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The Story In My Head Has a Soundtrack

wireI can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but I love music. Music is a constant companion—at work, at the gym, relaxing around the house, and especially when writing. Maybe it’s from all of the soundtracks at the movies setting the moods in a film, but for me music is an integral part of my writing. In fact, when writing, I even create playlists for characters. While working on “Moonshiner’s Lament” which appears in the MWA VENGEANCE anthology, music played a role in shaping the story.

When I sat down to write this tale, all I knew was that the story would be set in Appalachia in the early ‘70’s, and I knew the hero would be a Vietnam Vet who has returned to his old ways of hauling illegal whiskey. When I began, I had was this framework and an opening line (Goat McKnight’s hands ached for a gun). That was all. Then, it struck me where Goat would be. I wrote the first page at a blistering pace. I re-read what I had written, and immediately pulled up my Window’s Media player and started creating what became “Goat’s Playlist.” This list became what played through my earbuds while writing and re-writing “Moonshiner’s Lament.”

The first songs were no-brainers. Who can write about moonshine without Robert Mitchum’s “Thunder Road,” or George Jones’ “White Lightning.” For me, the Cat-Daddy Appalachia moonshiner songs has got to be Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road,” and yes there is an homage to Earle’s song in my story.

To get into the mood of the 1970’s era, I leaned heavily on classic rock—The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, CCR as well as others. Rock and roll was part of the soldiers serving in Vietnam. The Doors and Stones songs all seemed to be what would be playing when soldiers thought about being back home having a good time. And when you hear Jimi’s blistering guitar or listen to CCR’s “Running Through The Jungle” you can feel the humid jungle weighting you down, and hear the staccato insanity of a firefight with tracers racing around.

Goat McKnight wound up going into the military to avoid prison for running moonshine, so Goat seemed to share the rebel spirit of the original country outlaw artists. As a result Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, David Allen Coe, Hank Williams Jr and Waylon Jennings were in heavy rotation on Goat’s playlist.

A few albums helped set the tone of the story as well. Dierks Bentley’s UP ON THE RIDGE ALBUM is a bluegrass influenced country CD. The title track played while I was working out the first scenes up on the mountain. Since all of the songs on Kathy Mattea’s album COAL are about miners and the mining life, every track went on the playlist. Her song “Coal Tattoo” has a cadence of a moving car and that song played in my head while I had Goat driving the night away.

There were many other artists and songs, too many to list, though some were definite standouts, songs that seemed to speak directly about some part of Goat’s tale while I was writing. These were—Bruce Springsteen (Born In the USA), Brantley Gilbert (“Hell on Wheels”), The Cumberland River Band (“Let the Moonshine Flow” and “Rock Island Express”) as well as Old Crow Medicine Show (“Big Time In The Jungle”).

Most writers have some rituals. Some writers have to write at specific times or locations. Others have to outline or not outline. For me, whenever I open up to start a story, as I’m looking at the blinking cursor on the blank page, I click on my music library and hit play.

Check out “Moonshiner’s Lament” in Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance, in bookstore now.

Rick McMahan is a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The year 2012 marks his twentieth in law enforcement. Rick’s work wakes him to counties across central and southeastern Kentucky, including Bell County, the area featured in “Moonshiner’s Lament.” His myster stories have appeared in various publications, including the Mystery Writers of America anthology Death Do Us Part. He also has a story in the International Association of Crime Writers’ forthcoming collection of crime fiction from around the world.

Hope You Guessed My Name

Key Scratched CarWhen the folks at Mulholland Books asked me to write an article to introduce their anthology of mysteries titled VENGEANCE, I passed. It’s a subject I’m uniquely qualified to discuss, but I didn’t want to attract attention to myself. I cherish my anonymity, my ability to listen to the conversation beside me, or blend in among the crowd at a sporting event. I value my invisibility because you know me. You’ve seen me in countless films: the Boston crime saga, the British spy flick, the one about the lawyer who developed a conscience. I’m the finest character actor in the world, known for immersing myself in my roles such that no one ever recognizes me on the street.

Ultimately I changed my mind because I have a story to tell. I once met an actor before an audition. Back then he was starting out, but today he’s one of Hollywood’s leading men. We worked together on one of his action movies. Here’s a hint: the assignment he’s given? It’s not an easy one. Let’s call him Ted. From the moment Ted arrived in Hollywood, he was cocky and ruthless. At the audition, he told me a friend of his – we’ll call him Jimmy – had beaten him out for a part last year. It turned out to be a great role. Jimmy was coming to the audition today, too. When Ted told me he was dying to avenge his loss, I suggested he dent the casting director’s Audi and tell her assistant Jimmy did it.

It worked. The casting director wouldn’t even let Jimmy read for the part. But after the audition, Ted discovered a gash on his Porsche. Ted knew Jimmy had done it. He also knew where Jimmy lived. I reminded Ted that if he didn’t respond, he’d be a punk for the rest of his life. I urged him to drive to Jimmy’s house and show him who was boss.

When we got there, Ted knocked on the door and Jimmy let him in. They argued. When they got to the living room, four guys were waiting for Ted. They beat him to a pulp. You think Ted’s nose job was driven by vanity? Think again.

“I knew you cost me this audition,” Jimmy said, “and I knew you’d come running if I scratched your baby. Looks like we both got even.”

Shock registered on Ted’s face when I stepped out from behind Jimmy and put my arm around him. I’d helped Ted square things with Jimmy, but I’d also helped Jimmy settle the ensuing score with Ted. I can do that. I can be in an infinite number of places at the same time. And that’s why it was so important for you to read this story.

You know me. You speak to me when a driver cuts you off. You cry for me when a classmate bullies your child. You yearn for my help when your spouse cheats on you.

I’m here for you. My name is Vengeance. Give me a chance and I’ll set things right.

All it’ll cost is your soul.

Check out Orest Stelmach’s story “In Persona Christi” in Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance, now available in bookstores everywhere.

Orest Stelmach is the author of the thriller The Boy from Reactor 4, the first in a series featuring Nadia Tesla, and the historical mystery Lady in the Dunes, the first in  aseries set in 1950 Provincetown featuring Father Sean Kale. A Connecticut native, he went to kindergarten speaking only Ukranian. He still tries to use as few words as possible. Orest and his wife divide their times between Connecticut and Cape Cod. Visit him at

The Lineup: Weekly Links

Contrasted ConfinementThe Boston Globe ran what is quite possibly the best review of Joe R. Lansdale’s EDGE OF DARK WATER we’ve ever read. Reviewer Hallie Ephron, noting the novel’s “unforgettable characters” proclaims that this “terrific read” brings to mind “memories of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, and even As I Lay Dying with its journey to lay a soul to rest.” Ephron ends her amazing rave with this zinger: “When I reached the final page, something happened that I can’t remember ever happening with a book I’ve read for a review. I wanted to read it again.” Many congratulations, Joe!

Kirkus also has weighed in with high praise for Lansdale’s newest, calling the novel “a highly entertaining tour de force.”

Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times Book Review also had high praise for DARK WATER, calling the novel: “A charming Gothic tale….as funny and frightening as anything that could have been dreamed up by the Brothers Grimm–or Mark Twain.” And don’t miss the New York Times‘ amazing spotlight on Joe’s illustrious career as well.

Excited for Marcia Clark upcoming second Rachel Knight thriller GUILT BY DEGREES? Don’t miss the $0.99 digital short IF I’M DEAD, featuring the feisty LA prosecutor and the characters you’ve grown to love from Clark’s nationally bestselling debut GUILT BY ASSOCIATION.

We happen to be pretty big Josh Whedon fans at Mulholland Books, caught the critically acclaimed horror-thriller-with-a-twist CABIN IN THE WOODS this weekend and loved it. Did you catch it? What did you think?

Did we missing something sweet? Share it in the comments! We’re always open to suggestions for next week’s post! Get in touch at or DM us on Twitter.

Jewish Criminals I Have Known

Body BuilderVery often at a reading I am asked about Jewish criminals. The very idea seems at once perverse and nonsensical, like gay plumbers or red-haired Japanese. These days very few people cross to the other side of the street when faced with an oncoming trio of Jewish accountants. Those who think this funny never faced an oncoming Buddy the Body Builder.

This thing, half man, half muscle, was a graduate of the gang I traveled with as a boy in the impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York/Brownsville. Rather than spring for the funds to build an electrified fence around the place and call it a prison, the city fathers eventually bulldozed the whole shebang. To say that crime and criminals were rampant there in the fifties and early sixties would be like saying Maggie Thatcher leaned to the right. At twenty-two Buddy the Body Builder, having graduated from kid stuff, made his living as a collector. No, not art or model trains. Nor did he call you on the phone and threaten to alter your credit rating. He visited in person and threatened politely to alter you. Very often, he told me, all he had to do was show up in the delinquent’s place of business. One day he showed up in my place of business, the street, and asked very politely to have a word.

At this time I was all of twelve but already embarked on entrepreneurial activity of the Brooklyn variety. Parking meters had just been installed on the commercial streets –that is, those with shops; however even residential streets were rife with buying and selling, often drugs but also everything from half-price cartons of cigarettes to fur coats, to say nothing of the favor of judges. As a mere child this high-class stuff was beyond me: instead I approached shop-owners and offered to feed dimes into the parking meters in front of their shops so that they wouldn’t have to bother leaving their premises every hour in the middle of a sale; also my friends and I would make sure no one scratched or defaced said vehicles, or slashed their tires. The tabloids called this a protection racket. My colleagues and I preferred to think of it as protection pure and simple. Where was the racket? Continue reading “Jewish Criminals I Have Known”

Putting the Thrill Back in Legal Thriller: A Review of Guilt by Association

family attorneys Los AngelesNot too many years ago, an influential friend in the literary world told me, “Legal thrillers are out.” Having just published my first two novels, both featuring Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid, I desperately needed this death announcement to be premature. The problem, I argued, was an overabundance of bad legal thrillers that had scarred the subgenre’s once-good name. Perhaps trying to replicate the success of groundbreaking novels like Scott Turow’s PRESUMED INNOCENT and John Grisham’s A TIME TO KILL, publishers had overpurchased and overpromoted courtroom-centric novels by lawyers who managed to turn the term “legal thriller” into an oxymoron. Evidentiary objections, jury selection, and cross-examinations might be real goose bump inducers compared to the average lawyer’s workday, but as ingredients for a page-turner? No, thank you.

Well, I’m delighted to report that, despite my friend’s death knell, law-based crime fiction is alive and well thanks to authors who focus not on blue-in-the-face litigators hollering “Objection!” at one another, but on good old fashioned storytelling about characters who just happen to be lawyers. When the industry had all but written off the so-called “legal thriller” in favor of high concept novels in the spirit of THE DA VINCI CODE, Linda Fairstein and Lisa Scottoline continued to dominate bestsellers’ lists because they wrote damn good books. Today, Michael Connelly has put to rest any lingering questions about the viability of the subgenre by bringing Mickey Haller to every medium — #1 in hardback and digital, and $46 million and counting at the box office. What makes these books irresistible aren’t the bells and whistles of the technical ins and outs of the legal system, but memorable characters and solid plotting in the hands of masterful storytellers.

With GUILT BY ASSOCIATION, Marcia Clark joins the ranks of Scottoline, Fairstein, and Connelly. Her debut novel introduces us to Los Angeles prosecutor Rachel Knight, a member of the office’s elite Special Trials Unit. In the opening pages, Knight’s friend and colleague Jake Pahlmeyer is found dead at a seedy motel under even seedier circumstances. She inherits a high-profile rape case from his desk. While the victim’s father exerts political pressure for an arrest, the investigation takes Rachel into LA’s gang world and makes her a target. As if that weren’t enough to keep a gal busy, she can’t help poking around into Jake’s death, despite strict orders to mind her own bees’ wax.

Like the finest books in the legal thriller subgenre, very few pages of GUILT BY ASSOCIATION take place in the courtroom. Instead, we see Rachel’s interactions with cops, contacts, and witnesses. We see the action as it unfolds, not as it is summarized later in the artificially sterile courtroom setting. We see Rachel at home with her friends. We get to know – and like – her.

Much attention will certainly be paid to Clark’s former career as a prosecutor in Los Angeles, most notably as the head prosecutor in OJ Simpson’s criminal trial. That platform will also undoubtedly bring extraordinary attention to a debut novel. But an unfortunate consequence of any emphasis upon her significant legal career might be an inaccurate perception of the book itself. Clark’s expertise about the criminal justice system leaps from the pages of GUILT BY ASSOCIATION, but not because she shows off her knowledge of the law, rules of evidence, or courtroom procedure. Rather, her experience allows her to write with confidence rarely seen in a first novel – about Los Angeles, about Rachel Knight, about the secondary characters who occupy Knight’s world and become a part of ours. GUILT BY ASSOCIATION succeeds because of Clark’s gifts as a writer, not as a lawyer. With those gifts, she has created a true legal thriller – emphasis on the thrill.

ALAFAIR BURKE is the bestselling author of six novels, including 212, Angel’s Tip, and Dead Connection in the Ellie Hatcher series. A former prosecutor, she now teaches criminal Law and lives in Manhattan. Long Gone, her first stand-alone thriller, was published by Harper in June 2011. [Read more about Long Gone in her Conversation with Jen Forbus.] Never Tell, the next Ellie Hatcher thriller, will be published by Harper in June 2012.

GUILT BY ASSOCIATION is now available in paperback in bookstores everywhere.


Rachel Knight’s Los Angeles

Los Angeles at nightTThe paperback edition of Marcia Clark’s Guilt by Association is in stores now! Now’s the perfect time to check out the debut thriller about which People call a “gritty and intriguing thriller that sings.”

Marcia’s main character LA District Attorney Rachel Knight describes many favorite places in Los Angeles in Guilt by Association. Check out Rachel Knight’s LA:

Historic Biltmore Hotel, Gallery Bar, Downtown Los AngelesThe Biltmore Hotel: Rachel Knight’s glamorous home. “The sheer beauty of the hotel lobby struck me afresh: the stained glass set into the soaring dome ceiling, the ornately cut Lalique chandelier, the plushness of the huge oriental rugs spread over dark henna-colored marble floors. Walking into the lobby always felt like I’d been enfolded in the embrace of a Rubenesque duchess. “

Engine Company Number 28: Location for Rachel’s illicit lunch with the coroner’s investigator. “An LA staple for over twenty years, the restaurant in a restored firehouse is still a popular spot. The original firehouse that had stood on the same spot in 1912 was now restored with mahogany booths, brick floors and pressed tin ceilings – and the original fireman’s pole. “

Continue reading “Rachel Knight’s Los Angeles”

Ultimate Spider-Man: An Excerpt

Brian Michael Bendis’s reboot of Ultimate Spider-Man, introducing biracial Miles Morales as the series’ titular hero, had been making headlines before the first issue even went to press. Mulholland Books is pleased to offer an excerpt of issue #7–and don’t miss the first volume collecting issues one through five, in stores now.

Continue reading “Ultimate Spider-Man: An Excerpt”

On The Punisher

To be brutally honest, the Punisher was never a character that appealed to me until editor Stephen Wacker approached me to write the book. Prior to that, I’d always felt him to be remarkably two-dimensional, and that’s saying something about a character from a medium where two-dimensional characters are the rule, not the exception. Add to that the lingering Reagan-era right-wing Tough On Crime wrapping, and Frank Castle had always been something of a turn off for me.

But Wacker is a good editor in all the ways that matter, and he knew the right questions to ask me, and the right stories to show me, and all of the sudden, I found myself thinking that the Punisher was far more than I’d given credit. The revenge story is a staple of literature, stretching back to word one, really, and in all that time, there are certain tropes that we’ve seen replayed over and over again. But the nature of comics forces some of those clichés into question, even if – in my opinion – nobody has really stopped to try and answer the questions that have been raised. After all, almost every revenge story ends the same way. Almost every revenge story ends like Moby Dick or Hamlet.

But Frank… Frank keeps going. He took his revenge long, long ago, and he continues, and while the market reasons for that continuance as obvious, the market reasons don’t factor for the character, they don’t matter in the world. In other words, Frank Castle doesn’t know he’s owned entirely by Marvel Entertainment, and that they make a pretty penny off of his continued vendetta.

That was the entry-point for me, and that, in very large part, is what my run on Punisher seeks to explore; how is it that Frank can continue, can survive, so long after his initial revenge has been exacted? How is it that he hasn’t gone mad, committed suicide, come off the rails and started murdering at random? How is it that he has maintained this position as an extraordinary anti-hero and general bad-ass in a universe with Captain America and Spider-Man?

Greg Rucka is the New York Times bestselling author of a dozen novels, including the Atticus Kodiak and Tara Chace series, and has won multiple Eisner awards for his graphic novels. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and children. Mulholland Books will publish his next novel ALPHA, the first in a new series featuring retired Delta Force operator, Master Sergeant Jad Bell, in May 2012.

Stay tuned tomorrow for an excerpt from the The Punisher, Vol. 1, the first six issues of the Rucka-penned series, in stores this Wednesday.