Once upon a time, literary murders were largely relegated to British drawing rooms and California's mean streets. Hard-boiled heroes in Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco and Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles personified American noir, while British "cozies" circulated around the elaborate plots woven by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.
On both sides of the Atlantic, a distinct sense of place has long been one of the chief pleasures of the genre. Yet only in recent years have mysteries expanded to include America's regional cultures, and now millions of readers are familiar with Tony Hillerman's Navajo country, James Lee Burke's New Orleans, and Carl Hiaasen's Florida.
Texas has always staked a large claim on the nation's imagination and its mystery literature is no exception. Hundreds of crime novels are set within the state, most of which have been published in the last twenty years. From the highest point atop the Guadalupe Mountains in West Texas to the Piney Woods of East Texas, from the High Plains of the Panhandle to the subtropical climate of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, mystery writers have covered every aspect of the Texas's extraordinarily diverse geography.
The titles associated with Texas mysteries showcase many native elements: Armadillos and Old Lace, Mucho Mojo, Bad Chili, Chile Death, Bordersnakes, Diamondback, Hot Enough to Kill, Texas Wind, The Mexican Tree Duck, The Sheriff and the Branding Iron Murders, Death on the River Walk, Houston in the Rearview Mirror, and Deliver Me from Dallas. Even Texas's greatest real-life murder mystery—the assassination of John F. Kennedy—is addressed in several novels, one of which resuscitates Sherlock Holmes and brings him to Dallas in order to solve the case.
The typical protagonist in a Texas mystery novel was once easy to define—a wisecracking, improbably macho male. The wisecracks have remained, but a profound transformation has taken place in recent years. Texas women, long consigned to stereotypical supporting roles, have come on strong, infusing the genre with a new energy. Women detectives usually aren't as hard-boiled as their male counterparts, but they are plenty tough and courageous. Instead of using their fists or firing weapons, the women use their brains and powers of observation to solve crimes.
The growing numbers of female detectives are complemented by a dazzling array of vocations available to protagonists. Texas detectives once consisted of cops, lawyers, and private investigators. No longer. 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 range of occupations for Texas detectives is so boundless that there is even room among their ranks for a Jewish country-and-western musician and provocateur named "Kinky."
Despite this expanding diversity, one troubling aspect of contemporary Texas crime fiction remains—very few authors are African American or Mexican American. The situation will undoubtedly improve as the genre continues to evolve. In the meantime, many Anglo American mystery novelists have sought to portray Texas's cultural diversity in their work. Ethnic minorities often appear as major characters in novels, usually in the role of a sidekick to the Anglo American protagonists. The increasing Hispanicization of Texas is also making itself felt in the ethnic composition of some heroes and heroines. Bicultural and quasi-Hispanic elements are found in Jim Sanderson's Dolph Martinez, Nancy Herndon's Elena Jarvis, Allana Martin's Texana Jones, and Rick Riordan's Tres Navarre.
Several other factors distinguish Texas-based mysteries. One important element is the weather. Tornadoes, droughts, dust storms, flash floods, blizzards, and hurricanes appear periodically, but it's the killer heat that takes center stage. Detectives battle dehydration and sunstroke as they make their rounds. Even the hard-boiled types—the gutty detectives who seem to bounce right back from broken ribs and gunshot wounds—take great care to avoid burning themselves on the upholstery of their cars after they have been parked in the sun all day. Perhaps the most vivid description of Texas heat occurs in Rick Riordan's novel, Big Red Tequila. Riordan's protagonist notes that the temperature remained ninety-five degrees in San Antonio, even as the sun was setting. He observes, "The sun kept its eye on the city until its very last moment on the horizon, looking at you as if to say: 'Tomorrow I'm going to kick your ass.'"
In addition to the weather, Texas sleuths confront a variety of natural hazards: mountain lions, tarantulas, rattlesnakes, fire ants, alligators, mosquitoes, and killer bees. And then there are dermestid beetles. These flesh-eating insects live just a few miles north of San Antonio in Bracken Cave, which hosts the largest bat colony in the world. When a murder victim in J. P. Ripley's novel Lost in Austin gets dumped in the cave, the beetles reduce the body to a pile of bones within minutes. Same thing happens to unlucky bats.
As every Texan knows, the Lone Star State is susceptible to stereotyping. It's easy for outsiders to come in and portray over-the-top yahoos—racist redneck sheriffs and women with Big Hair Some non-Texan writers have given in to those temptations, and clichéd portraits emerge in their books. It's also true that some native authors will exaggerate local color, engaging in what Dallas Morning News critic Jerome Weeks calls "the yee-haw factor." But, overall, the majority of Texas-based mystery and detective fiction presents an accurate picture, and mystery writers have created memorable portraits of Texas's landscapes, people, and social issues.
Crime fiction has received significant attention from academic scholars in recent years. Mysteries are taught in college classrooms, discussed at academic conferences, and analyzed in scholarly publications. Part of this trend is the result of an increasing emphasis on pop culture studies at American universities. But the mysteries also receive such attention because they take on cutting edge social issues, addressing topics in ways more profound than the mass media, but less formal than statistics-laden academic studies. In Texas, mystery novels examine myriad issues: the role of illegal drugs in contemporary society, ethnic relations, politics, gender issues, corruption, religion, immigration, poverty, pollution, the nature of crime, and the roots of violence.
Texas mysteries also demonstrate that small towns are losing ground to America's mass culture. Bill Crider's Sheriff Dan Rhodes novels, set in fictional Clearview, are particularly adept at describing this phenomenon. In Crider's Murder Most Fowl, a local resident—who once owned a hardware store—stages a protest by chaining himself to the entrance of the Wal-Mart. The man is quickly arrested and hauled away, but his comments about the city's abandoned downtown linger long after the passage has ended.
Scholars have pointed out that the modern mystery novel derives in large part from the formulaic plots, themes, and characters that once ruled Western dime novels. This is hardly the most prestigious branch of the literary tree, and mysteries are regarded, rightly, as genre fiction. But increasingly, mystery novels are moving into literary terrain, becoming pulp free. The expanding popularity of crime fiction is a key to this evolution. With mystery novels dominating national bestseller lists and the shelf space in local bookstores, talented writers are becoming attracted to the genre. The result has been a substantial improvement in the quality of crime fiction. Many of the genre's best novels now contain hallmarks of what is considered "literary" writing: well-developed characters, innovative and lyrical use of the language, and an intellectual reach that considers complex social and philosophical issues.
In Texas, literary quality is evident in many of the state's best mystery writers. Several Texans have received the genre's major prizes: Mary Willis Walker has won the Agatha, Edgar, Hammett, and Macavity Awards. Rick Riordan has won the Edgar, Anthony, and Shamus Awards. Joe Lansdale received the Edgar, Jeff Abbott the Agatha, and Bill Crider the Anthony. Steven Saylor's A Twist at the End, although a mystery, received the Violet Crown Award for Best Novel from the Writers' League of Texas.
Other Texas mystery writers enjoy solid literary reputations outside of the genre. James Crumley, for example, is a Texas native whose first novel, a book about Vietnam titled One to Count Cadence, was published in 1969 and is considered a modern classic. Although Crumley's subsequent novels feature detectives, critics recognize that Crumley is a literary novelist whose canvas just happens to be crime fiction. There's also Rolando Hinojosa, who has won international prizes for his novels—some of which are mysteries—set in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Hinojosa is among those who have roots as English professors at Texas universities. That list includes Susan Wittig Albert, Bill Crider, Clay Reynolds, and Jim Sanderson—whose first novel, El Camino del Rio, was a mystery, yet it also won the Frank Waters Southwest Writing Award.
Mystery writers from outside of Texas who have written about the state also enjoy reputations for quality prose. Nevada Barr's Track of the Cat, set in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel and the Anthony Award for Best Novel. Walter Mosley, who writes about East Texas in Gone Fishin', is the author of the popular and critically-acclaimed Easy Rawlins series. Carolyn Hart, whose Death on the River Walk is set in San Antonio, has received multiple Agatha Awards and is one of the genre's most decorated writers.
In compiling this anthology of Texas-based mystery and detective fiction, we have focused more on the sense of place than the crime, and we've chosen excerpts that highlight Texas's physical and cultural geography. The mystery writers, like their detective protagonists, have probed beneath the surface of their surroundings, uncovering sometimes-unpleasant truths. 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. This is not the stuff of glossy travel literature. Call it realism. And it's perfectly suited to crime literature.
Creating distinct geographical regions from the subtle variations in Texas's cultural and physical topography is a nearly impossible task, yet for the purposes of this anthology, we have divided the state into seven zones. The first section, "El Paso and West Texas," includes Big Bend and the rugged mountain ranges that arise from the Chihuahuan Desert. These wide-open spaces offer hundred-mile vistas and are what many non-Texans imagine the Lone Star State to be. This is the mythic Texas, and it is prime territory for murder mysteries. In fact, six of the selections are based in West Texas, more than any other single region in this anthology. "Austin and the Hill Country" is also a popular setting for mysteries, owing to the fact that so many of the state's writers live in Austin and the surrounding area. Hard-boiled noir is largely absent from this region, as the mysteries tend to reflect the Hill Country's attractive landscape. "Houston and the Gulf Coast" is hard-boiled territory, thanks to Houston's sprawling, anarchic energy and the Gulf Coast's tough and unsentimental terrain—no beach paradises found here. North Texas, as reflected in the mysteries set in "Dallas, Fort Worth, and the Panhandle," offers a different view of the state. The DFW metroplex is home to dozens of murder mysteries, yet, surprisingly, few of the books discuss the local geography. Perhaps this is a natural consequence of life in a prairie megalopolis where five million people live in adjoining cities. The Panhandle, in contrast, is rarely used as a mystery setting, but the novels based there vividly depict the local culture and landscape. "East Texas" contains vestiges of the Old South, and it has the highest concentration of African American residents in the state. Not surprisingly, race relations remain an important element of the mysteries set in this region. "San Antonio and South Texas" has a predominantly Mexican American population, a fact that is reflected in the region's literature, even if few of the writers themselves are of Hispanic descent. The last section, "Small Town Texas," looks at life in Texas's close-knit communities, which are often threatened by outside forces. Novels set in these towns often portray the intertwined lives of local residents, and thus are naturally more cozy than the hard-boiled works that predominate in Texas's metropolitan areas. We wind up the collection with "The End of the Road," where an excerpt from Mary Willis Walker's The Red Scream chillingly portrays how convicted murderers are subjected to Texas's ultimate punishment.
The thirty selections gathered in this volume represent only a small portion of the hundreds of mystery novels set in the state. We had to exclude many good writers, not because their prose is inferior, but because the sense of place evoked in their novels was not compressed enough to shine through in short excerpts. For those who wish to pursue further readings, we have created a comprehensive bibliography of Texas mystery fiction that is available online at: www.library.txstate.edu/swwc/exhibits/mystbib.html