Left Coast Crime 2020 Eligible Titles

Lefty Award Eligible* titles for Left Coast Crime Conference, March 12-15, 2020 in San Diego, CA. Eligible means published in 2019.

  • Best Humorous Novel
  • Best Historical Mystery Novel [pre-1970]
  • Best Mystery Novel
  • Best Debut Novel

*Check this site periodically, since it will be updated. Nominations are due electronically by 12 January 2020; the email has been sent to eligible voters.

Authors: Please verify that your title is eligible and in the appropriate category. Contact me via this page for Additions/Corrections. Please review the quote below from LCC web.

To be eligible, titles must have been published for the first time in the United States or Canada during the calendar year preceding the convention, in book or ebook format. If published in other countries before the calendar year preceding the convention, a book is still eligible if it meets the US or Canadian publication requirement.

Best Humorous Mystery Novel

  • Donna Andrews. Terns of Endearment.
  • Mary Angela. Coming Up Murder.
  • Leslie Budewitz. Chai Another Day.
  • Lucy Burdette. A Deadly Feast.
  • V.M. Burns. Wed, Read & Dead.
  • Ellen Byron. Fatal Cajun Festival.
  • E.J. Copperman. Bones Behind the Wheel.
  • Vicki Delany. Silent Night, Deadly Night.
  • Mary Feliz. Cliff Hanger.
  • Angela Henry. Doing it to Death.
  • Katherine Bolger Hyde. Cyanide with Christie.
  • Lee Goldberg. Killer Thriller.
  • Debra Goldstein. One Taste Too Many.
  • Jenna Harte. Death of a Debtor.
  • Sybil Johnson. Ghosts of Painting Past.
  • Leslie Karst. Murder from Scratch.
  • Tina Kashian. One Feta in the Grave.
  • Cynthia Kuhn. The Subject of Malice.
  • Jess Lourey. April Fools.
  • Alice Loweecey. Better than Nun.
  • D.P. Lyle. Sunshine State.
  • Catriona McPherson. Scot & Soda.
  • Leigh Perry. The Skeleton Stuffs A Stocking.
  • Nancy Cole Silverman. The House on Hallowed Ground.
  • Abby L. Vandiver. Potions, Tells and Deadly Spells.

Best Historical Mystery Novel [Note: pre-1970]

  • Rhys Bowen. Love and Death Among the Cheetahs.
  • Susanna Calkins. Murder Knocks Twice.
  • L.A. Chandlar. The Pearl Dagger.
  • Peg Cochran. Murder, She Uncovered.
  • Peg Cochran. Murder, She Encountered.
  • Margaret Dumas. Murder at the Palace.
  • Lyndsay Faye. Paragon Hotel.
  • Mariah Fredericks. Death of a New American.
  • Dianne Freeman. A Lady’s Guide to Gossip and Murder.
  • Nancy Herriman. A Fall of Shadows.
  • Meghan Holloway. Once More Unto the Breach.
  • Kay Kendall. After You’ve Gone.
  • Jennifer Kincheloe. The Body in Griffith Park.
  • Bonnie MacBird. The Devil’s Due.
  • Sujata Massey. The Satapur Moonstone.
  • Alyssa Maxwell. Murder at Crossways.
  • Edith Maxwell. Charity’s Burden.
  • Clara McKenna. Murder at Morrington Hall.
  • Allison Montclair. The Right Sort of Man.
  • Jess Montgomery. The Widows.
  • Catriona McPherson. A Step So Grave.
  • Steph Post. Miraculum.
  • Sarah Shaber. Louise’s Crossing.
  • Star, Sue and Bill Beatty. Burning Candles.
  • Cathi Stoler. Out of Time.
  • Vicki Thompson. Murder on Trinity Place.
  • Jeri Westerson. Traitor’s Codex.
  • Gabriel Valjan. The Naming Game.
  • James Ziskin. A Stone’s Throw.

Best Mystery Novel

  • Cathy Ace. The Wrong Boy.
  • JD Allen. Skin Game.
  • Ed Aymar. The Unrepentant.
  • R.G. Belsky. Below the Fold.
  • Connie Berry. A Legacy of Murder.
  • Susan Bickford Dread of Winter.
  • Allison Brooks. Buried in the Stacks.
  • J.L. Brown. The Divide.
  • Catherine Bruns. Penne Dreadful.
  • Alafair Burke. Better Sister.
  • V.M. Burns. Motherless Child.
  • Austin Camacho. The Wrong Kind.
  • Richard Cass. Last Call at the Esposito.
  • Steph Cha. Your House Will Pay.
  • Donna Walo Clancy. Seashells and Christmas Bells.
  • Tiffany Clark. Borrowed Time.
  • Megan Collins. The Winter Sister.
  • Ellison Cooper. Buried: A Novel.
  • S.A. Cosby. My Darkest Prayer.
  • Blake Crouch. Recursion.
  • Annette Dashofy. Fair Game.
  • Hannah Dennison. Tidings of Death at Honeychurch Hall.
  • Aya De León. Side Chick Nation.
  • P.A. De Voe. No Way to Die.
  • Kaitlyn Dunnett. Cause & Effect (Deadly Edits)
  • Tori Eldridge. The Ninja’s Daughter.
  • Sharon Farrow. Mulberry Mischief.
  • G.P. Gardner. Murder At Royale Court.
  • G.P. Gardner. Murder at the Arts and Crafts Festival.
  • Eva Gates. Read and Buried.
  • Eva Gates. Something Read, Something Dead.
  • Victoria Gilbert. Past Due for Murder.
  • Lee Matthew Goldberg. Desire Card.
  • Carol Goodman. The Night Visitors.
  • Alexia Gordon. Fatality in F.
  • Marni Graff. Death at the Dakota.
  • Lena Gregory. Spirited Away.
  • Cheryl Head. Catch Me When I’m Falling.
  • Rachel Howzell Hall. All Things Fall Down.
  • Sherry Harris. The Gun Also Rises.
  • Sherry Harris. Let’s Fake A Deal.
  • Sherry Harris. Sell Low, Sweet Harriet.
  • Peter W.J. Hayes. The Things That Are Different.
  • Julia Henry. Pruning the Dead.
  • Julia Henry. Tilling the Truth.
  • Edwin Hill. The Missing Ones.
  • Reese Hirsch. Black Nowhere.
  • Aimee Hix. Dark Streets, Cold Suburbs.
  • Cheryl Hollon. Down in Flames.
  • Julie Holmes. Murder in Plane Sight.
  • Mary Ellen Hughes. A Curio Killing.
  • Tina Kashian. One Feta in the Grave.
  • J.C. Kenney. A Genuine Fix.
  • Ausma Khan. A Deadly Divide.
  • Thomas Kies. Graveyard Bay.
  • Shannon Kirk. Gretchen.
  • Kristen Lepionka. The Stories.
  • Kylie Logan. The Scent of Murder.
  • Kathryn Long. Buried in Sin.
  • Lisa Lutz. The Swallows.
  • Meg Macy. Have Yourself A Beary Little Murder.
  • Isabella Maldonado. Death Blow.
  • Jamie Mason. The Hidden Things.
  • Catherine Maiorisi. The Blood Runs Cold.
  • Laura McHugh. The Wolf Wants In.
  • Catriona McPherson. Strangers at the Gate.
  • Liz Milliron. Heaven Has No Rage.
  • Gigi Pandian. The Glass Thief.
  • Carol J. Perry. Late Checkout.
  • Carol J. Perry. Final Exam.
  • Delilah C. Pitts. Black and Blue in Harlem.
  • Keenan Powell. Hemlock Needle.
  • Lissa Redmond. A Means to An End.
  • Barbara Ross. Jane Darrowfield, Professional Busybody.
  • Barbara Ross. Sealed Off.
  • Hank Phillippi Ryan. The Murder List.
  • Alex Segura. Miami Midnight.
  • Terry Shames. A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary.
  • Judy Penz Sheluk. A Fool’s Journey.
  • Shawn Reilly Simmons. Murder on the Chopping Block.
  • Faye Snowden. A Killing Fire.
  • Stacy-Deanne. The Stranger.
  • Triss Stein. Brooklyn Legacies.
  • Cathi Stoler. Out of Time.
  • Wendy Tyson. Ripe for Vengeance.
  • Kathleen Valenti. As Directed.
  • John Vercher. Three-Fifths.
  • Lea Wait. Thread and Buried.
  • LynDee Walker. Deadly Politics.
  • LynDee Walker. Leave No Stone.
  • Lynn Chandler Willis. Tell Me no Secrets.
  • Lynn Chandler Willis. Tell Me You Love Me.
  • Marty Wingate. The Bodies in the Library.
  • Erica Wright. Famous in Cedarville

Best Debut Mystery Novel

  • Nicole Asselin. Murder at First Pitch.
  • Andi Bartz. The Lost Night.
  • Connie Berry. A Dream of Death.
  • Damyanti Biswas. You Beneath Your Skin.
  • Kelly Brakehoff. Death by Dissertation.
  • Sharon Daynard. Murder Points North.
  • Heather Harper Ellett. Ain’t Nobody Nobody.
  • Nancy Good. Killer Calories.
  • Julie Holmes. Murder in Plane Sight.
  • J.C. Kenney. A Literal Mess.
  • Angie Kim. Miracle Creek.
  • Tara Laskowski. One Night Gone.
  • Vanessa Lille. Little Voices.
  • Richie Narváez. Hipster Death Rattle.
  • Nuckolls, Baird and James Sands. Shattered Angel.
  • S.C. Perkins. Murder Once Removed.
  • Daniela Petrova. Her Mother’s Daughter.
  • Ang Pompano. When It’s Time for Leaving.
  • Cynthia Tolbert. Out from Silence.
  • Grace Topping. Staging for Murder.
  • Carl Vonderau. Murderabilia
  • Kate Young. Southern Sass and Killer Cravings.
Posted in American Writers | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Agatha Award Eligible Titles for Malice Domestic 32

Agatha Award Eligible* titles for Malice Domestic 32, May 1-3, 2020 in Bethesda, MD. Eligible means published in 2019.

  • Best Contemporary Novel
  • Best Historical [pre-1960]
  • Best First Novel
  • Best Nonfiction
  • Best Short Story
  • Best Children/ Young Adult

*Check this site periodically, since it will be updated. Nominations are due electronically by 10 January 2020; the link has been sent to voters.

Authors: Please verify that your title is eligible and in the appropriate category. Contact me via this page for Additions/Corrections. Please review the quote below from Malice Domestic.

The Agatha Awards will be awarded at Malice Domestic 32 for books and stories first published in the United States by a living author during the calendar year 2019 (January 1-December 31), either in hardcover, as a paperback original, or as an e-book by an e-publishing firm.

The Agatha Awards honor the “traditional mystery,” books typified by the works of Agatha Christie and others. For our purposes, the genre is loosely defined as mysteries that contain no explicit sex, excessive gore or gratuitous violence, and are not classified as “hard-boiled.”

Best Contemporary Novel

  • Cathy Ace. The Wrong Boy.
  • Donna Andrews. Terns of Endearment.
  • Mary Angela. Coming Up Murder.
  • R.G. Belsky. Below the Fold.
  • Connie Berry. A Legacy of Murder.
  • Allison Brooks. Buried in the Stacks.
  • Catherine Bruns. Penne Dreadful.
  • Leslie Budewitz. Chai Another Day.
  • Lucy Burdette. A Deadly Feast.
  • V.M. Burns. Wed, Read & Dead.
  • Ellen Byron. Fatal Cajun Festival.
  • Donna Walo Clancy. Seashells and Christmas Bells.
  • Ellison Cooper. Buried: A Novel.
  • E.J. Copperman. Bones Behind the Wheel.
  • Annette Dashofy. Fair Game.
  • Vicki Delany. Silent Night, Deadly Night.
  • Hannah Dennison. Tidings of Death at Honeychurch Hall.
  • P.A. De Voe. No Way to Die.
  • Elizabeth J. Duncan. Remembering the Dead.
  • Kaitlyn Dunnett. Clause & Effect (Deadly Edits)
  • Sharon Farrow. Mulberry Mischief.
  • Mary Feliz. Cliff Hanger.
  • G.P. Gardner. Murder At Royale Court.
  • G.P. Gardner. Murder at the Arts and Crafts Festival.
  • Eva Gates. Read and Buried.
  • Eva Gates. Something Read, Something Dead.
  • Victoria Gilbert. Past Due for Murder.
  • Debra Goldstein. One Taste Too Many.
  • Carol Goodman. The Night Visitors.
  • Alexia Gordon. Fatality in F.
  • Marni Graff. Death at the Dakota.
  • Lena Gregory. Spirited Away.
  • Sherry Harris. The Gun Also Rises.
  • Sherry Harris. Let’s Fake A Deal.
  • Sherry Harris. Sell Low, Sweet Harriet.
  • Jenna Harte. Death of a Debtor.
  • Peter W.J. Hayes. The Things That Are Different.
  • Julia Henry. Pruning the Dead.
  • Julia Henry. Tilling the Truth.
  • Edwin Hill. The Missing Ones.
  • Aimee Hix. Dark Streets, Cold Suburbs.
  • Cheryl Hollon. Down in Flames.
  • Mary Ellen Hughes. A Curio Killing.
  • Leslie Karst. Murder from Scratch.
  • Tina Kashian. One Feta in the Grave.
  • J.C. Kenney. A Genuine Fix.
  • Thomas Kies. Graveyard Bay.
  • Kylie Logan. The Scent of Murder.
  • Cynthia Kuhn. The Subject of Malice.
  • Kathryn Long. Buried in Sin.
  • Alice Loweecey. Better than Nun.
  • Meg Macy. Have Yourself A Beary Little Murder.
  • Catherine Maiorisi. The Blood Runs Cold.
  • Liz Milliron. Heaven Has No Rage.
  • Catriona McPherson. Strangers at the Gate.
  • Gigi Pandian. The Glass Thief.
  • Carol J. Perry. Late Checkout.
  • Carol J. Perry. Final Exam.
  • Leigh Perry. The Skeleton Stuffs A Stocking.
  • Keenan Powell. Hemlock Needle.
  • Lissa Redmond. A Means to An End.
  • Barbara Ross. Jane Darrowfield, Professional Busybody.
  • Barbara Ross. Sealed Off.
  • Hank Phillippi Ryan. The Murder List.
  • Alex Segura. Miami Midnight.
  • Terry Shames. A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary.
  • Nancy Cole Silverman. The House on Hallowed Ground.
  • Shawn Reilly Simmons. Murder on the Chopping Block.
  • Triss Stein. Brooklyn Legacies.
  • Cathi Stoler. Out of Time.
  • Wendy Tyson. Ripe for Vengeance.
  • Kathleen Valenti. As Directed.
  • Lea Wait. Thread and Buried.
  • LynDee Walker. Deadly Politics.
  • LynDee Walker. Leave No Stone.
  • Lynn Chandler Willis. Tell Me no Secrets.
  • Lynn Chandler Willis. Tell Me You Love Me.
  • Marty Wingate. The Bodies in the Library.
  • Erica Wright. Famous in Cedarville.

Best Historical [Note: pre-1960]

  • Rhys Bowen. Love and Death Among the Cheetahs.
  • Susanna Calkins. Murder Knocks Twice.
  • L.A. Chandlar. The Pearl Dagger.
  • Peg Cochran. Murder, She Uncovered.
  • Peg Cochran. Murder, She Encountered.
  • Lyndsay Faye. Paragon Hotel.
  • Mariah Fredericks. Death of a New American.
  • Dianne Freeman. A Lady’s Guide to Gossip and Murder.
  • Nancy Herriman. A Fall of Shadows.
  • Jennifer Kincheloe. The Body in Griffith Park.
  • Bonnie MacBird. The Devil’s Due.
  • Alyssa Maxwell. Murder at Crossways.
  • Edith Maxwell. Charity’s Burden.
  • Clara McKenna. Murder at Morrington Hall.
  • Allison Montclair. The Right Sort of Man.
  • Jess Montgomery. The Widows.
  • Catriona McPherson. A Step So Grave.
  • Sarah Shaber. Louise’s Crossing.
  • Cathi Stoler. Out of Time.
  • Vicki Thompson. Murder on Trinity Place.
  • Jeri Westerson. Traitor’s Codex.
  • Gabriel Valjan. The Naming Game.

Best First Novel

  • Nicole Asselin. Murder at First Pitch.
  • Connie Berry. A Dream of Death.
  • Kelly Brakehoff. Death by Dissertation.
  • Sharon Daynard. Murder Points North.
  • Nancy Good. Killer Calories.
  • J.C. Kenney. A Literal Mess.
  • Tara Laskowski. One Night Gone.
  • Richie Narváez. Hipster Death Rattle.
  • S.C. Perkins. Murder Once Removed.
  • Ang Pompano. When It’s Time for Leaving.
  • Cynthia Tolbert. Out from Silence.
  • Grace Topping. Staging for Murder.
  • Kate Young. Southern Sass and Killer Cravings.

Best Nonfiction

Best Short Story

  • Tina de Bellegarde. “Second Chances” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Micki Browning. “Revisions” in Writers at Work.
  • Leslie Budewitz. “A Death in Yelapa” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Leslie Budewitz. “Miss Starr’s Good-bye” in AHMM
  • Susanna Calkins. “Tea Leaf” in Trouble & Strife.
  • Dara Carr. “Emily and Elodie” in Black Cat Mystery.
  • Bruce Coffin. “Old-Fashioned” in Dark Yonder: Tales & Tabs.
  • David Dean. “Reyna” in Crime Travel.
  • T.Y. Euliano. “The Choices We Make” in The Society of Misfit Stories Present…(Vol. 1 Issue 3)
  • Tracy Falenwolfe. “Partners in Crime” in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #5.
  • Kaye George. “Grist for the Mill” in A Murder of Crows.
  • Barb Goffman. “Alex’s Choice” in Crime Travel.
  • Barb Goffman. “Punching Bag” in Flash Bang Mysteries.
  • Barb Goffman. “Power Behind the Throne” in Deadly Southern Charm.
  • Debra Goldstein. “Pig Lickin’ Good” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Debra Goldstein. “Nova, Capers, and a Shmear of Cream Cheese” in Fishy Business.
  • Peter W.J. Hayes. “Pretty Dreams” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Kristin Kiska. “Snowbirding” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Eleanor Cawood Jones. “O Crime, In Thy Flight” in Crime Travel.
  • Cynthia Kuhn. “The Blue Ribbon” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Joan Long. “The Extra Ingredient” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Ramona DeFelice Long. “Moe’s Seafood” in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, vol. 4.
  • G.M. Malliet. “Whiteout” in EQMM.
  • Edith Maxwell. “Sushi Lessons” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Ruth McCarty. “Killer Chocolate Chips” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Adam Meyer. “The Fourteenth Floor” in Crime Travel.
  • M.A. Monin. “Bad Ju-Ju” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Terrie Farley Moran. “Flamingo Road” in AHMM.
  • Richie Narvaez. “None of This Is On the Map” in EQMM.
  • Laura Oles. “The Deed” in Diamonds, Denim and Death: Bouchercon 50th Anniversary Anthology.
  • Josh Pachter. “The Secret Lagoon” in EQMM.
  • Josh Pachter. “A Study in Scarlett” in EQMM.
  • Josh Pachter. “Cremains of the Day” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Josh Pachter. “The Two-Body Problem” in Mystery Weekly Magazine.
  • Ang Pompano. “Stringer” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Ang Pompano. “Diet of Death” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Merrilee Robson. “Stealth” in The Desperate and the Damned.
  • Merrilee Robson. “A Locked Co-op Mystery” in Mystery Weekly.
  • Harriette Sackler. “Honor Thy Father” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Harriette Sackler. “If I Should Die” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Terry Shames. “Bring it” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Nancy Cole Silverman. “The Gourmand” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Shawn Reilly Simmons. “The Last Word” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • J.B. Stevens. “Earning” at Mystery Tribune.
  • J.B. Stevens. “Clean By” at Mystery Tribune.
  • Gerald So. “Fred” at Mystery Tribune.
  • Cathi Stoler. “That’s My Story And I’m Sticking To It” in Mysterical-E.
  • Cynthia Sabelhaus. “Soup” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Art Taylor. “Better Days” in EQMM.
  • Gabriel Valjan. “Monsters Don’t Sleep At Night” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Heather Weidner. “Art Attack” in Deadly Southern Charm.
  • Vicki Weisfeld. “New Energy” in EQMM.
  • Vicki Weisfeld. “The Ghost Who Read the Newspaper” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Stacy Woodson. “The Secret Blend” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Stacy Woodson. “The Retirement Plan” in EQMM.
  • Jeri Westerson. “Last Pole on the Left: A Santa Noir Story” Dragua Press.

Best Children/Young Children

  • Sheila Scobba Banning. Lockdown.
  • Mary Downing Hahn. Guest: A Changeling Tale.
  • Shauna Holyoak. Kazu Jones and the Denver Dognappers.
  • Karen MacManus. Two Can Keep a Secret…If One of Us Is Dead.
  • Rodman Philbrick. Wildfire.
  • Robin Stevens. Top Marks for Murder.
  • Matthew Swanson. The Real McCoys: Wonder Undercover.
  • Krista Van Dolzer. The Multiplying Mysteries of Mount Ten.
  • Sherri Winston. Jada Sly, Artist and Spy.
Posted in American Writers, Mystery | Tagged , , | 89 Comments

Excerpt from Dirty Old Town: A Shane Cleary Mystery

Bait

The phone rang. Not that I heard it at first, but Delilah, who was lying next to me, kicked me in the ribs. Good thing she did because a call, no matter what the hour, meant business, and my cat had a better sense of finances than I did. Rent was overdue on the apartment, and we were living out of my office in downtown Boston to avoid my landlord in the South End. The phone trilled.

Again, and again, it rang.

I staggered through the darkness to the desk and picked up the receiver. Out of spite I didn’t say a word. I’d let the caller who’d ruined my sleep start the conversation.

“Mr. Shane Cleary?” a gruff voice asked.

“Maybe.”

The obnoxious noise in my ear indicated the phone had been handed to someone else. The crusty voice was playing operator for the real boss.

“Shane, old pal. It’s BB.”

Dread as ancient as the schoolyard blues spread through me. Those familiar initials also made me think of monogrammed towels and cufflinks. I checked the clock.

“Brayton Braddock. Remember me?”

“It’s two in the morning, Bray. What do you want?”

Calling him Bray was intended as a jab, to remind him his name was one syllable away from the sound of a jackass. BB was what he’d called himself when we were kids, because he thought it was cool. It wasn’t. He thought it made him one of the guys. It didn’t, but that didn’t stop him. Money creates delusions. Old money guarantees them.

“I need your help.”

“At this hour?”

“Don’t be like that.”

“What’s this about, Bray?”

Delilah meowed at my feet and did figure eights around my legs. My gal was telling me I was dealing with a snake, and she preferred I didn’t take the assignment, no matter how much it paid us. But how could I not listen to Brayton Braddock III? I needed the money. Delilah and I were both on a first-name basis with Charlie the Tuna, given the number of cans of Starkist around the office. Anyone who told you poverty was noble is a damn fool.

“I’d rather talk about this in person, Shane.”

I fumbled for pen and paper.

“When and where?”

“Beacon Hill. My driver is on his way.”

“But—”

I heard the click. I could’ve walked from my office to the Hill. I turned on the desk light and answered the worried eyes and mew. “Looks like we both might have some high-end kibble in our future, Dee.”

She understood what I’d said. Her body bumped the side of my leg. She issued plaintive yelps of disapproval. The one opinion I wanted, from the female I trusted most, and she couldn’t speak human.

I scraped my face smooth with a tired razor and threw on a clean dress shirt, blue, and slacks, dark and pressed. I might be poor, but my mother and then the military had taught me dignity and decency at all times. I dressed conservatively, never hip or loud. Another thing the Army taught me was not to stand out. Be the gray man in any group. It wasn’t like Braddock and his milieu understood contemporary fashion, widespread collars, leisure suits, or platform shoes.

I choose not to wear a tie, just to offend his Brahmin sensibilities. Beacon Hill was where the Elites, the Movers and Shakers in Boston lived, as far back to the days of John Winthrop. At this hour, I expected Braddock in nothing less than bespoke Parisian couture. I gave thought as to whether I should carry or not. I had enemies, and a .38 snub-nose under my left armpit was both insurance and deodorant.

Not knowing how long I’d be gone, I fortified Delilah with the canned stuff. She kept time better than any of the Bruins referees and there was always a present outside the penalty box when I ran overtime with her meals. I meted out extra portions of tuna and the last of the dry food for her.

I checked the window. A sleek Continental slid into place across the street. I admired the chauffeur’s skill at mooring the leviathan. He flashed the headlights to announce his arrival. Impressed that he knew that I knew he was there, I said goodbye, locked and deadbolted the door for the walk down to Washington Street and the car.

Outside the air, severe and cold as the city’s forefathers, slapped my cheeks numb. Stupid me had forgotten gloves. My fingers were almost blue. Good thing the car was yards away, idling, the exhaust rising behind it. I cupped my hands and blew hot air into them and crossed the street. I wouldn’t dignify poor planning on my part with a sprint.

Minimal traffic. Not a word from him or me during the ride. Boston goes to sleep at 12:30 a.m. Public transit does its last call at that hour. Checkered hacks scavenge the streets for fares in the small hours before sunrise. The other side of the city comes alive then, before the rest of the town awakes, before whatever time Mr. Coffee hits the filter and grounds. While men and women who slept until an alarm clock sprung them forward into another day, another repeat of their daily routine, the sitcom of their lives, all for the hallelujah of a paycheck, another set of people moved, with their ties yanked down, shirts and skirts unbuttoned, and tails pulled up and out. The night life, the good life was on. The distinguished set in search of young flesh migrated to the Chess Room on the corner of Tremont and Boylston Streets, and a certain crowd shifted down to the Playland on Essex, where drag queens, truck drivers, and curious college boys mixed more than drinks.

The car was warmer than my office and the radio dialed to stultifying mood music. Light from one of the streetlamps revealed a business card on the seat next to me. I reviewed it: Braddock’s card, the usual details on the front, a phone number in ink. A man’s handwriting on the back when I turned it over. I pocketed it.

All I saw in front of me from my angle in the backseat was a five-cornered hat, not unlike a policeman’s cover, and a pair of black gloves on the wheel. On the occasion of a turn, I was given a profile. No matinee idol there and yet his face looked as familiar as the character actor whose name escapes you. I’d say he was mid-thirties, about my height, which is a liar’s hair under six-foot, and the spread of his shoulders hinted at a hundred-eighty pounds, which made me feel self-conscious and underfed because I’m a hundred-sixty in shoes.

He eased the car to a halt, pushed a button, and the bolt on my door shot upright. Job or no job, I never believed any man was another man’s servant. I thanked him and I watched the head nod.

Outside on the pavement, the cold air knifed my lungs. A light turned on. The glow invited me to consider the flight of stairs with no railing. Even in their architecture, Boston’s aristocracy reminded everyone that any form of ascent needed assistance.

A woman took my winter coat, and a butler said hello. I recognized his voice from the phone. He led and I followed. Wide shoulders and height were apparently in vogue because Braddock had chosen the best from the catalog for driver and butler. I knew the etiquette that came with class distinction. I would not be announced, but merely allowed to slip in.

Logs in the fireplace crackled. Orange and red hues flickered against all the walls. Cozy and intimate for him, a room in hell for me. Braddock waited there, in his armchair, Hefner smoking jacket on. I hadn’t seen the man in almost ten years, but I’ll give credit where it’s due. His parents had done their bit after my mother’s death before foster care swallowed me up. Not so much as a birthday or Christmas card from them or their son since then, and now their prince was calling on me.

Not yet thirty, Braddock manifested a decadence that came with wealth. A pronounced belly, round as a teapot, and when he stood up, I confronted an anemic face, thin lips, and a receding hairline. Middle-age, around the corner for him, suggested a bad toupee and a nubile mistress, if he didn’t have one already. He approached me and did a boxer’s bob and weave. I sparred when I was younger. The things people remembered about you always surprised me. Stuck in the past, and yet Braddock had enough presence of mind to know my occupation and drop the proverbial dime to call me.

“Still got that devastating left hook?” he asked.

“I might.”

“I appreciate your coming on short notice.” He indicated a chair, but I declined. “I have a situation,” he said. He pointed to a decanter of brandy. “Like some…Henri IV Heritage, aged in oak for a century.”

He headed for the small bar to pour me some of his precious Heritage. His drink sat on a small table next to his chair. The decanter waited for him on a liquor caddy with a glass counter and a rotary phone. I reacquainted myself with the room and décor.

I had forgotten how high the ceilings were in these brownstones. The only warm thing in the room was the fire. The heating bill here alone would’ve surpassed the mortgage payment my parents used to pay on our place. The marble, white as it was, was sepulchral. Two nude caryatids for the columns in the fireplace had their eyes closed. The Axminster carpet underfoot, likely an heirloom from one of Cromwell’s cohorts in the family tree, displayed a graphic hunting scene.

I took one look at the decanter, saw all the studded diamonds, and knew Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would have done the set number of paces with a pair of hand-wrought dueling pistols to own it. Bray handed me a snifter of brandy and resumed his place in his chair. I placed my drink on the mantel. “Tell me more about this situation you have.”

“Quite simple, really. Someone in my company is blackmailing me.”

“And which company is that?”

“Immaterial at the moment. Please do take a seat.”

I declined his attempt at schmooze. This wasn’t social. This was business.

“If you know who it is,” I said, “and you want something done about it, I’d recommend the chauffeur without reservation, or is it that you’re not a hundred percent sure?”

I approached Bray and leaned down to talk right into his face. I did it out of spite. One of the lessons I’d learned is that the wealthy are an eccentric and paranoid crowd. Intimacy and germs rank high on their list of phobias.

“I’m confident I’ve got the right man.” Brayton swallowed some of his expensive liquor.

“Then go to the police and set up a sting.”

“I’d like to have you handle the matter for me.”

“I’m not muscle, Brayton. Let’s be clear about that. You mean to say a man of your position doesn’t have any friends on the force to do your dirty work?”

“Like you have any friends there?”

I threw a hand onto each of the armrests and stared into his eyes. Any talk about the case that bounced me off the police force and into the poorhouse soured my disposition. I wanted the worm to squirm.

“Watch it, Bray. Old bones ought to stay buried. I can walk right out that door.”

“That was uncalled for, and I’m sorry,” he said. “This is a clean job.”

Unexpected. The man apologized for the foul. I had thought the word “apology” had been crossed out in his family dictionary. I backed off and let him breathe and savor his brandy.

I needed the job. The money. I didn’t trust Bray as a kid, nor the man the society pages said saved New England with his business deals and largesse.

“Let’s talk about this blackmail then,” I said. “Think one of your employees isn’t happy with their Christmas bonus?”

He bolted upright from his armchair. “I treat my people well.”

Sensitive, I thought and went to say something else, when I heard a sound behind me, and then I smelled her perfume. Jasmine, chased with the sweet burn of bourbon. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them I saw his smug face.

“You remember Cat, don’t you?”

“How could I not?” I said and kissed the back of the hand offered to me. Cat always took matters one step forward. She kissed me on the cheek, close enough that I could feel her against me. She withdrew and her scent stuck to me. Cat was the kind of woman who did all the teaching and you were grateful for the lessons. Here we were, all these years later, the three of us in one room, in the middle of the night.

“Still enjoy those film noir movies?” she asked.

“Every chance I get.”

“I’m glad you came at my husband’s request.”

The word husband hurt. I had read about their marriage in the paper.

“I think you should leave, dear, and let the men talk,” her beloved said.

His choice of words amused me as much as it did her, from the look she gave me. I never would have called her “dear” in public or close quarters. You don’t dismiss her, either.

“Oh please,” she told her husband. “My sensibility isn’t that delicate and it’s not like I haven’t heard business discussed. Shane understands confidentiality and discretion. You also forget a wife can’t be forced to testify against her husband. Is this yours, Shane?” she asked about the snifter on the brandy on the mantel. I nodded. “I’ll keep it warm for you.”

She leaned against the mantel for warmth. She nosed the brandy and closed her eyes. When they opened, her lips parted in a sly smile, knowing her power. Firelight illuminated the length of her legs and my eyes traveled. Braddock noticed and he screwed himself into his chair and gave her a venomous look.

“Why the look, darling?” she said. “You know Shane and I have history.”

Understatement. She raised the glass. Her lips touched the rim and she took the slightest sip. Our eyes met again and I wanted a cigarette, but I’d quit the habit. I relished the sight until Braddock broke the spell. He said, “I’m being blackmailed over a pending business deal.”

“Blackmail implies dirty laundry you don’t want aired,” I said. “What kind of deal?”

“Nothing I thought was that important,” he said.

“Somebody thinks otherwise.”

“This acquisition does have certain aspects that, if exposed, would shift public opinion, even though it’s completely aboveboard.” Braddock sipped and stared at me while that expensive juice went down his throat.

“All legit, huh,” I said. “Again, what kind of acquisition?”

“Real estate.”

“The kind of deal where folks in this town receive an eviction notice?”

He didn’t answer that. As a kid, I’d heard how folks in the West End were tossed out and the Bullfinch Triangle was razed to create Government Center, a modern and brutal Stonehenge, complete with tiered slabs of concrete and glass. Scollay Square disappeared overnight. Gone were the restaurants and the watering holes, the theaters where the Booth brothers performed, and burlesque and vaudeville coexisted. Given short notice, a nominal sum that was more symbolic than anything else, thousands of working-class families had to move or face the police who were as pleasant and diplomatic as the cops at the Chicago Democratic National Convention.

I didn’t say I’d accept the job. I wanted Braddock to simmer and knew how to spike his temperature. I reclaimed my glass from Cat. She enjoyed that. “Pardon me,” I said to her. “Not shy about sharing a glass, I hope.”

“Not at all.”

I let Bray Braddock cook. If he could afford to drink centennial grape juice then he could sustain my contempt. I gulped his cognac to show what a plebe I was, and handed the glass back to Cat with a wink. She walked to the bar and poured herself another splash, while I questioned my future employer. “Has this blackmailer made any demands? Asked for a sum?”

“None,” Braddock answered.

“But he knows details about your acquisition?” I asked.

“He relayed a communication.”

Braddock yelled out to his butler, who appeared faster than recruits I’d known in Basic Training. The man streamed into the room, gave Braddock two envelopes, and exited with an impressive gait. Braddock handed me one of the envelopes.

I opened it. I fished out a thick wad of paperwork. Photostats. Looking them over, I saw names and figures and dates. Accounting.

“Xeroxes,” Braddock said. “They arrived in the mail.”

“Copies? What, carbon copies aren’t good enough for you?”

“We’re beyond the days of the hand-cranked mimeograph machine, Shane. My partners and I have spared no expense to implement the latest technology in our offices.”

I examined pages. “Explain to me in layman’s terms what I’m looking at, the abridged version, or I’ll be drinking more of your brandy.”

The magisterial hand pointed to the decanter. “Help yourself.”

“No thanks.”

“Those copies are from a ledger for the proposed deal. Keep them. Knowledgeable eyes can connect names there to certain companies, to certain men, which in turn lead to friends in high places, and I think you can infer the rest. Nothing illegal, mind you, but you know how things get, if they find their way into the papers. Yellow journalism has never died out.”

I pocketed the copies. “It didn’t die out, on account of your people using it to underwrite the Spanish-American War. If what you have here is fair-and-square business, then your problem is public relations—a black eye the barbershops on Madison Ave can pretty up in the morning. I don’t do PR, Mr. Braddock. What is it you think I can do for you?”

“Ascertain the identity of the blackmailer.”

“Then you aren’t certain of…never mind. And what do I do when I ascertain that identity?”

“Nothing. I’ll do the rest.”

“Coming from you, that worries me, seeing how your people have treated the peasants, historically speaking.”

Brayton didn’t say a word to that.

“And that other envelope in your lap?” I asked.

The balding halo on the top of his head revealed itself when he looked down at the envelope. Those sickly lips parted when he faced me. I knew I would hate the answer. Cat stood behind him. She glanced at me then at the figure of a dog chasing a rabbit on the carpet.

“Envelope contains the name of a lead, an address, and a generous advance. Cash.”

Brayton tossed it my way. The envelope, fat as a fish, hit me. I caught it.

Advance Praise for Dirty Old Town

“Valjan paints the town, and all the colors are noir.” —Tom Straw, NYT Bestselling author, as Richard Castle

“So come for the twisting plot and suspense, stay for the style.” —William Martin, NYT Bestselling author of Back Bay and Bound for Gold

Dirty Old Town hits every pitch out of the park: it’s smart, funny and consistently surprising. A great read!” —Dennis Palumbo, author of the Daniel Rinaldi Mysteries

“Fans of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Dennis Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie will love Shane Cleary. Dirty Old Town is fast, fun and first-rate!” —R.G. Belsky, author of the award-winning Clare Carlson mystery series

Excerpt provided with permission from Level Best BooksDirty Old Town release date is 14 January 2020. Available for Pre-Order at Amazon.

Posted in American Writers, Mystery, Noir | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Bouchercon 2019: Lisa Unger interviews Hank Phillippi Ryan, Guest of Honor

Bouchercon 2019. Lisa Unger interviews Hank Phillippi Ryan, Guest of Honor. Saturday, 2 November, 9:30AM in Landmark C. Recorded by Patrick von Wiegandt and transcribed here by me, Gabriel Valjan. Any errors are my own. Photos are from the web. Squeak, my cat who posed with my inscribed copy of The Murder List, passed away 27 November 2019.

LU: Guest of Honor Hank Phillippi Ryan, welcome.

HPR: I have to say, and then I’m gonna be really quiet. Ha. Ha. Maybe. Lisa stayed home with her darling daughter Ocean to go Tick-or-Treating on Halloween.

LU: Yes.

HPR: And Ocean was a…

LU: A vampire-kitty-mermaid. She’s a very creative type.

HPR: And you came all the way to do this for us, so this is great.

LU: I’m thrilled. Thrilled, and thank you all for being here. And so, this is Hank. She is the on-the-air investigative reporter for Boston’s WHDH-TV. Does everyone know that about her? Does everyone know that she’s won…wait for it…36 Emmy Awards. How does that happen?

HPR: I’m old.

LU: No, stop. As well as, 14 Edward R. Murrow Awards for her work. That’s pretty amazing, but more importantly, her work as a journalist has resulted in new laws; in criminals sent to prison; homes rescued from foreclosures; and millions of dollars in refunds and restitution for consumers. Hank, basically as an investigative reporter, is a living, breathing, thriller heroine.

[Link to Hank’s Investigates via WHDH-TV, Boston]

HPR: I’ve never thought about that.

LU: You are. You could be the hero of your own books.

HPR: Do you have a pen? I just got some ideas.

LU: That would be enough for most people, right? You have work, but not Hank. She’s also the national bestselling author of 11 smart, twisty, gripping novels, which have earned her…wait for it… five Agatha Awards, three Anthonys, the Daphne, two Macavitys, and the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Did I miss anything?

HPR: No, I’m blushing like crazy now, but I could call you when I have one of those Bad Writing Days and say, “Can you read that list to me?”

LU: I’ll give this to you so you can put it on your den. So of course, there are too many reviews to list here, but Hank has been hailed as a master at creating suspenseful mysteries and a superb and gifted storyteller. Her novels—two series, one featuring Charlotte McNally, a Boston television reporter, and the other featuring a newspaper reporter Jane Ryland and Detective Jake Brogan, as well as two stellar standalones, Trust Me and her most recent, The Murder List—all feature strong women, breakneck pacing, and twists you will never see coming. B. A. Paris said that The Murder List is “her best yet!” The starred Library Journal raved, “it is masterly plotted thriller with a twisted ending.” It’s hard to talk about The Murder List without talking about the ending. B.A. [Paris] went on to say that it is “a riveting character-driven story.” It really is. Has everybody read it? It’s fantastic.

HPR: My editor is back there, so thank you. That was great

LU: Hi, Editor.

HPR: If you haven’t read it, There’s still time. No pressure. It’s just my career.

LU: I can go on and on about Hank, but I reached out to a few friends.

HPR: I just noticed.

LU: She didn’t know this before I sat here before and I didn’t tell her a lot of things. They had a few things to say. Sara Blædel, who is like Denmark’s number one bestselling crime author, and she’s been here [at Bouchercon] many times as our guest. She said that from the minute she met Hank, she was so friendly and so warm, and felt that you were one of the people who truly welcomed her into our US crime fiction community which, as we all know, is a wonderful community of warm, loving people. Weirdly. We are all liars, plot murders, but love each other, so that’s good.

She said not only that, but when she was in Boston for her event, it was a super cold February night in Boston, and when she looked out in the audience she saw Hank and her husband Jonathan [Shapiro] in the audience. She said she felt so grateful for that. She mentioned that, and since besides being a brilliant writer, a funny and generous person, Hank is also a wonderful colleague.

Alafair Burke said, “Hank is not only a prolific and talented author, but she is also one of the biggest champions of other writers within the crime fiction community.”

Of course I also had to talk to Karin Slaughter, my bud, and asked if she had something to add. She did, and she mentioned that when she [Karin] accepted the Edgar for Gillian Flynn, and when you were posting pictures online, Hank had all the dirtiest ideas of how they might position Edgar for these photos

HPR: That’s not true!

LU: Do you have anything to say about this, Hank?

HPR: I do before we start the interview. I do remember this. We all went out to the Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Station after the Edgars. It was Meg Gardiner, and you, and Karin Slaughter.

LU: Me?

HPR: Yes, you, because you’re the one who had all the ideas. It’s true. Alafair took us there. Gorgeous. Secret bar. Beautiful. Don’t tell anybody. So, we had Gillian’s Edgar, the four of us in this bar, and it was actually you, Karin, and Meg who were thinking of what to do and—

LU: I’m 90 percent sure I wasn’t there. Okay, maybe 80 or 85.

HPR: It was like putting salt on the table and making lines of salt. I—because I’m the wild and crazy person—took the ‘I Voted’ sticker off my phone and put it on the Edgar. Karin said, ‘Oh my gosh, Hank, you’re such a wimp. Your idea of wild and crazy is to put an “I Voted” sticker on something. Okay, tell Karin I’m going to call her.

LU: Okay. I’d like to begin at the beginning because I think everybody’s favorite thing to talk about is the journey of the writer. For many of us, the journey starts in childhood, or for most of us, it does. You said in an interview that even as a child you loved the architecture of the mystery. I thought that was an interesting way to talk about it, so what I want to know is, Did you always know that you wanted to write fiction, and what was that moment for you? Tell us a little about your journey, which took you first to journalism.

HPR: Oh, yikes. How much time do we have here? I grew up in really rural Indiana, so rural that you couldn’t see another house from our house, My sister and I used to ride our ponies to the library to get books. We did. We’d fill up the saddlebags with books.

LU: Is that true? That is so cool.

HPR: We saddle Cadet and Sable and go to the Zionsville Library. We’d read up in the hayloft in the barn behind our house, and that’s where I fell in love with storytelling. Nancy Drew. You read Nancy Drew? We’d read The Secret of the Old Clock. I read Clue in the Diary, which I thought was Clue in the Dairy.

My parents lost me for a month reading up in the hayloft reading every Sherlock Holmes short story and novella. Every single one. Sir Conan Doyle taught me how a mystery would work. You needed a character. You needed a problem. You needed clues. In the end, you needed to lure the reader along and, in the end, surprise them with something that was unexpected but perfect. One of those things where you say, “I should have seen that. I should have seen that.”

I was a kid, but I was understanding the structure of how a mystery would go step by step. Then I read all the Golden Age mysteries: Ngaio Marsh; Josephine Tey; Margery Allingham; Dorothy Sayers, and then I read Murder on the Orient Express. I think I was—how old? Eleven or twelve. I thought in the end, “Are you kidding me? Remember when you read that, and you thought, “Wait a minute. That was all there. All the clues were there.” So that is what I mean when I talk about the architecture of the mystery. Every single element of the story is there, but the clever author is saying, “Look at this. Isn’t this interesting? But when what you should be watching is really over here. It’s all there, all there for you to see, just you didn’t notice.”  I loved that.

I wanted to do something like that. The thing that about Nancy Drew that was cool, and the thing about Poirot is there was a problem and they solved the problem; they figured it out, and I loved the idea that you can figure something out. I thought at the time not so much to be a mystery author but to be a detective, that it’d be cooler to be Nancy Drew than to write about Nancy Drew, so I think that was what took me to journalism school although that was a winding path and a funny one that you could ask about. Well, that was what set my love of storytelling. That is what it was, how I learned the total immersion story. When you’re a kid and someone says ‘Once upon a time’ and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, tell me a story.’ We know this, when someone puts us on their lap and says, ‘I’m going to tell you a story.’

LU: I wanted to jump ahead because it sort of touches on one of the big questions, and you talk about this a lot: the difference between—and I don’t like the current phrases—Plotters and Pantsers. I just had an online discussion with a couple of authors about Architect versus Gardener. The architect is the person who constructs an outline, the gardener is the sort of person who lets the story evolve. You are more of a Gardener, right?

HPR: George Martin said that. George Martin is one of my complete heroes, and I loved Game of Thrones, and I loved everything about it and the comment about Architect versus Gardener. I met him at ThrillerFest. I went up to him and said, “Oh, Mr. Martin. I’m such a huge fan of yours, and I think about you every night.” He was like, “Huh?” What I meant and if I had been less whacked out over it, I would’ve been more artful about the question. What I wanted to tell him was, What a risk-taker he is. He will kill anyone. So, that is what I love about the gardening part of writing.

LU: And my theory is sort of that people who can write that way have been, if not writing since childhood, at least been reading since childhood because, like the avid reader who disappeared into the barn for a month and that was the kind of reader I was, it’s almost like you internalize the form of the novel, like it becomes the way you think about things.

HPR: Exactly. It’s a Beginning, Middle, and an End. It’s a story you have a rhythm of what you expect Once upon a time, and there’s a character, and there’s going to be a problem, and there’s going to be a setting. We understand that. We viscerally understand that. I think, from the standpoint of Gardener versus Architect, Lee Child and I have talked about this: that both come from journalism. As a reporter, I’m not looking for the story, I don’t know what the end of the story is, so I’m not fearful until it gets right down to the deadline. I’m not fearful that I’m not going to find the end of the story.

LU: You have to go out there and find it.

HPR: That’s how I write my investigative stories, and that’s how I write my novels.

I’m looking for the story to come to me. A person I met once on a plane had another wonderful way of describing this. You know how you love writing on a plane, because you’re in this bubble and nobody is going to bother you? Nobody is going to talk to you. This guy was sitting next to me, and he was going to talk no matter what I did. He was going to talk to me. I was like, “C’mon, Hank, be a person.”

He says to me, “What do you do?”

I said, “I’m a writer,” which was kind of a cool moment.

I asked him, being a person, “What do you do?” and he said, “I’m a consultant.”

I asked him what he consulted about. He said, “I teach ‘emergent design.’”

I said, “Emergent design? What is that?”

He said, “Well, as an author, do you know what the end of your book is going to be?”

I said, “No.”

He said, “Do you have faith when you start, a belief, that when you type Chapter One that you will eventually get to the end?”

I said, “Sure.”

He said, “That is emergent design. Isn’t that cool?”

LU: I love that.

HPR: The book emerges as you work on it. He said, “Some people cannot do that. They need a structure.” He teaches people how to not be afraid to step off that tightrope, and just go for it with the belief that you will get to the end. He said artists, like painters—and I don’t know how to paint. I can make a horse.

LU: Must be all that pony riding as a child.

HPR: The idea that you believe that the story will come

LU: So, You talk to people on the plane, is that what you’re saying?

HPR: No. I’ve had my one cool discussion on a plane.

LU: I think that the universe gave you that moment to be the person, so you could have that information and give to me and all the people sitting here. That is how a story should evolve. Emergent design. So we were talking how you were in love with the architecture, your love of Nancy Drew, so let’s talk about your early life as a journalist. Before heading to Boston, you worked at Rolling Stone, and you did a lot of cool things while working at Rolling Stone. One of the extra-cool things you did was that you toured the country with Hunter S. Thompson.

HPR: I love that you know who that is.

LU: And he taught you an important skill involving lighter fluid.

HPR: You have looked me up.

LU: I’ve done my research.

HPR: I went to Washington DC. I was a radio reporter in 1970. Don’t forget to ask me about that because that’s a good story, too. Put that on your list.

LU: I don’t have a pen. Somebody remind us to ask us a question about 1970, if I forget.

HPR: I was a radio reporter in 1970, and I moved to Washington DC and went to work on Capitol Hill in the Administrative—actually, I was the press secretary to the congressman from El Paso for about a month, going to door-to-door handing out resumes. I think I was twenty-one and saying, “Does anybody need a person to do something?” They said “Yeah, I need a press secretary – I was just quitting”, and I should have realized it was a bad job when they said, “Yeah, we need a press secretary.” I said, “Yeah sure, I can do that.” I’d been a radio reporter for six months.

[Find Hank in the newspaper clipping]

And because of the way things work on Capitol Hill, I heard of another job opening. I got a job as a legislative assistant to the, as you say—wait for it—the Administrative Practices and Procedures Subcommittee to the Senate Judiciary Committee. And that was fantastic!

I worked on the Freedom of Information Act. I worked on the reorganization of the Internal Revenue Service—and it’s not my fault, none of it is my fault. I also sued the CIA to get information on the retrieval of the Glomar, the Russian submarine that was sunk in the Pacific [1974]. Remember that? The CIA had hired Howard Hughes with his Glomar Explorer to pull up this submarine from the ocean.

LU: See —She is a thriller here.

HPR: We sued the CIA. There’s a lawsuit captioned Harriet Ann Phillippi versus the CIA. We lost the lawsuit. The response from the CIA for our request for information was, “We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of this information.” And that was the first time the CIA or anyone had ever sent a letter saying, “We can neither confirm nor deny.” We were the first people to ever hear that phrase from a government official, and now that is what everyone says to everyone. We had no idea we were reading this thing that was history. I wish I had saved the letter because that would be kind of cool. When we got the letter, we were like, “Are you kidding me? What a thing to say” because we had never heard it before.

LU:  From there, how do you get into Rolling Stone? I’m trying to keep on track, and don’t forget about the lighter fluid.

HPR: One second for name dropping. The chairman of Administrative Subcommittee was Ted Kennedy, and he would have all his staff members assemble at Ethel and Robert Kennedy’s house, Hickory Hill, so we’d go there on the weekends and swim in the pool. One weekend there was Richard Goodwin, who was the speechwriter for Robert Kennedy. Jann Wenner the editor at Rolling Stone had asked him to start a new magazine as part of Rolling Stone called Politics. I happened to be sitting there and he, Richard Goodwin, knew that I worked for the Subcommittee, and he said, “Do you want to be the assistant editor of the politics section of Rolling Stone?” I said, “Sure. I can do that.”

I remember my dad was in the Foreign Service, and I remembered having lunch with him in Washington DC and saying to him: “You know, Dad, I just don’t have any idea what I’m doing in this job. I just don’t know.”

He said “Sweetheart, nobody knows what they’re doing.”

I said “I’m making it up as I go.”

He said “Yeah, everybody is making it up as they go.”

It was a real revelation for me.

LU: Yeah. I remember you telling me that before, and when I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m making it up as I go along. I think of you, and it makes me feel better.

HPR: See, Dad is still with us. One of the things I did for Rolling Stone was that I went on a national tour with Hunter Thompson. I had arranged his schedule for his coverage of the 1976 presidential campaign, so we’d travel and fly around and go to various parts of the country. Once in Florida we were covering a Jimmy Carter thing, and Jimmy Carter’s aide Pat Caddell was a great friend of Hunter Thompson. In a hotel room in Florida, they were practicing inhaling the lighter fluid. DON’T DO THIS. They were inhaling the lighter fluid, breathing it out and lighting it on fire.

Hunter Thompson, if you didn’t know this, was notoriously whacky and crazy. I never actually did the breathing fire with lighter fluid at all because it seems my hair would’ve gone up. It’s dangerous

LU: And you do have good hair, and you don’t need lighter fluid.

HPR: You should write that down. That’s a quote.

LU: And what else Hunter Thompson teach you?

HPR: Hunter Thompson was actually the nicest of guys. He bought me every Jimmy Buffett album. He was very expansive, very generous and very smart. He taught me not to be afraid, and that was what his gift was to me. Don’t be afraid in writing. Just go for it. Use your voice. Write what you feel. Just give it a try. Not everybody is going to love it, but some people will really love it. That was in the Seventies, and that has stuck with me so thoroughly. That bravery.

LU: Probably the most important advice you can give to an aspiring writer is, Don’t be afraid. There is really nothing else to know.

HPR: There’s a really great quote from Thomas Edison, and I think I can keep it straight. He said, “Remember, when you think you have exhausted all of the possibilities, remember this – you haven’t.” Isn’t that great? It isn’t that you can’t come up with the answer, just that you haven’t thought of it yet.

And that moment of inspiration that we all hope we have every time, I always think if I can have one good idea day that is plenty.

LU: You’ve had this exciting early life as a journalist. You wound up in Boston. Is that where your investigative career took off, when you moved to Boston?

HPR: I started out as a reporter in Indianapolis. That was 1975, if you can imagine, and I was the political reporter, and then I was the weekend anchor. I also read the farm news. I seriously did: the agricultural report. I was also the movie critic because they didn’t have a lot of people. That was fun.

Then I was offered a job in Atlanta, where I worked for five years at WSB-TV as the political reporter. Then I got a job offer in Dallas, San Francisco, Washington DC, and Boston—all essentially at the same time, and I chose Boston. I went to Boston and that’s where I’ve been ever since. I started out as the features reporter. I was the funny one. They called us Something Out of Nothing Productions, and they’ll say, “If you don’t have a story, Hank will go out and find something.”

So, I was the funny one. I did poems and I did songs. My famous song was the “Super Bowl Shuffle.” Anyway, one day I went to my news director and I said, “I can’t be the Funny One any more. I think I’m the Serious One.” And they said, “Okay, we’ll try you out,” so they had me covering the 1988 presidential conventions. When I came back, they said, “You’ve got this. You’re going to be the investigative reporter.” I started doing long-form journalism in 1988 as a result of that. I’ve been doing that ever since.

LU: Then, all this time, did you have your secret, beating heart of the novelist? Did you hold this dream of writing fiction, and when did that moment come for you? We hear, “I’ve been in love with these kind of stories since I was a kid, and now I want to write it.” Can you tell us a little about that?

HPR: Wouldn’t that be a good story, if that was what happened? I’m teasing you. It’s not that I thought about it all the time. From time to time, I would think, “Gee, I would love to write a mystery, and I would think, “What about…I wonder,” and then I would think, “I don’t know. I don’t have any ideas.”

But one day at Channel 7, I can tell: I was fifty-five when this happened, so that’s what? Fifteen years ago. I was fifty-five. This was back when spam filters were terrible, and you had to delete your own spam every morning, back in the day. And I opened one by mistake, and the subject line of the email said, ‘A New Refinancing Deal for You.’ When you opened the email, there was dialogue that looked like it was from a Shakespearean play. I majored in Shakespeare in college, much to my parent’s chagrin. There were like, ‘O sister, you’re never going to get a job.’ Anyway, I recognized it was not Shakespeare but it was from that era and I said to myself, “Why would someone send a spam email that is clearly going to be opened by millions of people, with the subject line ‘A New Refinancing Deal for You’ with the body as a message that has nothing to do with refinancing. Why would someone do that?”

My brain—and I remember this perfectly and I still get goosebumps when I say this—my brain said, “Maybe this is a secret message.” I thought, secret messages in computer spam is a great idea. I did. That’s a great idea. Could you do it? How would that work? What would be the point of it? Who would solve the murder? What would be the story? Who would solve the murder, because it was clearly going to be a murder-mystery?

I went home, and I said to my husband, “I’m going to write a novel. I have a great idea for a mystery. I’m going to write a mystery.” He was like, “G-r-r-r-eat.”

LU: That’s what everybody says the first time you say you’re going to write a novel.

HPR: He wanted to be supportive, but you can see what was going through his mind. He said, “Do you know how to write a novel?” I said, “No, but how hard can it be. I’ve read a million of them.” I know it sounds cliché but that’s exactly what happened. He remembers it so perfectly clear because it was so funny.

I was obsessed from that moment on. I was obsessed with writing this mystery about secret messages in computer spam, and that turned out to be Prime Time, which won the Agatha for Best First Novel. That was the beginning of my crime fiction career, which is so crazy because it was again the universe saying, “Now, it’s your turn,” and you sort of have to be open to that moment. Serendipitous messages from who knows what writer universe there is, and I still wait, hope for, expect, am ready for those moments. Aren’t you? Sometimes, I’m like, “Okay, any time.”

LU: I’m right here. Absolutely. Speaking of moments, this is something I always like to ask because usually there are writers in the audience, of all levels, and at one point everybody, whether you’re a bestselling author or an aspiring writer, and there’s that moment when you are alone in a room, working on a novel that you weren’t sure was good enough. Every person who has achieved anything in the writing life has been inside that moment. I always like to ask about the first big Yes, that moment when the book is done and you’ve sent it out to agents and somebody calls and says, “Yes, I want to represent you, or Yes, I want to publish you.” This is a Big Moment for writers, the biggest moment, especially if it’s something you’ve had in your heart and dreaming about since childhood, something that gives you goosebumps. Tell us about your first Big Moment.

HPR: It’s interesting, and that was such a nice, lovely, connected question, and there is a moment in your life when the universe clicks into another mode. It’s fun to remember. I was such a newbie that when I wrote Prime Time, I had it on a floppy disk and I didn’t have a printer, so I took it to the Kinkos. My first draft. I went to Kinkos and I said to the guy, “Can you print this for me? and he said, “Yeah.” I said, “It’s my novel.” He was like, “Yeah. Yeah.”

I came back a couple hours later and I said, “I’m here to pick up my printing,” and he said, “Oh, you’re the one who wrote the novel.” I honestly thought, he read it, and he loved it. Loved it. He says, “I have it for you,” and he reaches for a ream box, 500 pages, and he puts the ream box on the counter. I say, “Thank you,” and he says, “No, wait.” He goes down. Another ream box of paper, and put it on the box. It was 723 pages long. Kristin [Sevick Brown at Tom Doherty Associates], my editor is back there and is like, “I’m not surprised.”

I had to cut 400 pages.

LU: [unintelligible]

HPR: That’s interesting because I thought: No, all those 400 pages were stupid, derivative, trying to be a good writer, trying to show up, tangential, attempting to be funny, and all that stuff that is horrific, terrible, go, go, go, and it made me realize that I repeated things. Now I’m gonna say that I tell people things more than once, and that’s the same thing, and that was what the problem was. All that had to go, and that was a big lesson.

I sent the book out. On paper, with the three chapters and the query letter that you used to do with the self-addressed stamped envelope, and you’d wait every morning every day when we’d come back from work. I’d go up the driveway and I’d see that manila envelope with my handwriting on it in the mailbox, meaning it was another No, another rejection. This was the Charlie McNally book Prime Time. I said to my husband, “Charlie McNally is going to die! Nobody is ever going to meet her.”

My husband said, “Honey, Charlie McNally is not going to die.”

I said, “How do you know? You don’t know.”

Finally, people started saying, “Yes.”  I can tell you a fast writing thing. How many of you are writing? How many of you are writing your first book?

Here’s what I did. My first query letter was, “Prime Time is a mystery about a smart, successful television reporter in Boston, who is worried she is getting too old for her job, and wonders what happens when somebody is married to a job in television and the camera doesn’t love her anymore.” And it was Nope, Nope. We don’t hear you. We don’t care. Go away.

So I started writing query letters that said, What if that pesky computer spam clogging up your computer is really secret messages. Everybody said, “Yes” and that was how it started. Once I told the story, people were interested, and that was terrific. One more thing: my agent at the time, who isn’t my agent now but whom I love and was fabulous said, “I love that you’re writing a story about a heroine who is a little bit older. It’s just great. People are tired of 21-year-old girls with their first job and their first expensive shoes. You’ve written a women of the world, who is confident, savvy and smart and funny in Charlie McNally,” then said, “People are not ready for an older heroine. How old is she? How old is Charlie really?”

I said, “I made her my age; she’s 55.” My agent said, “Oh, that’s too old.”

You’ll be happy to hear this, words to the wise. I said, “What if I made her 46? Is 46 too old?”

“No, 46 is not too old,” so now you know.

LU: I’m going to skip through all my other questions. I’m very prepared. Let’s talk about The Murder List, so we can have time for everyone to ask questions. The Murder List is actually impossible to talk about. Literally can’t talk about it, because those of you who read it know, and those who have not read it will soon know. There is no way to talk about it, but I’d like to talk about Rachel North, who is the heroine of the novel and she’s different from Charlie and Jane. So different. Maybe you want to talk about her just a little bit. How is she different, and how is she the same from your two characters in your two series?

HPR: Good question. Can I start with a little about where she came from?

LU: You can do whatever you want.

HPR: Nobody has ever said that to me. My husband is a criminal defense attorney, and one day at breakfast he was talking to me about this unfortunate, grisly murder case that he was working on, and he’s defending a client charged in a pretty horrible murder. It’s good to have in-house counsel.

With one track of my mind, I was thinking about the evidence, this case, I was thinking about the story, about how he might handle it and with the other track in my mind, I was thinking what a good guy my husband is, as criminal defense attorney, because he’s standing up for the little guy. He’s protecting the individual and he’s making sure the jury understand it’s innocent until proven guilty, and that the power of the prosecution doesn’t hammer this guy into oblivion. What a good guy he is.

And then I thought about the prosecutor’s wife, sitting across town, listening to her husband and talking about exactly the same case, and was she’s thinking, what a good guy he is, He’s protecting the public, he standing up for all of us, and keeping law and order and keeping criminals off the streets; he’s standing up for the Constitution and making sure our lives are safe. What a good guy he is.

And then I started to think about Good, and what does Good mean, and what does being a good guy mean and how can everyone believe that they’re the good guy, and I started thinking that it depends on, What do we mean by good? If you’re working for Justice and there are different elements of Good, How does that work? How does Justice exist in that kind of a world where there is such a conflict? Then I thought about every young lawyer who decides to go into the law has kind of a mindset of what kind of lawyer they want to be. Are you a defense attorney, or are you a prosecutor? And you can make a wonderful case for either one.

I thought about a young woman, who is in law school and having to decide whether to be a prosecutor or a defense attorney, and what would go through her mind. Rachel North is a young law student. She calls herself ‘the world’s oldest law student’ because she’s thirty-something. She’s at Harvard Law School, in her third year, and she is married to Jack Kirlkland who is Boston’s best defense attorney, a powerful, smart, determined and faithful—we think—defense attorney. She is working her summer internship with Margaret Gardner, who is a powerful, strong, determined and manipulative prosecutor, an Assistant District Attorney. Now, Rachel, who is beautiful, is on her second career as a lawyer, married to the defense attorney, working for the prosecutor, and in this triangle, How will she decide what to do? What do all those people want from each other? And what do they need, and how far will they go to get it? Who will be trampled along the way? And who is next on The Murder List?

Rachel is the apex of the triangle and what effect will these people on her. Rachel, Jack and Martha.

LU: You do a masterful job, in telling everyone’s different perspective. You start out feeling one way about certain characters and at the end of the book, feeling a completely different way about the same characters.

HPR. I know that readers of The Murder List and books, like ours, are smart readers. You have expectations, and you’re trying second-guess us all the time and third-guess us all the time. My goal in The Murder List was to have you feel a certain way at the beginning, like a juror might, and you have all this figured out, and then at some point it’s, “Hold on, reader. What if it is this way?” and you’re, “Oh, that’s got to be right. You’re right. You’re right.” Then I’d say, “Wait a minute, a little bit later. Wait a minute. What if it is really this way? Everything you thought was true is not true.”

My goal is to have you go back read the book a second time, and look at it through the perspective of the second read to have you see what you didn’t see before.

Oh, and again for the Architect and Gardener part…I didn’t know the ending, and I have the little piece of paper that I had thought just in the nick of time. I thought: Oh, my gosh, can that be what happens on there? I have that piece of paper. Much to the delight of my editor, and everybody at Forge was like, “Are you going to figure that out, honey?”

LU: I’m going to ask a few more questions, and then I’m going to open it up to floor. Quickly, what do you love about the writing life? What do you find the most challenging?

HPR: I worked 43 years as a reporter, and everything I do as a reporter is collaborative. We are always working together. I learned to work together. I learned about deadlines. I learned how someone else could have a good idea, which is a powerful thing to learn. The writing life, now that I’m at Channel 7 part-time, I’m juggling both of those things.

On my writing days, when I get to get up and put on sweatpants and have my morning coffee, and nobody is telling me to do something, except for me. I am the boss of my own life. I realize we all have bosses, and we try to please the boss. I love the idea that I am the boss on my writing days, and I can make my life work however I want it to work. I love that freedom.

LU: What do you wish that all aspiring writers knew?

HPR: Oh gosh, nothing is bad as it seems at the time.

LU: That is so true.

HPR: We all have disappointment, we all have things we wished, we hoped that would happen and doesn’t happen and we think, “I’m doomed. I’m never going to be happy again” and right after that you say that, something wonderful happens that wouldn’t have happened if the bad thing hadn’t happened. It shows every time that we don’t even know what we should hope for, because the thing we’re hoping for might not even be the thing that is the good thing.

My book Prime Time was turned down by the publisher I loved. They didn’t want it, and I was so upset about it. A couple months later, that publisher went out of business, the imprint went out of business and I would’ve been an orphan author. The one thing I wanted so much would’ve been the worst thing that could have happened, so now I try to think, “Plot twist. Let’s see what happens. I always think, “We’re going to laugh about this later, so why not laugh sooner.” That’s my little motto: laugh sooner.

LU: I’m going to do a speed round. Red or white?

HPR: Red.

LU: Mac or PC?

HPR: Mac.

LU: Gardener or Architect?

HPR: Gardener, with the wish to be an Architect. Someday, I’ll grow up and be an Architect.

LU: No. No. Don’t. Chocolate or vanilla.

HPR: Toughie. Depends on what. I’m a Libra. We could do a test later. I’m gonna say both

LU: Go-to comfort food.

HPR: Pizza. And You know the pop corners that you get on Jet Blue.

LU: What was your first, first fictional character love?

HPR: My first fiction love was Henry V. In college, I used to dream about Henry V, and then when I was writing mysteries, Lord Peter Wimsey and Morse.

LU: Now, an Oprah moment. You are a successful award-winning journalist, an acclaimed bestselling and award-winning author, a devoted wife, a giving and wonderful friend, and beloved in everything you have touched, what do you know for sure?

HPR: Now, you’re going to make me cry. I think I know for sure that all there is is Now, and to be whatever happy is and open, not judgmental and to be optimistic. I think if we look forward with just a belief that everything will be okay, how can that be wrong? Because it will eventually be okay, in a way that we can’t even understand. We just don’t know. I think all of us want to know, and I’m a reporter, I want to know and, as a reader, we want to know the end of the book. There’s this condition as humans that we want to be certain, and if you can let go…and you know this, my husband and I don’t celebrate the anniversary of the day we met. We celebrate the anniversary of the day before we met, and we call it ‘You Never Know Day.’ You never know what wonderful thing is around the next corner, and that is the one thing I know: you never know what wonderful thing is around the next corner.

Questions

Q: What is a murder list?

HPR: There is a real Murder List. My husband is on it. As is in all my titles, this one of the real meaning, among other meanings. The murder list in real life is a list of lawyers who are experienced, wise, and benevolent enough to take on cases of accused murderers who can’t pay for a lawyer. In Massachusetts, we believe that everyone deserves a great attorney no matter whether they can pay for that or not. The murder list is a list of lawyers who have been approved to handle murder cases of indigent clients, and my husband Jonathan is on the list. That’s where the title came from, although, like I said, it’s not the only meaning, as you know.

Q: Radio Seventies

HPR: You get the brain.  My producer had this plastic brain in our office. Whoever has the best idea of the day, or asks the best question gets the brain. In 1970, I started out in politics in Indianapolis as an activist, and sadly none of the candidates I worked for ever won. Nobody won, so you’d think, “Should I do something else?”

I went to the biggest radio station in Indianapolis. I talked to the News Director and I applied for this job as a reporter. I knew they had a reporter opening. The News Director says, “Great. We do need someone. When was your last radio reporter job?”

I said, “Well, no. I’ve never been a radio reporter.”

“Television?”

“No.”

“Newspaper? Magazines?”

“No.”

“Did you go to journalism school?”

“No.”

“Have you ever done an interview, or written a story, or written an article that has anything do with anything with the reporter’s life thing?”

“No.”

You could see this job was just going away.

And finally he says, “When you were a little girl, do you have that mimeograph paper door-to-door?”

“No” and I really wanted this job, so I thought I’m not going to get it.

Finally he says, “You seem like a very nice young woman.” I was twenty. “You seem like a nice young woman, but you are supremely unqualified for this job. Can you tell me one good reason why I should hire you?”

I said, “Well, yes I can. Your license is up for renewal at the FCC right now, and you don’t have any women working here.” And then, I just smiled, and the next day I had my first job in broadcasting.

I tell this story when I speak to journalism classes. I tell them about this, because this won’t work now. My boss is a woman, and her boss is a woman, and her boss is a woman. Jane Pauley calls us the Class of 1970, those of us who didn’t just start in broadcasting, but anyone in any career at that time really made a difference in how our world works. I see that as part of breaking the gender barrier in broadcasting, the Class of 1970, and my first job I got by threatening my potential employer with a lawsuit, which is not something I would suggest to any of you.

One last question. Jungle Reds

HPR: She is talking about Jungle Red Writers, a blog I’m on, along with some wonderful mystery writers, and Career Authors is another blog I do. She says when she’s ready but I want to tell you that when you are ready to jump, you will be jumping into open arms of other authors who are waiting to lift you up.

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Bouchercon 2019: Not a Diversity Panel

Bouchercon 2019. Not a Diversity Panel. Friday, 1 November, 11AM in Reunion G-H. Recorded by Patrick von Wiegandt and transcribed here by me, Gabriel Valjan. Any errors are my own. Photos are from the web. Some photos include Squeak, my cat who passed away 27 November 2019.

L-R: Steph Cha (Cha), Shawn Cosby (SC), Cheryl Head (CH), Michael Nava (MN), and Carsen Taite (CT) as Moderator.

CT: I’m going to go down the line and introduce my panelists. I have Michael Nava, on my right, Cheryl Head, Shawn ‘S.A.’ Cosby, and Steph Cha. I’m just going to start out by asking you to tell me, brag a little, about what you write, and all the glory that has come to you from your writing. Michael, let’s start with you. Tell me the kind of books you write.

MN: I write a series of crime fiction that features a protagonist, who is a gay Latino criminal defense attorney named Henry Rios. Initially the books were published between 1986 and 2000, then I took a nineteen-year break, to pursue my other career. I’m also a lawyer, or was a lawyer until I retired. Just this year I returned to the series, I wrote this book, Carved in Bone, bringing Rios back. That’s what I have to say.

CH: I write a series called the Charlie Mack Motown Mysteries, set in Detroit in the mid-2000s, when a time when Detroit was a scary place and a good time to write about mischief and mayhem. The first book in the series [Bury Me When I’m Dead] was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. I’ve put out two books and I’m up to four this year, and they are available in the bookstore.

I started off writing historical fiction, and it was so hard, so much research involved that I decided I’d write a mystery series, which comes naturally to me because I love the genre. I whipped the first book in about four months, so that’s all I want to say.

SC: Hi, I’m S.A. Cosby. I started out writing sci-fi and fantasy, but I wasn’t very good at that, so I switched over to crime. I write southern crime fiction, primarily featuring African-Americans. Someone said, ‘I’m the black David Joy’, and I said, ‘No, he’s the white Shawn Cosby.’

I have a novel out now that is called My Darkest Prayer, which is a southern crime mystery, and I just got signed to a two-book deal with Flatiron Books. I can’t believe it either. The first part of that deal will be Blacktop Wasteland, coming out July 14, 2020. In my spare time I deal with my cantankerous squirrel named Solomon that lives outside my window; he’s my writing partner.

Cha: Hi, I’m Steph Cha. I have three books in a PI series: Juniper Song series, which came out [Follow Her Home], in 2013, [Beware Beware] in 2014, and [Dead Soon Enough] in 2015, back to back. Then I took what looked like a hiatus, but I was working on one book the entire time, like a masochist, and that just came out earlier this month and it’s called, Your House Will Pay. Thank you.

MN: Which is widely praised everywhere.

Cha: Thank you. It’s not a PI novel, not quite a mystery but it is a crime novel; it’s a book about blacks and Koreans in Los Angeles, stemming out of the tensions of early 1990s, and that connects very directly to present-day America.

CT: I’ll start with you, Steph. Your House Will Pay is a definite departure from your Juniper Song Series. Was it harder to write a non-series book, as opposed to a book in a series, and why?

Cha: I don’t think it was the standalone nature of the book that made it harder to write. I do think that the second and third books in my series were the easiest of my books, because I was going in with a lot of the blanks filled in already. I had my protagonist, I had her voice down, I had the form—the structure roughly down, and so switching over to this and not having the mystery structure is tough because you don’t have the built-in drama conventions to play within the same way , and also it is third-person, with two close POVs and half of it is told from the point of view of a 27-year old Korean woman, which is something I’ve been in the past, and [the other half of the POV] a 41-year old black man, which I’ve never been and never will be.

Figuring out Shawn, the name of the black man, that protagonist point of view, I will say took a lot of time, but that again doesn’t have anything to do with the standalone nature of it. I’ve had characters with other backgrounds in all my books by necessity because they are about Los Angeles. I think writing from a point of view, I only had Juniper as my point of view character for the first three books and occupying a different kind of point of view was harder than writing a side character.

CT: Are you going to go back to Juniper Song?

Cha: I might, but not any time soon. I want to give her a break. She’s been through a lot.

CT: Juniper rests. Shawn, the book deal you signed. Is that a continuation?

SC: No, it’s a standalone.

CT: Do you plan to make a series out of it?

SC: I would love to make a series out of it, if the stars align and Nathan [Wannamaker from character from My Darkest Prayers] talks to me again.

CT: So, you were nominated for an Anthony Best Short Story Award.

SC: Yes, thank you. Was anybody at the bar [Noir at the Bar reading] last night? I read the story [“Grass Beneath My Feet”, published in TOUGH (editor: Rusty Barnes)]. Anybody have a hangover? I do.

CT: Tell us a little about your story. [The story received the Anthony Award for Best Short Story at Bouchercon 2019].

SC: Basically, the story is about a young man coming to a funeral home. He’s been incarcerated for a number of years, and he gets what is called a ‘hardship pass’. I’m from Virginia and in Virginia, if a loved one, a direct relative, passed away, if you’re incarcerated you can sometimes get a pass to see them at a funeral home to view them. You have to do it by yourself because there might be other family members that might help you escape. My wife and I—my wife owns a funeral home and I work with her.

The inspiration for the story is that we had a young man, who was viewing his mother. She had died and he had killed his father in self-defense. The father was beating him and the mother, but he was prosecuted as an adult. He went to prison at seventeen. Seeing him, seeing the ways he reacted to his mother, who he hadn’t seen in fifteen years, it stuck with me; wouldn’t leave me alone. I decided to write a short piece about it for another Noir at the Bar event in North Carolina and after I read it, a couple of people came up to me and were crying. I felt bad because I thought they really hated my story. They were ugly crying. Snotty nose and stuff. They were like, ‘You should try and get this published’ and I was like, ‘Oh, alright. I hadn’t thought about it.’ I sent it to Rusty Barnes at TOUGH, a crime blog, online only. He loved it and he published it, and about six months later my friend Kellye Garrett hits me up and said, ‘Hey, have you been to the Bouchercon web site?’ I said, ‘No, I’ve been working on this other book.’ She said, ‘You should go on there and look at it.’ I was like, ‘Why?’ She was like, ‘Just go on the web site!’

I was in my office, and I saw that I was nominated for Best Short Story. I scared the hell out of my wife because I screamed. I have a deep voice, so she had thought that I had some kind of seizure, so she comes running into the room. ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’

And I was like, ‘I was nominated for an Anthony Best Short Story.’

‘Wait, what’s that?’

So, that’s how that story came about.

CT: I want to jump to Michael. You mentioned a 19-year break from Henry Rios. What made you come back to him after all this time? I’m touching on what you and Steph said about revisiting the characters and letting them rest for a while.

MN: I felt like I put him to sleep. What happened is the books were being kept in print by Open Road Media, which is part of this large conglomerate, and then the reprint rights and then our license expired and they wanted me to renew them for another five years. I thought, ‘No, I want the books back’ so I took the rights back. I set out to revise and republish them all with my own small press.

The first book, Lay Your Sleeping Head, is set around 1980; the next book, Howtown, around 1988. I realized I’d missed a crucial moment for queer history, which is the advent of AIDS; and that [realization] coincided with the 2016 election, so the day after the presidential election I sat down and started writing this novel, which is set in San Francisco in 1984, about the advent of AIDS before there was a resistance, an activist resistance, when people were just stunned—there wasn’t even a test to determine whether you were infected or not.

I wanted to write about another time that was dark and hopeless, and gay men thought they were going to be physically exterminated; that was what I did and that was what my inspiration was to write the book.

CT: Cheryl, you write Charlie Mack. Do you still hear her voice?

CH: Charlie is an African-American private investigator, who also happens to be bisexual. I thought about black women as natural private investigators.

SC: Yes, they are.

CH: I thought, ‘Wait a minute, shouldn’t she be one, too.’ She’s sort of an overachiever. She works with a diverse group of partners, and I really like those secondary characters; they help bring out her flaws and also, too, to move the story forward. I like all of them, and each of their voices is a little bit of me.

I have the most fun writing the white middle-aged guy who is her partner, Don Rutkowski, who is a little bit of an Archie Bunker-meets-Mr. Rogers sort of guy. He just blurts shit out, and I have the easiest time writing him. I don’t have to think about it at all.

Charlie also has a mother with early onset Alzheimer’s. I became fascinated with Alzheimer’s when I worked in public broadcasting. We funded a program called Forgetting about how the caretakers have such a hard time with Alzheimer’s, and how it is such a lingering and mean disease. I wanted to look at their relationship, Charlie and her mother, in the context of the care; they’re both independent women. I’m keeping the series close to the time period they’re in, because I love the mother character and I don’t want to see he deteriorate. I’m having conversations with my editor about how fast to move my series along.

CT: Do you have an end in sight?

CH: I don’t have an end in sight. I have a book 5, and I’m working on that. There’s a through-line in the relationship Charlie has with her new partner Mandy; they now have a house and a dog. I’m having fun writing some of the domestic stuff, relative to the crime, fiction, and mystery portions of it.

CT: Well, you definitely have the threads there, and carry for a while now. Steph, I want to go back to you. Your book is literally ripped from the headlines. Was that harder to write than making it up completely?

Cha: It’s based on a 1991 murder of a 15-year old girl named Latasha Harlins, who was shot in the back of the head by a Korean grocer and liquor store owner who accused her of stealing a bottle of orange juice. Most of the book takes place in 2019 and I fictionalized that event. I had to fictionalize that event because I wasn’t really writing about the actors in that murder, I was writing about the family members in present-day.

I knew I was going to take so many liberties with this story and, in doing so, I wanted to honor that initial story. That’s a fine line, right? In one sense, I’m literally erasing that story from history and replacing it with my own version. As I was doing it, one of the things I had decided that was very important to me was that at least the background in spirit I kept very close to what actually happened, so it was immediately recognizable to anybody who is picking up the book. I also have it on both ends in that both epigraph and Author’s Notes talk about the actual history. Everything in present-day departs because these are made-up characters. I would say there was one exception, Latasha Harlins’s aunt, Denise Harlins, who passed away this past December. She was this very devoted woman who became an activist after her niece’s death, and really kept Latasha’s memory alive and went really hard on defending black children. She took this up as her cause, in a way that I found extremely admirable. There is a character in the book that is loosely based on her, on that part of her life at least.

I do think there were challenges, but most of those challenges were not getting it wrong, and paying respect while also creating a work of fiction, and taking my own liberties as an artist. I spent a lot of time trying to balance that, and I’m happy with the way it turned out. I feel that as an artist you’re constantly stealing, constantly taking liberties, but as much as I could, I put a lot of thought into it.

CT: The book feels a little like a calling. What inspired you to write it?

Cha: I grew up in a LA and I was not really aware of this history growing up because I was born in the Eighties, and so when all this was going on, I was a little kid. I also lived in the suburbs. The character Grace is, in part someone I have actually been, which is the kid who grows up in suburbia in a tight-knit community that becomes its own bubble. Learning about all this history as an adult brought out all these feelings in me that were complicated. I am Korean-American but I care very deeply about issues of social justice. Hearing about the murder of Latasha Harlins, I felt immediately all of these strong emotions like rage and grief, but also guilt and shame because I’m Korean like Soon Ja Du [the shooter in real life], who could’ve lived in my community and we probably know people in common.

I think there’s something about being a part of a minority group, especially in the US, where you are often treated as one and the same, as part of the same monolith as other people who look like you. I think there is this tendency to adopt these same emotions as your group members. I was interested in exploring that, and also how much the story of Latasha Harlins and also the story of Rodney King—how much these stories and tensions look the same in 2019 in the US. I had started writing the book in 2014, which was when Michael Brown was murdered, and the stories are startlingly similar.

CT: That kind of harkens back to what Michael had said about revisiting in today’s America, the social and political climate, which causes us to draw analogies. Michael, I was looking at your book jacket and the LA Times said, ‘Nava’s mysteries are faithful to the conventions of the mystery genre, but they are set apart by their insight, compassion and sense of social justice.’

I’m going to throw this out to the whole panel, Do you feel responsible to address issues of social justice in your work, and how do you do that in balance with storytelling?

MN: I don’t think you can be a member of any kind of minority group in this country without carrying the burden of that identification. I’m friends with Alicia Gaspar de Alba at UCLA. She teaches a class called Mystery with a Mission. I know that because she taught one of my book and I went to talk to her class, and I willingly accept that moniker. I write these books, in part because I when I was a terrified little gay boy in school in Sacramento, California, the site of next year’s Bouchercon, I could have used a character like Henry Rios: a gay, confident Latino, a professional man. In a sense I am writing these books to my younger self. I’m also writing them to members of my two communities. By the way, I’m wearing pink, which is the tribal color of both Mexicans and queer people. The issue—and I think Steph touched on this, too—is, I am not a journalist, a historian, or a sociologist. I am a storyteller. I write mysteries because I love mysteries. I love Raymond Chandler; however problematic he is. Joseph Hansen was my mentor, who created the first gay mystery series. My obligation to my readers is to tell a well-crafted and well plotted story with compelling characters, and to slip some other stuff in.

CH: Yes, slipping the other stuff in. I don’t know if it’s a responsibility of doing it, but I will always write about the things that are important to me that may have my perspective on justice. I just came in from panel on justice. I think minority folks see justice in a slightly different way, so does Charlie [Mack]. I think that we know justice is not always on our side and the laws are not always on our side. There is some gray area. I know that I’m writing the truth, so I take it as it is.

I write my books for white people because I know the black people already know the stuff I’m talking about. The nuance that is there, the introductions that are there, the point of view, the way of looking at the world that is there, and looking at different events that are there are things that I think all of us can benefit knowing about. Those stories that we don’t see in traditional mysteries or have not been there up to now. When we think of Los Angeles, we’re thinking about Raymond Chandler but I think of Steph Cha and Naomi Hirahara and Walter Mosley. Those are all stories about Los Angeles, but come at the sensibility of that city, the oeuvre of that world in a different way. I think it benefits us all to be able to do that.

SC: I’m from the south and so when I first started writing Darkest Prayer, I did it with the intent of writing about black Americans in the South. There is an idea with some people that southern heritage means rebel flags and Confederate statues. Southern heritage is so much varied, so much more nuanced and so much richer than that. I really wrote it as a way to reclaim that title. Certain people may feel that, some white people may feel that way, but as soon as you meet black people in the north, who have this idea we are all down there in bib overalls, drinking Soma [drink given to the masses in A Brave New World], and keeping ourselves submissive, it’s not like that.

I had a conversation with a gentleman from Chicago and he was like, ‘I don’t know how you can live down there, in the south and taking all that crap.’ I said to him, ‘You know what? I’ve been called the n-word 6 times in my life, and every time I whooped somebody’s ass.’ And I was telling him, ‘Because you grew up in Chicago, in this bastion of black excellence, you didn’t have to deal with that in a way that I did, so it doesn’t make you tougher than me or stronger than me, just means we’ve had different experiences.’ And so when I write, I write for southern whites and southern blacks to show them that nobody has a monopoly on the rural experience. When I wrote Darkest Prayer, I was heading that way but my next book Blacktop Wasteland really jumped into that, because I also talk about black male identity and what it means to be a man, and a black man in America, and trying to be a good man and good father when the deck is almost stacked against you. Sometimes the character in that book is a wheelman. He drives for a heist and he’s literally forced back into that lifestyle. I was very interested in answering those questions. There’s a term ‘toxic masculinity’ but I also believe in ‘tragic masculinity’. Sometimes, when you are a black man, you have tragic masculinity and there is a anger and a rage you can’t verbalize because of the things you have to deal with, slight microaggressions and overt aggressions. Sometimes we translate that to our boys, our sons and daughters. I wanted to write about that. I didn’t set out with the intent of writing a socially conscious novel but I’m a walking social conscious issue. When I write, it’s going to come out, even if I don’t intend it.

Cha: I don’t think writers of color have any responsibility to write about heavy social justice-y topics. Like white writers, I think we should be allowed free range, and write about whatever we feel like. Sometimes it happens to be books that address issues such as racism in America, or other things we may have direct access to than white writers. I don’t think it’s a responsibility. I think it’s an area of interest that I keep coming back to. Crime fiction and social justice, I think, a are a perfect match because when you think about the stories you read about in the paper that touch on social justice in the US. How many of them deal with crime? Children in cages? That’s crime. People being murdered by cops? That’s crime. All these stories lend themselves naturally to the genre because they already involve murder. Already involve criminal oppression. It’s such a natural fit that I find it interesting and pretty rewarding to explore.

CT: The thing that is really unique about your book, and you touched on it earlier was that you were exploring it from both sides in Your House Will Pay. Why did you choose to do that?

Cha: When I started this book, it actually started as a short story for a collection called Asian Pulp that was an anthology of stories by Asian-American writers or about Asian-American characters. That short story was only about the Korean family, or a version of a Korean family. When I decided to expand that into a novel, I realized that I couldn’t do it from the point of view of the Korean family. It was this decision point where I was realized it would be much harder if I did it with both families involved, but I also thought that if I do it with just Korean characters then it’s going to be a Korean-American POV novel, where any involvement of the black characters I would have to flatten them into these angelic archetypes in order to get into the nuance of it without getting into the POV would have been difficult, I think, as a non-black writer.

I decided that to get some balance into the story I needed to have Shawn’s point of view and his family (my Shawn and not Shawn here). I knew going in that I would have to do that. I wanted to write a story that was about racial tension and this big city but that largely didn’t involve white people.

I actually think Korean-Black tension in early 90s Los Angeles has been in the cultural mainstream consciousness for a very long time, but you don’t see or read that much about it in popular culture. I think there are all these interesting stories with fascinating characters, and none of them are white. Storytellers haven’t been given until very recently the chance to write those stories on a platform that is large and mainstream. I definitely wanted to portray these people who were very varied and who have collisions that are very American, but that don’t really touch on the usual black-white racial politics in America.

SC: I wanted to jump in there really quick. When I wrote My Darkest Prayer and the book that follows, Blacktop Wasteland, I wanted to include the full range of people I grew up with, which are black, indigenous Americans, white Americans, good ol’ boys, frat boys, and what we call Bougie Black People, and I wanted to create a world where all those people could have voice in the conversation. In the next novel I wrote about one black man and two white guys, and they are all poor, and I wanted to write about the universality of poverty, and how things are the same for people and how things are different, depending on their background. Everyone understands pain and everybody understands poor. [Image: script from Hell or High Water movie]

Stephen King has this great quote, ‘You can never be too thin or too rich. And if you don’t believe it, you were never really fat or really poor’ [Skeleton Crew]. Being poor translates across all racial and nationality backgrounds. I wanted those people to have a voice, so that we can experience it from different perspectives. It is different being poor being a black man in the south versus being a white man in the south, yet there a lot of similarities there, too. Being similar is something that people don’t want to acknowledge. When I worked on it, I wanted to give that perspective.

CT: Cheryl, can you talk a little bit about perspective. You include a vast array of characters, which you touched on earlier.

CH: I think of Detroit as one of the bellwether cities of America, like Chicago and lots of other cities. Its history is rich in creation and innovation. Henry Ford was a racist but he was also a genius at manufacturing. Eminem comes out of there, but so does Motown.

I wanted to play off of the rich, creative culture that’s there but see it from different perspectives. Detroit once had the largest Polish-American population in the country; it had, at one time, the largest Muslim population in the country, mostly from Iraq and Lebanon, and maybe it still does in Detroit, in the outskirts.

Charlie works with a group of partners who are diverse. Mexican-American. Don Rutkowski, who is Polish. A middle-aged white woman. You don’t see white middle-aged woman in mystery books that much. She is smart, and she’s capable, and helps them solve crimes in a way that you wouldn’t think about.

I really wanted to pay homage to Detroit and what it has but also to, as Shawn has pointed out, cast this group of characters, who are very diverse and very different, and yet will seem familiar to you in a lot of ways. Does that answer your question?

CT: Actually, I made a new question while everyone was talking. In writing Carved in Bone, you said that you wanted to touch on this part of American history, the AIDS crisis, but you choose to tell that through Henry Rios. Why did you make that choice, as opposed to writing a standalone?

MN: Because in the trajectory of the series, it was a natural step. The original 7 books were written between 1988 and 2000, and every gay male writer writing at that point became a de facto AIDS writer, we could not not write about it. In the book series, the great love of Rios’s life is HIV-positive man. It was a theme and appropriate to go back and talk about the origins.

CH: Michael told me he was inspired to write this book because of our current political crisis; that was his inspiration.

CT: We all have inspiration from today’s political crisis. Let’s jump to a different topic entirely. Is there a book you wished you had written and why? Whoever wants to jump in first.

CH: I wish I had written Steph Cha’s book.

SC: I would say Kellye Garrett’s Hollywood Homicide because it is so different from what I write. It’s so funny and fast-paced. It’s breezy but not inconsequential. My calling card in my writing is someone is going to get hit in the face with a wrench. At some point, someone is going to be tortured by having the hand slammed in a car door.

It’s an incredible experience to read about Day and her whole merry band of Scooby Doo folks, who are running around LA, solving crimes and looking fabulous and beautiful and fully expressing Black Girl Magic while solving these mysteries. Reading that book was like a revelatory experience for me because it was like, ‘Wow, man. This is not something I would’ve picked up on my own, but I love Kellye so much and she’s such a great person, that I’ve got to read this book.’ I fell into it. I don’t know if I could write that kind of book. No – I know I couldn’t write that kind of book.

Cha: I would say The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee. I’m trying to think of a book of a Korean-American author who comes to mind…oh, and I would take Harry Potter.

SC: And Harry Potter money.

MN: I knew this question was coming and I thought about it. It’s so damn hard to write my own books.

Cha: That’s actually a great answer.

CT: Does anyone in the audience have a question?

Audience: If you’re going to write about LGBTQ or persons of color, then how do you do that if you’re not in that group? How do you do that and be sensitive to stereotypes, and if you are indeed in that group, how do you be sensitive to stereotypes of yourself?

SC: I’ll say to that first part of that question is, ‘Always write a character and not a caricature.’ If you don’t have a LGBTQ friend or person in your life, then talk to someone you know is LGBTQ.

I’m working on a book right now about two fathers in the south, one black and one white, whose sons were gay, in a relationship and were murdered. These two men, who were ex-cons and hyper-alpha male men, decide to investigate the crime and they have to go into the LGBTQ world in the south. There’s a long-standing tradition in the south, especially in the black south, that your LGBTQ status is accepted if you could sing, play an instrument, or do hair but other than that, nobody wants to hear from you. I wanted to explore that.

My friend PJ Vernon, who is sitting over there, did me the solid of reading my first draft of my novel and making sure that I was telling the story appropriately, that they were fully-formed characters and not caricatures, and that they were people and not stereotypes and not just plot devices. People always get up in arms about a ‘sensitivity reader.’ A sensitivity reader is research. If it makes you feel better, then just call it research if that is what you have to do at the end of the day. You wouldn’t write about an FBI agent unless you did research about the FBI, so you’ll spend money and go to Quantico and talk to John Douglas. Do that if you’re going to write about people of color.

On that second part, as a person of color that doesn’t absolve me from the same traps that anyone else would fall into. I’m not an LGBTQ person but I’m going to make sure I write – If I’m going to write them, to write an indigenous American, and Asian-American, I’m going to try my best to make them a character, so that their ethnicity or sexual orientation is not a parlor trick.

CT: Anybody else want to weigh in?

CH: I do. You hit on a good point. A person’s quality of diversity is not their personality is the first thing I would say. There’s also this notion, or concept of cultural humility. For instance, I’m a big fan of westerns. I like Tony Hillerman, so Tony Hillerman is a white male who wrote about Native American people, and I think—and I hope you don’t disagree because I know you have Native American blood in you—that he did a good job of bringing cultural humility to his series about Joe Leaphorn and I forget the name of his secondary character [Jim Chee]. To that point, the Navajo Nation gave him an honor. They understood that he not only wrote about the culture but he liked the people. Cultural humility suggests that your never done with the research, and that you’re constantly engaging with the community, that you respect the community, and you want to know more about them, and that you like that community and it comes across in your writing when that is the case.

To the second point, I have a trans person in my third book [Catch Me When I’m Falling]. I’ve worked with trans men and women and I thought I had a pretty good idea about who they are, but I felt a little bit bare naked out there so I certainly got a sensitivity reader who I could say, ‘Am I getting the right tone? Are there other tropes I’m stepping right into?’ It really helped me to have that advice. The feedback changed the writing I did around that character.

Cha: I spent a few years working and getting to know Shawn and his family. I have some thoughts on the matter. On the front end, ask yourself Why? And what you’re trying to get out of these characters, because if it’s just going to be for a little color and a little diversity, then that’s how it’s going to come off. I would say also to go into it knowing what a huge responsibility it is because you’re not writing sci-fi. You are writing about people who exist, and make sure you’re not writing a book that you would be ashamed to share with a reader who is from that group.

I would also say that it is an enormous amount of work. I think you have to be committed to doing the work. In this book [Your House Will Pay] in Grace’s point of view, it came out of me a lot easier and a lot of the work in this book was fleshing out Shawn’s family, and I had early drafts of it that my husband and agent were reading. My husband said, ‘Grace seems like someone you know and Shawn seems like someone you read about.’ And that was what it was like in the beginning because it was true. It was because I’d approached Shawn’s character from a sociological point—trying to understand his background, what someone from central LA who now lives in the ex-burbs, what his experience would be, and it took a lot of detailed brushwork to get him to the point where he felt vivid as the main character. It took time, it took effort, and I’m glad I put it in, but it took a long time. You have to be committed to doing the detailed work. Practical advice? Figuring out his relationships, what he cared about and why he cared about them, and detailing what his home life was like—that was really effective for me, and how I got to know him. One easy way to get know a character—you have a family, you have your relationships with them, and you have your friends—think about those dynamics, and you can layer them in and make people seem real without going into, ‘What is it about them, the African-American experience that is going to make this person pop?’ Ask, ‘What is this person like around his aunt versus his cousin?’ Think about these things and that could add a lot of texture to a character.

I also had sensitivity readers, though I didn’t call them sensitivity readers because they were friends of mine who were kind enough to offer to read the book. I had black friends who read the book for me, and that was helpful, too. I think doing the work, doing the research is very key. If you’re not ready to do that, then I’d say don’t bother.

CH: I just wanted to say one thing. Steph said ‘black friends’ plural. Black people are not monolithic. Get a couple, get more than one. One more LGBTQ friend.

SC: You mean, we can’t all dance.

CH: There’s a great resource in Sisters in Crime called ‘Frankie’s List’ that is a list of people, writers in various categories, who are open and willing to being contacted to be sensitivity readers.

Cha: By the way, I wanted to add, if you were, for example, writing about black Los Angeles, having one reader who is a black Virginian is not very helpful. You have to be mindful of these differences, too. I had a friend who ended up being a gold mine for me. He’s a small-press publisher in LA, and he went to Latasha Harlins’s school a couple years after her. He heard me read my short story and he offered to look at it and talk to me. I had someone help me on the front end. I had him read it and then several other people read it on the back end.

CT: The question is in two parts. Part 1 is the difficulty of publishing when you are a person of color, or a queer writer. And then [part 2] is whether we need to stay in our lane and only write about our personal experiences.

MN: So, my problem is not with Tony Hillerman. I like his books and I think he is respectful of the people he is writing about, and I also think writers should write anything that they want to write about. My problem is that Tony Hillerman gets published, but a Native American mystery writer doesn’t. That’s not Tony Hillerman’s issue, that is an issue with the publishing industry which is still—I gave a speech about this—is still overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly straight, and overwhelmingly east coast. The people who are involved in what I call the ‘literary establishment’—I know them, I’ve worked with them, and they are lovely people, but they are infected with white supremacists beliefs about the rest of us, and that comes out in who they choose to publish and which kind of books they choose to publish by non-white, non-straight writers. For example, I think that for Latinos the notion is that a NY publisher wants to publish that la familia story because we are still regarded as a simple race of gardeners and maids.

My character is a Stanford-educated criminal defense lawyer, but that is not the first thing that comes to mind if you ask someone in New York. Mexican-American, what comes to mind? They’re thinking, those immigrant children down at the border. The stereotypes run so deep in publishing that I actually despair of it changing, which is one reason I took back my books. Now, on the other hand, the fact that Steph’s book was published and to such great acclaim that’s heartening. Very heartening.

SC: When I first started trying to get published, my first novel which, like I said, is set in the south, was sent to sixty-three publishers, and it got rejected sixty-three times. Every one, somewhere in that rejection letter said, ‘We don’t think it’s black enough’ or ‘Could you move it to Chicago?’, ‘Set it in Philadelphia?’, ‘Could there be more drug dealers in there? More violence?’, and I was like, ‘No, I’m not doing that’.

And to Michael’s point, it’s a wonderful experience when you read someone like James Patterson and I love Alex Cross, but there’s an issue when James Patterson writing Alex Cross getting published and there isn’t an African-American man or woman, or a person of color writing an Alex Cross type book.

I just got a deal with Flatiron [Books] and I’m maybe one of 7 or 8 black men with a top 5 publisher. I’m not saying that to brag, but that is the situation. That being said, I resist any external pressure about what I can and what I can’t write. My first published story was about two white redneck brothers fighting over an inheritance, and so I think you can write whatever you want, but there will be pushback; there will be resistance. There’s a long way to go, but if you persevere and stay true to who you are, then maybe one day somebody will recognize it, and even if they don’t you can look at yourself in the mirror and say that you did the best you could.

Cha: I do think the industry is still overwhelmingly white, agents and other gatekeepers are overwhelmingly white, and these are all kinda liberal, progressive people who want to see change but as long as their jobs stay occupied by exclusively white people their tastes are still going to dictate what you get as a reader, and I think those are related problems. The ‘stay in your lane’ mentality around writers of color, that if you are of that race that you ought to be writing about that race that comes from that. I think the idea of the mainstream reader (by which everyone means ‘white reader’) is that their appetite for writers of color is for stories about slavery, for example, if you’re a black writer, or the immigrant experience if you are an Asian-American or Latino. There are kinds of stories that are expected and that sell. I think the last few years have been a boom time for writers of color in the literary sphere, if you look at who is winning prizes and selling really well.

Colson Whitehead wrote a bunch of weird-ass books before he wrote Underground Railroad. That was his break, that was this huge runaway book that dealt with slavery. Percival Everett writes a slave novel. It’s just harder for writers of color to write weird fiction, or fiction that’s harder to classify because we don’t get that FSG [Farrar, Straus and Giroux] treatment. I happen to be very comfortable in my lane because I don’t feel like there are a lot of people swimming in it. I don’t feel the need to stop writing about Korean Americans in Los Angeles because if I leave, then it’s ‘Who else is hanging out there?’ But that’s just fortuitous for me.

SC: One more thing to that point, to what Steph was saying. I challenged myself a couple of months ago because I got into an argument with a friend of mine, who said I couldn’t write a cozy mystery. He said, ‘Everyone gets shot in the face, or run over with cars in your books, and I bet you that you couldn’t do it if you had to and if your life depended on it.’ I said, ‘I’ll take that bet.’

I wrote it [King’s Gambit] and I had no expectation of it doing anything, and it got picked up by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine [the story is out in Spring 2020]. You can write whatever you want to write, if it’s a good story. There is the sense that if you’re black that you’re going to write the long-suffering ‘Woe is me and the swing low sweet chariot’ story. Like Michael said, if you’re Hispanic or Latino, you’re going to write the la familia story. If you’re a LGBTQ woman, you’re going write this sort of romance, ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ bullshit. That’s the expectation, but I think this panel is proof that you can defy that expectation.

MN: I want to make a point about readers. I think that publishers really underestimate readers, especially mystery readers. Mystery readers embraced Henry Rios. I was reviewed everywhere, from the Times to People Magazine. Mystery readers are usually intelligent, open-minded, and broad-minded, and that if you give them a good story and compelling characters, they will go with you. I think publishers do an injustice not to just writers but also to readers.

Cha: You forgot to mention that Garth Greenwell wrote a New Yorker piece [link to A Gay Mystery Novelist Who Chronicles the Aftermath of AIDS] about the Henry Rios series. That’s pretty cool.

Question to CH.

CH: On this point, and I think about it a lot. Do I have a responsibility to write about social justice? No. Do I have a responsibility in any industry I work to help the gatekeepers see the benefit of having diverse creatives in their midst. I totally feel that responsibility. I worked in public broadcasting, did a lot of work around that, the rooms in public television are whiter than this one, and there’s a case you can make that is economically, morally, and logically to them. You talk about readers who have a thirst and a curiosity about the world, especially mystery readers. I think when we present our diverse and varied stories about how we see the world and justice, you’ll see readers flocking to them and to us. We deserve to give them those authentic stories.

CT: Absolutely, and I promised to get back to you. This is our last question.

MN: I’m actually one of the judges for the LA Times Book Award in the Mystery/Suspense category this year, so I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries. I’m actually finding that is not the case. I’m finding that many writers, including white writers are tackling these issues. If you’re writing about contemporary America, they are unavoidable. I feel that maybe it’s perhaps the books we are selecting to read. I’ve been really impressed. T. Jefferson Parker is a SoCal noir writer. His new book [The Last Good Guy (Roland Ford Book 3)] is about white supremacy. Michael Connelly’s new book [The Night Fire (Renée Ballard Book 3)]…I think people are engaging in those issues.

SC: I was going to say, don’t make a presumption about anyone. I’ve met some former police officers who are writers who are tackling those issues. They are talking about rooting out the bad cops. Frank Zafiro in the Pacific Northwest writes about that. Mark Bergin from DC writes about cops dealing with other bad cops and the pressures of being a police officer. I sometimes think that the more we try to divide ourselves along hierarchical lines, it makes writing harder. I started in sci-fi and it’s not very welcoming. Mystery genre is the one genre where if you’re writing a good story and telling a good tale, people will give you a chance. Like Michael said, if publishers and agents and other readers see that, then that will open up a whole new world of experience of stories and different people. If you don’t make any prejudgments about anybody, you may find a new author who may change your life.

CH: I think it’s also about making pathways of entry for creatives who are different easy and accessible. There’s a trainer in diversity in Baltimore [Verna Myers] who has a quote that says, ‘Diversity is inviting someone who is different than you to the party. Inclusion is inviting that person to dance.’

Cha: I wrote about this recently online. I think the genre is improving and I find that very heartening. I think there is a tendency—mysteries have to wrap up in the end. There is a natural tendency towards order and resolution, which you don’t always see in the real world and especially when you’re talking about social justice and the American justice system where you are seeing a lot of messiness that in order to translate it into crime fiction has to be done with a lot of nuance and engagement. I don’t think every writer wants to do that, or that every writer has to. I think that there is a natural division in the crime genre, just from an aesthetic point of view, like the books that trust that order will be restored and the books that don’t at all.

CT: We have one minute. Literally. I want to go down the line and everybody tell what book is their most current, and all the authors will be signing in the Marsalis room downstairs. Make sure you buy their book because that is how they get to eat and keep writing for you. Steph, let’s start with you.

Cha: Your House Will Pay. I have a copy here because it’s Michael’s copy.

SC: [Holds up copy of My Darkest Prayer]. Unfortunately it’s not in the book room. There were only 5 copies, but I’m glad all 5 are gone. It’s available on Amazon, and my next book is Blacktop Wasteland next year. If you bought a copy, I will sign it.

CH: And mine is Judge Me When I’m Wrong, the fourth book in the Charlie Mack Motown Mystery Series.

MN: Carved in Bone. I’d like to make a pitch. I’ve read all the authors here, and they are brilliant, and you really need to get their books.

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Bouchercon 2019: More Real Than the Housewives: Unlikeable Women Panel

Bouchercon 2019. More Real Than the Housewives: Unlikeable Women Panel. Friday, 1 November, 4PM in Reunion G-H.Recorded by Patrick von Wiegandt and transcribed here by Gabriel Valjan. Any errors are my own. Photos: John Thomas Bychowski, unless otherwise stated.

Panelists: Katrina Niidas Holm (KH), Megan Abbott (MA), Jennifer Hillier (JH), J.M. Redman (JR), Angie Kim (AK), and Laura Lippman (LL).

KH: That’s not what you want to hear when you’re about to start the panel, ‘Katrina, I’m pouring the vodka.’ Okay, and good afternoon. Welcome to the More Real Then the Housewives: Unlikeable Women. My name is Katrina Niidas Holm, and I’m a freelance mystery reviewer, and I’ll be your moderator, and I’m going to set aside time at the end of our discussion for questions so please be thinking, and remember that questions end in question marks. [Photo: Bolo Books Composite Sketch]

Without further ado, Megan Abbott is the author of nine novels and one work of nonfiction. Her latest Give Me Your Hand was shortlisted for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award and is a finalist for this year’s Best Novel Anthony. Her 2004 novel Dare Me is headed for television [USA Network trailer], and she has won or been nominated for the Hammett Prize, the Shirley Jackson Prize, the Pushcart Prize, an Edgar, Anthony, Barry, and Macavity Awards, to name but a few.

Next to her is Jennifer Hillier, who is the author of five novels. Her most recent, Jar of Hearts, appeared on a bevy of this year’s lists; won the 2019 ITW Thriller Best Hardcover Novel. She is a finalist for this year’s Macavity Award for Best Mystery. She is up for an Anthony Best Novel here in Dallas. Jennifer also writes a regular column for The Thrill Begins.

J.M. Redman is the author of the New Orleans-based Micky Knight detective novels; the most recent being Girl on the Edge of Summer and the Nell McGraw series, which she writes under the name, R. Jean Reid. Her novels have garnered a Foreword Gold First Place Mystery Award and numerous Lambda Literary Awards, wins and nominations. She’s also co-edited three anthologies with Greg Herren, one of which, Night Shadows: Queer Horror, was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. [Photo: Live Journal]

Angie Kim is the author of Miracle Creek, which appeared on Time’s and Amazon’s Year’s Best Lists, and was named a Top Ten Apple Books Debuts of the Year, and also earned her a spot on Variety’s Top Ten Storytellers to Watch list. Her work has also appeared in Vogue, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Glamour, Salon, and Slate. [Photo: Twitter]

Finally last, but not least. Laura Lippman is the author of the Baltimore-based Tess Monaghan series. She has also written 11 standalones, including Sunburn which is up for a Best Novel Anthony this year. Are you sensing a theme here? And Lady in the Lake, which was released this past summer, to great acclaim. Laura has won, or been nominated for a multitude of awards, including the Agatha, Anthony, Edgar, Barry, Macavity, Nero, Gumshoe, Hammett, and Shamus.

Before we get started, I’d like to remind everybody what this panel’s description was:

The mystery genre has been blowing up the stereotype of the ‘good girl,’ creating a new demand for books featuring unlikeable characters that are often described as ‘unlikeable.’ But what makes a woman ‘unlikeable’ and is it simply code for complex?

So, I’d like to start with a show of hands, How many of you think your most recent book actually features one or more unlikeable female characters?

The description posits that ‘unlikeable’ is code for complex. Do you agree, or is ‘complex’ itself merely a euphemism for a very specific set of qualities?

LL: That was the shortest panel on record. I would like to think that all the writers here are really interested in creating complex characters because those are full characters, fully realized characters. This idea of likeability has been hanging over books for a long time, and not just in the mystery genre. I’ve had students in my class at Eckerd College [in St. Petes, Florida], where I teach a writer’s workshop every January say, ‘I was told my manuscript was rejected because I didn’t have a likeable protagonist.’ I think that is just a nice thing to say to you. I think that’s a nice way to reject someone but I don’t find it particularly meaningful, and you have to know in your heart of hearts that’s not right. Is Hannibal Lecter likeable—people apparently really enjoy reading books about…I think what we are actually talking about is this cultural issue that women were supposed to be nice, and we’re supposed to be accommodating, and we’re supposed to get along, and we’re supposed to understand, and so both the culture and the books have been sort of opening at the same moment, just as women in the world at large, in various workplaces have been: ‘I’m really tired of being nice, I’m really tired of making you feel good about the ways in which you demean me and don’t take me seriously,’ I think it’s just natural at the same time in the culture women began to push back, that people began to write books in which women were less concerned with being liked, and concerned with what they want and how they are going to get it.

AK: And in my book, I have a group of mothers who are in this enclosed submarine-like chamber, who are being very vulnerable with each other; they are actually talking to each other, about things that are really shameful to them, moments they’ve had and thoughts that they’ve had that made them feel like monsters because they had those thoughts. I can’t tell you how many women I’ve had come up to me, or written a comment, or reviews or whatever, saying: ‘I’ve had those same thoughts.’ Whether they be moms with kids with special needs, which is something that happens in my book, or someone who has gone through the trauma of—which I’m going through right now with having kids who are teenagers. And so I feel like we’ve all had these shameful thoughts, and I think society has this expectation, especially with women and especially for mothers. There’s this myth of the Good Mother (capital G and capital M). I feel like we need to show the characters at their vulnerable moments when they’re being honest with each other, and saying these thoughts out loud so we all know that we have had them, and none of us feel like monsters for having them, because it’s just human.

KH: In addition to likeability and mothering, are there very specific things that are code and will land you on the unlikeable list?

JH: I’ve never given a lot of thought to unlikeable women until I started writing my first novel that I was workshopping. This was long before I got published. The character was a sex-addicted professor having an affair with her student and she was engaged to a really nice guy who didn’t know this was going on. I got a lot of feedback in the workshop that said, ‘Nobody would ever read this. Like she is not likeable,’ and it killed my confidence because I thought I was writing something interesting. I changed big chunks of the book to make her more likeable. I took out her sex addiction, I made her almost forced into this affair, and changed other places to make her more likeable.

I finished the book and started to send out queries and sending out manuscripts, and it was getting rejected, left and right, because the writing wasn’t resonating with agents. I went back and I thought I was going to go back to what I did in the first place because that felt better to me. I changed it back to the original version, where she was this unlikeable woman who made terrible choices and had to dig her way out of the choices she made, and that version was the one that got published [Creep, 2011]. The feedback I got afterwards still gets dinged for her being unlikeable, but I think what I decided as a writer is that it’s better to write something that’s interesting than just to write someone who is likeable.

KH: Jean, your New Orleans private investigator Micky Knight is a sarcastic, self-absorbed; she drinks too much and she sleeps around, and these are all characteristics typical of a hard-boiled male PI. But are these qualities readers find unlikeable in male protagonist or just in female ones, and since you have a queer protagonist, Do you think this sort of behavior is a bigger perceived sin for a gay character than a straight one?

JR: Yes, there is always a dividing line between what men can do, and what women can do, particularly with emotions: the way men can be angry, the way women can be angry. Yes, she drinks a lot. The first book came out in 1990, when there weren’t many drinking women PIs back then. I thought I was being original. The other thing, too, about my private eye that sort of changes things somewhat is that she’s a lesbian. I am, too. Okay, write what you know; and that sort of changes perceptions and, in some ways, if you are a lesbian, you’re kind of a man and not kind of a man, and you can get away with stuff. You can also get dinged for other stuff because there’s no way you can be feminine enough, if you already transgressed that sexual boundary and so that makes you on the fault lines of unlikeable.

When I started writing it, I want my voice, our voice, because at the time there was Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. I liked them but I was, We’re still not part of the story. I thought I really would like to write a story about a lesbian and I looked into the mirror and said, ‘Then maybe you need to write one.’ And then I thought, ‘What would really make a woman become a private eye and do that?’ I realized that she had to almost be a damaged person, and a person searching for justice, in a way that’s desperate and that immediately takes her out of the nice girl role. You can’t be nice and ask for something that you’ve never been given.

KH: Along those lines, and this is a question in general for the panel. Are the things that get a male protagonist branded as an antihero, the same things that get a woman deemed unlikeable? And do we ever call female protagonists antiheroes? If not, then why not?

MA: Do we ever call a male protagonist unlikeable? I’m trying to think of an example of that. An element of that I find so interesting, and I agree with everyone on the panel. I’m always surprised at how often that the charge of unlikeable female characters comes from other women. I feel maybe more so because women read more crime novels, but I do think that there is an element of it that is, ‘We can’t show everyone what we are really like. You’re breaking the code. We have to be perfect. We have to please and be accommodating and you’re somehow violating it.’ When that podcast or TV show Dirty John was out, which was about this terrible and homicidal [spoiler] con artist who took advantage of woman after woman, there had been so much criticism of the women he had swindled and hustled, so much more than this guy who had stolen and poisoned and attacked [women]. It was so staggering to me somehow that he is coming out somehow as the antihero in this scenario, and the women are coming out as unlikeable, so I do think that sometimes women can be the harshest judge, because we are afraid of somehow being exposed for having real feelings. [Photo: Joe Marino for New York Daily News]

CH: Laura, between series protagonists, Tess Monaghan and Lady in the Lake’s Maddie Schwartz, you have created two fictional journalists, who some may deem unlikeable. Do you think that is a coincidence, or are there characteristics specific to the profession that a segment of the country finds objectionable in women?

LL: First, there is a big span of years between Tess Monaghan and Maddie Schwartz. When I created Tess, I thought that Tess was likeable. But, I also saw that she wasn’t at her best. She was a young woman, she’s out of a job, she’s lost, and it was true to my experience that those are not the things that make you a nice person or a barrel of laughs. I saw Tess as someone being, in the best of circumstances, a likeable person but going through a tough time. To me, she was actually a boon companion. I liked writing the Tess novels because I was writing about my imaginary best friend. Those were novels I was working on in the Nineties, to 1997.

Jump forward twenty years, yes, literally. Twenty years. Maddie Schwartz is much calculatedly created to represent everything I fear I might be at times. What’s her major drive? The story. She wants the story. ‘Get me to the story.’ She can be incurious, she can be very full of herself, she can be very self-centered and, why not be honest, it’s not that I fear that I am those things. I’m sure I am those things sometimes. I think it’s a particularly interesting question for people who write crime fiction, especially if you’ve ever been inspired by a real story, to ask yourself, ‘Is what I am doing right? Am I exploiting someone? Is what I am doing of enough value if I cause pain?’ These are questions I wrestle with each time. I created someone who is more ruthless than I am. She really doesn’t doubt her entitlement to have what she wants, and I recognize that is a meta-quest. I go back and forth. I’ve contradicted myself in the same conversation. I’ll say, ‘Sure, Maddie is not likeable’ and then someone in the audience will say, ‘I like her’ and then I’ll be, ‘I like her, too.’

I definitely admire her. I have to say that characters like Maddie, Polly in Sunburn, characters in all the panelist’s books, I just find it a lot more interesting to write. There is a lot of good girl/bad girl dichotomy in my books, but the fact is women switch in and out of those two roles. You’re not one or the other your whole life. It’s just so much more interesting to write about people who aren’t worried about being liked.

KH: Ambition. They’ve got that in spades.

LL: Ambition is almost a pejorative, but definitely a pejorative when applied to a woman. Nobody has ever said, ‘she’s ambitious’ and meant it as a compliment.

AK: And I think that is the thing, men can be very unlikeable. Don Draper [Mad Men] or Walter on Breaking Bad, or whatever it is. They can be despicable, they can have despicable goals, but as long as they are good at what they are doing and they are successful, then we are like, ‘Oh yeah’ whereas women, if they are successful and there’s ambition, and they put the ambition above everything else especially their family, their marriage and their kids, I think that is what makes everyone say, ‘Oh, she’s despicable. She’s a bitch. A total bitch.’

KH: Megan, you’ve kind of cornered the market when it comes to writing unapologetic, ambitious teenagers. I think it is rare to read a review of your work that condemns the young women for their aspirations. Do you think ambition is more acceptable in female characters when they are young than when they are grownup journalists? If so, why do you think that is so?

MA: I’m sort mystified by all of this. I love Maddie. I suppose a teenager who is ambitious is probably just not a threat. Aspirational —which is sort of the word they’ve foisted on millennials for ambition in an economy that isn’t going to reward them for it. I’ve had a lot of people frightened by the young women in the books, but that is sort of different from unlikeable. Though I sometimes I get the I write about mean girls when I write about teenagers, and that is a diminishing term to me. I love mean girls. It’s a way of making it small, and let’s make it not a threat. Girls behaving badly. Pranks and all that nonsense, rather than seeing what I think are quite beautiful stirrings of wanting things. Maybe it is like Don Draper and Walter White wanting the Big Dream, the dream we’ve all been told to believe, but somehow these little girls are just becoming troublesome.

KH: Jennifer, Jar of Hearts followed Georgina Shaw, who is a successful pharmaceutical executive who was incarcerated after police discovered that when she was a teenager she had helped her serial killer boyfriend dispose of her best friend’s body after he had raped and murdered her. Geo is a protagonist and point of view character, but is she a hero? A villain? Is she a little bit of both? Do you think readers like her?

JH: Readers very decidedly decided not to like her. I don’t know if I liked her, honestly. She does very terrible things, and I think the bigger crime in her story is that she doesn’t own up to them. I think that is another expectation that we have that when you’re a woman is that when you make a mistake, you should say ‘I’m sorry’ and she never did. She never admitted it and she even had the audacity to build a life on top of the awful thing she did, and went on to have success, meet a successful man and get engaged and try to be happy.

I think people reading the book, the feedback I got after chapter one “ I feel bad for her” and chapter two was, ‘Oh my God, she’s a bitch’, and for chapter 3, ‘she’s nuts’. It kind of went back and forth, and I think my biggest pet peeve when I hear about unlikeable women is that if a guy is unlikeable, he’s an asshole but, if a woman is unlikeable, she is crazy. Why can’t a woman be unlikeable and an asshole, too? Some women are assholes. So when I was writing the book I was like, ‘Am I worried about how this will read?’ But then I was, ‘No I’m going to not try to be worried’. As women we are complex, and we do terrible things and still be good people. We can make horrible mistakes and maybe not want to apologize, and because we’re just like men in that way.

KH: A quality that we have might’ve touched on, but haven’t discussed that I think factors in hugely whether readers like a character is maternalism. Several of you explore this theme in your books, and I don’t think anybody has done it more extensively than you, Angie. Can you talk a little bit more about the myth of the Good Mother, how it factors into your Miracle Creek, and why writing a book about three mothers, who sacrifice normal lives in order to help their children landed you on a panel about unlikeable women?

AK: I know. I was really excited about this panel until but someone, ‘Was it you, Meagan, who said we should have a contest to see who was the most unlikeable?’

It’s interesting and I think one the things you just asked about: the internality, it’s when people will say to me, ‘All your characters are unlikeable, which some do. Absolutely. I actually love that because, to me, that means I managed to get really inside the character’s heads. My novel is written from the perspective of seven P.O.V. characters. Each chapter follows a character, and I try to write in a very close third [point of view] where you are really getting raw unfiltered thoughts of these people. What I tell readers in book clubs and things like that, is that if we all walked around and people could know what we were thinking at any point of any day, but holding back from saying and doing, we would all be unlikeable. The fact that I sort of had this camera in this character’s deepest innermost thoughts and that by virtue of seeing that, you maybe feel some of that, to me says that I did what I set out to do. So, if people tell me they are unlikeable, then that is fine and not only that, but to your point about the sacrifices is that a lot of the book is about people who have given up everything. Immigration. People have given up their homeland, their languages, and the comfort of their family and friends to come half way around the world to a place where they know no one, and where they are completely uprooted from their lives and displaced. To have made that kind of sacrifice and done some of those things in the name of parenting and then behave those characters accused of being , ‘Well, the way they did it; we don’t really like it or approve of,’ is therefore, unlikeable and not noble is, I think, really interesting.

KH: So, on the flip-side. Laura. At least two of your protagonists, Maddie from Lady in the Lake and Polly from Sunburned, abandon their children. In your most recent Tess Monaghan novel, Hush Hush, it deals with both infanticide and Tess’s own struggles with motherhood. For a long time, it seemed that bad mothers were almost taboo to write about in crime fiction. Why do you think we are seeing so many now, and what is behind your most recent fascination?

LL: Let’s move back for a little because I’m obsessed with this [article] I saw from Reese Witherspoon. Data changed her life, which is to say that when streaming services first started and when they were getting information about Who watches What, they were like, ‘Oh, it turns out there are a lot of women who want to watch movies about other women. We didn’t know that.’

When it became data, it changed television and it changed what is getting made. I’ve been coming to Bouchercon since 1995, and I noticed there are a lot of women here. And I will give Gillian Flynn a lot of credit because I think Gone Girl kicked the door open.

On a related matter, because I was writing something and I was struggling with the idea whether someone inside a cultural phenomenon can know that they are inside a cultural phenomenon. I reached out to Gillian and said, ‘Do you and your husband ever discuss the fact that you changed the face of mystery publishing for more than a decade? You did that.’ I think what is happening is that there is a growing awareness of who our audience is, and they are grown up and don’t need a cup of sugar, and they are interested. Who do you talk about when you go out to lunch? You don’t talk about the nice people. I spend very little time talking about the nice people in my life. ‘She is lovely, but what about So-and-So?’ Fiction functions that way, and I also feel that when I wrote Sunburn in particular, I was very consciously paying homage to Ann Tyler’s Ladder of Years, which was the fantasy novel of 1995, in which a woman gets up and abandons her family on a beach. Everybody wanted to read that book. Ann Tyler’s treatment of it is one thing, but it also could be a very hard-boiled story, and that is what got me going. I think it’s really a common female fantasy. I swear to you, I talked about it with my Lyft driver this morning. It was her fantasy. She is telling me, ‘I tell my husband and my kids that one day, I’m just gonna be gone, and they’re like, ‘Mom, you’re gonna live forever, and I said, ‘I didn’t say dead, I said, GONE.’

KH: I think we might need to end right there. Meagan, throughout history, there’s been a tendency for society to pathologize female anger and aggression. Did this propensity figure into your decision to set Give Me Your Hand, which is a book about female ambition and competition, in a biology lab?

MA: I was fascinated by the dearth of women in sciences all, and a dearth of research into women’s bodies, and what there is tends to focus on different variations of the concept of hysteria, the craziness and uncontrollability of women. I think it does tie back to the mother issue because of this sense of the female body being out of control, terrifying, and all the stigmas and taboos we have about the female body in its various functions, at the same time we have this concept of the female body as this center of desire. Women, throughout their lives, have a sense that they are being looked at in one way or another. A part of this is the armor that women wear when they go out at night and so much a way we live our lives, and I think it all plays out interestingly in crime fiction where you’re dealing with threat, the way you’re dealing with the ways women choose to armor themselves. In all my books I guess that sort of seems to come up.

I have a book called The Fever, which is about this bodily illness that takes over these young women. Dare Me, which really to go back to your point Laura, would not have been made seven years ago when it first went into development. Now, with streaming and algorithms, there are statistics being made about the weight of the body on women and being pathologized, put under a microscope, investigated. This even occurs in virtual space now online, and the ways women experience social media. I think I’ve expanded that answer now, into all the culture. I think as women we think about all the time, think about it so much that we aren’t even conscious about it because we just wear it all the time.

KH: Jean, Micky matures a lot over the course of your series, to the point that in your most recent novel Girl on the Edge of Summer that I’m not even sure she qualifies as unlikeable or, if she does she’s very introspective about it. Was this a conscious decision, or did she mature as you matured? And how have your fans reacted to her evolution?

JR: It’s one of the challenges of a series, and the advantage of a standalone is you can make them really unlikeable. In a series, it’s about finding the balance between they’re a total asshole and a complete jerk, and their movement in character as the books come along. I’d like to think that I’ve matured. Some people may disagree. One of the things I think that she wrestles with, and we all wrestle with is, ‘Who is allowed to be fully human? Who is allowed to take that entire space? Who is allowed to be really flawed and angry? Who is constrained when they can do that?’ And when we look at the way the world is sliced, if you’re female, being angry and taking power, having ambition is often difficult to do and I think that is something she struggles with. ‘How do hold onto that power? How do keep creating that space, when it’s a space you aren’t supposed to be in? Because you have to reclaim it every single day. You don’t get it automatically. I think that one of the challenges with being unlikeable and flawed is if you are female that it is easier to fall into that category. What happens to the women who are told, ‘If you feel like that, you’re not a good mother, you’re not a good daughter or you’re not a good sister. You’re being too angry and you’re disturbing the workplace. Why can’t you be nicer? Don’t be so politically correct.’

What kind of small violences do we do when we tell people you have this place, and that is where you stay? I really think that at this moment, not just in our writing, what we’re doing in all these books we’re saying, wu can have this space, but even outside of all that, there’s this huge fight about ‘Who can be fully human? Who can take that space?’ It’s a fight that for some of us that is incredibly, incredibly relevant to our lives. I have the Supreme Court talking about whether I can be fired.

KH: Jennifer, Geo is not your first flawed character. In your debut novel, Creep, as you said started with a sex-addicted psychology professor who had an affair with a graduate student, who also turned out to be a psychopath. What fuels your fascination with these types of characters, and what is the appeal in writing about them?

JH: I think it’s a healthy—maybe not healthy—a safe way to explore every dark thought that I’ve ever had. It’s a way to imagine someone younger talking to someone. Haven’t we all had the thought of, ‘What would it be like if I punched you right now?’ You’re not going to do it, but you think about it, just to wonder what their reaction might be, and so writing characters like this is my way of going, ‘What is she lied about this?’ And that lead to with, ‘What if she covered that up?’ And that leads you to, ‘What if she hurt someone?’ I think it’s just a way for me to explore that train of thought, and put all that somewhere where that’s not going to hurt someone really. It’s something healthy and safe.

KH: Scores of think-pieces have been written on character likeability and many of them, you’ve mentioned this earlier, Laura, have propped the theory that if you’re an unpublished writer seeking representation or publication and you submit a manuscript with an abrasive heroine you’re likely to receive rejections citing likeability. Angie, Miracle Creek is you debut. Did you encounter a lot of resistance in your path to publication? How difficult was it for you to find an agent and then an editor, who was willing to let your character be their messy selves?

 AK: I’m so glad that you asked that because I really wanted to talk about that, because when you were talking about data, and I wished someone would compile that kind of data for books as well, which I think is a little harder to come by.

This [Miracle Creek] is my debut novel. With respect to agents, I think I had a relatively easy time; but I remember when she sent it out she had set a date for the auction and she said, ‘This weekend before the book auction you’re going to talk—and she gave me a whole list of editors who were interested in acquiring the book—to them this weekend, one by one. I talked to a whole bunch of editors, and I’d say about half of them said, ‘I love the book, but there are especially a couple of scenes towards the end, where a couple of moms are talking about—the book, I should say, is about a mother on trial for murdering her eight-year old son, who is killed in a horrific, awful way. Towards the end of the book there are a couple of mothers talking and confessing to each other that they had fantasies of their kids dying. ‘What would’ve happened if my kid had died, instead of surviving this coma and becoming a child with special needs, and chronic illnesses and thing like that.

About half the editors said I had an uphill battle talking to my marketing department about how people are going to respond to this. ‘How are we going to market this because this is a mother accused of killing her child and, on top of that, there are some characters who have confessed to having had those very shameful thoughts. I remember the week before publication. This was my first big interview with Artie Shapiro with NPR, and he read that part we are talking about. This shameful thought. There was a part of me that was like, ‘I love Artie so much,’ and I loved that he picked this part that I love to read on the air. It was amazing and we had this amazing conversation about it. On the other hand, we talked for an hour and I knew they had to edit it down to ten minutes, and I called my publicist immediately. I was like, ‘Oh, I loved this so much; it was amazing, but do you think you should call the on-the-air producer and say, ‘Maybe not have that be part of the ten minutes?’ I was really afraid that the public encountering my book for the first time would be like, ‘oh, it’s about mothers who want to kill their kids.’ This is going to be a disaster. We did decide not to do that and they did air it, but in a way with context so people actually said nice things about it, and people didn’t send me hate mail which I was grateful for. It was huge thing, and we talked about how, ‘If you took out that scene especially, we might have more bidders, maybe three more publishers at the auction.’

KH: For those of you who are publishing veterans, Do you encounter less push-back now than you did earlier in your careers? Do you find yourself taking bigger risks, now that you’ve gotten a toehold in the market?

LL: One of the funniest things that happened to me with my most recent book Lady in the Lake is I had a Hollywood producer mansplain the ending to me, and he said how tragic how things end for Maddie. I’m like, ‘It is? I don’t see it that way’, but I don’t want to talk about it more in depth because it would be a spoiler for those who haven’t read the book. There are a lot of things you can say happens to Maddie, but I don’t think it’s especially tragic.

Early in my career I was asked to rethink some elements of my third novel [Butchers Hill] for the very good reason because it would’ve been out of step with the two novels that had come out as a part of a series, and since then I would say that the note that I get is: it’s never to make it nicer, to never to make sweeter or less grim, but to sort of have the sense that wherever I have delivered my characters to, that I’ve done right by them. That’s the best way I could describe it, so I think it’s never had that much…‘Sure you can write a novel about two eleven-year old girls  who kill a baby, and let’s see how that turns out.’ It turned out great. I had it great. I’m odd, in that I’ve written all my books for the same editor. I have a very different relationship than what people have. When you’re over 20 books in, there’s a lot of trust. My editor has spanned two husbands now.

KH: This is kind of a question for all of you. Jennifer Weiner has written extensively about her belief that many female writers reject likeability in an attempt to be seen as more serious and intellectual. Do you agree? Do you think female writers have to write unlikeable female protagonists in order to be taken seriously?

MA: Again, I don’t think they are unlikeable. It was just the premise. I think that’s more about the tone of a book. I don’t think of crime novels ever being accused of being downbeat, heavy lifting kind of tomes. It’s a curious thing. I think I get why Jennifer Weiner is saying that: her work has been dismissed as Chick Lit for so long, and put in this box, whereas writers whom I love, such as Tom Perotta can write books about domestic situations, about being a parent; and they’re given serious author status. I think one of the wonderful things about the crime fiction community is that we all write about terrible people all the time. I think there’s this wild freedom in it, much along the lines of what you were saying for the reasons why we read these books: we want to see people do the things we wouldn’t or couldn’t do, but maybe think about, or occasionally pondered. I think that does give us a kind of freedom. [Photo: Squeak and spoils from Bouchercon Toronto, 2017]

KH: Do you think it’s even possible to write a full-fleshed character that is 100% likeable?

LL: It’d be a great challenge. Whenever I think of a book like that, I think of Nicholson Baker’s The Everlasting Story of Nory, that is ever as close to a likeable character; it’s about a ten-year old girl going about her day.

CH: Some ten-year old girls can get really mean.

LL: That’s true, too. It’d would be a great challenge. Novels require conflict. What kind of conflicts—

MA: It’s making me think. I’d just heard that Little Women is coming out. The new movie adaptation. I heard that Laura Dern plays Marmee. That’s how old I am now, that Laura Dern is playing Marmee. There’s a speech there in the movie, where Marmee talks about how angry she is, and it comes from the book and nobody realizes it. She has a lot of anger about her husband being gone and these four brats she has for kids, and she even wants one of them to die. But no, it’s always been in there.

AK: Also again, I think it’s about perspective, too. If you were to write a character like that, you would have to be from a very distant perspective where they’re not the POV character, and you don’t have access to their internal thoughts and things because I can’t imagine being honest to a complex, real fully-fleshed out character, and to really exploring their internality and have that being completely likeable; that in Little Women is about as likeable as we get, and we don’t have any scenes form her POV, right? That’s probably why. If she had written from her POV, there’s probably so much stuff in there about resentment, about why am I the only one…

JH: I also don’t want to read stories like that, because I feel that’s how we live already. I write fiction and I have no shame saying that I’m a commercial writer and want to entertain someone with their story. I go through my daily life being as nice to people as I can be. Polite. Good manners. I don’t necessarily want to read that in my fiction. I want to read about the stuff we are not allowed to do in polite company. To me that is more fun, and as a reader that is what I enjoy, so that is what I write.

JR: One of my interests is how do flawed, messed-up people search out justice, and how do we— even though we don’t want to do this, do that—make those incremental decisions that can lead us to doing the right thing or doing the wrong thing. I thought about it. If you want to talk about a book with an unlikeable character: Lolita. Except he’s charming, but you read the book and you’re like, ‘What a horrible monster’. He gets away with it because it’s written by Nabokov. It’s a good book, but I think you can do that, but it’s, ‘How do you make it work in a way that engages readers and doesn’t put them off. I think it would be fascinating to write a book from Beth’s [Little Women] perspective. Maybe that’ll be the next movie? The Trials of Beth?

KH: Favorite unlikeable female protagonist that you did not create?

LL: Again, I like her. Probably Mildred Pierce. She is literally happy about which daughter dies. If she has to have a daughter die, she knows in her heart that she got the one she wanted.

JR: Liza Cody Bucket Nut.

LL: With Eva Wylie?

JR: Yes.

LL: What a great character. Amazing character.

MA: I’d say Phyllis from Double Indemnity is one of my all-time favorites, with or without Barbara Stanwyck playing her.

JH: I’d have to pull the Gone Girl card here and say Amy [Dunne].

AK: I was just going to say that.

JH: I wanted to be more original, but it stands the test of time.

AK: I’m actually going to go with Tess from your novels. I think she’s very likeable, and thought the whole evolution was great but what I loved about all that was when she was doing all the stakeouts and stuff and she was breastfeeding her baby. I loved seeing things like that, and the fast sense of women doing things like that and trying to make things work. I felt that was such a fresh perspective and made me feel like, ‘She’s a real person.’

KH: I know the typical thing to do is ask you what you are working on next, but I’m trying to sell your books. Everyone in the audience is certain to head to the Book Room for the signing that is taking place afterwards, but what one book of yours would you recommend to someone who has never read you?

AK: Can I go first, because it’s really easy for me? Definitely Miracle Creek, given that it’s my one and only book.

LL: If I had to pick just one, I’d pick Sunburn because it is an homage to Postman Always Rings Twice and to a lot of James Cain. I’m certain someone will say they dislike Polly but I love Polly. I adore Polly. The book is written from the perspective of someone who adores that character.

JH: Jar of Hearts. It’s my favorite book that I’ve ever written and I think it was the only book where I said what I wanted to say, and exactly the way I wanted to say it. I do think you get better with every book but that’s my most recent one.

JR: I’d say my third one, The Intersection of Law and Desire, because it was published by large publisher. The first two books were published by a smaller publisher. It was the book where I finally felt like I was a writer and a lot of things came together. It’s probably the epitome of what the series is about. If you don’t like it, you’re probably not going to like the series. If you do like it, I have ten books.

MA: I’ll probably go with my most recent one and say, Give Me Your Hand. I’ll warn you, there’s some unlikeable characters in there. They are in all of them, so I might not be the author for you.

KH: We’ve got eight minutes for questions from the audience. Actual questions and not comments.

Q: Do beautiful women get away with being unlikeable more? [paraphrased by KH]

LL: I went to Art Taylor’s class to talk about Lady in the Lake and the students observed that both of the main characters in that book were very beautiful and why was I interested in beautiful women? Because I am interested in the power that was available to women in that time—that would have been the only power. I think people will find a a way to dislike a woman coming and going; she is too pretty; she’s not pretty enough. There’s always something. They’ll find a way.

One of the things and I’ve said this at conference, and that is when you take the broad view of the crime fiction genre when you took a broad view of it was that a lot of our best work was based on the model of a beautiful woman dies and a man feels bad about it. At least the beautiful women in my life are standing and breathing and in my books. That was my contribution.

Q: Is it harder for female authors to write unlikeable characters?

JH: I think so. I feel pressured to be nicer. It’s not autobiographical or something. I feel the need to show that I’m normal and I’m fine. Someone got caught up in my book but that’s not what I do. I don’t know that my male author friends might’ve had to meet this same standard.

LL: Being male and female online is just a world of difference; there’s no comparison to being female on the internet.

JH: Do you delete any tweets? I delete mine if I determine if they’re bitchy and I don’t want to be bitchy.

LL: I don’t delete. I find that people tend to be incredibly generous to me and tend to give me the benefit of the doubt. I’ve been working on a book of essays called My Life as a Villainess [Release Date: 5 May 2020]. If you look at the subject matter in this book, you’ll find that I call myself an asshole, I call myself a rotten friend, and I’ve never had more fun than writing about all the ways I have failed to meet other people’s standards. It’s just great fun.

Q: I find likeability to be subjective. How do you get your audience to root for your characters?

MA: This brings up something I wanted to mention earlier, which often is a valid view. I find that this happens, particularly with readers and with earlier drafts for me as a writer, and that is when you haven’t let the reader in and given them something valuable to know about that character; you haven’t rounded them out, you haven’t teased out their nuances and their complexity. Sometimes that comes to me later in the draft, but often when I’m reading and I won’t use the word unlikeable, but I’ll feel shut out and that is what that is about, and I’m always working on in drafts. You might not like them but you’re going to understand them. Maybe that is a better way to think about it.

JR: You also pick the point in their lives where they have a story to tell. We don’t talk about the entire life of our characters. We talk about specific points, and so what is compelling that would fascinate the reader even if that character is unlikeable in this particular point in their life.

MA: I think that would suggest some insight into the reader’s experience. You wouldn’t have to assume as a writer that if you don’t fully round out a character, readers will find something to connect to, but you have to meet them halfway, and be generous. I feel that in the books I don’t like, the author has contempt for their characters, does not like them, thinks they’re villains—a word I don’t like to use. Often I can feel when an author likes their characters, you feel like you are in it with the author there.

LL: It’s on us to have empathy for our characters. Readers can decide from there whether they like the character or not. We have to have full empathy for every single character—the worst of the worst.

MA: I think that’s why ultimately I do balk when people say, ‘Oh that particular character is unlikable’ because even if they do certain things or say certain things or think things that are despicable, if you give readers enough background so that they can have empathy then they become relatable, and then the action they took that seems despicable in chapter two, by chapter ten becomes like, ‘Oh I understand now why she did that and it makes me sympathetic towards her and root for her not getting punished for that’, and I think that is the key: letting people in to the right moments that explain the roots of that [behavior].

[this photo: author Hilary Davidson]

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Bouchercon 2019: Evolution of the Noir Genre

Bouchercon. Conversation about the Evolution of the Noir Genre Panel, 1 November 2019, 1PM in Landmark C in Dallas Hyatt Regency. Recorded by Patrick von Wiegandt and transcribed here by Gabriel Valjan. Any errors are my own.

Panelists: Moderator, Eryk Pruitt (EP). Shawn A. Cosby (SC), Christa Faust (CF), Kelly J. Ford (KF), and Peter Rozovsky (PR).

EP: Let’s get rolling, folks. Of course, if I’ve missed anything, please be sure to fill-in-the-blanks as we go through. Why don’t, y’all just give out your noir cred since you’re on a noir panel. What’s your cred to talk about it? Let’s start with you, Shawn.

[Photo: Peter Rozovsky]

SC: My noir cred is I’ve had my good heart broken by a bad woman. I’ve been in bar fight where I neither knew the opponent, nor why we were fighting.

EP: That was last night, right?

SC: Almost fought an assassin. I was once the unwitting getaway driver to a robbery. Those are my noir credentials. The statute of limitations has run out, so I can talk about it.

EP: Ma’am.

CF: Well, I’m gonna get a little cranky about the noir credential bullshit, because I’m here to tell you some of the best noir that is out there is about suburban, desperate, ordinary people who have never done anything wrong in their life and they make that one choice, that one bad decision and it all goes down. But that being said, I grew up on 45th Street and 9th Avenue in Manhattan. I worked in the peep booths in the Eighties, and there’s a much longer bio. I can get you an ARC, but for now I think that’ll do.

[Photo: L-R: Christa Faust & Kelly J. Ford from Facebook]

SC: That’s way cooler than mine.

EP: Ms. Kelly Ford.

KF: Yes, I’m sure I’m why I’m here. Yes, I’m from a long line of criminals, including ax murderers, some drug dealers, and then I’ve been arrested a little bit.

EP: Please explain.

KF: That would take too long.

CF: We’ll find her at the bar.

EP: What about you, Mr. Rozovsky?

PR: My scant noir credibility is that I have stolen a car in my life, but the main thing is that I am human. And that is what noir is.

EP: Is this the kind of microphone you can drop because if it is, go ahead and drop it. Christa touched on something that will be basis, the entire emphasis of this panel; but before we can talk about where noir is headed or where the so-called evolution is going or coming from, it’s probably best if we talk about historically what it is, so we can know where we are moving from.

CF: Noir. What is noir? We’ve all done this already? It’s French for black.

KF: Thank you.

EP: Peter, why don’t you fill in on that.

PR: I think I’ve spoken at sufficient length. What is noir? That little definition I gave, I came to after considering that noir means you’re fucked. One thing that noir does not mean is death. Death has nothing to do with noir because death is too easy. I think what noir is about is about being condemned to be alive. [Photo: SW Lauden blog]

CF: Nice.

SC: I heard someone much smarter than me explain that the difference between a ‘noir story’ and a ‘hard-boiled story’ is that a hard-boiled story is basically about people who kind of want to do the right thing, and a ‘noir story’ is about people who can’t do the right thing.

CF: I like that.

EP: You told me, Kelly, before the panel that ‘I don’t read the traditional noir’, so you didn’t think that you had much to offer. What is it that you don’t read? What do you call ‘traditional noir’?

KF: I think it was Daniel Woodrell who had called Winter’s Bone ‘rural noir’ and ‘country noir.’ He doesn’t subscribe to that anymore, but I was talking about that when I was workshopping my book [Cottonmouths, (2017)]. I had mentioned that to someone and someone who did read noir, and that someone said ‘this isn’t noir, this is blah-blah.’ I went off, thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m not doing noir. I don’t know what that is,’ so…for me, it is darkness, it is the human condition, and that’s what I write and what I read.

EP: I think you did a good job there bringing up Daniel Woodrell because that seems to be the noir I’m drawn to. The old-school stuff is great, Jim Thompson is great, but I think that noir now—especially with the internet democratizing the world is we get to see more noir, more lifestyles, and more walks of life, and Daniel Woodrell draws on the rural noir, which I’m really drawn to.

KF: That’s what I write. I think there is this idea that—at least I have this idea—that noir had to be a PI, had to be set in Hollywood or New Orleans, some other place, and those are great but I was reader across genre first, and it wasn’t until I started to take writing classes that genre had to be a thing I had to think about, and that was really upsetting because I just wanted a concept and call it darkness and whatever it is and across genres. Whether it is true-crime, or give me romance, or whatever you want to call it. I don’t care what it is, as long as it is dark and about the human condition and about, as you said, people who can’t help but do wrong. I paraphrased that all wrong.

SC: I was drawn to what is considered classical genre when I was a little kid. Eryk has heard the story a ton of times, but I grew up dirt poor. We’d go to a thrift store, and they had a bin. In the bin, you could pick five books for a dollar. Somebody had apparently hated Raymond Chandler because they had dropped all his books into this bin. When I was eleven or twelve, that was what I started reading. I guess I shouldn’t have been reading it but, to me, it reflected the postwar nihilism that America was going through at that time. And then to talk about how noir evolved, we get to the Sixties and Ross Macdonald—Peter’s favorite writer (in joke)—you look at the lack of optimism, the deaths of Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, the fall of Camelot. Writers were reflecting that loss of innocence—more than a loss of innocence, but totally bereft of optimism. There is no hope anymore. Then you get into the Seventies and Eighties, the rise of the AIDS epidemic, and the rise of the modern neo-Nazi movement.

You had black writers writing noir. You had Walter Mosley writing and hearkening back to the Fifties, because there was this time period when things might get better, and then things really did not get better. The evolution of noir for me represents whatever is the social malaise that the country is going through at the time when the book is being written.

[Photo: SA Cosby reading his Anthony Award-winning short story at Noir at the Bar, Bouchercon 2019, with an admiring  Joe Lansdale watching. Photo taken by Gabriel Valjan]

CF: Absolutely, and I think you also see that, at least with modern writers. People tend to have this tendency to, ‘Don’t focus on the finger. Focus on the moon.’ People focus on the hat, on the shadows, and focus on the furniture of what noir is, and so you end up with a lot of those sort of Mickey Spillane cosplay type of guys, who want to pretend that it’s still okay to slap women and use the N-word because that’s just how things were back then; and my challenge to that is, ‘That’s not about the hat, but what goes on under the hat. That’s noir. If you start diversifying those voices, every person—and I don’t care where you’re from and I don’t care what your background is—you’re human, like you said [Peter], it’s the human condition [Kelly]. It’s the bad decisions that people make; it’s not about the details about the heist, it’s about the way people doing the heist fall apart.

SA: That’s such a great thesis.

PR: Eryk, you differentiated between rural noir and classic noir, and you invoked Daniel Woodrell. Well, for my money, the greatest crime novel ever written is Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson. In my edition of it, Daniel Woodrell wrote a very appreciative introduction that I could quote for hours, so I think perceptive readers just treat those as tags, props and cigars, jacks and dames and all that sort of thing. A perceptive reader will see that core of humanity. That’s the last time I’m going to say humanity.

EP: I think a lot of times when we look at traditional noir—and by the way, really quick, Carol Puckett who helped plan this Bouchercon here in Dallas, it was very, very important to her that we have this panel. She specifically wanted this panel to happen. She wanted people to understand what noir is, and especially where it’s going. Look at where it was in the Fifties and Sixties, and those old definitions we’re talking about could be summed up very simplistically as, that it is the bad behavior of white men in the Fifties and Sixties. I think, as we see this concept in urban settings, kind of bleed over into new times, and especially with this panel here, we see those definitions have radically changed since the Fifties and Sixties. Once could argue that this old genre, which celebrated the bad behavior of white men, it has now become probably, we could argue, one of the true genres of social justice. Do you feel the same way?

SC: I think true noir is incredibly infused with the idea of social justice, but it’s truly a looking glass, because a lot of time noir characters don’t get justice. In the end they aren’t able to rise above, and by showing that degradation of the human spirit you allow your readers to see that ‘there before the grace of God, go I’. You use these bad characters as an example of maybe what not to do, but at the same time if you’re doing it right, they empathize with those people and empathize with the plight they’re in.

I like to write about rural, black America, write about rural black people in the south. For a long time, the only idea for noir story, and Eryk touched on it, was a dark alleyway on 42nd Street, or in Chicago, or LA and so forth. But you know what? There is no more frightening noir place then a lonely country road at midnight, with no lights. If you’re not scared there, then you’re either drunk, high, or a sociopath. For me, the reflection that I’d like to show in my work is the desperation of the people I grew up with. A lot of guys I knew are doing time, not because they are inherently bad people, but because they had no other options. Even when they felt they were getting ahead, they were dragged back five steps. You poke a bear with a stick enough, he’s going to bite your ass. I think that’s the ethos of noir I like and I write. Other people write rural noir—and I don’t want to characterize it too sharply—but that is the stuff I’m drawn to because I lived it for a while.

CF: Being an urban person myself I could see how both of these and how you can it both ways—but if you go back to the birth of noir, and you look at Chandler, Hammett, these guys, the Black Mask era—what were they doing in that era? Yes, it was all white men, but what they were doing was that they were rejecting this idea of the British parlor crime, where you don’t see the body and there are no consequences; it’s like a bloodless puzzle. Guys, like Hammett came along and said, ‘No, we’re going to write about the street. We’re going to write about ordinary people, and they are going to speak the way they really speak, and it was revolutionary back then. And I feel what we are doing now is kind of similar, in that we took that one step back then and now we are taking that next step to open up to these different perspectives, different voices, different characters; all of whom have roots going back to that rejection of crime as a bloodless, fun Rubik’s cube to solve and more emotional, more human, more gut-wrenching.

SC: Chandler had that great quote where he says that we try to take murder out of the drawing room in the English manor and put it down in the street with the real people.

CF: It’s just that the definition of ‘real people’ is getting kicked open at this point.

KF: I write about queer people in Arkansas and poverty. I don’t mean to write about social justice, but when you grow up poor, it’s like you kind of can’t help it. I think what you said, Christa, is correct in that it’s even in these suburban and urban environments because sometimes…a country road can be really terrifying to me in a different way. Oh, animals. I grew up in both. I grew up Fort Smith, Arkansas with my mom, and it was a little industrial, and then I was out in the woods with my dad, but I was more scared living with mom in an industrial town because you just never knew when crazy people were hanging around, especially in a poorer neighborhood.

EP: Peter?

PR: What was the question?

EP: We were talking about noir being a social justice medium and differentiating what it was in the Fifties and Sixties.

PR: I don’t know if it’s more social justice, I am the least marginalized person here, so I don’t know if it is so much a social justice thing as a cosmic justice thing. Look at what happens at the end of some of David Goodis’s novels. At the end of Cassidy’s Girl there’s a protagonist who is going nowhere, a woman who tries to go somewhere and fails and falls back, and in the end, it’s almost an inverted love story. You know how, in hard-boiled fiction, you hear talk about how justice and social order being restored, but noir it’s a cosmic order being restored.

EP: Quick question. Our job as writers in this genre is to empathize with people who do bad things. The acting President of the United States infamously once said that, ‘There are fine people on both sides.’ Do you believe that? Peter?

PR: It doesn’t matter. We’re all doomed anyway.

SC: To jump in on what Peter said. It doesn’t matter if there’s fine people on both sides because these fine people are doing fucked-up shit. There’s a book written by Jordan Harper: She Rides Shotgun [Edgar Award Winner, Best Debut Novel, 2018]. The lead character is a former neo-Nazi, forced to be a Nazi in jail, and you get the feeling it’s not really his thing but he had to survive; and Jordan Harper does something, at least for me, that I thought was impossible but I feel empathy for that guy. I feel sorry for him. I feel the level of desperation that he is at in that book. Any writer who can do that is a writer you need to pay attention to, and at the same time, I have a caveat in my work because I grew up in the south, anytime someone uses the N-word in my book, that character gets their teeth checked. I use that, as Peter would say, the cosmic scale sort of balances a little bit. But if you want to talk about order being restored. James M. Cain’s Postman Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, it’s not so much as the social order being reset right, it’s these dark morality plays where these people pay for their lust, for their transgressions, and no one gets out alive. Thematically or literally.

KF: Defining ‘very fine’ is very subjective because there are very ‘fine people’ who’d like to take away my rights, so…but that said, as I mentioned on different panels—sociopaths, psychopaths, unless you’re that—I think everyone is in this gray area and, as a writer, I want to try and understand them, and dive into their psychology. And I do believe that there are good people, who go bad or think poorly, and I’m not necessarily going to try to change their mind; but I’m going to dive deep into my perspective, and that’s what I’m hoping for when I read other books is, ‘Show me your world’ and hopefully by doing that, they’ll see me and others as human.

EP: She does that very well, by the way, in Cottonmouths with the protagonist’s girlfriend. You’ll love it. Christa?

CF: This is fiction and if you’re not sympathizing with bad people, you’re doing something wrong. Nobody wants to read about cardboard cutouts, or the villain twirling a mustache. I’m guess they’re people who are escapist, like action movies with clear heroes and villains; but for us here, the whole point to that kind of storytelling is to blur those lines. You get good people who do bad shit for decent reasons, and you get bad people who do good shit for their own unknowable reasons, and that’s the meat of this type of storytelling that I find so appealing. When you get into real life and trying to talk about people who feel that you don’t deserve to exist: they want to negate you; they want to control your body—that’s not negotiable, but the stories are where we work out that kind of tension, and we use it to make the reader think.

EP: As you talk about empathy and sympathy, our job is to empathize with these characters doing bad things, is there a line that you won’t cross as a writer, or as a reader? Is there a line in your mind that you won’t cross?

CF: What you have to do is look at who is telling the story that is crossing the line because, as far as I’m concerned, we’re good with—let’s say you want to write a rape scene. Gentlemen, you guys have written enough rape scenes. You can stop now. No more sad daddy stories. You guys know what I’m talking about? This is where a woman’s beautiful dead body exists to make a man sad. It’s like, you write her story. You can write all those same events, and all that same sad dark fucked-up shit, but if it is her telling that story, now you’ve got something. It’s not so much as a matter of taboo, or lines, or what you can and can’t do, it’s who is telling it. Who is your protagonist?

EP: Is there a line, Shawn?

SC: To piggyback off that, yeah, I don’t write from the perspective of the sad daddy trope because I don’t think that is my story to tell. I really don’t. I wouldn’t say so much that there’s a line. People ask that about the violence in my stories. My brain is people getting hit in the face with wrenches and shit. People ask me about that. I feel that there is no line because the characters I am creating and the characters I like, the characters I find fascinating, they are in very desperate situations, and you never know what a desperate person is going to do; and that’s what makes the story is exciting. Yeah, I don’t like violence against kids and I really don’t like violence against pets, but if I can narratively justify it then I will include it. If it works toward the narrative in the story, and the theme and the point I’m trying to make then I’ll include it.

I have a scene in a book right now, where a guy is beating up a guy, who is sort of a sad sack and an intellectually-challenged individual, and you sympathize with the dude doing the beating because he’s been through so much stuff. But then I also have people, rather than sympathize with the theme of being tortured, I have a character, who through no fault of his own, my main character doesn’t care anymore because time is of the essence. If I have to slam your hand in a truck door four times to find out what I need to find out then I’m going to do it. Is that character a good guy? No. Not at all. He’s a functioning sociopath, but he’s also a loving father and he loves his kids, and so he has to do what he has to do. And so those lines only exist insofar as, Do they represent what I need to tell the story or not? If they don’t then I won’t cross them.

[Blacktop Wasteland is slated for release 14 July 2020 from Flatiron Books]

CF: Can I add one small thing and I hope I can get you to jump in as well? There is certainly a prejudice that exists, on the part of readers, against unlikeable women, and this extends to anybody—a white male character who is a son of a bitch and you love him. He’s an anti-hero; but as soon as a woman is out for herself and doesn’t give a shit about anyone else, that’s a monster. Any marginalized character, you’re almost required to apologize for your appetites, to apologize ‘I want money’, ‘I want power’, ‘I want to be on top’, ‘Sorry. Sorry’.

KF: Going back to unlikeable female characters, I am one. Forgot what I was saying. It was too much fun. But this idea that also that women who also make bad choices is, like, there’s something wrong with it. ‘Oh, she has no agency’. It is like, ‘No, bitch, she just made a bad choice.’  That’s the book. That’s terrible.

But I think, too, a lot of it, unfortunately comes from other women and I’m like, ‘You’re living under the patriarchy, honey’. That’s an annoying thing for me, but I think my being from the south, one of my ‘never going go there line’ lines and I don’t want to read it from other people, is the ‘white savior narrative’. It’s not my story to tell, that is my story to push onto the people from the people who have written it and who come from that community, so that’s something. I just don’t want to read that. We’ve seen it, and I really don’t care how you feel about it right now. Your opinion is not important, so that is my one line.

EP: You read pretty widely, Peter. Is there a line in what you’re reading that you won’t cross? Is there a crime, a sin committed that makes you put the book down because you cannot empathize?

PR: I’m sure there is, but I haven’t come across it yet.

KF: I’m working on it. Give me another month.

PR: I was just taking notes as these people were speaking, and yes, for me the question for me, Is what I would read and what I wouldn’t read. I read I Was Dora Suarez by Derek Raymond or GBH by Ted Lewis, or A Savage Night by Jim Thompson, and some of these, particularly toward the end of some of those books, I almost felt sick to my stomach, but I kept the hell reading. I think I read them in one sitting.

Some of the things Shawn was saying, about empathizing with someone who is doing something terrible reminded me very much of a new novel called Three-Fifths by a guy named John Vercher, who is here. You all ought to read it, if you haven’t. There is a young neo-Nazi character in there. And that hits you—I found myself feeling pity for this guy. He’s talking about the terrible things that happened to him in prison, and yet he’s likely the category of person I’d like to shoot in real life, so you’re being torn both ways.

EP: So often we give our characters and the characters we read about, as we empathize, a chance for redemption. We’re supposed to do that. Can everyone be redeemed?

SC: I think the possibility exists, but the desire doesn’t. Does your character want to change? Does he or she feel the need to change, or do they feel justified? For me, that’s the crux and I’m fascinated with that idea in my writing. It’s, ‘Am I worthy of redemption? Do I deserve redemption and can I have redemption?’ I am fascinated with that. What is the effect of that violence on the perpetrator? The character I was talking about in the course of Blacktop Wasteland: he slams hands in car doors, he runs over people with a 71 Plymouth Duster, and beats someone to death with a wrench, and he sets fire to a guy; all in pursuit of this normalcy, this safety net for his family. At the end of the book, he has this question, ‘Can I even be around my kids? Can I be around my wife? What kind of person can do the things I do and still come home, be a father and a be a husband.’ I leave the question ambiguous at the end of that whether he redeems himself or not, even whether he’s worthy of redemption. I think anybody can be redeemed, just a matter of how badly do you want it.

CF: What is even redemption? Redeemed by whom? Yourself? Society? Some perceived religious orientation? That’s a really malleable question. I think again those gray areas. If a person feels redeemed, ‘Are they redeemed? Are we going to redeem them? What are we looking to apologize for?’

For me, I feel and this is especially people for female characters and queer female characters in particular: Fuck your redemption. I don’t need. I don’t want it. I’m leaving it on the table. I didn’t ask for it. I don’t need permission to do bad things. I know who I am and I have no shame. I love characters who say, ‘I don’t need to prove some religious ideal that will excuse my terrible behavior. I’ve got shit to do.’

KF: I don’t think they have to be redeemed. I’m actually more drawn to stories that are an absolute spiral to terror and horror and the darkness. I think I’d hate to write a redemption story, in some ways, I think, ‘Yeah, I love the badness and I think again that, with a queer person, we have to perform for certain audiences, and I don’t want to do that. I want my queer character to be as bad as any white male character. [KJF Photo: Goodreads]

CF: Thank you.

SC: There’s a trope that a lot of people talk about in Hollywood: ‘the Magical Negro.’ I write tough, dark, twisted black characters and that’s fine, that’s alright. We all don’t exist to be Bagger Vance [movie with Will Smith, adapted from the novel by Steven Pressfield]. We don’t have to make Matt Damon better at his golf game. You can actually be a tortured, twisted, upset and maybe nasty villain, and be a black person. That onus doesn’t land on you.

CF: You want to, but I can tell you the numbers, and it’s almost always women. Specifically. I mean, it’s like, Why does a lesbian have to be so mean?

KF: You’re playing into their hands.

CF: By having a queer villain. Of course, the gay guy is the villain, because you’re just following along with the clichés. Why can’t we just be everything? Why do we have to be the one shining example?

KF: It really sucks to see the gay character being the one who lifts you up, or the marginalized—

CF: The best friend.

KF: The best friend is going to show you how to dress, and—

EP: They’re going to die in Act III, by the way. The gay neighbor always dies.

KF: It’s true. Any marginalized character, the minute I open the book. There was this one book, and there’s this one nonwhite person and I’m like, ‘Damn it, she’s gonna die!’ and she did. I was so mad.

SC: I think the great thing about noir is one of the few genres, subgenres or whatever you want to call it, where you can express that. The great Elmore Leonard, in 52 Pickup, has a great black villain. He’s part of a trio: him, a guy, and the main character. And he’s this incredible, fully-formed and smart and intelligent villain, and written at a time when people weren’t writing about black people in general, and damn sure weren’t allowing a black man to run around and shoot up a rich white man’s house. He is able to do those things and, like you said about LGBTQ characters or marginalized people or, in Eryk’s works, really nasty rednecks. You can have that person in a noir novel, and express that person’s point of view and, again with no apologies given and No Fucks Given, I have none left. That’s one way you can look at it.

EP: Let’s talk a little bit here about the protagonist being a marginalized person and doing bad and redemption, but what about a character—and we see it a lot in the current age, with #metoo, and cancer culture, a lot of these bad actors in #metoo who are—how long do I need to atone? When can I be accepted back in?

CF: Sit down for fuck’s sake. I do not care about your poor little fucking career. There are 20 guys, younger than you, who aren’t a jagoff. Sit the fuck down. Sorry.

KF: One hundred percent.

CF: Did I say that out loud?

EP: Can we get the white male perspective on this, Mr. Rozovsky?

KF: It’d better be one sentence.

PR: Eryk, what I wrote about one of Eryk’s books is that he is not afraid to write a character who is a fucking idiot, and come right out and call that character a fucking idiot. But during all this talk that was preceding me, I was thinking, Where are we? We are in the United States of America, the land of Walt Whitman, we all contain multitudes—some people up here may contain more than I do—but we all contain multitudes, and that includes evil and terrible things. And those multitudes just get bigger all the time, so that’s why I think there is a bright future for noir, even though if you go into the book bazaar room there are sections for espionage and suspense, for traditional, for historical, for cozy—where’s the noir?

EP: I am going to get to book recommendations before Q and A. I want to ask a question. In the news a lot, the movie Joker came out, and aside from riffing really well on a movie like Taxi Driver, there’s a lot of criticism they get for possibly glorifying violence, which is basically incel behavior. We’ve got people out there going nuts and shooting up a McDonald’s, shooting up things, and at the same time, you’ve got this Joker. Jed Ayres’s hardboiled wonderland [a blog] wrote an excellent piece on empathy for characters such as this, and an important piece on empathy, however—what is your responsibility to manage this level of empathy versus glorification? 

CF: I kind of feel I have to jump on this, on account I have written the novelization of The Killing Joke, which is probably the most misogynistic, fucked up, legendary Joker stories that has ever—

SC: Poor Barbara Gordon.

EP: Do you want to tell them why?

CF: If you’re not familiar, The Killing Joke is a graphic novel, in which is the ultimate sad daddy. The Joker shoots, paralyzes, maybe rapes—maybe not because it’s not specifically stated— the Bad Girl in order to make her daddy sad. Basically, it’s like he broke the dad’s car window, to just piss him off, and here’s a superhero, in her own right, who is not even a character; she’s an object. Given that job, with my cowriter Gary Phillips, the two of us sat down and said, ‘What are we going to do with this? Because if you’re going to have me write this story, it’s going to be me writing it, and I’m not doing that. There’s going to have to be some changes’. And we did kind of approach it with an incel style story, where we said, ‘Alright, there are young men who are really struggling right now, they are lost, they don’t feel connected to anyone, and it’s like if you’re standing there in Port Authority, and you’re by yourself with a suitcase, some guy is going to come up to you and say, ‘Hon, are you all alone in the Big City? You look like someone who needs someone to take care of them’ This is what is happening to young men. They’re getting these Nazi pimps who see young men as fresh meat. They’ll say, ‘C’mon sweetheart, I’ll take care of ya.’

To bring it back to the idea of, ‘Is it okay to have empathy for incels?’ I think there are two ways to ask that question and to answer that question. Which is first of all, are you glorifying? Is it a rallying cry? Are you deconstructing, asking questions? Are you asking hard, confusing, difficult questions that don’t have answers? Or is it, fucking bitches? Fucking women, see…if you would have fucked me, I wouldn’t have blown that church up. If that’s what you’re doing with it then, Fuck no. I have no empathy for that, but if you’re doing what Gary and I tried to do in Killing Joke, which is you are having a character who idolizes the Joker and who is a young kid, doesn’t have a lot of friends, doesn’t fit in, and here comes this cool guy. He’s the Joker; he’s awesome. It’s funny and everyone is going to laugh and it’s going to be a gag. ‘Oh wait, you’re really going to shoot her?’ That’s not funny. Now, you’re digging into the meat of it. You’re not just parroting, ‘Oh poor me. Girls won’t talk to me.’

SC: I think you can have empathy for anyone, but sympathy is another ball of wax. If you watch the movie Joker and you look at the screen and said, ‘Yeah, I get that; that’s me,’ then you need professional help, or find a friend to hug, but if you watch that movie and say, ‘Man, that’s messed up. The dude has a lot of issues. He needs help. I wish someone would give him a hand’ that’s the dividing line.

That being said, when I write, I think I have a responsibility to tell a good story. That’s the first job, whether you’re a romance novelist or a noir novelist, you have to tell a good story. Secondly, I want everything that happens to my characters to be earned, and if it’s earned I sleep well at night, because here’s the thing: crazy people were prevalent a long time before books and TV were everywhere. We were burning people at the stake in the 1500s, and there was not a Joker movie or comic book around, so people will find a way to validate their taste and misanthropy. As writers, you can’t worry about that, you got to tell the best story you can tell. If somebody were to write me a letter and say, ‘I read Darkest Prayer and I went out and killed a bunch of people because Nathan [Wannamaker] is a badass, then I would feel bad. I wouldn’t feel bad that I wrote it. I’d feel bad that someone took that from it.

EP: Are you inspiring incels with your work?

KF: Probably. A bunch of women dating women. Who would do that? I don’t know. It is such a strange thing. I go back to the idea of, Who is pushing this forward? Who decided that this narrative, which we’ve seen over, and over and over again, is the one that we are going to promote? That’s the legacy we are going to leave in our careers, and so that’s something I would not push. The white straight male perspective is not one that we need more insight into.

SC: They’ve had a good 1500-year run.

KF: A good run and at this point, if I were someone with power in publishing, or in the media world, I would be looking towards at these other perspectives because I find them far more interesting. That’s just me.

EP: We’re leading into recommendations on that note. Do you see examples off the top of your head, of people who manage that expectation between glorification and empathy well, or poorly? Either way.

PR: It’s never an issue for me. The most recent books that ‘I’ve read where a certain slice of the Zeitgeist is being exploited that I don’t like at all are certain hard-boiled novels from the Fifties. I think Stephen Marlowe’s and Mickey Spillane’s anti-Communism just grates on me a little, because I don’t think they had the strength and convictions. They were just putting it on the page because that was what people wanted at the time. And maybe now, it’s torture porn or something else. I mentioned a few books earlier where shocking things happened. I never felt for a second that anything was being glorified.

EP: Talking about book recommendations, I have two that I tell are what noir is. One brilliant example is Nabokov’s Lolita [1955], and that dude [Humbert Humbert]is committing what is, in my mind, one of the worst sins there is, and somehow in the book you come to sympathize with him. I read it when I was seventeen, close to Lolita’s age, and now I’ve read it closer to his age, and it’s two completely different readings. I think it is fascinating.

The other [recommendation] is Richard Wright’s Native Son [1939]. I don’t know why that doesn’t get credit for not being the quintessential noir novel. If you have not read that, I strongly recommend that you pick it up. Do you guys have any book recs?

[Note: Native Son, the 2019 HBO film is an adaptation of the novel, but listen to EP: read the book.]

SC: If you want to look at classic noir and one of the writers who did it—won’t say better than Chandler or Hammett or Ross Macdonald—is anything by Chester Himes. Chester Himes was one of the great distillers of not only the noir movement and school of thought, and black, white America, the milieu of the melting pot and what creates the mood of noir, the desperation, and conflicts of cultures. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones were just badass dudes. The books? The Real Cool Killers, A Rage in Harlem, Cotton Comes to Harlem [Harlem Detectives Series]. Books by Chester Himes are incredible. Classic noir.

A writer I like now who has a grasp on unlikeable characters, other than the people on the panel here, is a young woman from Nevada named Nikki Dolson. She wrote a collection called All Things Violent about a hit-woman named Cupcake. I love Nikki’s work because her characters are unapologetically human and tortured and twisted, but they’re also characters who speak to me about the desperate situation they are in, and what it is to be pushed into these desperate situations and how they respond to them. It’s not the story I want to tell, but there’s something interesting in reading it and learning from it.

And one more on rural noir, Steph Post’s Lightwood. Excellent, excellent examination of the white male trope distilled through a new world prism is how I’d put it.

EP: What do you think, Christa?

CF: I’ll be cheesy and point to these two, and if you’re not reading one of these two, then you’re missing out big time. Just to bounce off of Lolita, Tampa by Alissa Nutting. If you want to talk about unlikeable female characters, I think I might have had to shower my brain twelve times over the course of that book, but it’s riveting and it’s a story about a female sexual predator pedophile, and it’s—just read it. That’s all I’m going to say.

EP: What do you think, Kelly?

KF: I was, like no more white-male perspective, but here I go. I really love Chris Offutt’s Country Dark is so good. He also has a lesbian character in there. He’s done it really well. I was like, Thank you so much. Anytime I start to read it, I’m like, ‘She’s gonna die.’ It’s not necessarily rural noir, but it is very dark and I’m not saying it because you are here, Anne, but Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne wrote a book that just came out called Holding On To Nothing. It’s pretty dark. I love it because she’s tapping into that country perspective of a younger woman making choices, again unlikeable narrator or unlikeable women, who makes really bad decisions. She has another character who is an alcoholic. There’s that redemption thing and like, Is he going to keep making these bad decisions? He might. Things just spiral, and it’s really good.

 

EP: What do you think, Peter?

PR: I mentioned a few of my favorite noir novelists in the course of the discussion. I will be cheesy, like Christa was. I have been a fan of everybody on the stage up here with me, from a week in Kelly’s case, and about ten years in Christa’s case. You ought to read them. I’ll steal a page from Eryk and then list three books. Two of them are not crime novels, and they all of them have to do with the hell of living through war and what follows.

One is Journey to the End of the Night [in French, Voyage au bout de la nuit, 1932] by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and that might make you so sick that you’ll want to stop reading. If you fine Céline a bit cozy for your taste, then you might try The Skin [in Italian, La Pelle, (1949)] by Curzio Malaparte, who was an Italian Fascist who turned pro-Communist later in his life, and who wrote some hellish stories about the aftermath of World War II in Italy which had switched sides. One more wartime novel, which does follow within the crime genre, is The Great Swindle [in French, Au revoir là-haut (2013)] by Pierre Lemaitre. You’ll learn what a good cassée [in French, face, as opposed to the common words for face, such as la figure or la visage] is. I’m done.

EP: Let’s turn it over to you guys. I’m hoping there are some questions out there. Does anybody have any questions?

Q: How do you feel about the classic noir character is either dead or in jail? Lately, they’ve been allowed to win, or come out on top.

SC: I won’t say that I hate it. I prefer the traditional ending. Maybe not dead or in jail, but emotionally dead or emotionally shattered, or definitely not the same at the end. It’s definitely not a noir novel, but the end of Red Dragon [Hannibal Lecter Book 1 by Thomas Harris]. Will Graham is alive, as good as that is going to do for him. Those novels are ones I enjoy, and appeal to me. There’s nothing wrong with the person coming out on top, but for me, for my reading taste, I’m like Leonard Cohen: I want it darker.

KF: I think, too, that I like it darker. I’m okay when they come out on top, but even if they are not in a physical jail or prison—wait, that’s the same thing. They are emotionally dead or in an emotional prison.

Q: Inaudible.

CF: Death is a way out. If you’re dead in a noir novel, you’re probably one of the characters that got the better end of the deal because it’s those endings where the guy makes it that are the darkest.

EP: A classic example of that is The Shield where Vic Mackey makes it, but at what cost?

CF: Exactly.

EP: We have another question.

Q: How do you find the difference between something that is bad, and something the audience can learn from?

CF: I don’t think it’s possible. You can’t micromanage the response of your audience. I’ve had people who’ve written glowing 5-star reviews of my books—and I’m glad you loved that book, and sometimes I don’t know what you’re talking about, but they loved it. Writing is a collaborative process and when your readers are interpreting your words: one person, two people, or four people might see a totally different story. There is nothing that you can do that is going to assure that every single person will get it. You can’t go to every single person’s house, look over the shoulder and say, ‘No. No. That’s what I really meant.’ You can’t do that. You gotta let your baby go and run free in the field. However people interpret it, that’s on them and not you. [Photo: Christa Faust with Gary Phillips, from CF FB]

SC: In my first book My Darkest Prayer, there’s a character in there named Skunk and he’s a benevolent sociopath. He’s a horrible person. He does horrible things. Nine out of ten times, he’s the person people are talking about when they read the book. ‘I love Skunk, man. He’s such a badass.’

I’m like, No, he’s not. He’s a very disturbed individual, and I’m sorry that you like him. You can’t control it. You write the story and hope people get the point of view that you intended, but it’s up to their interpretation. I’m just glad you enjoyed it, bought the book, but do not model your life after Skunk Mitchell.

CF: I was already.

KF: Nobody is doing meth anymore, so we’re good.

Q: Do you see any role for humor in your novels, aside from dialogue?

CF: Absolutely. Absolutely. Any person that. Has been through rough times, regardless of what is your perspective and your background, it’s trench humor. You’ve been in jail, you’ve been assaulted—you survive and that’s your armor, that kind of black humor. Spend any time around surgeons or cops or military or ex-convicts, you’ve got to laugh. It is what keeps you alive in the face of this grinding, unrelenting difficulty of your life.

KF: I find crime writers are the funniest people I have ever interacted with. It’s so much fun.

EP: I was on a panel with you once, and it was a laugh-a-minute. I remember you were explaining your food groups.

KF: Yeah, I said the three food groups: chickens, lesbians, and meth.

EP: Chickens, lesbians, and meth.

CF: I’ll skip the meth.

KF: I also think even in country noir, rural noir, or whatever you call it, you have these isolated groups of people, and any time you have a group of people together that have their own unique club, or whatever you want to call it; that’s just rife for humor. In the south, the hypocrisy alone. I just have to take aim at that, and the best way to do it is with humor.

CF: I’d like to give a shout out to my little toy-truck fun project that I did, which is Butch Fatale, Dyke Dick. It’s hard-boiled at a laugh-a-minute, with lots of lesbians and chicken. No meth, so provide your own.

[Photo: Peter Rozovsky]

SC: My book is no chuckle-fest, but there’s humor in it. The funniest times in my life I’ve ever had is after losing a bar fight, and trying to create a story-narrative that doesn’t end with me getting my ass whooped and my friends calling me out on it. Yeah, there’s a lot of darkness and violence, people getting killed and there’s crime, but there’s also fart jokes.

CF: There’s a certain subgenre, modern fan fiction that takes itself dreadfully serious, and it’s all just so important, and ‘Don’t laugh. Don’t laugh.’

KF: You have to laugh.

EP: Mr. Lawnmower. [Photo: EP before he was famous as a Moderator, at Bouchercon 2018]

SC: I have to tell, y’all We’re all friends here. In my day life, my day job, my wife is a mortician and I work with her at a funeral home. That scene is based on a real-life situation. We had to remove a guy one time and the police called us and said, ‘Come and get this guy out. He’s in there, and you’re going to need some help.’ We’re like, Okay.’ He had died in a sex swing, full-on gear and mask.

CF: I was never convicted. It was thrown out.

SC: I was there and it was me and my wife, and we got to get him loose. I’m looking at this thing and I don’t know how to get him out. My wife is like, ‘You’ve got to pull these two buckles here’ and I’m like, ‘Why do you…never mind.’

CF: I could’ve helped.

EP: What did I tell you about this town’s preacher? Any other questions, folks?

Q: Other than diversity, how do you overcome the market for noir?

CF: I’ve got be honest. I’m the wrong person to ask. I don’t give two shits for market. I write what I write. I kind of can’t help it; it’s compulsive. I’ve worked as a professional dominatrix for more than 20 years. It was always amazing. It was like, ‘I was going to slap you anyway.’ It’s all good. I feel that way about my writing. I’m going to do this regardless. Is someone going to give me money for this? That’s almost like the frosting on the cake. I can’t help it.

SC: I just lie and say write a lot of sex and violence, so come for the sex and violence but stay for the ennui.

KF: I don’t know. All I can do is to continue to push other people’s book onto people. It’s so much easier for me to promote someone else, then it is to promote myself and so I am constantly encouraging people to read outside your own lane, your own perspective, read outside your own country for God sake, because I’ve met so many people who say, ‘I don’t like to read. My wife is one of them.’ I’m constantly like, ‘What do you like?’ I’m always trying to fix them. ‘I bet I can find a book for you’ and I’ve done it. I’ve become a recommendation machine for a lot of books, so I encourage everyone, ‘We’re a wave, we can be the change.’

PR: You have to remind and hammer and hammer it into people’s heads that we are multitudes, as I’ve said, we contain multitudes. First, we expand people’s minds, and then the noir will take care of itself.

EP: Well, folks, this has been a lot of fun.

[Photo Lineup from Scott Von Doviak, Twitter]

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