The Rogue Reader has brought you the best new authors in suspense fiction. And now it’s time to go north – and what better place for our mischief than Alaska? And what better guide for this adventure than a guy who grew up with Yup’ik Eskimos, owns a small arsenal, and would as soon be alone in the Alaskan Bush as anywhere else? Introducing our newest editor of The Rogue Reader, Don Rearden. Don’s critically acclaimed novel The Raven’s Gift was a Washington Post Best Pick 2013. As a novelist and screenwriter from the tundra, Don brings his unique wilderness background, knowledge of indigenous Alaskan perspectives, and a bottle of Alaskan Outlaw whiskey to The Rogue Reader.
July 3, 2014 by Don Rearden
Editor’s Note: Acclaimed Rogue author Ron Rearden (“The Raven’s Gift” – a Best Fiction Pick 2013 by The Washington Post) will be posting about his summer in wilds of Alaska. Stay tuned for more of his adventures in the bush and Don’s upcoming Alaskan thriller to be published by The Rogue Reader. Adam
I’m headed home to the tundra tomorrow, a 400 mile flight from where I’ve been living for the past ten or so years here on the mountain overlooking Anchorage. The Kuskokwim River is still home to me because that is where I feel most comfortable. This is serious wilderness spotted with Yup’ik villages up and down the winding river and her many tributaries. This river is over 500 miles long and you’ve probably never heard of it, unless you live in Alaska, and even if you’ve lived in Alaska, you probably have never dipped your toe into her murky and frigid waters. While there I’ll spend plenty of time catching up with old friends, and perhaps help drop a drift net in to catch some salmon for hanging on the fishcamp racks to dry or smoke for winter. I also plan to do a little scene scouting for an up-coming movie that I would love to tell you about, but then I would have to drag you off into the bush and leave you do be eaten alive by the most bloodthirsty mosquitoes and gnats you’ve ever encountered.
After a few days on the Kuskokwim I’ll be flying by float plane to a friend’s remote cabin in the Wood-Tikchik Lakes. This lake system is heaven to me. Perhaps this is because it is really one of the most pristine places on the planet, or because I almost died there in a ferocious storm that ripped my tent from the ground and sent my only source of shelter sailing forty feet up and out into the lake. Yes, I was in the tent, but since this “Weatherport” tent was built of rubber and steel and had no bottom and was supposed to withstand 90mph winds, I was fortunately left behind in the torrential rain and hurricane gusts in my boxers with only a shredded blue tarp, my soaked sleeping bag, and a 7mm rifle —- but that is another story I’ll save for later.
Packing for an Alaskan bush trip is a bit different from your standard vacation. Here are a few essentials, no need for a flashlight as the sun won’t really be setting. [I'll admit I'm a bit on edge as I pack as I can't find my damn bug shirt, which is essentially a hooded sweatshirt made from mosquito netting. Oh well, I'll have to take extra bullets for the mosquitoes and some rope to tether my son to the ground so they don't fly off with him.]
For my next post I’ll share my thoughts on packing heat in bear country and why I save the pepper spray for my nachos.
Don Rearden grew up on the tundra of Southwestern Alaska, an experience that informed his critically acclaimed debut literary thriller The Raven’s Gift. While calling Don “a master of the cliffhanger” The Washington Post went on to praise the novel’s “hunter-hunted suspense of Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, the post-apocalyptic bleakness of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the haunting mysteriousness of The X-Files.”
Stay tuned for more posts from Don Rearden and his upcoming Alaskan thriller only from The Rogue Reader.
June 24, 2014 by Adam Chromy
Today, we welcome author Ingrid Thoft for her thoughts on John Singer Sargent and the mystery and suspense hidden in the shadows of his work:
Anticipation. Suspense. Anxiety. These elements are essential to a good thriller or a good mystery novel, and the same can be said of movies, TV shows and also, fine arts. That’s right—paintings by dead guys that have nothing to do with murder or mayhem offer their own brand of intrigue.
Growing up and during my college years, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was the local museum for field trips, family outings and class assignments. Full disclosure: I wasn’t an art history major, and I’ve been known to warm the benches in galleries while waiting for my companions. However, I like to think that I am a poster child for art appreciation: I get something out of it even if I don’t read all the placards.
It was at the MFA that I first viewed the work of John Singer Sargent. A successful portrait painter and darling of Boston’s upper class, Sargent also worked in watercolors and did landscapes in far flung locations like Venice, the Isle of Capri and Corfu. Complex and often pleasing to the eye, it’s the drama and suspense that he injected into his work that I find so captivating.
Some paintings present a scene or snapshot in time, but Sargent’s paintings—whether portraits or landscapes, oils or watercolors—prompt questions and elicit anticipation, just like the best mysteries. The desire to know how things end, the peeling back of layers, is what snares and enthralls mystery readers. But you needn’t pick up the latest hardback to engage in the singular pleasure of trying to solve a puzzle. Browse through the masterpieces of John Singer Sargent, or any other fine artist who piques your interest, and a whole new world of mysteries will be revealed.
Still not convinced? Take a look at a few of his creations:
Perhaps Sargent’s most famous work, “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” has always been one of my favorites, in part because I’m the youngest in a family of four girls. But what I find most compelling about the painting is the questions that this seemingly placid portrait poses: Why do three girls face the artist, but one does not? What is lurking in the dark background? What is the context in which the eldest daughter is allowed to lounge against an exquisite antique? Did the girls choose their positions or were they posed that way? Art historians have spent their careers investigating the story behind the painting, and some answers can be found, but in the moment that the viewer studies the painting—without any expertise or historical knowledge—a world of mystery unfolds. There is no movement in that moment, but an enormous sense of life and interaction.
The intrigue in this painting is more obvious: Whose suitcase is splayed open on the floor? Whose clothes are in a heap? Where is this room into which the sun peeks through the slatted blinds, and what happened in that bed? The viewer can concoct any number of stories to narrate the picture, and isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Create a bridge between the creator and the participant? Reading, watching and viewing may be categorized as physically passive activities, but the mental engagement required, the invitation by the artist to engage, is anything but.
Many people look at this painting and see not only light and shadow, but also color and nature. To me, it is a visual depiction of anticipation. What, exactly, is around that corner? Is it a spectacular view of the sea? A table laid for an afternoon lunch? Two lovers napping in the grass? The picture is dominated by the cottage, but it’s the slice of scenery on the right to which my eye is drawn—large enough to pique my curiosity, but small enough to remain mysterious.
Is the woman going inside the building? Will the man follow her? And perhaps more compelling—what would the viewer find if he or she were to continue down the alleyway into the bright light? I wonder if the woman’s hand is on her hip or if she’s concealing something under her layers. And do you notice how she seems to be looking directly back at you? It’s as if she sees you, too, but how is that possible?
What happens next? That’s the question that keeps readers glued to the page and viewers frozen in front of a screen. Though perhaps in a less obvious way, that same question draws art lovers to canvases and sculptures and installations. Excitement and anticipation are the ties that bind the observer and the artist together and create genuine engagement. Just think, 132 years have passed, and I still want to know the story of the Boit sisters.
Ingrid Thoft worked as a tech, entertainment and education writer before making the transition to fiction. Her interest in the PI life and her desire to create a believable PI character led her to the certificate program in private investigation at the University of Washington, where she learned about investigation and surveillance, accident reconstruction, cyber and domestic investigations, and interviewing techniques. She is an avid traveler, scuba diver, and pop-culture connoisseur.
And be sure to pick up her latest Fina Ludlow novel Identity available now from G.P. Putnam - “A quirky and empathetic heroine, a fast-moving plot, and a surprise ending make this a winner.” —Publishers Weekly
June 6, 2014 by Adam Chromy
Congrats to Ron McMillan – his Thailand set thriller “Bangkok Cowboy” is the B&N Nook First Pick of the Day!
NOOK First: Compelling Reads from Emerging Authors
When notorious Bangkok mobster Raymond Long approached private eye Mason to find his missing American accountant, he didn’t expect the missing person to be his friend Nathalie West. Together with his Thai partner Dixie, the duo are determined to find Nathalie before Long’s gang of goons find her-and the missing hard drive she’s taken with her in this first action-packed novel in a new series.
May 14, 2014 by Court Haslett
Ron McMillan, author of Bangkok Cowboy, has lived a life out of a Kerouac novel. A Scotsman who for more than ten years traveled all over Asia on photography assignments for some of the biggest magazines in the world, he now lives in Thailand where his Mason & Dixie Crime series is set. Ron talked with the Rogue Reader about his colorful past, his photography career, and his writing process. To read more about Ron, check out his full bio here.
COURT: With all your travels, how did you wind up choosing Thailand to finally settle down?
RON: Thailand was the first Southeast Asian country I ever visited, in April 1981, while on the trans-Asian backpacker trail. That was a six-month trip that took me from Sri Lanka, up through India (where I got arrested two minutes after I stepped off the bus from Madras airport; it took a bit of persuasion to talk myself out of police custody for selling my duty free whiskey and cigarettes to a black market dealer), to Nepal and on to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia before landing in Australia. Following the pressures of traveling in South Asia, Thailand was a relaxed new world, and I never forgot that feeling. After a couple of years in Australia and New Zealand I spent fifteen years based in the Far East, first in Korea and then in Hong Kong. During that time I visited Thailand on vacation, and then frequently on photography assignments, and I never got tired of it. The country has its problems at the moment, but I’m hoping the Thais come out of them with a decent deal. I’ve lived in a lot of countries, and none of them compare to Thailand for that magic mix of people, weather and—very, very importantly—food.
COURT: Did Thailand spark anything for you creatively or do you think you would be writing crime fiction no matter where you settled down?
RON: I’ve been in love with crime fiction since my Dad pointed me to John D. MacDonald when I was still too young to be reading Travis McGee novels. Bangkok Cowboy‘s Mason is an unashamed attempt to craft a central character with some of the mainstream appeal of Travis McGee. Bangkok isn’t Fort Lauderdale, but it is replete with dodgy characters, the likes of whom Travis might have relished facing. There is a lot of competition in the Thailand-based crime fiction market, but I think I’ve found a home, at least for now.
COURT: You seem like someone who has put a lot of thought into the type of books you want to write. Was there a lot of trial and error in your process or was it clear to you from the start?
RON: My first love was travel writing. I wanted to emulate some of my travel author heroes; inspirational adventurers like Eric Newby, Redmond O’Hanlon and a relatively unknown and now almost forgotten sailor/author called Tristan Jones.
My first published book was Between Weathers, Travels in 21st Century Shetland, a travel narrative. About 2004 I came SO close to a major breakthrough with a giant London publisher. One of England’s top non-fiction editors wanted a travel book I proposed (about a trip I hadn’t yet done). He was so keen on it that he took it to the publisher’s editorial meeting twice, pitching it on a plan to print ten thousand hardbacks followed by a paperback run in the low six-figures. The bean counters rejected it both times, and I went from potential life-changing breakthrough to crushing disappointment. I decided to do a different trip and write a book about it, purely on spec, so I took myself to the Shetland Islands for five weeks. Shetland is the most northerly group of islands in Britain, and a fascinating place – and it hadn’t been the subject of a travel book since Victorian times. I wrote a manuscript, pitched it to a half-dozen independent Scottish publishers, and got lucky when Sandstone Press took it on, and published Between Weathers in 2008.
Between Weathers has been a modest success (it inspired my involvement in a feature film by the same name that I wrote the first story outline for, and that remains in development by B4Films in Scotland), and I used it as a stepping stone to chase long-running crime fiction dreams. Sandstone Press published Yin Yang Tattoo, after which I set about doing something different, and settled on a Thailand-based series that is introduced by Bangkok Cowboy.
COURT: Has your work as a photographer informed your writing process or are they two different art forms?
RON: My strongest characteristic is selfishness. While living in Korea in the 1980s I took a long-running photography hobby and cobbled a mini-career out of it. At the time I was making decent money as an English teacher at a good university in Seoul, but the desire to chase my own dreams was already taking over, and I jacked in the steady job, flew to Hong Kong, and walked into magazine photo editors’ offices with a camera on my shoulder. I had never sold a photo in my life, but because I was based in Seoul, which was under the spotlight due to huge internal political changes and the upcoming 1988 Seoul Olympics, the editors gave me breaks I hadn’t earned. Luckily for me, I didn’t screw up assignments from Hong Kong and New York and London – from editors who, if they knew how raw I was, would never have trusted me with assignments – and I began to get a decent portfolio behind me. Self-confidence to the point of arrogance, and a willingness to learn on the job, helped me scrape through.
Writing has been a similar path for me. I wanted to write, and chased ways to make that happen. Before I left Seoul for Hong Kong I had a few pieces written and photographed, mostly for business magazines. During ten, travel-intensive years based in Hong Kong, I managed to experience so many fascinating places and events that it would have been crazy not to write about them. Attempts at fiction came later, but I’m glad they did. So it has all been about selfish pipe dreams. Chasing them opened me up to experiences I would likely never have had, and since doggedness is often as much of an asset to a photojournalist as photographic talent, I grew a thick skin, and I still don’t concern myself with failure. Photojournalism is a lot to do with coming up with a good story and then succeeding in illustrating it, never mind who stands in your way, so it has things in common with writing fiction, and I’m sure I learned things that helped me pursue my writing dreams. None of which would have meant a thing without that selfish insistence on doing only what I wanted to do.
COURT: I always love to read about a writer’s process. What’s your average writing day like? Do you outline or are you a panster? How much research do you do?
RON: I wish I had more of a system! A lot of my writing goes on in my head, often when I lie awake at night. I know exactly where I am in the story and I set out plot lines in my head – and can usually remember them the next day. I don’t have a daily fiction writing routine, which is partly because I am always writing several things at once. I research and write for television documentaries made by B4Films in Scotland. A recent series of four episodes they made was for PBS in America, about great estates – landed country estates – in Scotland. This needs lots of research so that I can write with apparent authority on topics I know absolutely nothing about. I am now writing a pilot for a documentary series about the history – ancient and modern – of world-famous streets. It’s interesting, but time-consuming. I somehow fit fiction writing into the gaps in other activities, which means output can be a little sporadic.
COURT: Being a former travel writer, it’s interesting that you settled on a crime series set in a foreign country. For me, half the fun of reading international crime novels is to learn about different cultures.
RON: I suppose it comes down to the old cliché that says you should write about things you know. I certainly took that to the extreme with my first crime novel, Yin Yang Tattoo. Its protagonist is a Scottish photographer who spent five years in South Korea, who trained extensively in Tae Kwon-do, and who drinks far too much. But as he’s also an inveterate whoremonger, it is, of course, in no way autobiographical. I can’t claim to know Thailand as well as I once knew Korea, but having spent some years here, I hope I can paint a fairly convincing Thai backdrop.
COURT: You’ve mentioned John Burdett as an author you admire. Are there any other series set in Asia you can recommend to us?
RON: John Burdett’s books stand head and shoulders above the competition, certainly so far as Thailand-based crime fiction goes. I don’t read many other books set in Thailand because I don’t want to be accused (by myself or by anyone else) of being influenced by others. I do enjoy the Father Ananda mystery series by Nick Wilgus, whose main character is a middle-aged cop-turned-Buddhist monk who finds himself investigating murders in and around temples all over Thailand. They are a little like old-fashioned English village murder mysteries, and very nicely done. The series has been re-released as eBooks by CrimeWave Press.
COURT: Can you give us a peek into what Mason and Dixie up against in your next book, Bangkok Belle?
RON: Dixie’s friend Belle’s life is threatened when she enters a transgender beauty pageant. Belle refuses to be warned off, and the pageant is not all it seems, so of course things get down and dirty, and Mason and Dixie have to come to the rescue.
COURT: I’m looking forward to reading it. It was fun getting to know a little more about you and Bangkok Cowboy.
Check out Bangkok Cowboy, here.
Check out Court Haslett’s Tenderloin, here.
May 9, 2014 by Adam Chromy
At The Rogue Reader, we try to bring you the very best of fiction from the bleeding edge. So far we’ve published two Spinetingler Magazine Top Picks (Under the Dixie Moon by Ro Cuzon, and Dark as Night by Mark T. Conard) and a Library Journal Staff Pick (Under the Dixie Moon). With Court Haslett’s Tenderloin (Raven Crime Reads described it in a rave review as “a 70‘s set version of The Wire.”) we expanded into historical noir, and now we are happy to announce publication of our first international author, Ron McMillan, and his riveting Thailand set thriller Bangkok Cowboy…
One of Ron McMillan’s alter-ego web identities is ‘properjob’, chosen because he hasn’t held a regular job in nearly thirty years. And when you consider that he has spent most of the last thirty-five years scouring Asia for diversions to satisfy a near-insatiable thirst for variety and challenge, it’s hardly surprising that the guy who re-invented himself as a photojournalist at the age of 30 – and went on to work for some of the world’s top magazines – has stories to draw from that turn up in his crime fiction.
This is a man who cut his photography teeth in the middle of vast student demonstrations that laid waste to South Korean city centres in the 1980s; who was smuggled into war-torn Afghanistan with the help of the mujahideen in 1989, wrapped in traditional tribal garb that fooled nobody; who has lied to men carrying guns throughout Asia; who performed nearly fifty editorial and commercial photography assignments all over China; and who conjured his way into the hermit kingdom of North Korea posing as a tourist five times, each time secretly on assignment for top publications in North America, Asia and Europe.
Now, with the arrival of Bangkok Cowboy, Ron makes for a truly international addition to the Rogue Reader stable.
The first in a series of crime thrillers set in and around Thailand, Bangkok Cowboy introduces one of the most original private eye duos in modern crime fiction. They are Mason & Dixie.
McMillan: “I chose the single name ‘Mason’ in homage to one-name fictional characters whom I never tire of re-reading: Robert B. Parker’s ‘Spenser’, ‘Burke’ from Andrew Vachss, and James W. Hall’s ‘Thorn’. After settling on ‘Mason’, I needed a short name for his transgender partner, and chose ‘Dixie’. That American reviewers have already taken exception to a nod at a dark line in America’s recent history only tells me that I’m striking a chord. Sure, Mason & Dixie books are primarily crime thrillers, but they are also about how people of extraordinarily different backgrounds and sexualities can mesh as the most loyal of friends.”
Ron McMillan’s website
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Readers and reviewers clamoring for more from Mason & Dixie will not have long to wait. The sequel, Bangkok Belle, is in the works. Watch this space.
April 30, 2014 by Ron McMillan
Courtesy of the Guardian Newspaper website, a hilarious assessment of what’s wrong with crime fiction detectives being portrayed as flawed individuals who lead less than perfect existences – and how such portrayals affect the performances of real cops in the real world. No, it’s not an April Fool spoof……
[Story below by Steven Morris]
Crime writers should depict more detectives as clean-living and balanced rather than damaged and hard-drinking like the Inspector Rebus of Ian Rankin‘s novels, a chief constable has said.
Nick Gargan, chief constable of Avon and Somerset, said some police officers modelled themselves on fictional cops when they were interviewed on television in high-profile cases.
Speaking to the Guardian before a talk on crime fiction at the Chipping Norton literary festival at the weekend, Gargan said: “I’ve seen cops on the steps of court putting in rather theatrical performances for the TV cameras and I’ve thought: you weren’t trained to do that. It doesn’t represent any part of the rest of your working life. You’ve thought, tomorrow morning I’m likely to appear on the steps of the court, I’ll be expected to say something. What are my reference points, how am I going to come across?”
Gargan said he accepted Rankin’s view that a novel giving a realistic portrayal of police procedure would be “the most boring book in the world”, but objected to crime authors depicting one detective doing the work of what in reality would be that of up to 40 officers.
“You see a Rebus or Morse at the scene, recovering forensic exhibits, interviewing the suspect, comforting the family, arguing with the chief constable about resources. What can be a team of 20, 30 or 40 people is concentrated in the person of this one senior investigator,” he said.
Gargan, who worked on the investigation into Princess Diana’s death, said he did not accept the accuracy of another trait of fictional detectives – bending the rules for the greater good. “Do we have hard-drinking, heavy-smoking cynical people who make a few mistakes? Yes. But this slightly heroic bucking-the-system thing, I don’t think we have much of that.”
He said Rankin’s beloved creation would not like him. “I represent everything at the top end of the organisation that he’s contemptuous of, and I understand that.
“There are some pretty damaged individuals in too many of these books. I’d quite like to see some cheery, well-balanced, well-adjusted, equally successful investigators. I’d hate to think our investigators were modelling themselves on Rebus, but I think a few of them modelled themselves on Frost [RD Wingfield's creation Jack Frost, played on television by David Jason in A Touch of Frost]. You get a bit of Morse too.”
A senior detective in a neighbouring force, Steve Fulcher of Wiltshire police, was disciplined recently for breaking the rules on how a suspect should be questioned during the high-profile murder case of Sian O’Callaghan in Swindon.
In a scene that could have come from a crime novel (and Rankin has said Rebus might have acted in the same way), Fulcher questioned a suspect, Chris Halliwell, on a remote hillside without access to legal advice in a desperate attempt to crack the case. Halliwell admitted murdering O’Callaghan and led Fulcher to the body of a second woman who had vanished some years earlier. Fulcher was feted by some and criticised by others.
“The rules and laws are there for a reason,” Gargan said. “It’s not heroic to step outside the law. We shouldn’t do that. We’re the police.”
He said real-life detective work attracts interesting personalities. “In the world of investigation there are some real characters. It’s a magnet to individuals.”
He said crime writers did the police a disservice when they suggested officers had a propensity to corruption and were willing to break the rules. “But does that really shape people’s perception of policing? I think people’s experience of policing tends to be shaped by what has happened to them and their friends.”
As to whether it mattered whether writers got the forensic details right, Gargan said it wasn’t important unless there were jarring inaccuracies. He said that as a young constable he and his colleagues would watch episodes of The Bill and tick off the procedural errors. “But it’s the quality of the writing, the story that matters.”
Which detective novels would he take on holiday if forced to leave behind his management tomes and biographies? Gargan discounted Sherlock Homes and Agatha Christie – too much toxicology. Neither had he got into gruesome Scandinavian crime fiction. “There’s a rather depressing amount of pathology now,” he said.
“I’d take a Rumpole of the Bailey. It’s such good fun. I’d probably take an earlier Ian Rankin. I’d take a Colin Dexter too, a nice Morse.”
April 28, 2014 by Ron McMillan
Whatever James W. Hall has for breakfast, I want some. He has produced eighteen novels, including the best-selling Thorn crime thrillers (thirteen published, one more coming soon); he has published four collections of poetry and two books of short stories. He has written for the Miami Herald and the Washington Post, and his respected non-fiction Hit Lit (Random House) is an analysis of twelve of the most commercially successful novels of the last century. All of this he achieved in his ‘spare’ time, while he pursued a parallel life as an academic and university lecturer (he has a Master’s in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University and a Doctorate in Literature from the University of Utah). For thirty-six years, Hall taught at Florida International University, where he founded the Creative Writing program in the 1970s.
I have been a fan of the Thorn novels since I read Under Cover of Daylight in Hongkong almost twenty years ago, and when I set out to write Bangkok Cowboy as the opener for a new thriller series, I unashamedly sought inspiration from Thorn – and from Thorn’s fellow-Floridian, John D. MacDonald‘s Travis McGee. I was delighted when James agreed to take time out for a Q&A session with The Rogue Reader.
Ron McMillan: The first Thorn book, Under Cover of Daylight, came out nearly twenty years ago, and emerged as the opening installment in a best-selling series that continues today. At the time, did you consciously set out to write the first in a series, or did its success inspire the Thorn series?
James W. Hall: If I’d known in the mid-eighties when I wrote Under Cover that I would still be writing about Thorn 30 years later, I might have made him a bit more receptive to future adventures. By making him a hermit of sorts, I had to find believable ways to engage him in new stories and to shake him loose from his isolation. Most series heroes don’t have that issue. Travis McGee sometimes helped out friends (as Thorn does), but he was often motivated by the need to replenish his money supply – going back into the salvage business so he could resume his “retirement.” But most series characters are on-call in some ways. Private eyes, cops, or other professions that make them freely available to new adventures. This problem is the first issue I have to solve in each new novel. What would cause Thorn to come down out of his tree house and take on a new challenge? So no, I never intended for Thorn to live beyond Under Cover, but my publisher at the time as well as my subsequent publishers have urged me (bribed me) to keep him going.
Ron McMillan: The plotlines of the early books in the series were very much revenge-driven, as Thorn set out to right wrongs from his early life. Since then, the stories are more about friendship, and how Thorn reacts to the misfortunes of people close to him. As a reader, I relish such basic, elemental struggles. You make this seem easy, but how hard do you have to work at the crafting of relationships and friendships that enable you to tug so effectively at readers’ heartstrings?
James W. Hall: I’ve always thought that emotional motivations are better drivers of thrillers than the requirements of a job. I’ve never been much interested in police procedurals for that reason. The cop might be clever and dogged, but the emotions that drive him are in large part requirements of his work. Thorn has very raw emotions. He’s basically a loner, though Sugarman is a close friend, and as a loner the few friendships he does make are very significant to him. So in a way he’s more vulnerable to strong passions than someone more well-rounded in his attachments.
For a character to simply die on page one without first establishing who that character is and his emotional connection to the protagonist makes no sense to me. So I usually devote a good deal of time trying to show the foundation of the relationship that character has with Thorn. Even John D. often glossed over the connections between Travis and the friends he put himself at risk trying to help. I try to make each novel contain a new and unique test for Thorn so that means in part that I must find new people for him to get passionate about. As a result, Thorn seems to be a magnet for bad luck.
Ron McMillan: I know you are a big fan of John D MacDonald, whose Travis McGee novels blazed a path for Florida-based crime fiction. How much do you and Thorn owe to John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee?
James W. Hall: John D. certainly blazed the trail that a lot of Florida writers have followed. I’m no exception. But there are others who I’ve also learned a lot from. Elmore Leonard, of course, and a man named Douglas Fairbairn whose wonderful novel Street 8 was an early example of the kind of crime thriller set in South Florida that I aspired to write. I re-read John D. often and am always impressed by his ability to tell an exciting tale in a very efficient manner, and to inform in the process. Not easy to do.
Ron McMillan: Your novels, like the MacDonald books (and those of fellow Florida-based author Carl Hiaasen), rail against the profligacy of real estate developers who have changed Florida forever. How important do you feel is your role in highlighting the wrongs being inflicted on Florida?
James W. Hall. I take a slightly different tack on this issue. While, yes, Hiaasen and I share the John D. environmental stance toward Florida, what I try to bring to the novels is a celebration of the beauty and exotic charm of the landscape. I’m trying to find lyrical and poetic ways to capture the place, something Carl doesn’t spend much time with and John D. did very infrequently. The model for me in this regard is James Lee Burke‘s extraordinary descriptions of Louisiana. In trying to capture the exotic natural landscape, I hope to instill in readers some measure of affection for this weird and wonderful place. I’m not into soapbox writing. I figure if I can make a reader see the Florida that I love and care about for a few hundred pages, then I’ve done a good thing.
Ron McMillan: Fifty years after his debut, James Bond is still a youthful fortyish. Robert B. Parker‘s Spenser boxed against Jersey Joe Walcott in the mid-1950s, and nearly sixty years on, is still cracking heads in Boston. Twenty years into your series, Thorn should, by rights, be pushing sixty. Of course each book has to work as a stand-alone tale, but your fans doubtless expect continuity in a central character they have grown to love over the years. What are the peculiar challenges presented to the author of a long-running series?
James W. Hall. Thorn is getting creaky and he admits it. But you can find some incredibly tough specimens in their 60′s and older in the Florida Keys. The lobsterman, the men who live outdoor lives and challenges themselves against the elements. Thorn isn’t a superman. He isn’t a Special Ops guy or a former SEAL. He’s just a healthy guy who has taken care of himself and he manages to survive some serious scrapes more with cunning and guile than with karate or some other martial arts skill.
Ron McMillan: I believe the fourteenth novel in the Thorn series is in the works. What do Thorn fans have to look forward to?
James W. Hall. Just finished the fourteenth. It’s called The Big Finish. Thorn and Sugarman head to North Carolina to do battle with a hog farmer and some other pretty outrageous villains who have targeted Thorn’s son, Flynn and his environmentalist friends.
Ron McMillan: Do you enjoy reading crime fiction? If so, point us to one or two authors or titles that Rogue Reader website visitors might like to explore.
James W. Hall. I’ve been reading a lot of Daniel Silva lately. Always enjoy the latest Lucas Davenport novel and Jo Nesbo, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, and Jim Burke and Don Winslow. This past year I read The Goldfinch and The Signature of All Things, two novels that weren’t exactly crime novels, but were wonderful in very different ways. Next up for me is a Barbara Kingsolver novel that is research related. The next novel might be a standalone or the beginning of a new series. I’ll know in a few months after I’ve written a few hundred pages.
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No Comments | Tags: Carl Hiaasen, crime fiction, crime thrillers, Don Winslow, Elmore Leonard, Florida crime fiction, James Lee Burke, James W. Hall, John D. MacDonald, laura lippman, Megan Abbott, Thorn
April 15, 2014 by Ron McMillan
The Rogue Reader is delighted to welcome John Burdett, best-selling author of crime novels set in Asia. John worked for fourteen years as a lawyer in London and Hongkong before retiring to Europe. Here he writes how his time in Asia inspired him to write about it and led to him becoming one of the world’s best-known writers of Asian-based crime fiction.
John’s breakthrough crime novel, Bangkok 8, was the first to feature Royal Thai Police Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, and set in motion a series of much-appreciated and oft-imitated crime novels set in Bangkok and elsewhere in Asia. The fifth in the series, Vulture Peak, was published in 2012. John took time out from working on his latest novel to write this guest column:
Origins of Inspiration
It is often said that inspiration arises from a gap between opposing forces. The greater the gap the more intense the inspiration – and the more difficult to live with. More or less by accident my polarities turned out to be the most basic, and perhaps the most challenging: East and West.
In 2001 I returned to Southeast Asia after a five year sojourn in Europe. I had spent most of my legal career in Hong Kong and retired early. I had no idea how the Far East had changed my perspective until I tried to live in France and Spain. There is a supreme irony here: those two countries are democracies where individual freedoms are guaranteed. Hong Kong in my day was a benevolent dictatorship left over from colonial times. So why did life in Hong Kong seem to bestow so much more individual freedom than Western Europe? The question gnawed at me. I was on the trail of my demon. I had to return. This time I chose the much more laid-back Thailand, which I had visited many times as a tourist whilst in Hong Kong.
I decided to write a police thriller based in Bangkok. I knew nothing of the vast and ancient profession of prostitution and had no intention of writing about it. However, there was a rumour that a branch of the Royal Thai Police Force was dedicated to helping tourists and spoke English. Since a huge proportion of tourists in Bangkok are English-speaking men seeking thrills and adventure in the red-light districts, I hung out there. I never did find an English-speaking cop, but I managed to strike up a number of friendships with the bar girls. They were not at all like the cliche of hard-bitten women for whom sex has become a loveless industry. On the contrary, they were almost all daughters of subsistence farmers from the Northeast of the country whose families had fallen on hard times, largely due to manipulation of the price of rice at the international level. They did not think of themselves as prostitutes. The were looking for a foreign (‘farang’) husband and where better to find one than in the bars of Pat Pong, Nana and Soi Cowboy? Often they were successful. A girl who was selling her body in the bars might disappear for a month, then return in triumph to show off her new farang husband.
But how did they cope, psychologically, with this supposedly devastating degradation that experts, who are invariably Western, darkly predict must leave life-long scars? The answer was, to a very large extent, Buddhism. They were mostly devout, made homage to Buddhist images before starting work and accepted without question the law of karma. Karma means cause and effect operating at the moral and psychological level. It is therefore controllable. If you want a better life build one by starting now. They were generally truthful, honest, hard-working and cheerful. They were confident this attitude would pay dividends and sometimes it did. What impressed me, though, was the inner freedom they seemed to enjoy. As a lawyer I had worked with people from all walks of life in London and Hong Kong. I had spent time with billionaires, middle-class professionals, crooks and exemplary members of society: none of them seemed as happy as these working girls.
I investigated further. It wasn’t only the bar girls whose mental control was impressive. Far away from Bangkok, in the countryside, people often lived in an economy of barter: no one had any cash to spare. But they were free. I had spent most of my adult life chasing money in order to get free and I was jealous. Later, when I began to write my books, I realised how fortunate I was. I had found my abyss, my Great Gap, my Big Bang. There was no way I was going to resolve this riddle in one life time, but the psychic energy it released has so far produced six books, all of them best sellers.
John Burdett, Le Lot, France
April 12, 2014 by Ron McMillan
When I found myself thinking about how frequently crime fiction’s central figures retreat to their living rooms and put on their favourite music – often so that the author can simultaneously reveal the protagonist’s inner thoughts and review the case helpfully, I asked my friend Charles Philipp Martin, author and classical and jazz musician and jazz radio host, why he didn’t make his central character in Neon Panic a music fan.
“I went out of the way to make my hero unmusical,” he said. “The last thing we need is another detective who comes home, pours a bourbon and puts on Ray Charles. But I’m a spoilsport.”
I suspect that Charles, as my mother used to say, might be cutting off his nose to spite his face. Sure, detectives and musical interludes are all too common – and have been since Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes used to indulge in a little medicinal cocaine and make his Baker Street living room ring to the tones of the Stradivarius that he snapped up for 55 shillings in 1860. Readers, myself included, love these musical diversions, which tell us more about the hero, allow us to share our enjoyment of his/her musical taste – and help us iron out the bumps in what can be a complex narrative.
Authors love them, too. When Andrew Vachss doesn’t have Burke feeding his oversized killer dog gallon tubs of ice cream, he frequently refers to his love of blues maiden Susan Tedeschi. Ian Rankin‘s Rebus, like his creator, is a noted fan of old school British rock music, including the Rolling Stones, The Who and Cream.
Colin Dexter‘s Inspector Morse favoured classics, in particular that of Wagner. Also in England, John Harvey‘s Nottingham police detective Charlie Resnick, a solitary soul who survives on the companionship of cats and seems to exist mainly on a diet of sandwiches, is a traditional jazz buff, happiest at home with LPs of Billie Holiday or Charlie Parker. Harvey commonly talks about the strong influence of jazz music upon his writing, and even his website URL is ‘Mellotone’
About as far from Nottingham as you can get, Michael Connelly portrays his hero Harry Bosch as a man who might be good friends with Charlie Resnick. Bosch likes nothing more than retreating to his cantilevered home overlooking L.A. and putting on John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins or Art Pepper.
Connelly has gone further to link jazz and Harry Bosch. In 2003, he gave away a CD of Harry Bosch’s favourite music to promote his book Lost Light, and excerpts from The Overlook were put to original jazz from Frank Morgan for a unique YouTube promo clip.
Crime fiction and music are inextricably linked. I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ron McMillan on Twitter
April 7, 2014 by Ron McMillan
We Scots are understandably a little smug about the cleverness of forefathers responsible for more than our share of landmark breakthroughs over the centuries.
How smug? Look up the origins of the telephone, fax machine, penicillin, insulin, radar, the steam engine, car tyres, the waterproof mackintosh, the hypodermic syringe and the vaccine for typhus. And if those aren’t significant enough, consider the electric toaster, the flushing toilet and the refrigerator. All invented by Scots.
In the world of crime fiction, too, Scots have fought well above their weight, with names like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan and Alistair MacLean in days gone by, and present-day best sellers Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Irvine Welsh and even honorary Scots J.K. Rowling and Rhodesian-born Alexander McCall-Smith.
The stars of the present day are world-renowned, but what of authors who might not be on your radar? Here goes with five, slightly lesser-known Scottish crime authors – but whom any fan of what is becoming known as ‘Tartan Noir’ would do well to seek out. Note that several of the five are, in fact, actually established authors with multiple titles behind them and well-deserved international reputations. Even so, their presence in the American market might not yet match their recognition in Britain and Europe. But it is only a matter of time.
- Tony Black
Journalist, editor and novelist Tony Black was born in Australia, but grew up in Ireland and Scotland. I recently came across his novella The Ringer, a dark portrait of the urban Scottish underbelly that sizzles with authenticity. Its narrator, Stauner, is easily the most detestable central character I have read in a very long time. Black’s prolific output of novels and short stories is gaining recognition from high places. Irvine Welsh calls him ‘my favourite British crime writer’. High praise for a crime writer who is most definitely on the way up, and for whom wider recognition surely beckons. His tenth book, The Inglorious Dead, is published this month.
Tony Black’s blog
Tony Black on Twitter
- Malcolm Mackay
The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter announced the arrival of a hot new prospect to Tartan Noir. Malcolm Mackay is from Stornoway in Scotland’s Hebridean islands, has barely turned thirty years old – and already has a trilogy of crime thrillers published, with more on the way. The second in the trilogy, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, won the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award for 2013. Mackay might not yet have made his name in America, but it won’t be long.
Malcolm Mackay on Twitter
3. Paul Johnston
I first came across Paul Johnston’s inspired series of Quint Dalrymple crime novels more than ten years ago. He started out with Body Politic, which introduced investigator Quint Dalrymple and the dark dystopian world of a post-apocalyptic Edinburgh in the 2020s (I bet he wishes now that he made that the 2040s). It won Britain’s John Creasey Award for Best Debut Novel.
The prolific (there’s that word again) Johnston has gone on to write three separate series of crime novels. The Alex Mavros books are set in Greece, where Johnston lives, and the Matt Wells series, set in London and the United States.
Paul Johnston on Twitter
- Craig Russell
Ex-Glasgow policeman Craig Russell is well-known in the European crime fiction scene for his Murder Commission series set in Germany and featuring Jan Fabel as a troubled investigator. I hadn’t heard of Jan Fabel when I ‘discovered’ Russell’s Glasgow-set series featuring displaced Canadian PI Lennox. I found a copy of the first in the series, Lennox, in a second-hand bookstore in Vientiane, Laos – and was very glad I did. The book takes place shortly after World War II, and Lennox is a private eye who juggles competing clients from the cut-throat Glasgow underworld. My earliest memories of urban Scotland are from near Glasgow in the 1960s, and the Lennox books resonate beautifully with period character.
Craig Russell on Twitter
- Caro Ramsay
About fifteen years ago I was living in Scotland, and a very enthusiastic member of a Writers’ Group at the local library in the town of Paisley. The Group occasionally got together with other Groups from neighbouring towns, and so I became aware of Carole Mitchell, whose success in selling a manuscript to a mainstream publisher for a reputedly large advance was the stuff of local legend. The manuscript eventually became her debut novel, Absolution. Now writing as Caro Ramsay, and despite holding down a high-pressure full-time occupation as the owner of an Osteopath centre, her career has gone from strength to strength.
Readers should be aware that this short list only scratches the surface of crime fiction talent emerging from Scotland. Anyone interested in seeking out more Scottish crime authors could do worse than starting with the Tartan Noir website or this list from the Books From Scotland site. Prominent in such lists is Louise Welsh. Louise doesn’t feature here only because The Rogue Reader has an exclusive interview with her lined up in the coming weeks.
Ron McMillan on Twitter
No Comments | Tags: Alexander McCall Smith, Caro Ramsay, Craig Russell, Ian Rankin, j. k. rowling, Malcolm McKay, Paul Johnston, Scottish Crime Fiction, Sir Arthur Conan Doyls, Tartan Noir, Tony Black, val mcdermid
October 21, 2014 by Don Rearden
Not long ago a great Booklist review suddenly appeared on the Amazon Page of The Raven’s Gift. In today’s world it can be incredibly difficult …
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