Saturday, July 4, 2020

Online Author Interviews at Murder by the Book

Scott D. Parker

Sometimes, washing the dishes can lead to a book purchase. Oh, is that just me? Shrug. It still happened.

My wife's a great cook so she prepares most of our meals. Being the team player I am, if she cooks, I clean the dishes. It's never a problem because I'll always plug in the earbuds and listen to a podcast or a few minutes of whatever audiobook that's atop my To Be Listened To list. (Right now: the science fiction/spycraft novel The Bayern Agenda by Dan Moren).

But a little less than two weeks ago, as I moseyed over to the sink to wash up, I checked Facebook. I don't have notifications turned on, so to see what's going on over there, I have to literally tap the app and start swiping.

Right up at the top of my feed was an indication that Houston's Murder by the Book bookstore was live. Like many things online during this Covid-19 pandemic, it was an interview (Zoom meeting) between John McDougall and author J. Todd Scott.

Scott is one of those authors that has circled my radar for a few years. As a DEA agent, many of his assignments have been in west Texas and the American Southwest. More specifically, his books are set in the Big Bend region of Texas, a place I love for its stark beauty.

Seeing the interview was live, I ended up listening while washing the dishes. Scott is in many ways an author like myself. He's got a day job and writes a little bit each morning. But it was something very specific that made sit up and take notice. He mentioned a book he wrote that he liked and submitted to his agent. The agent liked it, but paused. You see, it wasn't really "on brand" for a J. Todd Scott novel. Scott said he marveled at the concept that he actually had a brand. He does.

That got me to thinking about my own brand. But that's a topic for a different post.

I enjoyed the interview so much that I called the store the next day and ordered a copy of Scott's first novel, THE FAR EMPTY. My son picked it up for me a few days later when he visited my dad. I started reading that very night. In only a few pages, I was hooked, making me wonder why it took me so long to get around to reading a J. Todd Scott novel. Dunno. Maybe the timing wasn't perfect.

But if there's a takeaway from today's post, it's this: if you are not following Murder by the Book's Facebook page, change it today. Follow their page and when you do, you'll have access not only to future live author interviews, but all the past ones you might've missed. That incluces the one from J. Todd Scott. (It's a little odd to have an author's last name be the same as my first name.) I couldn't figure out how to snag the actual link, but you can find it on 23 June 2020.

Then be sure to check Murder by the Book's webpage which has the events calendar with almost daily interviews. It's a great resource for all the time we're all spending at home, staying safe, and reading books.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Back to the classics with Beau

This week, Beau Johnson takes a quick look at some classic Neil Smith.

Thursday, July 2, 2020



I’m known to most people for writing The Danny Bird Mysteries, and I’m really proud of those books, which have grown from a thing I didn’t think anyone would care about to a series that has people emailing me to demand the release date for the next one. <Spoiler: I’m still writing it>.

But a while ago, I wrote something different. Something darker. It’s about a man who is – at the very least – a sociopath, and possibly a psychopath.


Clarence is an errand boy-slash-enforcer for a gangster. He transports whatever needs transporting – drugs, money, women – and he does whatever needs doing, up to and including murder.


But Clarence has a habit. A preference. It’s not a weakness exactly, as it’s the one thing in his life he can totally control.


Well, most of the time.


Until one day his life his, work and his pleasures collide in a way you won’t see coming…

“What Goes Around” is published now as a Fahrenzine – a short self-contained story in a simple Zine-style book, limited to 100, hand-numbered copies.


Writing it was a strange experience. I’ve written violence before – I’m a crime writer, it goes with the territory – but to date the books I’ve had published have been told in the first person and through the eyes of Danny Bird, my everyman hero and all-round decent bloke.


So you might have thought that getting into the head of Clarence – a violent, misogynistic sociopath – would be a difficult experience. But I actually found it almost disturbingly easily. Clarence exists in a world where violence is currency, where murder is a business manoeuvre and where people have value only as long as they are of use to the powerful. A world where terror is normalised and where – when people end up dead – everyone simply shrugs, as though to say, ‘Shit happens.’


And that, to be honest, was easy to tune in to. In fact, tuning out of it – retaining my humanity, refusing to believe that some people are worth less than others – has been, for a few years now, the hard thing. If I wanted to know how people who lack empathy, decency and basic humanity look, how they sound, how they feel, I didn’t need to be a writer of fiction; I needed to be a documentarian.


Clarence is a self-centred torturer, a murderer and a rapist. I didn’t need to create him; I needed to switch on the TV and watch the people who lead the nations I once viewed as bastions of messy but vibrant civilised democracies leading their people into the darkness. They – and the columnists, Talking Heads and Twitter Trolls the world is awash with - gave me all the material I needed.


My work began when I dug a little deeper and tried to understand why Clarence was the way he was. It’s a short piece, and a pacy crime story rather than a psychological study, so there’s little room to expand on his background, but there’s one line – early in the piece – that I think explains a lot. For me, Clarence is what happens when people who have been made to feel small and helpless grow up and are given power.


And what happens to Clarence is - well, what happens to Clarence is something you’ll have to discover by reading “What Goes Around.” There are 100 copies of the book  and when they’re gone, they’re gone. No reprints.

Buy "WHAT GOES AROUND" Direct from the publisher HERE.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Joan of Arc and the Black Marshall of Oklahoma

Though it first aired on HBO late last year, I'm just now going through the series Watchmen.  I'm eight of nine episodes in and looking forward to the season finale.  After reading and hearing such positive things about it, I have not in the least been disappointed. It's exciting and trippy and it's thought-provoking in the best way.  And in how it explores, among other things, the history of racial strife in the United States, and ongoing racial conflict, and the determined intransigence of white supremacists, it is perfectly in sync with what is happening right now in this country.

Any series that opens with a depiction of the 1921 Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma has guts.  That event I knew of before watching the show, even though it's not something I learned of till well into my adult years.  I certainly never heard a whiff about the "Black Wall Street" or its destruction while in school.  The opening episode also presents us with old West black marshall Bass Reeves, and he is someone I did not know at all previously.  Since Watchmen mixes real history with alternate history, I thought Reeves might be a fictional character.  Now as it turns out, Reeves is of course an actual historical figure, the "Black Marshall of Oklahoma", the first black deputy US Marshal west of the Mississippi River, born into slavery in 1838 and who later worked for 32 years as a federal officer.  Basic Wikipedia research turns up startling facts: that when he retired in 1907, Reeves supposedly had made over 3,000 arrests, shot and killed 14 outlaws, and once had to arrest his own son for the murder of his son's wife.  I learned, too, that I had come across references to Reeves earlier; in season 3 episode 2 of Justified, two US Marshals bring Reeves up when discussing their favorite US Marshals of all time.  I didn't recognize his name at the time, and when watching Watchmen, failed to recall the reference.

You look up Reeves online, and the word "legendary" keeps popping up.  "Hero" does as well - "frontier hero".  It's not surprising to see these words, and they are standard ways to describe a person who lived such a noteworthy life. But these words, when you think about it, serve to describe nothing specific and tell you nothing you'd truly want to know about Reeves himself.  Reading those stock words somehow reminded me of a review I once read of French film director Jacques Rivette's film about Joan of Arc: Joan the Maid (Jeanne la pucelle), from 1994.  There have been numerous movies about Joan, not least being Carl Dreyer's great silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, but the Rivette film, as the review I'm talking about pointed out (I don't remember who wrote the review), stands out in part because it explores and foregrounds a basic question about Joan that other depictions of her don't, at least not as much.  How exactly, on a basic day to day level if you will, did an illiterate, peasant teenage girl wind up leading the armies of France, let alone successfully?  If you tell this story in a "realistic" manner, its strangeness becomes even more pronounced.  Rivette's film is six hours long so he has the time to give layer after layer of detail, and he brings Joan to life in what you might call a down to earth way.  The approach is not to portray a "legend", but a fully dimensional flesh and blood person who accomplished exceptional things. That's an approach to historical depiction that I prefer and find most illuminating, and I'd love to see a film or series about Bass Reeves that does it this way.  

Joan of Arc and Bass Reeves. On the surface, they have nothing in common.  They are entirely different personalities.  But when I read about Reeves, the "facts" of his life -- born a slave, man who escaped his slaveowner and lived for years among the Cherokee, Creeks, and Seminoles, who then worked for over three decades in the "Indian Territories" as a deputy US Marshall, who was actually appointed to that post by James Fagan, a former Confederate General who President Ulysses S. Grant made US Marshall in 1875 -- I find myself eager to know in as unglamorous and anti-heroic a way as possible what this person's life was like.  The story needs no embellishment because it's unusual as is.  How did an illiterate peasant girl wind up leading the armies of France? Good question.  And what kind of people skills and personality did Bass Reeves have that he could thrive and have the respect of his peers (white as well as black) in such a way back in the post Civil War US?  Did he laugh frequently?  What kind of temper did he have? How did he deal with insults?  Racial insults.  Depending on the type of white person he was dealing with, how did he conduct himself?  Did he disarm sometimes through the use of jokes or was he a stern and forbidding lawman?  Did he, as we now call it, code switch when he got away from white people and was hanging out with black friends or acquaintances?  What was he like when dealing with Native Americans, which he must have, often.

I don't want to know about Bass Reeves the legend or hero but about Bass Reeves the human doing his job and living his life.  In a series or film or any sort of depiction, that would be fascinating enough for me.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Of Course It's Palm Beach County

Palm Beach County, Florida is back in the news —and not for its beautiful beaches or its business or even its baseball spring training camps. No, it’s in the news because it’s crazy. Again.
A county commission meeting on Tuesday went viral after a series of speakers protested the commission’s decision to make face masks mandatory. Some were calm and reasoned. Some were the opposite. Name-checked by the second group at various points were: God, the devil, 5G technology, Bill Gates, the Constitution, psych wards, pedophiles, and high school drama queens. (I was hope someone would give a shout-out to alligators. No such luck.)
I used to work and live in Palm Beach County. My first job after college was reporting for the newspaper in Boca Raton. Yes, that Boca. It’s the southernmost city in Palm Beach County, on the state’s Atlantic Coast about an hour north of Miami. The county stretches from the ocean beaches east to the edge of the Everglades and the shore of Lake Okeechobee. It has rural poverty and one of the richest and most exclusive enclaves in the world.
And man, was it a great place for news. The crime was weird and the politics were weirder. It just seems to be a nexus for the bizarre.

I covered a contract killing attempt with a high-powered rifle at a busy intersection; accusations of matzo price gouging; and the theft of one of the Aston Martin DB5 sports cars used in the James Bond movie Goldfinger (the guns did come up out of the fenders but weren’t operational).
I sat in a city council meeting and listened to the mayor tell a property developer that she was sick of pink buildings (“Boca pink” is very much a thing), and she’d be much more inclined to vote for his proposal if he agreed to paint it a different color. The developer, not stupid, immediately agreed. I listened to heated meetings about airport expansion, crosswalk placement, and traffic problems caused by Snowbirds, the New Yorkers who spend their winters in Florida.
I covered an encephalitis scare out on the fringes of the Everglades where people couldn’t avoid the mosquitoes because they lived in mobile homes with no air conditioning and wide open windows. I met a tuxedoed Roger Moore while writing a story on an international film festival held at a (pink) luxury resort. 
And I covered the race for county sheriff and various events throughout the county, including one in Palm Beach. That Palm Beach. The Town of Palm Beach sits across the Intracoastal Waterway from the city of West Palm Beach. It’s a strip of land bordered by the Waterway on one side and the Atlantic on the other. It’s no more than three-quarters of a mile at its widest point. This is pertinent, trust me. At this candidate forum, a man in a cravat (I am not making this up) asked the candidates at a sheriff’s campaign forum if the town could issue IDs to domestic workers so it could let only them over the bridge and into town, instead of having to allow everybody in. (The candidates, stuttering in dismay, explained that no, that wasn’t possible—seeing as all the roadways in the Town of Palm Beach are public and open to everyone.)
I left there in the late 1990s, before the weird that had just been local burst onto the national stage. Perhaps you remember hanging chads? Those were the pesky messed-up ballots in what became the critical county in the critical state during the 2000 presidential election. No one I’ve ever spoken with who lived or worked there was surprised that such absurdity came out of Palm Beach County.
As for this anti-mask blowup, I’m sadly sure this is happening all over the country. Palm Beach County certainly isn’t the only place where some residents don’t believe in science. But it was the one that went viral. Because no place has that touch of crazy fairy dust like Palm Beach County does.
Further weird resources, highly recommended:
The @FloridaMan_ Twitter account, with as always the request that readers check out the source material for accuracy.