In a recent interview for The Life Sentence, I was asked (by an interviewer who knows damn well that I’m a music geek, on account of she’s my wife) what Michael Hendricks’s theme song would be. Here’s what I answered:
First of all, Michael would never pick himself a theme song; he’s way too self-serious for that. So I envision that question being fielded by his partner in crime, Lester Meyers, who’s a little more playful about their endeavor of killing people for money. Lester would choose James Brown’s “The Payback.” It’s a bouncy revenge tale. It’s funky. It’s interesting. If Hendricks were forced to choose his own theme song, it’d be darker, more morose. Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” maybe. It’s a menacing, sinuous anti-war tale. I also think Massive Attack’s “Protection” wouldn’t be a bad theme song for him. In fact, if The Killing Kind were a movie, you could put “The Payback” over the opening credits and “Protection” over the closing credits, since the latter’s built around a sample of the former.
Ever since, I’ve been wondering what a soundtrack for The Killing Kind would sound like. Its antagonist, Alexander Engelmann, takes pleasure in his bloody work, and demands something arch. Its action scenes require propulsive, energetic tracks. Special Agents Thompson and Garfield deserve a nod, at least. Our damaged antihero, Hendricks, longs for a woman whose love he feels he no longer deserves, so songs of heartbreak and longing are a must. And, of course, I need something gut-wrenchingly sad for that scene in which… well, you’ll see.
Chris Holm is an award-winning short-story writer whose work has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2011. His Collector trilogy, which blends fantasy with old-fashioned crime pulp, wound up on over forty Year’s Best lists. David Baldacci called his latest, the hitman thriller The Killing Kind, “a story of rare, compelling brilliance.” Chris lives in Portland, Maine.
We look to the past to understand the present. In 2007, when newspapers highlighted the illegal detentions at Guantanamo and the extent of federal authority in wartime, author Kermit Roosevelt thought back to World War II—specifically, the internment of Japanese-Americans on American soil. This dark period of our country’s history informs Allegiance, Roosevelt’s sophisticated legal thriller from Regan Arts, which lands in bookstore on August 25th. How could our government have supported illegal detentions not once, but twice? Read on for Roosevelt’s take.
In 2007, two years after the publication of my first novel (In the Shadow of the Law), my editor said to me that he wanted my next one to be set in the Supreme Court. I told him I wasn’t sure I could do it. I’d love to write about the Court, but I didn’t want anyone to think I was revealing secrets from my time working there. (I clerked for Justice Souter in 1999-2000, and he’s a very private person.) My editor said, “No problem! Set it ten years in the future when there are nine new Justices.”
That also seemed like an unpromising idea to me, because it would require me to invent nine new Justices and predict the pressing legal issues of a decade hence. I told my wife about the dilemma, and she had a simple answer: set it in the past.
And that seemed like a great idea. No one would think I was writing about the current Court, and instead of inventing nine new Justices I could just research them—something my day job as a law professor has made me quite familiar with. Also, of course, setting the novel in the past would let me scan the whole history of the Court for an era and a set of cases with relevance to the present day. So I started looking…
What I was thinking about in 2007 was the response to 9/11, and more particularly the Guantanamo detentions. I had just recently received a call from a tax lawyer (more on that later) asking me to serve as a constitutional law consultant on a Guantanamo case, and I’d accepted. So I wanted to write something about what we do in times of national insecurity.
The parallels, at a high level of generality, were obvious. There was a shocking attack, striking us in a way we didn’t think possible. There was a President expanding the power of the federal government, asserting he could do whatever was necessary to protect the nation. There were Supreme Court cases about the limits of governmental authority in wartime.
So I thought that mostly what I would be doing was taking these broad parallels and layering current concerns onto a roughly similar history. And I did some of that. I have Supreme Court Justices and other government figures as significant characters in the book. Much of their dialogue is true to life—I read biographies, autobiographies, diaries, and correspondence—but some of it is taken from recent events. “We should look forward, not back.” “We shouldn’t criminalize policy differences or condemn actions taken in good faith to protect the nation.” “You have to remember what it was like then.” “We feared another attack.” Those are contemporary lines about the CIA torture program, but they fit very easily into the mouths of people discussing the detention of Japanese-Americans. (That program, which uprooted over 100,000 mostly birthright citizens, ended up being a large part of Allegiance.) Continue reading “Kermit Roosevelt on America's History of Illegal Detention”→
In the late 1970’s, I became intrigued with nonfiction material I read about black cowboys and soldiers in the Old West. I was surprised to find that their contribution to the West was much larger than I had been led to believe by general history books, Western novels, and films over the years. The reason for this is painful but real: Racism had hidden their contribution. The information was there, and in abundance, but it hadn’t been properly mined. A full quarter or more of the cowboys in the Old West had been black or of color. You didn’t see this in Westerns. Blacks were always maids and cooks in novels and film, if they were represented at all.
Most of the material about their lives and times in the West, was nonfiction. John Ford had touched on it in a safe way in his film Sergeant Rutledge. Still, on the posters the main star was Jeffery Hunter, not the black actor, Woody Strode, who played the title character. There were a few novels about blacks in the West, but I didn’t encounter any that were epic. I was thinking of writing one in the vein of Wild Times by Brian Garfield, Little Big Man by Thomas Berger, The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie, Jr., or The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor. I wanted to write about the real black experience in the West, and at the same time, make it larger than life. I had also read an autobiography about Western life by a black cowboy named Nat Love. Nat Love’s experiences were no doubt influenced by the dime novels of his era, so it has to be taken with a grain of salt, but his story was epic, and it was clear he knew his business when it came to being a cowboy. He knew the world of his time, and was able to express it in such a way as to put you there. It was the kind of book I wanted to write. Better yet, it was a book by an actual black cowboy. He was doing the same thing that many white Westerners had done. He was “stretching the blanket,” as they used to say, taking kernels of truth and turning them into a kind of hybrid product that housed both reality and dadburn lies. He claimed to have acquired the nickname Deadwood Dick due to a shooting match he won in old Deadwood, and he also claimed the dime novels about Deadwood Dick, the Black Rider of the Plains, were based on him. No doubt they were not, but this was a kind of wish fulfillment for Nat, so he took his life and welded it to the Wild West tale. Unlike so many dime novel heroes, Nat’s adventures seemed real.
This inspired me more than any of the books I read about the black experience. I had the real material in hand, but I loved the way Nat told a story. I wanted my novel to be almost mythic. I was eleven years old when I first read the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer, and I had already devoured all the Greek myths. That grand sweep, the epic adventures of gods and heroes, hit me hard. I think for years I was trying to find a novel-length outlet for a story about the black experience in the West that could be mythic, or legendary, and when I was in my late twenties the idea of tying it to a realistic background was the way I decided I wanted to go. More real than myth, and instead of Greek-style mythology, I chose the voice of the frontiersman, as it was expressed by Nat Love and in dime novels. I read a large number of the Buffalo Bill novels by Ned Buntline, and those by other authors about Jesse James, and other frontier heroes. I read Davy Crockett’s fictionalized biography (and boy was it), and that had a terrific impact on the way I wanted to tell a story. I decided I was going to write a novel titled The True Life Adventures of Deadwood Dick (still my preferred title). Continue reading “Joe Lansdale on How He Came to Write Paradise Sky”→
Thriller writers are always looking for inspiration, and what better source of crime than the annals of history? Author Andrea Maria Schenkel knows this better than most. Her new novel, Ice Cold, revisits a terrible crime that took place in 1930s Munich. Below, she does aspiring writers a favor by recounting six real-life murders that could inspire the best true crime books.
Wano De Grier Walsh
Wano De Grier Walsh and her husband, Edward DeWitt Walsh, were hosting a dinner party in Montclair, New Jersey in November 1903 when Mrs. Walsh suddenly reported feeling ill. Her husband carried her upstairs, and shortly after he returned, the sound of a handgun rang through the house. The guests and Mr. Walsh ran upstairs to find Mrs. Walsh dead—shot through the heart. While ruled a suicide, her death is surrounded by mystery. The New York Times reported that she had been “in excellent spirits all through the dinner and was quite the life of the little gathering.” Moreover, her death was not reported to police until two hours after the gunshot was heard.
Rothstein was the mastermind behind the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal in which several players from the heavily favored Chicago White Sox took money from gamblers to intentionally throw games in the World Series. Nine years later, Rothstein was shot and mortally wounded at the Park Central Hotel in Manhattan. On his deathbed, he refused to identify his killer. A Rothstein-like character briefly appears in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” but a book-length fictional look at this early 20th-century gambler would undoubtedly be a grand slam.
There is an eponymous character on the popular television show “Boardwalk Empire” nicknamed “The Big Bankroll”—based on the real Rothstein and played by Michael Stuhlbarg.
President James Garfield
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln has long been of interest to fiction and non-fiction writers alike. But the killing of the United States’s 20th president, James Garfield, offers ample material for a crime novel. The Ohio native, who served less than a year, was shot in early July of 1861 in the presence of his secretary of war—and Lincoln’s son—Robert Todd Lincoln. Garfield died two and a half months later, most likely due to poor medical treatment, and only after inventor Alexander Graham Bell worked feverishly to devise a metal detector in a futile attempt to locate the bullet.
In the late 1960s, three women were murdered after spending the evening in Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom. The sister of one of the victims reported that a man seen with her sibling called himself “John” and quoted from the Bible, thus earning his nickname. As with Jack the Ripper in the 19th century, many have claimed the identity of “Bible John,” but the killings have never been solved.
In the 1950s in southwestern Germany, Lehmann’s husband, who suffered from stomach ulcers, and father, who suffered from heart failure, appeared to die of natural causes about a year apart. The following year a friend of Lehmann’s died after ingesting liqueur-filled chocolate-covered mushrooms that Lehmann had brought home. When police discovered that the treat had been laced with poison, they exhumed the bodies of Lehmann’s spouse and father—whose bodies showed traces of the exact same toxic material. Given the police’s tardy discovery of these crimes, one wonders: whom else did Lehmann know, and did she kill them, too?
Hugo Betthauer and Otto Rothstock
What happens when a writer of numerous detective novels becomes the victim? Such was the fate of Hugo Betthauer, who was murdered in Vienna by a member of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party in 1925. The motives of the killer, Otto Rothstock, remain unclear. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, three years earlier Betthauer penned “The City without Jews,” a satirical—but prophetic—look at anti-Semitism in the 1920s.
Andrea Maria Schenkel lives with her family near Regensburg in Bavaria, Germany. On publication in Germany, her first novel, The Murder Farm, won the German Crime Prize as well as the Friedrich-Glauser Prize. Her second novel, Ice Cold, will be published on June 2nd.
Lev AC Rosen’s new novel, Depth (published by Regan Arts), is a classic hardboiled mystery set in a future radically transformed by environmental catastrophe. Here, Lev explains how he hit upon that combination.
The Big Sleep is my favorite noir movie—of course, it has to be the 1946 version, which has more Bacall and Bogart scenes than the original version from the year before—that wasn’t actually released until much later. Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of them: Laura, Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, The Blue Dahlia… maybe I love all of them. But The Big Sleep is my favorite.
A lot of people don’t understand why I’d be so into a movie that, frankly, makes very little sense, even less sense than the first cut. (Supposedly, not even Raymond Chandler was sure who killed the chauffeur.) But it makes perfect sense to me—it’s the style. The Big Sleep is dripping in noir style that you just don’t see anymore. The glamour of Lauren Bacall coming down the steps at night in her dressing gown, the gruesomeness of her sister’s disorder, the dirtiness of all the (unnamed, because of the Hayes Code) crimes Philip Marlowe uncovers—drugs, sexual coercion, abuse, blackmail. The scenes between Bogart and Bacall are fantastic—the telephone scene, or the moment in his office when he tells her to go ahead and scratch, or the talk about her sister, or my favorite, the horseracing conversation. Nothing really captures, for me, the feel of noir like that movie.
So when I set out to write my own hardboiled noir detective fiction, I knew I wanted that feel. I thought about writing something period, but it felt too familiar. I tried writing it in the present day, but it didn’t have the glamour or the grit I wanted. So I did something that I’ve been told was either a brilliant idea or a very bad one: I set my story in the future. I imagined a world where the ice caps have melted and all that’s left of New York City is the tops of buildings, with worn bridges and decommissioned boats floating between them. A city of flotsam.
This was a world where my detective, Simone Pierce, who I tried to write as a female Bogie, could have hard-boiled conversations with the cops and her clients. Where a body could just vanish by being rolled into the water, where crime could flourish and justice was a wisp you would try to snatch out of the air (and probably miss). This was a world, in short, that felt noir.
I know, I know, I know. “You got scifi in my noir!” “You got noir in my scifi!” Now no one will want to eat it. I heard that (well, maybe not exactly that, but some variation on it) over and over, along with the “no one will know how to sell this because these are two different types of readers” refrain from various publicity departments, though ultimately I did find an editor and publisher who found the world of Depth as enthralling as I did. I didn’t do market research when I created this world. But I knew the feeling of the thing I wanted to write and I found my way of getting there. And I ended up with my lone detective in a ruined world, trying to keep everything as together as it can be. It might be less then traditional, but I do genuinely look at Depth as a noir that just happens to take place at the end of the world. Because the end of the world is where I found my noir voice.
Lev AC Rosen is the author of the critically acclaimed All Men of Genius and the middle grade novel Woundabout. He received his BA from Oberlin College and his MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Lev is originally from lower Manhattan, and now lives in even lower Manhattan, right at the edge of the water, with his husband and a very small cat. You can find him online at LevACRosen.com.
The first world’s fair took place in London in 1851. Championed by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, it demonstrated the might and majesty of the British Empire. Officially called the Great Exhibition, it quickly became known as the Crystal Palace exhibition because of the amazing building in which it occurred.
Victorian society was preoccupied about death, obeying elaborate rules about how to react to it. A grieving family was expected to put on severe mourning garments immediately after a loved one died and remain at home for several weeks following the funeral—except for a widow who stayed at home, in the blackest of clothes, for a year and a day.
The link between grief and clothes inspired an entrepreneur, W.C. Jay, to create Jay’s Mourning Warehouse in 1841, selling bereavement garments of every type and size.
Jay began with one address on fashionable Regent Street, but the death business became so brisk that he expanded into the shop next door. By the 1850s, he had expanded the business so often that it occupied most of the block.
The most extreme case of grief involved Queen Victoria, who was one of Jay’s customers. Following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, the queen dressed in mourning for the next forty years. In Inspector of the Dead, Jay’s warehouse and his funereal garments play a major role in the story.
During the 1800s, Lord Palmerston (nicknamed Lord Cupid because of his numerous love affairs) was one of the most powerful English politicians: a war secretary, foreign secretary, home secretary, and prime minister.
His famous Mayfair house, where he welcomed London’s rich and powerful, is located across from Green Park on Piccadilly. It’s readily identified because it’s the only Piccadilly property that’s set back from the street. The two gates and the curved driveway make it easy to recognize.
In 1850, the residence was known as Cambridge House because Queen Victoria’s uncle, the Duke of Cambridge, owned it. On 27 June, the queen visited him and attracted so much attention that by the time she emerged from the house, a considerable crowd blocked the street, preventing her carriage from leaving.
One member of the crowd, Robert Francis Pate, was more interested in walking onward than looking at the queen. Angry that his way was blocked, he pushed his way toward the royal carriage, raised his cane, and struck Queen Victoria across the forehead. Shockingly, he drew blood. (For the full scene, preorder Inspector of the Dead.) Pate was the fifth man to threaten the queen. Declared as insane as it’s possible for a sane person to be, he was exiled to Van Diemen’s Land (present day Tasmania). Continue reading “Visiting Inspector of the Dead: Eerie Lord Palmerston’s House”→
I dare you to read this essay by Jaye Wells and not fall under her spell. This Texas-raised, USA Today bestselling author grew up reading everything she could get her hands on, and it shows in her passionate argument for blending the conventions of crime fiction with tropes from other genres. Wells’s forthcoming novel is called Deadly Spells, and Orbit Books will publish it on February 10th. You’d do well to pre-order a copy.
“You can’t do that.”
This sentence had been the driving force behind most of my success as a novelist. See, I write books that are a blend of genres. I like to mix things up, but I’m also pretty stubborn. So if someone tells me that I can’t, say, mix fantasy with crime fiction, it’s pretty much a dare that I will take every time.
The pitch for my Prospero’s War speculative crime fiction series is The Wire with wizards. I got the idea while binge-watching that show. I thought the show was awesome but couldn’t stop thinking it would be cool if Omar and Stringer Bell were wizards.
But, people told me, that’ll never work. For one thing, they claimed crime fiction fans don’t like any hocus pocus messing up their mysteries. Oh yeah?
What if magic is a metaphor for drugs? What if the covens of wizards who sell addictive magic potions are more dangerous and resourceful than drug gangs? But what if the cops who are trying to break up the covens are as hamstrung by politics, budget cuts, and regulations as real cops?
Some people might not see the point. I mean, we already know there’s a war on drugs. People already know cops are hamstrung and that there are lots of problems with the justice system. This is where combining fantasy with the crime becomes important.
See, the beauty of fantasy stories is that they filter the world through metaphor. By using symbols, archetypes, and, yes, magic, these stories allow us to test drive our world in an imaginative way. This metaphorical language of imagination helps us see the problems of humanity and our world in a new light.
So while it may seem simple to use clean and dirty magic as a metaphor for pharmaceuticals and street-level narcotics, it also allows us to explore the issues in non-threatening and expanded terms. Suddenly, we’re not talking about crack and meth anymore. We’re also talking about human nature’s tendency toward addiction in general. We’re able to discuss the false dichotomy of good versus evil, and think about the roles of policing and the struggles facing our cities in new ways.
Or not. Because that’s the other beauty of fantasy: it allows us to not explore those issues at all if we don’t want to. We can read the story and simply enjoy the action and suspense without being forced to face the gritty reality of our own world. In short, we can decide how shallow or deep our reading experience will be.
So when people tell me that it’s a waste of time to expect crime fiction readers to want to read books about magic junkies, I just smile and say, “Wanna bet?”
Jaye Wells is a USA Today-bestselling author of urban fantasy and speculative crime fiction. Raised by booksellers, she loved reading books from a very young age. That gateway drug eventually led to a full-blown writing addiction. When she’s not chasing the word dragon, she loves to travel, drink good bourbon and do things that scare her so she can put them in her books. Deadly Spells, the third book in her Prospero’s War series, releases on February 10.