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.

(Nearly) all of the books cited in this piece are available on BookPeople’s shelves, and all are available for special order via BookPeople’s website. Here’s a link to a resource guide to Texas cozies (woefully neglected in this piece, and we do apologize). Stop, You’re Killing Me! has an impressively thorough guide to Texas mysteries.  The Whitliff Collection has also put together an excellent resource guide to Texas mysteries as part of their Southwestern Writers Collection – you can view a pdf bibliography of Lone Star Sleuths here.

As a Texas Monthly article pointed out in this piece from 2013, Patricia Highsmith once lived in Dallas, a setting defined by capital-S Society, and made her career as the Henry James of pulp fiction, stripping back the beautiful veneers of characters to get to the rotten motivations and churning anxieties of the 1950s. Jim Thompson used his cheerful killers and sadistic sheriffs to critique the racial divides of the South, and in The Killer Inside Me, even has us cheering on his equal opportunity killers, as they forgo bigotry in favor of a more universally-minded corruption. Rick Riordan in the 80s and 90s helped define a city-based Texas crime fiction for a new era of start-ups and Californians, starting with Big Red Tequila, while Kinky Friedman’s hilarious and idiosyncratic Hill-Country-set detective novels helped define the rural romps that have complemented Thompson’s brutally dark portraits of East Texas.

These are the two main threads of Texas crime fiction still today – tales of the city and the hypocrisy beneath its polite surface, and stories of small town secrets, where no matter how much prejudice is visible on the surface, there’s always more hidden beneath. Joe R. Lansdale continues Thompson’s mantle (with added horror and humor) in his Hap & Leonard series, as well as his stand-alone novels The Thicket and Sunset & Sawdustpreserving the beauty of East Texas speech and nature while not shying away from the crass, casual brutality of East Texas lives, all while pointing out the absurdities of his setting and his characters.

Melissa Lenhardt’s Jack McBride series take place in similar territory, but in a much different context. Set in the fictional East Texas town of Stillwater, the series was inspired by a talk Lenhardt heard about Texas civic history comparing two towns over time. “One town was a boom and bust town, whose fortunes relied on the success of the latest industry, usually oil and gas. The other town focused on steadier, slower growth. They never got so caught up in the boom that they neglected to nurture other aspects of their economy,” she explained to us in an interview earlier this year. Her novel’s criminal kingpin ” likes the boom and bust model because he’s gotten rich from it either way. When people are doing well, they use his legitimate businesses. When things are going poorly, his illegal business is there to make people feel better.” Meanwhile, her more civically minded characters understand that “the boom and bust path isn’t sustainable, especially when young people are leaving, instead of moving in.”

Speaking of boom towns, Houston’s the happening place for several recent crime novels, each adding another layer to our understanding of sin in the sunset city. The oil towns of Houston and Beaumont provide particularly rich settings for crime fiction – Southern power dynamics come up against energy politics, inspiring tales of corruption and alienation, set in boardrooms, back rooms, highways and highrises.

Attica Locke, of Empire fame, has written two novels, Black Water Rising and Pleasantvillefollowing lawyer Jay Porter as he fights for civil rights, uncovers vast political conspiracies, and solves quite a few murders. Her highly anticipated upcoming novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, is due out in September.  Melissa Ginsberg explores alienation and jealousy on the Houston highways in her sultry debut, Sunset CityAmy Gentry uses the Houston suburbs as the perfect setting to explore instability of identity in her debuGood As Gonedetailing the fallout caused by a kidnapping victim’s return home after many years.

Over in Beaumont, Lisa Sandlin turned the PI formula on its head with her novel The Do-Right, featuring a naive private detective assisted by a world-weary secretary. Nic Pizzolatto, of True Detective fame, takes us on the run from New Orleans to Galveston in the violent and aptly named Galvestonwhile the writing trio Miles Arceneaux ventures up and down the Gulf Coast and back and forth in time in their salty tales.

The Hill Country is defined by the subgenres of fish-out-of-water tales and humerous stories continuing Kinky Friedman’s legacy. Austin music legend Jesse Sublett’s bass-playing, skip-tracing sleuth Martin Fender took the musician mystery to dark places and new heights in three now classic tales, while his most recent foray into crime writing explores the outrageous antics of the Overton Brothers, real-life football players-turned-robbers, in 1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime That Rocked The Capital. 

Terry Shames’ Samuel Craddock mysteries explore small-town central Texas secrets, drawing occasional inspiration from the Texas of Shames’ childhood but containing a set of intertwined mysteries all its own. Samuel Craddock, Shames has said, is based on her own grandfather, a trusted problem-solver in his town even after giving up the mantle of legal authority.

George Wier’s charming and humerous small town novels – his website describes his works as a “Texas take on pulp adventure,” and we couldn’t agree more. Helen Curry-Foster’s Hill-Country-set Alice MacDonald Greer novels draw upon the author’s career as an environmental lawyer for a series sure to please all who appreciate the beauty of Central Texas, and the quirky figures that live there. Ben Rehder’s satiric Blanco County mysteries feature a central Texas game warden involved in an inordinate number of murders, despite his wish to stay out of trouble.

Austin-based lawyer and writer Mark Pryor mainly sets his tales overseas, but his latest, Hollow Manfeaturing a musician and sociopath, continues the tradition of Austin mysteries grounded in a world of live music and the occasional dead body. Manning Wolfe, also a lawyer, has recently launched her Merit Badges series with Dollar Signs: Lady Lawyer vs. Boots Kingan eclectic and entertaining legal thriller.

Gabino Iglesias, in Zero Saints, takes the reader from Mexico to Austin with protagonist Fernando as he flees danger at home, only to find more violence in his new city. Lisa Lutz’ latest novel, The Passenger, also stops off in the capital city, following a woman on the run after the suspicious death of her hated husband. She finds herself in Austin just long enough to switch identities with a woman named Blue in a bar, only to find herself pursued by Blue’s enemies.

South Texas has surprisingly few crime novels given how many stories the region has to tell – or at least, we weren’t able to find many while preparing this piece. The Land Grant, by Carlos Cisneros, is a legal thriller diving into a long-term dispute between heirs to an estate and the Catholic Church along the border.  Rick Riordan helped bring San Antonio as a setting to mystery readers with his Tres Navarre series (before he moved into the world of children’s fiction). Although known for his San Antonio setting, we highly recommend his tale of murder, intrigue and copyright in the wild west of 90s start-ups, The Devil Went Down To Austinto all Austinites. The tale is particularly notable for its hilariously dated technological threats combined with completely contemporary cutthroat competition.

West Texas is better represented in the genre as of 2017. Minerva Koenig’s tales of a reformed criminal relocated to West Texas as part of the Witness Protection Program celebrates the classic tough Texas heroine with a twist as the transplant grows into her new home. Tony Perez-Giese’s Send More Idiots takes us to El Paso and Juarez as a man searches for his brother, disappeared by a cartel. J. Todd Scott’s The Far Empty takes us into a generational feud between a sheriff and his son over the death of the sheriff’s wife, set against the background of cartels and corruption.

Ever since we wondered who shot J.R., North Texas has been a riveting setting for all kinds of fictionalized murder. Mark Gimenez’s The Color of Law guides the reader through crime and corruption in Dallas, while delivering an impassioned defense of a prostitute wrongfully accused of murder. Kathleen Kent’s The Dime takes us into the Dallas Police Department from the perspective of an outsider just transferred in from New York.

Reavis Wortham’s Red River mysteries explore life in small-town North Texas, as the townspeople experience the vast upheavals of mid-century America (along with a few murders). Alexandra Burt’s The Good Daughter takes us into a small North Texas town where uncovered bodies soon lead to uncovered family secrets. In Julia Heaberlin’s Black-Eyed Susansa woman looks into her own appearance in a Texas field at age 16 and attempts to discover both her identity and the wider implications of her disappearance and reappearance.

Texas crime fiction is defined by ambiguity and ambition – an author may delight in the poetry of Texas vernacular one moment, while instilling horror in its content the next. The casual brutality of Texas history means the reader never has to worry about a murder’s plausibility (unlike Maine), and the complex, layered threads of human lives in Texas make for an endless number of stories. Like with many industries, Texas and California are the powerhouses of US crime fiction, but unlike the two states’ political narratives, the two centers of crime fiction don’t compete – they only complement.

One could argue with the notion of any one thread of Texas crime writing (although the legal thriller does seem to dominate in terms of form). Like the state itself, crime fiction reflects and rejects a number of legends, myths and uncomfortable truths. Texas stories, like Texas lives, do not restrict themselves to the lines on a map. The border is as artificial of a construct in crime fiction as it is in politics, and Texas-set crime novels are as likely to cross the border, or into another state or country, as any other American story.

Texas is not only a setting – it is also a large, nurturing environment for all kinds of writers, including many who choose not to write about Texas. Some would say that it’s easier to write about a place once a writer has moved on to a new location, and some of those best suited to write Texas tales are those with an emotional or physical distancing from the state itself. We haven’t mentioned any of the many authors who call Texas home for some or all of the year, yet set their works outside the state, and writing programs like the Michener Center draw plenty of budding writers to Texas, while the endless experiences lived in this state translate to endless more opportunities for artistic creation.

You can find the works listed above either on BookPeople’s shelves or available for special order via our website. 

MysteryPeople Double Feature: COUP DE TORCHON

This Sunday, June 7th, at 6:30 P.M., MysteryPeople presents a screening of Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon, the film adaptation of Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, followed by a discussion of the book and film. At each double feature event, we screen a film version of a roman noir we know and love. Each screening is free and open to the public, and takes places on BookPeople’s third floor.


Nobody understands noir like the French, which makes sense since they coined the term. The get that noir does not so much represent literary style, but rather stands for the relationship man has to the darker side of his nature. Director Bertrand Tavernier’s Coupe De Torchon, an adaption of Jim Thompson’s gothic noir classic, Pop. 1280, takes the dark American fiction that inspired French literary theorists to introduce the term “noir” post-WWII, and puts it on screen in a French context that preserves all the complexity of the original novel.

Pop. 1280 is almost a play on one of his other revered novels, The Killer Inside Me. As in that novel, the protagonist is a questionable small town lawman, Nick Corey, sheriff of the small Southern county of Potts in the Nineteen-Teens. Nick is lazy, talkative, corrupt, and upon first meeting, appears incompetent. He’s Forrest Gump with a badge, gun, and few scruples. When he shoots two pimps who publicly humiliate him, it starts an escalation of violence and a power play involving his wife, mistress, an opposing Sheriff candidate, and the disenfranchised African Americans. The book often reads as a social satire,with murder as a redemptive act.

Coupe De Torchon moves the setting to French Colonial West Africa on the eve of World War Two. The lawman is Lucien Cordier, a village constable played in a bumbling low key demeanor by Phillipe Noiret. The film follows the book almost plot point by plot point, the setting fits perfectly for the sheriff’s benign brutality as he commits crimes in the glaring African light with a matter-of-fact-presentation.

In fact, the main difference is the film’s more reserved tone. Much of this may be translation, for little of Thompson’s ripe prose and Southern dialogue comes through clearly in the film, although the film compensates for the translated dialogue with physical humor that feels very French. That said, it captures the novel’s themes of class and one society repressing another, both with more clarity and slyness. The title is roughly translated into “A Clean Slate”, which fits perfectly as the film and novel are both looks at regeneration through violence.

Coup De Torchon, along with the many other Thompson novels adapted for cinema, proves the malleability of Thompson’s work. The way he looks at violence and the practice of power through violence is timeless and universal in its application to the human condition. Both the novelist and the filmmaker he inspired had a lot to sat about this subject.


Double Feature Stats

Adherence to Book (Out Of 5):

4.5

Adherence to Quality Of Book:

4 (Not As Humorous)

Other Reading:

They Don’t Dance Much by James Ross, Donnybrook by Frank Bill, and anything by Daniel Woodrell

Other Movies:

The Bride Wore Black, Macon County Line, Mississippi Mermaid, Black and White in Color

Fun Fact:

When Pop. 1280 was translated into French, the title became Pop. 1275. Tavernier joked “I don’t know what happened to those five people  on the trip over.”

Copies of Thompson’s novel are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. We screen Coup de Torchon on Sunday, June 7th, at 6:30 PM on our third floor. The screening is free and open to the public, and will be followed by a discussion of the book and film in contrast.

Down and Dirty in the Country: A Quick Look at Rural Noir

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 StoriesWoodrell 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 lineagean 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.

MysteryPeople Recommends: Five Jim Thompson Novels You Need To Read

Recently our friends at Mulholland Books have acquired the novels of noir master Jim Thompson, and are now reprinting his works in beautiful trade paperbacks, many with forwards from Thompson fans like Stephen King and Daniel Woodrell. Most know him for his truly chilling novel, The Killer Inside Me, but he put out several must-read novels through a lifetime of writing. Here are five more which I would put up there.

pop12801. Pop 1280

Thompson’s other psycho lawman novel. Set in the deep South of the 1910s, this tale of a corrupt, philandering small town sheriff’s manipulation of events through murder is wild, funny, and bluntly violent. The author is working at the top of his game in style and voice.

 

 

after dark my sweet2. After Dark, My Sweet

Possibly Thompson’s most accessible book. A punch-drunk ex-boxer with a few other issues gets drawn into a kidnapping scheme with a former cop and alcoholic femme fatale. Thompson is not always known for pathos, but it comes across here for the reader willing to look.

 

 

nothing more than murder3. Nothing More Than Murder

Thompson takes the James M. Cain lovers-murder-for-money set-up and makes it completely his own. Thompson uses the backdrop of a small town movie theater perfectly and even gives a self deprecating cameo to himself. An often overlooked book, well worth picking up.

 

 

4. The Grifters

As much sordid family tale as sordid crime novel, but really, really sordid. The story follows the power plays of a short-con artist, his mother, who’s also on the hustle, and his girlfriend with her own history of larceny. About as fun as seedy gets.

 

 

the getaway5. The Getaway

This reads like a solid heist novel with touches of Thompson quirkiness. Then you get to last chapter. It is so dark and atmospheric that is reads like something out of a horror novel. Both film versions were afraid to tackle it.

 

 

 


All books listed above are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.