Wednesday, December 05, 2018

"The Santa Claus Murders" by Ed Gorman


A Christmas novella featuring Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain, originally published in Crooks, Crimes and Christmas (Worldwide, 2003) and, as far as I know, currently out-of-print.
Sam McCain’s only reason to attend a high school reunion / Christmas party is a hope there will be attractive, available, attentive former female classmates. The party is at the home of the wildly wealthy Don Lillis, who inherited the house and a steel mill from his father. On his arrival, Sam finds the usual clustering of people. The wealthy and upwardly mobile, the weirdoes, the blue-collar-types, all congregating in their respective groups. Sam has the uncanny ability to move from group to group, but he doesn’t quite belong to any of them. 
The party turns bad when Bob Nugent, the class drunk, is found in the guest room with a knife in his throat. Bob Nugent was the kid everyone expected to succeed. In school, Bob worked hard, was kind, friendly and the teachers loved him. He was, to Sam’s thinking, a brownnose of the first order. But something went wrong for Bob during his college years and he started drinking. The party screeches to a halt when Bob’s body is found and the unlikable and incompetent Sheriff Cliff Sykes, Jr is called to investigate. Cliffie, as he is called behind his back, makes all the wrong assumptions and McCain decides to solve the mystery on his own for two reasons: to make Sykes look the clown, and to make sure the right person is brought to justice.
“The Santa Claus Murders” is Sam McCain at his best. He is young, endowed with the wisdom of a much older man, intelligent and savvy at why people do what they do, and cynical with a perfectly complimented amount of optimism. He is a kid that doesn’t quite fit a category—he grew up in the poor section of town, but he is a college graduate with his own small law practice. He is an ideal Ed Gorman character: intelligent, cynical, tough, realistic, and yet hopeful and wistful at the same time.
The mystery is perfectly executed. The killer is revealed only moments after the reader figures it out. The supporting cast is top-notch. Cliffie Sykes is his usual gruff and annoying self. The Judge is kind and vindictive in a swift, judgmental and condescending manner. And everyone else plays their parts perfectly.

Monday, November 26, 2018

SPLIT IMAGE by Ron Faust


Split Image is best read cold, and this review is loaded with spoilers. Read ahead at your own peril and rest assured it is fantastic. But if you insist…
“It occurred to me—and this was my first conscious thought upon ‘awakening’—that the crows did not object to the carnage. Of course not. They were scavengers and were impatiently waiting their opportunity. Even so, I could not entirely dispel the notion that they were judging me—small black magistrates, feathery clerics.”
The idea is Andrew Neville’s; a failed playwright, three early critical successes and nothing since, making his living as an editor of a corporate newsletter. On a whim he travels to the woods of northern Wisconsin to the primitive hunting cabin of a friend. It is autumn, and deer are in season. He takes an old bow and its matching arrows from the cabin. He doesn’t expect a kill, but when a buck cuts his trail a lusty greed overtakes him. The deer is wounded, and while tracking it Andrew comes to a man cleaning a buck.  
Andrew believes the deer is his, but the man calmly and reasonably claims it. The two have a cold exchange of words; at the end Andrew kills the other. He doesn’t remember the actual killing, but Andrew knows he did. He cleans up the cabin, disposes of the clothing and other evidence and returns to Chicago. A few days later he learns the man’s identity, and realizes, for the first time, he once knew the man. They were in the same theater company, and while Andrew failed as a writer his victim found significant success in Hollywood.
Andrew, after meeting his victim’s widow at the funeral, calculatingly insinuates himself into the dead man’s life. He moves into the boat house on his wooded estate, wears his clothes, befriends his only child, and smoothly woos his wife. The only hold up is a despicable man named Roland Scheiss—
“‘Scheiss means ‘shit’ in German, doesn’t it?’”
—hired by the murdered man’s parents to prove his widow, and by extension, Andrew Neville killed him. Scheiss is loathsome. He is filthy, crude, and corrupt. His game is blackmail, and he begins calling Andrew at odd moments of the night threatening, cajoling, taunting. Andrew remains calm, but his sanity begins to unravel; he converses with his victim in the dark hours, and small meaningless events begin to weigh heavily, and finally his narrative turns suspect; is the tale truly as it is being told, or is the reader being deceived?
Split Image is a fine novel. It is dark, riveting, and curious. It is as much literature as commercial. It weaves an enticing mixture of Edgar Allan Poe—think “The Tell-Tale Heart”—Alfred Hitchcock, and a 1950’s Gold Medal novel. Andrew Neville is a cold, almost empty narrator, who is as interesting, and enigmatic as any character in popular literature. The prose is sparse, poetic and meaningful. It is also satisfying, thought-provoking, and damn good.
Split Image is Ron Faust’s tenth published novel. It was published in 1997 by Forge as a hardcover. It is currently available as a trade paperback and ebook from Turner Publishing.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "The Warsaw Document"

The Warsaw Document, by Adam Hall, was published as a hardcover by William Heineman Ltd in 1971, but the edition that caught my eye was the paperback edition published by Fontana in 1978. The cover is cold war perfect with a Mercedes—the choice of every good spy—running a barricade. The artist: Tony Roberts


The first paragraph:
There would be no warning, I knew that.
The Warsaw Document, is the fourth (of 19) novels featuring British spy Quiller. The Quiller books were published as by Adam Hall, which was a pseudonym for Elleston Trevor.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

JIMI AFTER DARK by Stephen Mertz


Jimi After Dark is the second novel in what I think of as Stephen Mertz’s musical mystery series, which isn’t an accurate moniker since the books are as much about the time and place of the tales’ setting as they are about the music and musicians. The first, Hank & Muddy (2011), was set in the 1950s and featured Hank Williams and Muddy Waters. Jimi After Dark is a 1960s novel set in 1970 London, near the end of Jimi Hendrix’s too-short life. Its genesis, as Mr. Mertz explains in his Afterword, is Jimi’s mostly disbelieved kidnapping claim by armed thugs and his ultimate rescue by other armed men.
From the start, Jimi is in trouble, legal trouble with his former manager Mike Jeffrey and another, more violent, trouble with more than one unknown source that may, or may not be related to the Kray Brothers—the East End crime syndicate brothers in prison when the story begins—and the Central Intelligence Agency. Jimi calls on his old Army buddy, unnamed in the story and simply called Soldier, for help. Soldier is fresh from his second tour in Vietnam with a tendency towards violence and a strong sense of duty and loyalty, which acts as an effective literary foil for Jimi’s hippie and gangster filled world.  
Jimi After Dark is an action crime novel with nicely executed action scenes, a few twists, and big ideas: friendship, loyalty, betrayal—the unexpected betrayal of friends and lovers and the more expected betrayal from governments—duty, honor, and the relationship between music and culture. The 1960’s culture war is dissected, Jimi on one side and Soldier on the other, wrapped inside a well-told, exciting story with the cleanest, strongest prose in the business. Jimi After Dark is Stephen Mertz’s best novel, and it should be on everyone’s reading list.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

COME OUT TONIGHT by Richard Laymon

Richard Laymon is a legend in the horror genre. His work is brutal, violent and, at times, almost pornographic. His novel Come Out Tonight is no exception. It is the story of Sherry Gates and her scrape with a demented underage serial killer.
The novel opens with Sherry sending her boyfriend, Duane, to a local convenience store for condoms. When he doesn’t return she gets nervous and goes out looking for him. She finds Duane’s van, but she doesn’t find him. This sparks an all-night search, a chance meeting with a helpful older man and an encounter with two charmingly innocent teenage boys. And, somewhere in between, she is kidnapped, beaten, and raped. The plot takes a number of surprising turns. And in the end, it becomes difficult to tell the good guys from the bad.
Come Out Tonight opens with a bang. The prose is quick and sharp. The story is interesting and the characters are fun, even if a little familiar to anyone who has read Richard Laymon’s work. It is dialogue rich, and a very quick read. Unfortunately, like many of Laymon’s novels, it lacks a certain amount of believability. It is difficult to ignore the glaring fact that all of this pain, fear and horror could be escaped by simply picking up the telephone and dialing three numbers: 9-1-1.
While the characters motives are suspect, and not adequately explained, this is still a fun novel. The reader just has to ignore the obvious holes in the plot, and the fact that Laymon’s characters never make the right decision. They always run down the wrong corridor, or choose the wrong road, or alley. They are innocent, or ignorant, of their true situations, and they always think they can handle it. They never, when it is available, ask for help. And, of course, their actions always lead them into deeper, darker and more frightening places.
Fortunately, it isn’t very difficult to ignore the novel’s weaknesses. Richard Laymon can weave a damn good story and make you want to ignore the blemishes. He does it with a sturdy understanding of the tale and its impact on the audience. He tightens the suspense like a noose around the reader’s neck. He makes you want to believe the tale. It is very much like a campfire story. You know it is not real, and could never be real, but somehow it still enthralls and even scares you.
The action is violent and stuffed with sex—most of the novel is filled with sexual torture, but somehow, as written by Laymon it is less disturbing and nasty than it could be; perhaps because it is seemingly written through the eyes of a thirteen year-old boy. It is more fantasy than reality. And that fantasy is somehow innocent and almost coy.
Come Out Tonight is not for everyone. If you are offended by violence, sex, or just about anything else, avoid this book. If, on the other hand, you like a little heady action and quick-shot violence you just might like this offering. Be careful and don’t take it too seriously, or we all may have to question both our sensibilities and our sanity.

Friday, October 26, 2018

MIA HUNTER: L.A. GANG WAR by Stephen Mertz

A three-man strike force accustomed to rescuing prisoners of war in the jungles of Vietnam is stateside on a rogue mission in Los Angeles. Mark Stone, known as the MIA Hunter, is asked by an old war buddy, now a deputy chief with LAPD, to help rescue Rick Chavez from a Colombian drug cartel. Chavez is a Pulitzer award winning journalist who has been writing a series of hard and insightful articles about the drug trade in L. A. The articles have enough detail that the LAPD and the drug gangs—Crips, Bloods and their Colombian suppliers—want to know where his information is coming from.
When Stone and his team arrive on scene, Chavez is being held prisoner in a palatial home in San Clemente; a few doors down from Richard Nixon's house. It takes the team only a few minutes, several hundred rounds of 9mm lead slung by MAC 10s, some smart one liners, and a close call or three, to pull Chavez out of the house. But this is the beginning for the MIA team because as the team is exfiltrating from the firefight, Stone sees a familiar face. A face that belongs to a man who tried to kill Mark Stone in Vietnam.
MIA Hunter: L. A. Gang War—the thirteenth entry in the series—is an entertaining example of the men’s adventure mania of the 1980s. Originally published in 1990 (an honorary member of the 1980s), it is a time capsule of the era, capturing society’s anxiety with an escalating war on drugs, violent street gangs spreading the poison and in the process claiming entire neighborhoods, all in the shadow of America's defeat in Vietnam. It is non-stop action, accented with betrayal, revenge, and the MIA team’s seeming endless supply of bravado and super hero combat skills. There is also a touch of humor, if you look closely, and even a big idea or two. L. A. Gang War is a top-notch example of both the series and the genre.



Monday, October 22, 2018

DEATH OF A CITIZEN by Donald Hamilton

Matt Helm is a solid citizen. He is married with three children. He makes a living writing popular novels (western’s mostly), and lives with his family in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His picture perfect American dream is mangled when Tina, an operative he briefly worked with in Europe during World War II, walks through the front entrance of a cocktail party. She passes an old signal to Matt—“I’ll get in touch with you later. Stand by”—and in an instant (and without much fuss) Matt’s idyllic existence shatters.
Death of a Citizen is the first (of 27) Matt Helm novels, and it is absolutely terrific. In the opening sequence Helm is an everyman; likable and stable with a pretty wife and a family, but it only takes a few hours for his old habits to take over. It starts with a dead woman in his writing room, and then a confrontation with Tina who, after some convincing from Matt, weaves a fantastic story about a Soviet agent hunting a nuclear scientist working for the Atomic Energy Commission at Los Alamos.
The action is convincing, the prose is smooth and cool—
“Suddenly I was feeling fine. You can stay tense only so long. I was over the hump. I was driving ten miles out of the way, with a corpse in the bed of the truck, just to take a worthless alley cat home.”
And the plot is as tight and smooth as a guy wire. There is more than the usual backstory about Helm’s World War II exploits, and post war life, but it is done without interrupting the forward momentum of the plot. Even better, Mac—the leader of the “organization” Matt worked for, and is once again working for—makes an appearance in the field, and Helm’s doubt and operational rust give him an element of believability. 
Death of a Citizen is the first of the Matt Helm novels, but it is as convincing, urgent, and well written as any. In a sense it is the primer. It introduces Helm, the organization, and everything it is, which is essentially a kind of counter intelligence wet work squad. It is the cold war on a small field. The best part, the citizen who lost his life (from the title) is Helm himself, and what he gains is a certain freedom, his code name Eric, and an outlet for his violent nature.
Death of a Citizen was originally published by Gold Medal in 1960, and it was recently reissued as a paperback by Titan Books.



Monday, October 01, 2018

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Terror in the Town"



Terror in the Town, by Edward S. Aarons, was published as by Edward Ronns as a hardcover by Armchair Mystery in 1947. The edition that caught my eye was the paperback edition, with Aarons’ own name on the cover, published by Manor Books. The cover is, simply put, cool and I love how the bikini top melts into a dust trail. The artist: Unknown (to me at least).















The opening paragraph:
A pale moon shone on the water, and cold stars danced in the sky. Under the full moon, the tide along the Pelican River raced wide and deep, tumbling toward the sea.
Edward S. Aarons wrote somewhere around 30 novels as by “Edward Ronns”.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

THE AUTHENTIC WILLIAM JAMES by Stephen Gallagher


The Authentic William James is British writer Stephen Gallagher’s third novel featuring Sebastian Becker. Becker is a former Pinkerton detective and current Special Investigator for the Lord Chancellor’s Visitor in Lunacy. His purview is to investigate and apprehend wealthy and dangerous lunatics whose “resources might otherwise make [them] untouchable.”

It is 1913 and Becker is baffled when he is sent to interview William James—the owner of a Wild West Show touring small venues around England. James has been arrested for the arson of an English seaside theatre that caused the death of more than fifty people. A crime without an obvious motive, a criminal, William James, without wealth, and instructions opposite from Becker’s usual. He is to collect information that insures William James cannot be labeled insane during the trial. When James escapes custody Becker is tasked to find him and the manhunt, taking him from London to Philadelphia to a young Hollywood, is more personal and mysterious than anything Becker could have imagined.

The Authentic William James is a brilliant early-twentieth century crime novel brimming with a macabre atmosphere and, as the story shifts to America, a vibrant late-Western setting. Sebastian Becker is a likable character with wit, an admirable sense of right and wrong, and a conscientious view of humanity. A character similar to what the late-Ed Gorman populated his stories with, and his working class demeanor is ideal for both the novel and the reader. The plot is tricky, but precise and believable, with a climactic twist that is both perfect and surprising.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "A Good Place to Hide" and "A Bad Day in the Bahamas"

A Good Place to Hide, by Alan Cullimore, was published as a paperback original by Tor in 1988, which is the very edition that caught my eye. The cover is a coolly 1980s art deco riff with both an inviting and frightening appeal. The artist: Unknown (to me at least).

The opening paragraph:

For the past five weeks Harry Foster had been living in an efficiency apartment in the Sea Drift Motel
A Bad Day in the Bahamas, by Alan Cullimore, was published as a paperback original by Tor in 1989, which is the very edition that caught my eye. The cover, while not nearly as good as that adorning A Good Place to Hide, is vivid in that 1980’s manner with flashing blues, greens and oranges. The artist: Unknown (to me at least).
The opening paragraph:

Harry Foster sat on the most deserted beach, idly pitching pebbles into the clear, calm waters.
As far as I can tell, Alan Cullimore’s oevre is represented by the two novels above. Both were published within a four month period: September 1988 to January 1989. I read the second, A Bad Day in the Bahamas as a teenager and have fond memories reading it across a few summer afternoons.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

KILLING TOWN by Mickey Spillane & Max Allan Collins


Killing Town is the tenth Mike Hammer novel started by Mickey Spillane and completed by Max Allan Collins. In Collins’ Introduction, “Meet Mike Hammer”, Killing Town’s genesis is explained. It’s an early, perhaps the earliest, Mike Hammer story Spillane started—the incomplete manuscript clocked in at 30 typed and single-spaced pages. The story takes place before I, The Jury, making it the first Mike Hammer novel, and a few elements we take for granted when reading a Hammer story are missing. Velda is nowhere in the tale, Manhattan is in Hammer’s rearview mirror, and Pat Chambers is nothing more than a voice on the telephone.
When Hammer arrives in Killington, Rhode Island, undercover and riding the rails as a hobo, he’s greeted with a strip tease and a murder rap. The frame is for the rape and murder of a young woman. The local constabulary, as foul smelling as the city’s fish cannery, is pushing Hammer to the electric chair before he’s even seen a judge. But when an alluring blonde, and the daughter of the fish cannery king, springs him with a false alibi and a marriage proposal he’s left wondering what happened and why.
Killing Town opens, in solid Spillane style, with a flash and a bang and barely wavers from beginning to end. Its trajectory fast and straight as a bullet, rifling Hammer from jailbird and murderer to knight-errant, friend and protector. The mystery is nicely controlled and the reader is as confused about what’s happening, and more importantly why it’s happening, as Hammer. The foul and corrupt setting is as beautifully hardboiled as the prose is stark and lively. An excellent addition to the Hammer canon, and my favorite, of those Ive read, completed posthumously by Max Allan Collins.


Monday, May 21, 2018

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Twister"

Twister, by David Hagberg, was published as a paperback original by Dell in 1975, which is the very edition that caught my eye. The cover is everything I want a cover to be; a burning station wagon—an old-school Ford?—frenzied movement as a tornado curves on to Main Street, and an oddly still man, debating whether he should pick up a shiny new quarter, holding a woman in an orange dress and high heels. The artist: Unknown (to me at least)


The first sentence:
Peter Geiger was fifty-three years old and every bone in his body told him something was drastically wrong.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

THE PEACEMAKER by Andrew McBride


The Peacemaker is a wonderfully written, entertaining, and thought-provoking novel. Calvin Taylor, also known by his unwanted nickname Choctaw, is a teenager--six weeks past his eighteenth birthday--with experience, if not wisdom, far past his years. While moving eastward across the Arizona Territory towards Texas, Taylor is ambushed by a small group of Apache Indians. 
Choctaw escapes with his life when he happens across a small U. S. Army troop escorting a white man, Brennan, and his adopted Apache daughter, Nahlin, on a peace mission from the American President, U. S. Grant, to the great Apache chief, Cochise. Against Taylor's better judgment, sweetened with the prospect of a $300 fee, he agrees to accompany Brennan and Nahlin to the Apache stronghold where Brennan will present Cochise with the peace offering.
The Peacemaker has the feel and pacing, and wonderfully so, of a classic Western film. The story, as the author explains in his Author's Note, is inspired by a 1968 screenplay written by John Starr Niendorff for the television series "High Chaparral". The desert setting has a technicolor vibrancy that captures the landscape's desolation and beauty, heat and dust. The characters, including the Apaches, are believable with recognizable strengths and flaws. Chactow is, at times less than likable, but always understandable. Beautifully written and vivid, The Peacemaker, is a big novel with big ideas that should please both traditional Western and historical readers alike.

I interviewed Andrew a few months ago, and if you’re interested you can read the interview here.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Blissful Silence



I’m in an busy period right now, outrageously so, and as a result the blog has suffered over the past couple weeks. This suffering, in the form of blissful silence, is going continue for another week or so, but once everything has settled down everything will be back to business as normal.
Until then, take it easy and keep reading.

Ben Boulden  

Monday, April 23, 2018

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Listening Woman"

Listening Woman, by Tony Hillerman, was published as a hardcover in 1978 by Harper & Row. The edition that caught my eye is the mass market paperback published by Avon. The cover art has an appealing desert feel, which is appropriate to the novel’s setting. And who can resist a a helicopter and bundles of greenbacks? The artist: Unknown (to me at least)





















The first sentence:
The southwest wind picked up turbulence around the San Francisco Peaks, howled across the emptiness of the Moenkopi plateau, and made a thousand strange sounds in windows of the old Hopi villages at Shongopovi and Second Mesa.

Friday, April 20, 2018

SLAMMER by Allan Guthrie


Nick Glass is a rookie guard in a Scottish prison. He’s been on the job six weeks with bad results. The other guards make trouble for him and he’s not respected by the inmates. At home he has a five year old daughter and a wife. A wife who’s at the tail end of an affair and drinks more than she should. 
To make things worse Nick is approached by one of the inmates and asked to mule drugs inside the prison. The inmate gives Nick a couple options: mule the drugs and make an easy buck, or don’t mule the drugs and his little family gets hurt. Nick is in big trouble because neither choice is worth having, and ultimately both his life and his families lives are in danger. 
Slammer is the sort of novel that creeps up on you in a hurry. It starts hard and strong and never lets go. Glass is a regular guy caught in a nasty and impossible situation. He doesn’t belong in the prison, as a guard or anything else, because he’s a nice guy; weak and fear-filled. Nick, like his surname, is prone to fracture and Guthrie makes sure he does.
Reminiscent of Guthrie’s first novel Two-Way Split, but Slammer displays a higher skill set with a sharper execution. The prose is hardboiled, lean and smart. The dialogue crisp. The atmosphere weighty and oppressive. A fine example of the new noir: a hopeless, distraught and shameless (in a good way) vision of the human condition. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Monocolo"

Monocolo, by Theodore Taylor, was published as a hardcover in 1989 by Donald I. Fine. The edition that caught my eye is the mass market paperback published by St. Martin’s Press in 1991. The cover art has a television movie quality to it with those great early-1990s colors and the showgirl trapped inside a kitchen knifes blade. The artist: Edwin Herder


The first sentence:
Sunday night, January 28, 1979—Epperson “Fingers” Watts, Jr., wide receiver for the Oakland Raiders, was saying, “Now, here’s a good-looking piece of thigh,” as he inserted it into the full-color erotic jigsaw puzzle.
Theodore Taylor is best known for his young adult novels, including The Cay and The Bomb, but he also wrote twelve adult novels, including two mystery novels: The Stalker, and Monocolo.

Friday, April 13, 2018

SAY IT WAS MURDER by Stephen Mertz


Say It Was Murder, by Stephen Mertz, is an innovative and modern vision of the old fashioned private eye novel. McShan—no first name offered—is an operative for a large detective agency. His boss requires daily status reports, gets grumpy when she doesn’t get those reports, and enforces a strict policy to include local law enforcement with any criminal activities uncovered during an investigation. McShan doesn’t wear a fedora and he works globally, rather than being centralized to a specific city or state. But beneath the new-world corporate trappings McShan is an old fashioned, authority shirking knight-errant with more loyalty to his clients than to the law or his employer. 
A loyalty on full display when McShan is sent to Bisbee, a small rural city in deep southeastern Arizona, on what appears to be a simple case. Marna Richards, recently divorced from a tough guy film producer and all around jerk, wants McShan to make sure her daughter, Janine, is safe. Janine has been making time with a local commune-style cult and the relationship worries her mother. A simple case until it skews sideways and becomes something else.
Say It Was Murder is an example of what Stephen Mertz does so well. Take the ordinary—in this case a private eye investigating a cult—and make it original by shaking and twisting until it becomes new and interesting. McShan is likable and honorable. He’s tough enough to get things done and smart enough to keep himself out of trouble. The Arizona setting is painted with stark colors to reveal a vibrant rural landscape and culture. The prose is perfectly simple, its smooth as glass style has the strength of an Arizona thunderstorm. This is Stephen Mertz’s first private eye novel in four decades, and Say It Was Murder marks a fine return to a genre he never should have left.


Monday, April 09, 2018

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "The Man Who Made the Devil Glad"

The Man Who Made the Devil Glad, by Donald McCaig, was published as a hardcover by Crown Publishers in 1986. The edition that caught my eye is the mass market paperback published by St. Martin’s Press in 1987. The cover illustration is—well, take a look. It’s something special with a montage of secret love, car chases, and a tough looking cop who sees everything. The artist: Unknown (to me at least).

The first lines:

When he woke, it was dark except for a dim red light down the corridor. H ached like he’d been run through with a hammer mill.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Interview: Jo Walpole

Jo Walpole published her first novel in 2005—a well-received Western romance she would “prefer to keep…in the past”—and since then Jo has written another eight novels and a short story collection. Her recent work has been in the Western genre, both traditional—“standard [and] non-offensive”—written as by Terry James, and a more violent and graphic variety with her tough-as-nails Maggie O’Bannen series, written as by Joe Slade.

Jo’s work has been well-received by critics and readers alike. The first Maggie O’Bannen novel, Days of Evil, was called “absorbing” with “smooth writing, real characters, and a great story” by novelist Paul Bishop. Her writing has also been hailed as “fun”, “fast moving, hard hitting”, and “unputdownable”.
Jo was kind enough to take a break from her writing and answer a few questions. The questions are italicized, and as always, the answers are so much more important. 
What’s your latest novel?
It’s called Wanted - Dead and is the second in the Maggie O’Bannen series, which I write as Joe Slade for Piccadilly Publishing. It’s available now. The first book was debuted in November 2017 and introduced the reader to Maggie and her band of misfits. It was hard hitting and graphic in its violence, a diversion for me from my other alter ego Terry James who writes more standard, non-offensive westerns. However, the Maggie O’Bannen series is very organic in that Maggie and her relationships with those friends grows and changes to create a stronger story so that in the second book means the graphic descriptions of violence, to quote Western Fiction Review, have been toned down a little. However, there is still plenty of hard hitting bloody action, which will hopefully satisfy readers along with an interesting plot.

I’m always intrigued by the origin of pseudonyms used by writers. Do your pseudonyms—Terry James and Joe Slade—have any special meaning to you?
Terry James is a nod to my husband. Joe Slade happened because I wanted to separate my two writing identities, being that the Maggie O’Bannen books are much grittier than anything I’ve written before. Joe has always been my preferred short version of Joanne and Slade was completely random.
Without breaking any of your personal taboos, would you give us an idea of what you’re working on now?
I’m now working on book 3 in the Maggie O’Bannen series. I love writing the characters and, as I mentioned above, their experiences and circumstances are shaping them, as would happen in life, so I never truly know what’s in store except for the outline of the main plot. It certainly makes life interesting for me.
What was your first published novel? 
Wow, that was a while ago, back in 2005. I published a romance western with Whiskey Creek Press called Raven Dove (very arty). It was a story I’d always wanted to write and I was lucky enough to get it accepted on its first outing. When I look back on it now, it’s very wordy and emotional, something I have tried hard to limit as I have become a more experienced writer and found my genre. It was for a different market and it was well received at the time but I’d prefer to keep it in the past now.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I always wanted to be a writer, even if only in the back of my mind. Until I was about 13 years old, I was focused on becoming a journalist but my circumstances and the resources available to me at that time didn’t fit. I wrote fiction for friends and family until I was about sixteen at which time I met my husband and got distracted. Also, I decided at that time that I didn’t have enough life experience to write what I wanted to, which was bodice rippers. I didn’t start writing anything again until I was thirty-three and that took the form of short stories, poems, haikus, absolutely anything. It was when I stopped working full time and also joined a supportive romance forum that I really dug in.

How do you go about writing?
I think about it a lot. I can’t put two words together until I have a full technicolour picture of the main story elements in my mind. Once that’s set, I sit and write as the mood takes me. Sometimes I write big chunks and other times I write a few sentences. It can be days or weeks between sessions. That I actually finish a book at all is a miracle. I don’t have a specific time for writing but I do prefer first thing in the morning before the day starts to drain my creativity.
Do you have any specific pleasures, or displeasures, that come from writing? 
I love living vicariously through my characters. I hate not being disciplined about the process. However, I feel that if it becomes something I attach rules and timeframes to then the pleasure I get from writing and creating will be spoiled. I’m very lucky to have found a publisher in Piccadilly Publishing who are happy to support me in that. 
Are there any writers that inspired—or continue to inspire—your own writing?
Louis L’Amour, obviously. I grew up reading his books which were always available at the library. Early on I was very influenced by Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodiwiss, both of whom write historical romance novels. The attraction for me there was the depth of characterisation as well as a full story. Thinking about the western genre, I’d include TT Flynn definitely and Ed Gorman, who I read a lot when I wanted to start writing westerns seriously. More recently, I have been influenced by the writings of John Benteen (Sundance and Fargo), Neil Hunter, Ben Bridges and Brent Towns. Brent will laugh at that but I find him very inspirational because I sometimes find it tricky to move characters around locationally and he has a natural way of propelling a story along at a fast pace without neglecting the character, the action or the background.
As a writer and reader, what draws you to the Western genre?
I like the scope of possibilities the Old West offers. It’s a good escape from modern life. As long I get a good fast paced read with no unnecessary padding, a believable plot and characters I can root for, I’m happy.

If you could write anything, without commercial considerations, what would it be?
Happy to say, I already am. The Maggie O’Bannen series is the fulfilment of a desire to get down and dirty and write outside my comfort zone. Luckily for me, Ben Bridges and Mike Stotter of Piccadilly Publishing were willing to take a chance that I could pull it off. So far, I don’t think they’ve been disappointed.
If you were stranded on an island and you had only one book, what would it be?
Easy. It would be Louis L’Amour’s To Tame A Land. I love everything about it. It’s the book I’d like to write. In fact, I’d like to step inside the pages and live it.
If you were allowed only to recommend one of your own novels, or stories, which one would you want people to read?
That depends. If it’s something mainstream (like a John Wayne movie) they’re after, then I’d recommend The Badman’s Daughter under my Terry James pseudonym. If it’s something with teeth then definitely Maggie O’Bannen book 1 Days Of Evil by Joe Slade. I’d hope that either would be a good read.

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