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.
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!
The Land of the Midnight Sun continues to pump out more and more outstanding thrillers and mysteries, and this year is no exception. For readers who just can't get enough of Nordic noir and Scandinavian suspense, we've got a list of standouts so far in 2013:
Never F__k Up by Jens Lapidus
The second book in the Stockholm Noir trilogy is quintessential Scandinavian suspense: action from page one and hardboiled crime in a seedy criminal underworld. Just don't show the cover to your grandma.
The Redeemer by Jo Nesbø
Oslo cop Harry Hole is always a favorite. What starts out as an investigation into some shady Salvation Army dealings becomes an infiltration into a murder-for-hire organization in former Yugoslavia.
The Stranger by Camilla Läckberg
Detective Patrik Hedstrom is investigating the possible murder of a nondrinker who dies of alcohol poisoning when he discovers similar cases in other towns around Sweden. This one has less "razzle-dazzle horror" and greater emphasis on convoluted plotting and heightened suspense.
Norwegian By Night by Derek B. Miller
Curmudgeonly Sheldon Horowitz, who recently—reluctantly—moved to Norway, witnesses and flees a crime with a young boy in tow. Miller's (technically an expat living in Oslo) debut literary thriller is an expert blend of humor and questions of race, memory and time.
The Andalucian Friend by Alexander Söderberg
This debut thriller is a blisteringly fast read. Set largely in Stockholm, this one finds single mom Sophie caught in the middle of an international turf war, culminating in a cinematic gunfight in Spain.
Room No. 10 by Åke Edwardson
In his seventh book, Chief Inspector Erik Winter investigates a bizarre murder that reminds him of an unsolved case from early on in his career. This is a puzzling, complicated police procedural from one of the best writers in the genre.
Bad Blood by Arne Dahl
After torturing and murdering a Swedish literary critic, an American serial killer boards a flight to Stockholm and somehow slips through the cracks. It's up to Detectives Paul Hjelm and Kerstin Holm of Intercrime’s A-Unit to figure out what the homicidal maniac is plotting. Look for this one in our upcoming August issue.
Do you enjoy Scandinavian suspense?
Brilliance by Marcus Sakey
Thomas & Mercer • $14.95 • ISBN 9781611099690
published July 16, 2013
Marcus Sakey's new supernatural thriller, Brilliance, lives up to its name. From the very start, this first novel in a projected series is full of action and intrigue. Since the 198os, about 1% of American children are born "brilliant" with a special gift—they're also known as abnorms. Some of these aborms can be a problem, and it is Nick Cooper's job as a government agent to catch the bad ones—as his own abnormal gift is to hunt his own kind. Can Cooper stop all of the bad abnorms from hurting people, and how does he tell the good guys from the bad?
In the opening chapter, Cooper has spent the day tracking an abnorm and finally catches up with her in a hotel bar in San Antonio, Texas:
Cooper took a sip of coffee. It was burned and watery. "You hear there was another bombing? Philadelphia this time. I was listening to the radio on the way in. Talk radio, some redneck. He said a war was coming. Told us to open our eyes."
"Who's us?" The woman spoke to her hands.
"Around here, I'm pretty sure 'us' means Texans, and 'them' means the other seven billion on the planet."
"Sure. Because there aren't any brilliants in Texas."
Cooper shrugged, took another sip of his coffee. "Fewer than some other places. The same percentage are born here, but they tend to move to more liberal areas with larger population density. Greater tolerance, and more chance to be with their own kind. There are gifted in Texas, but you'll find more per capita in Los Angeles or New York." He paused. "Or Boston."
Alex Vasquez's fingers went white around her bottle of Bud. She'd been slouching before, the lousy posture of a programmer who spent whole days plugged in, but now she straightened. For a long moment she stared straight ahead. "You're not a cop."
Through some twisted ups and downs, the fast-paced Brilliance has all of the best with manipulation, revolution and social commentary in a world disturbingly close to our own. In an interview, author Marcus Sakey said that he hates for his plots to be revealed, so I will stop there and simply say be ready to stay up all night with this one.
Will you be reading Brilliance? What are you reading during Private Eye July?
Lauren Beukes, author of Zoo City, is receiving lots of literary attention for her newest thrilling novel. The Shining Girls puts a deadly spin on time travel, as a killer uses a secret portal to become untraceable after each brutal murder. That all changes when one of his victims survives.
Kirby Mazrachi barely escaped and is now determined to discover her would-be killer. As an intern for the Chicago Sun-Times, Kirby has the means to research her case and she knows that something is not quite right. Will Kirby's determination be enough to catch a murderer with a supernatural plan?
Be sure to read our full review of The Shining Girls and check out the eerie book trailer below by Hachette Book Group.
Stay tuned for more great coverage of thrillers and mysteries throughout the month of July!
I always love finding out what an author's research process is, so when I learned that writer Ingrid Thoft actually attended and graduated from the University of Washington private investigator program, I simply had to see how that helped her pen her debut crime fiction novel, Loyalty.
Loyalty is the story of P.I. Fina Ludlow, a kick-butt heroine who's the black sheep of a super-powerful, super-dysfunctional Boston family. When her brother's wife goes missing, the cops assume the husband's to blame, so Fina is called it to figure out what really happened. Fina's digging reveals so family secrets no one expected her to find, and as Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney writes, "Her allegiances will be tested, as will her detective skills, for it is likely that someone close to her is singularly undeserving of her loyalty."
I just love Thoft's answer about the coolest thing she learned in the P.I. program:
"One of the cases that stands out was part of a presentation done by a scientist from the Washington State Police crime lab. She discussed trace evidence and the idea that we all leave things behind wherever we’ve been and pick something up from that location as well, whether it’s fiber, hair or residue of some sort. Her example was ash from the Mount St. Helen’s eruption. The ash that was deposited into a suspect’s car filter could only have come from a particular place at a particular time. Suspects can be fastidious and cunning, but you can’t outsmart Mother Nature!"