The Interrogation Room – An Interview With Laird Barron

Next up in the Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with Laird Barron to discuss to discuss his Isaiah Coleridge series, which comprises Blood Standard, Black Mountain and Worse Angels.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Blood Standard recently. Isaiah Coleridge is an unusual protagonist – familiar, yet enigmatic. How easy was it for you to shape his character in a way that felt satisfying?

Tom, thank you. I’ve written and published well over a million words. A large chunk of that features various permutations of the archetypal action (anti) hero protagonist—be it two-fisted detectives, gladiators, old school loggers, Pinkertons, arm breakers, and so forth.

Coleridge is a synthesis of my many attempts to depict that type of character. Defaulting to a hardboiled protagonist made writing my first crime novel more comfortable. Satisfaction derived from developing Coleridge and the supporting cast over three novels. Recurring characters present narrative opportunities; especially at novel scale. There are more chances to deviate from the tradition, to contribute one’s own unique take on the subject matter.

In this opening book Isaiah is wrestling with his dark past, and he goes on to have further misadventures in the sequels, Black Mountain and Worse Angels. Was his entire narrative arc mapped out in advance, or did it evolve as you worked?

It began with a sketchy notion of where I wanted to go and the whole thing took off like a boulder rolling downhill. Robert B. Parker and John D. MacDonald are foremost among numerous inspirations for Coleridge. Spenser and Magee stories tend to be episodic. Spenser didn’t change much over many years and multiple novels.

I wanted to operate in a kind of twilight realm between doggedly episodic narrative and a heroic saga with an overarching theme and defined endgame. Coleridge hasn’t necessarily grown across three novels so much as I’ve discovered more and more of his true nature.

As a reader, which personality traits do you enjoy most when investing time in a series character? And which traits aggravate you?

Humor and agency are important. Big fan of gallows humor, sardonic wit. The Spenser series had those elements. The television series Justified did as well. I prefer characters who make decisions and reckon with the fallout. Less a fan of purely episodic, consequence-free adventures.

I understand that you grew up in Alaska. How did that environment shape you as a person – and a writer?

Environment/culture shapes everybody. What food is put into your mouth; what facts are put into your head; familial warmth or the lack. Geography imprints upon the mind as well. Extreme geography and extreme environments might well scarify an impressionable mind. I feel Alaska, and particularly some of my negative experiences there, dug channels in my mind that tend to direct my creative impulses into certain patterns. Sometimes that has worked to my advantage. Other times not so much.

You are best known for your work within the horror genre. Have the Coleridge books helped you to tap into a new audience? And have the horror enthusiasts come along for the ride? 

My readership has expanded overall, although my horror audience was initially divided about the shift. Some readers are omnivorous, others stick with a certain genre. As has been the case since The Imago Sequence in 2007, my titles are long of tail and keep selling over time. More people find Coleridge each year and he features in a significant portion of upcoming material.

You have built up an impressive back catalogue over the years. Which book would you suggest a would-be reader pick up first?

If you prefer short fiction, I’d recommend Occultation and Other Stories. That collection covers a spectrum of styles, approaches, and narrators. There’s a good mix of cosmic horror, occult horror, and weirdness. If you like novels, try Blood Standard. It’s straight up crime/noir that cracks the door to ever greater darkness.

Genre aside, what are the common threads that link your books?

Bad things happening to bad people. Bad things happening to good people. Bad things happening to regular, everyday people. The destination is the same for everyone. How people face their struggles is what interests me most.

We were tarpaper shack poor for a while. Reading and writing were my escape. I was drawn to gothic horror, noir, crime, and westerns. Happy endings are placeholders—even westerns tended to be “happily ever after…for now.”

That grimness pervades my own work. I don’t fight it; I roll with it.

Can you name the book – or books – that made you want to become a writer?

There isn’t a source I can point to as the inciting event.

I wanted to be a writer before I learned to read. I drew pictures and scribbled nonsense symbols to simulate an attendant story. Many authors guided my progress into my teens—Louis L’Amour, Poe, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Service, Andre Norton, Madeleine L’Engele, and Robert E. Howard were major influences. Service’s The Spell of the Yukon; L’ Amour’s Sacketts saga; and Howard’s Conan stories were all formative.

These days, I look to writers such as Beau Johnson, Hilary Davidson, J Todd Scott, and Thomas Pluck (to rattle off a handful) to energize my own work.

What was the last truly great book that you read?

Collection: Convulsive, by Joe Koch (coming in spring 2022). Surreal, beautifully written, and timely.

Novel: The Fisherman, by John Langan. Cosmic horror informed by the classic and contemporary masters of the art.

Graphic Novel: The Double Walker, by Noah Bailey, Michael Conrad, and Taylor Esposito. Ancient legends impinge upon a hapless modern-day couple. Full of dread and exquisitely illustrated.

Finally, what are your future publishing plans? And are there any more Isaiah Coleridge books in the pipeline?

A couple of horror/dark fantasy collections are in the works. I’m writing a dark novel featuring dark ages versions of Coleridge and Robard. In coming years, they’ll show up (and their various alter egos) in a few short stories and novellas as well.

Bio:

Laird Barron spent his early years in Alaska. He is the author of several books, including The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, Swift to Chase, and Blood Standard. His work has also appeared in many magazines and anthologies. Barron currently resides in the Rondout Valley writing stories about the evil that men do.

Website: lairdbarronbooks.com

Book Review: The Puppet Show by M.W. Craven

THE PUPPET SHOW (WASHINGTON POE BOOK 1)

Author: M.W. Craven

Publisher: Constable

Release Date: June 2018

At the outset of The Puppet Show, a serial killer – subsequently dubbed the Immolation Man – is burning people alive in the Lake District’s prehistoric stone circles. His methodology may be grisly, but his approach is meticulous and he leaves no clues for the police to pick over. However, when the name of disgraced detective Washington Poe is found carved into the charred remains of the third victim, the curmudgeonly Cumbrian cop is brought back from suspension and thrust into the heart of an investigation he wants no part of. Partnered with Tilly Bradshaw, a talented but socially awkward civilian analyst, Poe sets out to uncover the culprit – and work out his own twisted link to the killer.

As regular visitors to this blog will know, I’m not a frequent reader of police procedurals, as they tend to leave me cold. I’m happy to report that The Puppet Show completely upended my expectations! The improbably named Washington Poe is an enjoyably damaged protagonist and someone who you immediately find yourself rooting for. (As has been pointed out elsewhere, Poe is arguably the closest a British crime writer has come to conjuring up a homegrown Harry Bosch to date.) Further, the protective arm he quickly extends around Tilly – who has an autism spectrum disorder (no labels are ever applied) – marks the start of an unlikely, but formidable, partnership.

Crammed full of astute observations and piercing background details, The Puppet Show is a strong piece of writing that boasts solid characterisation throughout. As Poe’s investigation unfolds, Craven takes us to some unapologetically dark places. The gloomy rural setting combined with an increasingly queasy mystery give the book a genuinely sinister charge. Without wanting to give too much away, there’s a vicious twist that unlocks the horrible central mystery, and I never saw it coming!

The Puppet Show is a cracking thriller, and I’m keen to see whether the subsequent books (Black Summer/The Curator/Dead Ground/The Botanist) are able to maintain the gripping, disturbing heights achieved in this book. Impressive stuff.

Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: Blood Standard by Laird Barron

BLOOD STANDARD (ISAIAH COLERIDGE BOOK 1)

Author: Laird Barron

Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Release Date: May 2018

After a brutally entertaining opening section detailing his life as a mob enforcer in Alaska, Blood Standard uproots the hulking Isaiah Coleridge to the bucolic surroundings of upstate New York for a fresh start. However, Coleridge’s plans for a more sedate existence go up in smoke when a teenage girl disappears, and he realises that his unique skill-set is much in demand. The only problem is, by making a big noise in a quiet town, Isaiah finds himself attracting the attention of precisely the kind of people he moved there to avoid…

Blood Standard is a snappy, bloody-knuckled page-turner that mashes up well-worn private eye tropes with tricks from the lone-wolf hardman locker to endearing effect. Our protagonist is an unusually thoughtful tough guy – prone to folksy ruminations as much as cynical wisecracks, and while he is reluctant to return to a world of pain and violence, he is undeniably good at dishing it out!

Coleridge is engaging company throughout and while he makes friends as readily as he makes enemies, it is his memorably violent misadventures that impress the most – notably Barron’s lyrical descriptions of mayhem. With a satisfyingly fleshed-out back story, a juicy employment history and a combustible father-son relationship, there is plenty to sink your teeth into here, and Blood Standard is definitely worth checking out if you are in search of a postmodern PI yarn.

This book is followed by Black Mountain (2019) and Worse Angels (2020) and I look forward to checking out another slab of Barron’s bone-crunching pulp further down the line.

Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski

SIX STORIES (SIX STORIES BOOK 1)

Author: Matt Wesolowski

Publisher: Orenda Books

Release Date: December 2016

Six Stories is the opening instalment of the stomach-churning podcast series produced by secretive online journalist Scott King. 20 years on from the notorious death-by-misadventure of teenager Tom Jeffries – at an outward bound centre located on Northumberland’s Scarclaw Fell – the enigmatic King tracks down the key figures who knew Tom, and attempts to unravel the truth about the boy’s demise. As the interviews unfold, the host finds himself exploring the sinister legends that hang like a shroud over the ill-fated location, and realises that nothing is quite what it seems. Will King uncover the truth, or will his questions just churn up rotten grievances?

After enjoying Changeling (the third book in the ‘Six Stories’ series) last year, I wanted to go back to the source, and see where it all began. The eponymous series opener represents a blistering opening salvo, and did not disappoint. Wesolowski serves up an effortless blend of the supernatural and the mundane, and in Six Stories toxic friendships and grisly folklore are intertwined like drunken teenagers in a bunk bed.

While the podcast set-up offers a quirky narrative hook, Six Stories is a gritty, disturbing thriller that excels with its well-observed, convincing characterisation. The author takes a deep dive into the histories and motivations of a disparate collection of protagonists, and the characterisation is well-observed and convincing throughout. (Note: while I’m loathe to mention lockdown in a book review, the combination of socially distanced interviews and an exploration of ominous rural landscapes also felt weirdly appropriate in a post-COVID world!)

Six Stories is riveting and horrifying in equal measure, and I look forward to checking out the other books in the series.

Review by Tom Leins

The Interrogation Room – An Interview With Morgan Boyd

Next up in the Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with Morgan Boyd to discuss his new short story collection, More Devils Than Hell Can Hold.

Firstly, congratulations on the publication of More Devils Than Hell Can Hold! How would you pitch the collection to potential readers?

A junkie punk rocker’s revenge unfolds during a pot dispensary robbery. A surf rivalry in Santa Cruz escalates to arson and murder. An escaped convict hides out on a rural farm that turns out to be worse than prison. An incarcerated mixed martial artist enters a ‘fight to the death’ tournament for a chance at freedom. A hitman on the run finds love in a small New England town, just as his past catches up with him. A rockabilly couple hides from the mob in the wrong town. These dark and humorous stories, brimming with moral turpitude, and many more of the same ilk lie in wait within the pages of More Devils Than Hell Can Hold.

How hard was it to select the stories – and indeed the running order?

I chose these tales because they were accepted by various crime fiction websites in the past. I figured if they could pass muster with those outlets, they could hold their own in this collection. When it came to selecting the running order, I fumbled about in the dark, praying for a sign that never came.

What is the oldest story in the book? How do you think your style has evolved since then?

‘A Hell of a Hideout’ is the oldest story in the collection. It was inspired by an event that occurred near me during my childhood. In 1988, in downtown Sacramento, the police caught a serial killer. Her name was Dorothy Puente. She murdered her boarders to cash their social security checks, and buried their bodies in her backyard. When I wrote ‘A Hell of a Hideout’ I was trying to imitate Jim Thompson. These days, I don’t try to imitate other writers. Through lots of practice and life experience, I’ve been working on developing my own writing voice.

Do you have a favourite story in the collection? If so, why is it your favourite?

I don’t have a favorite, but there is a line I really like. In the story ‘Charlie Knuckles’ the protagonist says, “He’s just a scared little cow, and I’m the big bad hamburger factory.” I don’t tend to laugh at my own writing, but this line made me chuckle.

What do you hope that readers take away from the book?

I hope that readers take away a bit of entertainment from these stories, and that it makes readers want to further explore the genre, and discover some of the amazing contemporary crime fiction out there in the scene.

Do you read mainstream crime fiction, or are your tastes firmly rooted in the independent scene? Which authors are on your must-read list?

I mostly just read indie when it comes to crime. I definitely consider Tom Leins a must read! Your writing is very descriptive, action driven, and laconic. How do you fit these big stories into such brief tales? There are many must-read independent authors out there. Presently, the I’m about to delve into books by Chris McGinley, Tom Pitts, Rob Pierce, Alec Cizak, Patrick Whitehurst, and Preston Lang.

Which contemporary writers do you consider to be your peers?

I still feel very nascent in the independent crime scene, so it is hard to think of others as my peers. I’m amazed at how many writers that I look up to have taken the time to talk to me, to give me encouragement, to point out my mistakes, and to read my work. I consider most of these writers more as mentors than peers. Guys and gals like Tom Pitts, Patrick Whitehurst, Paul D. Brazill, Travis Richardson, Bill Baber, Rob Pierce, Jesse “Heels” Rawlins, Jim Shaffer, Kimmy Dee, Robert Ragan, Mick Rose, Jason Beech, and Beau Johnson are just a few.

If your career trajectory could follow that of any well-known writer, who would you choose, and why?

Fuck, that’s tough. If I had a say in the matter, I’d reach for the stars, and go with William Shakespeare. His writing is miles ahead of anything else I have ever read. Not only does every educational institution around the world worship Shakes, but you can buy his image on socks four hundred years after his death. You know you’ve made it when they steal your skull from your grave.

Finally, what are your future publishing plans?

I’m excited to have a short story coming out soon in the Octopi From The Sky anthology from Dumpster Fire Press. Beyond that, I’m hoping to pull off a comedic crime fiction novella, but, well, it’s a fine line between funny and shitty.

Bio: Morgan Boyd is an educator, living on the Monterey Peninsula with his wife and daughter. He has an MA in Television, Film, Radio, and Theatre from San Jose State University. Morgan has had his stories published in Out of the Gutter, Switchblade Magazine, Near to the Knuckle, Yellow Mama, Tough, Punk Noir Magazine, Shotgun Honey, and various other crime fiction websites.

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The Interrogation Room – Dead-End Jobs Special – Michael A. Gonzales and Mark Slade

Continuing my series of interviews to celebrate the release of the brand new All Due Respect anthology Dead-End Jobs: A Hitman Anthology, here are Michael A. Gonzales (‘City of Lead’) and Mark Slade (‘Get Born Again’) discussing their respective contributions!

Firstly, how would you pitch your story to potential readers?

MAG: I might be the only writer in the book that has ever been targeted by a hitman. Actually, my next-door neighbour’s ex-girlfriend put a hit on him, but the hired gun shot me instead. That was why I decided to write ‘City of Lead’ from the point of view of the person who knows he has a contract on him. Beside the wonderful 1976 movie Mikey & Nicky, I don’t personally know another tale that spends so much time with the soon to be deceased.  In my story the main character is named Blue. He seems like a nice guy, but he actually isn’t, especially in the eyes of the women he’s dated. The killer in ‘City of Lead’ teases the lead character Blue, who knows that something bad is going to happen to him. He just doesn’t know what or when it will happen.  Blue’s paranoid and afraid, but all he can do is wait for the pain.

MS: My hitman is overweight, not very smart and not really very good at his job. But he’s always lucky! What might make him unique in the genre is he’s a family man.

Themed anthologies offer a unique challenge. Did your story turn out how you expected?

MAG: It did. I’ve thought about this story for years before actually writing it. Also, in hitman books and films, they’re usually told from in the voice of the hitter; I wanted to do that was the opposite of that while still making the killer important. When I was in high-school I often got in trouble for writing papers that weren’t exactly what was asked for; with ‘City of Lead’, I’m thankful (editor) Andy Rausch let me slide.

MS: It went exactly as planned – and I can’t say that for all my stories. I kinda had the plot in my head for a few years, but I didn’t have the character – until Andy [Rausch] asked me to write a story for his hitman anthology. I recalled an episode of The Rockford Files where actor Michael Lerner played a professional snitch. I think I wrote it in a week. Maybe a few days. The ending was the hardest part to write.

Who is your favourite fictional hitman, and why?

MAG: Though I write all types of stories, my crime pieces are usually centered in Harlem and other urban environments. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), which takes place in Brooklyn, is one of my favourite films and the hitman, played by Forest Whitaker, was just so cool. Director Jim Jarmusch is one of my favourite American directors and he made an arty Blaxploitation flick with a great soundtrack by RZA. I wanted ‘City of Lead’ to be just that. Like, what would happen if Chester Himes collaborated with Jean-Patrick Manchette on a screenplay produced by Luc Besson, but directed by Park Chan-wook.

MS: It’s hard to say which one is my favorite. I really like Lawrence Block’s Keller series. He collects stamps – how bizarre for a killer. But I really like Lee Marvin in the early ‘60s version of The Killers. I also like Alan Ladd as the professional hitman in This Gun for Hire. To be honest, there are so many to choose from. Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner in Prizzi’s Honor also get an honorable mention.

If you could put together an anthology focused on a different criminal archetype, which one would you choose?

MAG: I grew-up in New York City in the 1970s, when many slum lords were burning down their properties to collect the insurance. Many people know about the Bronx, but the truth is, it was happening all over the city. That said, the criminal archetype I choose are arsonists.  Who are these people that the landlords hired to burn down apartment building, stores and factories? I would read that anthology in a heartbeat. 

MS: I’m actually putting one together. It’s called Born Under a Bad Sign: 13 Tales of Bad Luck. Unlucky criminals. Jim Thompson-type stories. Some are mixed with horror, others are SF/noir tales. I think it will turn out really good. Screaming Eye Press will put it out. It’s a publisher I started with Chauncey Haworth, Lothar Tuppan and artist Cameron Hampton.

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The Interrogation Room – Dead-End Jobs Special – Tyson Blue and Nikki Dolson

Continuing my series of interviews to celebrate the release of the brand new All Due Respect anthology Dead-End Jobs: A Hitman Anthology, here are Tyson Blue (‘Killer In A Cage’) and Nikki Dolson (‘Good Samaritan’) discussing their respective contributions!

Firstly, how would you pitch your story to potential readers?

TB: Ray Vincent, a professional contract killer, walks into an FBI office in a small city in Georgia and turns himself in. Mayhem ensues.

ND: A killer, bruised from her last job, under the influence of oxycontin, and on her way back home, interferes in a kidnapping and finds a kindred spirit.

Themed anthologies offer a unique challenge. Did your story turn out how you expected?

TB: Yes, it did. This story had been percolating in my mind for a very long time, and when I heard about this anthology, I knew immediately that it would fit perfectly. I wrote it in about three hours. It had been a story looking for a home for over forty years.

This is the third story I have sold to one of Andy’s anthologies to be set in Larey County, Georgia, the fictionalized version of a place I lived for eighteen years about thirty years ago.

In an interesting aside, almost everything in this story actually happened. I’ll leave you to figure out which is which.

ND: Once I had the first line it flowed pretty easily. Laura has always been a little impulsive. in this story she’s high and becomes the queen of poor decisions. Laura always keeps her word though so once she’s in, she’s all the way in. For better or worse.

Laura is the main character from my first book All Things Violent and this story is only the second time I’ve written about her since that book. It was great fun to write it and now I want to write a sequel to that first book.

Who is your favourite fictional hitman, and why?

TB: Right now, it would have to be Billy Summers, the protagonist and title character of Stephen King’s forthcoming novel. He kills people for a living, having figured out a way to apply the skills he learned as a sniper in Iraq to make a living in the real world. And at the same time, he has a soft side for some of the people he encounters along his way.

ND: There’s so many great ones to pick from! I admit to loving John Wick (the universe created in that series is so detailed!) and Lawrence Block’s Keller was a big influence on me but honestly, my absolute favorite hitman is Sorter from Guy Ritchie’s movie Revolver. Mark Strong played him wonderfully.

If you could put together an anthology focused on a different criminal archetype, which one would you choose?

TB: I don’t know… a terrorist, maybe? It would be quite a challenge to humanize someone like that, don’t you think?

ND: The lovers of criminals. All these people who knowingly choose to be with criminals, to be their emotional support, are terribly interesting to me. Are they in the life or are they pretending? Are they ride or die?  Do they turn tail and run at the first sign of trouble? Or do they turn in their criminal significant other to keep themselves safe and out of prison? That’s the anthology I’d put together if I had the time and connections.

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The Interrogation Room – Dead-End Jobs Special – Andy Rausch, Daniel Vlasaty and Matt Phillips

Continuing my series of interviews to celebrate the release of the brand new All Due Respect anthology Dead-End Jobs: A Hitman Anthology, here are editor Andy Rausch (‘The Silver Lining’), Daniel Vlasaty (‘Cookie’) and Matt Phillips (‘Trade For The Working Man’) discussing their respective contributions!

Firstly, how would you pitch your story to potential readers?

AR: This is a very personal story about a troubled hitman going to confession for the first time to confess his sins. This is a character (Orlando Williams) that I’ve already written about in two novels, The Suicide Game and Layla’s Score.

DV: A powerful drug dealer enlists a kid named Cookie to do a shooting on Chicago’s far north side.

MP: A man needs a job, right? Well, being a hitman pays pretty damn well. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. And sometimes… what you gotta do is use a shotgun.

Themed anthologies offer a unique challenge. Did your story turn out how you expected?

AR: I was the anthology editor, so I knew I had to bring something qualitative to the table. You look at the line-up of writers in this – it’s a damn murderer’s row – so you have to bring your “A” game. When you’re the editor, people are looking to see if you can hold your own. I had originally written a different story for the collection (an idea I still like), but the idea for ‘The Silver Lining’ came to me all at once, mentally, and I liked it. So, I pretty much knew what it would be right away. I must confess that I stole some elements of it from an unpublished half-finished manuscript I had sitting in the proverbial drawer.

DV: Cookie was a story I was already thinking about when Andy asked me to write something for the book. I had been wanting to do it as a novel for a few years now but could never get it to work. I think it works great as a short story and am very happy with how it turned out.

MP: Writing for an anthology is a challenge, but it’s also fun to look at your own ‘piece of the puzzle’ and try to make it not only fit the theme, but also be unique enough to stand out. Of course, that’s the challenge with writing crime/noir anyway, no matter the sub-genre. None of my stories turn out how I expect…Instead, they become – I hope – what they’re meant to be. I’m just super-thankful to have a story included in this fantastic book. Crazy to have a story in a book with Max Allan Collins and Joe Lansdale and Tom Pitts and Rob Pierce… Just so honored.

Who is your favourite fictional hitman, and why?

AR: Keller, the protagonist from Lawrence Block’s Hit Man series is pretty fascinating to me. He’s a hitman out there clipping people, but all the while, he’s more interested in the next stamp he’s going to obtain for his stamp collection than he is the job itself. Having said that, Jules Winnfield, the character Samuel L. Jackson plays in Pulp Fiction, is pretty great too. Just imagine looking up the barrel of his gun while listening to him screaming and incorrectly reciting Bible verses. He’s a scary motherfucker.

DV:I don’t know. Maybe John Wick. It’s probably not the most sophisticated answer but those movies are my go-to if I just want to chill out on the couch and be dumb. I love excessive violence and almost nonsensical plots.

MP: No question, my favorite fictional hitman is Charlie ‘Little’ Bigger from Jim Thompson’s noir masterpiece, Savage Night. The book, to me, is perfect in its construction, craft, and nuance… It’s also an analysis of mental fracturing, an indictment of capitalism, and a moody examination of terrible motivations and fleeting rewards. Pure brilliance. If you haven’t read this one – READ IT ASAP. After reading Dead-End Jobs, of course.

If you could put together an anthology focused on a different criminal archetype, which one would you choose?

AR: I have an idea about this, but I’d rather not say at the moment. 😉

DV: The more straightforward one would be drug dealers/junkies, but that’s maybe too easy, kind of boring, been done already. A more abstract idea would be stories about “idiot” criminals. You know what I mean. These are dumbasses who are bad at crime, in over their heads. Not the sophisticates that have every detail of a job planned out fully, more like the person who robs the same liquor store twice in as many weeks… something like that.

MP: I thought I’d answer this one easily, but I’m having trouble… How about a Femme Fatale anthology? Has that been done? A male shouldn’t edit that one though… Maybe one focused on ‘accomplices’ or how about ‘perpetrators of passion’? God, I could come up with so many – but guess what? Putting these anthologies together is a whole hell of a lot of work. Many thanks to the writer Andy Rausch for doing this one, and to All Due Respect Books for publishing the thing. All I did was write a story – they did the real work.

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The Interrogation Room – Dead-End Jobs Special – Paul Heatley, Tom Pitts and Rob Pierce

Kicking off a series of interviews to celebrate the release of the brand new All Due Respect anthology Dead-End Jobs: A Hitman Anthology, here are Paul Heatley (‘Killer’), Tom Pitts (‘Company Man’) and Rob Pierce (‘Nothing More Than Death’) discussing their respective contributions!

Firstly, how would you pitch your story to potential readers?

PH: ‘Killer’ tells the story of a down and out ex-hitman who’s given in to his demons. He’s offered a chance to reconnect with his young daughter when approached by her mother to take vengeance on a dog-fighting neo-Nazi.

TP: For those still on unemployment, a primer for an alternative to the gig economy ‘til you land that dream job.

RP: There will be readers? Oh shit. Mine is about a hitman who reluctantly takes a job killing a guy he likes.

Themed anthologies offer a unique challenge. Did your story turn out how you expected?

PH: I’d actually been working on ‘Killer’ in various drafts and guises for about seven years or so, so when [editor] Andy Rausch reached out, I knew exactly which story to send him!

TP: You have to be outside the traditional box. But not too far, like not beat poetry far. Something about the shape of the story or the point of view should be unique. So, here’s hoping.

RP: I got no expectations. That’s a song.

Who is your favourite fictional hitman, and why?

PH: Probably Blackbird from Elmore Leonard’s Killshot.

TP: Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men. He’s a sociopath to the very end.

RP: Anyone but that incompetent boob from The Godfather. Oh wait, there is one. The Jackal, from Day of the Jackal. Favorite real hitman was the one on Tom Snyder who, when Tom asked what he’d do if Tom pulled his mask off, said in a menacing growl, “I’d cut your heart out.”

If you could put together an anthology focused on a different criminal archetype, which one would you choose?

PH: If you’d asked me before this book came out, I would’ve said hitman, but it’s been done now!

TP: Hobos. Criminal hobos. The shoplifting, get off my bench, steal your cans, and stab-you-for-a-bottle-of-Popov kind.

RP: Failed gamblers. They’re always guys on the run, right? Or they stick around and get punished.

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The Interrogation Room – An Interview With James D.F. Hannah

Next up in the Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with the Shamus Award-winning James D.F. Hannah to discuss his Henry Malone series, which starts with the recently reissued Midnight Lullaby (Down & Out Books).

Firstly, congratulations on the publication of Midnight Lullaby! This is the first in your series of books about State Trooper-turned-PI Henry Malone. How would you pitch the book to potential readers?

Justified but Raylan Givens as a nine-fingered recovering alcoholic and chronic asshole.”

The series was originally self-published, but are now set to be reissued by Down & Out Books – what prompted you to initially go down the self-publishing route?

I wrote Midnight Lullaby around 2015, after the Amazon Kindle boom had begun. I knew publishing was changing, and that a lot of mid-list writers I enjoyed were moving to the e-book realm after getting dropped by their publishers. Midnight Lullaby was always a “small” story, with a difficult lead character, and it was set in southern West Virginia. None of that felt like a recipe most publishers would be interested in, and I didn’t know much about indie publishing, so I decided to chuck it out into the world and see how it went.

I believe that there are five Malone books in total. Without spoilers, how does his character arc unfold?

I say the Malone books are essentially a Pinocchio story, where the goal is for Henry to become a man. When the books start, he’s already fallen off the wagon, he’s lying to his AA sponsor, he’s popping pain pills, he’s still in love with the wife who kicked him out, and he’s lost the job that he thought defined him—he’s a toxic mess. I want to grow and develop the character of Henry Malone, and have him come to terms with the choices he made, and become the person he’d fought against becoming. Of course, that’s not a perfect journey, and there are bumps and challenges along the way.

PI fiction is responsible for some truly iconic characters. Which ones influenced Malone?

Robert B. Parker and Spenser are obvious; all PI fiction exists either pre- or post-Parker, and enough can’t be said about what he brought to the genre, both good and bad. Another is Lawrence Block and Matt Scudder; Block offers real depth and growth to the character of Scudder, and it’s probably the most consistently brilliant series of PI novels ever written. Loren Estleman’s Amos Walker novels are always worth paying attention to for remaining so old-school but never being pastiche. And obviously Sue Grafton for making Kinsey Milhone so wonderfully human and flawed and believable and funny.

How conscious are you of bringing something new to the table and not imitating classic PIs of years gone by?

I know the books carry the collective weight of their influences, but I also want them to have their own voice, and for Henry to be his own person. It’s why the Appalachian background is so important, because the culture is very different there from nearly anywhere else, and it gives a contrast for telling a PI story. Also, Henry isn’t much of a knight errant; he’s not a brawler with the heart of a poet, or he’s less about being charming and more about being an asshole sometimes.

Your book Behind the Wall of Sleep won the 2020 Shamus Award for Best Original Private Eye Paperback. How much of a boost did that give you?

It was an unbelievable surprise and just such a sense of validation for the books and the writing. It was my second nomination, and to be nominated for a self-published book, alongside authors who’d won the award previously, who’d been nominated previously and were traditionally published and who I am a fan of, that was an honor by itself. Finding out I’d gotten the award ruined my day in all the best ways, because it let me think “You know, maybe you’re not bad at this after all.”

Down & Out Books has built up an impressive stable of authors in recent years. Do you have any particular favourites?

I like publishing with Down & Out because they have such a huge list of talent, it keeps my ego in check. I really love Dana King’s Penns River novels; it’s a great procedural series that harkens back to McBain’s 87th Precinct. Beau Johnson’s Bishop Rider stories are a dark ride, and he’s building this entire mythology in bite-sized increments that demand to be read. It’s tough to find new great things to say about Angel Luis Colón and Hell Chose Me, but I’ll just add that all the good things are true, and he is not only an incredible storytelling but a wonderful advocate for writers. I really dig the A Grifter’s Song series that Frank Zafiro edits; he’s brought together a great, diverse group of writers to tell very different and fun con game stories. Plus, Chris McGinley’s Coal Black is an astonishing collection of noir stories, all set in the coal mining country of eastern Kentucky, so they obviously speak to my heart

Do you read mainstream crime fiction, or are your tastes firmly rooted in the independent scene?

Those are tough lines to call, because you have great writers like S.A. Cosby with Blacktop Wasteland or David Heska Wanbli Weiden and Winter Counts, who both bring very indie vibes in their storytelling but via mainstream publishers. They’re dealing with race and social justice and cultural identity in big ways that feel very counter to that otherwise safe, neutered norm for mainstream publishing. I’m all for that, but yeah, my tendency will always be toward indie writers like Christa Faust or Gabino Iglesias, who take huge fucking swings with every book and aren’t afraid to put it all out there.

If you could recommend one crime novel that people are unlikely to have heard of, what would it be?

Within the crime fiction community, Jake Hinkson is a known quantity, but he really should be famous. He’s one of the few writers crafting pure noir, and he often does so while also exploring the toxicity of modern religion. Any of his books are worth the time, but if you can find Hell on Church Street, grab hold of it and don’t let go. Though when you’ll done, you’ll want a shower. It’s just unrelentingly brutal noir, written to be tighter than a drum and with an ending that’s just a kick to the crotch.

If your career trajectory could follow that of any well-known writer, who would you choose, and why?

I really look up to writers like Block, who’s published for more than 60 years and still putting out new work, or Parker and McBain, who were writing to their very end. I got into this game later in life, so I’ve got some catching up to do, but I’m having the time of my life getting to do so.

Finally, what are your future publishing plans?

Right now, I’m working on the sixth Malone novel, tentatively titled Splendid Isolation, and then I’ll spend the summer working on a standalone set in 1970s Kentucky before I plunge into ideas for Malone #7.

Bio: James D.F. Hannah is the Shamus Award-winning author of the Henry Malone series; his most recent novel, Behind the Wall of Sleep, won the 2020 Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original. His short fiction has appeared in Rock and a Hard Place, Crossed Genres, Shotgun Honey, and The Anthology of Appalachian Writers, as well as the upcoming anthologies Trouble No More: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Allman Brothers and Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel.

Website:

https://www.jamesdfhannah.com/

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