Saturday, October 15, 2022

My First Visit to Tinker’s Cove Will Not Be the Last

By

Scott D. Parker

The books of Leslie Meier first popped onto my radar in 2020 when John McDougall of Murder by the Book here in Houston binge read them. But I didn’t read any. Last fall when I searched for a mystery to read during the Halloween season, I saw her name again. Didn’t bite. Even when John selected Easter Bunny Murder earlier this year as part of Murder by the Book’s excellent subscription service [There are 3 options; have a look], I still didn’t start a Meier book.

But I have now.

I’m a seasonal reader. When it’s summer, I want a summer-type book. Ditto for the holidays, so when September rolled around, I got to think “I bet Leslie Meier has a Labor Day book.” Well, she doesn’t, but she’s got the next best thing as illustrated by the title: Back to School Murder.

A Great Marketing Hook


Starting in 1991 (!) with Mistletoe Murder, nearly every book in the Lucy Stone series revolves around a holiday. Chances are pretty good that you could go through and entire year’s worth of holidays and there’d be a Lucy Stone mystery ready for you. It’s a great marketing strategy and I wonder if Meier had that in mind from the jump or if it was an organic process.

A Delightfully Real Protagonist


Lucy Stone is her amateur detective, but that’s not all she is. In Back to School Murder—published in 1997, it’s the fourth book in the series—she is a forty-year-old woman, wife, and mother of four kids whose ages range from younger high school to toddler. Her husband, Bill, is a carpenter who specializes in restorations.

As the story opens, Lucy is filling in (for a friend who is helping her mom with chemo) as a reporter for The Pennysaver, a weekly publication for the small town of Tinker’s Cove. Up until the reporter gig, she is a stay-at-home mom who finds herself at a crossroad of life: is being a mom and wife all there is? The reporter job gives her a glimpse of a life beyond the home and one she puts to good use when a bomb goes off in the school.

Yeah, I’ll admit that for a book published in 1991, a bomb in a school struck close to home as I was reading in 2022. But the bomb was only a part of the story. It turns out that one of the teachers, Carol Crane, is seen rescuing a handicapped boy who somehow was not evacuated with the rest of the children. And it’s just in time, for no sooner did all the bystanders see Carol running out of the building that the windows are shattered.

Imagine Lucy’s surprise, however, when a few days later—and after a contentious school board meeting in which Carol stepped on a few toes—the news comes in that Carol was murdered in her bed. Now, Lucy the reporter starts to work on the tribute for the paper…and things don’t add up.

A Murder in the Middle of Real Life


Well, like every good amateur sleuth, Lucy starts to look for more information, sifting through new clues, trying to find out more about Carol and her past. But here’s a key aspect of this book: Lucy does all of this around her real life. There were chunks of this book where Meier just followed Lucy in her night school class or dealing with sick children, the mystery not even top of Lucy’s mind.

Turns out, I rather enjoyed that aspect of the story. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Lucy Stone is a fun protagonist, a real person, not some super detective or stalwart police officer. She does what most of us would like to think we’d do: keep asking questions. Partly it’s to protect her community, but it’s also to find the truth. I liked it when she was just a mom taking care of the kids. I liked it when she gossiped with her friends. I liked it when real life interfered with her tracking down the killer.

In fact, I liked this story so much that I’m already looking for the next holiday so I can return to Tinker’s Cove. And with 28 books, I’ll have many happy visits.

Funny History Realization


As an aside, I had to laugh when Lucy’s editor hand carried a floppy disk to the printers so the weekly issue of the Pennysaver could be published. What mad me laugh was my own realization of just how far we’ve come since 1991. When I read a book from the 1940s, for examples, I intrinsically know that there are no cellphones or internet or computers. But somehow, with the somewhat modern setting of this 1991 mystery, I had forgotten that the internet barely existed in that year. And yeah, you couldn’t just email a file to the printer.

My how times have changed. 

Cozy College

It's been awhile since I wrote about my enrollment in Cozy College. Start here, then keep going here.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

See how they burn

 


Pre-order your copy of OLD MAN RIDER

“With glorious, unapologetic brutality, Old Man Rider tells, through several vivid vignettes, of Bishop Rider’s exploits. Woven in are elements of his humanity, as well as his motivation. Johnson provides a well-written, thoughtful book of revenge, glorious bloody revenge. I found it utterly delightful and want more more more.” —Shannon Kirk, author of Gretchen

“Johnson’s the kind of writer you let drag you across the broken glass screaming because you know the destination’s going to make it all worth it. Brutal, dark, unflinching—this is a hell of a Rider story.” —Angel Luis Colon, author of 
Hell Chose Me

“Beau Johnson pulls no punches in this final installment of Bishop Rider stories. And rest assured, no one will be spared or saved. Riveting, heartbreaking, and bloody as ever. This collection took a 2x4 to my head—in the best way.” —Curtis Ippolito, author of 
Burying the Newspaper Man

Old Man Rider is flat-out amazing. While many of the stories are quick jabs to the gut or punches to the face, they string together in such perfect combinations that the book is an absolute slugfest. Great, wonderful stuff.” —Steve Weddle, author of Country Hardball

“Beau Johnson writes the kind of fiction your mother warned you about—feel the trauma, smell the flesh, taste the concrete—
Old Man Rider is about to stomp you into oblivion.” —Zachary Ashford, author of When the Cicadas Stop Singing

“Absorbing and devastating, these are miniature morality plays. As if the angel of death was descending each level of hell, punishing the most evil people in the world. Bishop Rider books are an unapologetic fistful of concrete to the face.” —Manny Torres, author of 
Dead Dogs and Father Was a Rat King

“It’s said that ‘You eat the world or the world eats you.’ This theme is (re)introduced early and carried through this last installment of Bishop Rider’s story. Short, sharp stories delivering Rider’s signature violent revenge written with prose like a punch to the face. This cycle might be ended for now, but the work? The work is being done. Highly recommended.” —Alan Baxter, author of 
The Gulp and Shallow Bend

“Forget Dirty Harry and The Punisher. Step aside, too, Old Man Logan—there’s a new surly old cuss who’s the best there is at what he does, and what he does isn’t very nice. 
Old Man Rider is a tough, vicious, violent, mean ol’ SOB, and Johnson’s writing is as dark, brutal, and twisted as ever. Beau’s saved the best for last, and these final stories in the life of Bishop Rider are a full-fledged assault upon the reader. I wouldn’t expect anything less, and I certainly wouldn’t have it any other way.” —Michael Patrick Hicks, author of Friday Night Massacre


Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Reading to be Scared

Anytime you pick up a horror tale, short story or a novel, you are presumably reading to be scared.  And since it is Halloween season, I was doing some thinking recently about the horror stories I've read and found the most frightening.  Some of a story's effect depends on where you read it, naturally; it's harder to be frightened reading a novel on the subway (unless there's something happening on the subway that is itself frightening, always a possibility) than it is, say, alone at night in an empty house or apartment.  But if you do enjoy being scared while reading, you will go out of your way, when possible and when the mood suits you, to read in a place or at a time that will be conducive to maximum tension in your reading experience.


Thinking back over many years, I can't think of a book that scared me more than Pet Sematary, and while the book is frightening in its own right, part of the experience had to do with where I read it.  This was quite a while ago, when I was taking what turned out to be a seven-month trip through Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala.  At this point in the trip, I had rented a small house, a very simple house, in the town of San Pedro along Lake Atitlan, an absolutely beautiful spot.  Here for about a month and a half I lived by myself, in relative isolation, with the main part of the town a fifteen minute walk away, woods immediately around me, and nobody else living nearby.  There was a small general goods store not far from the house, but that was closed at night and the woman who ran it lived in town.  The house's owner, who I'd rented it from, came to visit me every morning with fresh bottled milk, but he never swung by at night and he lived in town also.  I'd decided to stay here for a while in the midst of this trip to relax instead of moving around. In long hand, I got plenty of writing done. I'd been reading a lot on the trip as one does while traveling, but here I had a chance to just sink into a few things without any distractions at all. I remember calling my house and asking my mother if she could mail me down a few books I'd had on ice, so to speak, for years, waiting for the right time to read them.  I can't remember all the books I asked her to send me, but I know that two of them were Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and Pet Sematary.  They came fast enough to the post office across the lake in the town of Panajachel, and sometime after that, figuring I had the perfect setting, alone, far off from others, in semi-woods, in a house surrounded by utter quiet at night, I started to read King's novel.


Mission accomplished. I'd gone out of my way to read the book in a place (and I did limit myself to reading the book at night there), that would make the reading as scary as possible, and the book delivered. For the few nights I took to read it, I'd close the book after a couple of hours, turn out my light, and then lay in that utter silence and darkness trying to get to sleep. I'd be eager to fall asleep, though it wasn't easy to do that, so I could wake up to sunshine and the return of general human activity.  And all day, until I finished it, I'd be thinking about the novel, looking forward to a night of intense reading ahead. It's a great horror novel, Pet Sematary, and I couldn't have had a more thoroughly enjoyable scary time reading it. 

What would you say is the best horror reading experience, all things considered -- the book, where you read it, what was going on in your life -- that you've had?


Sunday, October 9, 2022

Nostalgia? Only If It's Noir

 

I’m pleased to welcome back Niall Howell today, who first guested when his debut novel, the excellent Only Pretty Damned, came out. He’s back now with There Are Wolves Here Too and he’s here to talk about the time period (the ’90s!), and give us one of the best descriptions of noir I’ve ever read. Take it away, Niall—

When I was a kid, my friend’s dad kept this really tacky poster up in their basement. It was one of those plaque-mounted things you’d see in kitschy 50s-style diners: an ensemble scene of a young Elvis and a Marlon Brando playing billiards while Marilyn Monroe looks on from a nearby booth enjoying cocktail. A broody James Dean stands in the corner by himself, regarding the others over his shoulder with sleepy eyes. Airbrushed. Matte sheen. It looked like it was done by a paint-by-numbers sort of artist. I was probably around five or six the first time I saw the poster. Sometimes it would be moved to a different wall, but I can’t remember a time it wasn’t up at my friend’s place.

At the time, I didn’t know the scene depicted was totally fake. For a number of my childhood years, I actually thought that this sort of gathering was common in 1950s, that if I were to walk into a diner at that time I might actually see this group of people together, chalking their pool cues, drinking their drinks, brooding. I knew nothing then of the dishonest glimmer of nostalgia, of the ways that our culture loves to use creative license to cherry-pick the brightest characteristics of bygone eras—the icons, the fashion, the glamour—and cast anything that might have detracted from that coolness aside. Naturally, Joseph McCarthy is nowhere to be seen in this fantasy diner scene. He can’t be spotted peering in through the diner window looking for blacklist candidates. In the sliver of parking lot we can scope from inside, James Dean’s death car is nowhere to be seen either. Ditto for Mr. Presley’s and Ms. Monroe’s prescription bottles. And there’s no sign on the diner door indicating which “type” of patrons are allowed in and which aren’t. If the subjects of the poster are any indication, the 1950s must have been great.

For the longest time, most of my perception of past eras had this sort of deceptive glimmer to it. If it didn’t come from my friend’s house (his dad not only had a lot of this tacky 50s paraphernalia, but was also an Elvis freak; every room had a painting of the King in it, and—fun fact—at least one of those paintings was legitimately haunted), it came from my own home. My own dad was and is an obsessive record collector with a strong bias to all things 1960s, and my mom has always collected antiques, which meant my sisters and I spent a lot of time roaming mall-sized antique palaces during many family trips, much to the chagrin of the owners of said palaces, who posted signs about buying what your kid broke and threatening that unattended children would be sold to the circus. My being bombarded with the carefully curated beauty of past led my young self to believe the almighty back then was great. As far as I knew, by being born in 1985 I’d missed a decades-long stretch of glory days by about fifteen years. What luck.

I’ve had nostalgia on the brain a lot over the past few years. While writing my second novel There Are Wolves Here Too, a coming-of-age noir story set in 1997, I found myself, a child who did the bulk of my coming-of-age in the nineties, thinking about my own good old days. About how, when compared to earlier decades, they didn’t seem all that good. The nineties lacked the shine of the decades before it. There was no shortage of neon, mind you. But the shine? Pretty much non-existent. I have many great memories from that time, but there’s really nothing about the decade that makes me want to book a trip in my neighbourhood time machine. Recently, I’ve come to wonder where this perceived lack of shine came from. Did it have to do with the fact that I was alive during the era I was trying to capture on the page? Did the nineties actually suck? Were they any worse than any previous decade? Or do all decades need to spend a predetermined amount of years in the barrel before being extracted and enjoyed for cask-strength nostalgic goodness?

When I revisited my memories of the decade during my writing, I found myself recalling cringy fashion—baggy everything, frosted tips, pants that had pockets inside of other pockets—plenty of vapid music (not all of it, but commercial radio and music TV stations were populated by boybands, cheesy pop-rock, and electro-pop), and the commodification of everything. You could put a price tag on pretty much anything, call it a collectible, and the masses would come in droves. For proof of this, look no further than Pog and Beanie Babies, both of which had stores dedicated to them at the mall by my childhood home.

The more I think about it, though, the more I wonder if it was the undesirable and cringe-inducing qualities of the era that made me want to write about it. My wheelhouse is noir. I won’t protest anyone saying I write crime novels or thrillers, but if I get any say as to what my writing is, I’ll tell you before anything else it’s noir. Here’s a genre that focuses on exploring the worst of human emotion. Greed, jealousy, desperation. It’s a genre without any true good guys, stories of people who are just different gradients of grey. It’s bleak and often miserable, and any redemption comes at a steep price. It’s a genre that’s often set in locales that have a superficial glamour to them. Often we find in noir a protagonist who is either forced or compelled to get beneath the shiny facade and operate in what is tiredly referred to as the seedy underbelly. Usually we come to learn that this underbelly is the real foundation of said locale. 

You probably see where I’m going with this. Noir has an underlying desire to corrupt its characters and its setting. It’s the corruption or tainting of a beautiful space. I wanted to write about this. But in the case of my story, the beauty wasn’t a city with a promise like Chandler’s Los Angeles, rather the thing facing corruption was my protagonist’s blissful naivety, that pure kind that you can only have as a child.

My story’s protagonist is a thirteen-year-old boy named Robin who is one of the last people to see his classmate’s sister before she goes missing. The young girl’s disappearance sends a ripple through his small city of Haddington Springs, Alberta, causing long buried secrets to seep to the surface. Young Robin, moving from childhood into adolescence, is forced to confront dark truths about his world and himself. It's hard to pinpoint where ideas come from, but I think the seed of it came from the desire to write a story where something that seemed pure faced the threat of corruption. From there, the natural progression seemed to be setting the story in the era I grew up in.

Sure, a lot of the decade makes me roll my eyes for so many reasons, but the more I think about it, the more I realize most of these reasons are superficial. I was a kid then, so my understanding of the world was a superficial one. And despite my viewing of the decade as being by-and-large vapid where it counts, there are things I miss. I’d love to live in a world without smart phones, and I can’t tell you how much I miss renting a stack of VHS tapes from a video store on a Friday night with my friends. So yeah, it was a good time. Which is exactly what sets my noir sense off. Corrupt! Corrupt!

I was recently asked if I planned on setting future novels in the past. The short answer is yes. Between There Are Wolves Here Too and my first novel, Only Pretty Damned, which is set in a circus during the early 50s, I’ve come to realize how much I enjoy looking back. I think proximity offers a certain perspective that I can’t apply to the present day. And it’s easier to spot the false shine from a distance.

 

Niall Howell was born and raised in Calgary, where he still resides. His short fiction has been published in The Feathertale Review and FreeFall and he holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Mount Royal University, and a Bachelor of Education from the University of Calgary. He enjoys playing bass, and obsessively collects records and comics.

You can buy There Are Wolves Here Too on IndieBound or Amazon.