Smoked by Michael Bracken


County of Offenses

Quarryville (Fictional)

Character Charges

Murder. Assault. Chainsawing. Smoking up
some killer brisket and ribs.

Priors

Repeat Offender

Known Gang Affiliations

Level Best Books

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Date of Offense

July, 2017
October, 2018

Arresting Officer

William Dylan Powell 

In the Lone Star State, we take crime very seriously. Just like our barbeque. So when a story brings together both the prospect of crime AND barbeque, you’ve really got our attention. And that’s just what short fiction honcho Michael Bracken did in his recent short story, Smoked. First appearing in Noir at the Salad Bar, Smoked also earned a place in the esteemed Best American Mysteries 2018 collection edited by Louise Penny. And it’s 100 percent, Grade A Prime.

Smoked fires up with Beau James, the humble but dedicated proprietor of the Quarryville Smokehouse—a converted Conoco Station in the fictional town of Quarryville in West Texas. James takes his work seriously, getting up almost every day in the wee hours to smoke beef ribs and brisket the right way. And Beau keeps it simple, too; no gimmicks. Just his fall-off-the-bone meat, coleslaw, a few pickle slices, some onion, two pieces of Mrs. Baird’s bread and a Dr Pepper.

His is a quiet life, with twelve whole years of service at the Quarryville Smokehouse under his belt. But things heat up when regular customer Tommy Baldwin, the restaurant’s most reliable customer, shows Beau a review of the Quarryville Smokehouse in a magazine—complete with a picture of Beau himself in action behind the counter. Rather than being excited about the publicity, the restaurateur is horrified. Because Tommy had no idea that Beau James was a participant in the United States Marshal’s Service Witness Security Program. And with that publication of his picture, his cover was now blown.

In another life, Beau (known as “stick” back then) was an enforcer for the Lords of Ohio motorcycle gang. After being arrested, James rolled over on his brothers and, as a result, eighteen of them went to prison. Now these hardcore bikers were gunning for Beau. Hard. Only they had no idea where to find him.

Until now.

But things are more complicated for Beau James than when he’d been given a new identity by the government all those years ago. Not only does he have a business he’s worked hard for, but he also has a girlfriend, Bethany. Bethany’s daughter, Amanda, even helps out at the restaurant. Not to mention regular customer Tommy Baldwin, who might have poked the bear by sending the picture of Beau and his restaurant to the magazine, but whose life is now at risk just by hanging around the place—which he resolutely won’t stop doing.

It all boils down to an Alamo-like showdown in which Beau has to decide what’s worth fighting for in his life and where, exactly, he’ll make his stand. One thing’s for sure, though, the Lords of Ohio are coming for him—including the notorious “Chainsaw Roberts.” And Beau’s heart skips a beat when, as Bracken so accurately describes, he hears the distinctive “potato, potato, potato” rumble of a Harley’s exhaust.

I like many things about this story, which is really about the value of relationships and their transformative power.

First off, I think it’s relatable. Sure, we discover that Beau is a former gang enforcer. But in the end he did the right thing, and made the most of his fresh start in life. Who hasn’t thought about the tantalizing prospect of a fresh start at some point in their lives?

Also you can tell this story was written by a true Texan. It’s made clear that anyone who asks for barbeque sauce at the Quarryville Smokehouse might very well be refused service. And Beau’s girlfriend, Bethany, is no shrinking violet—as one might expect of a Texas woman. It’s fast-paced, and Bracken really does a great job of getting the reading invested right away.

In the end, the story all comes together like brisket and Dr Pepper, leaving the reader hungry for more from this author.

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Verdict: Guilty of creating a tense, tasty piece of short fiction that proves just how difficult it is to escape your past.

 
 
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The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott


County of Offenses

Presidio/Brewster-ish (Fictional)

Character Charges

Murder. Drug trafficking. More murder. Possession of a controlled substance. Spousal abuse. Assault. Rape. Conspiracy to commit murder. Did we mention murder?

Priors

First Offense 

Known Gang Affiliations

G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Date of Offense

June 2016

Arresting Officer

William Dylan Powell 

Set in a fictional version of Marfa called “Murfee,” The Far Empty lights a number of lives ablaze when a skeleton is discovered in the desert outside of town. And the thing about Far West Texas: There’s always plenty of room for more bones.

Everybody in Murfee loves its charismatic Sheriff, Standford “Judge” Ross. A character capturing the essence of a down-home old school West Texas tough guy, he’s also a larger-than-life Sheriff who emanates a kind of Old West ethos that could only come from a lawman in that part of the world. Sheriff Ross is an aging widower and good old boy who gets respect from men, adoration from women and an unmatched recognition from his professional peers.

The only problem? His son, Caleb, suspects that Sheriff Ross killed Caleb’s mother—the Sheriff ’s second wife.

When a skeleton is unearthed nearby, high school student Caleb Ross suspects it’s his mom, who’s been missing for over a year now. Sheriff Ross claims that she just up and left them. But Caleb is coming to terms with the nature of his father, whose violence and volatility in their home life had become a daily torture for them all. And Caleb sets out on a rocky and treacherous road to bring his mother’s killer—his own father, he suspects—to justice.

Also thrown into the mix are a Sheriff’s Deputy who’s recently returned home to Murfee after a failed football career, a substitute school teacher picking up the pieces of her life, another Deputy who’s totally hooked on that foco, lots of narcotraficante action and Caleb’s intelligent-but-troubled girlfriend. Then, of course, there’s the book’s most compelling character of all: the hard ground and huge skies of West Texas, and all of the blood and folklore contained therein.

With The Far Empty, Scott brings the reader a fast-paced, easy-to-read, tension-filled post-modern Western. As the story unfolds, one-by-one the book’s characters are gradually thrown into a collision course with Sheriff Ross and his machinations—struggling to understand the man’s understated menace, calculating ruthlessness and seemingly preternatural power.

This is J. Todd Scott’s debut novel, but you’d never know it. A former DEA agent for more than twenty years, he comes at his work with a foundation of subject matter expertise. But don’t think that means he can’t write. From his allusion to Cormac McCarthy’s Judge in Blood Meridian to the claustrophobic tension he creates in Deputy Chris Cherry’s marriage, Scott proves himself a capable craftsmen well up to the task of telling big stories of West Texas crime. I’m in the middle of his second book, High White Sun (watch for the La Kiva reference, by the way), which I’m really enjoying, and rumor has it he has many more to come.

I was destined to love this book. West Texas is one of my favorite places on the planet. I went to high school at Abilene Wylie, graduated from Texas Tech, spent years running around out there in the dust and still try to make it out to Terlingua regularly to drink cold Terlingua Gold under those boundless electric stars. I’ve read No Country for Old Men so many times it’s embarrassing, and watch Hell or High Water every damn time it’s on. So if Scott had written even a mediocre novel trying to accomplish the same thing, I’d have likely still enjoyed it. As it turns out, however, he wrote a great novel--and I’m super excited to count him as one of my favorite new writers of the contemporary Western.

If there’s one thing I love more than finding a good book I didn’t see coming, it’s finding a new writer whose work you can be consistently excited about. As a reader, there are authors I read as experiments and then authors whose books I just automatically buy and add to my “to be read” pile. Scott joins my “full auto” list without reservation, and I look forward to seeing what he’s got locked and loaded for the next few books. Big thanks to John at Murder by the Book for recommending this title.

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Verdict: Guilty of creating a tense, gritty contemporary Western that pays homage to the lawlessness of Far West Texas.

 
 
 
 
 

Reminder: Don't be found in contempt. If you read this book, be a responsible reader and leave a review. The author has spent big chunks of his life creating this work, so support his efforts by sharing your opinion.

A Killing at Cotton Hill


County of Offenses

Jarrett (Fictional) 

Character Charges

Murder. Assault. Arson. Assaulting an arson investigator (damn). Impersonating farm fresh eggs. 

Priors

First Offense 

Known Gang Affiliations

Seventh Street Books
Prometheus Books

Date of Offense

July, 2013

Arresting Officer

William Dylan Powell 

Killing at Cotton Hill is the first of the Samuel Craddock Mysteries by Terry Shames. The novel won the 2014 Macavity Award for Best First Mystery by Mystery Readers International, which is a huge deal. And deservedly so. I don’t know Terry Shames personally, but I do know this: she can write. Her Samuel Craddock Mystery series has been a huge success, and currently stands at eight books:

Man, are those all great titles or what?

In a Killing at Cotton Hill, Samuel Craddock’s longtime friend Dora Lee Parjeter is found dead in her kitchen. Many, including current Chief of Police and town drunk Rodell Skinner, like Dora Lee’s grandson for the crime. Young Greg Marcus is an artist of singular talent now living on his grandmother's farm, where he spends almost all of his time painting.

Shames does some interesting things with this series. For one thing, protagonist Samuel Craddock isn’t Lone Wolf McQuade. Don’t get me wrong, I love the film Lone Wolf McQuade. I love it so much, I would marry it. In fact, I still really want an old rebuilt Dodge Ram Charger like Chuck Norris drove in that movie. So if anyone wants to, you know, pick me up an early Christmas gift—there’s your hint. But in his sixties and a man of reason, Shames’s protagonist can’t just roll up and kick everyone’s teeth out. He needs to be more clever and subtle.

A widower and retired local police chief, Craddock is a man with a sharp intellect and strong sense of both justice and propriety. A curious man. A man with empathy. But he’s still just a guy; an everyday Texas retiree you might find sipping coffee down at the feed store. He has a cat named Zelda. He walks with a cane and gets tired. He’s weighed down by the same life baggage, and insights into the human condition, that most of us accumulate as we age. There are no hard-drinking cardboard cutout caricatures to be found here. If Craddock wants answers he has to play it smart. This makes good, old classic sleuthing the brisket and beans of the series.

Young Greg’s noteworthy artistic ability plays a big role in the story—as does the idea of art itself. Modern art, and what art means to different types of people, is explored through the book in many ways. Craddock was turned onto the contemporary art scene by his late wife, Jeanne—very much a presence in the book, and in Craddock’s life, despite her passing years ago.

Though many in his small town don’t understand what they’re looking at, Craddock’s home sports a stunning collection of original works. And it’s not just that Craddock has an interest in art. Because it was a passion he shared with his late wife, it’s a part of his life for which he feels a strong passion and sentimentality. The potential wrongful conviction of young Greg motivates Craddock on many levels—as a friend of the family, as a strong investigator, as a just person and as a lover of art.

The author name drops awesome artists such as Wolf Kahn, Wassily Kandinsky, Willem de Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Wayne Thiebaud, Manuel Neri and others throughout the story. The unlikely juxtaposition of this retired small-town Texas lawman who's really into modern art makes for an interesting character. 

The series is set in fictional Jarrett Creek, Texas, which is “located in the middle of a triangle that makes it one and a half hours’ drive” from Austin, Houston and San Antonio. The author doesn’t lean on setting, though, as is so tempting for many Texas authors. Aside from an eccentric and believable array of small town characters, as well as the presence of farmers and ranchers and honky-tonks, this relatively low-key part of Texas lets Shames really focus on the story. It’s not quite a cozy, but it’s a clean, lean work. In addition, she does a good job of presenting the combination of community and claustrophobia found in small town life—whereby everyone’s world is made both better and more complicated by constant interconnectedness.

As Craddock takes us through the mystery, plenty of twists and turns and layers and red herrings and secrets are exposed. All while somebody goes to extreme lengths to deter and distract Craddock from finding out the truth about Dora Lee’s murder. And Shames does it all in a way that makes you feel at home with the people and places she’s created in Jarrett Creek. Well plotted and with compelling characters, the series was a joy to discover.  So if you’d like a well executed traditional whodunit with a Texas twist, and you haven’t yet started this series, pick up A Killing at Cotton Hill

Verdict: Guilty of creating a Texas-style traditional mystery with an interesting protagonist and all the hallmarks of a series worth commitment. 

 

Author Terry Shames, along with JoAnn Smith Ainsworth, Heather Havens and Lisa Brackman—divulging their secrets for writing murder mysteries on a Sisters in Crime panel.

 
 
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Reminder: Don't be found in contempt. If you read this book, be a responsible reader and leave a review. The author has spent big chunks of her life creating this work, so support her efforts by sharing your opinion.

Murder City: True Crime of Houston, Texas


County of Offenses

Harris

Character Charges

Murder. Lots and lots of murder. 

Priors

Unknown

Known Gang Affiliations

University of Houston 

Date of Offense

First episode dropped June 1, 2018

Arresting Officer

William Dylan Powell

 
A bi-weekly podcast, Murder City: True Crime of Houston showcases local crimes many would otherwise never hear about--especially long after the fact. With its first episode having kicked off on June 1st of this year, the show has already gained a loyal following with a number of subscribers, several hundred followers on social and an average iTunes rating of 4.5 stars (with more than a dozen reviews). Not bad considering it's only been live about a month.
 
This is a great concept for a podcast because, let's face it, there's some shit going down in this town. Even in my relatively quiet westside neighborhood we're often lulled to sleep by the dulcet tones of police helicopters and small arms fire. In 2017 there were 269 homicides in Houston, with about 20 percent of those gang related. And 269 is actually a great number for H-Town. As the show points out when covering a grisly double-murder in 1979, in that year the figure was well over 500. 
 
"Aggravated assaults," a sterile euphemism for somebody kicking the shit out of you, were up 13 percent in Houston last year. In fact, Houston is #3 in the nation for robbery, rape and aggravated assault. So you're less likely to be murdered, but more likely to be fucked up in general. While this may not be awesome news for most of us, it's pretty great for people creating true crime content. As one of the hosts puts it in the show's first episode, Houston is like the "Wild, Wild West of the South."
 
Murder City is hosted by two co-hosts whose identities remain need-to-know for their own personal safety: "B" and "CC." But one thing everyone knows about them is that they are are all about H-Town crime. They approach the show in a way that's high-energy and engaging, but without being gauche about it. And as anyone who's tried his or her hand at true crime knows, that takes a delicate balance. They acknowledge that these aren't just campfire stories but the actual lives of Houstonians. So even though they keep it fun with some swagger, they approach the endeavor with a sense of service. B and CC even use the platform they've created to share information about ongoing crimes, missing persons, etc. 

In my opinion, shows like this play a really important role in local journalism.

It's not about the true crime trend--it's about letting people in your community know what's going on around them. When a crime happens, how else are you going to know what happened and why? The police can't tell you the whole story. In the course of their work, they're required to report the facts but at their core their real jobs are operational not informational. Local news? Sure, but that business is a timely grind often driven by a 24-hour news cycle; they don't always have the luxury of doing deep-background reportage. And their resources are stretched thin as it is. So when it comes to true crime in Houston, bad asses like B and CC play a valuable role in filing the gap. 

And there's just so much crime. 
 
I mean, forget all the big Houston cases that make national media--this town is like the Cirque du Soleil of shady shit. Nobody could possibly cover it all. We've got MS-13 killing people in Satanic rituals up in here. What's up with that murder-suicide over in the Galleria back in May? We had a sex trafficking bust that netted 250 arrests last year. People are stealing guns left and right. And remember that guy who stole a Hellcat and drove it toward Beaumont? He outran the helicopter (that's a f'n fast car). There's just so much.
 
In the first episode, B and CC cover the Orchard Apartment Slayings--a series of downright grizzly murders in 1979. Episode 2 covers the tragic murders of Robert Spagenberger and Joann Huffman just over a month after the Orchard Apartment affair. Episodes 3 and 4 cover the terrible, tension-filled escapades surrounding Leon Jacob and successful local veterinarian Valerie McDaniel. Episode 5 is the heartbreaking story of Tynesha Stewart. And, the most recent episode as of this writing, Episode 6 covers "The Woodlands Ten" hate crime back in 1991.

One thing I really appreciate about the Murder City podcast is that, in addition to the actual show, they also publish case-related content such as photographs and legal documents in PDF form. This reference material really brings it all to life, and lets you check out the primary info for yourself if you're that kind of person. They do a bit of fieldwork too, sometimes visiting the communities in which these crimes occurred. 

It's also worth noting that while the show is extra engaging if you live in H-Town, it's also interesting if you don't. Just as you don't have to live in North Carolina to appreciate The Staircase or The Long Dance, the cases presented on the podcast will resonate with any true crime fan. Fun fact: Did you know Staircase editor Sofie Brunet and Michael Peterson had a thing going during filming? Jesus H. Christ in a Camaro, keep that in mind. 

But, of course, if you do live in Houston all of this sketch action is taking place right next door to where you sleep--so there's that.

So check out the Murder City: True Crime of Houston, Texas podcast and hear all about the tragic craziness that's happened in the Bayou City. And if you know of a Houston criminal case that needs some love, B and CC probably want to hear about it. You can send them your own personal case recommendations at murdercitypod@gmail.com

Verdict: Guilty of bringing Houston crimes on stage so we can offer support to victims, shame to perpetrators and recognition that what happened was a big deal. 

 
 
 
 
 
Reminder: Don't be found in contempt. If you listen to this podcast, be a responsible listener and leave a review. These creators spend big chunks of their lives creating this work, so support the arts by sharing your opinion.

Last Chance, Texas by D. K. Kerr


County of Offenses

Somewhere in West Texas

Character Charges

Murder, Arson, Infidelity, Crimes Against Bœuf Bourguignon

Priors

The Bone of the Day

Known Gang Affiliations

Winthorp Publishing 

Date of Offense

January, 2018

Arresting Officer

William Dylan Powell

This book opens with a devastating library fire in the small, fictional West Texas town of Last Chance. In tiny West Texas towns, somebody getting a new truck or forgetting someone’s birthday is a big deal. So the town’s grand old library burning down? Tragedy. But it gets worse when they realize their beloved librarian, Hephestia Jo (Miss Hattie), was inside when it burned. And at Christmas no less; added a nice bit of pathos, I thought.

The community is beside itself. Miss Hattie wasn’t just a librarian; she seemed to be the bindery glue that held the town together. Under her considerable influence, Last Chance locked down the highest literacy rate in the state and became a model for making most of life in a small town—especially for kids.

And here’s the clever bit of the book: Upon her death, Miss Hatty left nine seemingly random books for nine very specific people in the community: Coding for Dummies for the town’s resident Apple employee, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! to an aging playboy, and on it went: Like Water for Chocolate (in Spanish), The Complete Works of Shakespeare—a copy of Persuasion by Jane Austin to her best friend, wealthy philanthropist Dory Russell. The town gets to reading at once, both to seek out what Miss Hatty was trying to say to each of the books’ recipients AND so they can attempt to put together the circumstances surrounding her death. Also, this is Last Chance and reading is cool.

The fire was, of course, arson—which made Miss Hatty’s death a murder. But who among the residents of Last Chance could possibly have had it in for Miss Hatty? Could it have something to do with the proposed corridor project that threatens the future of the town? Was it shame around an overdue copy of Where the Red Fern Grows? OR was it that rival library over in Post? (OK, I just made that up; that’s not in the book and the good people of Post would never do that.) Still, something happened. And now the residents of Last Chance are paying the price.

As the story unfolds, and life goes on for this community, everyone is painfully aware of the true extent of her contribution to those around her. After school programs. Arts initiatives. Civic leadership, community services, standing up for the less fortunate, promoting literacy, connecting people, etc. The woman wasn’t a librarian; she was an institution.

I think the premise of this novel was just brilliant, because if you're a reader you probably love libraries. Like Ray Bradbury said: “Without libraries, what have we? We have no past and no future.” Writers, whose work demands rigorous research, are especially aware of how critical these professionals are to the world of letters.

But Miss Hatty’s death is also a metaphor for the difference it’s possible for one person to make in the world during his or her lifetime. Most of us, me included, don’t bother giving back. We’re too focused on getting for ourselves. But what could each of us do for our community if we really try? The results aren’t as obvious in a big city, but the story’s small-town setting gives us a nice It’s a Wonderful Life-like backdrop on which to explore the topic.

With the publishing of Last Chance, Texas Kerr stacks herself among an esteemed group of contemporary working mystery novelists who’ve used libraries and librarians as key elements in their stories. Offhand I’m thinking about Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library (the third Miss Marple novel), Miranda James’s Cat in the Stacks series—even Umberto Echo’s Name of the Rose. Of course, in this case it’s the love of the library that drives the story. By the time the reader arrives, the library itself is already up in smoke.

Another thing I really liked about this book was the West Texas setting. I graduated from high school in West Texas (graduating class of about 90), and went to college out there too. It’s a place that means a lot to me, and feels like home in many ways. So it was cool to hear about people going to the big city of Lubbock for its nightlife, and refreshing to hear my old alma mater, Texas Tech University (Guns Up!) in a mystery story. I live in Houston these days, and there aren’t that many Red Raiders around to appreciate my mad tortilla throwing skills.

I liked much less the author’s creative decision to use the novel as a platform to grandstand her political views. I mention this not because I disagree with the author’s politics; it’s simply that I thought it distracting. in my view it slowed the story a bit. But, hey, when it’s your book you get to make those kinds of decisions.

For this review I bought both the Kindle edition and the audio book from Audible. The Audible version is a lot of fun because the author narrates it herself with her homegrown Texas accent—adding a whole new dimension to the story. I love the way she gave Last Chance a big Shakespeare festival. And Kerr really paints the town of Last Chance with the believable, intimate quirkiness of small town living. When I’d finished Last Chance, Texas I kind of missed the people and the town.

I hope the book wasn’t our last chance to read about Last Chance. As long as nothing else in the town burns down, that is. I think it would be neat if Kerr wrote a story in which there were a murder in the middle the town’s big Shakespeare festival, and Miss Dory took it upon herself to figure out what happened. Or maybe she and her dashing new European beau can be a couples sleuthing team. I’m sure we’ll hear more from Kerr in some way soon.

Anyhoo, if you want to bring a librarian-killer to justice, and we all do, you need this book in your life. 

Verdict: Guilty of spinning a suspenseful small-town mystery that makes us grateful for librarians everywhere. 

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Reminder: Don't be found in contempt. If you buy this book, be a responsible reader and leave a review. These authors spend big chunks of their lives creating this work, so support the arts by sharing your opinion.

The Past Never Dies by Laura Elvebak


County of Offenses

Harris, Dallas

Character Charges

Murder, Fleeing the Scene of an Accident, Slander, Obstruction of Justice, Driving While Tired, Causing a Scene at the Petroleum Club (well, that's not a crime, but it's certainly gauche)

Priors

Less Dead
Lost Witness
A Matter of Revenge 
Twisted Tale of Texas Landmarks (Accomplice) 
Deadly Diversions (Accomplice) 
A Box of Texas Chocolates (Accomplice) 
A Death in Texas (Accomplice) 

Known Gang Affiliations

Black Opal Books
A Final Twist

Date of Offense

September 2017

Arresting Officer

William Dylan Powell

The Past Never Dies is a taught and suspenseful mystery that brings together old flames and new in an explosive clash between oil executives, lawyers, cops, investors, investigators, lovers and a younger generation trying to make both sense of--and peace with--their parents’ deeds.

The story centers on Matt Langdon, the owner of an independent oil and gas operating company. A smart, hard-working and well-respected leader, he’s built his company up from scratch. With the right financing, he could take his business to the next level. It looks like everything is coming together nicely for him.

But what kind of boring book would that be?

On the way to meet a demanding potential investor, Matt finds a bloodied woman lying in the middle of the road. He’s forced to choose between flaking out on his investor meeting and stopping to help. Of course, there was no real choice for a stand-up guy like Matt. So in his character’s “save the cat” moment, Matt takes her to the hospital and does his best to help.

Still, he has a business to run; once the young girl’s situation seems in hand he dashes off to salvage what he can of his meeting. Things don’t go well. In fact, they don’t go well time and time again after his Good Samaritan deed. As it turns out, this was one accident that was unavoidable as its course was set in motion decades ago.

Elvebak’s prose style is tight and sparse, with fast-paced plotting and down-to-business dialogue. Tension between characters is as thick as tar sands.

You’ve got the intense and hard-nosed investigator Lillian Wallace—who seems to have it in for Matt from the beginning. His son is going through a transitionary period. Multiple people from his past seem to be somehow involved in plotting his bankruptcy, including the ruthless Duncan Rosendekker, who seems like a modern day version of Daniel Day Lewis’s character in There Will Be Blood. The girl he found was less of a coincidence than it seemed and practically everyone in the story appears to both be connected and have a few marked cards tucked up in their sleeve.

I personally enjoyed this book because I always appreciate a good story about the oil business. I grew up the son of an oilfield engineer, and these days I owe a lot of my living to the business the rest of the nation loves to hate. Here in Houston, we don’t complain when oil prices are high—we’re relieved. For us, high crude oil and natural gas prices mean job security, opportunity and billions of dollars sloshing around town. Sure, it makes us seem like a bunch of Bond Villains. But on the other hand, it helped make Texas a rare island of solvency during recent recession years. So if, like me, you’re open-minded enough to see oil and gas people as actual humans involved in a vital and interesting business, you may dig this book.

You may also enjoy reading other crime stories with an oil and gas setting, including The Cost of Crude by Inge-Lise Goss, Pipeline: A Novel of Suspense by Peter Schechter, any of the dozen or so oil and gas themed novels of the late Canadian author John Ballem and books like 13 Days: The Pythagoras Conspiracy and Strike Price by LA Starks.

Fun fact: Raymond Chandler became a mystery novelist after losing his job as an oil company executive.

But, of course, even if you don’t know or like the oil business, you’ll still enjoy this story. Laura Elvebak is a writer’s writer. Readers may be familiar with her past works, such as her Niki Alexander mystery series that includes Less Dead, Lost Witness and A Matter of Revenge. And if you’re a part of the mystery writing scene, especially in Texas, you definitely already know her name.

A recent judge for the prestigious Mystery Writer’s Association Edgar Awards, she helps run the Houston MWA meetings (Southwest Chapter), regularly makes the conference circuit and helps other writers improve their craft. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime and a bunch of other nefarious groups. And she’s studied creative writing at UCLA, Rice University and other prestigious programs. She also runs with the Final Twist crowd.

Polite and soft-spoken, you might look at Laura Elvebak and say to yourself: “Awww. She seems like a sweet little lady—probably writes cozies in which cats steal cupcakes from a library or something.” You can make that assumption. But that’s why the word “assumption” has “ass” right in it. Elvebak’s work is cutthroat, not cozy; if she sets a scene at a library, fuck the cupcakes—you’d better check the storage closet for a tied up child or make sure there isn’t a drug dealer selling smack to kids in the parking lot.

Elvebak was once a former go-go dancer in the ‘60s. She’s lived in New York, New Jersey and other places where only the strong survive. She’s shown six husbands the door, and has seen some things. So she writes in-your-face crime stories with a dark, sharp edge. All of her books give me the feeling that something unexpected is about to happen to the main character at any minute—and not a surprise birthday party with ponies and balloons. The Past Never Dies is no exception.

So tap into this book if you’re looking for a tangled mystery in which long-term justice is sought, short-term situations reach a boiling point, family is redefined and everyone proves they'll do whatever it takes to protect their own family interests.  

Verdict: Guilty of delivering a switchback mystery oozing with dark secrets from the past. 

 
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Reminder: Don't be found in contempt. If you buy this book, be a responsible reader and leave a review. These authors spend big chunks of their lives creating this work, so support the arts by sharing your opinion.

Texas Monthly True Crime Reporting


County of Offense

Statewide

Charges

Throwing the Book at Texas

Priors

Extensive Criminal Activity since 1973

Known Gang Affiliations

Genesis Park

Date of Offense

Ongoing 

Arresting Officer

William Dylan Powell

If Texas Monthly were a high school football team, its Texas crime coverage would be Dallas Carter in 1988: a hard-hitting, talented powerhouse of unstoppable reportage. Texas Monthly only taps the best writers for its feature pieces—and scrubs that copy like a Turkish bathhouse.

This year they’ve covered Clara Harris, cartel crime, the fajita bandit, an armored car robber, the Austin bomber, sex scandals and more. And that’s just this year. About a dozen regular writers including Charley Locke, Doyin Oyeniyi, Leif Reigstad, Abby Johnston and others keep Texans up to date on the latest in Lone Star crime.

As a Houstonian, I really appreciate high-quality, timely Texas crime reportage wherever I can find it. I mean, let’s face it, Houston is to crime what Tyler is to roses. The car-jackings. The home invasions. The murders for hire. Call it our gift to the world. Hence the rise of local true crime podcasts like Beer, Blood and the Bayou and Murder City.

There’s this whole criminal world going on around us all the time, not just in Houston, of course, but everywhere. And it's mesmerizing when someone lifts the veil and gives us an inside look.

True crime is especially interesting when you have some everyday connection with the people, places or events in the story. One time my wife got into a fender-bender with a lady in the parking lot of an upscale mid-rise apartment. My wife screamed at the woman’s carelessness and went a little road ragey on her. The other party turned out to be Ana Lilia Trujillo, the train wreck of a bruja who killed her boyfriend with a shoe.

Sometimes I just enjoy the pure schadenfreude of a criminal dumpster fire—like this 2014 story about a couple of asshats who tried stealing an undercover Haltom City police car. With a detective in it.

So my recent interest in true crime, which really started when I wrote a book about murder in 2016, has renewed my enthusiasm for Texas Monthly. These guys have been down in the trenches trying to habeas the corpus for decades. Check out the compilation Texas True Crime by the editors of Texas Monthly back in 2007. The book covers a number of interesting cases ranging from a Dallas jewel thief to a bar owner who allegedly fed waitresses to the alligators. Then there is Texas Crime Chronicles, and the TM crime stories available on Audible. If these juicy stories don’t convince you the magazine is a crime writing juggernaut, I don’t know what will.

And then there’s Skip Hollandsworth.

Hollandsworth is a master craftsman of Texas true crime. A TCU graduate, he established himself as a man of letters early in life. He was a sports reporter up in Dallas, joining Texas Monthly in 1989. He’s had a long and distinguished career full of truly deserved accolades and accomplishments—check out this Slate/Longform piece from way back in the day on some of his true crime work. And he’s done a heckuva lot since then. A number of his articles have been made into films.

Side note: you should know Longform and its podcast if you’re a true crime fan and want the stories behind the stories.

More recently, Hollandsworth co-wrote the 2011 movie Bernie, which I absolutely loved, with H-Town bad ass Richard Linklater. If you haven’t seen it, it’s fantastic: about Bernie Tiede, a beloved Carthage funeral-director-turned-murderer. Well, it's fantastic except the guy who said he wouldn’t trust people from San Augustine to fix his car. And the bit where they make fun of the region’s predilection for squirrel hunting. You, sirs, can keep your judgmental opinions to yourself—those are my people.

Grander still was Hollandsworth’s 2016 New York Times Bestselling book The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer. An engaging and original true crime book, The Midnight Assassin tells the story of a series of unsolved murders that took place in a much more rural Austin during the 1880s. Still an unsolved series of crimes, Hollandsworth tackles the phenomenon with precision, context, tact and a flavorful sense of the Austin of its day.

So with a guy like him on board, Hell yeah Texas Monthly is going to do true crime right.

The magazine also has a recurring feature called “Meanwhile, in Lufkin…” that highlights activity from the police blotter in this small East Texas town. Of course, they could have just named it “Meanwhile, Allow Rural East Texans to Amuse You With Their Life Problems While Your Smug Urban Ass Reads Your iPhone X and Waits for Your Friend to Meet You at Garage.” Still, the feature’s elitist nature aside, it IS funny and those are real-life Lufkin police calls comin’ at ya. And, you know, Lufkin.

Long-time true crime aficionados stay plugged in. But if you haven’t been reading the National Magazine of Texas lately, and you appreciate solid true crime reporting and storytelling, I urge you to reconnect. Because crazy shit is going down all around us in this place we call home.  

Verdict: Guilty of consistently getting behind some of the most interesting true crime stories in the Lone Star State

 
 
In Houston, Texas, party girl Ana Lilia Trujillo moves in with Swedish doctor and fellow alcoholic Stefan Andresson, but Stefan soon has enough of Ana's violent temper and kicks her out. After Ana is thrown out of another friend's home, Stefan lets her move back in temporarily.
 
 

Texas City, 1947 by James Lee Burke


County of Offense

Galveston County, St. Mary Parish Louisiana

Character Charges

Attempted Murder, Assault, Assault with a Chicken, Un-named Other Major Crimes in the Interest of "No Spoilers" 

Priors

Half of Paradise
To the Bright and Shining Sun
Lay Down My Sword and Shield
Two for Texas
The Convict
The Lost Get-Back Boogie
The Neon Rain
Heaven's Prisoners
Black Cherry Blues
A Morning for Flamingos
A Stained White Radiance
In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead
Dixie City Jam
Burning Angel
Cadillac Jukebox
Cimarron Rose
Sunset Limited
Heartwood
Purple Cane Road
Bitterroot
Jolie Blon's Bounce
White Doves at Morning
Last Car to Elysian Fields
In the Moon of the Red Ponies
Crusader's Cross
Pegasus Descending
Jesus Out to Sea
The Tin Roof Blowdown
Swan Peak
Rain Gods
The Glass Rainbow
Feast Day of Fools
Creole Belle
Light of the World
Wayfaring Stranger
House of the Rising Sun
The Jealous Kind
Robicheaux

Known Gang Affiliations

Dell
Gallery Books
Hachette Book Group
Island Books
LSU Press
Mulholland Books
Pocket Books
Pocket Star

Random House
Simon & Schuster

Date of Offense

June, 2007

Arresting Officer

William Dylan Powell

Texas City, 1947 is a work of short fiction, included in Burke’s collection Jesus Out to Sea. The story’s title is a reference to the devastating industrial accident that occurred in Texas City on April 16, 1947, though the story actually takes place in South Louisiana. It’s told from the first-person viewpoint of Billy Bob Sonnier, a boy whose absentee father is off working the oilfields.
 
As with many of the self-sufficient Cajuns of his time, Billy Bob’s strained financial circumstances don’t much register with him as he goes about the everyday business of being a boy at a nearby Catholic convent school. But what does register is a home life that is becoming increasingly volatile. The juxtaposed tension between the boy’s troubled childhood and the industrial-sized blowout serves as a tense, high-stakes reminder that you don’t have to be doing anything wrong for the world's delicate machinery to throw a rod and put you in peril.
 
Billy Bob’s father was an adulterer—caught out by his mom, who eventually drives her car off the bridge and into the Atchafalaya River. This leaves Billy Bob and his brothers Weldon and Lyle, as well as his sister, Drew, at home alone while their father goes out to seek his oil patch fortune. Enter Mattie, his father’s cruel and broken live-in lover who comes to stay and help take care of the kids. And by help, I mean drink apricot brandy, chain smoke, go out on Saturday nights and exact cruelties on the children that far exceed neglect. Fortunately, Billy Bob finds an ally in Sister Roberta.

This story is a great appetizer for the fifth Dave Robicheaux novel, A Stained White Radiance--which follows wealthy Weldon Sonnier and his family in a twisted plot that involves the Klan, the CIA, gangsters and some pretty twisted family dynamics. 
 
I don’t believe in spoilers when reviewing, but everything in Texas City, 1947 comes to a head, just as all things in life tend to do—sometimes with karmic justice, sometimes with pointless tragedy and sometimes in a sad and mysterious way that makes you question the control people have over their own beliefs and actions. And to young Billy Bob, the end result is every bit as explosive as that notorious day in 1947.
 
Back to that, by the way. “Industrial accident” is a polished euphemism for saying that in April of 1947 a big chunk of Texas blew the fuck up. Here’s how it happened: A French ship called the S.S. Grandcamp—which was loaded up with peanuts, twine, tobacco, small arms ammunition and bunker oil—was in the process of being loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer when a fire broke out onboard. The ship’s captain tried to put out the fire by routing steam into the cargo hold, which actually created nitrous oxide. At 9:12am the fertilizer detonated.
 
Ho-ly-shit.
 
You see, it didn’t blow up in a cornfield. It blew up in Texas City. If you start near town at the head of the Houston Ship Channel it’s almost possible to slap on a hardhat and some steel-toe-boots then walk from tank to tank for 50 miles. The whole place is a shimmering sea of petrochemical refineries, tank batteries, distribution terminals, port infrastructure, docked vessels and complex industrial manufacturing and processing facilities.
 
When that first explosion blew, it caused a deadly chain reaction. It blew up a ship next to it called the High Flyer, which was filled with not only ammonium nitrate but also sulfur. The two make for a volatile mix, and when that ship blew it took a nearby ship called the Wilson B. Keene with it. The blast destroyed an entire Monsanto plant that was about 300 feet away. Flaming bits of debris set fire to giant tank farms. The explosion destroyed concrete warehouses, piers and grain elevators and humans and the whole thing truly was a disaster. And it lasted for three days!
 
The blast caused a fifteen-foot tidal wave that flooded the surrounding area. The waters of Galveston Bay boiled. Those working the docks simply disappeared. A docked barge was lifted out of the water and deposited a hundred feet inland by the blast. Two airplanes were downed. Windows shattered in Houston—which is about 42 miles away. At the time of the accident, my Cajun grandmother lived in Port Arthur, Texas. Her windows shattered like a bomb had gone off.

The Grandcamp’s 1.5-ton anchor was found two miles away.
 
James Lee Burke has been one of my family’s favorite authors since Neon Rain came out in 1987. He’s one of those writers that I always bought and read straight away, without giving it much thought. Now, looking back, I realize he’s been one of the most influential and enjoyable writers of my lifetime. I don’t think I’ve missed a single one of his books or short stories, and was overjoyed to hear that a piece of short fiction I wrote will be included alongside one of his stories in the upcoming anthology The Best American Mystery Stories 2018.  
 
I’ve always enjoyed the setting, culture and atmosphere of Burke’s work. While my father’s side of the family is from the piney woods of East Texas, my mother’s family are all Cajuns from Louisiana and the Golden Triangle area (Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange). According to the ancestry.com DNA test I took, I should be walking around playing an accordion with my shirt pocket filled with maque choux
 
So for me when Burke writes of Louisiana it always brings up childhood memories of my family and my mother’s stories about all my crazy Cajun relatives. Texas City, 1947 is no exception. Like many of Burke’s tales of South Louisiana, it’s a world of magnolia and wisteria, horn-rimmed glasses and fedoras, cigar smoke and boxwood radios and pirogues-full of good, old-fashioned Catholic symbolism. Not to mention Cajun superstition; when Billy Bob gets rheumatic fever, his father makes him wear a dime around his neck to “keep the gris-gris away.”
 
But even without all of this nostalgia on my part, the story easily carries its own water and more. Texas City, 1947 is not only a taut domestic suspense, but also a good opportunity to hear Burke write from the point of view of a child. I think he does this really well in a number of his stories, and it’s a tricky thing to pull off. The reader knows what’s happening in the bigger picture, but the narrator is locked into both the myopic fatalism of a young boy--as well as the unfiltered truth-seeing that sometimes comes more easily to kids than adults.
 
And just think: Texas City, 1947 is merely one story in Jesus Out to Sea. And all of them live up to the rich, thunderhead-on-the-horizon, Faulknerian expectation you probably have for Burke’s writing. So if you missed it the first time around, now’s your chance to pick up a copy and ride the shockwave yourself.

Verdict: Guilty of upholding Burke's reputation as one of the finest writers working today. 

Reminder: Don't be found in contempt. If you buy this book, be a responsible reader and leave a review. These authors spend big chunks of their lives creating this work, so support the arts by sharing your opinion.
 
James Lee Burke discusses his new novel of short stories, Jesus Out to Sea, and the effect of Hurricane Katrina on his writing. ABOUT THE BOOK: James Lee Burke is in a class of his own for his highly acclaimed, award-winning crime fiction, most notably the Dave Robicheaux series set in Louisiana.
 
The Texas City disaster was an industrial accident that occurred April 16, 1947, in the Port of Texas City. It was the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history, and one of the largest non-nuclear explosions.
 
 
 

The late great cajun musician Nathan Abshire playing Jolie Blond, a true cajun classic.

 
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What We Reckon by Eryk Pruitt


County of Offense

Nacogdoches, Angelina and Harris Counties 

Character Charges

Murder, Attempted Murder, Possession of a Controlled Substance with Intent to Distribute, Identity Theft, False Imprisonment, Drug Trafficking, Criminal Mischief, Assault, Being a Bunch of Big Fucking Liars All the Time

Priors

Dirtbags
Hashtags
Townies
Others 

Known Gang Affiliations

Polis Books

Date of Offense

October, 2017

Arresting Officer

William Dylan Powell

What We Reckon lets you ride shotgun with Jack and Summer as they roll into East Texas from out of state in their beat-up Honda, bringing nothing with them but fake IDs, an unreasonable sense of optimism, a legacy of unhealthy couples enablement and a kilo of Grade A yayo stuffed in a hollowed-out King James Bible. They're after a fresh start that lets them escape from the crap decisions and narrow escapes of their past. And maybe the (stolen) cocaine can help them actually get ahead for once. But, of course, as in every solid noir tale it's an uphill battle; we can change our environment but very few of us actually change ourselves. 

Do Jack and Summer manage to change? Well, I'm not in the ruining-the-story-for-others business, but this is noir of the first order so they're in for a fight.   

The book is divided into two parts. Part I consists of Jack and Summer getting the fresh start they'd hoped for, sort of, in the Lufkin/Nacogdoches area: growing their business, partying with the locals, engaging in a little professional networking and even making some H-Town connections. Pruitt puts you in the East Texas college party scene with perfect verisimilitude—I've met guys like Crunch and Kevin Dealer. The politics Summer navigates among her customers is spot on. And I swear I've seen Houston mobster Beef Guidry and his beefcake bodyguards at Hugo's during Sunday brunch, where the waiters apparently hate us all

Part II introduces the strained partnership of Barney Malone and his estranged son, Donnie Williams. Donnie grew up knowing nothing of his wayward father. After learning of him at his Mom's deathbed, he and Barney eventually establish the Miracle Ranch near Rankin. The Ranch, which has an off-the-grid hippie commune feel, is dedicated to getting young women off of drugs and alcohol. The two don't always see eye-to-eye on how to run the organization, and it's put a strain on their finances and relationship. Barney's absentee fatherhood didn't help. You'll have to connect the two parts of the book yourself, but Pruitt brings them together with a critical mass worthy of a Southern tent revival's warning. 

I have an affinity for all things East Texas because, though I came of age in West Texas, I grew up stomping around the piney woods. My father's family is from San Augustine; we still have a house up there. My grandfather worked at the old Benedum ranch, which was known as the Fairway Farm Hunt Club. I still have some relatives in Nacogdoches and I'll probably be buried in a little cemetery in San Augustine (though hopefully no time soon). So I really appreciated the East Texan-ness of the first part of the book with its red dirt and bible-thumping landlords and people gettin' up to who-knows-what back behind the pine veil. Still, Pruitt doesn't lean on the setting or a conventional Dealer Downfall trope to tell his story—it's all about the desperate, colorful, broken characters he's created, their relationships between each other and the orbits to which they were fated long ago. 

I subscribe to Otto Penzler's definition of a noir story as one composed of losers in a downward spiral, with no heroes or happy endings to be found anywhere. Pruitt does the venerable genre of Southern noir well, and for my money East Texas is a great place to tell such a story. I say Southern noir because in my view Texas on the whole isn't really the cultural South. But East Texas does a pretty damn good impression at times. It's a different environment for a story than say, No Country for Old Men, with its wide open West Texas vistas and big-money narcotraficantes. But that brings me to Pruitt's voice. To my ear, his prose has the sort of proselytizing, foreboding quality of Cormac McCarthy. He says things like "and so it was thus" and "Barney bothered not with the door." A lesser writer couldn't pull this off; it would be distracting. But Pruitt is not a lesser writer, and his style only makes the story seem larger than life. 

What We Reckon's wired-up, sleep-deprived, paranoid, bad-decision-making craziness gets into your blood. You ever hang out with someone you realize is crazy? I mean, not like they fling mashed potatoes around the asylum all day because they think they're Dustin the Big Hopper from Starlight Express, but like a normal-seeming functional person who you slowly came to realize is a few bands short of the full armadillo? I have, and what's scary about the experience is that it feels contagious. Like if you hang out with them enough you too will end up down the rabbit hole. This book made me feel like that, which is just what I want from this kind of story. Like if I spent an afternoon with Summer I'd end up pawning my DSLR to buy a Hi-Point for some poorly planned heist that would land me in the Walls Unit.   

If for some reason you didn't consider author Eryk Pruitt when contemplating the noir scene before, there's sure as shit no missing him now. This guy is a player, and even better than this book is the thought that he's got a long and fruitful career as a storyteller in front of him. Much like the legendary Joe Lansdale, I can see him busting out cross-genre doing all kinds of cool stuff in the future. He's already an award-winning film maker, radio host and writer of other things as well. So while I can't promise that everything turns out great for all the characters in What We Reckon, I can promise we'll see more hard-hitting stories from this author in the future. 

Verdict:
Guilty of Gritty, Bleary-Eyed Southern Noir Awesomeness

 
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Reminder: Don't be found in contempt. If you buy this book, be a responsible reader and leave a review. These authors spend big chunks of their lives creating this work, so support the arts by sharing your opinion.

Black Cat Crossing by Kay Finch


County of Offense

Somewhere in the Hill Country 

Charges

Murder, Breaking and Entering, Vandalism, Not-Quite-Hindering an Investigation, Suspicious Activity, Snooping in Pickups

Priors

Relative Chaos
Final Cut
Final Decree

Known Gang Affiliations

Berkley 

Date of Offense

First Book September 2015
(Most recent, Black Cat Sees His Shadow, June 2017)

Arresting Officer

William Dylan Powell

Just because I'm a six-foot-tall, 250+ pound man—with a shaved head and a beard and a black pickup truck with a Pantera sticker on the back—doesn't mean I can't appreciate a nice cozy now and then. I'll admit there's not usually a cat cozy on my nightstand. But you can’t write a blog about Texas crime stories without giving respect to the Lone Star State’s many cozy authors. These men and women work hard to represent our great state well in a genre that’s beloved by millions across the English speaking world (and also Texas).

Black Cat Crossing takes place in the charming fictional Hill Country hamlet of Lavender, Texas. Houstonian and former law firm employee Sabrina Tate moves to Lavender to help her Aunt Rowe manage a set of Hill Country cottages she rents out to tourists. While out there Sabrina’s also trying to write that Great American Novel.

The town is aflame with superstitious rumors about a bad luck cat that’s been causing chaos around town (some say for thirty years, which is really quite impressive). Tate finds and befriends the cat, who she eventually names Hitchcock. One day when she’s following the mysterious cat around the woods on her Aunt Rowe’s property she stumbles upon the body of black sheep relative Bobby Joe Flowers. And her feisty Aunt Rowe becomes the prime suspect.

As the story unfolds, Black Cat Crossing takes readers along a series of artful twists and turns that bring in ANOTHER murder that’s taken place in the EXACT SAME SPOT, a town filled with superstitious gossip, a hunky game warden, some sketchy locals, a mysterious investigator, baked goods, a lucky shot at a big-time literary agent, secrets from the past, tourists, an abrasive detective, plenty of amateur sleuthing done right and, of course, lots of adorable black cat squee.

Author Kay Finch knows her craft. Not only is she a great writer, but she knows what people love about these books and builds the story for maximum impact. Readers find themselves enjoying mischievous cat encounters and trying to figure out what's going on while simultaneously soaking up both the cozy Hill Country atmosphere and tension Finch creates along the way. Hitchcock the Bad Luck Cat becomes Sabrina Tate’s copilot in solving the mystery, and the reader’s friend as well.  

I bought a copy of this book for my wife, too. A few months ago she made me buy an overpriced bag of cat chow for a pregnant stray cat at a gas station somewhere around Hillister. We left it stuffing its face behind the building with a pile of cat food that towered over the poor thing like a Caddo burial mound. We probably gave it diabetes. I have two cats and a dog. One cat, Snickers, is twenty and all out of fucks to give. The other cat, Minou, hates me and walks out of the room whenever I walk in. If I die in my sleep, it will eat my eyes and never think of me again.

Another thing I appreciate about the book is the balance of characters. Many cozies written for a largely female audience portray every single male in the story (who is not the square-jawed-but-sensitive love interest) as a football-loving, cleavage-staring, crass-talking, uncommunicative, illiterate, pizza-scarfing, beer-gutted ex-frat-bro suffering from arrested development. This is, of course, offensive and ridiculous. I mean, believe it or not there are actually men who don’t eat pizza. You know, carbs. But Kay stays clear of these stereotypes with a range of likable and believable characters of all kinds--all with strong characterization, a twisty plot and a lot of small town Texas flavor.

I totally see the appeal of cozy mysteries. Sometimes you don’t want a punch-you-in-the-face reminder that the world can be a hot, nihilistic mess that’s got it in for us all. Sometimes you just want the feeling that everything will work out OK and here's an oversized cup of coffee and there's trouble but, you know, we'll get through it together and hey, check this out, an adorable cat. 

Cat cozies have a widespread fan base with an absolutely insatiable appetite for authors who do them well. Heavy hitters in the genre include Rita Mae Brown, Dean James, Leann Sweeney, the late Lilian Jackson Braun, Sofie Kelly and Sofie Ryan, Laurie Cass and many others. After three hard-hitting titles Kay Finch has certainly earned a renowned place among the fat cats in this popular genre.

Black Cat Crossing is the first of the Bad Luck Cat Mysteries. The second in the series is Black Cat Knocks on Wood and Black Cat Sees His Shadow is the third. Ms. Finch grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania and lives in Houston, but her spirit home is the Texas Hill Country. And her love of the place shows through in her work. Black Cat Crossing has all of the elements of a classic cat cozy, all crafted with mastery to sock you right in the feels. And it does it all with authentic Texas Hill Country style.  

Verdict:
Guilty of adorable intrigue 

 
 This cat hates my fucking guts. 

This cat hates my fucking guts. 

 
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Reminder: Don't be found in contempt. If you buy this book, be a responsible reader and leave a review. These authors spend big chunks of their lives creating this work, so support the arts by sharing your opinion.

All Crime No Cattle


County of Offense

Statewide

Charges

Exploring the Worst Events from the Nation’s Greatest State

Priors

None

Known Gang Affiliations

Podbean
iTunes
Stitcher
Murder.ly
Others

Date of Offense

First Episode Aired December, 2017

Arresting Officer

William Dylan Powell

All Crime and No Cattle is a true crime podcast covering cases that took place in Texas. (The name is a play on the old saying “All Hat and No Cattle,” which refers to ranchers who exaggerate the size of their herd, or just someone in general who talks a big game but can't really walk the walk.) But these guys aren’t all hat and no cattle; they’re the real deal as far as true crime goes. If you live in Texas, or just like juicy crime stories from all walks of life, the show is for you.

Hosts Shea and Erin are a husband and wife team who took their love of true crime and made the bold transition from content consumers to content creators. So, respect for that big jump. The show is pretty straightforward in terms of format. Each hour-long episode focuses primarily on one specific Texas crime. At the time of this writing, they’re almost 20 episodes in. All of the cases thus far have been murders. It’s very conversational and low-key.

They’ve done a good job spreading cases out among various parts of the state. Here in Houston, we’ve got more murders than Cracker Barrel has biscuits. (That’s not a good thing.) I live in a pretty nice Houston neighborhood and I pulled out of my driveway last year to see a man who’d been shot dead on the sidewalk. They haven’t covered many cases out in West Texas yet, but that’s to be expected; fewer people means fewer crimes. Plus, nobody really knows what happens out in the badlands where there's no one to hear you scream.

Don’t come to All Crime No Cattle expecting formal high-profile investigative journalism. It’s not Serial. It’s low-key and conversational—kind of like running into some long-time friends who are interested in true crime, then having a chat about an intriguing case. But not lowbrow friends like me: these two are exceptionally intelligent and very articulate, which is really what makes the show work. Erin has a masters in anthropology with a specialization in bioarchaeology. And I don't know much about Shea, but he's apparently an actual ninja

Don't get me wrong, though. Just because the show is casual and conversational doesn’t mean the hosts approach their task in a flippant manner. They do their homework and take true crime seriously. Court records, research, even primary research at times. They don’t editorialize or speculate without qualification. They don’t slander suspects or persons of interest. They put in the work and do it right.  

Also, you have to remember that what they're doing takes both caution and cojones. Not all of these cases are solved. In many cases, the victims’ families, perpetrators, investigators, etc are still alive and going about their business somewhere as best they can. With all of the media and hype, it’s easy to forget that true crime involves real people and their lives. People out walking around that you could run into at the grocery store. Or, people locked up and not super happy about your shining the spotlight on their crimes. I guess being Cowboys fans gets you used to exposing yourself to criminal types. 

One thing I really appreciate about the show is how they’re able to successfully balance their fun, inquisitive banter with the disturbing content of the cases they’re covering. I mean, my God, after listening to what happened to that poor kid in Episode 8: Satanic Cult Murders on the Texas Border I felt I needed to take a hot shower and burn my clothes. Jesus H. Christ in a Ford F150, where do these sickos come from? (The perpetrators, not the hosts.) Kind of hard to sound chipper talking about that stuff without being inappropriate, but they pull it off. 

Despite the fact that I actually wrote a book about murder a few years ago, I have to take true crime stories in moderation. My wife, a Fort Worth native, can listen to 10 hours of Sword & Scale (we've done it, actually, driving out to Terlingua) and it doesn't bother her at all. But too much of this stuff depresses me. It’s not so much that I mind the gory details and such; it’s more that I start getting bummed when I’m reminded of how many terrible, broken, evil people are running around the world. And people who just make shitty decisions.

Too much of this stuff brings me down and I need to think of something nice for a while. 

Which brings me to another thing I love about the show: Good News. Each episode, they bring you a good news story from somewhere around the state. Something that puts warm fuzzies back into your soul to replace the charred, Stygian, nihilistic film left over from the gruesome details of the showcased crime. Nice touch, y’all. If you're a Texan into true crime, you need this podcast in your life.

Verdict: Guilty of bringing us the worst crimes in the Lone Star State in a tasteful and engaging way

 
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Reminder: Don’t be found in contempt. If you listen to this podcast, be a responsible listener and leave a review. These folks work hard making their show, and the least you could do for the good time they’ve showed you is spend ten minutes sharing your opinion of the work. Plus, they can totally frame you for a crime.

Texas Two Step by Michael Pool


County of Offense

Teller (Fictional), Moore (Dumas, Acquitted), Alleged Out of State Violations in Colorado

Character Charges

Possession with intent to distribute, drug trafficking, Paying $13 for a Manhattan, reckless communication

Priors

Debt Crusher (Novella) 
Midnight at the San Franciscan
New Alleys for Nothing Men: Noir Short Stories  


Known Gang Affiliations

Down & Out Books
All Due Respect


Date of Offense

April 2018


Reviewing Officer

William Dylan Powell
 
Growmasters Cooper and Davis are Texas expats living in Colorado. They've had a damn good run-making fat bank growing off-the-grid premium marijuana, following their favorite jam bands and living in the fast lane. The thing about the fast lane, though: there's always someone faster. 

All signs are pointing toward them getting out of the game, quitting while they're ahead. They've had close calls in the past. But the bills are piling up and they've got one more score to make that could set everyone up to go straight in style (or at least in solvency). When Cooper's girlfriend tells him she's pregnant, and threatens to leave if he doesn't clean up his act, it drives Coop and Davis to run their last big load down to the fictional county of Teller, Texas. Back behind the pine curtain, their old buddy Elroy "Sancho" Watts has a buyer for them. It should be easy money. Of course, when it comes to noir, the only thing that comes easy is the bleeding.  

This quest for "one last score" sets Cooper and Davis on a collision course with not just their old friend but also an ex-UT quarterback now known as Bobby Burnout, the Texas Rangers, the local police, a couple of red dirt party gals, a 'roided-out MMA enthusiast, a Travis County Sheriff's detective, the local police, a senator out for revenge and the looming realization that we all have to grow up sometime. 

Like all good stories, the book is really about relationships; how people feel about others and how they feel about themselves. The characters are well motivated; everybody wants something. Davis wants to help his buddy Cooper, who wants to sell their crop ASAP and make a fresh start with Josie--who wants a better life for her baby. Sancho wants to have a good time. Bobby Burnout wants to go back to his good old days of UT football glory and Bobby's Uncle Troy wants to rip off Davis and Cooper and, preferably, rear-naked-choke a motherfucker in the process. 

Pool is a good storyteller. You can tell he's earned his chops, and not just writing fiction but specifically writing noir. His characters are broken, likable and hate-able but always believable. The story is fast paced; he sets it up, sends you on your way and keeps you wanting more. But much like a Houston Oilers game, you know somebody's bound to lose. To me it felt sort of like a mixture of Joe Lansdale, Ben Rehder and Hank III song. 

And Pool's Texas game is strong. Teller feels a lot like Tyler or Nacogdoches (I went to Tyler Lee myself--no, I didn't get teed). Cooper's talk of not wanting a job running wireline, as well as the usual Texana from Whataburger and tacos to the ubiquitous A&M vs UT rivalry, was all on point. He even does a bit of God's work outing garbage pop country from Nashville. 
  
I'm not the kind of reviewer to give spoilers, but as the story progresses things come to a head with an F5 tornado of cocaine, sex, betrayal, deception, gunfire, handcuffs, throwing up, covering up and manning up. 
 
If you don't think Pool is a .50 cal player on the Texas noir scene after reading Texas Two Step, you're two tacos short of the combo platter. A Tyler native who grew up in Colorado and spent time in the Northwest, Pool was the perfect guy to write this book. You may know his name from his previous work, or from Crime Syndicate Magazine, which Pool founded, and for which he now serves as Editor-in-Chief. (Be sure to pick up a copy of Fast Women and Neon Lights: '80s Inspired Neon Noir). And apparently Texas Two Step is the first in a series, so no need to hoard your stash--there's more to come. 

Verdict: Guilty of bad-assery
 

 
 
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Reminder: Don’t be found in contempt. If you buy this book, be a responsible reader and leave a review. These authors spend big chunks of their lives creating this work, and the least you could do for the good time they’ve showed you is spend ten minutes sharing your opinion of the work.

Welcome to the Lone Star Lineup

Sure, you have the right to remain silent. But what fun would that be? Welcome to the Lone Star Lineup, where we’ll be promoting Texas stories with criminal intent. Texas has always been ripe for awesome crime stories, from the pine curtain to the West Texas badlands. 

The goal of this blog is simply to share cool Texas crime stories we think others should know about. This isn’t the Times Literary Supplement. There’s no high-minded cultural analysis happening here. Just passionate readers and viewers looking for messy, intriguing, hard-hitting stories from across the lone star state. 

If you have a book you’d like us to review just give us a holler (including your book). We may not be able to get to it, but we’ll certainly give it a shot. This thing isn’t a week old and already we’ve gotten piles of submissions through word of mouth. You can also write a review of your own for consideration, following the Lone Star Lineup blog format (don't worry about links or pics). Please do not review your own work.

Sometimes the stories we review will be new. Other times, they’ll be older works that deserve a second look in case you missed them. Thus far, crime novels are the bulk of what we’re reviewing but we’re also open to true crime, short stories, personal essays, long-form journalism, poetry and film--so long as they involve a crime in Texas

So check back from time to time, when you’re looking for something to go with that iced tea (or something stronger). 

I’m from Texas, and one of the reasons I like Texas is because there’s no one in control.
— Willie Nelson
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