Interview by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana
Allen Eskens’ latest, The Heavens May Fall, features the return of Minnesota cop Max Rupert. His friendship with Boady Sanden comes to a head when the attorney takes on a client Rupert believes to be guilty. MysteryPeople’s Meike Alana talked to Mr. Eskens about his characters and their shared universe.
Meike Alana: Your novels are stand-alone works that are completely unique from each other, but a handful of significant characters make appearances throughout the books. Can you tell us how you devised that concept?
Allen Eskens: You have asked a very big question, so excuse the long answer.
I write about a community of characters who have connections to one another, some greater some lesser, with different characters taking the lead in different novels. I came to this idea as I was writing my debut novel, The Life We Bury. I like writing stories where the protagonist goes on a personal journey that changes them by the end of the novel. I didn’t think I could do that consistently if I wrote a series that revolved around a single protagonist. Also, my protagonist in The Life We Bury is a college student and I didn’t want to have him tripping over dead bodies in an attempt to create a series.
Allen Eskens wowed us all last year with his first two books, both masterpieces of literary noir. Now he’s back with a third tale of kindness and cruelty, The Heavens May Fall, reviewed below by MysteryPeople’s Meike Alana.
When the naked, mutilated body of socialite and philanthropist Jennavieve Pruitt is found dumped behind a storefront at the start of Allen Eskens’ latest literary noir, The Heavens May Fall, detective Max Rupert is called in to investigate and the victim’s husband Benjamin soon becomes the prime suspect. Although he claims to have an alibi, saying he was out of town at a conference, a neighbor recalls seeing him in the driveway of his home on the night of the murder. When Ben is arrested and formally charged with Jennavieve’s brutal murder, he retains Max’s good friend, defense attorney Boady Sanden, as his counsel. The story of the subsequent investigation and trial are told from opposing viewpoints, coming from vastly different perspectives.
In The Guise Of Another, Allen Eskens’ follow-up to his award-winning debut, The Life We Bury, police detective Alexander Rupert (the brother of The Life We Bury‘s cop hero, Max) gets involved in a false identity case that could take his soul as well as his life. Allen was kind enough to talk about the book and the art of character.
MysteryPeople Scott: What prompted the decision to use two of the supporting characters from The Life We Bury in this novel?
Allen Eskens: I am a strong believer that plot moves the reader forward and that character draws the reader in deeper. I believe that a protagonist should undertake a journey over the course of a novel. He/she should be changed in some way by the time the story concludes. While I am a fan of the mystery-series format, I sometimes feel that the storyline can suffer from familiarity (fans of Lee Child will probably disagree).
So to give myself an array of characters with personal journeys to undertake, I decided to move among my secondary characters from The Life We Bury, telling their stories. My hope is to create a small community of people who will interact with each other to varying degrees as the novels branch out. The Guise of Anotheris the first in a three-book arc for Max Rupert. I have a sequel for The Life We Bury planned, and I have a stand-alone, which is the backstory of Boady Sanden, partially written.
Reviewed by Scott Montgomery, Crime Fiction Coordinator
L ast year, Allen Eskens received much praise and an Edgar nomination for his debut novel, The Life We Bury. He showed a talent for providing rich character development within a classic page turner. In his follow-up, The Guise Of Another, he uses that skill for a different kind of book, even though he brings back a couple of familiar folks.
I know, you’re only supposed to have five. I wrote a list of these favorites, got six, and could not bear to take one of them of the list. Read them all and you’ll understand and be happy for the future of crime fiction.
A Montana sheriff’s deputy guards an old hired killer, hoping to get information about his past crimes. What ensues is a hard meditation on sin, death, regret, and friendship. A book as harsh and beautiful as its winter setting.
A somewhat functioning drug addict is manipulated into being a part of a bank robbery. When she takes off with the money, she’s soon on the run from the criminals, the law, and a bent cop. Hoffman makes us feel the desperation of his characters in this steet-wise thriller that is part Elmore Leonard, part Hitchcock, yet completely unique.
Joe is a poor college student with a drunk mother, autistic brother, and his own baggage. When Joe gets an assignment to write a biography, the project leads him to a dying Vietnam vet, still proclaiming his innocence for the rape and murder for which he was convicted. As Joe searches for information to prove the vet’s innocence, he soon endangers himself and those he loves. A great new voice in the mainstream thriller.
The tender of a Canadian pot farm runs afoul of his biker gang bosses in a situation involving a dead dog and a lot of cash in this comic crime novel. Brunet infuses his likable losers and bad guys with humanity and dialogue that keeps you laughing. The closest I’ve read to Donald Westlake. I almost forgot, there’s a lizard involved too.
Bouman’s affable, fiddle playing lawman, Henry Farrel, takes on a murder investigation that could light up his rural Pennsylvania county, already turned into a tinderbox by meth, poverty, and family history. Reminiscent of Craig Johnson in the way the hero interacts with his community.
McKenzie introduces us to meet former bareback rider turned PI, Rodeo Grace Garnett, who has to maneuver around wild women, shady good ol’ boy politics and business, questionable local law, and a rough and tumble Arizona that would make most big city detectives run for the safety of their own mean streets. I couldn’t help but hear echoes of James Crumley in the way it deals with people living a life on the margins.
All of the books listed above are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Look out for more top lists later in December!
Long Beach, California is known for sunny weather and soft breezes. Thursday, November 13th it became gloomy and overcast with rain. Some blamed this on the hoard of crime fiction fans, writers, publishers, and booksellers recently arrived in town. It was the first day of the 2014 Bouchercon, the world’s largest mystery conference, where we talked about dark stories under an eventually bright sky.
The first night, I had the honor of being invited to a dinner for the authors and supporters of Seventh Street Press, celebrating their second anniversary. It was fun to hang out with my friend Mark Pryor, creator of the Hugo Marston series, and meeting Allen Eskens, whose debut, The Life We Bury is a must-read for thriller fans, and Lori Rader-Day. Terry Shames arrived late, but had the excuse of winning The McCavity Award for best first novel on her way to dinner.
At the most entertaining panel I attended, titled Shaken, Not Stirred, writers discussed their use of drinking and bars in their work. Con Lehane, a former bartender, opened the discussion by stating that James Bond’s vodka martini is not really a martini because it is shaken. After he described the process of making a vodka martini, no one argued. Johnny Shaw said the more his characters drink, the more they surprise him. Eoin Colfer spoke of how he loved bars because a bar is a great equalizer, where anybody can walk through the door. When asked about the new smoking ban in Irish pubs, he said “It’s horrible. You can smell the men.”
The most enlightening panel I attended was Beyond Hammett, Chandler, and Spillane. Peter Rozovsky moderated a panel of learned crime writers and scholars who picked an author they felt deserved their due. Max Allan Collins, one of my favorite hard boiled writers, talked about Ennis Willie, who wrote about mobster on the run Sand in the early Sixties. Collins described the books as a Mickey Spillane imitation, but also discussed how these novels had a lot in common with Richard Stark’s Parker, who debuted the same year. Sarah Weinman, editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, an upcoming anthology of stories by female thriller authors of the forties and fifties, introduced me to Dolores Hitchens.Gary Phillips gave a history of Joe Nazel, who formed a triptych of Seventies African-American crime writers, along with Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim.
Bouchercon has proved to be a great source for upcoming books. All of us who met Mette Ivie Harrison couldn’t wait to read her new novel, The Bishop’s Wife, coming out at the end of December. Harrison, who has had an interesting history with the Mormon Church and her own faith, has written a novel based on a true crime set in her community. I also got into a conversation with Christa Faust and CJ Box as Christa talked about the research she’s doing for her next Angel Dare book, where she puts the hard-boiled ex-porn star into the world of rodeo. CJ and I were both impressed by her knowledge of the sport.
There were also personal highlights. I got to hang out with Bobby McCue and Richard Brewer, the two men responsible for hiring and re-hiring me at The Mystery Bookstore, my first book slinging job, and showing me the ropes. It was also probably one of the best Dead Dog Dinners (the meal shared by the people who remained Sunday night after the conference has closed) as we talked about the state of the industry, books that moved us, and plotted 2015 in Raleigh. And if that wasn’t enough, there was this moment with Texas Author Reavis Wortham and a cheerleading squad.
For the past few years, Seventh Street Books has had an incredible knack for finding new talent. Terry Shames and Mark Pryor are just two names they’ve introduced to the genre. With The Life We Bury, Seventh Street introduces a new author to watch, Allen Eskens.
The plot of The Life We Bury is something akin to a good Grisham-style thriller. Joe Talbert, a poor Minnesota University student with an autistic brother and alcoholic mother from hell, is assigned to do a biography on someone for his English class. To make the piece stand out, he chooses Carl Iverson, a man living the last days of his life in nursing home with pancreatic cancer after being imprisoned over thirty years for the rape and murder of a fourteen-year-old girl. Joe is skeptical about Carl’s claim of innocence, although the old man admits to have both “killed and murdered” in his life, but with the help of Virgil, Carl’s buddy from Vietnam, and his inquisitive neighbor, Lila, he uncovers truths that could both substantiate those claims and cause considerable danger for Joe and his friends.
In his debut, Eskens shows his skill as a storyteller. The pacing could be set to a metronome and the style is clean and accessible. He finds fresh takes on puzzle pieces for the story and knows when to present them.
More than anything, he gets us involved his characters, not just Joe and Carl, but those around him. He even brings life to the victim. He is unafraid to take time from the plot and look into the lives of his people, realizing they will be dealing with the messiness of their day to day and past as well as mystery. It makes the reader truly care for them when those lives are threatened.
Allen Eskens is a perfect fit for Seventh Street. He writes a smart, fresh mainstream thriller that knows how to grab a reader. He also knows that character is key. Looks like they found another good one for us.