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A Conversation with George Pelecanos: Part II

Part II of the conversation with George Pelecanos celebrating the publication of THE CUT, which the Chicago Sun Times recommends, “Soak it up.” The Washington Post praises Pelecanos’s ability to “maintain a remarkably high level of intelligence and style” and the Los Angeles Times appreciates that “Pelecanos has made Washington his literary stomping grounds, and he gets granular in THE CUT…as clear as if he’d drawn you a map.” If you missed Part I, start reading here.

WALLACE STROBY: I think, for a certain generation of writers, a lot of our work has been influenced by films we saw during our formative years in the 1970s. What are your five favorite crime films of the ‘70s, and why?

GEORGE PELECANOS: THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971). Not just a film wrapped around a car chase, but an evocative time capsule of ‘70s New York, and an unflinching look at an obsessive cop.  Like the up-on-coke sequence of GOODFELLAS, Friedkin’s kinetic style puts us directly into the fevered mind of Popeye Doyle.  And there’s that chase.

THE GETAWAY (1972). Peckinpah directs the Walter Hill adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel with signature style. Steve McQueen is believable as a tough guy who just got out of prison and wants his due.  With a flawless supporting cast and a bang-up climax involving shotguns, an old hotel, gunmen arriving in a big convertible, and Al Lettieri, the screen’s greatest vulgarian. I know all about Thompson’s ending versus Peckinpah’s, but no one should bitch about the film’s last scene; it’s damn near perfect.

ROLLING THUNDER (1977). Vietnam vet William Devane returns home to a world he no longer understands and gets his hand shoved down a garbage disposal by home invaders. Devane sharpens the hook on the end of his arm, cuts down a shotgun, and goes to work. John Flynn, directing from a Paul Schrader script, crafts a slow-building actioner and elicits ace performances from all concerned, most notably blaxploitation veteran Linda Haynes, Luke Askew as Automatic Slim, and Tommy Lee Jones as Devane’s damaged, loyal war buddy. Watch Devane and Jones blow the shit out of their enemies in a whorehouse at the film’s climax. “I’ll just get my gear.”

CHARLEY VARRICK (1973).  Don Siegel’s thief-unwittingly-steals-from-the-mob movie is first-rate entertainment featuring the director’s crackerjack stock troupe of character actors.  Walter Matthau plays the title role with understated cool, and Joe Don Baker is memorable as a killer named Molly. I proudly own a T-shirt that reads, “The Last of the Independents.”  It’s written on Charley’s flight suit, which figures prominently in the film’s last shot.

DIRTY HARRY (1971).  Siegel again, directing Eastwood. Yeah, it was popular, but there was a reason it hit a public nerve. A studio film with this kind of lead character was truly anarchic and would never be greenlit today. Pauline Kael trashed it, which made me want to see it twice.  She hated STRAW DOGS, too.

Continue reading “A Conversation with George Pelecanos: Part II”

Start reading A Single Shot by Matthew F. Jones

In September, we will be re-publishing A SINGLE SHOT by Matthew F. Jones as part of our Mulholland Classics series. The New York Times called the book “A complex crime drama . . . with an exciting climax that is truly shocking … A harrowing literary thriller….a powerful blend of love and violence, of the grotesque and the tender.” Start reading the book before it hits stores on September 19th.


BEFORE THE SUN is up, John Moon has showered, drunk two cups of coffee, and changed into his blue jeans, sweatshirt, and Timberland hiking boots. He has eaten two pieces of toast, a bowl of cereal, and put out food for his wandering dog. Before leaving the trailer by the front door, he gets his 12-gauge shotgun and a handful of slugs from the gun cabinet off the kitchen.

The grass is damp with dew and the early-June air is heavy and already warm, promising it will be hot within a few hours. A mourning dove is cooing in a tree somewhere to John’s left. Down the road, past the treeline, he hears the gentle clanging of cowbells and the lowing of Cecil Nobie’s herd on its way from the pasture to Nobie’s barn to be milked. The sun is just starting to peek out over the crest of the mountain directly east of the one John lives two-thirds to the top of.

Gazing down at the converging roads winding like miles of dusty brown carpet through the hollow below him, John sees a set of headlights descending the right fork, piercing the three-quarters dark. He thinks this strange since only he and the Nobies live on the right fork and unless there’d been an accident at Nobies’, in which case someone from there would likely have called John, none of them would be driving into town at four-thirty in the morning. John wonders if the vehicle might belong to a conservation officer, then decides he’s being paranoid. No green cap is going to get up before dawn to search for would-be poachers. Thinking two teenagers must have fallen asleep parking the night before, John shrugs, then starts walking up the mountain.

He hikes five hundred yards or so up to the road’s end, then turns right and heads on a narrow path into a forest of pine trees on the state preserve. There’s no wind and it’s so quiet in the forest that, even on a soft bed of pine needles, John’s footsteps echo in his ears as if he is treading on snow. Every few steps, he stops, listens for several seconds, then, not hearing anything, moves on. He is looking for a ten-point buck he has seen three times in the last week, most recently on the previous afternoon from his back porch, where, through binoculars, he watched it graze for several minutes at the edge of the preserve before it loped into the pines. John has figured the buck has a bed somewhere in the pines. He has balanced in his mind the value of a hundred fifty pounds of dressed venison versus the thousand dollars in fines and possible two months’ jail time it would cost him in the unlikely event that he is caught shooting the deer out of season on state land, and has decided the risk is worth it.

As he approaches the far edge of the pines after which the forest turns denser with deciduous trees and brush, in the canopy of pine boughs a crow starts cawing. Several others join in. His senses suddenly heightened, John cocks the shotgun. The sharp click of the engaging mechanism increases the crows’ agitation. A squirrel or a chipmunk jumps from one tree to another above him. A pinecone drops near his feet. Several smaller birds—sparrows or swallows—take flight, slicing through the still air, before landing again.

Continue reading “Start reading A Single Shot by Matthew F. Jones”

My Top Ten Noirs of the Last Ten Years (or so)

La grueThe crime fiction community has a love/hate relationship with the word “noir”.  It’s resistance to firm definition is more alluring then we may care to admit and grappling with the question “what is noir?” has become its own annual rite.  A few essays on noir have appeared on this very site.

I’ve written my own tracts on noir and won’t be writing one today.  Actually this post is Heath Lowrance’s fault.  He had a blog post where he named his favorite noirs of the last decade.  I am of the opinion that we too often talk of ye olden days of noir and forget those that are more contemporary so this was a topic I warmed to.  I like making lists and using them as a filter to make book recommendations.  So I dropped ten titles in his comments section without explanation.

This post won’t be my definition of noir.  It won’t tell you what noir is and isn’t.  If you get something of what my definitions of noir are based on the selections then great but all I really want to do is put some good books into reader’s hands.  The only parameter that I made an effort to use was to not repeat any of Heath’s choices.

Boot Tracks by Matthew F Jones

I think that Jones is a writer that more people need to get hip to.  Someone at The Big Adios years ago referred to Boot Tracks as possibly a perfect noir.  While I may not fully agree with this sentiment it really is hard to argue with.

Boot Tracks has a cast of supremely damaged characters.  Rankin is fresh out of jail and has a favor that he owes The Buddha, a man he knew in jail.  The Buddha wants Rankin to kill someone for him.  Rankin meets Florence a porn star, and a connection is made.

Will this go wrong?  You bet your sweet bippy it does.  As much as we as readers expect set-ups in certain type of novels to go wrong they rarely go as horrifically wrong as they do here.

The centerpiece of Boot Tracks is the sustained, tour-de-force climax, the act of murder, lasting for a full quarter of the book, which unfolds in agonizingly brutal slow motion.  The slow pace is necessary for Jones to layer in all the suspense, dread and fuckedupness that one can bear.  Rankin has the address of who he is supposed to kill but because it’s dark he enters the wrong house.  While in the house his memories of his abusive childhood superimpose themselves on the present.  Then he kills the wrong couple believing them to be his abusive prostitute mother and her violent lover.  Up until now the reader has had an idea that Rankin is damaged but not the sheer depths of it. The best part is that this isn’t even the end of the book.

 The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell

Daniel Woodrell’s books are all worth reading if there are readers out there who haven’t (and I fear that there are). With the success of Winter’s Bone I think that Woodrell’s star is ascendant and more and more readers will come to realize what some of have know all along about the power of his work

The Death of Sweet Mister is a charming book.  It lulls you into the life of Shuggie, an overweight 13 year old boy.  You feel for him in ways that you don’t for most other protagonists.  He elicits an almost parental instinct.  The reader wants to protect him, to get him away, to let him become the man we think he can be.  That isn’t the case and instead he becomes the man he perhaps was all along, the man that hovered on the periphery in the readers willful blind spot.  When that man finally emerges in the final pages we understand the full bittersweet weight of the word “death” in the title.  We realize that the charming voice lulled us into a false sense of security that Woodrell uses to great effect.

Continue reading “My Top Ten Noirs of the Last Ten Years (or so)”

Slums of the Shire

This week Doubleday publishes the highly touted Low Town by Daniel Polansky, a genre-bending tale of elves, dwarves and crime. Here Polansky discusses his thoughts on the intersection between fantasy and mystery, and far from grey area that lies in between.

Occasionally you’ll be with a group of people and they’ll get to talking about their favorite historical epochs, nostalgic for lives they never led. One person will talk up their childhood love of the Wild West, another reveal a penchant for Victorian England. This last one just has a thing for corsets, but it’s better not to call them on it.

When my turn rolls round I take a sip of whatever we’re drinking and look at my shoes. “The mid 90’s were pretty good,” I say lamely. “Slower internet and everything, but at least we had penicillin.”

Perhaps it’s my being a history buff, but the past sucked. For about a millennium and a half after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe just seems like a real shit place to reside. Lots of rooting in filth until you die at thirty a half mile from where you born. Nominally the nobles had it better, but still, your fever would have been treated with the application of leaches and your pretty young bride had like a one in two chance of surviving child birth.

This probably is why I don’t understand fantasy—that is to say that collection of high medieval tropes collected by Tolkien and gleefully reproduced by two generations of descendants.

Take elves for instance—though perfectly capable of imagining a world where higher intelligence evolved in a species separate from humanity, my powers of make believe fail when positing that the relation between said species would be anything beyond unceasing warfare. Even a cursory glance at human history reveals our collective willingness to commit genocide on fellow homo sapiens—how much quicker would we have been to eradicate a separate species competing for identical resources? If elves existed, our ancestors would have hunted them down to extinction and erected a monument to the accomplishment.

But I digress.

Even when nestled comfortably in a quest to kill a dragon or overthrow a dark lord or what have you, strange thoughts plague me. What does the shady side of Gondor look like? How many platinum coins would a dime bag set me back? What is the point of hobbits? They’re just short, fat people. People are plenty fat as it is.

Continue reading “Slums of the Shire”

The Border Bosses: A Conversation with Sebastian Rotella and Luis Alberto Urrea: Part II

border patrol - sasabePart Two of the in-depth conversation between Luis Urrea and Sebastian Rotella on all things border. If you missed Part I, start reading here.

LU: That’s a really great part of your book, though, that kind of density of experience goes from the first pages.  He’s working with the good guys, allegedly, at the beginning, but then there are all these levels of that from the getgo.  There’s the Border Patrol. There are all these layers of macho and swagger and rule-bending.  It’s a slippery world he’s in to begin with.  And then, he goes in to a different world and like you say, the world is upside down because the worst guy arguably in the book is also one of the best guys and also looks out for him.  And is kind of an avuncular in a terrifying way to the people he is carrying for.  It’s really fascinating.  You don’t know where to stand, which is, I think what for me, even though it’s a thriller, that to me was thrilling.  Because I had a sense of dread; I had a sense of eternity looming.  At any second from any side, you could die and that’s part of what made it kind of a throat clencher for me.

SR: Well, thanks man.  That’s great praise coming from you.  There are so many ways of trying to explore the terror of that world.  There’s violence in the book and obviously, if you wanted to, you could go whole hog on blood and gore at the border.

LU: Oh yeah.  Oh yeah.

SR: But I felt it was better to just have glimpses of the horror. I wanted to try to hopefully get at some of the psychological turmoil and psychological terror.  Certainly, some blood gets spilled, but I felt that those were very important elements to try to tell the story at a human level.

LU: I think his suffering and confusion is fascinating.  I was surprised.  I thought it was going to go into crazy Grand Gugniol gore because that’s part of the milieu.  I often tell people who want to learn about this narco war, like you say about the journalists, I say, “Well, you can look at the anonymous blog del narco website,”  But I tell them, “Whoever those young journalists are, they’re heroes because they’re in some serious danger.  On the other hand, if you can stomach things, like snuff films, go there, but you’ll see things you probably not want to see because you can’t un-see them.”  But I think it’s important for people to see how foul some of the stuff is that’s going on.  But I thought you handled it with real restraint and it managed to be scary.  I think if it turns into a full on gross-out, it becomes porno after awhile.

SR: I think that’s exactly right.  That balance is the key.  You want to give enough of a flavor that you’re not sugarcoating it or somehow shying away from the harsh reality, but you want to do it in an artful way.  I have to say how much I liked The Devil’s Highway. It’s a book that gave me chills at various points, including the end when the official at the consulate blows out the candles for the dead.  You wrote those passages where one realizes vividly what it’s like to die in the desert of thirst and what happens to the body, but the way you did it, it wasn’t just gross.  It was totally necessary in an almost clinical way to understand this experience.  When you’re dealing with this world, I have to think that that’s one of the hardest things to do: how you handle this question of violence and cruelty and suffering if you want to tell a story that’s artful and not just a splatter-fest.

Continue reading “The Border Bosses: A Conversation with Sebastian Rotella and Luis Alberto Urrea: Part II”

10 Dead-On Novels

This week we celebrate the release of the much-lauded TRIPLE CROSSING by Sebastian Rotella. The first part of our Rotella extravaganza is his list of novels with real-world inspiration, from Wolfe to Le Carré to Connelly, it’s a great list. Tell us your favorite dead-on novels in the comments and we’ll choose 5 commenters to receive copies of TRIPLE CROSSING.

My list is dominated by books about cops, spies, criminals and the kind of international skullduggery–Latin American drug wars, Islamic terrorism–that I have written about as a journalist and author. A few of the authors are fellow or former journalists. These books are impressive for many reasons, but one thing they have in common is authenticity. The writing has the power that comes from great research. The details ring true, even minor characters come fully alive, and you learn a lot about the workings of secret worlds and subcultures, from the crack trade to tabloid journalism. Also, you’ll notice that some of the titles date back decades. That’s not just because I’m kind of old-school, which I am, but because I chose novels that had an impact on my development as a writer.

1)      Clockers. Richard Price. 1999. One of my favorite books about one of my favorite subjects: the American city. Price uses a drug murder in a New Jersey ghetto to tell a much larger story. Clockers is impassioned, tough-minded, profound and incredibly detailed. The narrative alternates between a weary, thoughtful homicide investigator and a teen-age dealer who happens to be smart and decent. There are enough virtuoso set-pieces—a crack-hound motel, an outpost of the homeless in the ruins of a hospital, a meet at a housing project between an undercover officer and a drug boss–for several books.

2)      The Bonfire of the Vanities. Tom Wolfe. 1987. A masterpiece about race, class, greed and ambition in New York in the bad old days of the 1980s. Move over Dickens and Hugo. Bonfire chronicles an era, but does not feel dated. Wolfe spent years prowling around with prosecutors, journalists and masters of the universe. What a reporter: I think someone (maybe Wolfe himself?) once said that he knows the exact contents of his characters’ wardrobes and bank accounts. He’s fearless and hilarious as he skewers Wall Street types, sleazy preachers and tabloid reporters.

Continue reading “10 Dead-On Novels”

Swier Words: A Conversation with Duane Swierczynski, Part II

Mulholland Books is pleased to present a conversation between David J. Schow, author of Gun Work, Internecine, Bullets of Rain, and screenwriter of The Crow, and our very own Duane Swierczynski.

Missed Part I? Read it here.

DJS: How about some insight into your working method?  For example, how long do your novels generally take, from start to finish?

DS: Every book is different, but the process is close to pregnancy — I brood for a bunch of months, and then it’s usually three months of labor pains (the actual writing). Sometimes I’m brain-pregnant for years; Expiration Date, published last year, was something I’ve been kicking around for at least a decade before I wrote the first word. Sometimes, I’m knocked up quick and the next thing I know somebody’s handing me a cigar—which was the case with Hell and Gone (the sequel to Fun and Games). The Wheelman was written between semesters of teaching college journalism 101, and just for fun, not to sell — I wrote it to convince myself that I could write a “straight” crime novel in the vein of Richard Stark and Dan J. Marlowe.

Fun and Games was a fairly easy birth: I was playing around with the idea for about six months before Mulholland bought it on a partial manuscript (50 pages), and then I spent a few months simultaneously writing and researching. (This was last summer, when you gave me that amazing tour of the Hills and — what else? — Bronson Cavern.) I knew where the story was headed, but I mostly winged it. As I drove back across the country that August, Fun and Games started to just gush out of me and delivered by mid-September.

What about you? Do you have a “typical” process, or does each book demand its own? Continue reading “Swier Words: A Conversation with Duane Swierczynski, Part II”

Swier Words: A conversation with Duane Swierczynski, Part I

Can’t get enough FUN AND GAMES? You’re in luck–Mulholland Books is pleased to present a conversation between David Schow, author of Gun Work, Internecine, Bullets of Rain, and screenwriter of The Crow, and our very own Duane Swierczynski. It begins…

DJS: Fun and Games.  One of my favorite Outer Limits episode titles, by the way.  But it begs the question:  How are you with titles?  Are they an afterthought, a nuisance, or essential?  Do you nail them before or after the process of writing a book?

DS: I obsess over titles long before an editor (or even my agent) see anything.  I pretty much have to have the right title on a novel before it’ll flow; I’ve never started one with TK Title at the top.

DJS: Have you abandoned working titles, or had titles changed on you? Continue reading “Swier Words: A conversation with Duane Swierczynski, Part I”

Megan Abbott Interviewed by Sara Gran

Megan Abbott’s much-praised novel THE END OF EVERYTHING (Reagan Arthur Books) which Gillian Flynn calls “a freight train of a mystery…bold, unnerving, poignant, and full of yearning” is in bookstores now. Here, we present an interview between Sara Gran, author of Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, Dope and Come Closer, and Megan, “one of the most exciting and original voices of her generation” (Laura Lippman). 

(Read this post on the Reagan Arthur Books blog here.)

Sara: The End of Everything shares common themes with your previous four novels, yet stands out as a departure—it takes place in the 1980s (your other novels took place before you were born), the narrator is 13 years old (your previous narrators were adult women), and it takes place in the suburbs (as opposed to the urban settings of your other books). How is The End of Everything the same? How is it different?

Megan: I wanted to try something new, to shake things up for myself. To move out of the world of nightclubs, racetracks, movie studios and, most of all, to move out of the past, worlds I never knew. When I first started writing, though, everything felt foreign, puzzling. I didn’t know if I could adapt my style to this new setting and time period. My past books were so influenced by Golden Age Hollywood movies and that heightened style. And I’d done this foolish thing, giving myself a 13-year-old girl as my narrator. But as I wrote, I just had this revelation that, for most 13-year-old girls, life is dramatic and the stakes feel dramatically high. It’s all desire and fear and longing and disillusion. Everything feels big and terrifying and thrilling. And my past books, I see now, are so much about women feeling trapped and seeking a way out, at any cost. And feeling trapped, and wanting out, is very much the state of being 13. Continue reading “Megan Abbott Interviewed by Sara Gran”

A Conversation Between Lawrence Block and Robert Silverberg: Part II

Two months ago, Lawrence Block and Robert Silverberg met in San Francisco for an epic conversation that spanned nearly every topic imaginable…and far more. Mulholland Books has transcribed the dialogue between these two masters of storytelling and will present it to you in two parts.

(Read Part I here.)

LB: Should we take questions from some of these people?

RS: Yeah.  They don’t want to hear about our ancient pulp stuff.  They want to know about the Playboy stories.

Audience Question: When did the two of you first meet?  And what was the nature of that meeting?

LB: It was quite recent.  It was three or four years ago…

RS: He’s getting old.  Actually, we met in the 60s at a Science Fiction party.  He doesn’t remember it.  You and Westlake came to the Hydra club somewhere in Manhattan.

LB: It must be somebody else.  I never went to the Hydra club.  <singing> “Oh yes, I remember it well…” <singing>  Continue reading “A Conversation Between Lawrence Block and Robert Silverberg: Part II”