Friday, November 30, 2007

Announcement by Faves Lori & Jeff

Lori G. Armstrong one of our favorite writers and her blog partner Jeff (also a Sons of Spade fave) did a video blog announcement check it out:

Congrats, Lori!

Proof of Purchase (Jack Grant) by Richard B. Schwartz

Richard B. Schwartz is an English professor and that shows. The phrasing is excellent and you can see a lot of thinking went on in every line on the page. It’s like this guy is just channeling Raymond Chandler on every page. Kind of like early Robert B. Parker.
The plot is pretty straightforward, though I hesitate to call it thin, because that could be seen as a negative remark. That would be unfair, because I really found the ‘simple’ plot a refreshing read after reading too convoluted plots that in the end had an unsatisfying payoff.
About the plot… PI Jack Grant is hired to track down his ex-lover, a beautiful lawyer. At the start of the novel she’s already found dead and mutilated. Of course he sets out to find the killer. Aiding him is a shapely, tough female cop. Together they manage to solve the case and of course get in bed, stabbed and shot along the way. The ending, which would make Mike Hammer proud, was pretty satisfying and I enjoyed the ride to it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Q & A with Tim Maleeny

Today we talk with Tim Maleeny, author of the Cape Weathers series.

Q: What makes your P.I. Cape Weathers different from other fictional private eyes?
Cape is probably more self-aware and perhaps a bit more neurotic than your typical P.I. Unlike a lot of fictional characters who don’t seem to read or go to the movies, Cape reads crime fiction, and he’s a film buff, so he’s aware of how P.I.’s are portrayed. He doesn’t think of himself as a fictional tough guy and he’s definitely not invincible, but he’s stubborn enough to get into some pretty dangerous situations. I think of Cape as that voice inside your head saying the things you wish you could say, or that alter ego that does the outrageous things we can only imagine doing in civilized society.

Q: What are your thoughts on the psycho sidekick in PI novels?
I think the sidekick is a critical archetype, the other side of the coin to the P.I. In the case of Cape and his deadly companion Sally, I sometimes think of them as two aspects of the same character, sort of a conscious and subconscious balance of personalities.

I think the main difference between the P.I. and the sidekick is that the sidekick is not conflicted about his or her actions. The P.I. character is usually the most flawed, human, and empathetic of the two characters, with the kind of doubts we’d all have if faced with life or death decisions. But the sidekick has no doubts, doesn’t hesitate, and isn’t going to lose sleep over bending or breaking the rules. The sidekick provides the clarity of action the P.I character often lacks, and which we wish we all had in moments of crisis.

Real life is messy, and justice is often ambiguous if not elusive. Crime fiction appeals to us because it has a clear moral compass with characters willing to do the right thing regardless of the sacrifice, the law, or the constraints of society.

Q: Do you do a lot of research?
I do a lot before I start writing. Enough to get a sense of place, language and history of the characters. Then I put the research aside and start writing as fast as I can. After the first draft I go back to the research, maybe do some more, and add texture to what I’ve written.

I think it’s possible to get lost in your research and literally forget to write, or lose the pacing of your story because you’re staying too close to reality or obsessing about procedural details. I try to never forget I’m writing fiction; I want the story to be an adventure, not a documentary.

Q: Has your writing changed much since the first novel?
I write faster because I have a better sense of my own voice and that of my characters, but the actual process hasn’t changed that much. I’m still making it up as I go along, telling myself the story and hoping it all makes sense by the last page.

Q: How do you promote your book?
Sites like this are a huge help to new authors, and the independent booksellers are the most important people in the world. I’m on panels at all the major crime conferences, contribute to several websites and do what I can to spread the word, but the most important step towards finding your readers is visiting the bookstores. I’ve met some extraordinary people over the past year, both the booksellers and their customers. And librarians are great; they love books and read constantly, always on the lookout for something new. Can’t say enough nice things about librarians.

Q: What's next for you and Cape?
The second investigation, a book with the unlikely title Beating The Babushka, was just released. It involves a collision between the Russian mob and the movie business. After that, the next book to feature Cape and Sally comes out next year and is entitled Greasing The Piñata. It takes place in Mexico and deals with the drug cartels’ involvement in U.S. politics.

I’ve also recently completed a novel called JUMP, which introduces a new set of characters. JUMP has been described as comedic noir. Not sure if that qualifies as a new sub-genre, but it seems to fit.

Q: Do you have any favorite Sons of Spade yourself?
Loren Estleman is as good as it gets, as authentic as Ross MacDonald and as fresh and original as anyone writing today. Robert Crais is bulletproof. Lee Child knows how to strip prose better than anyone and is a master of pacing. Rick Riordan is writing one of the best PI series in recent memory with his Tres Navarre novels. Ross Thomas raised the intellectual ante by creating such smart characters and elaborate plots; he had the perfect voice for describing a long con. Robert Ferrigno has a gift for taking seemingly mundane problems and spinning them into impossible situations that lead to barely controlled mayhem. Elmore Leonard is the master of creating characters you love, even the bad guys, with an ear for dialogue I think every writer alive must envy.

Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI-writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, Macdonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation and in what way?
I don’t think those original influences ever go away, because the crime fiction community has a great sense of history, as this site so beautifully demonstrates. My own novels have been compared to Hammett, Fleming, and even pulp writers from the 30s and 40s, which I consider high praise indeed because those were my influences as a reader when I first discovered mysteries.

But those writers mentioned earlier, like Crais, Riordan, and Leonard, among others, will be the dominant influences on the next generation because they managed to fuse a classic genre with a contemporary voice. They proved that a hard-boiled drama can be infused with references to pop culture, social commentary and humor. I think that’s what is so powerful about crime fiction; it’s both timeless and immediately relevant when done right.

Q: Richard B. Schwartz came up with the following question: Crime and detective fiction is an identifiable, carefully delineated genre. What is it about that genre that enables you to discuss the kind of things that are important to you?
Crime fiction deals with eternal questions, matters of life and death. In that regard mysteries share the same ambition as Greek tragedies, Shakespearean dramas, opera, you name it. That might sound dangerously “literary”, but I think there’s a reason that mysteries are as old as storytelling.

But the other, often overlooked aspect of crime fiction is that it allows you to explore questions of the here and now. Popular culture, social commentary, politics, entertainment --- they all belong on the canvas of a well-drawn mystery. The big underlying themes of mysteries might be timeless, but the books themselves feel like they were written for you, today, no matter whom you are or where and when you’re reading them.

And most importantly, the genre acknowledges that reading should be fun, not something that feels like a chore. Mysteries both entertain and challenge the reader at the same time, and that’s what reading is all about. Books should keep you up at night turning the pages, not put you to sleep.

Q: What questions should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
OK, here’s one that might get some interesting responses:
The PI is usually the one standing up for the underdog, the person who takes on the powerful and the corrupt on behalf of the little guy. Do you have any favorite targets (or people) at which you like to take aim through your characters?

I can’t abide being lied to, so in my novels I tend to go after the hypocrisy of institutions that act above reproach but all too often are picking your pocket with one hand while patting you on the back with the other. Politicians and the media are easy targets, especially today. Dig below the surface of any major criminal enterprise and you’ll probably find someone using your tax dollars to subsidize it. I think P.I. fiction can bring some perspective on that absurdity, a society in which we’re all seemingly in on the joke and yet the same scams keep occurring. That’s a very human condition, so it seems perfect for fiction.

For more info on this author visit:

Monday, November 26, 2007

Prodigal Son Nick Travers (by Ace Atkins)

As always here in the feature Prodigal Sons we try to find out what's been going on with characters we haven't seen in a while. Today we asked Ace Atkins what's been going on with blues historian and PI Nick Travers...

We wanted to know:
1) Will Nick Travers return?
2) Why haven't you written about Nick for some time now?
3) What's up next for you?

Ace answered us:

Thanks much for the interest in Nick. Yes, he hasn’t been around since 2004 and Dirty South.

I’m not sure if Nick will return. I’d like to see a new book with Nick – I think there are some great untold stories – but right now I don’t have any plans. I’m with a new publisher and moving in a new direction as a writer. I’ve finished two literary novels for G.P. Putnam’s Sons about infamous true crimes both in Tampa, Florida and Cuba with WHITE SHADOW and a forthcoming novel about the wickedest city in America of the 1940s and ‘50s in WICKED CITY out in April.

Both are crime books but free of the traditional mold I felt myself caught in with the Travers’ books.

Also I believe in 2004 that I’d reached a plateau with writing about Nick Travers and took him as far I could go – with the same excitement for myself and readers – in Crossroad Blues, Leavin’ Trunk Blues, Dark End of the Street and ultimately Dirty South.

I believe the four novels are absolutely related and represent a total journey for the character. But in the years since, I’ve thought about bringing him back at some time. The books can be tremendous fun to write.

For more info visit:

Friday, November 23, 2007

Q & A with Richard B. Schwartz

This time we interview Richard B. Schwartz of the Jack Grant novels.

Q: What makes your P.I. Jack Grant different from other fictional private eyes?

Jack’s military experience is based on that of a real officer with whom I had the privilege to serve. Both were hit by Chinese grenades in Vietnam. The difference is that Jack retired after twenty years of service and became a PI. My friend stayed on, commanded a Corps in Operation Desert Storm, and recently retired as a four-star general. Jack has a master’s degree in History and sees things both from a realistic/military perspective and a thoughtful/historical perspective. He lost his wife during the war and his memories of her (which he never discusses) positively affect his relationships with women.

Q: What are your thoughts on the psycho sidekick in PI novels?

In Nice and Noir I call this figure the ‘avenging angel’; he (or potentially, she) is now a genre mainstay and represents many things. One is the invincible side of the PI. It is very interesting to see how this figure is used. For example, Robert Crais has been showing us a softer/more sensitive side of Elvis Cole’s sidekick, Joe Pike. Spenser’s friend Hawk remains largely inscrutable as well as (largely) invincible. Jack Grant’s friend Charles White serves this function in the Jack Grant novels—a short, wiry and very lethal retired noncom.

Q: Do you do a lot of research?

Sometimes. It depends on the book. I believe (following Samuel Johnson) that you absolutely must have seen that which you are attempting to represent. Sometimes I’ll return to the places that I’m describing just to get a feel for their sights and sounds and smells. I believe that setting is very important in genre fiction and much of my research involves familiarizing myself with the places in which my narratives are set.

Q: Has your writing changed much since the first novel?
No, I don’t think so. Each book is different, so the writing changes to that degree. The first is a classic case of detection, the second a revenge story, the third a love story and the fourth a broad-canvas international thriller. Each type of book presents its own challenges.

Q: Could you tell something about your book Nice and Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction?
Nice and Noir is a study of around 700 recent novels, with special attention to common themes and motifs (like the ‘psycho sidekick’ referenced above). A number of individual novels are used as exemplars. The book focuses on crime and detective fiction rather than English mysteries or cozies. Though it is built upon some scholarly materials it is not a book written specifically for scholars. Readers of crime and detective fiction will find it accessible and, I hope, interesting.

Q: What's next for you and Jack?
I haven’t said good bye to Jack, but I’ve been working on a new series. Chronologically, Jack would be in his sixties now. While these heroes can be presented in a timeless fashion, many of the key events in his life are increasingly distant in time. The new series features a figure in his early 30’s. I’ve also just completed a nonfiction book—a sequel to my earlier memoir The Biggest City in America. This one deals with my military experiences, particularly the time I spent teaching at West Point. It’s tentatively entitled Accidental Soldier.

Q: Do you have any favorite Sons of Spade yourself?
Many. Most of them are probably also the favorites of your readers. Check out the list on the FAQ section of my website:

Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI-writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, Macdonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation and in what way?
Chandler and Hammett, along with some other key Black Mask writers, established the form, so their influence endures. Macdonald continues to inspire the so-called ‘softboiled’ school. I love Lehane and Parker, who are both very influential, particularly Parker. I think for raw, jackhammer suspense there’s no one quite as effective as Lee Child and for setting and atmospherics no one better than James Lee Burke. The crime writers all love James Crumley and everyone loves James Ellroy, though his staccato style is very hard to imitate without being obvious about it. I’m a huge fan of Don Winslow and Robert Ferrigno, both of whom have developed into world-class writers. For economy of style there’s no one like Lawrence Block, for broad humor no one like Carl Hiaasen, and for a darker narrative no one like Andrew Vacchs and his pal Joe R. Lansdale. I still love Joseph Wambaugh, Charles Willeford, and the master of genre fiction, Elmore Leonard. For procedure there are few as effective as Ed McBain, Thomas Harris and Jeffery Deaver. Tom Holland is an impressive new voice in this field (and, with Jim Burke and Jeffery Deaver, a University of Missouri graduate). I miss Neal Barrett’s crime writing, though I respect his science fiction and I always look forward to new books from April Smith and Sandra Scoppettone. Donald Hamilton just passed away recently. I loved the Matt Helm books as well as his standalones. All of these writers will continue to be influential because they’re all so expert at what they do.

Q: Declan Burke, author of the Big O and Eightball Boogie came up with the following question: Is it absolutely essential your writing is published, and why?
It certainly doesn’t hurt. I love to write and can’t really live without doing it. The crime and detective fiction market is very tough, but where there’s a will there’s ultimately a way. I also enjoy writing nonfiction; that is much easier to place. It’s very important to me to reach a receptive audience. The audience doesn’t have to be huge, though we would all like it to be so. I have received the most personal responses (letters, emails, even phone calls) on my memoir about my adolescence in Ohio, because it deals with a particular place which is very important to the twenty thousand people who live there. My book Daily Life in Johnson’s London has sold over 10,000 copies and still sells briskly more than two decades after its publication. We all write alone and it’s very gratifying to hear return voices in the darkness.

Q: What questions should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
Crime and detective fiction is an identifiable, carefully-delineated genre. What is it about that genre that enables you to discuss the kind of things that are important to you?

Readers of this kind of fiction expect your novels to be faithful to the genre but also to stretch the genre in fresh ways. Each book has to be new and different, but also take its fundamental inspiration from the genre as established by Hammett and Chandler. This presents special challenges and attracts writers who have a special affection for craft. Chandler also specified a set of attitudes with regard to politics and society (in “The Simple Art of Murder”) and these issues and attitudes have not lost their interest or relevance. These issues interest me deeply. Also, as a historian of eighteenth-century England my stock-in-trade is an understanding of the way that high ‘civilization’ coexists with gritty reality. Eighteenth-century women used ivory-handled scratchers to relieve themselves of the work of insects within their carefully-powdered wigs. They used mouse skins for artificial eyebrows. The men loved blood sports and bet on whether or not the victims of street accidents would live or die, sometimes keeping the physicians at a distance until the bets were settled. We still carry our hunter/gatherer brains along with our iPods and cell phones. This kind of fiction is the perfect vehicle for discussing the fine line between ‘civilization’ and barbarism.

For more info on this writer visit

Stealing the Dragon (Cape Weathers) by Tim Maleeny

Made for the movies. That could be said about the adventures of Cape Weathers. In his first novel we follow him in his investigation of the murder of several men on a boat full of illegal immigrants from China. The killings seem to bear the markings of his friend, assassin and sidekick Sally. Her backstory is told in chapters in italics. Although an interesting story it did detract a bit from the main storyline making me a bit unsure if it was fitting for a first novel. I’d rather have gotten a better idea of the relationship between Cape and Sally first, then gotten the background on her in a later novel like Robert Crais did with Joe Pike in LA Requiem. Almost more of an exotic thriller than a traditional PI story Cape does have the sense of humor of the aforementioned Elvis Cole and the white knight traits of his other contemporaries. The plot involving the Dragon of the title brings back memories of the Maltese Falcon, the villains make you enter into Fu Manchu or maybe Eric van Lustbader (from books like “Ninja”) and Warren Murhphy’s Destroyer territory. I could picture Kurt Russell in ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ perfectly as Cape.
All in all, an enjoyable read for people who like PI’s but are looking for something just a little different. I, for one, am looking forward to reading “Beating the Babushka” to see what’s in store for Cape and Sally in the future.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Q & A with Declan Burke

This time our Q & A is with Irish writer Declan Burke, writer of Eightball Boogie and the Big O.
Q: What makes your P.I. Harry Rigby different from other fictional private eyes?
A: I could be literal and say he’s the only one from Sligo, Ireland … This is actually a difficult question for me to answer, because of the way Harry originated, which was as an exercise in style. I never had any intention of writing a full novel – I started out writing a chapter in which a PI meets a potential client for the first time, just to have fun with it. Harry’s a PI who is aware of all the tropes, he’s a fan of the hardboiled movies and books – so while he’s a PI, he’s also aware of fiction’s PI heritage, Marlowe, Archer, et al. It says something that my favourite PI movie isn’t THE BIG SLEEP, it’s Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE. Which is a roundabout way of saying Harry Rigby is different because he’s so knowingly similar to all his fictional predecessors. Except for the fact that he’s from Sligo …

Q: What are your thoughts on the psycho sidekick in PI novels?
A: I guess if it’s done well then it’s valid, and if it’s not, it’s a cliché. I take every character on its own merits. My instinct is that it could work well as a one-off, if the protagonist has a pyscho sidekick foisted on him, but that it wouldn’t make any sense, if you want your stories to have any kind of realism, for a PI – someone who earns their living through stealth and subterfuge – to associate with a psychotic person for too long. They’d attract too much notice. It’d be like hunting tiger with a hippo in tow.

Q: What would a soundtrack to your novels sound like?
A: Pretty bleak, probably, although it’d depend on the circumstances – if your protagonist found him or herself in a karaoke bar, say, then the clientele is highly unlikely to be belting out Leonard Cohen songs (although I like the idea, now that I think of it). In general, there’s quite a bit of fatalism in my stories, so the soundtrack would ideally be composed of artists such as The Tindersticks, Leonard Cohen, Antony and the Johnsons, Radiohead, Townes Van Zandt, Jacques Brel … melancholy stuff, glimmerings of hope in the darkness, that kind of thing. Mind you, I have Abba in my car stereo at the moment …

Q: Has your writing changed much since the first novel?
A: I’m probably more aware at this stage of how bad a line is when I write it, but as for my ability to improve that line … I don’t know. No, probably. In saying that, I’m interested in writing in different kinds of styles, so it’s hard to judge. EIGHTBALL BOOGIE (the first Harry Rigby novel) was a homage to Chandler, and was written in that kind of style. THE BIG O was styled as a homage to two American writers I read for pure, unadulterated pleasure – Elmore Leonard and Barry Gifford. And, once I finish the sequel to THE BIG O, I have a story bubbling away on the back-burner that’s heavily influenced by some of my favourite writers from the ’40s and ’50s – David Goodis, Gil Brewer. That probably sounds as if I’m spending all my time ripping off other writers, but that’s only partially true – it’s early days in my writing yet, and I’m happy enough to learn whatever craft I can from studying the writers I like. I don’t have the time to go copying out their novels, the way Hemingway did, so this is the next best thing. That’s my excuse, anyway.

Q: Do you do a lot of research?
A: It depends on the story, really. I wrote a book set on the south coast of Crete that involved a hell of a lot of research – I probably spent longer reading up on the various subjects that went into the story than I did writing it. For the most part, though, my stories aren’t all that high concept. They’re fairly stripped-back, character-based tales about ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, so they don’t need a lot of research. In saying that, I’m generally very particular about detail – I can be quite disappointed if I come across a glaringly wrong detail when I’m reading, it can ruin a story for me. So I try to get it as realistic as possible within the parameters of the story.

Q: What's next for you and Harry?
A: I’ve written a follow-up to EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, in which Harry witnesses a suicide and is then asked by the dead man’s mother to investigate the reasons why a seemingly happy, well-adjusted person would kill himself. At the moment, though, Harry has retreated to the snug of The Cellars bar and is enjoying some quiet drinking time, because the emphasis is on THE BIG O and its sequel, both of which have been signed up by Harcourt in the US – THE BIG O will be published in the US in Fall ’08.

Q: Do you have any favorite Sons of Spade yourself?
A: I certainly don’t mean any disrespect to any of the names on this fine site, and I appreciate that it sounds a bit old-fashioned, but for me there’s only one son of Spade, and that’s Marlowe – everyone else is competing to be nephews, grand-nieces, etc. I say that in full awareness of Chandler’s flaws in terms of plotting, and all the other flaws attributed to him. But I think what Chandler achieved with Marlowe goes beyond his ability in terms of style. Yes, he was reacting to Hammett, but I think Chandler shaped the paradigm of the private eye to the extent that everyone since has been writing according to his rules – obeying them, bending them, breaking them, parodying them. When you look at the non-crime fiction writers who dabbled as a once-off because they believed the form was worth exploring – Norman Mailer, say, or Hank Bukowski, Ray Bradbury, Jonathan Lethem – the model they reshape is Chandler’s.

Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI-writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, Macdonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation and in what way?A: I’m going to sound biased here because he’s Irish, and because I know the guy personally, but I think Ken Bruen will exert a massive influence on the next generation of PI writers. His Jack Taylor series is genuinely breaking new ground, given that it’s a post-modern appraisal of the notion of the PI and the PI novel – Bruen has gone beyond the conventional three-act investigation of a crime, gone beyond the protagonist as a righter of wrongs, a man or woman who uncovers dirty deeds and precipitates a satisfactory resolution. In Taylor’s world, everyone is equally culpable, and Bruen has inverted the focus of his PI’s gaze so that it’s himself he’s investigating, his morality, the part that he plays in creating the kind of world where good, bad and indifferent all jostle for pre-eminence. What Bruen is doing for crime fiction right now is akin to what Camus and Sartre, in their different ways, did for philosophy sixty or seventy years ago – although a more appropriate, Irish, reference would be that of Samuel Beckett.

Q: Ed Lynskey, writer of the Frank Johnson novels, came up with this question: "Would you have the patience and grit to work as a PI?"A: Definitely not. The reality of PI work is bone-numbing drudgery spent checking facts and figures, and endless hours wasted in surveillance, more often than not with no positive result. The wastage of time would drive me insane in a week. I’m also quite a private person. The notion of prying into other people’s lives – knowing that your prying will very probably have a devastating effect on their lives – offends my sense of mutual respect. In other words, if I don’t pry into your life, and you don’t pry into mine, all will be well. Of course, that’s the diametric opposite of the dynamic that propels the PI narrative …

Q: What questions should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
Q: Is it absolutely essential your writing is published, and why?
A: No, and for two reasons: One, there’s far too much rubbish on the shelves already. Two, I need to write every bit as much as I like to write, and I’ll keep on writing long after it’s decided that I’m no longer worth publishing.

For more info on Declan Burke visit

Friday, November 16, 2007

Award for Bill Pronzini

I just learned Bill Pronzini, author of the long-running “Nameless” PI series, has been chosen by the Mystery Writers of America to receive their 2008 Grand Master Award. Well deserved!

Q & A with Lori Armstrong

This time our Q & A is with Lori G. Armstrong, who’s latest Julie Collins novel Shallow Grave is out this month!

Q: What makes your P.I. Julie Collins different from other fictional private eyes?
Julie doesn’t take any shit and she doesn’t apologize for it. She doesn’t need to be rescued, but she’s not adverse to being feminine. She’s smart. She tells it like she sees it and doesn’t particularly care if it’s PC or if it pisses people off or makes them uncomfortable. She swears. She drinks. She likes sex. She’s fiercely loyal to her friends but comes from a screwed up enough background that those friends are few and far between. She thinks she has a strong sense of right and wrong, yet, the more fully realized she becomes, life and her reactions to it aren’t as black and white as she imagines. Julie is a bit of a loner. Does that make her the stereotypical lone wolf? At times. That gets her into trouble because she does have that ‘I’m invincible’ mentality and doesn’t want anyone’s help or is too stubborn to ask. I will say, she is getting better about that.

Q: What are your thoughts on the psycho sidekick in PI novels?

I will admit I like them – Crais’ Joe Pike in particular. But I’ll also admit it feels a bit like cheating to me, and it did even before I’d heard the ‘psycho sidekick’ phrase or penned my own PI novel. Speaking in general terms at least for me as an author, you don’t want your readers to think your protagonist is anything but noble—not perfect and squeaky clean, mind you, but someone you can root for to do the right thing, even if that thing is not 100% legal. What separates crime fiction is the bad guys need to get caught. Every time. That’s why there should be a clear difference to the readers on who’s a bad guy and who’s a good guy, yet, Mr. Rogers solving crimes is as disingenuous to me as Dexter (Darkly Dreaming Dexter) hitting the bloody trail. So how do you show your protagonist does brush up against violent people and situations in the course of a workday and a tough case and can handle it? Simple. Your ‘tough’, edgy character…has to bring in someone else to do the dirty work? Huh? Why? It’s more interesting to me to see that dark side and light side in ONE character, rather than two. And I especially think this becomes a problem when that secondary character becomes more interesting than the main character.

Another writer friend of mine pens great crime fiction with an older main male character, and the sidekick is younger, female. The female swears a blue streak, tells it like she sees it, and makes no bones about her sexuality – which is cheating in my book too, no differently than the ‘psycho’ sidekick. Why? Because it makes the main character look noble…but at what price? Again, it’s like, - leave all the undesirable traits (the love of sex, of booze, of shocking people) to the lesser character to make the protagonist look good. Hey, wait a minute: those are the FUN things to write about. Why shouldn’t your main character be bad to be good?

One of the best compliments I received as a first time author was from my buddy Dusty Rhoades. I have a minor, sort of ‘psycho’ character in the series named Jimmer. After Dusty read my book, BLOOD TIES, he emailed me and said he was relieved I didn’t make my sidekick do the dirty work or swoop in and rescue my little damsel. He also said he was impressed the Julie didn’t act like a girl. Very high praise.

Q: What would a soundtrack to your novels sound like?

I’ll probably get shot, but I do not like jazz. At all. I tolerate blues. I’m a hard-rock girl and I’ve passed that love on to Julie. I often say the three things I have in common with Julie are: 1) we’re both blonde 2) we both live in South Dakota, 3) we have the same taste in music. When I’m working on a Julie book, I listen to AC/DC, Van Halen, Godsmack, Audioslave, Nickelback, Foo Fighters, Alice in Chains, Velvet Revolver, Stone Temple Pilots, Nirvana, a little Metallica goes a long way for me, and other rock bands, but the catch is the music has to have a melody. Death metal is not my thing. But I prefer it to saxophones.

I cannot write and listen to music at the same time. I start singing along and forget what the hell I’m supposed to be doing. I listen to music in my car – if my teenage girls don’t complain and make me turn it off.

Q: Has your writing changed much since the first novel?

I hope so. Now there’s more intricate plotting. The books seem to get longer, not intentionally, it just takes more words to tell the story. And since my setting is almost as important as the characters, I feel the need to make sure that gives readers who’ve never been to South Dakota, who know nothing about Lakota Sioux, or modern day ranchers, or the large ‘biker’ population around Sturgis, an accurate idea on sense of place. Plus, it’s so much more fun to wind 5 or 6 plot threads together than 1 or 2.

Q: Do you do a lot of research?

Yes and no. Yes, in that I want facts to be accurate. In BLOOD TIES I chatted with cops, and feds, about the different jurisdictions in South Dakota – federal land, tribal land, state land, county land, city limits, sometimes all that converges in one spot, so you have to make damn sure you don’t put a body in the wrong place. In HALLOWED GROUND I did research on the Indian gaming industry – I used some of what I found but didn’t need in SHALLOW GRAVE. No, because I really, really like to make shit up. And research is my very least favorite part of writing. I like hands on research, such as, I’ve gone on ride alongs and I graduated from the Rapid City Citizen’s Police Academy, I hang out at ranches, rodeos. I did some tequila taste testing too, just so I knew Julie was drinking the very best.

Q: What's next for you and Julie?
The 4th book, SNOW BLIND is scheduled for publication in October 2008.

Q: Do you have any favorite Sons of Spade yourself?
I don’t want to leave anyone off, because I’ve met so many great PI writers in the last few years – so your list on the sidebar is a good place to start.

Oh, did you mean Daughters of Spade? I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew, but Sue Grafton – my biggest influence ever. Sara Paretsky. Karen Kijewski. Margaret Maron. PD James.

Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI-writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, Macdonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation and in what way?

Not trying to be sexist, but female authors have influenced me probably more than any of those guys on the list, with the exception of Lehane. I think the influences of Grafton, Paretsky, Muller, Maron have already made a huge impact on modern PI fiction and will continue to be lauded as pioneers.

Q: Ed Lynskey, writer of the Frank Johnson novels, came up with this question: "Would you have the patience and grit to work as a PI?"
Yes. Okay, that’s a lie. No. I don’t have the guts. But that said, I don’t think my character would have the grit to do what I do on a daily basis either.

For more info about Lori G. Armstrong visit

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hallowed Ground (Julie Collins) by Lori G. Armstrong

Character is key. This is what Lori Armstrong seems to understand perfectly. Julie Collins, already such a strong character in Blood Ties returns even more full-fleshed. Julie is cranky, smokes and drinks a lot, engages in shallow sex, enjoys rock music and is one tough woman.
The convoluted plot starts out with a missing persons case. Looking for this Native American kid the dead bodies start to turn up quickly when the mob gets involved and rival casinos take on each other. Also love blooms for Julie in the person of the shady owner of a biker bar.
Although the book is a bit too long (almost 500 pages) there’s enough action and surprises to keep you entertained.
I loved the characters, the action and writing. What could make this book even more perfect was maybe cut it down in size somewhat and trim a few plot elements.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Some interesting sites to visit

Two interesting sites to visit if you're into PI-fiction (and why are you here if you're not?):

The new issue of Back Alley Webzine will be online 19 November and features Keith Gilman, who won the PWA/St. Martin's Best First PI Novel competition this year; Bryon Quertermous, the editor of Demolition Ezine; Megan Powell, the editor of Shred of Evidence Ezine; and two new authors named Warren Bull and John Weagly, who are very exciting. They're also beginning a serialization of Frank Norris's classic naturalistic noir novel McTEAGUE. Go to to read it.

Also, if you want to read about the shifty character bringing you this site check out:

Monday, November 12, 2007

How to Defuse a Terrorist (Frank Johnson) by Ed Lynskey

“Frank, you’ve been awfully closed-mouth,” said the big man behind the steering wheel.
“Just thinking, Gerald.”
“Solid,” said Gerald.
Solid? I mused. Well, that was Gerald Peyton for you—Shaft on steroids. I’d asked him along to be more than a sidekick—he had my back. For now, we cruised down a desolate stretch. Why did Interstates always take the butt-ugliest path? We’d flown by toxic waste dumps all colors of the rainbow, blasted out phosphate quarries, and a farm of rusting junk cars.
America the Beautiful? Yeah.
“This lady, Mrs. Saxon, you say her son died,” said Gerald. “I’m vague on the details. What killed him?”
“He was Quincy Saxon, age 23,” I said. “Exposure to radioactivity killed him. His morgue photos showed third-degree burns smothering his body. He looked like rotisseried chicken.”
Gerald whistled through his teeth. “Bad news. The lady wants answers and we’re her answer men.”
“Solid,” I parroted back to him.
Gerald’s grin broadened. “Okay, what about Quincy’s boss? Is he some sort of a whack-job scientist on a mountaintop playing with fire?”
“That pretty much covers it,” I said. “The investigating authorities accepted his explanation that Quincy’s death was a work-related accident. Shit happens, right? His mom didn’t sign off on it.”
“I don’t blame her,” said Gerald. “Don’t sweat it. We’ll get to the bottom of things.”
Gerald’s reassurance didn’t quell my queasiness. Appalachia was a third-world nation stuck up in the leafy hills. The smart young folks counted off the days until they could eject from it. Many enlisted to go wage our holy oil wars. Our destination there was an old, defunct dam condemned by the TVA. The last worker leaving it ages ago had switched off the lights and padlocked its gate shut.
“Hey, are you packing heat?” Gerald asked me.
“My mama told me to leave my guns at home,” I said. “But I bet you brought along some pyrotechnics in your duffel bag.”
“Yep,” said Gerald. “Cause, you see, my mama told me just the opposite.”
After a while we approached a pale blue limestone cliff. Pointing at it, I asked for Gerald’s opinion. He squinted to look through the dirty windshield and agreed. It did appear to be a half-finished portrait of Mr. Reagan, our fortieth president, carved into the cliff.
“What a monumental waste of limestone,” Gerald said. “How do we get started at the dam?”
“Nothing to it,” I said. “We do some snooping around.”
“Solid. Now, tell me about this asshole doctor.”
“Dr. Ames, a nuclear physicist educated at Yale no less, took the facility out of mothballs,” I said. “His experiments with radioactive stuff centered on how to counteract bad guys with a hard-on for Americans.”
“Things got out of hand and he nuked this Saxon kid,” said Gerald.
“Hell, you must’ve been there,” I said. “At least that’s the official version.”
“Where is Dr. Ames nowadays?”
“Probably lounging on a beach in the Azores,” I said. “He was exonerated of all criminal negligence.”
“Yeah, he’s about as harmless as a goddamn boxcutter,” Gerald said, his grim tone sending an icy chill up my spine.
We sidled up a series of switchbacks climbing the face of a jagged mountain. My ears popped twice. Gerald let off the gas pedal and geared down. A lift in power got us to the top. At the last dogleg turn in the narrow lane, we braked to a standstill. Below us in a shallow crater, a concrete monolithic dam bottled up a deep arsenic-green lake.
The tallest spiral staircase in the world went down to the crackerbox buildings. It was the only way in and out. Recent rockslides from a hurricane had blocked the road. I half-expected to see a crack in the concrete dam and a dutiful Hans Brinker with his thumb stuck in it.
After unbuckling, Gerald and I hauled out of my car. He notched his nuts and I spat. Both rituals denoted disgust.
“I guess we have to snake down that staircase,” said Gerald.
“You’re a good guesser.”
“All right then, wait up.” Mumbling dark obscenities, Gerald stalked around to key open the trunk. I ignored him until he returned brandishing two sawed-off 12-gauge riot shotguns and bandoleers heavy with fresh shells, buckshot load. “Here,” he said. “Take this. Stay sharp.”
I accepted his martial gifts. At the stairhead, I didn’t look down until vertigo hit me. My mouth went dry and my heart hammered. Gerald came after me, one-handing a loaded pump shotgun. We started down the staircase.
“Any idea what we’re after down here?” asked Gerald.
“Any bad shit,” I said. “We’ll know it when we smell it.”
“Right. I got a nose for sniffing it out, dawg.” Gerald’s face took on a wild, crazed look I didn’t like.
By the time we reached the dam’s bottom, we were breathless but too amped on adrenaline to notice. The facility’s locked steel doors didn’t deter Gerald. He blew away all the offending hardware. Cordite stung our eyes. My ears screamed in protest.
I coughed, waving away acrid gun smoke. “Gerald, hold up a second.”
“Man, it’s creepy inside this concrete tomb,” said Gerald. “Where’s the fucking lab?”
“Mrs. Saxon told me it’s in a large room near the front.”
Gerald thumbed more shells into his shotgun, then pointed. “I see lights up ahead. Behind that concrete column.”
“Man, we need a Geiger counter,” I said, as we advanced into the musty gloom. “Who knows how hot the radioactivity is in here?”
“I thought you said this Ames skipped the country, Frank.”
“That’s what I heard.”
“Well, I hear somebody or something talking.”
“Probably the dead souls your shotgun blasts woke up,” I said.
“I love teaming up with you, Frank. Never a dull moment. Nope, not on your life.”
“Shut it up. Keep moving.”
In single file, we prowled deeper into the cavernous space. Some electrical source lit the way. The smell of charred human flesh grew sweet and oppressive. We swung around a corner, shotguns hoisted at the ready.
“Gentlemen,” said the nasal, reedy voice. “You’re here in time for your tanning session. Most excellent.”
“What the hell?” said Gerald.
“Just keep your weapon fixed on the crazy bastard,” I said. My eyes cut back and forth. Four tanning beds lay open, awaiting their next victims.
“Who will go first?” the man asked. I blinked at a tall, lanky man with a swatch of jet hair combed back off a bulbous forehead.
Gerald growled. “Mister, keep your hands where I can see them. Any funny moves and…”
“…we’ll blow your shit away,” I said to complete Gerald’s thought.
The gaunt madman frowned at us. “I’m Dr. Ames. Aren’t you my one-thirty appointment?”
“Appointment for what?”
“Why, to soak up a tan,” said Dr. Ames.
“Where do you stash the cobalt?” I asked.
“Why, in its lead container, of course,” Dr. Ames said. “Now, which of you will go first?”
“Frank, I believe I’m satisfied with my pigmentation,” said Gerald. “Why don’t you hop on one of those tanning beds, boy?”
I caught a certain sly tone in Gerald’s voice asking me to play along. “Sure. I’ve been meaning to get rid of this pasty Irish look. Where do I lay down, Doc?”
Dr. Ames beamed at us. “Take any one you like. Meantime, I’ll go fetch the cobalt.” He strutted the opposite way through an arched doorway.
“The lead container must be inside that hideyhole,” Gerald sidemouthed to me. “What now?”
“Send Ames to the happy hunting grounds,” I said. “Before he sends us. I don’t see any other exit out of this shit-storm.”
We hoofed it at a snappy pace ducking through the doorway where Dr. Ames had disappeared. We heard his spectral voice rattling off something excited and demented. Death permeated the oxygen-starved air. Our scuffing shoes alerted Dr. Ames as we invaded his Inner Sanctum.
“Doc, step away from that box,” said Gerald.
Defying our wishes, he unsnapped the clasps. “Oh put up your shotguns,” he said. “You’ll only scare the other customers.”
“He’s starting to crack the fucking lid.”
“No way that can happen,” said Gerald. “No other choice now. Let’s rock-and-roll, Frank.”
Our 12-gauge shotguns flamed out blasts like a double-necked electric guitar’s first riff.
The End

The Day after Yesterday (Joe Hannibal) by Wayne D. Dundee

Joe Hannibal's been around since 1982 and is the creation of Wayne Dundee. In this novel Wayne shakes up the status quo of his protagonist up when he kills off his sidekick Bomber Brannigan. Of course Joe intends to find out who was responsible for this. At first it seems like an accident induced by too much sex and booze but we, the readers, of course know better.
Facing a crazy militant guy, hard-nosed lawmen and hot babes wherever he goes there's a pulpy feel all over the book. I was kind of sorry that there was a big setup for a terrorist plot to blow up Mount Rushmore but it wasn't taken very far other than just introduce the plan. It does keep the novel grounded in the crime genre though instead of having it plunge off in thrillers / espionage mode, which is good news to me.
At the end the stage is set for a new setting, which might freshen up stuff a bit. Because of that, this one might be a nice place to start reading Joe's stories.
Some of you might get irritated at the descriptions of hot women every time, or the very hardboiled, blazing .45 style of narrating. That is, if you like to read about Kay Scarpetta. However, if you dig Mike Hammer, you'll dig Joe.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Q & A with Ed Lynskey

This time we had the pleasure to ask Ed Lynskey, author of the Frank Johnson series a couple of questions.
Q: What makes your P.I. Frank Johnson different from other fictional private eyes?

A: Good question. Frank doesn’t hail from New York City, Boston,San Francisco or whatever usual big city setting, so that separates him from some of the pack. But I don’t know he’s so much different than the typical private detective. They’re all
big snoops and get into scads of trouble by doing it. His books tend to move out fast with space allotted for necessary back story and introspection.

One thing I shy away from is using Chandleresque metaphors. Mine are too leaden. Frank isn’t a “lone wolf” -- he has a coterie of loyal friends. He’s ambivalent about his job and abilities, but if pushed, he bares a violent streak and always gets the job done. He’s on and off the wagon, though he doesn’t make a big noise about it.

Q: What are your thoughts on the psycho sidekick in PI novels?
Is this a contemporary P.I. trend? I haven’t really thought on it. Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlings features the edgy, unpredictable Mouse, but is he a true psycho? Sidekicks aren’t new to crime-busting heroes, and I suppose one of the duo has to
possess the fiery or impulsive persona (i.e., a “psycho”) to differentiate him from the other guy.

Q: What would a soundtrack to your novels sound like?
A: Interesting question. I listen to jazz and bluegrass music while
I’m writing. I would’ve liked to have asked Warren Zevon to
score a soundtrack for a Frank Johnson movie.

Q: Has your writing changed much since the first novel?

A: I had little idea how to write The Dirt-Brown Derby other than
to just write it. I’ve read and written a lot more since then. I heard or read somewhere a journeyman writer has to churn out a million words before he produces good fiction.

Boy, it sure feels as if I’ve hit and exceeded that mark. Critics have said my plots and characters have settled down, but the “old-school charm” is still present. I know I do more revision cycles now, and I believe my plots have grown more intricate. Ultimately, the reader has to decide if they like (and will buy) the novels.

Q: Do you do a lot of research?

A: I wrote and published over hundred P.I. Frank Johnson short stories in print magazines and ezines before I ever tackled writing the novels. That lengthy effort was the spadework for writing the longer P.I. fiction treatments.

The Blue Cheer (Point Blank, 2007) took a large chunk of research, some of it done via telecon and email. Frank moves to West Virginia, a new locale for him, and I wanted to get the Appalachian setting, characters, and culture down just right. My
latest, Pelham Fell Here, required some technical assistance from the state forensics lab, P.I. licensing bureau, and even an old history professor.

I suppose reading the old and present-day P.I. novels qualifies as research since I was curious to see what other writers have done. I interviewed and wrote essays on a batch of stellar P.I. writers including Dennis Lynds, Dorothy Uhnak (before her big
books), Bob Wade, Stephen Greenleaf and some others I’m sure I’ve left out. Anyway, learning and understanding the genre’s traditions from past acknowledged masters and has been important to my own development.

Q: What's next for you and Frank?

A: Pelham Fell Here (Mundania), my next P.I. Frank Johnson title
due out early next year (2008), is published out of sequence and is really the first book. An ex-MP, Frank has left the military, returned home, and finds himself in a jam. He resorts to his criminal investigation skills to find a way out and by the end, he has few employment options open to him but to pursue a P.I. career.

I’ve one more P.I. Frank Johnson title, Troglodytes, under publication contract from Mundania. Frank returns to Turkey to track down a wealthy lady’s missing husband. He’s sort of a fish out of water and relies more on his own wits since none of his
crew are around to lend him a hand.

I have a pulpy science fiction title, The Quetzal Motel, also under a Mundania contract. Quetzal, a satire on writers and the publishing business in general, was a fun change of pace for me.

My standalone Appalachian noir, Lake Charles set in the Tennessee mountains during 1979, has attracted recently some interest by a publisher. I’ll remain hopeful and continue to rub on my rabbit’s foot.

Q: Do you have any favorite Sons of Spade yourself?

A: You bet. I enjoy reading such P.I. scribes as Stephen Greenleaf,
Arthur Lyons, Walter Mosley, Sue Grafton, Bill Pronzini, James Lee Burke, Jerry Healy, and Marcia Muller. I gravitate to the vintage stuff, too, from Bart Spicer, Raymond Chandler, and Wade Miller. That’s a bunch of name-dropping, but it constitutes a decent reading list of my tastes. I like nothing better than
cracking open a yellowed paperback and getting engrossed in a fast-paced, well-crafted tale. Charles Williams (not a P.I. but more a pulp writer) can do that for me.

Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI-writers, first
influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, Macdonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation and in what way?

A: Today’s detectives are cyber-sleuths but that’s pretty boring,
stale fare unless you jazz up what the computers can do like you see done on the C.S.I. TV shows. I expect some future detectives will remain like old-school gumshoes, doing surveillance and legwork and fitting in the Hammett-Chandler-Macdonald traditional mold.

Some other P.I.s will become more violent and in-your-face, paralleling today’s neo-noirs. Some futuristic detectives will branch off more into the science fiction realm. But we’ve seen the P.I. novel evolve so much already. Dennis Lynds and later
Walter Mosley and George Pelecanos, for instance, injected a social consciousness into the private detective book. So, who knows what new directions the latest and greatest P.I. novels will veer? It’s certainly an exciting prospect to wait and see,
isn’t it?

Q: David Housewright, writer of the Rush McKenzie novels, came up with this question: "What do you have to say?"

A: I’m not sure I understand this question enough to offer an
intelligent response, so I better pass on it.

Q: What question should be asked every P.I. writer we interview and what would be your answer to it?

A: I sometimes wonder if I’d have the patience and grit to work as
a private detective. That’s a fair question to ask writers who create their own P.I.s in print. My answer to such a question would probably be no. The job strikes me as involving long hours and lousy pay, especially you’re your deadbeat clients stiffing you.

For more info about Ed Lynskey and Frank Johnson check out:

Monday, November 5, 2007

Mask Market (Burke) by Andrew Vachss

Take a ride in Burke's Plymouth as he takes you to the dark and violent streets of New York City... In his trademark tough guy, straightforward and ultra-hardboiled style Vachss tells about how Burke, the urban mercenary and avenger of abused kids, is contacted to recover a girl he recovered 20 years ago. When the guy to contact him is killed he wants to get to the bottom of why this happened and especially what it means to him.
Not the most exciting plot he's ever written but you can still feel how authentic it is. The fun in a Vachss novel is not the surprises and storyline but the way he comments about the dark side of the world we live in.
I did note Burke seemed a bit softer this time around though, and the special gift to his girl Loyal (just love the names Vachss gives the ladies) was a nice, refreshing ending.

A Hard Ticket Home (Rush McKenzie) by David Housewright

Rush MckKenzie used to be a cop... until he decided to get rich from some insurance money. You can't take a cop out of a man though, that's why he still does some favors for people every now and then.
In this first novel to feature him he tries to track down the missing daughter of a friend. This girl's bone marrow is the only thing that can save her younger sister. Things, however, are soon complicated by pimps, pushers and a serial killer.
The whole favor-thing reminded me a bit of the old TV-show 'Stingray' that I used to love. Several times, like Nick Mancuso used to do in that show he enlists the help of people he did a favor for in the past. It makes sure Rush is up to the job and an okay gimmick when it's not overdone (which it's not in this one).
Rush is refreshingly nice guy. He can sure as hell handle himself in a fight but he still has trouble encountering violent death.
I enjoyed it enough to read the rest of the series.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Unborn Sons: When the Cactus is in Bloom (by Mark Cohen)

We present another new feature on Sons of Spade: Unborn Sons in which we present an excerpt of a novel not yet published. First up is Mark Cohen's new Pepper Keane novel in progress. Would you like your work in progress to be featured here as well, just drop me a line.


© 2007 by Mark Cohen

Chapter 1

Every so often I drive down to southern Colorado to check on Uncle Ray. Uncle Ray is my mom’s youngest brother. He’s sixty-six years old. He lives in an eight by twelve plywood shack he built on five acres of cactus-covered land he bought on a land contract. He has no plumbing, no electricity, and no phone. He spent most of his life as a merchant seaman and a drunk, and he has a touch of schizophrenia. He divides all people into two classes – drug dealers and devil worshippers. Members of either group, he says, “will kill ya for five dollars.”
I guided the truck south on I-25 through the early morning Denver traffic. It was just after seven. Off to the right I saw Invesco Field at Mile High, home of the Denver Broncos. I remembered when the old stadium – Mile High Stadium – had stood on about the same site. Hell, I remembered when it had been Bears Stadium, named after Denver’s minor league baseball team, the Denver Bears.
I continued south, past the University of Denver, towards Highlands Ranch. That’s where my brother lives. Nobody had ever heard of Highland’s Ranch when I was growing up. It was just undeveloped land where kids drank beer, made out, and tipped cows. Now it is a 22,000-acre “master-planned community.”
My brother’s home sits at the end of a cul de sac. Each of the five homes on it has a driveway and garage, but the master planners had decreed that nobody – not even the homeowner – could park a vehicle on a driveway. Homeowners were to hide their cars in their garages, and visitors were to park only in designated parking areas. It’s a long walk from the nearest designated parking area to my brother’s home, particularly in winter, so I sometimes ignore that rule.
I eased my F-150 into my brother’s driveway and parked it. It was eighty-two degrees on a sunny July morning, but winter was just around the corner. I could feel it.
I got out of my truck, opened the front door to my brother’s home, didn’t see anyone, and yelled, “Let’s hit the road.”
“Be right down,” Troy shouted. “Just taking my morning steroids.” Troy is a bodybuilder and owns the most successful gym in Denver, but I knew he had stopped doing steroids years ago.
Troy had also stopped doing marriage two years ago, but he kept the house so his kids would have a place to stay when they visited. Now Andrew was in the Coast Guard and his teen genius daughter Chelsea lived with her mother in California. Troy and I are close, but he rarely talks about his marriage or the divorce. Once, when I asked him about why he had given up on marriage, he said, “Same reason I stopped using steroids – headaches, high blood pressure, and sleep problems.”
I helped myself to some coffee and clicked on CNN. A vivacious, well-endowed redhead walked me through the morning’s news, and not much had changed in the seventy-five minutes since I’d left my mountain home. The earth was getting warmer, the rich were getting richer, and Bin Laden (the only 6’5” Arab on the planet) was still alive and feasting on lamb in a cave somewhere in northern Pakistan. Just another manic Monday.
Troy came the stairs, looked at the smiling anchorwoman, and said, “You know, given the present state of things in this country, it’s only a matter of time until some TV exec lets an anchor go topless.”
“I don’t want to see Barbara Walters topless,” I said.
“There would have to be an age limit,” he said.
“Let’s get going,” I said. I clicked off the TV. Troy locked the front door, then we went out through his garage. He grabbed a backpack and a six-pack of Diet 7-Up, then pushed the button to close the garage door as we both ran to exit the garage before the door closed.
My truck is a gold/pewter color (Ford calls it ‘Pearl’) and has a matching shell on the back – the kind with a vertical door built in – and I opened it so Troy could stow his stuff in the back of the truck. Buck and Wheat saw Troy and started barking. “Might as well let the dogs do their thing,” I said. I held the door open and both dogs jumped down from the truck. Buck circled left and Wheat dashed off to the right.
“I hope Buck doesn’t take a dump on that guy’s grass,” Troy said, “he’ll turn me in to the HOA for sure.” Buck is a cross between a Great Dane and a Rhodesian Ridgeback. His dumps are impressive. Wheat, on the other hand, is a purebred Schipperke. He weighs only about fifteen pounds, so his dumps are less problematic. But neither dog left any presents for my brother’s neighbors. After a few minutes I whistled and the dogs bounded back to the truck and jumped right in.
We stopped at a McDonalds and bought two cups of coffee. As we headed back to the interstate, Troy pulled a CD from one of the pockets on his baggy shorts and said, “Put this on,” he said, “you’re gonna love it.” I took the CD from him and glanced at the cover.
“Dos Gringos?” I said.
“Trust me,” he said. My brother and I don’t always share the same taste in music, but sometimes he turns me on to good artists I’ve never heard of, and sometimes I remind him of some forgotten greats from the past.
Four hours later, with the words to “Jeremiah Weed” now committed to memory, we arrived in Blanca, Colorado, and I found the dirt road that leads to uncle Ray’s ‘cabin.’ It took another twenty minutes to get there.
I turned off the road and drove until we were about fifty yards from the shack. I stopped the truck and hit the horn a few times. You want to give Ray plenty of notice of your presence so he does not shoot you. There was no sign of Ray and no sign of Prince, his bluetick coonhound.
After thirty seconds or so I drove the truck another twenty yards toward the shack and hit the horn a few more times. Nothing.
I stuck my head out the driver’s window and yelled, “Uncle Ray, it’s Troy and Pepper.” Still nothing.
“Truck’s not here,” Troy said. “He probably drove into town to fill up his water jugs.” That was plausible. The last time I’d seen him he’d been driving an old pickup with a camper on it, and there was no sign of it at his shack.
“Let’s wait inside,” I said. “I need some shade.” Men in the Keane family have black hair, but we have light complexions.
I pulled forward until the truck was only about twenty feet from the shack. Troy and I climbed down out of the truck. I let the dogs out and hoped they didn’t come into direct contact with any of the yucca plants, prickly pear, or other species of cacti that surrounded Ray’s cabin for miles in all directions.
We walked toward the shack, alert for rattlesnakes. I stuck my tongue against the roof of my mouth and made a rattlesnake sound.
“Not funny,” Troy said. Troy had survived a rattlesnake bite many years ago. He had also survived a parachute mishap and a lightning strike. On the other hand, his son Andrew had joined the Coast Guard after high school and ended up in Iraq. Good luck does not necessarily pass from one generation to the next.
There was a padlock on the door, but I had a key. I opened the door.
Uncle Ray was dead.