MysteryPeople Review: A DEADLY AFFAIR AT BOBTAIL RIDGE by Terry Shames

deadly affair at bobtail ridge
With her Samuel Craddock series, Terry Shames has shown insight into the human and social condition. She understands how the threats and lightness of life coexist and often mingle with one another. Her latest, A Deadly Affair At Bobtail Ridge, is a wonderful example of this theme.

This story, the fourth of the series, takes place in late spring. Samuel, newly reinstated as chief of police, is getting for the pranks and and wildness that occur during prom night. The Baptists are already up in arms. The worries become minuscule when Samuel’s good friend and neighbor, Jenny Sandstone, tells him her mother is in the hospital. When he makes a hospital visit, her mother tells him that she thinks Jenny may be in danger and to find a man named Howard. She dies before he can get any clearer information. Someone is also trying to fool with Jenny’s horses. It escalates further when she is run off the road. Samuel would like to find out who is behind it, but the person is tied to secrets Jenny refuses to let go of.

“She celebrates surviving in a real and nuanced way, finding quiet triumph in that act alone.”

Shames deftly shades the novel in a spectrum of tones and believable emotions. She follows the politics of the prom week that brings both levity to the book as well as grounding it in a time and place that ties into one of the book’s more somber revelations. Terry uses Samuel perfectly to fuse the light and dark tones of the situation he is in. I mentioned in my review of The Last Death Of Jack Harbin that Samuel is not just an investigator, but a witness. He continues in that capacity as he realizes his town has changed since he last wore a badge and struggles in dealing with that.

A Deadly Affair At Bobtail Ridge delivers what we like about the Samuel Craddock series and more as Terry Shames nudges it a bit further. Her ability to shift tone in both the personal and social contexts allows her to operate on a plane where the reader lives. She celebrates surviving in a real and nuanced way, finding quiet triumph in that act alone.


You can find copies of A Deadly Affair At Bobtail Ridge on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

FEBRUARY PICK OF THE MONTH: THE LAST DEATH OF JACK HARBIN

Terry Shames’s debut novel, A Killing At Cotton Hill, was our pick of the month in August of 2013. Now her retired Texas Chief Of Police Samuel Craddock has returned in her second novel, The Last Death Of Jack Harbin. This is a poignant mystery with Samuel looking into the murder of a wounded Iraqi vet.

We recently reviewed the book, praising it, and we aren’t the only ones:

Lesa’ Book Critiques – “If you watched or read Friday Night Lights, you might want to check out The Last Death of Jack Harbin. Fans of Craig Johnson or Steven Havill’s Posadas County mysteries might want to check it out. Or, you might just want to check out Shames’ Samuel Craddock mysteries if you want a complex, riveting story dealing with contemporary issues.”

Terry Ambrose – “The characters in The Last Death of Jack Harbin are as diverse as they are realistic. The small town atmosphere rings true throughout the novel, including in the dialogue and descriptions. From the opening scene in a feed store, the reader is immersed in a world of small-town politics, rivalries, and actions.”

The Toranto Star – “Craddock emerged in his detecting role a year ago in Terry Shames’s first crime novel, A Killing at Cotton Hill, and with the new book, Shames clinches Cradock’s status as the most engaging new American sleuth in crime fiction.”

What’s Next for Samuel Craddock: Guest Post by Terry Shames

The first two Samuel Craddock books I wrote came to me without much thought as to “what happens next?” in the series. But when I contemplated writing the third book, I suddenly realized that I had some big decisions to make.

Would Samuel age in my books? Would he develop and grow, or would he stay pretty much the same? Would Samuel always be an ex-chief of police, or would he officially slip back into the role of chief? How many crimes can one small town support? Would I continue the same characters, or would some of them disappear, one way or the other? My editor suggested that I do a “prequel.” When would be the appropriate time to tuck it into the series? What about Samuel’s love life? Would he continue to mourn his ex-wife or would he take up with one of the women around him?  Or, would a new person come to town?

I discovered that I had answers for most of these questions. I read series and in my favorites, characters change. In my first book, A Killing at Cotton Hill, Samuel was a man looking for purpose in life after his wife died. All his qualities—his strong sense of responsibility, his humor and decency–are there from the beginning, but he has no place to focus them. Investigating the death of an old friend reawakens him to his abilities. I want him to continue to learn new things about himself and the world around him. I want the town to change, and Samuel to change with it.

If Samuel is to continue to grow more confident in his role as an investigator, that means that I, as a writer, also have to grow—I have to learn more about what a small-town lawman is expected to do. Not that I have to include every detail in the books—but I have to know the reality of what would happen in tight situations.

I started researching guns and discovered that I couldn’t possibly learn everything about guns by simply reading. There’s a weekend police workshop for writers that I can’t wait to take so I can put myself in Samuel’s shoes.

I also had to research the structure of Texas crime prevention forces. Who really investigates serious crime in small town Texas? What is the role of the Texas Highway Patrol (hint: it’s a lot more than just chasing speeders). And what about the Texas Rangers? How did they fit into the mix? Having grown up in Texas, I knew something of their notorious reputation. How much of that was true? Had it changed? How were police chiefs selected in small towns? By ballot? Were they chosen by the county sheriff? And what did they really do? What I discovered is a hodge-podge of crime prevention and investigation. In other words, it was a writer’s dream—whatever I made up would probably be true somewhere, in some small town in Texas.

As for the question of how many crimes I can set in a small town, people are fond of pointing out that some of the best series happen in small towns. And what I discovered is that in reality there is more mayhem in small towns than you might imagine. Still, I wanted to mix things a little and not just do one book after another in Samuel’s hometown. The first book happened outside of my fictional town of Jarrett Creek. Books two and three happen in Jarrett Creek, each with a different focus. Book four I’m going to set in Bobtail, the fictitious county seat. And because of the art theme that runs the book, I will be taking Samuel somewhere outside of Jarrett Creek to investigate a to-be-determined crime centering around art. And then there is the prequel. I think I can keep going for a nice, long series.

As for whether the same characters will continue, the book has quite a few geezers in it and we all know what eventually happens to geezers. Somebody, in some book, has to go. I don’t know who it will be, but it’s inevitable.

Also, with a man who still has vitality and interest in the world, Samuel will eventually become interested in another woman. Stay tuned…it’s going to happen. And then the next question will be, how far do I follow him into the bedroom. Yikes! More decisions.

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Terry Shames will be in the store TONIGHT at 7PM speaking & signing copies of her latest book, The Last Death of Jack Harbin.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Terry Shames

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Terry Shames‘ latest Samuel Craddock mystery, The Last Death Of Jack Harbin, is rich in theme, character and emotion. Terry was kind enough to talk about these elements of the novel witih us

MYSTERYPEOPLE: How different an experience was writing the second book in the series as opposed to the first?

TERRY SHAMES: I almost feel as if the first two books were one big project. As soon as I finished the A Killing at Cotton Hill, I immediately began The Last Death of Jack Harbin. It took me about eight months total to write both books from the beginning of the first to the polished draft of both. I don’t know how or why it happened so fast, but I was happy to go with it.

So the answer I’m going to give you is about book three. I’m having a tiny little nervous breakdown about it. I have several Craddock books in mind, and thought that the one I’m working on now would be the best to move the series forward. I wrote the first draft quickly, but was dissatisfied with it. Right about the time I was beginning to be nervous about it, my editor said he needed it fast…and that’s when I began to panic.

Suppose this third book was a poor shadow of the first two? Before the first book was published, I never needed to worry about anyone’s opinion but my own. Suddenly, I have readers to satisfy. That’s the best dilemma in the world for a writer—but still a dilemma.

I threw myself on the mercy and competence of my writers group, and they assured me that the changes I need to make are cosmetic – Oh sure, it’s only cosmetic to throw out one entire story line? To ditch a couple of characters? To jettison the first two scenes? But their advice only confirmed what I already knew. I’m still nervous but at least I’m not ready to ditch writing and become a plumber.

MPYour victim is a young disabled vet. What did you want to convey about today’s vets?

TS:Good question about vets. In writing about Jack Harbin’s situation, I hoped to illustrate something that really bothers me these days about how people treat veterans. People are perfectly willing to send young men and women off to fight wars to “keep us safe,” and they are willing to spend trillions of dollars to keep the wars going. But they aren’t willing to spend the money to support these young warriors when they come home damaged physically and/or mentally. I think it’s a disgrace. And the fact that there isn’t a good support system for these young men and women means that they are prey to scams and mistreatment.

MP: Guilt seems to be the big emotion in The Second Death Of Jack Harbin. What did you want to explore about it?

TS: I hadn’t really thought of the book as exploring guilt, but your question made me think about it, and it’s true. Jack’s high school friends, Taylor and Woody, his mother, his friend Walter, and even Samuel himself are haunted by misreading situations in the past and making decisions that they believe were misguided. They believe things could have been different if they had made better decision.

People deal with the guilt in different ways, but everyone is changed by it. For some people it engenders a determination to do better or to make amends, like Woody and Walter. Others are crippled by it, like Jack’s mother. And then there are those who have no capacity to feel guilt. A lack of remorse is at the core of sociopathic behavior. I’m thinking of the dastardly Walter White in the recently concluded Breaking Bad. He feels a whole range of emotions, but guilt is not one of them. Jack’s brother, Curtis, is a little like that, though he doesn’t act it out so dramatically. He could help Jack if he chose to, but it doesn’t occur to him, and he feels no guilt at all about it.

Guilt is a useless emotion unless action follows on its heels. I admire Woody for wanting to find a way to assuage his guilt through action- even if his plan is a sadly impractical…At its most basic use, punishment is a way of letting the guilty atone for their guilt. I wonder if the guilty party in The Last Death of Jack Harbin feels some relief, knowing that there is a way to pay for the crime?

MP: What compels Samuel to always come out of retirement to investigate?

The simple answer is that Samuel feels a sense of responsibility to his community. Because of his reputation, he has always been a fallback when the current chief of police isn’t up to the task. I talked to one of my readers who adored Samuel. She said, “We all need a person who looks out for us.” The larger question is, where does this sense of responsibility come from? In a way, it’s a stance that has a certain amount of hubris—Samuel feels as if he has the strength and ability to make a difference in people’s lives. As I’ve developed Samuel, I’ve noticed similarities between writers and lawmen. Both are observers and in a sense live apart. And both can use their jobs as a way of bringing justice to a situation. The hubris part I’ll leave for others to comment on.

MP: Which supporting character did you have the most fun writing?

TS: It sounds sappy, but I love all my characters—even the killer. Most of my characters are fully developed people in my mind. I know their hopes and dreams, their strengths and shortcomings. So who is most fun to write, the good guys or the not-so-good guys? In this particular book, I have to say I enjoyed writing Walter Dunn. I didn’t have to work to discover his character—he jumped onto the page and told me who he was from the first time he showed up on his motorcycle. I liked him from the beginning and grew to have great respect for him, as I think Samuel does.

MP: As someone who writes about where you used to live, do you have to do anything special to write about Central Texas in Northern California or are your memories that clear?

TS: I read somewhere that James Joyce couldn’t write about Dublin until he moved away. Not that I compare myself to James Joyce, but I think it’s true of some writers that we don’t see a place as clearly until we leave it. I go back to Texas often to visit relatives, so it isn’t as if I’m marooned in California. But what interests me is what happens when I go back to the town that I based Jarrett Creek on. I always have a sense that I’m enveloped by it. I never lived there; my grandparents did. But it always had a hold on my imagination. Now, when I got there, I drive whoever I’m with crazy because all I want to do is walk around. That’s all. I don’t have to go inside anywhere, I don’t have to talk to anyone. I just want to smell the air that seems particular to that place; feel it on my skin; hear the sounds of birds and wind in the trees; see the color of the grass; the architecture of the houses; the composition, smell and look of the soil; the constantly changing color and clouds of the sky.  Here’s the funny part: I could never live there. I hate the climate—it’s muggy and hot much of the year. Nevertheless, I carry a little piece of it with me, and I cherish it.

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Terry Shames will be in store Monday, Jan 27 at 7PM speaking & signing The Last Death of Jack Harbin. Pre-order signed copies of the book via bookpeople.com.

3 Picks for January

The Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins

Collins’ hard-as-nails hitman returns, now hiring himself out to targets to take care of the hired assassin gunning for them. This time, though, he starts to think his new client deserves to have a price on his head. Macho paperback fun.

The Last Death Of Jack Harbin by Terry Shames

Former chief of police Samual Craddock is once again pulled out of retirement to look into the murder of a disabled war vet. A nuanced and poignant mystery. Terry Shames will be here at BookPeople to speak about & sign her new book on January 27th.

The Purity Of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen

The latest Department Q case has detective Morck looking into his own dark history. With it’s entertaining banter and nail biting suspense, Adler-Olsen is quickly becoming MysteryPeople’s most popular Scandinavian author.