“A Bonfire at the Beginning with Liberal Amounts of Gasoline Along the Way”: An Interview with Kathleen Kent, author of ‘The Burn’

9780316450553_8fd28Kathleen Kent, a well respected historical fiction writer, won over crime fiction fans with her novel The Dime, featuring Dallas Narcotics detective Betty Ryhyz. She returns with Betty in The Burn, with our heroine going rogue to figure out the connection between heroin stolen from the Sinola Cartel and confidential informants that are popping up all over town dead. Kathleen was kind enough to talk about the book and writing with Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott Montgomery.


Scott Montgomery: How did it feel writing a second novel with Betty Ryhyz opposed to the first?

Kathleen Kent: This is my first series–all of my previous historical fiction novels were stand-alone—and I had to rethink how to structure not only the book I was working on, but future books in the series.  An important thing I learned from my editor was that the “Sophomore book” is crucial to keeping a reader’s interest going forward. You may like the first book, but the second will often determine whether you want to read the third, or fourth.  Writing The Dime was an exercise in learning the genre of contemporary crime fiction: pacing, narrative tone, and maintaining suspense.  But developing The Burn necessitated a deeper dive into not only Betty’s character, but of those who populated her world.  There were a lot of rewrites to The Burn to get it right, and I had to remind myself at times to maintain a balance between the darker themes of the book, of which there are plenty, with lighter, more comedic elements.

SM: I really felt the Dallas streets and the working relationships of the narcotics squad. What kind of research did you do?

KK: I grew up in Dallas but moved to New York once I’d finished college. After living and

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The Burn author, Kathleen Kent

working in Manhattan for twenty years, I decided to move back to Dallas. Big D had changed drastically in those two decades in terms of urban development. But a lot had stayed the same and was distressingly familiar in terms of social intolerance.  Once I had committed to writing a crime novel, I channeled some of my experiences of feeling like an “outsider” into Betty’s character. Doing research with law enforcement proved to be quite a challenge.  While writing historical fiction, I found there were always experts willing to talk about their unique knowledge of history. Active law enforcement, especially those working undercover, can’t speak to a civilian about their operations for obvious reasons. One workaround was to talk to retired police officers, one of whom was the first female detective in Dallas.  She gave me a lot of hilarious, and hair-raising stories, that I incorporated into both crime novels. My most important source, though, was a close cousin who, in his thirty-year career, worked both narcotics and vice undercover, as well as SWAT. I was also invited to several police retirement parties, and it’s amazing what you can learn by sitting quietly in a corner holding a glass of Jameson whiskey, and just listening to the stories unwind.

SM: I was happy to see Jackie’s uncle play an important part. He’s one of my favorite characters in the series. What do you like about him as a writer?

KK: He’s one of my favorites as well. There’s something noble about people who, despite their frailties and vices, continue fighting to stay afloat, to be useful, to be of service to other people.  James Earle has a dignified past as he served in Vietnam as an MP, and he understands the difficulties and pressures prevalent in law enforcement. In many ways he’s a stand in for Betty’s beloved Uncle Benny, the man who was Betty’s polestar growing up.  I’m happy to say that James Earle will be a constant character going forward.

SM: You wrote several acclaimed historical novels and fell into this gritty cop series where you both deliver and subvert the genre goods like somebody who has been writing this kind of book for a decade. Were you a fan of the genre before you started?

KK: I’ve always been a huge fan of crime novels, the darker, the better! My sister and I grew up reading, and watching on TV, a lot of British crime series, which our mother read as well. The three of us used to talk at the dinner table about the finer points of Murder Most Foul, often horrifying our dad with the gruesome details.  Even in my works of historical fiction I never shied away from violence. The Heretic’s Daughter is based on my nine-times great grandmother, Martha Carrier, who was hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692. The Outcasts is set in post-Civil War Texas and has hangings, torture and murder.  The themes of villainy are often the same, regardless of the time period.  The challenge for me as a writer, though, was to change the way the story was presented, which is to say I had to pay close attention to pacing, keeping the reader on the edge of his or her seat.  I would liken historical fiction writing to a slow and steady burn, while crime writing is often a bonfire at the beginning with liberal applications of gasoline along the way.

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SM: What has writing contemporary novels allowed you to do that you couldn’t in the historicals?

KK: I think writing contemporary crime novels has allowed me to indulge in more absurdist fantasies.  In my historical novels, I often tried to stay close to the actual true events of the time. This “reality” construct was used as a framework, or scaffolding, to build my fictional story.  In both The Dime and The Burn I felt less constricted to that model.  Some of the contemporary narrative started as a newspaper headline, for example, but I was able to move the resulting action in unexpected directions.  I’ve really enjoyed bumping riiiight up against what stretches credulity.

SM: Has it presented any challenges?

KK: A lot of readers had grown accustomed to my works of historical fiction.  And some were surprised at the seemingly abrupt shift to contemporary crime.  So, it was a challenge to entice those people to read these latest two novels, especially if they weren’t enthusiastic crime readers to begin with.  But, happily, many of those readers have now eagerly embraced Det. Betty and her adventures. I think it points to the importance of having relatable, courageous characters and compelling stories no matter the genre.


About Kathleen Kent: Kathleen Kent is the author of the Edgar Award-nominated The Dime, as well as the bestselling historical novels The Heretic’s Daughter, The Traitor’s Wife, and The Outcasts. Kent lives in Dallas, TX.

About Scott Montgomery: A legendary crime bookseller, Scott Montgomery runs MysteryPeople, the mystery bookstore within BookPeople. He also runs The Hard Word blog, covering hard boiled fiction. Always a crime fiction fan, Scott worked on the sales staff of the acclaimed and influential The Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles for four years. He is a regular contributor to Crime Reads and his fiction has appeared on the site Shotgun Honey and in the anthologies Murder On WheelsLone Star Lawless, and Eyes Of Texas. His Bullet Book, Two Bodies, One Grave, debuted Fall 2019.

The Burn is available for purchase in-store and online now.

REVIEW: Kathleen Kent’s ‘The Burn’

9780316450553_8fd28Kathleen Kent, known for historical novels, proved her ability to cross genres with The Dime. The gritty police thriller, featuring Betty Rhyzyk, a New York narcotics detective who transfers to Dallas to be with her wife, breathed new life into the cop novel and won her praise from the likes of Joe R. Lansdale. Luckily Kathleen and Betty are back for The Burn.
It’s not too long into the book, Betty’s head-first attitude lands her into desk duty. It and other things are not helping the relationship with Jackie. Her frustrations grow when word on the street  hits that several kilos of The Sinola Cartel’s heroine got stolen and confidential informants are popping up dead in the sleazier parts of The Big D. Her colleagues leave her behind as they look for El Cuchillo (or The Knife), a Sinola enforcer with a nasty reputation believed to be behind the killings. When Betty gets information that some of the players could be involved with the department and with Jackie, she jumps out from behind the desk and goes rogue.
Kent builds an exciting world of The Dallas Narcotics division and the Texas toned underworld they operate in. She shows camaraderie between the police with undercurrents of infighting, often disguised as joking around.The cheap motels and dive bars where Betty hunts down answers are gritty and hard, either bathed in shadows or reflecting the glare of the Lone Star sun, everything and everybody plays with perception.
All of this fits into Betty’s point of view.. She charges in, not always looking and a situation with few people to trust leads to some justified paranoia. Since there are very few she can trust, she turns to outsiders, recruiting a pregnant dealer’s girlfriend and Jackie’s Vietnam vet uncle, James Earle, into her cause.
The Burn proves to be even better than The Dime. The plotting is well crafted with strong action passages and a believable, dangerous setting with characters who pop. At the center of it all is a complex heroine who couldn’t give a rat’s ass if you like her or not. Here’s hoping Betty can always get out from behind the desk.

Kathleen Kent’s The Burn is available for purchase from BookPeople in-store and online now!

A (Partial) Atlas of Texas Crime Fiction

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

A hard land with a difficult history, Texas has always lent itself well to crime fiction. From the crime fiction greats who helped define the genre to those writers shaping the landscape of crime fiction today, Texas has a long tradition of social critiques and sendoffs of hypocrisy (the hallmarks of Texas crime fiction, in my opinion) delivered via murder mystery. Tales of Texas history may gaslight their audiences into believing in the state as a land of triumph, but we crime fiction readers know the dark, murderous truth about the land we call home….

Below, you’ll find an incomplete (of necessity) guide to Texas crime fiction, brought to y’all in honor of Texas Mystery Writers Month (that is, May). Emphasis is placed on well-known classic writers and the wide array of new crime fiction released in the past few years. We know we’re leaving out quite a few of the Texas mystery writer greats, and many of the good one-off novels. Some have gone out of print; others have simply dropped off our radar as we find new voices to champion.

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Feb Fatales: a Full Crime Fiction Schedule this February

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Glancing at our list of upcoming events, our newsletter, or BookPeople’s February events schedule, you may have noticed we’ve booked quite a few visitors to please the crime fiction crowd. Here’s the low-down on what’s happening when, all in one place.

On Friday, February 10th, at 7 PM, we welcome two MysteryPeople favorites! Fresh from his Edgar nomination for Where it Hurts, Reed Farrel Coleman joins us with his second Gus Murphy book, What It Breaksanother lyrical tale of Long Island misery, while Robert Knott, two volumes in to his transition from actor to Rennaissance Man, joins us with his fourth continuation of Robert B. Parker’s Hitch & Cole seriesRevelation

Wednesday, February 15th brings a 7 PM visit from K. J. Howe, director of Thrillerfest, and here to speak and sign her debut, The Freedom Brokera tale of kidnapping, privilege and intrigue. On Thursday, February 16th, at 7 PM (the very next evening) come by the store for a return visit from Scottish superstar Ian Rankin, here with his new Inspector Remus novelRather Be The DevilThen that same week, on Saturday, Feburary 18th, at 3 PM come by the store for Sarah Pinborough, presenting her latest work, Behind Her Eyes. We can’t tell you much about this one – we don’t want to ruin the insanely mind-blowing ending.

Then Tuesday, February 21st, at 7 PM, MysteryPeople welcomes a visit from Alexandra Burt, here with her latest crime novel and our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month, The Good Daughterset in Aurora, Texas. Burt’s previous crime novel, Remember Miahas been a national bestseller and we’re happy to say that The Good Daughter is just as compelling a tale! Two days later, on Thursday, February 23rd, at 7 PM, we welcome legendary Texas writer Joe R. Lansdale in conversation with rising Texas star Kathleen Kent. Lansdale joins us to speak and sign his new Hap & Leonard novel, Rusty Puppy, while Kent joins us with her latest work, The Dimefollowing a tough city cop’s trials and tribulations after she moves down to Dallas from the Big Apple.

The fun doesn’t end in February – on March 5th, come by the store to meet the King of Florida Capers, Tim Dorsey, here to speak and sign his latest, Clownfish Blues.  In April, we’re joined by MysteryPeople favorite Phillip Kerr, here to speak and sign his latest Bernie Gunther novel, Prussian BlueWe’ll announce plenty more March and April events coming up, so keep an eye on BookPeople’s events calendar, MysteryPeople’s upcoming events page, or sign up for our MysteryPeople newsletter to be the first to know!