Phillip Thompson

Crime Fiction writer

Editor’s Note: Valerie McEwan runs one of the best websites of Southern writing there is, the Dead Mule School (formerly the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature). The essay below appeared at the Mule recently. If you like Southern fiction by some of the hardest working writers today, you should check out her site of fiction, poetry, art, and all kinds of Southern peculiarities.

A Couple or Three Books by Mule Alumni

Why do we read? Neil Gaiman says we read fiction because it can show you a different world. One essential “function of fiction in human life” he says, lies in “its ability to introduce us to different versions of the world by envisioning alternate possibilities for the way things are.” A book forces us to see possibilities and to envision alternate realities. Reading also fosters empathy.

cropped-mulelogoThese days my reading seems to lean more toward fiction more than non-fiction. While I enjoy essays and always have, the Covid19 reality is that I like to be divorced from the real and immerse myself into someone else’s world.

I spent last week reading through JoJo Moyes’ books and, since the pandemic began, I’ve read all of Kate Atkinson’s fine novels. Then there’s the ever-present John Grisham novel. Or reading a Donna Tartt novel can take you into such detailed descriptions that you come out a week later, bruised and tattered, worn out from the prose but all the better for it. She’s remarkable. But I need to tell ya’ll about some new fiction, Mule Fiction.

I’ve got two really interesting murder mysteries for y’all to read, both from Mule writers. Both really great novels. You can find links to ordering the books within the text, so grab yourself a credit card or use your Amazon Prime account (lol) and order copies of these books today. Really, reading is fundamental, buy yourself a prize. Your supporting our writers is like a great big thank you to 25 years online for the Dead Mule.

Not long ago, as I sat in my office, looking out the window to my front porch, I noticed a stranger coming up my steps. He had a book in his hand. After he knocked on the door, I donned my mask and opened the door, storm door in place, to find Rod Barfield. He said, “I’m looking for an editor.” Looking for me, the editor of the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. On his way to Salter Path, NC to a book signing, Rod stopped by my house to hand deliver a copy of his book “Tempest on the Outer Banks”. He wanted to thank me in person for publishing his flash fiction on the Mule, must have been oh ten years ago. I was gobsmacked!

He mentions me in the Acknowledgements and I’m so honored. I tell y’all to do the happy dance when you get accepted in the Mule and Rod took this to heart. And he happy danced all the way to writing a great murder mystery.

The book? Oooh. It’s a good one. It take place on “Croatan Island” on the Outer Banks (of North Carolina), so it’s close to home for me. Rodney Barfield’s descriptions of the people and the place are so true, I feel as if I’m reading an essay on life on the island, as much as a mystery. Rod’s book with entertain you and make you think, take you out of your Covid19 reality. Rod spent time as the director of the North Carolina Museum of Maritime Museum. He’s articulate, entertaining, and tells a darn good story.

Rod knows his Outer Banks history and lore. The rich background history of the area lends great credence to his amazing story. It’s not just for NC coastal fans, don’t be swayed by his geographical identification. Every novel needs sense of place, don’t you agree? Part mystery, part romance, all historical wonder, this novel really has it all.

Barfield describes the B&B on the island: “There was a fresh breeze flowing off the bay, fluttering the sheer curtains, a faint taste of oysters in the air. The room was clean and neat and sparse, covered with print wallpaper that dated from the 1950s. Plaster over lath walls, heart pine floors, and beaded cypress ceilings dated the inn to the late nineteenth or maybe early twentieth century. There were two rooms on the second floor and a shared bath.” You can feel the island oozing out of his words. If you’ve ever been to the Outer Banks, you’ll remember. If you’ve never been, you’ll get a real sense and feel of the place in Barfield’s book. As a frequent visitor to the Outer Banks, I can testify — Barfield nails the place with his apt prose. Ahhh, the sense of place in a good southern novel.

Another Mule writer, Philip Thompson, has a new novel “Old Anger”, released right now in December 2020 by Brash Books. Old Anger is book number two of the Colt Harper stories. The novel takes the reader into the mind of a rural county sheriff and his quest to solve a brutal murder. Colt Harper, the sheriff, works his way through the landscape of questions and bitter answers with finesse and style. He’s a complicated guy. Once more, the sense of place looms large. Set in rural Mississippi, Thompson creates the scene as well as the action and every character is unique.

Thompson’s writing is tight, concise, and his descriptions are spot on. The very first page gives us a wonderful glimpse into how it’s going to be. Here’s his take on character Donnie Wample: “…a gristle of a man, his arms were like steel cables that shot out of his short-sleeve shirt and ended in hands that, Colt was sure, made fists like wrecking balls.” Got it, I see that man. Great description and the whole book fills your head with great character studies such as that. One liners resonating with reality, oozing with details.

Outside the Law, the first book featuring Colt Harper, review available by clicking here.

If, as Rebecca Solnit says that “a book is a heart that beats in the chest of another,” Thompson’s book gives us characters whose souls are exposed, laid bare, like a heart beating outside the chest. Both of these novels show us how the act of reading changes us. Makes us whole.

Neil Gaiman: “Books will endure past the age of screens.” This is true. Order books from independent publishers and bookstores, support small businesses. This Christmas, give the gift of literature. Think about it, encourage your loved ones to spend time in an alternate reality. We all need an escape from pandemic fatigue, don’t we? It’s a way to be alone in the company of others, that’s how I see reading. Buy books for your loved ones, share words and let them escape along with countless others into another reality. It’s a great anecdote to binge watching cringe worthy shows.

I recommend Rodney Barfield’s Tempest on the Outer Banks and Philip Thompson’s Old Anger not just because they’re part of the Mule family. I recommend the books because they’re darn good reading. Give yourself or someone else a gift of fiction. Buy these books, support Mule writers. It’s worth every penny. And stand up and salute a couple Southern Writers.

Mule writer CL Bledsoe’s book: Goodbye, Mr. Lonely is in my “to read” hopper and I’ll write about it soon. Bledsoe is one of the most talented writers to ever grace the halls of the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature so I know it’s gonna’ be pretty damn skippy.

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared at Brash Books on Nov. 30, 2020. Reprinted here with permission.

Writing about race in the Deep South is never easy. Especially during the tumult of 2020.

I am white. Born and raised in Mississippi. I was a youngster growing up when the state was going through the painful ending of the American apartheid called “segregation” or “separate but equal.” And decades later, the sad truth is race is still central to the identity of nearly every person in the state. The reasons for this are complex and myriad, and all too often boil down to one oversimplified argument as to which side you’re on: white or black. And—at least until very recently—switching sides is tantamount to betrayal.

OAnewPartisans have the luxury of fury and rhetoric and can exist in their echo chamber without regard to consequences or, often, even facts. Emotions, generational biases, and narrow-mindedness are the paths to the racial divide.

But what about a person who, by virtue of his calling, has to stand in the divide and stand for justice?

That’s the central question I tried to answer when I wrote my latest crime novel, Old Anger, the third Colt Harper novel. When it comes to his view of justice and enforcing the law, Mississippi sheriff Colt believes he is color blind. But is he? When the murder of a black man leads Colt to a black suspect, Colt finds himself isolated between two volatile factions in his county—whites apathetic about the murder and blacks who distrust him, especially when one rumored suspect is a man Harper has known most of his life.

Of course, there have been numerous novels written over the years about the sides of race in the South, and the complications attendant to the issue. Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Grisham’s A Time to Kill, Larry Brown’s entire body of work, and the gold standard, To Kill a Mockingbird. So, I can’t claim any new ground on this issue, but I was more interested in the in-between space, not one side or another. What happens to a person caught between the two?

Since this is the third time I’ve created a Colt Harper story, Old Anger felt like a natural progression for his character. Harper is a man caught in the middle of a lot of things. He’s a native of his state, but he has also seen the “outside” world. His family has a spotted past at best in terms of race relations. His own father killed a black man decades ago and was never prosecuted. Harper’s own best friend—and senior deputy—is a black man originally from Chicago. Harper once dated a black woman with whom he attended high school—a severe taboo of the times—and he and Rhonda Raines still share a deep, if unrequited, affection for each other. Harper even investigated the murder of Rhonda’s son and rescued her from the clutches of a psychopathic killer. He struggles with balancing redemption and revenge. And on many levels he sees the plight of the citizens in his county as being more similar than different: a working-class ethic, a fierce streak of independence and distrust of “outsiders,” a bond of family, religious faith. And especially the poverty that doesn’t distinguish one race from another, and the fact poor whites and poor blacks in his corner of Mississippi have far more in common than that which separates them.

Even so, Harper is a white lawman in a system not respected by the black community. Whether he likes it or not (indeed, whether he is aware or not), he is a product of both his environment and his DNA, factors which blind him to certain truths.

Harper doesn’t try to “see both sides.” He cares about one thing: upholding the law in his county, regardless of race. But while he may feel he’s an unbiased enforcer of the law, he’s not color blind.

That was my starting point with Old Anger.

During the writing, though, what seemed like (in my own mind) a straightforward look at Harper’s dilemma turned into my own confrontation with my internal and unconscious biases. I began writing realizing that I had these biases—what they were, however, I couldn’t really define. Emphasizing this point was the surprising, justified public reaction to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, and the depressingly, maddeningly long list of black men and women killed at the hands of white police officers.

How, I thought, in this age—nearly 260 years after the Emancipation Proclamation—can this happen? And how can the hate that is the wellspring for such racism still exist—on a much larger scale than I could have guessed—still exist in America? I found this shocking because I grew up in an era at the tail end of “separate but equal” (but not really), church bombings, and Klan murders. And I knew these acts were wrong—regardless of my environment. I presumed that the people I grew up with—loved ones and friends—watched the same events I did and could see the same things I did.

That shock turned into a long, uncomfortable look at myself and my own values. And the people I know or knew. People I would have never considered harboring hate, much less a full-throated racism that supports violence against a particular segment of the American population. How could I have missed it? How could I have not known?

The answer, one I still have a hard time accepting, is that you can’t really know what’s in a person’s heart—until they show you.

Old-Anger-FB-1200x628-5From Publisher’s Weekly:

In Thompson’s well-wrought third crime novel featuring Mississippi sheriff Colt Harper (after 2016’s Outside the Law), Colt has a murder to solve after the body of Lucius Wallace, a Black man who worked at a local catfish farm, is unearthed in a gravel pit, and the subsequent autopsy confirms the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head. Wallace’s widow last saw her spouse the previous day and tells the sheriff that Lucius was planning to spend the evening at a prayer meeting with Rev. Mike Sanders. When Colt follows up that lead, he learns that Mike, who’s familiar with firearms, may be a promising suspect, as Lucius once had an affair with Mike’s wife. But Colt must consider a more complicated theory after he hears rumors that a group of white men were “looking to do the kinds of things the Klan did years ago.” Tensions increase when another Black man is gunned down, and Colt finds further reason to believe that white supremacists are organizing in his jurisdiction. Thoughtful prose is matched by solid characterizations. Thompson delivers a timely tale of racial violence. (Dec.)

Anthony Award winner and author of Blacktop Wasteland S.A. Cosby had this to say about Old Anger:

“Phillip Thompson combines the visceral verbal skills of Craig Johnson with the white knuckle tension of Stephen Hunter. Old Anger will leave you soaked in sweat and gasping for air.”

Coming December 1, but you can pre-order Old Anger (Brash Books) now here. You can also order all the Colt Harper novels (Deep Blood, Outside the Law).

 

OAnewChris Holm, Anthony Award-winning author of The Killing Kind, had this to say about Old Anger (coming Dec. 1 from Brash Books ):

“Old Anger is a modern Southern novel in the best sense—exploring issues of race, privilege, and generational mistrust with candor and grace. It’s also a fiercely engaging mystery. Thompson’s lawman, Colt Harper, is a man of honor in a world that could use more of ’em. Consider me a fan.”

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Aug. 17, 2020: I’m excited and pleased to announce that Brash Books and I have teamed up again to produce the third Colt Harper novel, Old Anger. It is scheduled for release on December 1.

In this installment, Sheriff Colt Harper’s investigation of a black man’s murder ignites long-buried bitterness over systemic racism in his county and forces him to confront his own demons … and white supremacists intent on sparking a race war.

Pre-order it now at Amazon.

Smithereens

Jim Babjak of the Smithereens                 Photo: Wikipedia Commons

This is the final playlist in this series of music posts. It’s the longest playlist I use, and it’s a little different from the others. The previous two, the “muses” lists, are geared more toward setting a mood or inspiring an idea. This one is just all-out, play-it-loud rock and roll. For whatever application I might need. This one is called “Outlaw Rock.”

 

 

 

 

  1. Lightning When I Need (Five Horse Johnson)
  2. Rough-Housin’ (Live) (.38 Special)
  3. Call Me the Breeze (Live) (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
  4. T for Texas (Live) (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
  5. Travelin’ Man (Live) (Bob Seger)
  6. Beautiful Loser (Live) (Bob Seger)
  7. Remedy (The Black Crowes)
  8. Sinister Kid (The Black Keys)
  9. A Girl Like You (Smithereens)
  10. Gold On The Ceiling (The Black Keys)
  11. Cumbersome (Seven Mary Three)
  12. Rockin’ In The Free World (Neil Young)
  13. Brand New Cadillac (The Clash)
  14. Give Me Novacaine/She’s a Rebel (Green Day)
  15. It’s Only Love (Brian Adams and Tina Turner)
  16. American Woman (Lenny Kravitz)
  17. Jealous Again (The Black Crowes)
  18. Gimme Shelter (The Rolling Stones)
  19. Refugee (Tom Petty)
  20. Fire Woman (The Cult)
  21. Winners and Losers (Social Distortion)
  22. Gun In My Hand (Dorothy)
  23. Protection (Lucinda Williams)
  24. Mary Jane’s Last Dance (Tom Petty)
  25. La Grange (ZZ Top)
  26. Superstition (Live) (Stevie Ray Vaughan)
  27. I Need You Tonight (ZZ Top)
  28. You Got That Right (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
  29. That Smell (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
  30. Won’t Get Fooled Again (The Who)
  31. Ball and Biscuit (The White Stripes)

Got a playlist? Post it in the comments.