TEXAS: CREATING A LONE STAR SENSE OF PLACE FOR GRITTY CRIME NOVELS
By Jim Nesbitt
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.
I 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.
By James Crumley
Another 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.
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.
Jim 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.