Book Review: Devil Red by Joe R. Lansdale

DEVIL RED (HAP & LEONARD BOOK 8)

Author: Joe R. Lansdale

Publisher: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

Release Date: March 2012

(Note: UK version published by Mulholland Books in January 2017)

When ex-cop turned private investigator Marvin Hanson asks his buddies Hap Collins and Leonard Pine to look into a cold case for him, they are happy to oblige – and keen to sink their teeth into a case that doesn’t start with baseball bats and end with broken bones. As they dig into the matter at hand, they realise that both victims were set to inherit some serious money. Ominously, the female victim, Mini, was associated with a local vampire cult – the leader of which is now serving jail time for murder. Events take another sinister turn, when Hap and Leonard establish that a red devil’s head was painted on a tree near the crime scene – and this symbol has been daubed elsewhere, at the scenes of other unsolved crimes. Not for the first time, the boys find themselves entering a world of pain.

I tore through the first seven books in the Hap and Leonard series many years ago, only for my fun to be derailed when Devil Red wasn’t readily available in the UK. Spurred on by my belated viewing of the superb TV adaptation of the (sadly cancelled) Hap and Leonard TV show, I finally tracked down a copy of Devil Red – more than a decade after its initial release. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely! Devil Red is a fantastic entry in a fantastic series.

Hap and Leonard may be thoroughly unsuited to work as private investigators, but they are perfectly capable of butting heads with anyone complicating their quest for answers. The story is tough and fast-paced, buoyed by Lansdale’s effervescent storytelling and razor-sharp one-liners. The mystery itself is gripping and the book even explores how the duo cope when they are prised apart, exposed and vulnerable. With the odds firmly against them, the sinister case builds up to an enjoyably blood-splattered finale.

As ever, Lansdale makes the volatile concoction of dark humour, stomach-churning violence and off-beat characterisation look easy – and it really isn’t. Hap and Leonard may appear to be cryogenically frozen between their various misadventures, but they always make for entertaining company, and these books represent one of the least formulaic series in crime fiction. Now I’m back on track I’m excited to tackle the rest of the books!

Review by Tom Leins

The Interrogation Room – An Interview with Paul J. Garth

Next up in the Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with Paul J. Garth to discuss his new book, The Low White Plain (Down & Out Books).

Congratulations on the publication of your new book! How would you pitch The Low White Plain to potential readers?

Thanks for having me! I’d pitch it as a story in which two very capable people find themselves, through various circumstances, facing down some seriously bleak shit, with no way out. There are neo-Nazi occultists, some of the most powerful people in the state, cartel connections, and private militaries, all gunning for a stack of money, meanwhile Sam and Rachel, the two main characters, are just trying to figure out their next move. Chaos reigns, man. And, on a personal level, it’s a book about anxiety and fear and the strength it takes to get through the day when every aspect of where you are feels like it’s threatening to kill you.

What came first: the blizzard or the storyline?

Both, I think. The Low White Plain is set amongst one of those blizzards we get here in Nebraska, the kind that presses down for a few days, lets up, then comes back even harder. I don’t think there was ever a conception of the book that didn’t involve a blizzard, but that’s partly because everything I do is set here in Nebraska, and extreme weather is a hallmark of the state. What I can say for sure is that, when I started writing the book, the blizzard was in the first sentence, and I wrote that sentence in late November of last year, as snow from a decent sized storm began tapping at the window.

I was surprised to realise that this book is the 27th entry in the ‘A Grifter’s Song’ series, which was launched by Frank Zafiro back in 2019. Were you obliged to read the whole series before getting involved, or were you given loose guidelines to adhere to?

If I can be honest, my reading has taken a huge hit since the pandemic began. I don’t know if it’s because of the pandemic itself, or because of the number of editorial gigs I started in 2020, both Shotgun Honey and Rock and a Hard Place, but my personal reading time has slowed way down. Which is a long way of saying, no, I didn’t read all 26entries in front of mine, though I did read a few. Also, Frank Zafiro, the Series Editor, sent me a Series Bible, which included rundowns of most places the series had been set previously, and summaries of what happened. Still, I knew from the jump I wanted to do something pretty different. A series about cons, you can assume most people are interested in the con itself, but I really wanted to dig in to the conmen, to find out how they ticked, and see what would happen when they start on their back foot and have nowhere else to go.

Writing for a series is weird. You want to both stay true-ish to what has come before, and give other people who will come after you room to manoeuvre, but also make your own mark. I write bleak shit, so it only seemed natural that I take these series characters and start them from the position of, “you’re fucked” and see how much deeper they could dig themselves while still surviving. That The Low White Plain ends on, what I think of anyway, as a happy ending, speaks to the power, adaptability, and survivability of these characters.

Did you incorporate themes and ideas that you were already toying with, or did you create the premise especially for this project?

I don’t think anyone is ever actually rid of any theme they start exploring, so, yeah, these were things I was definitely thinking about before starting. The cool thing is, though, is that Sam and Rachel gave me entirely fresh perspectives to explore and refine those ideas through. Sometimes, it’s at the edges. One of the Bad Guys in the book is really interested in a specific brand of Satanism I’d been curious about for a while, but Sam, the main character, get to do a full-on examination of The Haunted Land and the sense of being hunted that comes along with it, which is something that’s been in my fiction for almost a decade now.

You are well known for your evocative short fiction in indie crime circles – how difficult was it to make the jump to longer material? Thematically, what can readers of your short stories expect to see in The Low White Plain?

Dude, it was so fucking hard. It’s been so fucking hard. I really wish this was something people were a bit more open about, because, for everyone who says A Novel Is Easier Than a Short Story, there are probably twenty short story writers who have a trunk full of trashed novels that never made it anywhere. Like, for real. Take a look at any short story anthologies, including the Best Of or Best Americans. How many of the writers in there have novels? Fifty percent? And there’s a reason for that! When you get good at short stories, you’ve essentially trained yourself how to best communicate one lasting, all important, transcendental moment, one that is either hopeful, or filled with doom. Everything in your story builds to that moment, and anything that does not serve that moment has to be cut out. There are exceptions, like, The Death of Sweet Mister comes to mind, but when you get to novels, the rules of the game are totally changed. The only thing that carries over are things like character or dialogue or plotting, which, yeah, those are really important, but if you don’t know how to make them work in a longer structure, if you don’t know yet how to add subplot and combine it with main plot, you’re fucked. So, yeah, I have a whole bunch of longer work that no one will ever see. It’s one of the reasons my short story output has dropped off so much the last few years. There have been, at this point, three novels that no one will ever see. Because I’ve been trying to figure this out. Thankfully, The Low White Plain is the closest I’ve gotten to getting a grasp on all this. I’m mostly really happy with how it turned out, but the only reason I was comfortable this time is because I’d actually written a novel with someone, a collaborative thing I’ll hopefully be able to talk more about in the near future, and I learned a ton. Like, shit I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. It’s SO hard.

As far as thematics goes, anyone who is familiar with my short stories will find a lot they recognize in The Low White Plain. It’s still full of violence and existential dread and, “Who Will Survive and What Will be Left of Them?”, but, hopefully, it’s a journey people enjoy for more than 15 pages.

With reference to your work as a flash fiction editor at Shotgun Honey, I’m interested to know: how does reading and assessing so much short fiction impact on your own writing practices?

Editing for Shotgun Honey and Rock and a Hard Place is both one of the most rewarding things I’ve gotten the chance to do, but also one of the most time consuming. There’s this sense of trust when you send a piece in to a magazine, that whoever is reading it will approach it with a totally open mind, no matter how much crap they’ve already read that day, and that they’ll do their best to connect with it, even if it’s not in the cleanest shape, and I try to respect that trust any time I’m reading or editing. Sometimes that means, during a submission call, I won’t get through more than three or four pieces in a day, and sometimes it means I can’t do anything at all. If it’s been a hard day and I can’t drop that last little bit of internal cynicism, it’d be super shitty of me to get anywhere near the slush pile. And if I’m reading or editing, it means no writing. Like, it just can’t happen. If I write, then try to read or edit, I find myself thinking about stories in a different way, not how the writer intended them to be written, but how I would be writing them, and honestly, that’s bullshit. That’s not what anyone else is asking for.

But when it is time to sit down and write? There are both plusses and minuses. The big plus is that I get to see a lot of stories and sense what works and what doesn’t, even still at the idea stage. Or, if I stubbornly push on with an idea that I know might not work, I’ve read enough stories to have a sense of how I might navigate those challenges. Honestly, that’s the best part. Editors are presented a lot of the time as Gods Up On the Mountain, but really we’re just people who have a sense of what we like and some technical skill. The actual conjuration of writing? We’re students too. We’re all students.

The minus is, I have to be very, very, careful not to lift elements of stories I’ve read. Just a couple weeks ago I had an idea for something – something I think could be really cool – but I’m not going to write it, just because, shortly after I had the idea, I could sense a very faint bell ringing somewhere in the back of my head, a sense that I’d read an element of my idea somewhere else, maybe in a slush pile. And the thing is, I might be totally wrong about that! It could have come from a TV show or maybe it was an idea I’d had previously and put it away for whatever reason. But the possibility of accidentally taking an element of someone’s work? That’s something to be avoided at all cost.

This book was published by Down & Out Books; do you read mainstream crime fiction, or are your tastes firmly rooted in the independent scene?

These days I read a pretty healthy mix. The last month I’ve read a couple of books from smaller presses, and a couple of Big Five books, but I think, in Crime Fiction specifically, it’s a designation without a difference most of the time. The stuff from the Big Five is usually really great, and the stuff from the smaller publishers is fantastic as well. The only difference is marketing and shelf-space, and a bunch of ways we’ve been trained by retail marketing to accept this kind of almost caste-based system. Even the phrases “independent press” or “indy scene” that a lot of people use, I try not to use those phrases. Nine outta ten writers in the “independent scene” want, some of them really desperately, to be with a big publisher, to be “mainstream”. So, I think the “Independent scene” is really the “Aspirational scene”.

I know some people will read this and say the difference is the amount of sex and violence you can put in to a “mainstream” book, but I read Andrew Vachss’s Shella a couple months back, and, holy shit, man, that book has more intense violence and sex in it than just about anything I’ve read, ever. And it was put out by Knopf!

But I also try to read widely. I majored in Literature in college, and I still keep up with some of that writing, and I read a lot of non-fiction as well. And lately, I’ve been reading a lot of Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery type stuff, which, honestly, I’ve been incredibly stoked on. For some reason I still can’t get in to sci-fi, but gimme Clerics and dragons and a map in the front of a book and I’m happy.

Which contemporary writers do you consider to be your peers?

This is such a hard question, because, and I truly, deeply, mean this, I am lucky enough to have a whole lot of incredibly talented friends who let me hang out with them and talk shop with them and who give me tips and I help look at their work in the beta stages and they do the same for me, but I know I’m not half the writer they are, and I wonder what lucky star winked at me to allow me in to their circle. I’m not their peer, I’m just the lucky dude who gets to hang out. But, to name names: Hector Acosta, James DF Hannah, Curtis Ippolito, Nikki Dolson, Nick Kolakowski, Bobby Mathews, Mark Westmoreland, Beau Johnson, John Hornor Jacobs, Rob D. Smith, Steve Weddle, Rusty Barnes, Jeff Macfee, James Quealley, Chris Harding Thornton, John Woods, Holly West, Jerry Bloomfield, Angel Luis Colon, and of course, S.A. Cosby. And, fuck it, I’m gonna add Jordan Harper here too, though the main thing he and I chat about is doom metal. 

Then there are the people who I don’t talk with as much, but I see their work and am just always impressed, like Gabriel Hart, Steve Golds, C.W. Blackwell, Mike McHone, Rob Pierce, J.B Stevens, Serena Jayne, and Megan Lucas.

Sometimes I sit back and think about how wild it is to know, and be friends with, so many absurdly talented people. Like, how cool is it that, almost every single time you open an anthology, you’re going to see the name and story of someone who you know, and that you’re friends with? It’s a fucking blessing, man, and I hope that feeling never goes away.

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

This is a tough one, man!

There are a couple I’d have to choose between. I’d like to be known as someone who, like James Lee Burke, never removed the poetics from their work, even when they were writing about some really gnarly stuff. Prose, and the beauty within prose, is really important to me, so that’d have to be part of the equation.  I’d also like to be known as someone like Joe Lansdale, who does pretty much whatever they want, and are fearless about it, and I’d like to be known as someone like Megan Abbot, someone who understands the genre enough to take tension and place it in unique places with unique plots. But I think if you take all those elements and add it up, you end up with Laird Barron. Laird is a fantastic writer, who drops incredible prose in these dread-filled novels and novellas, and changes what he’s doing on a dime. He’s truly a fantastic writer with a smaller but intensely dedicated group of fans who are deeply clued in to his work. If that’s not something to aspire to, I don’t know what is.

Finally, what are your future publishing plans?

I’m lucky enough to have some cool things coming up, including the collaborative novel I mentioned earlier. I can’t talk about it much now, but I think people are going to be surprised, both by how lucky I got with my partner, but also the subject and plot. It’s a bit of a departure for me, but it still fits. Other than that, I’ve got a few short stories I’m working on right now, a novella about crime and train-hopping and dead family members called Blood Bends the Rail that I’m still trying to knock in to shape, and ideas for a solo novel that I hope to start writing in the next couple months.

Before I go, let me just say how much fun this was, Tom. The questions were great, and I’m a huge fan of your work. As an aside, I can vividly remember reading Skull Meat on my phone while feeding my daughter her bottle a few years back, then thumbing through Meat Bubbles while rocking her to sleep. Talk about an association that’s hard to shake. Thank you so much!

Bio: Paul J. Garth is a Best American Mystery and Suspense distinguished story author who has been published in Thuglit, Tough, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Plots with Guns, Crime Factory, Rock and a Hard Place, and several other magazines and anthologies. He lives and writes in Nebraska with his family, where he eats too many tacos, listens to too much heavy metal, and enjoys just the right amount of bourbon. An editor at Rock and a Hard Place and Shotgun Honey, he is at work on his first novel, and can be found online by following @pauljgarth

Website: https://twitter.com/PauljGarth

Buy The Low White Plain!

The Interrogation Room – An Interview with Bobby Mathews

Next up in the Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with Bobby Mathews to discuss his new book, Living the Gimmick.

Congratulations on the imminent publication of your new book! How would you pitch Living the Gimmick to potential readers?

Like a lot of books, Living the Gimmick comes down to a pretty simple premise: What if someone murdered the biggest wrestling star on the planet, and his best friend had to navigate the current ‘sports entertainment’ world to solve the crime?
Then, of course, I had to complicate it by also having the protagonist go through the journey of discovering that his so-called best friend wasn’t exactly who/what he was supposed to be. That was kind of fun, as I had Todd Snider’s song “You Think You Know Somebody” running through my head the whole time.

For years I’ve been fascinated by the intersection of criminality and wrestling. I’ve always found that the deeper you dig, the more lurid the stories get. Were there any specific real-life incidents that influenced your plot?

Oh, absolutely. The most famous one is probably Jerry Graham stealing his mother’s body from a hospital morgue and getting into a showdown with the cops over it. But I think if you pay attention to it, there is a ugly underbelly of sexual crimes that either go unreported or ignored completely.

There are some ugly things in wrestling that make Harvey Weinstein’s crimes pale in comparison. Like, you have the Fabulous Moolah, who would train female wrestlers but also credibly accused of farming the young women out as ‘talent’ to promotions in more ways than one.

Then there are guys like Bruiser Bob Sweetan, a longtime territory wrestler who went to prison for molesting his own daughter. Matt Bourne (later Doink in WWE) got run out of Georgia in the early 1980s when he was a tag team champion because he got caught with an underage girl. Art Barr raped a girl in Oregon. Jerry “the King” Lawler was, I believe, indicted for rape and sodomy of an underage girl. Mind you, these are just off the top of my head. There are guys in the business who have spent time in prison, been indicted for, or credibly accused of robbery, rape, murder. And, of course, I’m not even touching on the Chris Benoit situation. Ugh.

Especially in the 1970s and 1980s, but even into the 90s and 2000s, wrestling could be kind of a haven for outlaws.

What is the first wrestling match that you recall watching? Why did it strike such a chord with you?

The first was probably British journeyman Johnny Eagles vs. some underneath guy that I don’t recall. But Eagles was billed as “the Houdini of wrestling.” That captured my 4-year-old imagination for the program, and then later on in the program you had these outlandish people making incredible claims and these wild-looking brawls. So, Johnny Eagles hooked me, and everything else kept me coming back.

I think part of the reason it struck that chord with me as a kid — as it did with so many kids I knew — is that it felt like the life I was experiencing as a child in school, where there were rules that were either flouted or selectively enforced, and a lot of the time the kids did whatever they could get away with. You know how wrestling referees get distracted or misdirected? You could get away with a lot when the teachers weren’t looking.

Not me, though. I read a lot and brought an apple for the teacher every day. How was I supposed to know there was a worm in it?

Has your interest in wrestling waned over time? Are you conflicted over wrestling’s past and wrestling’s present?

It’s definitely waned, because wrestling went corporate. Part of the magic was the characters who were unpredictable, who would do something outrageous to work up the crowd. You look at the 1970s-80s crowds, the height of the territory days, and you had fans who believed — even if only for the time that they were in the arena — that the action they were seeing was real. The ability to get fans to suspend their disbelief is long gone, and now there’s no heat to it. Mainstream corporate wrestling — I’m talking WWE here — is booked to be as inoffensive and bland as possible, because they don’t want to upset their advertisers or endanger their TV contracts.

There are some companies who are doing interesting things right now, but I really prefer old-school territory wrestling even though I still pay some attention to what’s going on today.

Do you have any favourite eras, or matches that you wanted to pay lip service to in your book?

In many ways, Living the Gimmick is a love letter to territory wrestling. As I was writing it, I always thought of the main character as a sort of stand-in for legendary wrestler Arn Anderson, and I was definitely inspired by some of his true-life details (such as meeting the world champion and becoming friends with him in the Pensacola, Florida, territory).

If Living the Gimmick was a wrestler, which wrestler would it be, and why?

You remember the ‘Three Faces of Foley’ storyline, where Mick Foley was kind of shown to have three distinct personalities? That’s what LTG is like, in some ways because it’s a book that’s firmly — and intentionally — split between the territory days of pro wrestling and modern wrestling. One chapter in the present, one in the past. My hope with the book is that the past illuminates the present. (Which would be pretty to believe about real life, wouldn’t it?)

This book was published by Shotgun Honey; do you read mainstream crime fiction, or are your tastes firmly rooted in the independent scene?

I’m completely unreliable in this regard. I’m an omnivore when it comes to reading and rarely take into account whether a book is ‘mainstream’ or small- or micropress, or even self-published. I’ve got books on my shelves that encompass all of the above. Sometimes the only difference is the marketing budget that Big 5 publishers have access to, if they choose to use those dollars.

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

The novels of Charles Willeford are largely forgotten now, but they remain some of the most entertaining crime fiction I’ve ever read. The Hoke Moseley series is brilliant from start to finish, full of darkness and wry humor. It’s essentially Southern gothic disguised as crime fiction, and every word is brilliant. Start with Miami Blues and go from there.

For your money, which contemporary writers are producing the most interesting, compelling work right now?

This goes without saying, I’m sure, but Jordan Harper is amazing, and I will spend money on anything he does. S.A. Cosby has really captured the moment with his noir novels set in the American South that he knows so well. He’s not only writing at an INCREDIBLY high level, but he’s doing something important, too: His work is a reminder that the South doesn’t just belong to the good ol’ white boys and the conservative power structure that dominates the region. He’s shouldered his way to the front of the line of American letters in the roaring 2020s, and he’s earned every bit of it.

William Soldan remains the best line-for-line writer I’ve ever read who’s not signed to a Big 5 deal. The guy’s got talent for days and I expect him to break out. C.W. Blackwell is fantastic. He beat me out for a Derringer Award last year, and how dare he? I mean, seriously! HOW FUCKING DARE HE???

I’m fine, I’m fine. Just needed to breathe for a moment. Now, what was I saying? Oh, yeah: Nikki Dolson is the Bret Hart of short story writing: The excellence of execution. Everything Nikki writes is fearless and ferocious. Paul Garth is the master of bleak. Read his short story ‘The Hope of Lost Mares’ in The Eviction of Hope anthology. It’s insanely good. Paul writes slowly, but everything he does is so, so good.

Mark Westmoreland is going places. I mean, prison is a place … no, seriously, Mark’s A Violent Gospel was THE independent crime book of the year in 2021, and he’s only scratched the surface of what he can do. J.B. Stevens will punch your guts out with some of his stuff and then turn around and make you laugh with his humor writing, too. He’s got all the tools.

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

I’d love to have Donald Westlake’s career. Westlake started in the 50s and had a publishing career until he died on New Year’s Eve, 2008. He’s at the top of my Mount Rushmore of writers. To quote Lawrence Block: Westlake “never wrote an awkward sentence.” The man wrote more than 100 novels in his lifetime. Can you imagine? But what makes me want to be like Westlake is his professionalism and his dedication to the craft of writing.

Finally, what are your future publishing plans?

Magic City Blues publishes (also through Shotgun Honey) in February of 2023, and I’m co-editing a charity anthology with Raquel Reyes called Dirty South: High Crimes & Low Lives Below the Mason-Dixon Line (Down & Out Books, summer 2023) which will benefit the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama.

I’m currently working on two books: 1) A crime novel with the working title The Boys from Alabama; and 2) A Southern gothic novel set against the backdrop of Hurricane Eloise making landfall along the Gulf Coast in the fall of 1976. I hope to have them finished and on submission somewhere by the end of the year.

Bio: Bobby Mathews is the author of the forthcoming novels Living the Gimmick (May 2022) and Magic City Blues (February 2023). He is the co-editor of the anthology Dirty South: High Crimes & Low Lives Below the Mason-Dixon Line, forthcoming in May 2023 from Down & Out Books. Bobby was a finalist for the 2021 Derringer Award for his story ‘Quitman County Ambush.’ He lives in Hoover, Alabama, and when he’s not writing, he’s covering sports in suburban Birmingham, coaching baseball, or reading something that would scandalize the neighbors.

Website: bamawriter.com

Living the Gimmick will be published by Shotgun Honey on 27th May 2022

Under The Influence #8 – Andrew Davie on Larry McMurtry

In my early twenties, I was working as the office manager for a theater company in Times Square in New York City. The company would get the rights to musicals that had just finished a run on Broadway, repackage the shows, and tour them in smaller markets throughout the US. During my lunch hour, I would frequently go to a deli, hit the hot bar, and bring a book with me. I have to give credit to my cousin, Eric, for suggesting authors for me to read. He introduced me to Charles Bukowski, Harry Crews, Robert B. Parker, Lawrence Block, and more. One of his recommendations was Larry McMurtry; specifically the Lonesome Dove series.

 
There are four books in the Lonesome Dove series. The first, Lonesome Dove, is about some aging former Texas Rangers turned ranchers who preside over a cattle drive. Aside from being a wonderful and entertaining book, it would win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Initially, the story, a western, was going to be a film. After the success of The Last Picture Show, Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovic wanted to make a Western. Lonesome Dove was to be that film, but the studio didn’t want to provide funding for the prospective cast: Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne. The script languished for over a decade before McMurtry bought it and turned it into a novel. Eventually, the book would be adapted into a miniseries with Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, and others.

 
The first two books in the series, Lonesome Dove and Streets of Laredo, address the activities of Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Woodrow Call during the latter parts of their lives. The next two books, Dead Man’s Walk and Commanche Moon, are prequels about the two Texas Rangers as young men. All of the books are worth reading even if you’re not particularly interested in the genre. 

While I had enjoyed reading all of the books, it wasn’t until I read a scene in Dead Man’s Walk that I had a visceral reaction. I don’t recall ever responding to a book that way, but when I read the scene, I felt like I wanted to brace people on the street and force them to read it then and there. The euphoria I experienced was incredible.

During the scene, Gus and Woodrow are accompanying a woman afflicted by leprosy, her son, and attendants, when they are surrounded by Commanches. Fearing the worst, the travellers prepare themselves for battle. One of the attendants draws a sword. The lady with leprosy begins singing opera as they slowly plod forth. The Commanches are frightened by the scene and believe they are witnessing the arrival of a threatening prophetic figure. How the scene is described, the word choice, etc. Whenever I think about how I want a reader to respond to something I’ve written, that moment is the benchmark.

This book was also adapted into a miniseries with David Arquette and Jonny Lee Miller, though I don’t think I’ll ever see it. There’s no possible way it can compare with the image I’ve created in my head. 

Bio:

Andrew Davie is originally from New York City. In 2018, he survived a ruptured brain aneurysm and subarachnoid hemorrhage. His short stories deal with existentialist themes in the speculative fiction genre. He also writes hardboiled novellas in the crime genre. His crime novellas Pavement and Ouroboros are available from All Due Respect Books, No One Runs Faster Than a Bullet and Dig Two Graves from Close to the Bone. The Posting Method is available from Next Chapter. His novella Leviathan Rising and collection The Leprechaun Violence Conjecture are available from Alien Buddha Press.

Are you a crime writer? Would you like to write a short piece about one of your formative influences? If so, drop me a line via the contact form on the About page!

Criminal Records #11 – Tom Leins on Sharp Knives & Loud Guns

In the latest instalment of the Criminal Records series, Tom Leins puts together a playlist to accompany his latest book, Sharp Knives & Loud Guns (All Due Respect, 2021).

GET SOME by Lykke Li

Perhaps unsurprisingly, shotguns play a major part in Sharp Knives & Loud Guns – chiefly in ‘Slug Bait’, the first of the three brutal novelettes that make up my new collection.

Guns aren’t particularly commonplace in my stories (hammer, knives and cricket bats feature far more frequently) but this book features a paranoid, cocaine-fuelled amusement arcade owner and a trigger-happy vice cop, and both men favour loud guns as their weapon of choice.

Simultaneously brooding and propulsive, ‘Get Some’ by ‘Lykke Li would make a great accompaniment to the grisly early scenes at Paignton Cliffs Caravan Park, in which Joe Rey is forced out of hiding and into the company of deranged amusement arcade proprietor Ray Coody. “Like a shotgun/needs an outcome/I’m your prostitute/you gonna get some.”

Cool track, cool video. Get some!

PURE FILTH by Lack of Afro

Every now and then, when I write myself into a narrative cul-de-sac, I dig into my big folder of abandoned stories, pluck out a stray character or sub-plot and insert it into the faltering story. (Never delete anything, kids!) It warps the story out of shape in an intriguing new way, and takes the story in a brand-new direction. Did I do that in the first draft of ‘Slug Bait’? Yes, I did!

In ‘Slug Bait’, the sub-plot and the main plot rub shoulders multiple times before they eventually collide. One of the most eye-popping segues sees Joe Rey watching gay porn in the lounge of a disgraced politician, before participating in a vicious heist. I think ‘Pure Filth’ would work better to accompany the heist scene than the porno scene, but the title means that this funky little track can slot onto the soundtrack to cover both of these disparate scenes. Filthy stuff!

(Lack of Afro is from Devon too, which seals the deal for me!)    

DIAMONDS & GUNS by Transplants

I first heard this song nearly 20 years ago (Autumn 2002), when backpacking around California. We spent a week or so in a hostel in LA, and whenever my Walkman ran out of batteries, and I couldn’t listen to my tapes, I’d tune into KROQ, where this song was playlisted. I listened to a lot of KROQ in the evenings, to drown out the sound of the obese Hollywood bottom-feeder in the corner bunk, wanking/grunting under his rancid blanket.

I was already a big Rancid fan (particularly … And Out Come the Wolves – less of a fan of rancid youth hostel blankets), and this track blew my mind. I’m 42 now, and I still love it – so much so that I named a chapter after it in ‘Smut Loop’, the second novelette in the collection. I love the energy and the casual criminality of the lyrics. Imagine this song being played over Benny Hill-esque scenes of Paignton Noir carnage – cool, right?

Just swap chubby sex pest Benny Hill for a never-more-desperate Joe Rey, and swap the scantily-clad women for thieving rent boys, and you are in my headspace. (And, mark my words, my headspace is a lovely place to spend your free time!)

RAGING IN THE PLAGUE AGE by Les Savy Fav

I rediscovered this genius track during the first lockdown, when I was finishing off Sharp Knives & Loud Guns, and I love its raucous energy. Everything about this song is sublime, and I never get bored of listening to it! (The fact that the song is about a party taking place during a Medieval plague, is weirdly appropriate!)

Anyway, there’s a scene in ‘Sweating Blood’ – the third and final novella in the book – in which Joe Rey visits the scene of a notorious local atrocity that has been turned into a shrine by “the kind of ghoulish pricks that congregate at crime scenes” in search of his latest tormentor. He doesn’t find the individual that he is looking for, but he brutalises everyone and anyone who gets in his way.

Mark my words, the scenes of Joe Rey rolling into sheltered accommodation in full shitkicker mode while this song plays would be tremendous!

DRAG THE HILLS by Ben Weaver

I think the finale of ‘Sweating Blood’ is one of the most intense endings I’ve written to date, and it was pretty draining to write, as I knew I had to get it right. I guess the readers will ultimately judge whether or not I succeeded…

After finishing the book, this song shuffled into rotation on my MP3 player, on one of my looping lockdown walks around suburbia, and it blew me away. After listening to it on repeat, I cursed myself for not having heard it earlier, as the line “I’d rather have scars from the life I’ve lived” sums up Rey’s state of mind at the end of this book.

Sharp Knives & Loud Guns ends with a brief epilogue, and this is definitely the song that I’d like to play over the end credits. What would the authorities find if they were to drag the hills in Paignton? Buy the book and find out!

Buy The Book!

Bio:

Tom Leins is a crime writer from Paignton, UK. His books include Meat Bubbles & Other Stories, Boneyard Dogs and Ten Pints of Blood (all published by Close to the Bone) and Repetition Kills You and The Good Book: Fairy Tales for Hard Men (both via All Due Respect). His new book, Sharp Knives & Loud Guns, was released by All Due Respect in December 2021. For more details, please visit: https://thingstodoindevonwhenyouredead.wordpress.com/

Are you a crime writer? Would you like to write about the musical influences on your new book? If so, drop me a line via the contact form on the About page!

Criminal Records #10 – Jason Beech on Keep the Motor Running

In the latest instalment of the Criminal Records series, Jason Beech puts together a playlist to accompany his new book, Keep the Motor Running.

C’ERA UNA VOLTA IL WEST by Ennio Morricone

Kietan Telles is an enforcer with a sense of his own mythology, and when he discovers the book’s chief antagonist, Czech Downes, has no taste in music, he plays this Ennio Morricone track through the car’s speakers. Czech, a bit of a cultural wasteland, is mesmerized by the tune, something he’s never heard. But he suspects Telles’ motivation for playing it. Does he play it because he’s evangelical about the tune, or is it a means to lull Czech and his partner into a trance so he can finish them off?

SATELLITE by The Dave Matthews Band

Tempest Stanley reckons her getaway driver, Karl Lankester, stinks the place out with his Dave Matthews love. Songs like ‘Satellite’ mark him boring as hell, but as she has serious trust issues, that boredom increases her comfort with him. Still, there’s no way she’s sliding that CD into the player. She’d rather listen to radio jingles and the angry beeps of New Jersey traffic.

ALL OF MY HEART by ABC

Tempest is a Sheffield lass, in America for its glamour and pace, but the Steel City pulls at her heartstrings in funny ways. She’s fallen out of love with life, with no trust for anybody, so what better than a bit of hometown longing in ABC’s ‘All of My Heart’. This being noir, love is fleeting – if it ever exists at all.

SABOTAGE by The Beastie Boys

The kind of heat that makes asphalt sticky. Cars squealing down the highways, squeaking down murky alleys, the heroes stealing motors from sleazy motels. This classic tune fits the book perfectly. Except … there’s only a brief appearance from a copper and the story roars through New Jersey. Meaning Pennsylvanians get some abuse.

BREATHE by The Prodigy

They live in two houses stuffed onto a New Jersey jughandle. Three sides of traffic and the fumes to stunt your children, and one side each other. There’s no room to breathe, no room to spread your legs. A bag of cash and product could set them free, but as Karl and Tempest’s minds race at the possibilities, this is a tune to suffocate their nerves and cook the kind of paranoia that pushes them into all the traps.

Buy Keep The Motor Running!

Bio:

Sheffield native, New Jersey resident Jason Beech writes crime fiction. His coming-of-age crime drama City of Forts was described as “tense, atmospheric, and haunting” by UK crime writer Paul D. Brazill. You can buy Jason’s work from Amazon and read his work at Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey, Close to the Bone, The Flash Fiction Offensive, and Pulp Metal Magazine. His new novel, Keep the Motor Running, is out now.

Are you a crime writer? Would you like to write about the musical influences on your new book? If so, drop me a line via the contact form on the About page!

Criminal Records #9 – Andrew Davie on Ouroboros

In the latest instalment of the Criminal Records series, Andrew Davie puts together a playlist to accompany his book Ouroboros (All Due Respect, 2020).

APOCRYPHON by The Sword

As a fan of metal, I’m always on the lookout for contemporary bands. Apocryphon, from the album of the same name, is a song that has all the great elements of a stoner-doom song; killer riffs, great vocals, and dynamite playing. I especially love the lyric “You want to live for eternity/see behind the veil. Everything comes around again/the serpent eats its tail.” The serpent eating its tail. The symbol of the ouroboros is what gave the book its title. As I was writing it, I kept that image in the back of my mind and it was always a symbol I tried to incorporate.

BLUE IN GREEN by Miles Davis

Gropper is a jazz fan. In Pavement, he refers to and listens to Bill Evans. At the time, I had been familiar with Miles Davis, but I hadn’t truly listened to Kind of Blue. Aside from being a killer album, and featuring performances by some of the best musicians of all time, it’s easily one of the greatest albums ever produced. This is a track I imagined Gropper would listen to while on a stakeout, and it just fit the mood.

REVELATIONS by Iron Maiden

Flemmings was a bar I would frequent when I lived in Astoria, in Queens, just across the river from Manhattan. Most of the Jukebox songs were the typical fare and each song was featured in the rotation. They didn’t feature any metal except it had Iron Maiden’s Revelations, which I would play. It would be great to watch the other patrons’ heads slowly pick up from their drinks with a flummoxed look on their faces as if to suggest “Who’s playing this crap?” Needless to say, I would always save a few quarters for Iron Maiden when I frequented the bar.

DON’T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD – The Animals

Since part of Ouroboros takes place in prison, I was reminded of one of my favorite prison scenes which had this song playing on the soundtrack. While Nina Simone’s version is incredible, I was taken by this version by The Animals.

TO PARTER by the Butthole Surfers

I used to listen to this song at the track in Hong Kong when I knew it was time to get psyched up for the next race, and now I have that same response when I hear it. As soon as the first few notes of To Parter begins, I know it’s time to get work done.

Buy Ouroboros!

Bio:

Andrew Davie is originally from New York City. In 2018, he survived a ruptured brain aneurysm and subarachnoid hemorrhage. His short stories deal with existentialist themes in the speculative fiction genre. He also writes hardboiled novellas in the crime genre. His crime novellas Pavement and Ouroboros are available from All Due Respect Books, No One Runs Faster Than a Bullet and Dig Two Graves from Close to the Bone. The Posting Method is available from Next Chapter. His novella Leviathan Rising and collection The Leprechaun Violence Conjecture are available from Alien Buddha Press.

Are you a crime writer? Would you like to write about the musical influences on your new book? If so, drop me a line via the contact form on the About page!

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