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The Beauty Queen Killer

Michael Robotham’s BLEED FOR ME, which Booklist called “crime fiction of the highest order” in a starred review, is now available in paperback in bookstores everywhere. Join the celebration with the below guest post by Michael Robotham on the chilling, real-life inspiration for the novel’s villain.

Villains are more fun to write than heroes. They get to wear cooler clothes and stroke cats and have monkey paws or steel hooks instead of hands. They also get to date dirty girls with names like Pussy Galore, Solitaire, Honey Rider and Mary Goodnight.

I have always taken a lot of care with the villains I write. None of them are evil because I don’t think evil exists. They do terrible things, but they have reasons. Mitigating circumstances. Nothing excuses their behaviour, but I do attempt to explain it.

In my new novel BLEED FOR ME I have created a number of villains but by far the most interesting are those who seem completely normal. Better than normal. Nice. Charismatic. Handsome. Popular. Loved.

We often assume that we would recognize a true psychopath. We see photographs of serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley and we think, ‘Yeah, they look like bad’uns,’ but the truth is, until their crimes were revealed we could have walked past any of these people in the street and not looked twice. They could have been living next-door, or working at the local garage, or teaching our kids piano.

My first experience of this dissonance between perception and reality occurred more almost thirty years ago when I was a young journalist working on an afternoon newspaper in Sydney. I was sent cover a committal hearing at a local magistrate’s court. A man called Christopher Wilder was appearing, charged with the sexual assault of two schoolgirls.

Wilder had grown up in Australia, the son of an American naval officer and his Australian bride. He was educated at good schools and given every opportunity in life, but found trouble in his teens when he pleaded guilty to the gang rape of a girl on a Sydney beach and was given probation.

He married at the age of twenty-three, but the union lasted only a few days. His new bride complained of sexual abuse and found photographs of naked women in Wilder’s briefcase, as well as items of underwear that weren’t her own. In 1969 Wilder avoided prison again after blackmailing a student nurse into having sex with him by taking compromising photographs. She complained to the police, but the charges were dropped when she refused to testify in court.

Wilder’s father told him he should go to America and start afresh with a clean slate in a new country. He moved to Boynton Beach in Florida and found his calling as an electrical contractor and construction engineer, making millions from the property boom. By his mid-thirties he was worth millions with a luxurious bachelor pad and a string of sports cars. Continue reading “The Beauty Queen Killer”

Continue Reading Joe R. Lansdale’s EDGE OF DARK WATER

Joe R. Lansdale’s EDGE OF DARK WATER is now on its way to bookstores around the country…but we’re so excited to be publishing this amazing book, we’ve decided to share part of it with you now. Read on for more of the novel that had Dan Simmons raving: “the strongest, truest, and most pitch-perfect narration since Huck Finn’s….real genius….a masterpiece.”

Missed the first excerpt? Start reading here.

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May Lynn didn’t have a mama anymore, cause her mama had drowned herself in the Sabine River. She had gone down with some laundry to soak, and instead wrapped a shirt around her head and walked in until the water went over her. When she came up, she wasn’t alive anymore, but she still had that shirt around her noggin.

May Lynn’s daddy was someone who only came home when he got tired of being any other place. We didn’t even know if he knew his daughter was missing. May Lynn used to say after her mama drowned herself her daddy was never the same. Said she figured it was because the laundry around her mother’s head had been his favorite snap-pocket shirt. That’s true love for you. Worse, her brother, Jake, who she was close to, was dead as of a short time back, and there wasn’t even a family dog to miss her.

The day after we found her, May Lynn was boxed up in a cheap coffin and buried on a warm morning in the pauper section of the Marvel Creek Cemetery next to a dried patch of weeds with seed ticks clinging to them, and I suspect some chiggers too small to see. Her mother and brother were buried in the same graveyard, but they hadn’t ended up next to one another. Up the hill was where the people with money lay. Down here was the free dirt, and even if you was kin to someone, you got scattered—you went in anyplace where there was room to dig a hole. I’d heard there was many a grave on top of another, for need of space.

There were oaks and elms to shade the rest of the graveyard, but May Lynn’s section was a hot stretch of dirt with a bunch of washed-down mounds, a few with markers. Some of the markers were little sticks. Names had once been written on them, but they had been washed white by the sun and rain.

The constable ruled on matters by saying she had been killed by a person or persons unknown, which was something I could have figured out for him. He said it was most likely a drifter or drifters who had come upon her by the river. I guess they had been carrying a sewing machine under their arm. Continue reading “Continue Reading Joe R. Lansdale’s EDGE OF DARK WATER”

Spy vs. Spy: Thomas Mullen Interviews Olen Steinhauer

The Weather ManIn the last three years, I’ve read six novels by Olen Steinhauer, more than any other writer. This doubtless means that I have neglected the classics of late, but it also speaks to the addictive nature of the worlds he creates and the rush that readers receive when being propelled through his spiraling plots.

Steinhauer has rightly been called the heir to John le Carre and a modern master of the spy novel. This month marks the publication of An American Spy, the conclusion of his critically acclaimed trilogy that follows the misadventures of Milo Weaver, an operative in the CIA’s secretive Department of Tourism.

Through a convoluted series of dead drops at international airports, crinkled notes in Brooklyn doggie parks, and flash drives left behind at Starbucks locations in the Bay Area, I asked Olen the following questions. His answers arrived in my inbox a few weeks later, as a coded attachment to an email from a Nigerian man asking me if I’d help wire some money to his family.

Thomas Mullen: While I was writing my own attempt at a spy novel, I read in a review somewhere that “all the best spy novelists were themselves once spies,” noting people like John le Carre and Joseph Conrad. I thought, “Oh, shit.” But then I remember writers like you, and I feel better. After all, you’ve written outstanding spy novels, yet you were not a spy (as far as I know). Do readers and critics too often underestimate the value of imagination and research?

Olen Steinhauer: How about Eric Ambler, Len Deighton, and Alan Furst?

I think the media, and readers, really do underestimate the value of research and imagination in this regard. Le Carre was once briefly a spy, but what he created is realistic only in small part because of this. He began writing when fantasy spies (read: 007) were all the rage, and he knew from experience that espionage looked a lot different. Yet when it came to creating his fictional spy universe, he depended primarily on his knowledge of human nature, which is why his novels read like reality.

A knowledge of human nature is any novelist’s real tool (without it a novelist has no business writing novels), and if used properly it gives verisimilitude to strange planets, a distant past or culture, and the peculiar subculture of espionage. An obvious point to bring up is that Ian Fleming worked in espionage during World War II, but I don’t think anyone would call his books realistic, least of all him. Continue reading “Spy vs. Spy: Thomas Mullen Interviews Olen Steinhauer”

Start Reading Joe R. Lansdale’s Edge of Dark Water

Joe R. Lansdale’s EDGE OF DARK WATER will be in bookstores later this month…but we’re so excited to be publishing this amazing book, we’ve decided to share part of it with you now. Read on for one of the best first sentences you’ll ever read, the beginning of the novel that had Dan Simmons raving: “the strongest, truest, and most pitch-perfect narration since Huck Finn’s….real genius….a masterpiece.”

 

Part One

Of Ash and Dreams

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That summer, Daddy went from telephoning and dynamiting fish to poisoning them with green walnuts. The dynamite was messy, and a couple years before he’d somehow got two fingers blown off, and the side of his face had a burn spot that at first glance looked like a lipstick kiss and at second glance looked like some kind of rash.

Telephoning for fish worked all right, though not as good as dynamite, but Daddy didn’t like cranking that telephone to hot up the wire that went into the water to ’lectrocute the fish. He said he was always afraid one of the little colored boys that lived up from us might be out there swimming and get a dose of ’lectricity that would kill him deader than a cypress stump, or at best do something to his brain and make him retarded as his cousin Ronnie, who didn’t have enough sense to get in out of the rain and might hesitate in a hailstorm.

My grandma, the nasty old bag, who, fortunately, is dead now, claimed Daddy has what she called the Sight. She said he was gifted and could see the future some. I reckon if that was so, he’d have thought ahead enough not to get drunk when he was handling explosives and got his fingers blown off.

And I hadn’t ever seen that much sympathy from him concerning colored folk, so I didn’t buy his excuse for not cranking the phone. He didn’t like my friend Jinx Smith, who was colored, and he tried to make out we was better than her and her family, even though they had a small but clean house, and we had a large dirty house with a sagging porch and the chimney propped up on one side with a two-by-four and there were a couple of hogs wallowing out holes in the yard. As for his cousin Ronnie, I don’t think Daddy cared for him one way or the other, and often made fun of him and imitated him by pretending to bang into walls and slobber about. Of course, when he was good and drunk, this wasn’t an imitation, just a similarity.

Then again, maybe Daddy could see the future, but was just too stupid to do anything about it. Continue reading “Start Reading Joe R. Lansdale’s Edge of Dark Water”

Start reading Thomas Mullen’s THE REVISIONISTS

Galleys of Thomas Mullen’s incredible, genre-defying new novel THE REVISIONISTS are being given away at BEA first-thing tomorrow morning! Couldn’t make it out to BEA this year? Just don’t think you’ll hit the floor in time? Fret not! Start reading Mullen’s book right here on the Mulholland website–and the first twenty comments about it will receive a galley in the mail! (US and CA only, please.)

Z.

A trio of bulbous black SUVs passes sleekly by, gliding through their world like seals. The city shines liquidly off their tinted windows, the yellow lights from the towers and the white lights from the street and the red lights they ignore as they cruise through the intersection with a honk and a flash of their own beams. People on the sidewalk barely give them a glance.

I cross the street, which is empty in their wake. Most of the National Press Building’s lights are still on, as reporters for outlets across the globe type away to beat their deadlines. Editors are waiting in Tokyo, the masses are curious in Mumbai, the public has a right to know in London. The sheer volume of information being churned out of that building is unfathomable to me, the weight of it, and also the waste. As if people needed it. Continue reading “Start reading Thomas Mullen’s THE REVISIONISTS”

A Conversation with Alafair Burke

BangAlafair Burke is a lawyer-turned novelist and the creator of two of the most memorable female crime fighters on the scene today: NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid. Jen Forbus is a tastemaker in the crime fiction community and the force behind Jen’s Book Thoughts. Here, they discuss writing great characters, changing perspectives and the best bulldog on earth: The Duffer.

Jen: Hey Alafair!  I thought I’d start off by asking you how you define a great female character.

Alafair: Thank you for jumping back in, Jen. The greatness of a female character should be the same for any character. I like characters who feel real. Who have backstories. Who have good days and bad. Who have unpredictable and yet fully explained reactions to their environments. Who are flawed but likable. Whose voices ring in your head long after the book is closed.

When we see that kind of greatness in female characters, I think we admire it all the more because we sometimes get used to — and perhaps even expect — female characters to fall into one a handful of stock stereotypes: the supportive wife, the hooker with a heart of gold, the femme fatale. I like to think that the women I’ve created are the kind of women readers can imagine themselves knowing and liking in their own lives.

Jen: So do your characters evolve from women you know and like; do those real life women influence how you create characters? Do you feel other writers have influenced how you create characters? Or are they simply organic to the creation of the story?

Continue reading “A Conversation with Alafair Burke”

Why I Want to Fuck J. G. Ballard

So I can have his babies, that’s why. Though I am reliably informed that for various reasons this may no longer be possible, if indeed it ever was . . . which is a pity, because I’ve been a big fan of Ballard’s since the late  seventies, when I first came across The Atrocity Exhibition.

Your mid- to late teens are a great time for discovering new ways of seeing things, new stuff—thrilling works of transgression that make an indelible impression on your imagination. Someone hands you a copy of The Third Policeman, or you sneak in to see Taxi Driver, and somehow your world changes. I found it especially thrilling back then to come across a copy of The Atrocity Exhibition, because not only did it change my world, it cut it up and rearranged its face. I remember scanning the chapter headings in the shop, still trying to work out what the damn thing was—a novel? short stories? a catalog?—but when I got to “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” I knew it didn’t matter. Whatever this shit was, I had to read it.

So it wasn’t too long before I was devouring Crash, Concrete Island, High-Rise, and The Unlimited Dream Company. I then followed Ballard through the years, reading every new book that came out, as well as many of his always fascinating articles and interviews. And when he died last year I felt—along with so many others—a real sense of loss. Ballard inspired great loyalty in his readers. There was this idea that he had been our guide through the supermediated psychoscapes of the twentieth century, and both halves of it, too—because as centuries go, the twentieth had definitely been a game of two halves. In the first half fascism happened and was more or less quashed. In the second half certain unresolved energies left over from the thirties and forties spurted forth and flowered in a thousand weird and rarely wonderful little ways. Ballard absorbed the first half, and then—luckily for us—chronicled the second.

And that is one of the reasons, I think, for his continuing appeal—especially to young writers who may be striving to find a voice and subject matter of their own. Ballard seemed to arrive on the scene with a voice and subject matter that were ready-made and fully assembled, a set of concerns and themes that would be the envy of any writer at any time.

Continue reading “Why I Want to Fuck J. G. Ballard”

From Suspense to Dread

Florin Court LondonI was idly watching the end of an old TV episode of Poirot the other day wherein the world’s third most famous Belgian had, as always, gathered the eight or so suspects together in the drawing room and began pointing the finger of suspicion at each of them in turn. It seemed to me that there were two types of suspense on offer here: the identity of the murderer, and what, if any, small changes would occur in this strictly adhered to formula of going through each suspect one by one. (No, not the sweet old lady!) As long as the audience knows all the possibilities, then quite small variations can generate suspense as we try to outguess the detective. In other words, complete familiarity offers a way out of complete boredom: as long as everyone knows the rules in detail, even small variations will generate suspense. It’s almost impossible by now to create a major surprise in this particular setup, mostly because Christie herself pretty much mined them out (they all did it in Murder on the Orient Express). This almost equal knowledge between reader (or watcher) and writer is what creates suspense but also limits it (unless the adapter, gone mad after years of writing minor variations on the same ending, has Poirot or Miss Marple being revealed as the murderer). Suspense has, I think, its limitations when it comes to engaging the emotions of the audience — it’s the emotion of a game.

Consider Seven as an alternative. The setup is grislier than a Christie and the setting, a corrupt city, as far away as you can get. But it’s still about a series of carefully planned murders by someone unknown and cool and ruthless in his execution of the crime. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker, Seven takes us on certainly an original journey with a brilliant concept at its heart — a moralizing murderer sardonically reenacting the seven deadly sins. But what is alleged to have happened before Fincher took over as director is revealing. It’s said that the studio insisted that while they were prepared to finance the film, they would only do so if the writer changed the last quarter of the film, when the script completely departs from the murder thriller and creates something utterly new. It stops being a game of suspense for the insider/viewer by abandoning the game altogether. The identity of the murderer, blasphemously, is revealed not by the detached intelligence of the detectives but by the murderer himself. By rejecting the fundamental desire to get away with it, the killer takes command just at the point where we are waiting for the forces of good to squeeze him into a place of abject failure by revealing the fundamental things he does not want revealed, his motives and his guilt. Apparently the studio forced Walker to undo all this and rewrite the ending so that Christie reigns supreme.

Continue reading “From Suspense to Dread”

See You in the Darkness

Barbara Stanywck and Fred MacMurray - Double Indemnity 1944One chilly February evening back in 2008, mystery writer Alan Gordon drove me home from a book launch for Queens Noir (Akashic, 2008), an anthology of dark tales set in my home borough. Both Alan and I live in Forest Hills, a pretty serene neighborhood set deep into Queens. As we approached the police precinct at the corner of Yellowstone and Austin that night, we noticed a burst of activity out front, including TV cameras and roving reporters. The next day, Alan e-mailed me: “So, all those camera crews at the precinct last night were about the arrest of the orthodontist’s wife for contracting his murder. My wife said, ‘I always knew she was crooked.’ ”

I knew the case vaguely. Back in October 2007, Daniel Malakov, a local man the newspapers described as a “prominent member” of Forest Hills’s Bukharian Jewish community, had been shot and killed in a nearby playground in full view of his four-year-old daughter. Ultimately, his estranged doctor-wife, Mazoltuv Borukhova, was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiring with a distant cousin to kill Malakov, with whom she was embroiled in a fierce custody battle. The key piece of evidence: a homemade silencer discarded at the scene. The silencer was traced to Borukhova’s cousin, whose fingerprints were on file for evading a subway fare. Shortly thereafter, police found that an astounding ninety-one calls had been made between the cousin and Dr. Borukhova during the three weeks preceding the murder. The jig was up.

In my reply to Alan’s e-mail, I remember noting that the whole story was in fact the classic noir tale — wife hires man to kill husband, only to find herself trapped in her own web of deception. Double Indemnity come to life. But, of course, beneath the genre staples, the case speaks to something far more elemental about the enduring attraction of crime fiction — particularly noir, with its emphasis on the fickle finger of fate. There is a tendency to dismiss crime novels as lurid, as trivial, as escapist. These dismissals always strike me as anxious attempts to diminish the genre’s actual, visceral lure. That, instead of being disposable yarns to be consumed quickly and tossed aside, crime novels speak to our very essence, to the often painfully compelling (impelling) emotions that, for all the layers of “civilization” and modernity that lay atop us, still can’t be soothed. Desire. Greed. Wrath. Envy. Revenge. These are timeless drives. Universal ones.

Continue reading “See You in the Darkness”

Batman Is My Mr. Miyagi

I write mysteries. I love writing mysteries. And I also write comic books. So when I was recently at Comi-Con, someone at one of the panels asked me how comics have influenced and/or seeped into my mystery and novel writing. Indeed, one of the editors at Mulholland Books asked if the action-packed nature of comics helped develop the action and pacing I use in the novels.

So let me tell you the answer.

Yes.

Duh.

And the best part? I had no idea I was doing it.

You see, when you do your first novel, it goes out, and you hope people read it. Same with your second. But by the time you hit your third, people start looking at all the books together. It was then that the smart readers stepped forward. One e-mailed me through my website and said, “I’ve now read three of your novels. What are your issues with your father?” And later, someone else wrote about how reading my novels was like seeing the underbelly of the pacing in a comic book: short chapters and a cliff-hanger, short chapters and a cliff-hanger.

To be honest, I was surprised. But the moment I heard it, I knew it was true.
Continue reading “Batman Is My Mr. Miyagi”