an early practitioner. As I Lay Dying uses many noir tropes with a stylized point of view, family secrets, dark humor, and a bleak look at class. Flannery O’Connor is another author whose influence shows itself in the works of current rural noir authors. Her use of religion and perspective of evil can be seen in the work of Jake Hinkson in such modern classics as Hell On Church Street.
“Noir is a genre usually identified with the city…at the same time, however, authors were also looking at the darkness, isolation, and evil in small towns or farms.”
One of the first great examples of rural noir is James Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much. Using Southern speech, much like Chandler used the Southern California dialect, Ross tells the story of jack McDonald, a failed farmer who ends up running a road house owned by schemer Smut Mulligan, who later pulls Jack into a robbery and murder. A power play ends up between the two involving Lola, the wife of the town proprietor Smut is having an affair with. It took the James M. Cain noir structure and themes and put a country spin on it.
Jim Thompson wrote many tales from the city, but some of his best dealt with shady small town lawmen. The Killer Inside Me, still one of the most chilling books ever written, features West Texas deputy and psychopath, Lou Ford. Lou pretends to be a dim hick, who mainly tortures the town citizens, many with their own dark secrets and agendas, by talking in cliches and platitudes. When he develops a brutal relationship with a prostitute, he and the town both violently spiral downward.
“…the violence almost becomes redemptive in this black satire on small town culture and bigotry…”
Thompson took the bad lawmen to new heights in the Sixties with Pop. 1280. MysteryPeople screens Coup de Torchon, French director Bertrand Tavernier’s Algerian-set film version of the Pop. 1280, on Sunday, July 7, as part of our Double Feature Film Series. Screenings will be followed by a discussion of the book and film, and all screenings are free and open to the public. Nick Correy is the lazy, philandering sheriff of a small Southern town during the Nineteen-Teens. When he’s challenged in an election and kills to stay in the lead, we learn how smart and dangerous he is. What is odd is how Nick keeps his genial tone and how the violence almost becomes redemptive in this black satire on small town culture and bigotry. It is interesting to note that Thompson’s father was an Oklahoma sheriff who was caught embezzling when the writer was young.
The author who truly opened the door for rural noir was Daniel Woodrell. Originally writing about Rene Shade, a police detective in a corrupt Louisiana parish, in his Bayou Trilogy, he later moved his settings to the Ozarks, were he was born and raised, in such novels as Winter’s Bone (screened last year as part of our Noir Double Feature Film Series) Woodrell’s novels are somewhat the country cousins to George Pelecanos’ D.C. novels, including the recently released and critically acclaimed The Martini Shot: A Novella and Stories. Woodrell and Pelecanos both create character-driven stories, where criminals are motivated by extreme poverty and drugs (crack for Pelecanos, meth for Woodrell) plague an entire community. Woodrell dives into his stories on a personal level with a poetic prose style. The beginning paragraph of Tomato Red, with its page-long, run-on sentence, is work of great humor and craft. He delves into the lives of the working class and the poor from his area, inspiring a wave of other writers to use their rural background in their noir.
“…rural noir has a strong lineage, an established canon, and the manifest destiny to travel down every back road and tell its story…”
Several of these writers inspired by Woodrell have already established themselves in the rural noir cannon. Frank Bill built a reputation through his short stories dealing with hard men and harder women pushed to the brink of violence and beyond, exemplified in the collection Crimes In Southern Indiana. His debut novel, Donnybrook, is about several characters and the trail of blood they leave behind as they head to a bare knuckle fight. Donnybrook shows how meth in the Midwest has fused the drug and culture together. Another great take on the subject is Matthew McBride’s relentless A Swollen Red Sun. McBride sets a Missouri county aflame when a deputy takes seventy-two thousand dollars from a meth dealer’s trailer in a moment of weakness. The book is reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest in its look at how a corrupt society destroys itself. Benjamin Whitmer’s anti-heroes get ping-ponged from their country homes to the city, trapped by their violent compulsions, developed of necessity but leaving his characters isolated and alone. Both of his books, Pike and Cry Father, are emotional gut punches.
the genre of rural noir is expanding rapidly, and it has room to do it. Both David Joy and Jamie Kornegay have shown new back roads with their novels Where All Light Tends To Go and Soil. Jamie Kornegay joins us Monday, May 4, for Noir at the Bar at Opal Divine’s. Frank Wheeler, Jr.’s debut, The Good Life, set in rural Nebraska, hopefully ushers in a long career writing great rural noir set in Midwestern wastelands. We also have yet to see many female writers and authors of color embrace the sub-genre. As rural noir grows in self-confidence and acclaim, I hope to see many more diverse voices in the genre, but already, rural noir has a strong lineage, an established canon, and the manifest destiny to travel down every back road and tell its story. Like Hank William’s country boy, the genre can survive, and even thrive.