Where Story Ideas Come From: Why Courage?

I didn’t set out to write a book about courage. In fact I was probably on a second or third draft, pestering myself with questions like, “what am I really trying to say?” “why might readers find this book not just entertaining but meaningful?” “do I find it meaningful and why?” i’m not a writer who can dash off several books a year; I have to think about them a while. And thinking about these questions, I finally realized I was missing an easy opportunity to express what it is about, without having to pen a preachy narration.

In the opening pages of my new book, Architect of Courage, Manhattan architect Archer Landis discovers his lover has been murdered. He’s afraid of the fallout if he’s caught in her apartment, and without considering the implications, he delays calling the police. Instead, he hastily returns to the business dinner he’d left not long before, determined to make the call from there. Alas, circumstances prevent it. What had he been thinking?

The dinner is to celebrate the important award one of his best friends is receiving and now he has to sit through it. The friend, Phil Prinz, takes this speaking opportunity to talk about courage. Now, we’ve all been to dinners where the speaker rambles on about some high-flown topic, and we’ve occasionally been pleasantly surprised to hear some nuggets worth remembering. Phil chose a worthy topic, but he’s no orator.

Still he breaks the topic down in an elegant way, describing four kinds of courage (briefly in the novel): physical courage, you know what that is; mental courage, when people dare to think in new ways; emotional courage, when they put their feelings on the line; and moral courage, when they do the right thing simply because it’s right. Landis doesn’t spend a lot of time then or later reflecting on Phil’s remarks—he’s too upset about what happened earlier in the evening. But I hope I’ve planted a seed for readers so they recognize that, despite his early failure, Landis displays all of four types of courage before the story ends. But if all you’re looking for is a lively adventure, there’s that too.

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The Runaway

Fans of award-winning author Nick Petrie’s high-octane action adventures won’t be disappointed in his latest, seventh in the series. The Runaway again features knight-errant Peter Ash, a U.S. Marine no longer serving in the military, who, over the course of these thrillers is gradually learning to manage a debilitating case of PTSD. At the same time, Petrie’s writing shows ever-increasing skill and confidence with no sign of flagging.

The sparsely populated countryside of several Great Plains states—Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska—features heavily in this story. The area has its beauties, but it’s remote. A stranger sticks out. Mostly, there’s not much help around if and when you need it. And he will.

Driving across Nebraska, using one of the back roads he prefers, Ash encounters a small white car parked by the side of the road. Out of gas? Mechanical problem? It’s in Ash’s nature to stop and help—part of his atonement for Iraq and Afghanistan—but it seems no one is around. Then a heavily pregnant woman emerges from behind a cottonwood tree.

Helene is terrified and trying to escape her husband, but the car she’s appropriated broke down. Husband Roy is a high-end thief, robbing empty vacation homes. He used to be a Minneapolis police officer and has cultivated connections with cops across multiple states, which makes going to the police a risky option. Yet he’s said he’ll help her, and he’s determined to do it. Though a controlling spouse is a familiar plot idea, Petrie’s skill in developing Helene’s character keeps you caring about her fate.

Roy’s hunt for Peter, Peter’s hunt for Helene, and his strategies to keep them both alive make for a page-turning, stay-up-late adventure. The story’s not just about the difficulty of escaping a wily and determined spouse. It’s about the internal resources you need to actually go through with it. Helene is very young. Can she do what needs to be done? For his part, Peter is not only clever about resolving difficult situations, he displays a strong streak of humanity, as well.

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Guns + Tacos at the Midnight Hour

Gosh, I’ve read a lot of good books lately, as well as some notable short story collections!

I received Volumes 5 and 6 of the Guns + Tacos series, edited by Michael Bracken and Trey R. Barker. These were the “subscriber editions,” and each contained three novella-length stories. (some of the editions are sold for parts on Amazon; since they’re short, order the compilations). The stories in Volume 5 were by Dave Zeltserman, Stacy Woodson, and David H. Hendrickson and in Volume 6 by Hugh Lessig, Neil S. Plakcy, and Andrew Welsh-Huggins.

The underlying conceit is that somewhere in Chicago you can find a taco truck after midnight, where, if you order “the special,” you get a handgun with it. Thus the stories have names like “Refried Beans and a Snub-Nosed .44” or “Chimichangas and a couple of Glocks” or “Two Tamales, One Tokarev, and a Lifetime of Broken Promises.” In Volume 6, editor Bracken provides dessert with the three entrees, “Christmas Enchiladas and a Gold-Plated Derringer.”

Of course, if all the folks in these stories know about the taco truck, the cops must too, but set that aside. The stories are highly and consistently entertaining, long enough to develop a strong premise, but not so long as to wear it out.

Midnight Hour, edited by Abby L. Vandiver, is a compilation of twenty remarkable stories by authors of color. In a foreword, Stephen Mack Jones says their writing “without preaching or proselytizing, uncovers and reveals the distortions and delusions, fallacies and myths of an American society that has often pushed such voices to the back of the literary bus.” Or, as it may feel to the authors, under the bus. You don’t have to have a political agenda to enjoy these stories, many of which would stand up against many other recent compilations. There’s a lot of great stuff here, and if The Best American Mystery and Suspense series intends to diversify its selection of authors, I’d say, start right here. Highly recommended.

The Last Mona Lisa

Art crimes are an intriguing branch of the international crime tree, and in The Last Mona Lisa Jonathan Santlofer ably fulfills their potential. He begins with a real crime that took place in 1911, when a man named Vincent Peruggia was fired from his job at the Louvre, then hid in the museum overnight and stole the Mona Lisa. The destitute but patriotic Peruggia wanted to return the painting to his native Italy, and doubtless make a little money too. The painting resurfaced two years later in Florence whereupon the Italian police arrested him.

Santlofer’s novel features an American named Luke Perrone, fictional great-grandson of Peruggia. Since childhood, Luke has researched his notorious ancestor and the rumors he kept a diary during his months in prison. Luke is a frustrated painter and college history of art professor, and an upcoming school break gives him a chance to follow up a new lead. Apparently, his great-grandfather’s journal was donated to Florence’s Laurentian Library among the papers of a recently deceased art scholar.

Other people are just as interested in the diary as Luke is. Another library patron, the luscious Alexandra Greene, is just too friendly, except when she’s not. Interpol analyst John Washington Smith suspects the painting in the Louvre may not be authentic. During the Mona Lisa’s two-year disappearance, several copies were made and sold as originals. Perhaps the one hanging in the Louvre is one of these. Smith knows about Luke’s new lead and the trip to Florence, and if it pans out, it could revive his sagging career. A stop-at-nothing collector is also keenly interested and believes Luke can tell him whether “his” Mona Lisa, hidden in a vault, is the real thing.

Maybe I read too many thrillers, but I thought Luke was a bit slow to realize he’s experiencing too many coincidences and too many people dying around him. Chapters about Luke and Smith in the present day are interspersed with Vincenzo’s story, as told in his diary. These atmospheric historical chapters give resonance to Luke’s quest.

Santlofer also grounds the present-day of his tale with reference to the real-life controversy surrounding another Leonardo work, the Salvator Mundi, dubbed “the male Mona Lisa.” In real life, this painting was bought in 2005 from a New Orleans auction house for $1,175 and sold 12 years later for $450,300,000, even though art experts disagree about its authenticity. This saga was subject of a top-rated 2021 documentary by Andreas Koefoed.

Linking the two stories underscores not just the amazing sums involved, but also the tangled motivations of people in the world of stolen and fabricated art. Craziness happens when you are dealing with objects that are, essentially, priceless. If you are fascinated by art world intrigue, this book is for you!

Santlofer is himself an artist of some note. As well as his award-winning mystery novels, he has created more than 200 exhibitions worldwide. His short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, and he was creator and director of the Crime Fiction Academy. He resides in New York.

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KGB Banker

This financial thriller by William Burton McCormick and John Christmas was inspired partly by the real-life experiences of whistleblower Christmas, who worked for the corrupt Latvian bank, Parex. (Follow that link for a “truth is stranger than fiction story!) When the bank collapsed, information about its billions in bad assets was suppressed, and the Latvian government (i.e., taxpayers) covered enormous losses.

In KGB Banker, we meet Chicago banking executive Robert Vanags who is fed up with corner-cutting in the financial industry. Recently widowed, he’d like to make a fresh start. An unexpected opportunity to do so arises when a head hunter recruits him for an executive position with the $70 billion Turaida Bank in Riga, Latvia, where his family was from. This new job sounds like the perfect professional and personal fit.

His interviews go well but as he’s leaving the bank he meets an employee named Ēricks Helmanis in the elevator. Helmanis has one word of advice: “Run.” Bob ignores this puzzling admonition, along with a few other signs that all is not as it should be, and takes the job.

Bob doesn’t know that someone’s monitoring his office, apartment, phones, computer, and even his 17-year-old son David. His watchers know about the elevator conversation and that Ēricks is hoping to meet with a young reporter for an obscure newspaper named Santa Ezeriņa.

His fourth day in the new job, Bob and a large bank contingent attend the funeral of Ēricks Helmanis, who apparently committed suicide. There, he meets Agnese Avena, an executive at the International Development Bank, with which Turaida often partners. He also meets Latvian politician Dāvids Osis, a true national hero, member of parliament, and champion of the European Union. Bob named his son after him.

While Bob becomes uneasy about some activity at the bank, he’s also distracted by an affair he’s started with Agnese. He chooses to reveal his misgivings at a meeting that will determine whether the international banking community should regard Turaida as solid. He tells the group that most of the bank’s loans are made to only a dozen shell companies owned by Russian oligarchs prohibited from receiving loans from EU banks.

From here on, Turaida officials are highly suspicious of him. The only insider Bob can trust is his elderly assistant, Evgeny, and on the outside, the legendary David Osis. Before long, not only is his information discredited, it’s apparent his life is on the line. His last hope is to trust that crazy reporter, Santa Ezeriņa, who is never one to swallow the official story.

Bankers and their secrets, oligarchs and their dirty dealing, politicians and their agendas, reporters and their dangerous probing. In a sea of betrayal, it’s all Bob can do to keep himself and David safe. As this intriguing story spools out, that goal seems less and less likely. William Burton McCormick and John Christmas have both lived in Latvia and establish the setting convincingly. Before you think some of the financial shenanigans are a little far-fetched, recall what has actually taken place there in recent decades, and you’ll conclude the set-up for this fictional story is not far afield. Plus it’s a cracking good adventure for both Bob and the journalist Santa, who sees the flashing neon warning signs that Bob tries so hard to ignore.

Appointment in Tehran

By James Stejskal – If like me you remember the 1979 episode when radical Iranian students seized the US embassy in Tehran and took more than 50 Americans hostage, you’ll read James Stejskal’s riveting new thriller with an increasing sense of foreboding. That’s especially if you also recall that the US military launched a rescue mission that came to a disastrous end in the desert south of Tehran. Ultimately, the American hostages—many of them diplomats—were held for 444 days, until the inauguration of a new American president, Ronald Reagan. (The rescue of several Americans who escaped the embassy invasion and hid in the Canadian embassy was the subject of the highly entertaining 2012 film, Argo.)

Given that Stejskal’s characters are smart and skilled Special Forces men, members of Delta Force, I was interested in how he’d handle the botched rescue. No revisionist history here. His description is an accurate picture of how it happened, and, perhaps more important, why it happened: an overly complex strategy, contingency planning failures, and sheer bad luck.

As real events simmer in the story’s background, Stejskal’s characters, led by Master Sergeant Kim Beck and Staff Sergeant Paul Stavros, have a lot of work to do. First, they undergo specific and intensive training in skills likely necessary for the rescue attempt: close quarter battle marksmanship, casing a target location, working as a team following a target through the city without being detected. Fascinating. Naturally, these skills come into play before the story ends.

Even though the Delta team members are not part of the main rescue force headed for disaster in the desert, they have several critical jobs. They must make on-site assessments of the situation where Americans are being held (the embassy and the Iranian Foreign Minister’s office). They must double-check the adequacy and security of sites and logistics for extracting the hostages. It’s dangerous undercover work. Iran isn’t just hostile, it would welcome the chance to make political hay out of the capture of American spies.

And that’s not all. An army intelligence operation has smuggled a tactical nuclear weapon into Iran to be used against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the Americans want their bomb back at all costs. A traitor within US European forces has told the Soviets about the weapon, and they want it too. While this part of the story is purely fictional, the accuracy with which Stejskal portrays real events adds to the credibility of the entire plot.

This then is the Delta Force mission: backstop the rescue efforts, extracting the diplomats held at the foreign minister’s office, find that nuclear device, and move it out of the country. Any or all of this could go badly in so many ways.

Like his previous thriller involving many of the same characters, A Question of Time, this story is a pure adventure. It’s as much a political thriller as a military one, and you become a frustrated observer of the way bureaucracies tie themselves up in knots. Stejskal is a former CIA officer and US Army Special Forces member who had assignments worldwide, which has helped him create a plausible and exciting story.

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Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?

These mystery authors do! At the richly rewarding book sale at Killer Nashville, I was drawn to these two books by authors I’d just met. Both are set in New Orleans, both make terrific use of the city’s unique culture(s), so that you can almost smell the damp, hear the rhythms, and taste the food. You feel the heat. And the fear. Their unique and compelling characters will take you places you probably haven’t been before.

Love Power

By Martha Reed – Jane Byrne is a former New England police detective dealing with aftermath of a fatal shooting. Though she was exonerated, she left her job in disgrace and needs a new start. Not many places could offer a more different environment than New Orleans does.

Jane’s job working security at a self-storage facility doesn’t pay much, but at least she has interesting landlords. Even they are put in the shade by their ebullient and indiscreet transgender daughter Gigi. She’s a ball of fire through whom Jane meets an array of exotic and sexually nonconforming friends. I suspect Jane wouldn’t have previously thought of herself as straight-laced, but these new acquaintances are out there!

Danger comes calling as first one then another of Gigi’s friends is hideously murdered, and, while the NOPD is sort-of on the case, Jane can’t help but bring her police training into play, welcome or not. Can they solve the case before Gigi—or Jane herself—joins the murdered? An excellent read!

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Under the Blood Moon

By Tracie Provost – I’ve read next-to-no vampire literature, with the exception of one Anne Rice novel decades ago. New Orleans, with its voodoo practitioners and affinity for the occult and bizarre is surely the perfect setting for one.

Juliette de Grammont is a skilled practitioner of magic arts and a vampire. She was staked more than 200 years ago, but now her body has been found and restored. Not only must Juliette learn to cope with modern life (cars, computers, cell phones!), but also she’s returned to life just as a major power struggle begins between two powerful vampire families (as treacherous as the Mafia, but without the pasta).

What enables the suspension of disbelief necessary to this narrative is Provost’s excellent world-building. She describes a culture and way of behaving that is consistent and just coherent enough that I got into the story, then the force of her characterizations kept me there, as the paranormal beasties descended. Highly entertaining.

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Dust Off the Bones

By Paul Howarth – Responsibility, redemption, and squandered chances are among the themes in Paul Howarth’s second novel, which will live in your memory long after turning the last page. Just as indelible is the portrait of the Australian outback—the dust and drought—and the hardness and hardiness of the people who take up residence in such a hostile environment.

Billie and Tommy McBride, ages sixteen and fourteen, respectively, arrive at their remote home to find their mother and father shot dead, and their younger sister Mary, dying. The Native Police arrive to investigate, headed by a sociopathic white inspector named Noone. The police claim to believe that the crime was committed by an aboriginal group called the Kurrong, and set off in pursuit, taking the teenagers with them.

Eventually, they find the group and slaughter them—men, women, and children alike, upwards of a hundred people, except for a few women they keep alive for other purposes. The boys are made complicit in these depredations and the subsequent revisions of events. The rest of the novel is about how the McBride boys cope with that guilt and horror.

Noone remains a dominant presence in their lives, even though they rarely see him. He has insisted the boys split up and have nothing to do with each other or he will return and kill them, any family they have, and everyone they care about. They believe him.

Billie marries successfully to a widow with a sizeable station. Tommy, with his black companion Arthur, has a job on another distant station, where he’s putting up fencing under the thumb of a vindictive overseer. In a confrontation Tommy inadvertently kills the overseer. He and Arthur flee, and, with the telegraph likely one step ahead of them, lie low.

What modest successes either young man achieves are tainted by the anxiety that the annihilation of the Kurrong will come to light, that Noone will decide they are a risk to his position and he and his minions will track them down, and, in Tommy’s case, that the murder he committed will come out. If you’re familiar with the writing of Cormac McCarthy or Donald Ray Pollock, you may find Howarth’s bracing writing style similar. Reading this book is like having all your veins and arteries cleaned out, cleared of everything easy and soft. While the writing is hard as a diamond, it’s also beautiful and properly paced to magnify the weight of the men’s actions.

Diverse Diversions: 3 Entertaining Crime Stories

Gunslinger: Killer’s Requiem

By AW Hart, pen name of Michael Black. I miss good stories about the Old West, which were such a feature of American life a half-century ago and before. Take a trip back there with this new novel, featuring Hart’s gunslinger character, River Hicks. Hicks is returning to the Oregon home town where he’s wanted for murders he didn’t commit. In tow are teenage twins Connor and Abby, whom he rescued from an abusive situation in Texas. The trio faces a deadly opponent in Hicks’s brother, the town’s wealthiest man, exploiter of lumber-mill workers, and, secretly, father of the twins. A whole corral of colorful and memorable characters head toward a showdown between Hicks and his allies and anti-union hired guns. Amazon link here.

That Darkness

By Lisa Black – I enjoyed her informative presentations at Killer Nashville, but had never read one of her books. Her experiences as a crime scene investigator really comes through in 2016’s That Darkness, as her protagonist, Maggie Gardiner, ekes every bit of information out of the scant clues (look out for those cat hairs!) in a series of unexplained murders of men with impressive violent crime rap sheets. You’ll know from the beginning that the killer she’s pitted herself against is Cleveland detective Jack Renner, fed up with the justice system’s failure to get these violent characters off the streets and taking matters into his own hands. Maggie soon begins to suspect a police vigilante, but who is it? She sets up quite an interesting cat-and-mouse game between herself and Renner, and both are challenged to reconcile the differences between law and justice. Amazon link here.

Queen’s Gambit

By Bradley Harper – No, not the tv movie, but a 2019 thriller set in England in 1897, in which a pair of sleuths try to foil an assassination attempt against Queen Victoria. Margaret Harkness is called upon by an old friend—Professor Joseph Bell, who in real life was an inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes—to help identify a German anarchist bent upon killing the queen, an act the anarchist deems “propaganda by deed.” The story, set at the colorful time of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, offers a prime opportunity for royal pomp and for the anarchist’s dark doings. Can Harkness and Bell outwit the determined killer? Masterfully entertaining and with a helpful map. Amazon link here.

The Only Good Indians

By Stephen Graham Jones, narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett –If I’d realized there was a supernatural element to this book, I probably wouldn’t have listened to it. Real life is scary enough! Boy, would I ever have missed something spectacular. I urge you not to be put off by the “horror” label attached to award-winning Blackfeet author Stephen Graham Jones’s latest, The Only Good Indians.

A crime sets the plot in motion. It’s the kind of irresponsible daredevilry four young male buddies are prone to. As a big snowstorm starts four days before Thanksgiving, Ricky, Lewis, Cass, and Gabe decide they need to put some of their own game on the holiday table. They take their hunt to the portion of the Blackfeet reservation set aside for the elders.

Down below a cliff, they find a herd of elk. They shoot into the herd, killing far more animals than they can drag uphill and far more than the truck can hold. Doesn’t matter anyway. At the top of the cliff, the game warden waits. One of the animals Lewis shot was a young doe. When he begins to field-dress her, he discovers she isn’t dead and she is pregnant. Her calf is alive inside her, and several more shots are required to finally kill her. Lewis takes her hide, intending to make something good out of this sad episode, not to waste one bit of her.

Ten years have passed since the hunt Gabe calls the Thanksgiving Classic. Ricky is working a temporary job with a North Dakota drilling crew. One night, outside a bar, he encounters a herd of elk in the parking lot. The animals panic and, in running away, do considerable damage to the parked trucks. Shrieking vehicle alarms send the bar patrons stumbling outside. They see a native, jump to the wrong conclusion, and chase and kill Ricky. ‘Indian Man Killed in Dispute Outside Bar.’ From the viewpoint of Lewis, Cass, and Gabe, Ricky’s death is totally predictable.

Lewis has married a white woman, Peta, works at the post office, and has his life pretty together until he starts see that pregnant elk lying on his living room floor. Increasingly obsessed with this notion, he digs her hide out his freezer—the hide he wanted to do something with and never has. As his mental state deteriorates, the intrusion of Shaney, his Crow coworker, disrupts the home equilibrium in ways you may not expect.

To this point in the story, you could legitimately think of the elk sightings by Ricky and the half-mad Lewis as hallucinations, possibly brought on by (in one case) alcohol and (in the other) guilt. The situations are strange and terrible, but not totally outside the realm of logical explanation—metaphorical, not metaphysical.

Amid much good-natured bantering, Gabe and Cass concoct a plan for a sweatlodge ceremony to commemorate their dead friends. Bad idea. Now revenge comes thundering toward them.

What I found most intriguing about this story is how enriched it is by Blackfeet traditions and folklore, put in a modern context. Folktales last for generations because they hold a kernel of truth. While this story would never work set in downtown Washington, D.C., in the remote world of Big Sky, of native culture? It finds its groove. The interesting way the men negotiate two different worlds, that worked for me.

Following and getting connected to the story was made easier by the stellar narration of actor Shaun Taylor-Corbett, who gave authenticity to every word. Even in the story’s most bizarre moments, never a sliver of doubt entered his voice. (Saw him on stage once, playing Romeo. Now there’s a contrast!)

Interestingly, many publishers of crime and mystery fiction these days say they want to see stories with ‘paranormal elements.’ Presumably, there’s market interest. If you give it a try, I think you’ll find it a memorable and moving experience.

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