Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

‘Hearts of the Missing’ and the Tony Hillerman Prize

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By Carol Potenza, guest writer

During late March of 2017, I received a call from an unknown New York area code. I answered with a wary hello and a woman introduced herself as an editor for St. Martin’s Press. She asked me if I’d remembered entering my manuscript into the Tony Hillerman Prize earlier that year. Then she asked me if I was sitting down. My book had won the prize over seventy-five other submissions.

Hearts of the Missing was released on December 4, and is the first of what I hope will be a series of mysteries with sleuth and protagonist, Sgt. Nicky Matthews, a law enforcement officer on the fictional Tsiba’ashi D’yini Pueblo in central New Mexico. Winning this prize has changed my life, but I’m actually not here to discuss that because it’s a given. I want to talk about what the Tony Hillerman Prize is and why it should be a top priority for writers unpublished in the mystery genre.

Tony Hillerman (1925-2008) was the author of 18 mysteries set in the Southwest. The first of these books, The Blessing Way, was published in 1972, and the final book, The Shape Shifter, in 2006. So popular were his books and beloved his characters, that for years after his death people would ask his daughter, Anne Hillerman, if there was just one more manuscript—maybe in a drawer somewhere—he’d left to be published posthumously. What a legacy. Hillerman’s mysteries feature Navajo police officers Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee with the Navajo Nation as his setting. Hillerman’s books have won or been nominated for awards like the Edgar (Dance Hall of the Dead, 1974), the National Book Award (Listening Woman, 1980), the Spur Award (Skinwalkers, 1987), and a Nero (Coyote Waits, 1990). Many of his books have been adapted into movies and for TV.

The Tony Hillerman Prize for the Best First Mystery set in the Southwest is sponsored by Macmillan Publishing and the Western Writers of America and honors the spirit of the Hillerman mysteries. Full-length manuscript submissions are due early in January every year (for 2019, January 2). The winner receives a single book publishing contract with an advance of $10,000, no agent necessary. Two major stipulations need to be followed. (1) The story’s primary setting must be in the Southwest and include one or more of the following states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and/or Utah. (2) The winner can’t have published in the mystery genre. Since first awarded in 2007, eight prizes have been given and eight novels bearing the Tony Hillerman Prize seal have been published. To maintain a high standard of quality, some years the prize is not awarded.

Tony Hillerman Prize Winners

Christine Barber: The Replacement Child (2007)
Roy Chaney: The Ragged End of Nowhere (2008)
Tricia Field: The Territory (2010)
Andrew Hunt: City of Saints (2011)
CB McKenzie: Bad Country (2013)
John Fortunato: Dark Reservations (2014)
Kevin Wolf: The Homeplace (2015)
Carol Potenza: Hearts of the Missing (2017)

So mystery writers, polish up your best novel set in the Southwest and submit to the Hillerman Prize. Most of the winners have gone on to publish more books. That’s what I hope for my future.

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Hearts of the Missing is Carol Potenza’s debut novel.  She teaches biochemistry at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. Before teaching became a full-time position, she conducted plant genetic engineering research, also at NMSU, and worked briefly on the Jornada Experimental Range north of town and at a drug-testing lab.

She loves the desert Southwest and the beauty of New Mexico is the inspiration for her books.  She and her husband whose family has lived in the state for generations have traveled throughout New Mexico from the ancient pueblos of Bandelier National Monument to the Lincoln County Courthouse where Billy the Kid escaped by murdering two deputies, from the Plaza in Santa Fe to the depths of Carlsbad Caverns.

New in mystery and suspense; holiday gift suggestions

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Books are thoughtful holiday gifts.  Click on the book covers for buying options.   Prices on books in all formats are subject to change at the discretion of the store or website where they are purchased.

Martini Shot (An Eddie Collins Mystery Book 4)
Clive Rosengren
Coffeetown Press  November 2018
204 pages
Kindle $2.99   Trade paperback $13.99

Eddie Collins, private eye and part-time Hollywood actor, is hired by ageing actor, Sam Roth, to locate his disowned son, Jack Callahan. Roth hopes to reconcile their relationship before his “Martini Shot” last scene of the day, as he is in his 90s.

While working the Roth case, Eddie receives a letter from his daughter’s adoptive parents, that she would like to meet him and find out more about her mom. In spite of his uncertainty, Eddie agrees to meet her. What will this relationship lead to in the future and what will all parties make of it? Only time will tell.

Eddie locates Callahan, leading to a father and son meeting. However, he later gets a call from Roth, informing him that his son has been found, bludgeoned to death. Sam asks Eddie to find out what has happened to Jack. Eddie investigates Jack’s life, hoping to find clues to the murder. Little does he know that upon discovering the murderer, his own life will hang in the balance.

This is the fourth in the Eddie Collins series.  It is preceded by Murder Unscripted, Red Desert and Velvet on a Tuesday Afternoon.

* * *

Clive Rosengren is a recovering actor. His career spanned more than forty years, eighteen of them pounding many of the same streets as his fictional sleuth Eddie Collins. He appeared on stages at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, the Guthrie Theater, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, among others. Movie credits include Ed Wood, Soapdish, Cobb, and Bugsy. Among numerous television credits are Seinfeld, Home Improvement, and Cheers, where he played the only person to throw Sam Malone out of his own bar. He lives in southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley, safe and secure from the hurly-burly of Hollywood.  The first two books in the series were finalists for the Shamus Awards, sponsored by the Private Eye Writers of America.

 

The Reversible Mask, an Elizabethan Spy Novel
Loretta Goldberg
Made Global Publishing   December 2018

449 pages
Kindle $4.99   Trade paperback $19.84

Summer 1566. A glittering royal progress approaches Oxford. A golden age of prosperity, scientific advances, exploration and artistic magnificence. Elizabeth I’s Protestant government has much to celebrate.

But one young Catholic courtier isn’t cheering.

Conflicting passions—patriotism and religion—wage war in his heart. On this day, religion wins. Sir Edward Latham throws away his title, kin, and country to serve Catholic monarchs abroad.

But his wandering doesn’t quiet his soul, and when Europe’s religious wars threaten his beloved England and his family, patriotism prevails. Latham switches sides and becomes a double agent for Queen Elizabeth. Life turns complicated and dangerous as he balances protecting country and queen, while entreating both sides for peace.

Intrigue, lust, and war combine in this debut historical novel.

* * *

An Australian-American, Loretta Goldberg earned a BA in English literature, musicology and history at the University of Melbourne. After teaching English for a year, she came to the US on a Fulbright scholarship to study piano. She earned an MA in music performance at Hunter College, New York.  She built a financial services practice, which she sold recently to focus on writing. She’s written articles on financial planning, arts reviews and political satire.

 

The Blue
Nancy Bilyeau
Endeavour Quill
430 pages
Kindle $3.99    Trade paperback  $15.58

In eighteenth century London, porcelain is the most seductive of commodities. Fortunes are made and lost upon it. Kings do battle with knights and knaves for possession of the finest pieces and the secrets of their manufacture.

For Genevieve Planché, an English-born descendant of Huguenot refugees, porcelain holds far less allure; she wants to be an artist, a painter of international repute, but nobody takes the idea of a female artist seriously in London. If only she could reach Venice.

When Genevieve meets the charming Sir Gabriel Courtenay, he offers her an opportunity she can’t refuse; if she learns the secrets of porcelain manufacture, he will send her to Venice. But in particular, she must learn the secrets of the colour blue.

The ensuing events take Genevieve deep into England’s emerging industrial heartlands, where not only does she learn about porcelain, but also about the art of industrial espionage.

She also learns much about love.

With the heart and spirit of her Huguenot ancestors, Genevieve faces her challenges head on, but how much is she willing to suffer in pursuit and protection of the colour blue?

* * *

Nancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of InStyleDuJourRolling StoneEntertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping. She is currently the deputy editor of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at City University of New York and a regular contributor to Town & CountryPurist, and The Vintage News.

She earned a BA at the University of Michigan. The Crown, her  first novel and an Oprah pick, was published in 2012; the sequel, The Chalice, followed in 2013 and the third in the trilogy, The Tapestry, was published in 2015. This is her fourth novel.

 

Review: Sleazy characters star in Thompson classic thriller

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Nothing More Than Murder
Jim Thompson
Mulholland Books; Reprint edition, 2014
240 pages
$15 Trade paperback  $4.99 Kindle

You kill someone. You plot it out with two accomplices, your wife and your lover.  You trust one of them—your lover—to handle the details smoothly.  You look forward to the insurance money the killing will bring you.  It will be your escape from a life that’s harried you for years.  The business is going downhill.  So is your marriage.  This is the way out.

The murder is accomplished.  It went off according to plans.  But people are talking. You’re worried.  No, you’re scared.  People ask you questions.  Business people conspire against you. They know. 

Your lover becomes clutching.  She’ll spoil everything.   But there’s something you can do.  There must be.  You have to get an idea and fast. You get the shakes.  The chills.  Death is closing in.

Immersed in this absorbing story, you’ve just put yourself into the shoes of Joe Wilmot. He’s a scheming movie theater operator who rationalizes swindling and laments his uneven past. For a time he’s consumed by lust, then fear.  He muses about death, how he hates his wife’s incompetence.  Yeah, she owned the theater, but he hustled his ass off to make it work. Does he love her?

Wilmont’s story, told by Joe himself in a sardonic sometimes angry first person narrative, is suspense writer Jim Thompson’s early novel, Nothing More Than Murder, published in 1949. This first financial success was followed by The Killer Inside Me, and later, The Grifters, the most well-known of his 30 novels.  Some critics place Thompson in the same category as Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain, pioneers of hardboiled crime stories.  Nothing More Than Murder demonstrates a dark view of life present in other Thompson novels.

Wilmot and his wife Elizabeth Barclay run a movie theater in a small town.  By ignoring union rules, shortchanging and overworking his lone projectionist, putting his competition out of  business via a back-room deal, cutting corners, cheating suppliers and schmoozing locals and city officials, Wilmont keeps the theater making money.  Although he’s operated the theater for ten years, it still bears his wife’s name.  One of the things that bothers Wilmot.  One of many.

Carol Farmer is the couple’s innocent and seemingly unnecessary house maid, hired by Barclay to relieve her of household chores.  “If there was ever a woman  you wouldn’t look at twice she was it,” Wilmot explains to readers saying she was cockeyed and pigeon-toed.  But one day when Farmer is showing Wilmot a suit that Barclay gave her, he changes his mind.  She was so buxom as to be top-heavy, he says. 

“She looked like hell. She looked like a sack of bran that couldn’t decide which way it was going to fall.”

But the more he looked, the more she attracted him. “She looked cute-mad and funny-sweet.  She looked like she’d started somewhere and been mussed up along the way.

“She was a honey.  She was sugar and pie.  She was a bitch.”  Later, in the restrained language of the 1940s, he describes having sex with her.

Barclay knows about her husband’s affair and she hatches an insurance scheme, agreeing to leave Wilmot and Farmer in exchange for the insurance money.  With a similar insurance scheme, Nothing More Than Murder differs markedly from Cain’s Double Indemnity particularly in the way the fraud is organized and executed.

Nothing More is a suspense rather than a detective novel, but it’s one with a number of mysteries, a pursuit and twists and turns and it’s sprinkled with clues to the outcome. Some of the clues come from the details of running a movie theatre.  Unfortunately, Thompson includes too much theatre operations minutia, of little interest to twenty-first century readers.

Eventually, the details of the trio’s plan tumble out of control.  Wilmot tries to find a way out, but threats are multiplying: associates seeking payback, a nosy insurance investigator, Farmer’s insecurity.

At first Thompson’s narrator sounds as if he’ll be as smart-alecky as a noir private eye.

“She smiled, kind of like an elevator boy smiles when you ask him if he has lots of ups and downs.” 

But soon the tone darkens.  Wilmot sympathizes with Farmer whose impoverished background has brought her to work for Barclay.

“…I knew how she felt because, I’d felt the same way. I knew what it meant to be nothing and to want to be something. And to be scared out of your pants that someone is going to knock you down—not because of what you’ve done but because you can’t strike back.  Because they want to see you squirm, or they have a headache, or they don’t like the way your hair is parted.”  

The book moves forward and back in time as Wilmot recalls his life in reform school, his courtship and marriage to Barclay and his relationship with Farmer.   Occasionally it’s a stream of consciousness narrative such as this dark digression in the middle of an unrelated narrative about  Wilmont’s fascination with Farmer.

“There was a lot of stuff on the radio and in the newsreels and newspapers.  People getting run over, blown up, drowned, smothered, starved, lynched.  Mercy killings, hangings, electrocutions, suicides.  People who didn’t want to live.  People who deserved killing. People who were better off dead.”

These seemingly unrelated dark thoughts represent a technique he uses to great effect in later novels.

Having a dishonest, wholly unsympathetic narrator is an occasional noir technique and Thompson executes it with skill.  Even if you don’t like Wilmont, you are captured by his plight and his panic as the story drags you through to its conclusion.

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I read this book in a 2017 reprint edition from Book Revivals Press, but it is no longer listed on the publisher’s website, nor available at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.  The Book Revivals Press edition had not only a few typos but also hundreds of dashes that were turned into hyphens creating awkward hyphenated words.   Perhaps this is why it’s no longer available.

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Jim Thompson (1906 –1977) bounced around in various jobs after college at the University of Nebraska.  Like many successful noir writers he began writing short stories for pulp magazines in the 1930s.  He joined the Federal Writers Project, but was forced out in 1939 because he had become a communist.  After some unsuccessful books,  he found his first big success with Nothing More than Murder. He followed that with The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters and others. Later in his career he wrote for television and motion pictures.

 

 

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