Tuesday, December 14, 2021

May I Suggest?

For Your Holiday Gift-Giving Consideration...Colin Conway

From Frank

You may have readers on your gift list (or someone you can help turn into a reader!), so here are some ideas for books to wrap up and put bows on for those folks. 

(a) everyone's tastes differ, so make sure your intended recipient has at least a tangential interest in the type of book presented; 

(b) I'm expecting you'll check out the great books by my fellow Criminal Minds panelists, so this list is for after that exploration, and; 

(c) full disclosure: I've written multiple novels with Colin and he's my friend, so I'm clearly biased here. But he's a talented writer and his body of work has something for everyone who likes mysteries.

With that out of the way, here we go!

Colin Conway's 509 Universe  

509 is the area code for Eastern Washington (everything east of the cascades), which is where these books are set. Conway has woven three different series and a slew of short stories into this universe.

The main series of 509 Crime Stories consists of police procedurals (beginning in The Side Hustle) that rotate between a cast of police protagonists. A character may be the primary narrator in one book and a minor player in another that is told from some other character's perspective. The presentation even varies from first person to third, depending on whose viewpoint we're getting. This method keeps the series extemely fresh, and allows the reader to see characters through various sets of eyes. These are realistic procedurals that will undoubtedly scatch that itch. The police investigative process is on display, the mystery is intact throughout (so you can try to figure it out, too), and the emotional interaction of different characters is compelling and nuanced. Conway is able to make you sympathize or cheer for a character in one book and then think s/he's a jerk in another.

This series stands at six books, with a seventh (and, in my opinion, perhaps the best so far) coming soon.

My favorite? Number seven, which should be announced soon. Hit me hard. But of those already out, it's a tough call but I'll go with The Value In Our Lies, simply because I like Detective Morgan.

The Flip-Flop Detective series features Sam Strait, an ex-deputy who is now trying to live by a unique set of rules, the first of which is to live only where you can wear flip-flops. Another -- no drama -- gets tested in every outing. 

This series is three-deep so far, and each outing has Sam in a different locale, alternating between his lake home in the 509 during warmer weather to snow-bird destinations during the colder months. He's always trying to mind his own business, and getting dragged into a mystery that he needs to solve to keep his own head above water. 

Think of a cross between Jim Rockford and Travis McGee and then lighten up a bit and you'll have the tenor of this one. Not a cozy but something most cozy fans would still enjoy.

My favorite? Strait to Hell. A great mystery and fun setting.

Easily the most hard-boiled series in the 509, John Cutler Mysteries features a former cop from Seattle, now living in Spokane. A man in search of his better self, Cutler's tragic flaw is his own anger. However, as the series progresses (book 1 is out, book 2 will drop on December 27, and #3 in early 2022), Cutler shows some growth that is dearly-earned. 

These books also take place in the mid-2000s, so younger versions of characters from the main police procedural series show up on occasion. Seeing the captain of investigations as a working detective, for example, provides some deeper insight into this character.

Cutler gives Conway a chance to explore some difficult topics and darker elements of human behavior -- corruption and racism, for example. This is done in a way that isn't preachy and allows the reader to take the lesson however s/he wants. As in life, there are few easy or clear-cut answers but sometimes having the discussion is the first step. 

On the content side, if these were films, they'd be rated R. But the elements that merit that rating aren't constant and in your face, either. I also think that a few strategic trims or edits would render it PG-13. Thus, they will satisfy those who like it gritty without completely putting off those who prefer lighter fare. 

My favorite? Cutler's Friend. Watching JC go through the first two books to land here and start to actually change is rewarding.

If short stories are your intended's jam, Conway has two collections of his own work, all set in the 509 universe -- Murder By Any Other Name and Black and Blue in the Lilac City. These stories are drawn from throughout his writing career. Some of the minor characters in the 509 get center stage for their own story, which is fun for the series reader. Fair warning, though -- this is a mixed bag in terms of intensity. The stories range from PG to hard R, so be prepared to treat it like a buffet. Read them all or skip the ones that aren't to your taste. All in all, though, these short stories are a perfect complement to the 509 novels.

There are also two anthologies (with a third coming in 2022) set in the 509. These feature a slew of other crime fiction authors you'll no doubt recognize -- too many to list here but it's an amazing group. The Eviction of Hope and A Bag of Dick's both contain stories that spring from a well-designed premise and feature the unique take and voice of each author. The first centers around a low-rent hotel in which all of the tenants have been served eviction notices. The second begins with a cop, an informant, and a mystery man running away from a popular hamburger stand. Where the stories go from there is varied and fun.

My favorite? Too many to name here. Half a dozen of the Conway stories are among my favorite crime stories, and the two anthologies are chock full of great takes. Throw a dart twice and you're guaranteed to hit at least one of my faves.

So, whether you like procedurals, lighter mysteries, hardboiled, or short stories, the 509 universe has you covered.

Cozy Up series

The cozy was the only genre not included in the above but it is a genre Conway has ventured into as well. The Cozy Up series features a enforcer from a biker gang who has turned informant after the gang threatened his grandmother. In each book, the FBI places him in a different location as a protected witness, only to see things go to hell. Or, actually, I should say, go to heck. Conway obeys all of the rules of a traditional cozy (though he pushes the limit just a little with some violence), both celebrating and gently ribbing the various conventions. Oh, and there's a cat, too (of course, there is).

The thing about this series is that cozy readers will enjoy it but so will people who don't usually go that way with their reading habits (like me). For non-cozy readers, there's enough implied to satisfy the desire for grittiness, the mysteries are very sound, and the occasional jab at the subgenre (or the way in which the trope is turned on its head) is fun.

This series is up to five books now, and will continue for at least another five.

My favorite? Cozy Up to Christmas. I love the added edge of sarcasm the protagonist adopts in this one. Reminds me of a PG version of Bad Santa, attitude-wise.

Charlie-316 series

Okay, this is admittedly the quasi-BSP portion of our show. I mentioned that I wrote several books with Colin at the outset of this post. Well, this series is part of that collaboration. But it was originally Colin's idea and it is work I'm extremely proud of, so here it is.

The series begins with a traffic stop that immediately goes bad. There's a police shooting that falls under suspicion (suspect is possibly unarmed and shot in the back) even though the officer in question is a model officer, highly respected and well-liked. The book follows the aftermath of this event, shown through the eyes of the officer, the detectives investigating the case, leaders within the police department and city hall, and the public. Race quickly becomes an issue, though not in exactly the way readers may be accustomed to. Process, politics, and perception all come into play. And there are several twists before the end that I can all but guarantee you won't see coming.

The fallout of this initial event continues for all four books in the initial series arc. Stakes continue to rise, hard decsions get made, and there are events and outcomes that no one sees coming. This storyline comes to a conclusion in Code Four, the fourth book. However, there will be several more books set in this universe, including the 2022 release of The Ride-Along. While not a direct sequel in terms of the four-book arc already described, The Ride Along does continue the story of the events in this universe. It's about a solid cop who bleeds blue getting paired with a board member from the community organization committed to police reform for a ride-along. The pair must survive ten hours in the same police car together, despite their values and ideas clashing from the very first moment.

This series is on par with Conway's main 509 series in terms of content -- rated R but I suspect people who are okay with PG-13 books won't be put off by this series.

My favorite? Hard to pick where my own work is concerned, as each has its own reasons for being number one. But if you had to pin me down, I'd say Badge Heavy, because it's intense and it leaves you wanting more.

Happy Holidays!

Anyway, Colin's catalog has something for every mystery reader in it. I hope your gift recipients enjoy these books! And remember, if you want to give a writer a gift that keeps on giving all year long, a review (even a short one) is the perfect choice!

I wish you a happy holiday season, whenever and however (or if) you celebrate. See you in 2022!

Frank Zafiro

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