FAVORITE TEXAS CRIME NOVELS
TEXAS: FAR MORE THAN A LONE STAR BACKDROP FOR GRITTY CRIME NOVELS
When I was a journalist, I roved the border between Texas and Mexico in search of stories about a rugged region that is really a land and culture unto itself, not truly a part of the countries on either side of a line on a map.
I wrote stories about coyotes smuggling illegal aliens across the Rio Grande, playing nocturnal cat-and-mouse games with the Border Patrol, and narcotrafficante violence and corruption that caused more than one tough-talking Texas lawman to fall. I also wrote about the return of mountain lions to the Big Bend country, maquiladora plants and the pollution that caused cancer and birth defects, and squalid colonias where residents lived in poverty, without running water or sewer lines and with almost no chance of ever owning the shack they called home.
I’ve been drunk on Presidente brandy in the Kentucky Club in Juarez and have wolfed down breakfast tacos stuffed with organ meat slathered in a savory sauce while standing next to a food truck, warding off a hangover and the morning chill in Eagle Pass.
I also wandered the Hill Country, wading through calf-deep guano in the world’s sixth-largest bat cave near Mason, Texas. I’ve used a folding knife to carve smoked brisket and sausage at Cooper’s Old-Time Pit Bar-B-Cue in Llano, one of the holy shrines of Texas barbecue. I lived for a time in Dallas, home of my all-time favorite bar, Louie’s, founded by the late, great Louie Canelakes, who plays a cameo role in both my novels. I also came to know Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso fairly well, the latter both as a boy visiting my uncles who were career Army sergeants based at Fort Bliss and later as a roving correspondent wandering the border.
I love the deceptive landscape of the Hill Country—green at a distance, dry and craggy up close. And I love the harsh starkness of the Big Bend and northern Mexico—how the mountains collide and look like the bones of the earth ripped open. That wide-open, sun-blasted, and evocative landscape stole my heart. It spoke to me then—still does now. It also seemed like the perfectly natural setting for the very primal and violent stories of revenge and redemption I tried to tell in my two hard-boiled Texas thrillers, The Last Second Chance and The Right Wrong Number.
I also come from a long line of hillbilly storytellers who instilled in me a deep and abiding sense of family, time, and place as well as a rich appreciation of how the land shapes the people who live on it even as they’re trying to wrest a living from that land. This makes me a firm believer in creating a strong sense of time and place in the stories I tell, etching a detailed description that makes the setting come alive as a living, breathing character—not just a picaresque backdrop. Every author should do this—too few do.
In my mind, there’s no place like Texas to give gumption and texture to a gritty crime novel. Let’s be clear here: I’m not talking about spinning out a Texana caricature or making a grandstand play to the Texas of myth and legend. Stick to the real Texas and you’ll wind up with a tale told as much by the places you describe as by the people, dialogue, and action you create.
What follows is a list of books whose writers make Texas come alive by the standard I just described. Some are native born; Texans are mighty particular about who can call themselves Texans. Only those born there can. However, foreigners like me can fall in love with the state, and some of the books I list are by no-account outlanders who can pine for Texas and wax poetic about it but will never be able to call themselves Texans. Some are legends long dead and gone; others are gone and were deeply underappreciated while they walked among us. Some exclusively work the gritty, hard-boiled genre while others rove a broader, more literary range. A few are younger writers who nailed it right out of the chute.
Here we go, in no particular order. I’ll even give you some gaudy patter about what I learned from each writer and their pure-dee Texas crime novels.
Waltz Across Texas
By Max Crawford
This sprawling 1975 tale of lust, greed, corruption, and murder rambles from the semi-mythical West Texas town of Flavannah (there is a real-life Fluvanna, Texas), a fly-speck of a dying farm and ranch hub high on the caprock, to the glass towers of Houston and its endless sprawl and the eclectic center of state government and higher learning known as Austin. The story is told by Sugar Campbell, a Korean War hero and former Army intelligence officer, who is hired by his high school buddy, Son Cunningham, to return to his hometown after a somewhat shady venture in the California oil business goes bust. Campbell can’t tell whether he’s being hired to kill somebody, be a patsy for a killing, or be killed. The somebody is Tee Kitchens, heir to a Texas cattle ranch on the verge of bankruptcy and holder of a $6,000,000 life insurance policy that is both the key to the ranch’s survival and the reason Kitchens is marked for death, but not the only reason. Cunningham, an ambitious political and business climber, is the lover of Kitchens’s wife, the beautiful and ethereal Adrienne. Crawford, the late Texan who also wrote one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite novels, Lords of The Plain, knowingly describes the arid West Texas landscape and its geological features, the hushed corridors of money, power, and corruption in Houston and Austin, and the manic actions of the feuding ranch factions that have different reasons for wanting Kitchens dead. Best of all, Crawford captures the epic scope of Texas itself, which taught me to raise the horizons of my own novels and set my own characters in constant motion across this great state.
The Rogues’ Game
By Milton Burton
A note-perfect debut novel by another departed native son, this is a hard-boiled caper thriller straight out of the Jim Thompson school of criminal grit. Set in West Texas at the start of the post-World War II boom, the book features a nameless narrator and his curvy blonde girlfriend, a woman with a sad past but a sharp mind for business and all the angles on both sides of the law. This richly layered story starts out as a man and his girlfriend head for a high-stakes poker game in a ’47 Lincoln convertible, then appears to be a plot to rob the game’s high rollers, then morphs again into a deceptive game with a darker motivation rooted in the narrator’s past as an OSS operative. Although set in the past, Burton’s novel isn’t a sepia-toned period piece. He makes subtle use of historical details and the intricacies of the oil business, the fever of a new boom town, and the nuances of poker strategy in service of a well-told tale that echoes the essence of that classic Paul Newman and Robert Redford movie, The Sting, but skips the schmaltz and caricature. And the mark in Burton’s story is far nastier than Doyle Lonnegan and far more deserving of a comeuppance, which becomes apparent when Burton peels back the final layer to reveal what his book is truly about. What I learned from Burton’s novel is how to make judicious use of historical details to set a story in the past without making the past a major point of the story. I also took to heart the way he added just the right amount of technical background about a complex subject to make it authentic without turning the narrative into a term paper. He uses the same deft touch to make his mythical West Texas town come to life without a hint of maudlin nostalgia.
By James Crumley
Another dead Texan, Crumley is still a vastly underappreciated talent whose detective novels are laced with drugs, sex, booze, and violence, all ladled out in unblinking and graphic detail. His rich, seedy, and wild books had a profound impact on my own writing, showing me it was a mighty fine thing to let my stories rip and describe sex and violence without the use of euphemism that insults the reader’s intelligence. His two main characters, private investigators Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue, aren’t super-sharp or super-cool. They’re dogged and deeply flawed—and utterly human. I kept that in mind when I created the main character for my two novels, cashiered Dallas homicide detective Ed Earl Burch. In Bordersnakes, Crumley brings both of his main characters together in pursuit of the narcotrafficantes who left Sughrue gut-shot in a ditch and hiding out in the seared desert of West Texas and the banker who ripped off Milo’s $3,000,000 trust fund inheritance. The novel hurtles from the desert double-wide that serves as Sughrue’s hideout to El Paso, nearby New Mexico, Seattle, and on to the big ranches on both sides of the Rio Grande, with a climactic and bloody finish in the lair of the narcos known as bordersnakes. Crumley’s descriptions of the landscape of the border between Texas and Mexico are so detailed you can feel the wind-blown grit on your tongue and the burn the unforgiving sun puts on your skin. This is a grim tale of revenge full of nasty characters with few redeeming qualities. It demands an equally grim setting, a land that Crumley brings to life as a character unto itself.
By Lawrence Block
Block has always been one of my favorite crime novelists. His Matthew Scudder stories are firmly rooted in New York and capture the street-level feel of living in America’s biggest city. At his best—and I’m thinking of When the Sacred Ginmill Closes and A Walk Among the Tombstones—Block transcends the detective genre and graphically illustrates my belief that hard-boiled crime novels are an American art form. At the high end, they rise above the whodunit and serve as vehicles for the author’s views of art, politics, psychology, music, relationships, friendships and, yes, the heart and soul of a criminal or cop. With Scudder, an ex-NYPD detective and alcoholic, you also gain keen insight into a man’s daily battle with addiction. Imagine my surprise and delight at discovering an early Block novel, written in 1962 and reprinted by Hard Case Crime in 2014, set in El Paso and Juarez. The story isn’t a detective mystery. It’s more of a grim O. Henry tale about the random intertwining of the lives of four people: a professional gambler, a newly divorced woman, a drifting proto-hippie hooker, and a serial killer. You get all of Block’s mastery of detail and dialogue, but the kick for me was his richly evocative description of an El Paso and Juarez before the population explosion and narcotrafficante violence. The quintessential New York writer captures the El Paso and Juarez I knew as a kid visiting my uncles based at Fort Bliss, well before I became aware of Boys’ Town, live sex shows, and cheap tequila. Block also captures those seedier attractions with a perfect eye.
No Country For Old Men
By Cormac McCarthy
I can hear the gnashing of teeth and anguished outcries from where I sit—from both the critics who say this book marks a fall from the high literary pedestal upon which they rightfully placed McCarthy and genre junkies who say Cormac ain’t a member of their club. Both parties need to sit down and shut up. In my mind, there is no better example of making the sun-blasted country of West Texas a living, breathing character in a crime thriller than McCarthy’s only foray into the genre. The storyline is familiar from both the book and the 2007 Coen brothers’ film, so I won’t bother with a replay. But if you want to learn how to create an acid-etched sense of time and place that is as vivid as the characters who populate your story, pick up this book and read it again.
The Far Empty
By J. Todd Scott
Scott is a younger writer, a Kentuckian by birth, so he can’t claim to be a Texan. No matter. His long career as a federal agent chasing border bad guys has given him the same keen sense of place for the stark, parched, and violent landscape of West Texas that I have. It’s ethereal and spooky country and its people grimly battle to eke out a living and stave off the ravages of a harsh and unforgiving land. It’s clear that Scott has intimate knowledge of these badlands. As a Brit general would say, he’s walked the ground. And he uses that knowledge to make the mythical town of Murfee come to life as well as the craggy land on the north side of the Rio Grande. His descriptions of place are so vivid and detailed they fairly leap off the page to stand as equals to his characters. The tale he tells is rich with Old Testament undertones as timeless as the murderous relationship between David and Absalom and the struggle for dominance and independence that takes place between all fathers and sons. Caleb Ross is the brooding teenage son of a legendary Texas sheriff, Stanford “Judge” Ross, boss of the town and surrounding county and a corrupt law-and-order fraud—possibly worse. The Judge’s wives have a tendency to die or disappear on him; the latter is how Caleb’s mother left their home and he’s haunted by her absence and convinced his father killed her. Chris Cherry is a flamed-out football star with a ripped-up knee who returns home with wife in tow, feeling adrift and sorry for himself until the Judge offers him a job as a deputy. When Cherry finds bones in a shallow grave on an outback ranch, Scott’s story shifts into high gear, with flashes of sudden violence and characters set on a collision course. At times, I felt like I was reading a Larry McMurtry novel, both for its note-perfect feel for West Texas and its tendency to meander about four or five chapters past where the author could have ended the story. But these ain’t necessarily bad things for a novel this fine.
By James Lee Burke
Burke, lauded as the William Faulkner of the crime thriller, is best known for his novels featuring alcohol-addicted and moralistic Louisiana cop Dave Robicheaux and his unpredictably violent sidekick, Clete Purcell. The settings of New Orleans and the Cajun wetlands around New Iberia are so poetically described in the Robicheaux novels that Burke seemed destined to be forever identified with those places. What people have come to understand with his latter novels is that Burke, who was born in Houston, has deep Texas roots, with ancestors that include a vicious gunfighter-turned-saddle-preacher who roved the Chisholm Trail thumping the Good Book. His series of Holland family novels tap into that personal Texas history, and Burke brings his finely tuned reverence for time, place, and blood ties to make the West Texas border country come to life. This excellent thriller features an aging Hackberry Holland, once a bad drunk and womanizer haunted by his Korean War experiences as a POW, now a small-town Texas sheriff grieving the dead wife who rescued him. Burke lives up to the Faulkner saying about the past being always present and never even being past —his characters are haunted by it, some literally. Burke is also living proof of what I mean about hard-boiled crime thrillers being an American art form. His prose is rhythmic and poetic, verging on purple, and the dead opposite of the clipped staccato expected in noir and hard-boiled tales. That taught me a valuable lesson when I set out to write my own crime novels—let the prose rip and don’t be afraid to commit wretched excess. Burke also makes this book far more than a whodunit about the machine-gun murder of nine Thai women being smuggled into Holland’s county to become prostitutes. He uses Holland’s hunt for the perpetrators of this grisly crime as a platform for his crackling takes on human trafficking, the uneasy relationship between Anglos and Mexicans on the border, the internal clockwork of a serial killer who thinks he has a direct line to God, the tension between violence, addiction, shame, and redemption—and the lasting nature of grief. But where this novel truly shines is in Burke’s striking and elegiac passages about the landscape of West Texas.
The Killer Inside Me
By Jim Thompson
Decades before Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Velma Barfield, Gary Ridgway, and an endless string of American psychos made serial killers a part of the national nightmare and a stock Hollywood staple, Jim Thompson etched a terse, sinewy portrait of that particularly American monster. His 1952 novel is still considered both a noir classic and a work that transcends the genre. Thompson’s killer, Deputy Lou Ford, seems as apple-pie normal as can be, a genial nice guy on the surface given to spouting boring platitudes and bromides that give him the reputation of a dullard and bore. That’s on the outside. On the inside, Ford is psycho with what he calls “the sickness,” a secret sadist who enjoys grinding a cigar butt into a bum’s hand and beating a hooker senseless—a turn-on for them both. They become lovers and co-conspirators in a blackmail scheme. Lou has other nasty habits besides killing and violent sex. He also injects himself with drugs he steals from his physician father’s stash. Lou is Exhibit One in Thompson’s caustic indictment of 1950s small-town hypocrisy. But to make these charges stick, he has to make mythical Central City, Texas, come to life with painstaking detail, capturing both the banal and the corrupt. He does so with sparse but telling narrative, taut dialogue, and a knack for juxtaposition just as deft as the dark contrast between Ford’s superficial self and the killer inside him.
By Ben Rehder
Rehder’s novels—in particular, his Blanco County mysteries—are darkly comic, full of characters that skitter right to edge of that most Texas of all caricatures, Bubba, the mythical, beer-swilling backcountry redneck who never met a gun, deer stand, pickup, or double-wide he didn’t love. In most cases, Rehder is setting you up for a bootlegger’s turn, an unexpected 180 that upends your expectations with a dimension you didn’t think his characters could possibly have. Take Billy Don Craddock and Red O’Brien, the deer-poaching protagonists of this Rehder tale. They’re a pair of ne’er-do-well Bubbas who share a double-wide in the Hill Country an hour west of Austin. They’re also inveterate schemers addicted to casual mayhem but they aren’t truly bad men. Craddock, a bear of a man, turns out to be a blackjack savant while O’Brien has guile and a sharp eye for angles and lies as well as the brains to go along with his balls. The lies of O’Brien’s tweaker cousin put both Bubbas in the crosshairs of a truly bad hombre, a meth lord and killer whose sister was gored by a prize bull the cousin tried to rustle from a rancher’s pasture. Rehder, a native son born in Austin, has a sharp eye for detail and an understanding of small-town and rural central Texas and the people who live there, including those who return from the big city like Lone Star homing pigeons. And he plays it utterly straight and true in his dead-solid-perfect descriptions of that deceptively scenic country and its up-close harshness: the choking caliche dust, the sharp-thorned mesquite, the bone-dry banks of a man-made lake. This gives authenticity to his comic-opera mysteries. The Texas he describes is true and keeps his novels from veering into a ridiculous abyss of Texana caricature.
Honky Tonk Samurai
By Joe R. Lansdale
Lansdale is a fearless and prolific writer, utterly courageous about busting the conventions of genre and creating outlandish characters and situations that range from the ridiculous to the sublime, characteristics that would doom a story told by a lesser talent. Consider one of his minor characters, the lethally carnal hit woman named Vanilla Ride, who wears black leather pants so tight you could see the outline of a quarter in her pocket—that’s almost a quote and I’m pretty sure Lansdale was alluding to an outline of a different sort. I’m a big fan of his Hap and Leonard series and enjoy the small-screen success these durable and scruffy survivors are having these days. Only Lansdale would pair two orphans thrown together by casually random tragedy in the piney thickets of East Texas—one of them a redneck child, the other black. Only Lansdale would forge a bond so strong between them that it transcends race and makes them brothers in everything but blood. And only Lansdale would make the black orphan a gay, Republican badass, a loose cannon Marine emeritus (there’s no such thing as an ex-Marine) with a mean streak a country mile wide. That’s Leonard Pine. Hap Collins is equally prone to step in deep shit and equally ready to solve a problem with his fists even though he’s a draft dodger and usually advocates a first try at a peaceful solution to their troubles. In this story, Hap and Leonard set out to discover the fate of the granddaughter of an ancient hooker. They wind up stumbling across a classic car-hookers-and-drugs honey trap set by the Dixie Mafia to blackmail rich marks. They’re also in the crosshairs of a vicious family of killer bikers. Cue the return of Vanilla Ride, who flies in from Italy to lend a deadly hand to Hap and Leonard in the form of a hopped-up Buick with a trunk full of sniper rifles and commando gear, perfect for a night assault on the family compound. She also has the hots for Hap and repeatedly tries to seduce him away from his girlfriend, Brett. Lansdale is always generous with raunchy dialogue, graphic violence, and nonstop banter laced with bad puns and cheerfully unapologetic sexism. The anchor for all of Lansdale’s criminal tales of the redneck baroque is the pine-choked landscape of East Texas, its claustrophobic thickets, its stifling humidity, its grim small towns that seem on the verge of being reclaimed by those dark and menacing pines. Hap and Leonard may venture into the big city—or what passes for same in East Texas. But they always return to land of the Big Thicket to drink in the humid, pine-laced air and wait for their next calamitous adventure.