Novels

A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary by Terry Shames

County of Offenses

Jarrett (Fictional) 

Character Charges

Kidnapping? Murder?
All just a big misunderstanding?
We’re not telling this time.

Known Gang Affiliations

Seventh Street Books
Prometheus Books

Date of Offense

April 23, 2009

Arresting Officer

William Dylan Powell 

Macavity Award-winning author Terry Shames is firing on all cylinders with her Samuel Craddock mysteries (check out my review of A Killing at Cotton Hill). And this latest installment certainly did not disappoint. In her latest work, resident good neighbor and friend-to-many Loretta Singletary just up and goes missing one day. No heads-up. No asking anyone to watch the house. No bringing-of-baked goods over to Chief’s Craddock’s house or even getting together with the Ladies’ Circle.

The situation goes from perplexing to panicky as the hunt for Loretta develops, and Craddock learns that she’d been using an online dating site that targets seniors. Craddock is worried. Loretta left dishes in the sink, and she would NEVER do that. Loretta’s family is worried. Everyone is worried, and it only gets worse when a woman in a neighboring town, a woman who’d been using the same website, also turns up missing. And then dead.

The race is on and the stakes are high as Craddock and his deputies rack their brains to save poor Loretta from whatever mysterious trouble that’s befallen her. This is more than just another case for Craddock; she’s his friend. And, Jarrett Creek being a small town, everyone feels invested in the mystery. Add on a number of fun subplots, including a contentious battle between local churches regarding the Jarrett Creek Goat Rodeo and a rowdy puppy, and you have a tense and compelling plate of down-home mystery.

Shames has the ability to shape the reader’s experience and emotions like a master saddler working leather. In my mind, her books aren’t cozies. But their sense of small-town community and homespun Texas charm fit the reader like a comfortably worn-in pair of Wranglers. Readers feel like they’re a part of Jarrett Creek and its slower pace of life. And, at the same time, she consistently opens these books with a compelling mystery that hits you in the face like a glass of iced tea (sweetened, of course).

A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary is also an interesting exploration of online dating for seniors (or for anyone, for that matter). Online dating has changed the dating experience, and its potential, for so many people in every stage of life. And yet, like anything involving affairs of the heart, it’s scary. And sketchy stuff happens. In fact, Shames is on trend with the crime. In 2017, the FBI reported that online dating scams were on the rise with almost 15,000 people the previous year being swindled out of money totaling more than $200M. And those are just scams, not the other, more dangerous and depressing, things that can result from a Swipe Right Gone Wrong.

Also, and I mentioned this in my last review of a Shames book, one thing I always appreciate about these stories is just the character of Chief Craddock himself.

Craddock isn’t a Jack Taylor, Sam Spade or Dave Robicheaux type character. Those characters are classics, some of my favorites, and I’ve read and loved them all. But they’ve all got plenty of alpha-male, tough guy DNA. When these detectives are around, the mystery will be solved but also somebody, somewhere is getting a good, old-fashioned punch to the face. And that will be, if not part of the solution, certainly part of the action.

Craddock, on the other hand, must use his wits almost exclusively. He’s not fueled by alcohol or rage or a sense of the ends justifying the means. He’s got grit and a sense of justice, and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. But as an older man he’s also sensible and prudent. He’s wise. He has to pace himself and doesn’t take the risks of law enforcement lightly. And he sports the kind of compassion, humility and context that comes with age. In this book, actually, Craddock’s old school ways serve as a nice device to have the world of online dating explained to readers from the ground up.

All said and done it’s a series installment that’s very worthy indeed, and leaves the reader anticipating what trouble will arise next in the tiny Texas hamlet of Jarrett Creek.

Verdict: Guilty of creating a satisfying, tense and compelling mystery that blends a sense of urgency with plenty of small-town Texas charm.

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Gone the Next by Ben Rehder

County of Offenses

Travis

Character Charges

Kidnapping, Assault, Vandalism, Insurance Fraud, Criminal Trespass, Other

Known Gang Affiliations

Independent Criminal Enterprise

Date of Offense

September, 2012

Arresting Officer

William Dylan Powell 

I’ve read most, if not all, of Ben Rehder’s books. As much as it pains me to praise a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, Rehder is a Lone Star mystery institution. A survivor of the ad industry, he’s been a prominent and prolific Texas novelist for decades now. He’s won all kinds of awards, he was an Edgar finalist and he just keeps cranking out solid work year after year.

I’ve always been a fan of his Blanco County series. Their clever, fun, lighthearted and homespun Texas charm is something I find comforting. Bone Dry was the first one I read, and after that I was hooked. To be honest, I bought Gone the Next without realizing he had another series. I picked up this book when I went with my wife to Half Price to look for a recipe book she wanted and ended up buying a dozen paperbacks on impulse (as you do). I just assumed it was a John Marlin book I’d missed. But this was a very happy accident.

Turns out, I’m just late to the game.

Gone the Next is actually the first in Rehder’s Roy Ballard series. A legal videographer, Roy catches a glimpse of a missing little girl, Tracy Turner, while conducting an insurance fraud stakeout. And without the prospect of my spoiling anything, the police don’t find his account of the sighting very credible because of an incident from his past. So, if Ballard wants to save the missing six-year-old, and bring the kidnapper to justice, he’s on his own.

I thought this book was a lot of fun, and a nice surprise since I didn’t know about the series. It was cool to experience Rehder employing a mix of traditional old-school PI conventions such as the first-person narrative, the smart-aleck dialogue, the roughhousing, the romantic tension with his partner, Mia Madison, and lots of fun plot twists, etc. But he uses these conventions with skill, building on them to make a fresh story that’s compelling and all his own. The book is full of humor, surprises, brisk pacing, recognizable Austin settings, etc. Regarding the urbanization of central Texas, Rehder remarks: “Who needs trees and cattle when you can replace them with a Banana Republic?”

But this book is more than just a bit of sleuthy fun. It also brings up real issues surrounding child kidnapping, such as the phenomenon of the media sensationalizing kidnapping cases involving white, middle class girls (while other similar cases languish). Rehder also touches on the immediate assumption of guilt among the families of missing children, and how the legal machinery of the system can turn against citizens when they’re at their most vulnerable. And he gives some sobering facts surrounding crimes of this nature. All with the right combination of tension and taste.

I think this series will have a lot of longevity, and one reason is the protagonist’s profession. As a legal videographer, his work revolves around depositions, wills, sworn accounts and the like—with a specialty in “proof of insurance fraud.” Talk about a perfect setup for trouble. In much the way police detectives allow readers to peek behind the curtain of official investigations, Roy Ballard is perfectly positioned to let us see directly into the lives of the potentially sketchy. In this book, Ballard also happens to be on parole, and the use of a new PO provides a nice device for character discovery without slowing the pace of the story.

The latest in the series, Book 5, is A Tooth for a Tooth, which released in May of last year. It’s always nice to discover a new series, and this one’s going to be rewarding for mystery readers everywhere. It also hasn’t slowed down his Blanco County series one bit; his latest, Lefty Loosey, dropped just recently in November of 2018.

Verdict: Guilty of bringing lovers of Texas mystery fiction a fun and distinctive series that blends traditional investigative elements with humor, action and exciting twists.

 
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Blinked by Zari Reede


County of Offenses

Orleans Parish, Ortharos

Character Charges

Kidnapping, Avicide, Destruction of Property, Cyclopicide, Illegal Discharge of a Weapon, Assault with a Deadly Head of Hair, Raising the Dead without a Permit, many others

Known Gang Affiliations

Black Opal Books

Date of Offense

November, 2018

Arresting Officer

William Dylan Powell 

Blinked is one of the most imaginative books I’ve read in some time—and the first urban fantasy book we’ve reviewed here (don’t worry, though, a murder does occur in the book straight away). The novel’s first line reads: “I went to bed with my husband and woke up with a monster.”

This is not a euphemism.

Protagonist Mindy Nichols actually did go to sleep with her husband, Jim, and wake up with an actual Cyclops in her bed. Fortunately, Mindy is an agent for the Inner Space Monitoring Alliance Team (ISMAT). This is a sort of underground security organization that monitors Other Realm Beings (ORBs)—creatures who appear in our world from other dimensions. These creatures can be dangerous, and apparently their showing up uninvited happens more than you’d think.

In a process known as Blinking, ORBs appear among us, trading places with Earthlings who are then sent to another dimension in a sort of involuntary multi-dimensional exchange program.

So while a monster, and a handful of other creatures and characters appear in Mindy’s home, her husband disappears and reappears in the parallel world of Ortharos—which has the feel of Medieval Europe. This works out, since Jim is a professor of history at Tulane.

As the book’s zany, fast-paced tension ratchets up, Mindy is trying to protect Earth from these notoriously dangerous creatures, Jim is trying to find his way home, characters are Blinking back and forth between worlds and the ISMAT leadership is growing more impatient with Mindy—who’s a newbie at her job. To add extra flavor and complexity to the story, Blinked is set in New Orleans during Mardis Gras, 1975. So the chances of anyone on the street even noticing creatures from another dimension are actually pretty low.

Zari Reede is the nom de plume of writing duo Zoe Tasia and Minette Lauren. In the tradition of Richard Levinson and William Link writing as Ellery Queen, they’ve published a number of books together under the Zari Reede name including, most recently, Sins of the Sister. I got a chance to hang out with Minette Lauren at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, and she is the real deal—a hardworking writer always looking for a new way to surprise. She splits her time between Southeast Texas and the Hill Country. Lauren’s writing partner, Zoe Tasia is also a fellow Texan who lived in Scotland for a number of years—explaining why her latest effort is titled Kilts and Catnip.

Aside from its inherent originality, four things really stood out to me about Blinked. The first is the pacing. Much like a stiff Sazerac, the story hits you right away. The book is structured with Mindy in the first person, and alternating points of view as the various characters attempt to cope with their multi-dimensional disorientation. The second interesting thing is the blend of sci-fi and fantasy. Because Ortharos is like Medieval Europe we’re able to experience both multi-dimensional monsters on Earth and fabulous castles in a far away land.

Next up are the characters—a wild assortment of creatures that range from a wicked Rapunzel-like beauty with prehensile hair to Cyclops royalty, flesh-eating zombies and a charming household servant well versed in the ways of magic.

Lastly, the authors make good use of the book’s time and place—without leaning on the setting to carry the story. From the craziness of Mardis Gras to the Nichols family’s Plymouth Fury and the joy of NEHI soda, I really enjoyed the retro New Orleans vibe. The authors also did a solid job of world-building, right down to the political situation and monsters in the other realm. And they carried it all through to a satisfying end.

The book is funny too, with snarky dialogue and a prose style that’s lean without taking itself too seriously.

The phenomenon of the Blink is deceptively sophisticated. At first glance, this original spin on the alternate universe trope just sounds like a fun and engaging plot device as presented by stories like C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia or The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. But the authors’ crafty mix-and-match transplantation makes the displacements high-impact, bringing the consequences of each Blink home for the reader.

This mix of empathy for those from elsewhere, and the ability to understand others not like yourself, is for me the heart of the book. For many of the story’s characters, someone in their world has Blinked away from their lives, leaving confusion and anxiety—or blinked into their world causing them to rethink everything.

So much like Stephen King’s The Dome, the meta-aspect of this story is that we’re all living it, regardless of whether you find a cyclops in your bed or actually live in ‘70s New Orleans. People are constantly Blinking in and out of our little worlds, often to unpredictable and endearing effects, and that’s an experience each of us shares no matter what our world looks like.

#

Verdict: Guilty of creating a fun and wildly imaginative ride that’s full of distinctive voices, lovable characters and mysterious magic.

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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.

 
 
 
 
 

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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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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 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.

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.