Write what you know? Many writers get their inspiration from where they know. Author Reavis Z. Wortham's Red River mysteries are set in a fictionalized version of Chicota, Texas, where he grew up. In a guest post, Wortham talks about the good people of Texas and the flavor of his Texan setting, and gives a preview of the newest book in his series, The Right Side of Wrong.
As my writing career has progressed, I’ve come to realize the setting has become just as much a character as Constable Ned Parker et al. in the Red River mystery series. I didn’t intend for that to happen, but the rural, bordering counties along the river in northeast Texas are alive and well in my memories of the 1960s. My family roots are from that area, and their stories from that time and location are the reason I began this series.
The '60s were a time of change as this country evolved from a primarily rural society to an urban environment. Though the U.S. race to the moon was well underway, a large part of the population still scratched a hard living from the ground. In The Right Side of Wrong, the small community of Center Springs is a microcosm of life and the social and civil changes going on in this country. In addition, this setting is flavored with the speech patterns that define the small community of Center Springs where American Indians, “coloreds,” and the white population struggle to co-exist in a rapidly changing world.
It was the land that defined them.
It was the rural location that encapsulated them.
It was a time between two worlds, as their rural roots withered under the tidal wave of urban change.
My first book in this series set in 1964, The Rock Hole, came about because I wanted to preserve the memory of those coming-of-age years when I was 10. The speech patterns, old words, the simple and changing lifestyle and, of course, the stories told on the porch of that little country store were quickly fading as the old folks passed on.
See, here’s the deal. I believe my mysteries hold the reader’s interest because it’s the land that makes the good, moral characters what they are. Both men and women back then were strong. They stood up for themselves and their neighbors, and they learned the difference between right and wrong from their parents, grandparents, neighbors, and in the tiny clapboard churches that called them to worship every time the doors opened.
In each of my three novels, evil is eliminated when good, honest people cross to the right side of wrong. That’s where Ned Parker comes in. He’s both a farmer and a constable, and a Renaissance man. In a world filled with bigotry and hatred, Ned is simply a decent person who surrounds himself with noble Texans, such as Deputy John Washington, the first “colored” deputy in my fictional Lamar County.
Both of these strong, caring and fair men come from old-fashioned root stock. Big John and Ned are also human, in every sense of the word, and live to defend their community against whatever may come. In their own way, they always try to do the right thing.
Ned, kinfolk Constable Cody Parker and Big John forge strong bonds as this series progresses. In Burrows, John and Cody find themselves trapped in a five story Cotton Exchange warehouse full of garbage. It is a hoarder’s world á la Stephen King. In fact, someone said it was Stephen King meets Harper Lee. To survive their horror and find a serial killer in the monstrous building John and Cody learn to rely on each other without question. It is a bond Ned and John welded years earlier, and now Cody comes into the fold.
In The Right Side of Wrong, Constable Cody Parker follows his main drug smuggler across the Rio Grande into Mexico and is thrown into a prison run by a crooked officer. Ned and John traverse the Lone Star state, and that took some doing back in 1966. When they reach the Rio Grande, a far different artery than their Red River, they find themselves in a radically different culture than their own, but at the same time, they find good people south of the border.
I think you’ll also find the setting in Mexico has also influenced inhabitants of that country, both good and bad. Like those on the Red River, the people who live across the Rio Grande are also defined by the land, but despite the corruption, most mirror their good neighbors to the north.
The land is in the people, it shapes them, and it provides the background for the mysteries in all of us.
Thanks, Reavis! The Right Side of Wrong (Poisoned Pen Press) is out now.
The Rosatis thought they were safe from the war hidden away in their ancient villa, until two soldiers walked into their lives. Twelve years later, the Rosatis are being targeted by a serial killer. Serafina Bettini begins investigating the case, but every step closer to an answer brings back her own hidden past. In a world that is trying to recover from the pain of war, Bohjalian expertly knots the threads of his characters, creating a story of love and revenge.
Chris Bohjalian, New York Times best-selling author of The Sandcastle Girls, delivers another mysterious novel, this one set in the beautiful hills of Tuscany. Our reviewer calls The Light in the Ruins "a brilliant blend of historical fiction and a chilling serial killer story."
Be sure to read the full review here and check out the trailer below from Knopf Doubleday for more:
Will you read The Light in the Ruins? What other mysteries have you read during Private Eye July?
Karin Slaughter's newest thriller featuring GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) detective Will Trent, Unseen, is the type of shocking, relentless thriller that Slaughter's many fans expect. As Trent tries to find crime boss Big Whitey, his lover Sara Linton seeks her stepson's shooter, and the two investigations careen toward one another in one hell of a ride.
We asked Slaughter to share three books she has recently read, and it's clear her tastes in reading are as chilling as her own writing.
I’ve always been drawn to historical fiction, and Burial Rites gives insight into a world completely foreign to me—Iceland during the early 1800s. The story (which is based on true events) follows the last days of a woman sentenced to death for her part in two brutal murders. It’s tense and riveting; as cold and unrelenting as the barren landscape.
By Mo Hayder
I’m not sure what it is about Mo Hayder that I love so much. I think it’s because she seems to visit the same dark places that I explore in my writing; yet, she brings a different perspective that would ever occur to me. Detective Jack Caffery has been in several previous novels, but he seems to have grown up a bit in Poppet. He’s more reflective and cautious, just as you’d expect a real-life detective to be after witnessing the every-day horrors of police work. The crime at the center of Poppet is much more tame than Mo generally fashions, but her trademark turning of the screw still sends shivers down the spine.
By Linda Fairstein
I’m an Alex Cooper fan from way back, and Linda is one of my favorite New York writers. She always manages to find a mysterious, new part of the city to write about. This is her town, and she knows its stories. Death Angel takes place in Central Park, which can be as beautiful as it is dangerous. Linda’s experience as a prosecutor comes full bear in this gripping chase to stop a serial killer. It’s always thrilling to see what she’s going to come up with next.
Be sure to check out all our Private Eye July coverage!
Readers love espionage mysteries for their glamour and intrigue, their far-flung adventures and impossibly cool heroes and heroines—and also for the illusion that we actually know what spies are up to.
While the genre has adapted with global changes, moving from Cold War subterfuge to terrorist plots and technology, there's something classic about espionage thrillers that involve either MI5 or MI6—probably because James Bond will always be the spy.
Don't know the difference? MI5 works in counter-espionage within the UK, preventing the leaking of secrets. MI6 runs covert operations abroad, stealing other governments' secrets. Combined, the two super-sneaky British intelligence agencies have inspired some of our favorite fictional spies. Read on to meet them.
George Smiley from John le Carré
Smiley, an MI6 (called "the Circus" here) operative, appeared in le Carré favorites such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Often called the "anti-Bond," Smiley is a quiet, poorly dressed, disciplined spy who lives less by the gun at his hip and more by his own wits.
Will Cochrane from Matthew Dunn
Reading novels by actual former agents always feels like the author should sleep with one eye open—isn't there a billionaire villain somewhere with a score to settle? Dunn, a former field operative for MI6, turned to fiction with his Spycatcher series and introduced us to globe-trotting master spy Will Cochrane.
Thomas Kell in Charles Cumming's A Foreign Country
All the setup for a first-class spy novel: "a world-weary protagonist; exotic locales (Tunisia and the Sinai, among others); a plot featuring intrigues within intrigues; and a bunch of good guys who might be bad guys (and vice versa)." What else could you want?
Serena Frome in Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth
McEwan pokes a little fun at the spy game with his most recent novel. Serena Frome is a young Cambridge grad who works at MI5 in the "Sweet Tooth" program, surreptitiously encouraging writers to produce anti-Soviet fiction, only to fall in love with her assignment, novelist Tom Haley. (Oh, and it's our Top Pick for Book Clubs this month!)
Maggie Hope from Susan Elia MacNeal
MI5 secret agent Maggie Hope started out in the steno pool, but her cleverness and talent for code-breaking makes her one of wartime Britain's most powerful weapons. Maggie's adventures unraveling plots and sneaking behind enemy lines during WWII make for a fun read.
Readers: Do you have a favorite MI5 or MI6 spy?
Throughout Private Eye July, the editors of BookPage share some of their favorite mysteries and thrillers.
Lisa Gardner’s most recent Detective D.D. Warren novel is one that still has me looking around corners a year later. After three days, I found myself with a sink full of dirty dishes as Gardner’s Catch Me delivers a twisted thriller that completely immerses readers in the streets of Boston. Intertwining cases and an unreliable narrator left me stumbling and clueless until the very end.
Charlene Grant is convinced she is going to be killed in four days, and she wants Detective D.D. Warren to investigate her murder. Charlene’s two best friends were both murdered a year apart on January 21, and she believes her murder will be next. As D.D. investigates, she begins to search Charlene’s past and finds more questions than answers.
See what else is going on during Private Eye July!
Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet
Crown • $25 • ISBN 9780385347341
On sale August 6, 2013
Kelly Braffet's third novel unfolds through the dual perspectives of Patrick Cusimano and Verna Elshere, both solitary figures trying to find their place in the world. Both have their families to thank for their outcast status: Patrick's father's hit and run has left the entire community wary of all the Cusimanos, and Verna's goth sister and fundamentalist parents make starting high school a nightmare. In their individual searches for solace—Patrick in his brother's girlfriend, Verna in her older sister's "freak" friends—they head down a dark road where disaster is inevitable.
For the first half of Save Yourself, Braffet compassionately but honestly portrays engaging, confused characters in light, uncluttered prose. But a sharp turn keeps this from being a simple meditation on grief. This is a probing and emotional read that does not rest easy.
Read on for an excerpt from Patrick's opening:
It had been Patrick, after too much of this, who went to the garage and saw the dented bumper; Patrick who smelled the hot gasoline-and-copper tang in the air; Patrick who stared for a long time at the wetness that looked like blood before reaching out to touch it and determine that, yes, it was blood. Patrick who realized that the tiny white thing lodged in the grille wasn't gravel but a tooth, too small to have come from an adult mouth. It had been Patrick who had realized that somebody somewhere was dead.
Up until that point, there were two things that Patrick could count on to be true: the old man was a drunk, and the old man screwed up. And as far as Patrick was concerned, the first priority was fixing it. When he worked the morning shift at the warehouse you woke up before he did so you could make the coffee and get him out the door. When he passed out on the couch you took the cigarette from his limp fingers. When he ranted—about the government that wanted to take his money, about the Chinese that wanted to take his job, about the birth control pills that had given Patrick's mother cancer and killed her—you kept your cool and had a beer yourself, and you tried to sneak away all the throwable objects so that in the morning there'd be glasses to drink from and a TV that didn't have a boot thrown through the screen. You took evasive action. You headed disaster off at the pass. You made it better. You fixed it.
Staring at the bloody car, Patrick thought, wearily, I can't fix this.
Inside, Mike, his eyes wide with panic, said, No, little brother, hang tight, we can figure this out. Just wait. Even though there was nothing to figure out. All through that night into the gray light of dawn and on until the shadows disappeared in the midday sun, the three of them hunkered down in the living room, the old man sniveling and stuttering and saying things like Jesus, I wish I still had my gun, I ought to just go ahead and kill myself, and Mike—who would not even got into the garage, who point-blank refused—trying to force the reality of the situation into some less horrible shape. The longer they sat, the more it felt like debating the best way to through themselves under a train. Patrick, it seemed, was the only one who realized that there was no best way. You just jumped. That was all. You jumped.
Will you check this one out? What are you reading during Private Eye July?
Throughout her murder trial, Noa P. Singleton never spoke a single word in her own defense. Ten years later, Noa is six months away from her execution when she is visited by her victim's mother, who offers to change Noa's sentence to life in prison in exchange for only one thing, but that is the one thing that Noa will never do: tell her story.
In her debut novel, Elizabeth Silver has created an emotionally striking story that will cause readers to reflect on their own decisions. An engrossing rumination on the search for truth, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton will leave readers looking deep within at their own truths and deceptions.
For more about the literary psychological thriller, check out our full review and watch the book trailer below from Headline Books.
See what else is going on during Private Eye July!
Writers are often asked about where they find inspiration for their stories. A great answer is always "the idea store," because the real answer is often long and convoluted. Debut author Michael Hiebert talks about the inspiration for his coming-of-age mystery, Dream with Little Angels, the story of mom Leah Teal, a widowed police officer, as she investigates the disappearances of children in Alvin, Alabama—all told by her 11-year-old son, Abe.
It’s funny, sometimes, where you draw your inspiration from. Often, you don’t even realize you’ve taken something from somewhere until long after the fact or until you sit down and actually think about it.
I decided to do just that in this post with my book Dream with Little Angels. I knew I had been inspired from a number of places, I just hadn’t thought to sit down and catalog them before.
Many comparisons are being drawn in the press between Dream with Little Angels and To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s true, I did read To Kill a Mockingbird before sitting down to write. However, my story, to me, was always about my 11-year-old protagonist, Abe. It was never a book about this or about that. It was just a book about what it would be like to be an 11-year-old boy growing up in a small town in Alabama with a mother who had to contend with horrible crimes going on.
I spent six months living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and down there, when they kiss their children goodnight, they say this little thing to them in Spanish that translates into “Dream with little angels.” It’s so much nicer than, “Don’t let the bed bugs bite.” The first time I heard it, I knew one day I’d be using it as a book title.
When I started Dream with Little Angels, I was dating a girl who lived in Alabama, and I knew I would be spending a lot of time down there. I also fell in love with the way she talked. Having seen how the setting in Harper Lee’s book leant to the sense of innocence and tenderness, I decided to try my hand at setting my book in Alabama. As soon as I came up with my main character and placed him in that setting, I knew I had made the right choice.
I am partial to writing in children’s voices. I have done a lot of it, mainly in my short story work. So telling Dream with Little Angels from the point of view of a child was an obvious choice for me. As soon as I began writing it that way, I realized it was the perfect point of view and offered the best opportunity to really express that sense of innocence and tenderness I mentioned earlier.
This is really a horrible story when you think about it. Little girls are getting raped and murdered and yet, somehow, in the middle of all this, Abe is able to not only make the reader care about the mundane life of an 11-year-old, but manages to create scenes that I think are actually funny. It’s hard to pull off funny in a book about 14–year-old girls disappearing. Constantly balancing the horror aspect of the book with the sweetness of childhood wasn’t easy.
My inspiration as a writer will always be Charles Bukowski, despite the fact that we don’t write very much alike at all. It was after reading my first Bukowski book that I decided I wanted to write. There’s just something about his work that grabs you and won’t let you go. Oftentimes, you’re reading what seems to be very simple prose and then realize that, no, there’s something else going on beneath it all—something much more complex and dynamic. I’m not even sure Bukowski knew about it as he wrote, but it’s there.
There you have it. My five key inspirations for Dream with Little Angels. It will be interesting to do this same exercise with the sequel, Close to the Broken Hearted, that should be out next summer.
Michael Hiebert is an award-winning author of novels and short stories. He won the prestigious Surrey International Writer’s Conference Storyteller’s Award twice in a row and has had his work published in The Best American Mystery Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. His writing often contains elements of mystery and the fantastic, as he tries to find the redemption in the horrific; the surviving heart still left beating among all the sorrow; the beautiful lost somewhere in all the ugliness of the world. Michael lives in Canada with his family. Visit Michael Hiebert online at www.MichaelHiebert.com
Throughout Private Eye July, the editors of BookPage share some of their favorite mysteries and thrillers.
In Mr. Timothy, Tim is all grown up and, at 23, is looking for a way to prove his independence from the Cratchit family benefactor, Ebenezer Scrooge. A whorehouse madam hires him to teach her to read and write, and in the process, Tim stumbles upon a mystery. Someone in London is murdering young orphan girls, and Tim may be the only one who cares enough to find out why. With the help of two street urchins—one of whom is marked as the killer's next victim—and a one-armed man who makes a living retrieving bodies from the Thames, Tim sets out to find the killer.
Bayard manages to make his new characters as captivating as those he borrows from Dickens, while carefully layering in references to past events—some portrayed in The Christmas Carol, others from the years since—to reveal what has happened to the Cratchit family over the decades. And as Tim struggles with his complicated feelings for the father figures in his own life, he becomes one to the children under his care, adding yet another layer to the story. If you're looking for an emotionally complex, yet exciting, mystery—this is your book.
See what else is going on during Private Eye July!
The idyllic countryside of southwestern France gets a little bit bloodier with each installment of Martin Walker's mystery series starring Bruno, Chief of Police. But don't worry, there are still sumptuous meals aplenty, and the wine never stops flowing.
In the fifth book in the series, The Devil's Cave, the cute little village of St. Denis gets a dose of Satanism—plus prostitution, a few murders and some troubling real estate ventures.
The man for the job is Bruno, the only cop in St. Denis, and when I read that Bruno is actually based on the real chief of police in the Dordogne, who is also Walker's tennis partner, I had to ask a few questions. Here's a preview:
This is the very question put to me by my friend Pierrot, the local police chief. But crime takes place anywhere, and this gentle valley in southwestern France has more history packed within it than anywhere on earth, from the prehistoric cave paintings of the Cro-Magnons, the hundreds of medieval châteaus and the importance of the local Resistance during World War II. And with the prevalence of hunters and shotguns, lethal farm tools, property disputes and France’s complex inheritance laws, there is no shortage of means or motives.
If you had to swap places with Bruno for a day, how would that day go?
I’d probably be able to win my tennis games and maybe even cook meals as well as he does. But my inability to match Bruno’s ability to combine policing with humor, common sense and his very idiosyncratic sense of justice might well cause a riot in our placid small town. And I’d certainly bring about a horrendous traffic jam.