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The Thicket, by Joe R. Lansdale

DETAILS

Title: THE THICKET
Author: Joe R. Lansdale
Publisher: Mulholland Books
ISBN: 978-0316188449
Genre: Western

BACKCOVER BLURB

Jack Parker thought he’d already seen his fair share of tragedy. His grandmother was killed in a farm accident when he was barely five years old. His parents have just succumbed to the smallpox epidemic sweeping turn-of-the-century East Texas—orphaning him and his younger sister, Lula.

Then catastrophe strikes on the way to their uncle’s farm, when a traveling group of bank-robbing bandits murder Jack’s grandfather and kidnap his sister. With no elders left for miles, Jack must grow up fast and enlist a band of heroes the likes of which has never been seen if his sister stands any chance at survival. But the best he can come up with is a charismatic, bounty-hunting dwarf named Shorty, a grave-digging son of an ex-slave named Eustace, and a street-smart woman-for-hire named Jimmie Sue who’s come into some very intimate knowledge about the bandits (and a few members of Jack’s extended family to boot).

WHAT I THOUGHT

Joe Lansdale’s THE THICKET is wickedly smart, funny, vulgar, violent, philosophical and yes, even at times, a little whimsical. All in part due to the wonderful, quirky cast of characters and, of course, Lansdale’s own voluble prose. Prose prickling with acute observations, jibes, laconic wit, and snappy dialogue that reflect the era and characters, perfectly.

Lansdale also manages to sketch out an opening scene that’s akin to free-crack to a drug-addict: irresistible. I mean, come on, our young hero’s life is turned up side down and sideways within a heartbeat, and who does he end up going on a quest with? A philosophical-spouting dwarf (and circus escapee) who knows how to pistol-whip, a black ex-slave who has a perchance for digging up the dead when he’s not paid, and a wild boar who’s taken a liking to him. Throw in a love-interest for Jack who persuades him to help her escape the brothel were she works, and you have a recipe for explosive action, humorous antics, and a fast-paced plot that delivers right up to the end.

Each character in THE THICKET is finely detailed with their own distinct quirks and failings, that add various layers of depth to this story of rescue and redemption. Each person is taking up Jack’s quest for their own reasons all looking to leave their pasts behind them, with a hope they can find a better future. Lansdale doesn’t hold back on the gritty details, so much so, you can almost taste and smell the grit, grim, and rot. But he also tempers the pervading darkness with plenty of snarky humour and lighter moments.

It takes a great deal of skill as an author to find just the right balance in what could have been a dark, brooding story, but Lansdale pulls it off with remarkable aplomb.

THE THICKET is a riveting, funny read, with a cast of characters you’ll be rooting for, I know I was.

My Sister’s Grave, by Robert Dugoni

THE DETAILS

Title: MY SISTER’S GRAVE
Author: Robert Dugoni
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer (Amazon)
ISBN: 978-1477825570
Genre: Police Procedural | Murder-Mystery

BACKCOVER BLURB

Tracy Crosswhite has spent twenty years questioning the facts surrounding her sister Sarah’s disappearance and the murder trial that followed. She doesn’t believe that Edmund House—a convicted rapist and the man condemned for Sarah’s murder—is the guilty party. Motivated by the opportunity to obtain real justice, Tracy became a homicide detective with the Seattle PD and dedicated her life to tracking down killers.

When Sarah’s remains are finally discovered near their hometown in the northern Cascade mountains of Washington State, Tracy is determined to get the answers she’s been seeking. As she searches for the real killer, she unearths dark, long-kept secrets that will forever change her relationship to her past—and open the door to deadly danger.

WHAT I THOUGHT

MY SISTER’S GRAVE by Robert Dugoni has one of those typical settings we’ve come to expect—the northern Cascades in Washington State—where the weather has to play a big part in making the over-all story arc work. Without which there would be no drama or action. It didn’t help. In the end, I felt like I was reading a made-for TV movie, not a taught murder-mystery.

While the author touts this as a police procedural, where the procedural bit is—quite frankly—a bit vague, it’s ostensibly a whodunnit; who killed Tracey Crosswhite’s sister, Sarah, 20 years ago.

The story opens interestingly enough as Dugoni builds us a character profile for Tracy Crosswhite, and feeds us flashbacks to fill in childhood details about both her, and her sister, Sarah. I would have loved to have seen more of this play out. But, sadly, the story then devolves into a courtroom drama, which is where the story begins to lag considerably.

It is also obvious at this point which characters are keeping the secret, and worse, why. Flimsy reasoning that has put three officers of the court on the wrong side of the law. One of my pet peeves.

While Dugoni’s other characters are less than memorable and even less substantive than paper, I have to say, I did like the character of Dan. Especially as he started to evolve in the latter third of the book. Also, the witty banter between the kids in Tracy’s posse at the start and then later, between Dan and Tracy, where excellent. Sadly, that doesn’t save MY SISTER’S GRAVE from sagging in parts, rambling in others, and being distracted with its own hubris.

With a little more editing, cohesion, and forethought to planning, this could have been a really good murder-mystery, as the twist at the end, had great possibility. As is, it’s an average read at best.

Q&A with author Kathleen Kent

First of all, would you like to tell us a little about yourself.

I grew up in Texas and attended UT at Austin studying literature and history.  What I wanted to be was a writer, but my dad, who was a very practical man, convinced me that being a starving artist was not all it was cracked up to be.  Instead, he argued, I should study business, get a “real” job and write in my spare time.  Which is what I eventually did.  After college I lived and worked in New York for twenty years:  10 years working for the former Chairman of the Commodity Exchange, and then for another 10 years as a civilian contractor to the U.S. Department of Defense in Russia facilitating defense conversion work, converting military plants into civilian use.  I wrote a lot during those 10 years, but almost all of it was factual progress reporting to my coordinating CO in Washington.

I did very little creative writing as my job was all consuming, leaving not much time, or energy, to commit to writing a full-length novel.  Finally, in 2000, I decided to take an early retirement and move back to Texas to raise my son and tackle writing creatively.  That’s when I started my first novel, which was published as The Heretic’s Daughter in 2008.  Delightfully, it was successful, which has allowed me to continue writing full time.  I’ve just published my fourth novel, The Dime, which, unlike the first three historical novels, is a contemporary crime novel.

What, if anything, made you switch from writing historical fiction, and turn to a life of crime?

I had just published my third historical novel, The Outcasts, set a few years after the American Civil War, when an editor friend called to ask if I would submit a short story for a crime anthology he was putting together  titled Dallas Noir.  I love crime fiction, but had never tried my hand at writing anything more than a basic outline.  My story “Coincidences Can Kill You” was published in the collection and my agent loved it so much she encouraged me to develop it into a full-length novel.   As I had already started on another work of historical fiction, it took some time to commit to this new genre.  It took half a year to make the mental switch, and change the tone and tempo of my writing.

How did the character of Betty first come about? I heard she featured in a short story first.

[quote align=”alignright” name=”Kathleen Kent”]I love strong female characters, women who often fall outside of the parameters of what’s considered conventional or “appropriate” societal behavior.[/quote] My first two novels, The Heretic’s Daughter and The Traitor’s Wife, are about Martha Carrier, my nine-times great grandmother who was hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692.  As my Carrier grandmother used to say, there are no such things as witches, just ferocious women, and I love narratives that include ferocious women.  Detective Betty Rhyzyk, the main protagonist of The Dime, is certainly a ferocious woman.  Many of my characters are developed slowly over the course of weeks or months while I’m working on a novel.  But Betty, like Venus rising from the sea, just seemed to appear solidly whole in my imagination the moment I committed to writing about her.  I like to start my characters off facing a strong headwind, confronted with a lot of challenges or disadvantages right out of the gate, and certainly Betty has some challenges the moment she joins the Dallas Police Department:  she’s from Brooklyn (therefore, a dreaded Yankee), physically impressive, being almost 6 feet tall and red-headed, fiercely competitive, outspoken and an unapologetic lesbian.

Could you describe a little bit more about Betty’s ‘Voice’ of reason, and mentor, Benny? A wonderful ‘secondary’ character, if ever there was one.

Because Betty is such a strong character, sometimes abrasive, sometimes impulsive, I needed some characters to temper her animal vitality and soften her hard edges.  Jackie, her partner, a pediatric radiologist, helps to keep Betty balanced and on track.  But it’s Betty’s Uncle Benny, her father’s brother, who is her true pole star.  The fact that he’s been dead for a few years when the action really gets started, appearing to Betty in dreams or speaking to her while she’s running, was just one of those “Aha!” moments that I thought would be a unique twist on what might otherwise be a more conventional police procedural.  Betty comes from a family of dysfunctional, alcoholic and corrupt cops with the NYPD.  But Benny, a decorated homicide detective, was Betty’s early mentor, advocate and protector, pointing her toward being a “good” cop.

And finally, what can you tell us about what’s coming up next, for Betty?

I’m very close to finishing the next book in the Det. Betty series.  The action in The Dime took Betty and her partners from Dallas to the Piney Woods of East Texas following Mexican cartel members, and home grown meth dealers.  In this next book—title not yet decided— the violence of the dangerous drug cartel, The Texas Syndicate, will take Betty and her partner, Seth, to far West Texas.  I have included some of the same characters, but I’ve also introduced a whole new cast of weird and wonderful Texans to populate the story.  In The Dime, Betty has been badly shaken, physically and mentally, and she will have to face her own family’s past, as well as the unpleasant aftermath from confronting the drug dealing, religious cult, The Family.  But as Uncle Benny would tell her, Betty will have to do her own “Reaping the Grim”, exorcising the demons that are threatening to extinguish her confidence in herself to make the hard choices, as well as her trust in the people closest to her.


Credit, Remi David

AUTHOR BIO

Kathleen Kent is the author of three best-selling novels, The Heretic’s Daughter—recipient of the David J. Langum Sr. award for American historical fiction—The Traitor’s Wife, and The Outcasts (set in 1870 Texas) which was the recipient of the American Library Association’s 2014 top choice for Historical Fiction, as well as the recipient of a Will Rogers Medallion Award for Western fiction. Her fourth book, titled The Dime (Feb. 2017), is a contemporary crime novel set in Dallas, based on a short story published in the crime anthology, Dallas Noir. Kirkus starred review says, “Kent’s detective is Sam Spade reincarnated as a brilliant modern woman.” The author lives in Dallas.

For more, check out Kathleen’s website. You can also find her on twitter.