An Interview with Jon Bassoff, author of ‘The Lantern Man’

cover-bassoff-lantern-man-300x450pxJon Basoff’s latest, The Lantern Man, is a mix of different media, created news clippings, repots, and diary, as well as prose that tell a gothic psycho noir story of a family whose three children suffer much dark fate. Jon will be attending our Crime Writing Outside The Lines panel discussion with Scott Phillips and Jason Pinter. He was kind enough to take a few questions from us about this different sort of book.


Scott Montgomery: The Lantern Man is a very unique story, especially in its telling. How did it come about?

Jon Bassoff: I’ve always been somewhat obsessed with the narrative techniques of novels, maybe more so than plot or character or anything else. I don’t have anything against conventional narratives, but I get excited when I read works by Nabokov or Danielewski or anybody who pushes the envelope of what a narrative can be. With The Lantern Man, I knew the basic story I wanted to tell, knew that I wanted it to take place in Leadville, Colorado, but it took me a while to figure out how I could effectively use a multitude of point-of-views in a relatively fresh way. I decided to use footnotes and journals and artifacts. Basically, you’ve got the main narrative, which is a journal written by a girl shortly before a rather awful death, but you’ve also got the detective’s investigation, told through the footnotes and artifacts. It’s up to the reader to put all the pieces together, namely, to determine how much of the journal can be believed and how much of the investigation the detective is getting right.

SM: What was the biggest challenge in writing it?

JB: Keeping all the pieces of the puzzle straight. Different characters know different things at different times. Different characters have different motives for being dishonest (or honest). And, as with every novel, a huge challenge was determining how much to reveal to the reader at various points in the narrative. That balance is tricky. I hope I did it right.

SM: One of the themes of the book is about storytelling. What did you want to explore about telling tales?

JB: One of my favorite lines in the novel is this one: “We all need a narrative. Something to get us through the day.” From the time we’re old enough to understand language, we’re told stories. Hell, religions, entire civilizations are based around them. In a lot of ways, The Lantern Man explores the power of stories, not just how they can be used to comfort, but also to frighten and manipulate. The characters are manipulated by the stories. And so, I think, are the readers.

SM: How did Leadville get chosen as the backdrop?

JB: For the better part of the past decade, I’ve gone up to Leadville every summer to write. It’s an anomaly in Colorado—a living, breathing mountain town without skiing or gambling. It’s got an amazing mining history and plenty of secrets buried beneath the dirt. I always knew I needed to write a story that took place there. And when I stumbled upon this old abandoned railroad tunnel, called Hagerman Tunnel, I knew where I wanted the heart of my story to take place.

SM: Is The Lantern Man based on any urban legend?

J.B. : Well, there are mythical creatures referred to as lantern men, and I expanded on that myth to make it my own. More generally speaking, my particular lantern man is based on the boogie man, which has a place in most societies, and in most children’s imaginations. But it comes back to storytelling. That’s what the boogie man is. A story. An archetype. And in my story, he represents the evil that we all possess, depending on the right circumstances.

SM: You live in Colorado where there seems to be a concentration of dark and offbeat crime authors. What’s in the water?

JB: It’s true! We’ve got a lot of strange ones here. Ben Whitmer and Steven Graham Jones to name a couple of the stranger ones. I don’t know if it’s the water. Maybe the high altitude? Messes with our cognitive functioning? But, yeah, I’m glad to have discovered the crime fiction/horror community in Colorado.


The Lantern Man is available for purchase in-store and online today through BookPeople. And be sure to catch Jon Bassoff alongside Jason Pinter and Scott Phillips for MysteryPeople’s Crime Writing Outside the Lines discussion of crime fiction on March 16th at 7PM!

INTERVIEW WITH REAVIS WORTHAM

Hawke’s War, the second novel to feature Reavis Wortham’s hard case Texas Ranger Sonny Hawk, is an action packed paperback that rivals any blockbusters this summer when it comes to blazing guns and perilous chases, with Sonny in the cross hairs of both terrorists and a drug cartel out for revenge in Big Bend Park. Reavis will be joining fellow Texas crime writers Billy Kring and Ben Rehder at BookPeople on July 8th at 2PM, but we talked to him beforehand to get answers to a few questions.

Image result for reavis worthamMysteryPeople Scott: While it can be read by itself, the plot in Hawke’s War is a result from events in Hawke’s Prey. Did you know the first would lead into the second?

Reavis Wortham: The truth is that I have no idea what’s going to happen from one paragraph to the next, let alone from one book to another. Kensington Publishing gave me a three-book contract we call the Sonny Hawke Thriller Series. I pitched the idea for Hawke’s Prey one day and my agent liked it. She contacted Kensington and my editor there was excited about the idea of a contemporary Texas Ranger who walks a fine line between right and wrong. With that, I submitted the first novel for publication and a couple of weeks before they went to press, my editor sent me an email saying she needed the first chapter of Hawke’s War.

I had no idea what would happen. I sat down at my desk, put my fingers on the keys, and Big Bend National Park popped into my mind. I typed the first words that led to more. Before I knew it, four back country hikers were ambushed by an unknown shooter. Even then I didn’t have any idea who he was, or why he was shooting, until one survivor escaped. It was only then, when the narrative shifted perspective, did I know what was happening. It took several more chapters for even me to find out who the assassin was, and who he was ultimately after.

Hawke's War (Sonny Hawke Thriller #2) Cover ImageMPS: Big Bend National Park is the setting for a lot of the action. What made it a great back drop for this kind of story?

RW: After finishing the first novel, Hawke’s Prey, I realized what I was writing was a throwback to the old west. Some might call them modern westerns, but others simply use the term Texas Thriller. While I was working on the first book, the bride and I went out to Marfa and Alpine to explore. We wound up in Big Bend National Park for a few days, hiking and enjoying the high desert. On one of those hikes, I looked up at the rocks overhead and wondered, what if….

The Big Bend area is a vast, rugged landscape where hikers and tourists often get in trouble. The park service routinely rescues lost hikers and discussions with those personnel gave me an idea that eventually became Hawke’s War. To the east of the park is the Black Gap Wildlife Management area with extends down to the Rio Grande. The main two lane road dead ends at Boquillas de Carmen, a Mexican town on the other side of the river. The bridge there has been blocked since 9-11, and the town died. It was the perfect setting for the climax and a wonderful backdrop for a modern western thriller.

MPS: This book has more action packed into it than a John Woo and Stallone movie combined, yet I never lost touch with Sonny, his friends and family. How do you keep us connected to those handful of characters, while keeping things constantly moving?

RW: Wow. What a compliment! Folks are asking me that question more and more and the answer is simple. I don’t know. I truly can’t explain what goes on in my subconscious when I’m writing. I see it appear on my computer screen as if someone else is writing the story, and when character perspective changes, I want to know what’s going on with the others, so I look at the story through their eyes. It’s a juggling act that comes easy on my part, but probably harder with writers who have to outline.

MPS: One of your good friends is thriller writer John Gilstrap. Did you take anything from his books when developing this series?

RW: I haven’t taken anything from John’s books, but a lot from his experience. We routinely spend vast amounts of time consuming either Scotch or gin and talking about the business, sometimes all night long. He’s been a bestselling author for years, and has seen it all. We now read each other’s manuscripts and comment. He’s offered excellent suggestions that have improved my story lines, and helped me avoid a number of pitfalls. This also relates to your question above, about keeping things moving. I read his style and shifting character perspectives, and used those in my own works, with my own twists. Writers learn from other writers, much of the time before they start, when they’re young readers. Then they digest those styles and stories before creating their own characters, books, and series. I’ve learned from the best.

MPS: In both your series, you deal with Texas lawmen. What do you want to get across to the reader about that profession?

RW: As many know, my maternal grandfather was a lawman, a rural constable. I grew up with men and women who upheld the law. At the same time, my parents always told me that “The police are your very best friends. They will help you, and be there for you, if you only ask.”

Law enforcement officers are charged with the most difficult job in this country, in my opinion, and that’s to uphold the law. They deal with difficult people on a daily basis and do their best to maintain this delicate balance we call civilization. If it weren’t for them, this country would dissolve into chaos. That’s why I hold them in high regard, personally and professionally. My characters will always do what’s right and what’s best for the state and its inhabitants to keep them safe. I back everyone who wears a badge, and yeah, there are always a few bad people who damage their profession, but in the long run, they’re all just like us, family men and women who want to do their best every day.

MPS: You’ll have a new Red River book, Gold Dust, coming out in September. What can you tell us about that?

RW: Book 7 in this series, Gold Dust, is a little overdue, but that was to keep two books in two different series from releasing at the same time. For some reason, a number of readers thought the Red River series was over, but that’s not the case. Gold Dust picks up only a couple of months after Unraveled, the sixth book in the Red River series. Here’s the inside flap:

“As the 1960s draw to a close, the rural northeast Texas community of Center Springs is visited by two nondescript government men in dark suits and shades. They say their assignment is to test weather currents and patterns, but that’s a lie. Their delivery of a mysterious microscopic payload called Gold Dust from a hired crop duster coincides with fourteen-year-old Pepper Parker’s discovery of an ancient gold coin in her dad’s possession. Her adolescent trick played on a greedy adult results in the only gold rush in North Texas history. Add in modern-day cattle-rustlers and murderers, and Center Springs is once again the bull’s-eye in a deadly target.

The biological agent deemed benign by the CIA has unexpected repercussions, putting Pepper’s near-twin cousin, Top, at death’s door. The boy’s crisis sends their grandfather, Constable Ned Parker, to Washington D.C. to exact personal justice, joined by a man Ned left behind in Mexico and had presumed dead. The CIA agents who operate on the dark side of the U.S. government find they’re no match for men who know they’re right and won’t stop. Especially two old country boys raised on shotguns.

But there’s more. Lots more. Top Parker thought only he had what had become known as a Poisoned Gift, but Ned suffers his own form of a family curse he must deploy. Plus, there are many trails to follow as the lawmen desperately work to put an end to murder and government experimentation that extends from their tiny Texas town to Austin and, ultimately, to Washington, D.C. Traitors, cattle-rustlers, murderers, rural crime families, grave robbers, CIA turncoats, and gold-hungry prospectors pursue agendas that all, in a sense, revolve around the center of this small vortex called Center Springs.

Gold Dust seems to be fiction, but the truth is, it has already happened.”

Much of this story came from U.S. experimentation on our own citizens back in the 1950s. The more I read about this clandestine and deadly test in California, the more I wondered how many other times researchers used American citizens in their tests. At the same time, a Facebook friend asked if I’d ever heard of gold buried in Lamar County. That conversation led to the book’s second story line and once again, my subconscious took over, tied the two together, and Gold Dust almost wrote itself.

Top 5 Texas Crime Novels

This year Texas crime fiction had two distinctive elements. One was a deeper look at race relations in our state that serve as a microcosm for our country. the other was the return or the heroic Texas Ranger. Both helped create books that were socially aware, were packed with fun action, or both. Here were what I thought were the five finest.

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

This book fuses the western with crime fiction with a black Texas Ranger trying to solve a murder involving white supremacists to look at the politics involved in race and and culture. A great entertaining genre read as well as insightful social study.

 

 

Rusty Puppy by Joe Lansdale

Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard take a case involving an African American’s murder that puts them up against a corrupt police force in a nearby town and an illegal fight game in an abandoned saw mill. One of Lansdale’s best plotted with all the fun we’ve come to expect from the man.

An Unsettling Case For Samuel Craddock by Terry Shames

Shames takes us back to Samuel Craddock’s first case as  police chief involving an arson and murder that picks at the town’s racial tensions. Shames further proves her talent at delving into the society of a small town and delivering an engaging whodunit.

 

 

Hawke’s Prey by Reavis Wortham

If Larry McMurtry wrote Die Hard. The citizens of a small south Texas town are held hostage in the local court house by a cadre of terrorists. Ranger Sonny Hawke and a rag-tag crew of citizens outside are ready to teach the bad guys a lesson in “Don’t Mess With Texas.”

Sierra Blanca by Don M. Patterson

A washed up CIA agent teams up with a ranger in the eighties to take down a soviet plot  involving a drug cartel and stolen plutonium. Full of gun fights, frayed machismo, and the right amount of self awareness, this rollicking action story keeps moving until the final period.

Top Five Texas Authors of 2015

  • List compiled by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

This year authors from our home state showcased the wide breadth of story material to be found in the state of Texas.The novels below take a look at past and present, with settings ranging from small towns to our big cities, often showing how the Lone Star State effects the United States.


97800622594001. Pleasantville by Attica Locke

An involving story of a lawyer with a murder client tied to a current election in the early Nineties, Attica Locke’s latest novel delves into Houston’s black society and the relationship between Texas and U.S. politics. Locke uses a legal thriller set-up and private eye approach to show how the social and institutional interact. You can find copies of Pleasantville on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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Book Review: 1960s Austin Gangsters


1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime That Rocked the Capital by Jesse Sublett     (Event 3/23/15)

Austin prides itself on individuality. We are both counter-culture and cowboy, known for our own takes on music and food. As Jesse Sublett shows in 1960s Austin Gangsters, even our criminals keep it weird. Sublett chronicles the Overton Gang. They were formed around high school football star Tim Overton, who held a grudge against UT coach Darrell Royal for stopping his chances at being a Longhorn. With fellow football player “Fat Jerry” Ray James, he lead a gang of travelling criminals who burglarized banks and muscled in on vice operations all around Texas, using the new highway system to their advantage, with the Capitol as their base of operations. They were bad men in Elvis haircuts and shark fin Caddies, committing felonies at a rock n’ roll pace.

When it came to Austin history, they were like gangster Forrest Gumps. They hung out at the same club the 13th Floor Elevators played and brushed up against the burgeoning counter-culture. There is even a tense, armed stand-off between Overton and future U.T. tower sniper Charles Whitman.

Sublett uses tons of interviews with the survivors and offspring on both sides of the law. He doesn’t romanticize the gang and doesn’t shy away from describing their brutality, particularly toward their women. However, he does include how some of their victims recall their charming side. He also shows how the methods of overzealous law enforcement almost brought the town back to its wild west roots. Much of the story is told in colorful anecdotes, such as the one about the interaction between a local madam and Overton a few weeks after he robbed and beat her.

1960s Austin Gangsters is a rough, fun ride through Austin’s underbelly during a period of change. Sublett gives us a real world of east side toughs, crooked car dealers, dice men, dogged lawmen, chicken shack patrons, part-time hookers, and elderly brothel matrons.

Yep, even when it came to crime, Austin isn’t what it was.

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Copies of 1960s Austin Gangsters are available on our shelves now and via bookpeople.com

Jesse Sublett speaks about and signs his new book here at BookPeople Monday, March 23 at 7pm.

Crime Fiction Friday: PERKO’S FARM by Rob Brunet

crime-scene
CRIME FICTION FRIDAY

We have the honor of hosting Rob Brunet with Terry Shames this Monday, November 10th. His novel Filthy Rich is getting great buzz as one of the best debuts of the year, combining crime and comedy brilliantly. In this story, originally a part of the anthology Down, Out, & Dead, serves as a prequel to Filthy Rich.

PERKO’S FARM

By Rob Brunet

Perko Ratwick needed a change in plans like he needed hemorrhoids. He rocked his Harley onto its kickstand and walked to the water’s edge where a man stood fishing.

“Biting today?” he asked.

The man grunted and looked at the white bucket beside him. Perko peeked in and saw what had to be half a dozen scaly creatures, gills flapping on the top ones.

“These good eating?” Making conversation when he’d much rather knee-cap the fisherman. Four months of planning, a twenty-thousand-dollar down payment so this bugger could set up a suburban grow op, and now he calls to say the deal’s off? No explanation?

“Free food.” The man finished reeling in his line, shook a clump of weeds from its green and yellow lure, and cast again.

Perko didn’t get it. Nghiem had to be worth a couple million, maybe more. He’d arrived from Vietnam a decade ago and was running at least six grow houses in the suburbs north of Toronto, one of which was supposed to supply Perko. Surely he could afford dinner. “We coulda met in a restaurant,” said the biker. “I’d a picked up the tab.”

Nghiem said, “Sense of obligation. No need.”

“So what’s the deal? Your message said something changed.”

“No deal.”

“Then what?”

“I said no deal. Go find new grower.”

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Guest Post: Rob Brunet

stinking rich rob brunet

Guest Post by Rob Brunet, author of Stinking Rich

Growing Up On a Beach Outside Ottawa

I often get asked about the characters I write about. Where do they come from? Do I know people like that? Often I point to the time I’ve spent in the country as if the whackos populating my stories are somehow representative of the people I know there. If you’ve read what I write, you’ll know that’s unlikely. I’m not sure that makes the reference a cop-out. It’s just incomplete.

Not unlike the tropes that drive country music, characters like Perko Ratwick or Terry Miner are painted a tad vibrant on purpose. If I’ve done my work right, they’ll engage my readers’ emotion, yet remain off-kilter enough to amuse.

Part of them is anchored in my experience down dirt roads stretching right back to my formative years on a beach upriver from Ottawa. In a lot of ways, I grew up on that beach. My city-kid lens skewed much of what I saw, but by the time I was a teenager, the barriers between the cottage kids and the locals broke down. There’s nothing like sitting on a log around a bonfire drinking underage beer to make everyone equal.

Until then, I’d naively seen the local kids—those who lived in cottage country year-round—as the lucky ones. I was oblivious to the boredom afflicting life at the end of the school bus run. Once summer ended and the population thinned to next-to-no-one, these guys had little to do. Breaking-and-entering to them was as common as road hockey to my pals in the city: a little wintry fun on a Saturday afternoon.

Between that and minor illicit behaviour sprinkled with occasional violence, more than a few of them experienced youthful run-ins with the local constabulary. In fact, if a guy hadn’t been sent to the detention centre at least once by the time he turned fifteen, his friends thought him “slow”.

I’m not suggesting petty criminality was universal, but its prevalence was higher than what you’d find in the city. And no one considered it a big deal.

I remember sitting round the fire one summer catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen since the previous fall. He asked me whether it was true my father had bought the cottage next to ours—a real fixer-upper my dad purchased as a defensive move when he’d learned the prospective new owner intended to park construction equipment on the property.

I told my friend my friend, yes, that cottage was now ours, and waited for the jab about how us city slickers were always buying things up and lording it over the locals. Instead, my pal hung his head just a little and apologized, telling me they’d never have broken into it that past winter if they’d known it was ours.

Later, my father told me he’d noticed a few things moved around. More than a squirrel might do. And he shrugged at the idea a few of the local boys had busted in. “There was nothing worth stealing in there anyway,” he said. And nothing more needed be done about it.

Another summer, I had a girlfriend up there. Well, for a week or so anyway. Her other boyfriend had gone off on vacation with his wife or something. He left this girl with a case of beer and the keys to a car. She was fifteen. I know my mother was happy that one didn’t last. Come to think of it, so am I.

Country had a way of aging people different from the city. More than once, I was surprised to learn someone was two or three years older than their apparent learning or behaviour would suggest. On the other hand, a lot of them had full-time jobs and something passing for real responsibility before they’d reach the end of high school.

I’m sure I could have found parallel worlds in the city and the reality is, I sometimes did. But something about the directness of life in the country stuck with me. It resonated in positive ways, and now finds its way into my writing. The characters in Stinking Rich may seem a little warped from an urban standpoint, but I trust their connection to their setting rings true.


Copies of Rob Brunet’s book Stinking Rich are on our shelves now. He will be in-store speaking and signing Monday, November 10 at 7PM. Pre-order your signed copy via bookpeople.com!

MysteryPeople Q&A with Terry Shames

Were happy to host Terry Shames on Monday, November 10th at 7PM, along with Stinking Rich author, Rob Brunet. Her latest, Dead Broke In Jarret Creek, pulls her hero Samuel Craddock, back into his job as Chief Of Police when his town goes bankruptcy. It also looks like a murder is tied to the bankruptcy. We caught up with Terry to talk about the new novel.


MysteryPeople: Had you planned to bring Samuel back as chief?

Terry Shames: Not at all. When I started thinking through all the ramifications of a town going bankrupt, I realized it was perfect for Samuel to step in. He doesn’t need the money, and he has the experience of being a chief of police, so what better solution?

MP: What do you think makes him take the job?

TS: In my mind, he never hesitated to say yes. The easy answer to your question is that he knows that taking the job provides a quick solution to a daunting problem. He feels a sense of responsibility for “his” town. But digging deeper, there’s more to it. After Samuel’s wife died, he was at loose ends. As Jenny Sandstone said in A Killing at Cotton Hill, the book that introduced Samuel, he’s too vigorous a person to be satisfied with tending his cows all day. It’s important that he have a mission that engages him physically and mentally. He knows he’s good a keeping the peace and at figuring at solutions to criminal problems that arise in the town.

MP: Much of the plot of Dead Broke In Jarrett Creek revolves around the town’s bankruptcy, Is this occurrence more common than we know in small towns?

TS: During the economic downturn that happened in the early 2000s, several towns, large and small, went bankrupt across the country. I don’t really know how many. But when I read about them, what struck me is that many of the economic problems of the towns seemed to stem from mismanagement. I thought it would be an interesting problem to write about, since it meant not having enough money for basic services, like police.

MP: This book seems to have more humor. Were you looking for more levity after telling a somber story like The Last Death Of Jack Harbin?

TS: It wasn’t intentional, but you’re right, it’s a lighter book. I actually think there was a fair amount of humor in Jack Harbin, but it is definitely darker. In Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek I enjoyed the humor and the little twists and turns of the plot. I just turned in the fourth book in the series to my editor, entitled A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge, and it is very dark. So it looks like maybe I’m into a rhythm of alternating between writing a light book and a dark one.

MP: I really like Bill Odum, the part time lawman who helps out Samuel. What does he provide our hero other than back up?

TS: He’s a fresh, young face of law enforcement. He provides an opportunity for Samuel to teach someone what he knows about the town and the difficulties of murder investigation. At the same time, Odum knows some new tricks that Samuel doesn’t know. I also like Zeke Dibble. He’s more jaded than Samuel, but he’s willing to put in his time.

MP: The Samuel Craddock books have such an authentic Texas feel. What do you want to get across about your home state?

TS: It’s the characters I’m interested in.The setting I use is Texas because I know it deeply—I know the terrain, the sights and smells and the people—the way they behave and talk and live. Honestly, I think the people I write about could live anywhere. They are “just” people. Here is one of my favorite review quotes—this from the Dallas Morning News:

“Many writers dive straight into coarse comedy when they create stories set in rural Texas. Their 21st-century cowboys race about in gun-laden pickups. They drink and brawl in bad-news bars and feast at chicken-fried restaurants where waitresses plop down world-weary wisdom with each side order of cream gravy.

Terry Shames avoids these exaggerations in her new Samuel Craddock mystery series. It is said frequently in small-town Texas that everybody knows everybody. Yet the vaunted simple life in rural communities sometimes is rife with family feuds and complicated loyalties…In the Samuel Craddock mysteries, (Terry Shames’s) portrayals of Texas people, places, things, customs and speech are believable, carefully balanced and, best of all, entertaining.”


Copies of Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek are now available on our shelves. Terry Shames will be at BookPeople with Rob Brunet on Monday, November 10 at 7PM. Pre-order your signed copy today!

 

3 Picks for November

For November, we have three paperbacks for fun and affordable reading as the cooler weather settles in.

jack carter and the mafia pigeonJack Carter & The Mafia Pigeon by Ted Lewis

Now, the Jack Carter trilogy is fully restored by Syndicate Books with this novel appearing for the first time in the States. This time, the London mob enforcer is tricked by his employers into being the bodyguard for an American Mafia boss at a Spanish villa. Throw in two beautiful women, one the wife of Carter’s boss who he’s seeing on the sly, and expect a lot of scheming and shooting under the sun.

 


 

easy deathEasy Death by Daniel Boyd

A holiday tale for the hard boiled set. In 1951, two World War Two vets are sent out into a December blizzard by a small town crime boss to rob an armored car. The money, mishaps, and presence of a female park ranger make for a great retro crime novel. Boyd, a Ohio police officer, knows his cops and criminals.

 

 


best american2014 Best American Mystery Stories edited by Otto Penzler and Laura Lippman

One of the best from this annual edition. One feels the presence of guest co-editor Laura Lippman’s sensibility in this great range of contemporary crime fiction that leans toward the character driven. There are stories by MysteryPeople favorites like Megan Abbott and Dennis Tafoya, as well as work by general fiction authors Annie Proulx and Russell Banks. Austin author, Ed Kurtz, has a story as well. A great stocking stuffer.

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: LAST WINTER, WE PARTED by Fuminori Nakamura

Last Winter, We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura
~post by Molly

Fuminori Nakamura is part of a new generation of Japanese detective novelists known for their spare prose and dark explorations of alienation in modern society. His novel, The Thief, was his first to be translated into English and won prizes all over the world for its terrifying beauty and relentless pace. His latest novel, Last Winter, We Parted, is our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for November, and for me, this is a perfect novel for a Texas November. I recommend reading it at a coffee shop at twilight when the chill finally begins to settle in – at such impersonal thresholds much of the book takes place.

Last Winter, We Parted is structured as interviews, archives, and letters – the notes for a book that a young journalist has been assigned to write about a notorious serial killer on death row. The murderer, Yudai Kiharazaka, was renowned as a photographer before becoming fixated on life-like dolls and later, burning models alive to get the perfect photograph. The journalist soon finds an intense connection with Kiharazaha’s sister, Akari, and begins to discover that in Kiharazaka’s case, things are not what they seem.

Nakamura has crafted a noir Heart of Darkness; Kiharazaka warns the writer early on that by listening to him, he may take on some of the killer’s morbid fixations. As the journalist learns more about the killer and his sister, Akari – about, as Nakamura phrases it, their “true selves” – his own self become subsumed and taken over.  The young journalist’s arc is shaped as a warning. By spending time too close to a psychopath, the writer takes on some of their thoughts and compulsions, most dramatically expressed in the journalist’s growing interest in Kiharazaka’s sister, Akari, also an object of unhealthy attachment to the killer himself.

As the writer becomes entangled in the distorted lives of brother and sister, abandoning his professionalism to get closer to the object of his unwholesome infatuation, the serial killer and his sister, in turn, delight in bringing out the darkness hidden within the minds of those fixated upon them. Like Hannibal Lector, Yudai and Akari believe in quid pro quo.

This is a novel concerned not only with solving a crime, but in understanding our darkest impulses. In that sense, Last Winter, We Parted evokes Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the genre of true crime in general. Nakamura references In Cold Blood throughout the novel, and the book is in some ways a tribute to Capote while also a warning against mirroring Capote’s actions. The novel both warns against the psychological effects of spending time trying to get into the head of a murderer, and condemns the hypocrisy of judging the actions of another while also using their crimes as a mass object of fascination. Nakamura delves deep into the unsettling motivations behind societal obsession with the mind of a serial killer. In the novel, as in real life, there is no easy separation between those who commit crimes and those who spend their time learning about the crimes of others.

Kiharazaka’s crimes also serve as a metaphor for alienation in modern society. Kiharazaka’s fixations represent an attempt at basic human connection, warped by the photographers lens, the purchase of lifelike simulacra in the form of dolls, and other ways of simulating and disrupting connection with the real through the use of the artificial.

Fuminori Nakamura brings to mind the haunting elegance and sordid conspiracies of David Peace, and like the best exploitation movies, blurs the line between poetry and violence. The characters Nakamura portrays are trapped – caught by their obsessions, their fantasies, and their addictions in an endless web of repeating behavior and insincere apologies. They can’t even quit smoking, much less control their other, more violent unhealthy impulses. Nakamura’s writing is as psychologically astute as it can be while also representing a vision of the world twisted and screwed, without joy or happiness. In other words, Last Winter, We Parted is the epitome of literary noir.


Last Winter, We Parted is now available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com