A Sense of Place – TEXAS 1

James NESBITT

Jim Nesbitt

TEXAS: CREATING A LONE STAR SENSE OF PLACE FOR GRITTY CRIME NOVELS

By Jim Nesbitt

Part 1.

When I was a journalist, I roved the border between Texas and Mexico in search of stories about a rugged region that is really a land and culture unto itself, not truly a part of the countries on either side of a line on a map.

I wrote stories about coyotes smuggling illegal aliens across the Rio Grande, playing nocturnal cat-and-mouse games with the Border Patrol, and narcotrafficante violence and corruption that tainted and toppled more than one tough-talking Texas lawman. I also wrote about the return of mountain lions to the Big Bend country: maquiladora plants and the pollution that caused cancer and birth defects; and, squalid colonias where residents lived in poverty, without running water or sewer lines and with almost no chance of ever owning the shack they called home.

I’ve been drunk on Presidente brandy in the Kentucky Club in Juarez and have wolfed down breakfast tacos stuffed with organ meat slathered in a savory sauce while standing next to a food truck, warding off a hangover and the morning chill in Eagle Pass.

texas hill country cavemouthI also wandered the Hill Country, wading through calf-deep guano in the world’s sixth-largest bat cave near Mason, Texas. I’ve used a folding knife to carve smoked brisket and sausage at Cooper’s Old-Time Pit Bar-B-Cue in Llano, one of the holy shrines of Texas barbecue. I lived for a time in Dallas, home of my all-time favorite bar, Louie’s, founded by the late, great Louie Canelakes, who plays a cameo role in both my novels. I also came to know Houston, San Antonio and El Paso fairly well, the latter both as a boy visiting my uncles who were career Army sergeants based at Fort Bliss and a roving correspondent wandering the border.

I love the deceptive landscape of the Hill Country—green at a distance, dry and craggy up close. And I love the harsh starkness of the Big Bend and northern Mexico—how the mountains collide and look like the bones of the earth ripped open. That wide-open, sun-blasted and evocative landscape stole my heart. It spoke to me then—still does now. It also seemed like the perfectly natural setting for the very primal and violent stories of revenge and redemption I tried to tell in my two Texas thrillers, The Last Second Chance and The Right Wrong Number.

I also come from a long line of hillbilly storytellers who instilled in me a deep and abiding sense of family, time and place as well as a rich appreciation of how the land shapes the people who live on it even as they’re trying to wrest a living from that land. This makes me a firm believer in creating a strong sense of time and place in the stories I tell, etching a detailed description that makes the setting come alive as a living, breathing character—not just a picaresque backdrop. Every author should do this—too few do.

In my mind, there’s no place like Texas to give gumption and texture to a gritty crime novel. Let’s be clear here: I’m not talking about spinning out a Texana caricature or making a grandstand play to the Texas of myth and legend. Stick to the real Texas and you’ll wind up with a tale told as much by the places you describe as the people, dialogue and action you create.

What follows is a list of books whose writers make Texas come alive by the standard I just described. Some are native born; Texans are mighty particular about who can call themselves Texans. Only those born there can. However, foreigners like me can fall in love with the state and some of the books I list are by no-account outlanders who can pine for Texas and wax poetic about it, but will never be able to call themselves Texans. Some are legends long dead and gone, others are gone and were deeply under-appreciated while they walked among us. Some exclusively work the gritty, hard-boiled genre while others rove a broader, more literary range. A few are younger writers who nailed it right out of the chute.

Here we go, in no particular order, with the first five authors who hit the Lone Star mark. I’ll cover five more in the next installment. I’ll even give you some gaudy patter about what I learned from each writer and their pure-dee Texas crime novels.

Waltz Across Texas

By Max Crawford

This sprawling 1975 tale of lust, greed, corruption and murder rambles from the semi-mythical West Texas town of Flavannah (there is a real-life Fluvanna, Texas), a fly-speck of a dying farm and ranch hub high on the caprock, to the glass towers of Houston and its endless sprawl and the eclectic center of state government and higher learning known as Austin. The story is told by Sugar Campbell, a Korean War hero and former Army intelligence officer, who is hired by his high school buddy, Son Cunningham, to return to his hometown after a somewhat shady venture in the California oil business goes bust. Campbell can’t tell whether he’s being hired to kill somebody, be a patsy for a killing or to be killed. The somebody is Tee Kitchens, heir to a Texas cattle ranch on the verge of bankruptcy and holder of a six million life insurance policy that is both the key to the ranch’s survival and the reason Kitchens is marked for death. But not the only reason as Cunningham, an ambitious political and business climber, is the lover of Kitchens’ wife, the beautiful and ethereal Adrienne.

Crawford, the late Texan who also wrote one of Ronald Regan’s favorite novels, Lords of The Plain, knowingly describes the arid West Texas landscape and its geological features, the hushed corridors of money, power and corruption in Houston and Austin and the manic actions of the feuding ranch factions that have different reasons for wanting Kitchens dead. Best of all, Crawford captures the epic scope of Texas itself, which taught me to raise the horizons of my own novels and set my own characters in constant motion across this great state. Warning: This book is long out of print so you’ll have to hunt for a weathered copy, but the search will be well worth the trouble.

The Rogues’ Game

By Milton Burton

A note perfect debut novel by another departed native son, this is a hard-boiled caper thriller straight out of the Jim Thompson school of criminal grit. Set in West Texas at the start of the post-World War II boom, the book features a nameless narrator and his curvy blonde girlfriend, a woman with a sad past but a sharp mind for business and all the angles on both sides of the law. This is a richly layered story that starts out as a man and his girlfriend headed for a high-stakes poker game in a ’47 Lincoln convertible, then appears to be a plot to rob the game’s high-rollers, then morphs again into a deceptive game with a darker motivation rooted in the narrator’s past as an OSS operative. Although set in the past, Burton’s novel isn’t a sepia-toned period piece. He makes subtle use of historical details and the intricacies of the oil business, the fever of a new boom town and the nuances of poker strategy in service of a well-told tale that echoes the essence of that classic Paul Newman and Robert Redford movie, The Sting, but skips the schmaltz and caricature.

And the mark in Burton’s story is far nastier than Doyle Lonnegan and far more deserving of a comeuppance, which becomes apparent when Burton peels back the final layer to reveal what his book is truly about. What I learned from Burton’s novel is how to make judicious use of historical details to set a story in the past without making the past a major point of the story. I also took to heart the way he added just the right amount of technical background about a complex subject to make it authentic without turning the narrative into a term paper. He uses the same deft touch to make his mythical West Texas town come to life without a hint of maudlin nostalgia.

Bordersnakes

By James Crumley

westerndiamondback6Another dead Texan, Crumley is still a vastly under-appreciated talent whose detective novels are laced with drugs, sex, booze and violence, all ladled out in unblinking and graphic detail. His rich, seedy and wild novels had a profound impact on my own writing, showing me it was a mighty fine thing to let my stories rip and describe sex and violence without the use of euphemism that insults the reader’s intelligence. His two main characters, private investigators Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue, aren’t super sharp or super cool. They’re dogged and deeply flawed—and utterly human. I kept that in mind when I created the main character for my two novels, cashiered Dallas homicide detective Ed Earl Burch. In Bordersnakes, Crumley brings both of his main characters together in pursuit of the narcotrafficantes who left Sughrue gut-shot in a ditch and hiding out in the seared desert of West Texas and the banker who ripped off Milo’s three million dollar trust fund inheritance. The novel hurtles from the desert doublewide that serves as Sughrue’s hideout to El Paso, nearby New Mexico, Seattle and on to the big ranches on both sides of the Rio Grande, with a climatic and bloody finish in the lair of the narcos known as bordersnakes. Crumley’s descriptions of the landscape of the border between Texas and Mexico are so detailed you can feel the wind-blown grit on your tongue and the burn the unforgiving sun puts on your skin. This is a grim tale of revenge full of nasty characters with few redeeming qualities. It demands an equally grim setting, a land that Crumley brings to life as a character unto itself.

Borderline

By Lawrence Block

Block has always been one of my favorite crime novelists. His Matthew Scudder stories are firmly rooted in New York and capture the street-level feel of living in America’s biggest city. At his best—and I’m thinking of When The Sacred Ginmill Closes and A Walk Among The Tombstones—Block transcends the detective genre and graphically illustrates my belief that hard-boiled crime novels are an American art form. At the high end, they rise above the who-done-it and serve as vehicles for the author’s views of art, politics, psychology, music, relationships, friendships and, yes, the heart and soul of a criminal or cop. With Scudder, an ex-NYPD detective and alcoholic, you also gain keen insight into a man’s daily battle with addiction. Imagine my surprise and delight at discovering an early Block novel, written in 1962 and reprinted by Hard Case Crime in 2014, set in El Paso and Juarez. The story isn’t a detective mystery. It’s more of a grim O. Henry tale about the random intertwining of the lives of four people: a professional gambler, a newly-divorced woman, a drifting proto-hippie hooker and a serial killer. You get all of Block’s mastery of detail and dialogue, but the kick for me was his richly evocative description of an El Paso and Juarez before the population explosion and narcotrafficante violence. The quintessential New York writer captures the El Paso and Juarez I knew as a kid visiting my uncles based at Fort Bliss, well before I became aware of Boys’ Town, live sex shows and cheap tequila. Block also captures those seedier attractions with a perfect eye.

No Country For Old Men

By Cormac McCarthy

I can hear the gnashing of teeth and anguished outcries from where I sit—from both the critics who say this book marks a fall from the high literary pedestal upon which they rightfully placed McCarthy, and genre junkies who say Cormac ain’t a member of their club. Both parties need to sit down and shut up. In my mind, there is no better example of making the sun-blasted country of West Texas a living, breathing character in a crime thriller than his only foray into the genre. The storyline is familiar from both the book and the 2007 Cohen Brothers film, so I won’t bother with a replay. But if you want to learn how to create an acid-etched sense of time and place that is as vivid as the characters that populate your story, pick up this book and read it again.

The Last 2nd ChanceJim Nesbitt is the author of two crime thrillers, THE LAST SECOND CHANCE and THE RIGHT WRONG NUMBER, that feature battered but dogged Dallas PI Ed Earl Burch. With vivid and detailed descriptions of the stark and rugged landscape of the Big Bend Country of West Texas, both books create a strong sense of place that frames gritty tales of revenge and redemption. Both books are available at amazon.com/author/jimnesbitt or www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B01D2D9ASO. Nesbitt, an ex-journalist, lives in Athens, Alabama.

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DOUBLE TAKE – Kendall Talbot

Double TakeFor me, although this was not an un-put-downable read through which I struggled the first half, but the second half seemed to find its gyro and took off like a rocket. Set in Brisbane, Australia, it is the story of a Melbourne Cup Day bank robbery.

It is very original with several surprises.

There are three POVs:

  1. The Gang; how they got together and why; with the desperate bank employee gang-leader who needs a certain sum of money to give his wife the expensive operation that she needs, and the disparate crew who agree to do the job with him. Their reasons for going along with him are not always all that convincing.
  2. The Family: whose kids, playing nearby overhear the gang’s plans, tell their at first disbelieving father and his girlfriend, and record further meetings and finally inform the police. Well, sort of inform the police…
  3. The Cops; who set the trap to catch the Gang. Sort of.

Pretty straight forward, you would think. Worse than that, it is also probably doomed to failure. For the Gang, that is.

Kemdall Talbot

Kendall Talbot

Except, of course, it is not as simple as it looks, and therein lies the… Don’t let me spoil it. Double Take, not only an excellent title, but turns out to be a good finisher on Cup Day, after all.

I love the cover, too.

Thanks to Kendall Talbot for the Instafreebie download. For what it’s worth, this review is in appreciation.

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E-Freebies

Main Stream Publishers, sit up and take notice. No, you did long ago; this won’t take you by surprise. You’re certainly aware of the creeping threat to your previously unrockable domain.

Print-On-Demand, et al.

FREE E-BOOKS!

e-readersSerious readers of any genre you care to name can remain locked to their devices 24/7 from now on without ever again having to buy another paper novel or even visit their libraries. Now for free, too. Well, it is bait to hook you back to the author you suddenly can’t get enough of and actually have to – gulp – pay for.

Well, 24/7 for those of us who don’t have to work. Or sleep.

KindlesLeaving you with the touchy-feely readers, who, thankfully, have not yet died out, and have not succumbed to overpowering guilt about the forests that still need to be pulped.

While still faithfully appreciating the ARC copies you send to us reviewers, I will be taking a serious look at those authors who have taken to self-pub in the hope, and self belief, of being noticed. And they will have to put up with entirely honest feedback and opinion which will, hopefully, be a help and guide to their efforts rather than a blast of CO2 on their fires. Kindle imageOr Kindles. Sadly, I’ll be discerning as to my choice of new author – sorry, just new to me, that is – and I’m going to give up a lot sooner if I start yawning than I would with a paperback mailed to me. Standards must needs remain high, editing and proofreading are no less a must and as many reviews as possible, while not the ultimate accolade, make a good guide.

A big fat thank you to all the marketing aids out there who have made introductory Freebies available to give lesser known authors some Promo, and give the financially challenged bookworms some quality reading. Amongst some not-so-quality stuff…

From the authors’ point of view, I would like to stress that readers ought to at least pay for their freebie reads by doing the authors the courtesy of assessing the work honestly with one to five stars, or better still, a brief review on the various readers platforms available; Amazon, Goodreads, etc. Keep in mind that Amazon do not yet always bridge the reviews between their various continental outlets.

Go on, do that.

Not really nothing for nothing in this world…

https://www.instafreebie.com/

https://www.bookbub.com/

https://www.kobo.com/us/en/p/free-ebooks

https://www.free-ebooks.net/

www.openculture.com/free_ebooks

to name but a few.

 

 

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Top Ten Perps

BOOK POSTMORTEM is about examining the CRIME SCENE left in grime of the Mean Streets and dark alleys by the more skillful of perpetrators; authors who keep us genre addicts glued to the pages.

Shelf2.jpg

HarryBHARRY BINGHAM

His Fiona Griffiths series, of which there are six now, (The Deepest Grave just released by Orion) is for me the lead in the field. All a matter of taste, of course, but Fiona is very special.

 

Stieg_LarssonSTIEG LARSSEN

Sadly, his wonderful character, Lizbet Salander, and her trilogy, is the end of his contribution, except for whatever he may have left to us after his passing, if the legal folk can sort out who owns what.

 

 

Michael Robotham2MICHAEL ROBOTHAM

Stand-alones, or the Joe O’Loughlin series; this is a seriously gripping and extremely readable story teller. His characters are warmblooded and real, his plots plausible and his heroes all too human.

 

plus:

DICK FRANCIS

Incredibly prolific, he has given us a library full of exciting tales with very rare duffs. There is something about his old-fashioned clear cut definition of right and wrong which appeals to me. With only a slight nod to more modern moral flexibility by his co-author son, Felix Francis, the Francis team continues to delight.

COLIN DEXTER

Nothing needs to be added by me to what has already been said in praise of this absolute master of the genre. Morse and Lewis are immortal.

C.J. BOX

He has a sense and appreciation of the countryside and the outdoors that I love, to go with his warm style of writing and his honest earthy protagonist, ranger Joe Pickett.

SIMON KERNICK

As counter to the goody-two-shoes heroes of Dick Francis and C.J. Box, Kernick’s characters are a lot more ruthless and way over the morality plumbline, but he writes some excellent pulse racing stuff.

HARLAN COBEN

This man is the king of twist, although rarely sacrificing credibility.

JO NESBO

He is not the only Scandinavian author I enjoy, but I have read enough to like his consistency in a good gripping twisting tale.

TRACE CONGER

I have had the honour of reviewing three of this hugely promising author’s unusual Mr Finn series, and for my money, he is going from strength to strength.

How can you really have only a list of ten? Of course you can’t, and our tastes all differ. To name a few, and not especially in this order, I also really like Belinda Bauer, Jake Needham, Peter May, Karen Slaughter, Ali Land, Emilie Schepp, Lin Anderson, Greg Isles, Maynard Sims, Henning Mankell, Roger Hobbs, Terry Hayes…

I would appreciate comments on YOUR top ten. Please comment!

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BLEED FOR ME – Michael Robotham

(Joseph O’Loughlin #4)

Bleed for me- RobothamMy introduction to Michael Robotham was when I reviewed BOMBPROOF awhile back to find it an unexpected delight, but somehow never got back to finding another Robotham to get my teeth into. With a gap in my ARC books supply from publishers since the December hibernation, I found BLEED FOR ME in the village library and loved every page. He is edging from excellent to fantastic and without hesitation he is in my top ten current crime authors.

Joe O’Loughlin, a psychologist, is often involved in testifying the sanity, or not, of criminals who might be attempting to so plead to get out of jail free. He is a wonderfully empathetic character, dealing with the onset of Parkinson’s disease, and a teenage daughter.

Michael Robotham2

Michael Robotham

In this, the fourth in the series, an incoherent, bloodied Sienna Hegarty, his daughter’s friend, arrives at Joe’s door seeking help. The police suspect her of killing her father, a retired policeman himself. She says she remembers nothing. Joe needs to unlock her unstable traumatised mind before the real killer escapes justice and murders again.

Definitely not only an un-put-downable tale, Joe also becomes a friend. Thankfully, there is more of him to be had and I have become an instant fan.

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GOOD AS GONE – Amy Gentry

You have just about managed to hold what is left of your family together – your husband and younger daughter – since the older daughter, then aged 13, was kidnapped. Then she turns up at your door, a young woman, now. That is Julie, isn’t it?

Good as GoneShe says she is. Mother Anna believes she is. But she also knows she is lying.

This incredibly tense tale of unravelling turned out to be one of the best I’ve had come my way in a while. It depicts several teenagers of intense courage and endurance evolving into womanhood. They endure unbelievable treachery, mistreatment and brutality until they escape back into the impossible world or normality.

Anna is no less a warmblooded character layered in suspicion, care, love, doubts, courage and determination as she struggles through the veils of deception towards the truth.

Slowly, slowly, that truth, penetrated level by painful level, comes twisting home.

Amy Gentry

Amy Gentry

An excellent story. The cover, however, does not do it justice; so judge not.

Thank you, Sahina Bibi | Publicity Intern at HQ for this review copy.

HarperCollinsPublishers: 

1 LONDON BRIDGE STREET

LONDON    SE1 9GF

 

 

 

 

 

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THE PROTECTOR – Danielle Lenee Davis

Enter Detective Sydney Valentine. She’s strong, sassy, intelligent, likeable and above all, a loyal friend.

The Protector

Sydney and her colleagues are well drawn, flesh and blood, and I especially liked the repartee. As to the plot, the body count rises and gets closer to home until the inevitable target is Sydney herself, which makes for an exciting ride as characters you have now gotten rather fond of are threatened.

 

The antagonist I found to be a little dubious but I suppose there is no limit to mad murderous maniacs in life. What’s needed is the convincing depiction thereof and I was not entirely convinced. Twists are there as required, but there should be more of a shucks-I-shoulda-seen-that-coming feel to them, rather than where-did-that-one-come-from?

 

Danielle Lenee Davis

Danielle Lenee Davis

However, that is not to say I didn’t find this intro to Sydney Valentine enjoyable or entertaining. I did, and I think the author is going to grow to dizzying heights with so much evident promise.

Thank you, Danielle, via Instafreebie for this Kindle copy. Good luck with the marketing, which is often harder than writing a good thriller.

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TOUCHING THE SUN – Bahamas series 1 – Maynard Sims

Childhood friendships change, of course they do. But Harry Beck never expected just how much it was possible for those to change, so his rose-tinted glasses don’t fall off until faces the awful truth. Thankfully, current friendships turn out to be more solid.

Touch the SunWhen you have a small charter business in the Bahamas, what could be more idyllic than that? Carefree and relaxed as Harry himself; no responsibilities and no commitments, there are few clouds on his horizon. When his young mechanically minded partner, Stevie, a tough tomboy whose loyalty knows no bounds, gets beaten up, his life starts to unravel. The pace accelerates until Harry needs to fight or flee. And, cornered, fight he does.

Easy writing, so easy reading. The first in a series of Harry Beck adventures gives us a promising picture of what lies ahead. I enjoyed this and look forward to more of the same. I loved the backdrop to the Maynard Sims team development and I think a similar set-up would benefit a lot of writers, but getting over the ego hurdle must be a bit step.

maynard-sims

Maynard Sims – a formidable team

Book 2 in the series is CALLING DOWN THE LIGHTNING

Book 3 in the series is RAGING AGAINST THE STORM

http://maynard-sims.com/bahamas-thrillers https://www.amazon.com/Touching-Sun-Bahama-Maynard-Sims-ebook/dp/B01N78QVCQ/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Touching-Sun-Bahama-Maynard-Sims-ebook/dp/B01N78QVCQ/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

https://youtu.be/7AkH3uQ80Rk

http://www.worldcastlepublishing.com/author_maynard_sims.html

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The BIG MANGO -Jake Needham

Jump the smelly puddles and hang on to your wallet; this is Bangkok. Nobody paints it better than Jake Needham, so hold your nose.

the-big-mangoAfter the fall of Saigon, the South Vietnamese Government treasury is shipped out by plane to Bangkok. And disappears. The only man who knew where it went was the captain in charge of the guard detail and he’s just been killed.

Years later, two members of his detail receive copies of old photos. Their heads in the group of servicemen are circled in red pen. Somebody offers a vast sum of money for them to go to Bangkok to look for the loot, even though they don’t have a clue where to look. The dead captain’s wife also says she needs their help. A US agent says he needs their help.

Charlie and Winnebago wander around the grimy city as innocent lambs looking for safety at the butchery until they finally run into an elderly journalist who reluctantly agrees to help with his local knowledge.

Just when you wonder if anything exciting is going to happen, ever, all hell breaks loose and starts revolving like a corkscrew.

Half yeasty description of the backstreets of Thailand’s underbelly, and half thriller and who dunnit, this was a fun read I thoroughly enjoyed.

Jake Needham1

Jake Needham

Jake pointed me at The Big Mango, his first novel, on Instafreebie. www.instafreebie.com . Thank you, Jake!

He is the successful author of The Jack Shepard Series, and the Sam Tay Series, both set in the Asia that he knows so well.

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The RIGHT WRONG NUMBER – Jim Nesbitt

Beware of old flames when the fire’s gone out, you can still be burned on the coals when she phones long after midnight and offers you money and sex. Especially when you should know better.

right-wrong-number

Ed Earl Burch says no, no, no. Then yes, firstly because she needs protection from some very nasty people who think she knows where her husband stashed their money, and secondly, she won’t take no for an answer. He soon also needs protection from the same nasty people, and a hoard more that the two pick up along the action packed way. Needing help to track down the elusive treacherous financier, Ed Earl enlists the help of his best friend. Things can’t get more serious when his friend is eliminated in Dallas, for which he rightly blames himself.

Everyone is nasty. From Ed E himself, a boozy falling-apart PI, and the self centred old flame to the ruthless conniving husband and everyone in between. Murdering sonsabitches, all.

Okay, maybe, as least nasty, we do get fond of Ed E and wish him well as he blunders along in an almost nothing-to-live-for fashion.

What do you want?

Action? You get it in spades.

Sex? It dribbles and groans in plenty.

Brutality? No problem – blood, puke, pain; mop the pages to see the writing.

The trail is a rough ride with your heart in your mouth. With the odd stop to visit my cardiologist, I otherwise couldn’t put it down, but gritty feels like icecream, and hardboiled is like jelly compared to this. Keep going, Mr Nesbitt.

James NESBITT

Jim Nesbitt

amazon.com/author/jimnesbitt
www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B01D2D9ASO
www.jimnesbitthardboiledbooks.com

 

 

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