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A Statewide Investigation

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If squinting survivors straggling across the Lone Star state years after some manmade apocalypse wanted to learn about the Texans that came before, they would be fortunate to stumble upon Lone Star Sleuths: An Anthology of Texas Crime Fiction. Far from the clichéd, cowboy-and-wildcatter stereotypes of old, the heroes who populate the anthology cover the dark corners of a modern Texas not touted in tourist brochures. Imagine Bob Phillips, the Prozac-perky host of Texas Country Reporter, as a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing collection agent with an impending divorce and a snub-nosed pistol.

The anthology features 30 excerpts from Texas’ best mystery novels, grouped into seven geographic sections: El Paso and West Texas; Austin and the Hill Country; Houston and the Gulf Coast; Dallas-Fort Worth and the Panhandle; East Texas; San Antonio and South Texas; and small-town Texas. Each excerpt begins with a brief history of the author and some commentary on the regional relevance. The stories take the reader from the mean streets to the posh districts to the rural outposts as protagonists pursue their culprits. Woven into the mysteries is a compendium of the state’s most controversial issues, providing a crash course on Texas’ current condition.

Lone Star Sleuths Cover

“While a very real affection for Texas exists in these books, the portraits will not always please boosters of the Lone Star State: There’s rampant pollution along the upper Texas coast, wasteful water usage in West Texas, white racists in East Texas, gang activity in San Antonio, religious intolerance in small towns,” the editors write. “This is not the stuff of glossy literature. Call it realism. And it’s perfectly suited to crime literature.”

Modern Texas is one of the most ethnically diverse states in the country. Reflecting this fact, the crime fiction protagonists come from a variety of backgrounds and hold a wide array of jobs. “Now a private eye can also be a rock musician, funeral director, game warden, advertising executive, stand-up comedian, priest, English professor, fashion stylist, football player, herb shop owner, librarian, chef, birdwatcher, salvage boat operator, and lesbian forensic chemist,” the editors write. “There is even room among their ranks for a Jewish country-and-western musician and provocateur named ‘Kinky.’”

Often, the mystery is just a means for exploring regional cultures and issues. In The Two-Bear Mambo, Nacogdoches-based author Joe R. Lansdale writes about East Texas’ violence and racism with offbeat humor. Though the Piney Woods have the highest concentration of black people in the state, several towns are practically all white. For many years, Vidor had a Ku Klux Klan bookstore on its main street. In 1998, a black man named James Byrd Jr. was chained to a truck and dragged to his death in Jasper. Lansdale’s protagonists are Hap Collins, a white, womanizing, good ol’ boy, and Leonard Pine, a black, gay Republican. When a friend goes missing, the two buddies travel to fictional Grovetown to find her.

The Grovetown Café was not a place you would mistake for a French restaurant. It was overly warm and the walls were decorated with badly painted ceramic birds and squirrels, and there was some of that really bad hillbilly music you hear from time to time but can’t quite believe it. It’s not even AM radio pop. It only plays in ancient towns with jukeboxes that have glass cases coated gray by oily hands. It’s like generic heavy metal and rap. Who listens to this stuff on purpose? It sounds like some kind of joke. The sharp little notes clung to the air and stuck to my head like prickly pear thorns. They went well with the stench of old grease from the kitchen.

I waded through grease and music and found a stool and sat down and waited. From a back booth a couple of guys stared at me. They were in their thirties, healthy-looking, but they had the attitude of men with “back problems” on workdays. It’s a mysterious ailment that seems to descend on a large percentage of the redneck population. I couldn’t help but think they were drawing a check from somewhere. Some kind of compensation. Maybe they were watching me nervously because they thought I was an insurance man that had caught them without their back braces.

I figured, at night, after a hard day of smoking cigarettes, swigging coffee, and cussin’ the niggers and liberals, they’d buy a couple of six-packs, go home and pass out in front of the TV set after beating the wife and kids, a half-eaten bag of generic-brand potato chips clutched to their chests.

Then again, here I was judging people I didn’t even know. I was starting to be just like the people I despised. They were probably a couple of nuclear physicists on vacation, stopping in here to soak up the homey atmosphere.

“That nigger out there will want more’n a couple of them patties,” said one of the men in the back. “A nigger likes a peanut pattie. Next to what a woman’s got, and a watermelon, ain’t much they like better.”

I looked at them and smiled sadly. I began to understand why so many clichés persist. Too much truth in them.

Austin-based author Jesse Sublett, a former lead singer and bass player for the 1970s punk band the Skunks, began writing mystery novels in the 1980s. His detective, Martin Fender, can’t pay the bills as a musician, so he works as a skip tracer at a collection agency. Like fellow musician Kinky Friedman, Sublett gives the reader droll insight into the music business under the faintest pretences of a mystery plot. In The Rock Critic Murders, Sublett’s first book in the Fender series, the author sets his narrative against an economic boom transforming Austin from hippie haven to bustling metropolis.

Live music was also down on account of the real estate boom. Because in a city with more live music venues than either LA or Manhattan, things had always centered around a downtown area no more than a couple of miles in diameter. And in that area, skyrocketing land value called for maximum use for maximum profit. High-rises were in and clubs were out.

Things had always been tough for live music, though, and it was hard to feel sorry for club owners. Down at the street level, the clubs-as well as booking agencies, studios, and bands-often survived only by bending laws and cutting corners and using money that someone needed to lose. Sometimes the money came from drugs, sometimes it came from someone just trying to avoid a tax bite. I remember one club that was run by men who had connections with a string of sex-oriented clubs out of Houston. When you went downstairs to get paid, they took the cash from a big steel trunk the size of a coffin. There would be four or five guys down there and at least that many guns. You didn’t ask where that money had been.

[Club owners] made things work by being there and running things, but they were in the music business the way cheap hookers were in the love business.

Yeah, they were.

An ethnically diverse port city, Houston holds the largest Vietnamese population in the United States outside of California. Recently, its white community has become a numerical minority. The rise of the Vietnamese community was cemented in 2004, when businessman Hubert Vo defeated an incumbent Republican for his seat in the Texas Legislature (see, “Just Say Vo,” October 22, 2004). In Heat from Another Sun, David L. Lindsey sends his homicide detective Stuart Haydon to the city’s immigrant neighborhoods in search of a killer.

They got out and locked the car. The projects had an unhealthy reputation for gangs of teenagers, who roamed the neighborhood vandalizing and testing their ability to run petty extortion rackets. This was in imitation of a larger, citywide problem within the Asian community, which was the second largest in the nation. The Chinese tongs were well established in Houston’s crime world. They were organized and efficient, and their members commanded a fearful respect within the Chinese community. They were known as “the gentlemen.” The Vietnamese gangsters, however, required and received no such respect. They were considered little more than thugs and hoodlums by their own people. Their influence was supported solely by the fear they engendered within the community, which effectively sealed the lips of their fellow Vietnamese victims, making police investigation almost impossible. Though their organization differed from the Chinese, it was a potent force. The four or five gangs that dominated the Vietnamese underworld in Houston had direct links to the Oriental syndicates in New Orleans, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

They rounded the corner at the same moment Haydon identified the odor.

“Blood,” he said, and their flashlights lit an open area of unspeakable carnage, great swaths of it working with swarms of black flies, grubbing among themselves to get to the source of attraction.

Though best known for his bestselling “Percy Jackson” children’s book series, Rick Riordan cut his literary teeth on San Antonio-based crime fiction. His protagonist is Tres Navarre, a Tai Chi expert with a Ph.D. in medieval literature and an enchilada-eating cat. In The Last King of Texas, Navarre has taken a temporary teaching job at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where the position’s last occupant was murdered. Soon targeted himself, Navarre’s investigations lead him to a West Side cantina. The center of San Antonio’s Hispanic population, the West Side has problems with poverty and drug trafficking. Its city officials are reluctant to address this issue for fear of bad publicity and a subsequent loss in tourist dollars.

Ahead of me, the sunset faded to an afterglow behind palm trees and Spanish billboards. Turquoise and pink walls of icehouses and bail bond offices lost their color. On the broken sidewalks, men in tattered jeans and checkered shirts milled around, their faces drawn from an unsuccessful day of waiting, their eyes examining each car in the fading hope that someone might slow down and offer them work.

The rest of the block was lined with closed tiendas and burglar-barred homes. Crisscrossed telephone lines and pecan tree branches sliced up the sky. The only real light came from the end of the block across the street-the Church of Our Lady of the Mount. Its Moorish, yellow-capped spires were brutally lit, a dark bronze Jesus glaring down from on high at the Poco Mas. Jesus was holding aloft a circle of metal that looked suspiciously like a master’s whip. Or perhaps a hubcap rim.

At the entrance to the cantina, I was greeted by a warm blast of air that smelled like an old man’s closet-leather and mothballs, stale cologne, dried sweat, and liquor. Inside, the rafters glinted with Christmas ornaments. Staple-gunned along the walls were decades of calendars showing off Corvettes with bras and women without. The jukebox cranked out Selena’s “Quiero” just loud enough to drown casual conversation and the creaking my boots must’ve made on the warped floor planks.

Mara’s friend was thinner, taller, maybe thirty years old, with a wiry build and a high hairline that made his thin face into a valentine. He had a silver cross earring and black-painted fingernails, a black trench coat and leather boots laced halfway up his calves. He’d either been reading too much Anne Rice or was on his way to a bandido Renaissance festival.

“Go home, gringo. Quit while you’re ahead.”

Though Lone Star Sleuths is an excellent anthology of Texas crime fiction, the book’s uninspired cover art may cause potential readers to pass it by. A lone-star badge reflects an orange and turquoise sunset, casting the shadow of a cowboy hat-wearing sleuth holding a magnifying glass. Set against a red background, the artwork has the grace and imagination of a middle school textbook cover. With its corny stereotypical “Texas” imagery, the uninspired design does a disservice to the complex subjects tackled within the book. Like the Lone Star state itself, a peek beyond the superficiality of the façade offers adventure and insight that cannot be found anywhere else.

Stayton Bonner is a writer in Austin.