15 September 2018

Life's Great Mysteries

I recently attended an annual literary conference held on the grounds of the State Capitol Building here in Jackson, Mississippi. It was fun as always, but I'm especially glad I went because it wound up serving as my replacement for Bouchercon this year. (I underwent abdominal surgery earlier this summer, and though I'm recovering well, I opted at the last minute not to make the long road-trip to St. Petersburg. In doing so, I missed out on (1) participating in a short-story panel, (2) signing with fellow contributors to the B'con anthology, (3) receiving in person an award during the Opening Ceremonies, and (4) visiting with a legion of old friends--but, under the circumstances, I think it was the right decision. And I thank you again, Michael Bracken, for agreeing to stand in for me and accept my award in my absence.)

Instead of B'con, I ended up driving about a hundredth of that distance a few weeks ago to take part in our fourth annual Mississippi Book Festival. Almost ten thousand readers and writers braved the heat and humidity and intermittent thunderstorms to attend, and about three-fourths of those folks attended the more than forty panel discussions held throughout the day. Guests included Salman Rushdie, Karl Rove, Greg Iles, Richard Ford, and Jon Meacham.

I was on two panels, one of them "Southern Writers on Writing," because I'd contributed an essay to an anthology of the same name, and the other "Life's Great Mysteries," which I also moderated. It's this second panel I'd like to talk about today, because my three fellow panelists were indeed great mystery authors, and wrote three of the most interesting and entertaining crime novels I've read in a long time.

The first, Michael Kardos, is the author of Bluff (Mysterious Press), a thriller that Kardos has described as "a heist book disguised as a poker book disguised as a magic novel." It's the story of disgraced magician and card-trick prodigy Natalie Webb, who's been reduced to performing for local festivals and birthday parties and lives alone with her pigeons and stacks of overdue bills. She teams up with another cardsharp to try to win a fortune in a high-stakes poker game with a group of Jersey big-shots, an operation which of course doesn't go as planned. Kardos, who has also written two other novels, a short-story collection, and a textbook on writing, is an associate professor of English and the co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.

The second panelist was William Boyle, author of The Lonely Witness (Pegasus Books). Though not a sequel, this novel features as its protagonist a character introduced in Boyle's book Gravesend (which was also covered in one of Thomas Pluck's SleuthSayers columns)--and both stories are set in the depressing but fascinating Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn. A truly "literary" mystery, this novel features former convicts, wanna-be gangsters, almost-forgotten classmates, Italian and Russian mobsters, and working-class people struggling to survive. Boyle, whose work has been compared to that of Elmore Leonard, George Pelecanos, and Dennis Lehane, is also the author of the novel Everything Is Broken and the short-story collection Death Don't Have No Mercy. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi.

The third panelist, Stephen Mack Jones, discussed his novel August Snow (Soho Crime), which is the first in a series featuring Snow as an ex-Detroit police officer who--after being ushered out of the force for blowing the whistle on department corruption--returns to Detroit to try to prove his worth as a member of the community. The author has described this book as a novel of second chances--for Snow, for some of his drug-dealer acquaintances, and ultimately for the battered and crumbling neighborhoods of his hometown. A Detroit native himself, Stephen Mack Jones is a poet and a playwright, and was awarded the prestigious Hammett Prize by the International Associaton of Crime Writers. His work has also been nominated for the Shamus Award, the Nero Award, and the Strand Magazine Critics Award for Best First Novel.

Two of these three novelists--Mike Kardos and Bill Boyle--I already knew; Stephen Mack Jones I'd not met before. All three made my moderating job easy and kept the audience interested throughout.

I encourage you to try their books--you won't be disappointed.


  1. Sounds like good panel.

    I was sorry to hear about your surgery but glad you are making a good recovery. Anything involving surgeons is no fun.

  2. John, hope you are feeling better. Getting older is no fun. At least our minds haven't let us down. Yet. If my body played along, I could live forever.

  3. Thanks, Janice. Yep, any panel is usually fun to be on, and of course as a panelist you try hard to make it fun for the audience as well. Moderating is a different thing, of course. The downside is that you have to be more prepared and know your panelists and their works, but the advantage is that you can control the pace and direct the discussion the way you want it done. As I mentioned, this one was easy because the panelists themselves were so interesting.

    As for the surgery, I'm doing fine, and getting better every day. And thank goodness my being laid up for awhile hasn't affected my writing--in fact it's given me more time to dream up new stories.

  4. Hey O'Neil! Thanks for the well wishes. I hope to be back to 100% soon--my wife was a registered nurse in her previous life, so that's been a good thing for me. As for getting old, I think it was George Burns who said, "If I'd known I was going to live so long, I'd have taken better care of myself."

  5. John, congratulations on both the recovery and the conference. I'm not aware Florida has a symposium like yours, but that would be sensible and that's not Florida.

    The books do sound good. I've ordered from your publisher before… actually, I think you worked some sort of magic to send autographed copies.

    Again, John, well done and my best wishes toward gettin' better all the time.

  6. Thanks, Leigh! I've heard that a number of states have festivals like this one--I remember Josh Pachter and I were talking to a lady from Virginia once (at the Raleigh B'con, I think) who was putting together one for that state. Ours has been well attended in the past--Otto Penzler was here last year, and Ron Rash, and Grisham's made a couple of appearances as well.

    Thanks also for the get-well wishes--I should be back to full speed again pretty soon.

  7. Glad you are doing better. The only book of the three you have mentioned that I have read is AUGUST SNOW. One heck of a read.

  8. Thanks, Kevin. AUGUST SNOW was good--glad to hear you liked it. All three were "assigned reading" for me because I had to moderate the panel--but I thoroughly enjoyed all three novels.

    Additional facts: Two of the three (BLUFF and THE LONELY WITNESS) were written from a female POV--one was even first-person--but were totally convincing; and all three authors were raised in the areas where their stories were set (Detroit, NJ, Brooklyn).


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>