Summer Book Recommendations

(Originally posted on Austin Mystery Writers)

I’ve been reading this summer and wanted to share some great books with you!

The Blessing Way is book #1 of the famous Leaphorn and Chee series by Tony Hillerman. This series has been in my TBR (To Be Read) pile for years and I’m happy to say that I finally got around to it! I knew that it would be good because everyone I’ve talked to has loved these books. Even knowing that, I was pleasantly surprised. Leaphorn is interesting and has an inherent understand about people and what makes them tick. His internal dialogue also teaches the reader about his heritage and culture. I honestly found that aspect of the story to be entertaining and enlightening. It was also full of suspenseful action. There’s a seen where a character is stalked by something or someone in the night. That scene was the best in the book! It was chilling and creepy. I loved it. *happy chills*

I’m currently reading book #2, Dance Hall of The Dead and it’s just as creepy and suspenseful.

Good Reads description of The Blessing Way: Homicide is always an abomination, but there is something exceptionally disturbing about the victim discovered in a high lonely place, a corpse with a mouth full of sand, abandoned at a crime scene seemingly devoid of tracks or useful clues. Though it goes against his better judgment, Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn cannot help but suspect the hand of a supernatural killer. There is palpable evil in the air, and Leaphorn’s pursuit of a Wolf-Witch is leading him where even the bravest men fear, on a chilling trail that winds perilously between mysticism and murder.

The second book that I recommend is The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott. It’s also the first in a series, the Chris Cherry series. While it also has a landscape that’s remote, isolated, and vast, this book is quite different. The story is told in alternating chapters from different characters. It took me a bit to get the characters straight, but once I did that, it took off. Scott does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the west Texas landscape and its people, especially bullies in small towns. As most good books, there’s a showdown of sorts and my nerves were raw, waiting to see what happens. It’s not a small book but you’ll be turning pages.

Good Reads description: Seventeen-year-old Caleb Ross is adrift in the wake of the sudden disappearance of his mother more than a year ago, and is struggling to find his way out of the small Texas border town of Murfee. Chris Cherry is a newly minted sheriff’s deputy, a high school football hero who has reluctantly returned to his hometown. When skeletal remains are discovered in the surrounding badlands, the two are inexorably drawn together as their efforts to uncover Murfee’s darkest secrets lead them to the same terrifying suspect: Caleb’s father and Chris’s boss, the charismatic and feared Sheriff Standford “Judge” Ross. Dark, elegiac, and violent, The Far Empty is a modern Western, a story of loss and escape set along the sharp edge of the Texas border. Told by a longtime federal agent who knows the region, it’s a debut novel you won’t soon forget.

Recommendation #3 is South California Purples by Baron R. Birtcher. It’s set in 1973 and starts out with an easy feel of a typical traditional Western. Then rancher Ty Dawson gets conscripted into helping the county’s law enforcement, who seems to have no interest in dealing with the growing problem. When time after time Dawson doesn’t get help from the local cops, Dawson decides to handle matters as he sees fit. If you’re looking for a mix of hard-boiled with a Western, this book fits the bill. Biker gangs vs. cowboys. You know it’s full of action. *trigger warning- it does deal with rape*

From Good Reads: Cattle rancher Ty Dawson, a complex man tormented by elements of his own past, is involuntarily conscripted to assist local law enforcement when a herd of wild mustangs is rounded up and corralled in anticipation of a government auction, igniting the passions of political activist Teresa Pineu, who threatens to fan the flames of an uprising that grows rapidly out of control.

As the past collides with the present, and hostility escalates into brutality and bloodshed, Ty is drawn into a complex web of predatory alliances and corruption where he must choose to stand and fight, or watch as the last remnants of the American West are consumed in a lawless conflagration of avarice and cruelty.

I hope this helps you find some new books. And remember, whenever possible, please try to purchase your books from local, independent bookstores. Thank you!

V. P. Chandler


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Characters Inspired By Real-Life People: Eldon Chandler

 / VPCHANDLER / EDIT

VP Chandler

by V.P. Chandler

There are a wide variety of fiction writers. Some are “pantsers”, who don’t write an outline and just write whatever pops into their heads. And others are “plotters”, who write outlines and make sure that the story follows a three-act structure or whatever structure they think is best. (I’m in between. I do a little of both but try to stay on track.) But I think that we all have something in common. I think that we use real life people as inspiration for our characters.

While writing my first novel, Gilt Ridden, I needed a character that was wise, experienced, and knew how to make bullets. Did I know anyone like that? There was no question. I based the character on my husband’s father’s cousin, Eldon Chandler, and named him accordingly. The Eldon in my story is a throwback to the era of cattle drives and skirmishes with native tribes. And like men of his day, he made his own bullets. The real Eldon was not much different. He grew up in West Texas when it wasn’t much different than the cattle drive days.

Eldon “Slim” Chandler was a living example of integrity and grit. He was born in 1926 just outside of Lubbock, and like most kids of that era, he was tough and resourceful. He grew up to be a big bear of a guy, with a barrel chest, and had a deep voice to match. He was over six feet tall and extremely strong. He told us a lot of stories about his life and one that sticks in my mind was when he drove a beer truck. Instead of using a dolly to carry the kegs, he’d put one under each arm and carry them inside the bar. He liked the surprised looks on people’s faces when they realized these were full, not empty, kegs of beer. He always laughed when he told us the story.

He was an excellent marksman and an award-winning trap shooter. Once when I was fishing with his son, Victor, Victor told me that they did trick shooting as a family for a while. The kids would practice twirling wooden guns while they watched Bugs Bunny cartoons. I love that image. That’s such a “Chandler” thing to do.

So, I guess it’s also no surprise that back when I married into the Chandler family and was living on a farm/ranch in the middle of rattlesnake country, Eldon gave me my gun that I’ve used to kill hundreds of rattlesnakes. It’s a .410 shotgun called a “Snake Charmer”. I remember when he was visiting and gave it to me. I liked how it handled. It’s a small shotgun and perfect size for me. He said, “Keep it. It’s for you.” No, it’s too much. “I got it for you. You’ll need it.” And he was right! I think of him every time I take it hunting. And to go along with all of those talents, he also became a craftsman at making homemade knives. He could take an old oxidized butcher knife and turn it into a work of art.

You can see where he imprinted his name.

In 1945 Eldon had married Othella Owens, who was equally an incredible person. She was tall and artistic. I never saw a woman who wore so much turquoise. She’d wear large turquoise and silver rings, earrings, and necklaces, sometimes all at once. It would have looked ridiculous on someone else, but it was somehow flawless on her. She was amazing. She could paint anything or take a bunch of horseshoes and somehow turn them into art. They were a perfect pair.

And Eldon, like most Chandlers, took his family bond seriously. Like I said, Othella was an Owens. Well, back in 1927 her uncle, Jake Owens, had been a deputy sheriff. Sheriff Robert Smith and Deputy Owens had arrested two men for stealing a bale of cotton. They were decent lawmen and they took the suspects home to change clothes before transporting them to jail. But one of the suspects had gotten a gun and concealed it in his clothes. In route, he pulled out the gun and shot Sheriff Smith in the head, killing him. Deputy Owens jumped from the vehicle but was gunned down. The sheriff and Deputy Owens were buried side by side. The suspect was eventually sentenced to death and electrocuted at the Texas State Prison in Huntsville on October 17th, 1930. The second suspect was released 14 years later. Some time, I assume after Eldon married Othella in 1945, Eldon learned that the second suspect was working in a shop in Odessa. Eldon drove the long distance and paid him a visit at the shop. With his words and his presence, he told the guy that he needed to make himself scarce, he wasn’t welcome. The guy tried to act big. When he asked who Eldon thought he was to make such a proclamation, “My name is Eldon Chandler and I’m married to an Owens.” That was enough for the man. He never returned to the shop and hightailed it out of West Texas.

Thank you for letting me tell you about a wonderful man who leaves behind a legacy of faith, love, grit, humor, and art. My character only played a small part in my story, but since he was a larger than life person, I’m sure that I’ll use the real Eldon for inspiration in other stories. I also used his father, Price, briefly in my novel. I had forgotten at the time that Price was Eldon’s father. I just remember a lot of funny stories about him and wanted to use someone who was humorous yet wise.

I’ve had people ask me if I was ever bored in West Texas. No. And whenever I write a story, I try to capture the spirit of the place, both good and bad.

Link to more info about Deputy Jake Owenshttp://www.officerdown.net/fallen.cfm?id=12527&sh=y&CFID=419308&CFTOKEN=54583677

Originally published on Austin Mystery Writers.


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True Crime Podcasts Worthy of Binge-Listening

by V.P. Chandler

Originally posted on Austin Mystery Writers

Several years ago AMW member Laura Oles suggested that I might like listening to true crime podcasts. She kept talking about one titled, Serial.

“Yeah, yeah, I don’t really do the podcast thing.”

Then our family was scheduled to take a trip to West Texas. It’s not exactly a short drive to get there, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to try it out. I downloaded the whole first season onto my iPad and we were off. And ever since then, I’ve been hooked.

Serial’s description of season 1 (2014) from their website,

“A high-school senior named Hae Min Lee disappeared one day after school in 1999, in Baltimore County, Maryland. A month later, her body was found in a city park. She’d been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was sentenced to life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.”

And let me tell you, Serial has won many awards and they are well-deserved.

As we left the rolling hills for flat roads flanked by mesas, we were pulled into the story. After each episode, we’d dissect the new evidence and theories. We felt like detectives. Are the witnesses telling the truth? Who is lying and why? Is there other evidence? Why would they make such bad decisions? Hearing the voices of the real people involved made it even more real. Sometimes we’d be certain that someone was going to lie, but after their interview, we were sure that they were telling the truth. *conundrum* It’s not easy being a detective.

And while we were caught up in the drama and intrigue, there were also somber reminders that these were real people who have been caught up in horror and heartache. When you hear how much they hurt, that they just want answers, it pulls at you. How can detectives and reports handle talking to them? I don’t think that just anyone could put together one of these investigative reports. It takes months and even years to follow leads. And it also takes a special talent to walk that thin line of pushing to get answers, and yet remaining sensitive to the feelings of friends and family. The reporters often say to the listeners that they purposefully hold back in order not to re-traumatize people. I think that’s extremely important to mention. And all of the podcasts that I mention follow that rule of conduct. I’m constantly amazed at the editing skills of these shows. Their sense of story is strong. They know how to piece it together while still uncovering new evidence.

Here are other podcasts that I’ve enjoyed. They are fascinating.

S-Town

“John despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. He asks a reporter to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.”

It doesn’t go like you think it will. But it’s a peek into a fascinating man’s life and the people that know him.

Missing and Murdered

I thought that this show was called “Finding Cleo” and I was confused that the first season was about a woman named Alberta Williams. So don’t let that confuse you.

Season 1  “Sparked by a chilling tip, Missing & Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams? is an eight-part podcast investigation that unearths new information and potential suspects in the cold case of a young Indigenous woman murdered in British Columbia in 1989.”

The second season is about finding out what happened to a girl named, Cleo. “Like many Indigenous children, Cleo’s brothers and sisters were taken from their community, displayed in advertisements, and sent to live with white adoptive families across North America, through a controversial program called “Adopt Indian and Metis.” They’ve reconnected as adults and are determined to find their missing sister and penetrate the secrets shrouding the truth about Cleo. CBC’s Connie Walker joins in their search, uncovering disturbing new details about how and why Cleo was taken, where she wound up, and how she died.”

Both of these stories are about indigenous families in Canada and the suffering that that communities still experience. I knew that there is an epidemic of women being killed and their plight is just now getting media attention. But I hadn’t known about the Highway of Tears. It’s a highway in British Columbia where many indigenous women have either been killed or dumped. The reporter, Connie Walker, is Cree, so she brings an extra knowledge and sensitivity to her work.

Your Own Backyard

“A documentary podcast series investigating the 1996 disappearance of Cal Poly student, Kristin Smart.” It’s Only 7 episodes long, so it goes fast. Trust me, you’ll end up binge-listening to it.

Someone Knows Something

This series has 5 seasons. I’ve listened to the first two seasons.

Season 1
“In 1972, five-year-old Adrien McNaughton vanished while on a family fishing trip in Eastern Ontario. Despite an intensive search and investigation, no sign of Adrien was found, no clue as to where he might be. The case has hung over the area like a dark mass ever since, especially in the small town of Arnprior, where the McNaughton family lived.”

It was sad and fascinating. I learned a lot about cadaver dogs. (It’s not as gruesome as it sounds.)

Season 2

“On December 31, 1997, at a New Year’s Eve party broadcast on live TV, Sheryl Sheppard accepted a marriage proposal from her boyfriend, Michael Lavoie. Two days later, she disappeared. In Season 2 of SKS, David Ridgen joins Sheppard’s mother Odette on her search for answers.”

I’m very impressed with his laidback technique for speaking with people. He’s a good reporter.

The next one I’ll be listening to is

Uncover

(I’m interested in season 6, Satanic Panic, but I’m sure I’ll start with season 1. I always have to start with the first one.)

So there you have a list of very good true crime podcasts that will keep you busy. I’ve found that they make a long drive or doing housework more enjoyable. *Forewarning, not all mysteries are solvable. Unlike fiction, they can’t be solved and wrapped up in a bow. I think that adds to the tension and desire for a conclusion. But it also gives the listener a sense of what families and police face in trying to find the truth.

Do you have a favorite? Please, let me know. I’d like to add it to my library.


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Review of A Dangerous Road: A Smokey Dalton Novel

Originally posted on Austin Mystery Writers

As with many other books, I’ve been late on the scene with this series and author. A Dangerous Road made its debut in 2001 but I just discovered it recently. I was fortunate that my book club chose it. So not only did I get to read a great book, I got to read an intriguing mystery that kept me turning pages! And I got to discuss it with good friends.

I primarily write historical mysteries, usually Westerns, but this one takes place in Memphis in 1968. A turbulent time and place. There was a lot that I didn’t know about this time and I can tell that Nelscott did her homework. For example, there was a strike among the garbage collectors and trash began to pile up. The smell and inconvenience added to the tension of the story. The impending marches and the arrival of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., are churning up hostilities between the races, and among the races. Add to that a black male P.I. who has a white, attractive, female client, Laura Hathaway, and the tension mounts!

The mystery part of the story is about $10,000. Laura Hathaway demands to know why her mother would leave $10,000 to Smokey. He has no idea. He doesn’t know the Hathaways. Could Mrs. Hathaway have been the anonymous benefactor who left him $10,000 ten year prior? It seems like too much of a coincidence. And why would she do that? Laura decides to hire Smokey to find out about her family background, what secrets they were hiding and how he is involved in it, if he is.

That’s what kept me turning pages. I had no idea where it was going to go!

The book starts with scenes from the premiere of Gone With the Wind in 1940 in Atlanta. (I didn’t know that it premiered there! Did you?) It takes a while until it becomes clear why this event was important to the story. But it’s pivotal.

Which gets me to what I admired most about the book. Not only was it a mystery, but it deftly maneuvered through and around the worlds of 1940 Atlanta and 1968 Memphis. Both eras are complicated. Dalton and the black community have to constantly be alert and careful what they say and do. And not all dangers are outside their own community.

Nelscott dances her way around and through the story, taking the reader with her. I was impressed with its complexity and how she was able to keep the tension throughout. I was not surprised to learn that it won the Herodotus Award for Best Historical Mystery and was short-listed for the Edgar Award for Best Novel.

This reader and writer will definitely be reading more of the Smokey Dalton stories!


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New Project! Bullet Books

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been selected to participate in a project, a collection of novellas that are sure to get your blood pumping! Each book is co-written with Manning Wolfe, author of the Texas Lady Lawyer series.

My story is about a substitute teacher who wants to make the world a better place. That’s not surprising, right? 😉

Here’s more information about each book. Look for The Last Straw!

Learn more about Bullet Books and book #11, The Last Straw

To be released in October 2019. I’ll keep you posted!


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Stories Behind the Stories #1

Double Mountain

People have been telling me that I should write some of the true stories that are behind the story of my novel, Gilt Ridden, and other stories that inspire my writing. So, I’m writing a series of blog posts that I’ll call The Stories Behind the Stories.

This is the story of the first rattlesnake that I found in our house when we first moved to our Double Mountain ranch. I included it in some of the first drafts of the book, but later I omitted it and just referred to it in dialogue. People said I had too many rattlesnake scenes already.

We had moved to our ranch Easter weekend. The weather had been hot and dry, but a cold front brought much-needed rain and a drop in temperature. Unfortunately, rattlesnakes were looking for a warm place too.

My husband was off at work at his job in Sweetwater, a 45-minute drive away, and my son and I were playing on the floor of the playroom. We had been playing on the floor for probably a couple of hours and I decided to plug in the phone. (Yes, that was back in the days of phones in the home.) I was looking for the phone outlet and pivoted the couch away from the wall to get to it. I was shocked to find a curled-up rattlesnake. I looked at it for a couple of seconds because my mind didn’t want to register what I was seeing. It was happily asleep, no worries.

I picked up my son and placed him on his bed. He was three at the time. I told him to stay on the bed and I explained the situation. He wasn’t having it. He wanted to stay by my side.

I went back to the playroom to check on the snake. I think it was awake now and not happy with me, but it still not moving. At this time in my life I had seen many rattlesnakes. We had also lived on another West Texas ranch years before, but I had never killed one. My husband had always been around to do it. I tried calling him from the kitchen phone but his employer had not paid their phone bill so my husband’s business phone was not working.

I probably said a lot of cuss words, at least mentally. (Son was still stuck to my leg, not wanting to leave.)

I knew there was a shovel on the porch because we had killed a rattlesnake on the porch a couple of days prior. It had been raining when we were moving in (of course) and it had come up onto the porch. The door had been wide open as we brought things inside. I remember thinking at the time how lucky we were to have found that snake before it had gotten into the house!

So, I got the shovel, went to the playroom, kid still stuck to my leg. I told him to move away and he wouldn’t let go. I yelled at him and stomped the floor to emphasize the importance of listening to me. That only made him hold on tighter. And the stomping on the floor was irritating the snake and he started uncoiling to move to another location.

I think I actually said some curse words aloud at this point.

So, I moved forward and planned my attack. I remember standing there, thinking that I was glad that he was a regular-sized snake, maybe two and a half feet, so his striking distance wouldn’t be far. Even though the shovel was a regular-sized shovel, my arms are really short, I wanted as much distance between us as possible. As I planned my attack, I learned something. Sometimes the more that you think about doing something that you’re afraid to do, the more you can start scaring yourself. I didn’t want to be there. But if I left, then who knows where the snake would hide? And then we’d still be faced with having to get rid of it.

I knew I had to attack before I got too afraid. I hit it with the flat side of the shove, and it got really mad. The second thing I learned that day, killing a rattlesnake on padded carpeting is a lot more difficult than you think it would be. All I did was make it really mad. It started winding and unwinding himself, trying to figure out who the hell I was, why did I wake him up, and what did I have against him?

Since that wasn’t working, I used the edge of the shovel blade. I placed it right behind his head and pushed down. Nothing. So, I pushed harder and sawed back and forth. As my son was still grasping my leg, I was thinking that at least if it left a bloody spot on my new carpet that it would be hidden under the couch. (Hey, I worked really hard to find that good carpet at a decent price!)

I think at this point I had it incapacitated enough that I scooped it up and take it outside to finish the job. After it was over, I had a discussion with my son about the importance of listening to me. Unfortunately, over the next six years we were faced with the same dilemma six more times. But every time I told him to get on his bed until I gave the all clear, he did it. He also got very good at spotting rattlesnakes that I didn’t see.

Maybe for the second story I’ll tell you about the second half of this day and how I learned about the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup.

Thanks for reading this if you’ve made it this far! One of the reasons I write the stories about West Texas is to show the world what it’s like.


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A Review of The Secret Lives of Cats

One thing I like about being in a book club is that I get a chance to read books that I hadn’t heard of. And since I hadn’t heard of Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s story, The Secret Lives of Cats, I’m glad that it came to my attention and I had a good excuse to read it.

 

Amazon describes it as: Winner of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Choice Award for 2008, this Anthony-nominated story was one of the most talked about stories of the year.

 

I can believe it. I was drawn in by its first sentence. “Homer Ziff didn’t believe in old adages, but after his long and eventful spring, he couldn’t help but think that whoever put the words “curiosity,” “cat,” and “kill” in the same sentence had to be onto something.”

 

I like curiosity, cats, and of course crime fiction. So I’m there! You got me. (And look at this awesome cover. I love it.)

Screen Shot 2019-04-22 at 3.04.41 PM

I like the premise. Ziff wonders where his cats go during the day so he attaches a small camera to each cat’s collar. The camera takes still photos, not video. (This was written when GoPro was still new and incredibly expensive.) Every day he downloads and saves many of the photos to see where they go. He notices that they go to a place where other cats congregate and sit there. Are they looking at something? What are they doing? He’s fascinated and after several days it becomes apparent that what they are looking at are bones, human bones.

 

He calls the police. “When the operator answered, he said, “I think there’s a dead body in my neighborhood.” And that brought the detectives to his door.”

 

He has to explain to them that the cats have found a dead body, but he doesn’t know exactly where it is. And he has to do this without sounding crazy or guilty. Fortunately for him, one of the detectives understands right away.

 

I’ll let you read the rest of the story to find out what happens. I thought it was a full-length book so I was a little disappointed that it was a short story, only 33 pages long. I wanted more! I liked everything about it, the characters, the descriptions, and the plot. I thought it moved right along.

 

I highly recommend this short read and I’ll definitely be reading more by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I was curious to see what else she has written and was thrilled to find that she also writes a lot of sci-fi. I’ll confess that I’m a bit of a Trekkie so I was tickled to see that she’s written a few ST books too! (Insert The Original Series music here. Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ahhhh.)

 

So go check out The Secret Lives of Cats and the other books listed on her site. https://kriswrites.com/

 

Happy hunting and live long and prosper!


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World War I Era Mysteries

These books look so good that I wanted to share this with you. Parts of my book, Gilt Ridden, also take place in West Texas during this era. CrimeReads is a great source for learning about old and new books.

https://crimereads.com/9-mysteries-set-in-the-immediate-aftermath-of-wwi/#


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