Saturday, June 20, 2020

A Historical Thriller That Will Make You Wonder How It All Turned Out

Scott D. Parker

There's a moment in The Lincoln Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Killed America's 16th President - and Why It Failed where the President-elect hears dire warnings from two independent sources that his life is in danger and he takes action. He agrees to sneak out of a pre-Inauguration Day party in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, don a disguise, and be whisked away by train, all in an effort to thwart the plot to kill him in Baltimore. That moment consists of me breathlessly wondering: Is he gonna make it?

It's been 155 years since his death. There's a giant statue of President Lincoln in Washington, He's on the penny. He's one of the most famous Americans of all time. He might be recognized in nearly every corner of the world here in 2020. Of course he makes it.

But that's the testament to the writing skill of Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch: they weave the story and the details in such a way as to make history read like a thriller. And dang if this story won't thrill you.

We all know Lincoln's ultimate fate on Good Friday, 1865, but few know of the first plot to kill him before he even took office. I'll admit I learned about it back in grad school at the University of North Texas but it was only in passing. I knew it was foiled and that private detective Allan Pinkerton played a key role. But I never knew the details that fill over 350 pages in this remarkable book.

Much like they did with The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington (2019), Meltzer and Mensch dig deep into the details of this 1861 plan hatched by a cabal of Southern loyalists. They didn't want the president-elect—who carried no slave-holding states in the recent election—to take his place in the White House. At the time, the Republican Party was against the institution of slavery even if Lincoln himself tried to steer a narrow line between free and slave.

Following a tradition dating back to America's first president, Lincoln traveled from his home in Springville, Illinois, to Washington, D.C., in the weeks leading up to his inauguration. Two things gave the Southerners fuel for their plot: Lincoln's itinerary was published in many papers and the rail-splitter from the west would have to change trains in Baltimore. What made this transfer problematic was not only was Maryland a slave state, but the transfer wasn't merely changing trains in a single station. No, this change from one rail line to another involved literally moving a train car about a mile from one station to the next. In that time, with the expected throngs of Southern sympathizers clogging the streets, the president-elect's life would be in jeopardy.

Hired by one of the railroad men to protect threats against the railroad, Pinkerton and one of his agents, Kate Warne, uncovered the real plot. It was then Pinkerton urged Lincoln to change his plans. The new president demurred until a fateful night when word of the plot arrived from his recent rival and future Secretary of State, William Seward. Convinced of the threat, Lincoln finally allowed himself to be disguised and sneak into the nation's capital under the cover of darkness.

Like they did with their Washington book, Meltzer and Mensch write their prose in the present tense. It gives the story an immediacy, a will-he or won't-he vibe that's pretty darn exciting. Often, they'll recount a scene and then cut to a contemporary scene in another part of the country. You really get a bird's eye view of the whole situation.

If you are a fan of audiobook, preeminent narrator, Scott Brick, reads the book. He could read the phonebook and I'd pay to hear it. He narrates everything he does so well, and I especially like the timbre of his voice as he reaches the end of the book and reads the last lines from Meltzer and Mensch.

History isn't just names and dates, laws and wars, pop culture and events. It is people, real people, living their lives and making decisions based on the best knowledge they have at any given time. Some decisions are momentous: the outcome of the 1861 election, the secession of the Southern states, the foiled assassination in 1861 and the successful one four years later. This book peels away some of the veneer Lincoln now lives with in the American imagination in the 155 years since his death, showing us a real guy, beset by personal and national tragedy, who is doing the best he can. Ditto for Pinkerton, Warne, and the Southerners.

Books like these breathe life into history, and as a historian, we need more books like this so folks in the 21st Century can be entertained and learn a little something along the way.

Highly recommended.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Back to Beau's Book Nook

This week, Beau takes a look at Ed Kurtz's NOTHING YOU CAN DO.

Here are seventeen tales of crime, murder, and vengeance from Ed Kurtz, author of The Rib From Which I Remake the World and Bleed, including the acclaimed stories “A Good Marriage” and “The Trick.”

From backwoods Arkansas to the sleazy side of Cologne, Germany, America’s first serial killer in nineteenth century Texas to a broken family descending into madness in 1920s England, no one escapes their own darkest drives and everyone learns there is Nothing You Can Do.

Praise for novels by Ed Kurtz:

The Rib From Which I Remake the World isn’t only the best book I’ve read this year, it is Ed Kurtz’s best book yet. This is a haunting story of seeing through illusion and the terrifying reality of what it means to meet your maker.” —Bracken MacLeod, author of Mountain Home and Stranded

A Wind of Knives dusts off the classic western’s most enduring motifs and gives them a shine. With no lack of gunplay and bloodshed, the book also has heart and intelligence. In short, Kurtz delivers an intense, gritty, and moving story that takes a new look at the Old West.” —Lee Thomas, award-winning author of The German and Ash Street

Nausea is a gritty, hard-edged tale with just the right amount of feeling, making this one hell of a story. All of Ed’s gifts are on display here: fast pacing, memorable characters and brutal action that aren’t easy to forget, but make for great reading.” —Terrence McCauley, author of the James Hicks thrillers

“Ed Kurtz proved to me that not all horror novels have to be blood and guts and gore. Don’t get me wrong, those elements are in The Rib From Which I Remake the World, but Kurtz balances them with engaging characters and a captivating story.” —Crimespree Magazine

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Nikki Dolson on the drags and the glimmers of publishing

Nikki Dolson's new collection, Love and Other Criminal Behavior, is a wonderful group of stories. I've been a fan of her work for a while, so it was an absolute treat to be able to read all these stories in one collection.

Here are the details:

The collection starts with "Georgie Ann" a tale of kept women, betrayal, fake friends, and oh, so much blood. Nikki doesn't pump the breaks before throwing the reader into the ring in "Take the Hit," where Kendra must go back into the boxing ring and throw a fight if she hopes to fulfill her dream of having a family.
In "Sunrise," Nikki takes us to the desert to die. But not before unwinding the lost loves, regrets, and complicated relationships all plaguing one family, as two cousins try to decide whether they'll let their beloved Uncle join his late first wife.
"Our Man Julian," is about a washed-up actor who is cultivating a wild San Diego garden, and a lifetime of loneliness and regret. Hit with the reality that he will die soon with no savings and nothing to offer the daughters he loves but barely sees, he plans an outrageous kamikaze mission. But can a man who's survived it all really turn off that survival instinct?
Love and Other Criminal Behavior will keep your heart pumping fast, right up until it's broken.

Nikki Dolson was kind enough to answer some questions I had, so let's get to it, shall we?


Steve Weddle: This collection spans quite a few years and publications. What drove you to choose these stories for this book? 

Nikki Dolson: I have a writing teacher who insisted it was beyond time for me to put together a collection. I’d been poking at the idea for awhile and once I had a publisher interested, I put together the stories that made sense to me. 

I’d read a collection of short stories in 2015 called American Housewife by Helen Ellis and it was everything I wanted my collection to be. She had funny little flash fiction up against longer, deeper stories. I realized that my traditional ideas of what made a collection were based on writers who didn’t write like I did. So all of my stories aren’t crime. There’s not always a dead body. But I think they work together. 

These thirteen stories are the best representation of my writing without the false notes of other writer styles I tried, of structures I did poorly.
Nikki Dolson

SW: You have a wonderful technique of starting a story in the present, then dropping back into the past for background, and repeating that process throughout the narrative so that the reader is gifted with layer upon layer of storytelling and character development. Is that technique something you've worked on or has it come naturally?

ND: I’m glad you say think it works! I LOVE backstory. I want the reader to know everything I think I know about a character, but it can bog down a story or stop it cold. When I revise I am always trimming down the back story in favor of forward momentum. Man, it’s hard.

SW: On the other side, is there anything you've learned in your journey as a short story writer, either in the writing itself or the business of writing, that you wish you hadn't learned? 

ND: I wish I’d never learned the hard truth that publishing is a business, that publishing can be misery. Chasing after royalty statements and payments is such a drag. Indie publishing is hard for everyone involved, but damn if it doesn’t seem like writers are the ones getting beat down.

SW: What is it about the length of the short story that you find appealing, and how do you know when you need to develop something longer or when you need to cut back to something shorter?
ND: Of late, I’m writing stories for anthologies which often come with a max word count. Trying to tell a story within those constraints is hard sometimes. Left to write without an end publication in sight, my stories hover around 6,000 words.

SW: As you've been publishing stories for years, is there anything you wish you'd known a decade or more ago that you've recently learned? 

ND: I’m figuring out that I don’t need to catch up to anyone. I’m not behind. I’m maybe not where I’d hoped I’d be after fourteen years, but I’m not in a bad place. I can see little glimmers of future books ahead of me. 

Pick up your copy of this wonderful collection at your local indie or wherever fine books are sold.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Lockdown Anthology: To Benefit the BINC

Lockdown: Stories of Crime, Terror, and Hope During a Pandemic launches today, and I'm excited to have a story in it. The book is a collection of stories written quickly after editors Nick Kolakowski and Steve Weddle put out the call, back in March, for stories that would be set in a world under lockdown.  As Nick put it in an email about this world: "no planes flying, all cities locked down, limited people movement due to an illness that's flu-like but mutates rapidly".  I received an email inviting me to write a story for the book on March 24th, and the due date given was April 15th.  Nothing spurs a story idea better than the pressure of an imminent deadline.

For my part, I let a number of ideas float through my mind for a few days.  Then, out of the blue, I came up with something definite. It seemed both in tune with the mood of the lockdown where I live, New York City, at that timpandemic epicenter in the United States, and yet not quite what people might expect from a plague story.  With about six days to go before the deadline, I started writing the story, and I zipped through it rapidly, having a good deal of enjoyment while doing it.  

The collection has a standout list of contributors, and I'm looking forward to reading the thing myself.  

That list of contributors, by the way:

Hector Acosta
Ann Dávila Cardinal
V. Castro
Angel Luis Colon
Jen Conley
Terri Lynn Coop
S.A. Cosby
Alex DiFrancesco
Michelle Garza/Melissa Lason
Rob Hart
Gabino Iglesias
Nick Kolakowski
Richie Narvaez
Cina Pelayo
Renee Asher Pickup
Eryk Pruitt
Johnny Shaw
Steve Weddle

And very important to keep in mind: 100% of the book's proceeds will go to The Book Industry Charitable Foundation, the BINC.  We all know how much independent booksellers have been hurt by the coronavirus outbreak and the resultant lockdown, and throughout the pandemic, the BINC has been one of the few reliable sources of financial support for them. Help the BINC and you help the indie booksellers that I presume we all love and want to keep.

Besides the general lockdown idea, were there any unifying principles that the story contributors had to adhere to or that the editors, Kolakowski and Weddle, wanted to emphasize?  I asked Nick about this, and he told me a little about what he and Steve were trying to do with the collection.

Nick's words below:

From the outset, we were pretty loose with the stories’ guidelines. We had our fictional pandemic, which we defined as a respiratory disease, but against that shared background we wanted the authors to pretty much go wherever the muse took them. When the stories actually came in, we found something interesting: Around half of them (mostly the crime/suspense tales) stuck pretty close to “reality”—i.e., their characters were pulling off a heist, kidnapping, murder, etc. within a world where everyone around them was coughing and dying.

The other half of the stories took a stranger turn. We had zombies, cannibalism, ghosts; and in many of those stories, the wider world was apocalyptic, or close to it. And that gave us the leverage to structure the stories in a linear order: From a relatively normal world trying to wrestle with the outbreak of a mysterious illness, to a burned-out landscape; and from what you might call a conventional virus to, after a bunch of mutations, something that produced some unconventional side effects. 

Steve and I were editing the stories as they came in, given the super-tight deadlines, and I hadn’t written my story yet. When I had to sit down to churn out my own copy, I decided to write a story that acted as a bit of a bridge—the moment the world starts truly going off the rails. I also had the characters mutter darkly about mutations, how the virus itself seemed to be changing, which I hoped would create a thematic gateway to the rest of the book.

That doesn’t mean any reader is required to read the book in order; but for those who do, there’s a hint of an overarching mega-narrative which hopefully they find interesting


Considering the lineup involved, I expect readers will find the stories interesting.

Lockdown: Stories of Crime, Terror, and Hope During a Pandemic is published by Polis Books, and you can find it right here.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Nominating Diversity

The Anthony Award nominations were announced this past week. And the list of writers is a thing of beauty. It is packed full of women and people of color and the kinds of stories that should have been published for years. But they haven’t been. Because publishers have chosen not to. Because they think those kinds of stories by those kinds of authors won’t sell.
This year’s list is a great big middle finger at that kind of thinking. These nominations are voted on by many of the biggest readers (and book buyers) in the crime fiction genre. They know good work. And this is who they’ve said they want to read:
Women. Sixty-six percent of the nominees are women. Two-thirds. Hell, yes.
People of color. Thirty-six percent of the nominees are people of color. Hell, hell, yes.
Women of color. If the list is a thing of beauty, then this is doubly so—eighteen percent of the nominees are women of color. That’s wonderful, but it’s not enough. There is no demographic more underrepresented than this one. That needs to change.
Let’s look at just two of the categories as examples of the range of voices included this year:
The Best First Novel category has four of five nominees who are people of color. There are stories about an African American spy, a Chinese-Norwegian ninja, and a biracial black man, as well as an immigrant family dealing with deadly community rivalries, and a coming-of-age psychological suspense.
The Best Critical/Non-Fiction category includes three books that take a new look at women who’ve been ignored (Jack the Ripper’s victims), misunderstood (Lizzie Borden), or influential in unknown ways (Dorothy L. Sayers).
So please, if you’re seeing these books for the first time, give them a try. And then look for others. Because we can’t treat this as the end of the diversification of crime fiction. It has to be only the beginning.
* * *
This year’s Bouchercon Local Organizing Committee will be highlighting every one of the outstanding nominees throughout the coming months.
The Anthony Award nominations are always voted on by crime fiction fans who either attended the last year’s Bouchercon convention, or were registered for the year’s convention. They can list up to five choices in each category. Those are tallied, and the top five vote-getters become the nominees in each category. This year, there were ties for fifth place in two categories, so Best Paperback Original has seven nominees and Best Young Adult has six.
Then, during the convention attendees vote for one nominee in each category. This year, with the Sacramento Bouchercon turned into a Virtual Bouchercon due to the pandemic, that voting will take place through a secure online voting site. We will have more information on registering for Virtual Bouchercon in the coming months.
Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha (Ecco)
They All Fall Down, by Rachel Howzell Hall (Forge)
Lady in the Lake, by Laura Lippman (William Morrow)
The Murder List, by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Forge)
Miami Midnight, by Alex Segura (Polis Books)
The Ninja Daughter, by Tori Eldridge (Agora Books)
Miracle Creek, by Angie Kim (Sarah Crichton Books)
One Night Gone, by Tara Laskowski (Graydon House)
Three-Fifths, by John Vercher (Agora Books)
American Spy, by Lauren Wilkinson (Random House)
The Unrepentant, by E.A. Aymar (Down & Out Books)
Murder Knocks Twice, by Susanna Calkins (Minotaur)
The Pearl Dagger, by L.A. Chandlar (Kensington)
Scot & Soda, by Catriona McPherson (Midnight Ink)
The Alchemist’s Illusion, by Gigi Pandian (Midnight Ink)
Drowned Under, by Wendall Thomas (Poisoned Pen Press)
The Naming Game, by Gabriel Valjan (Winter Goose Press)
Hitchcock and the Censors, by John Billheimer (University Press of Kentucky)
The Hooded Gunman: An Illustrated History of the Collins Crime Club, by John Curran (Collins Crime Club)
The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women, by Mo Moulton (Basic Books)
The Trial of Lizzie Borden: A True Story, by Cara Robertson (Simon & Schuster)
The Five: The Untold Stories of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
“Turistas,” by Hector Acosta (appearing in ¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Stories to Benefit the People of Puerto Rico)
“Unforgiven,” by Hilary Davidson (appearing in Murder a-Go-Go’s: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Go-Go’s)
“The Red Zone,” by Alex Segura (appearing in ¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Stories to Benefit the People of Puerto Rico)
“Better Days,” by Art Taylor (appearing in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May/June 2019)
“Hard Return,” by Art Taylor (appearing in Crime Travel)
The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods, edited by Michael Bracken (Down & Out Books)
¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Stories to Benefit the People of Puerto Rico, edited by Angel Luis Colón (Down & Out Books)
Crime Travel, edited by Barb Goffman (Wildside Press)
Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons (Wildside Press)
Murder a-Go-Go’s: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Go-Go’s, edited by Holly West (Down & Out Books)
Seven Ways to Get Rid of Harry, by Jen Conley (Down & Out Books)
Catfishing on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer (Tor Teen)
Killing November, by Adriana Mather (Knopf Books for Young Readers)
Patron Saints of Nothing, by Randy Ribay (Kokila)
The Deceivers, by Kristen Simmons (Tor Teen)
Wild and Crooked, by Leah Thomas (Bloomsbury YA)