ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Trey Barker was born in west Texas and raised with music and books and not much else. For a time, his mother was a bookkeeper at a number of clubs (dives all but lovingly so) and there was always music playing. At home, sitting in front of his mother’s bookshelves, dipping into and out of science fiction, humor, horror, crime, there was also music. Which would explain why his fiction is full of both music and criminals.
Barker spent nearly two decades as an on-again/off-again journalist (along with all kinds of other odd jobs) before falling into law enforcement in North-Central Illinois. He is a patrol sergeant and crisis negotiator, and spent a few years working on both the state and Federal level in task forces dedicated to on-line child sexual exploitation. He is the author of more than 200 short stories, as well as the Barefield trilogy – 2000 Miles to Open Road, Exit Blood, Death is Not Forever – published by Down & Out Books. Those books are reflections of the darker side of west Texas and are as stripped down and fast moving as anything you’re likely to read. Think David Goodis, Jim Thompson, James Crumley, Ken Bruen.
His new series are the Jace Salome books, the newest of which is When The Lonesome Dog Barks (also from Down and Out Books). He is currently either chasing bad guys around the county, or writing new stories.
There are so many things that turn me on…but let’s see if we can’t stay within the bounds of literary propriety.
The first book I remember with towering clarity was the first book I ever checked out at the Anson Jones Elementary School library. Katy and the Big Snow, by Virginia Lee Burton, published in 1943. A great book for a first grader in 1974. It was all about doing your thing and doing it well. What struck me was not the brilliant writing or complex literary characterization but that it was Katy banging it out against the weather and standing alone.
That book was also the first stalagmite, the first literary accretion that began to build Trey R. Barker, Writer. Every single book that came after that, hated it or loved it, finished it or walked away from it, was another layer of words that eventually built my books.
So what shape are those stalagmites now that I’m tottering into my early 50s?
James Lee Burke. What can I say that hasn’t already been said to death? I know of no one who tires of his books and if those people exist they will never drink whiskey with me. He is everything you’ve heard and has been one of my literary lights for years. He is one of the few writers who manage to combine everything I love. Action and police know-how, the requisite staccato dialogue amongst noir-style good and bad boys, but every word is also an exploration of the human heart, twisted in every direction imaginable. He has one of the most insightful magnifying glasses ever placed on that heart.
Craig Johnson. A writer who gets to the same place, ultimately, as Burke, but in a much different way. Humanity’s heart is just as dissected in Craig’s work but he gets us there with a lighter touch and more humor. Beware, however, because that lighter touch hides a scalpel just as sharp. Johnson isn’t a joke-a-page writer, but there is a level of humor that glides along just beneath the surface even as he eviscerates the world around him. His main man, Walt Longmire, is a quintessential American gunslinger (and I would argue that most great detective/police/crime stories are an update of the Old West man alone. A PI or cop or Everyman steps out to grab justice—however he or she defines that—and bring it back where it belongs). But while Walt is the perfect iteration of that gunslinger, he’s also surrounded by a surprisingly large cast. It is that cast that gives the books their humor and, for my dinero, what makes the books dance quite a few steps above the rest.
Another hero I would put in the updated lone gunslinger category is Mercy Gunderson, written by the magnificent Lori Armstrong. Yes, this character had been part of the military and the FBI, but in the first two books in the Mercy series, she is in the South Dakota hinterlands fighting for justice…alone (like Burke’s Dave Robicheaux and Burton’s Katy the Snowplow). Her demons are the demons of the human heart that take root in everyone to one degree or another, but Armstrong has layered Gunderson with demons few people have experienced and that added dimension makes the Gunderson trio of novels amongst the most powerful Armstrong has written to date.
On the non-fiction side of the page, I am and forever will be saddened, enraged, envious, and jealous of Nate Blakeslee’s brilliant Tulia. Tulia is a tiny town in my home state of Texas, not far from where I was raised up, and this book is a devastating take-down of law enforcement as a for-profit venture. It does that by looking at a single corrupt drug task force agent. Working in law enforcement now, and believing as I do that some aspects of the War on Drugs are a War on Common Sense, every time I reread this book I come away with a new insight. I can’t recommend it enough, regardless of which side of the War fence you’re standing on.
Another one out of Texas, the decidedly odd Texas Death Row. This is a collection of every person put to death in Texas between 1972 (which the editors define as the start of the modern execution era) through press time in 2000. Name and date of execution, a bit of personal information about each executed inmate and their crime, but also how long they were on death row, their last meal, and last words. It is those final three items that build such a weird picture of their human heart. Their names are forgotten in moments, and even the details of their crimes manage to slip into the jet stream but their time on death row becomes stupefying: eight years, eleven years, twenty-four years. The last meals range from one man who wanted nothing but fruit to another who wanted four eggs, four sausage patties, chicken fried steak patty, a bowl of white gravy, five pieces of white toast, five tacos with meat and cheese only, four Dr Peppers, and five mint sticks. Their last words sling back and forth between the nauseatingly moronic to the absolutely gut wrenching. This book is everything that is fair and just about capital punishment, but also everything that is brutally and ruthlessly unjust and desperately broken about capital punishment.
Some of my favorite other non-fiction? The entire Best American Crime Writing Series. Sadly, it only ran eight or ten editions, each year with a different editor and all new long-form crime journalism. The Circus Fire, by Steward O’Nan. Not strictly crime, though I would argue that much of how the 1944 Ringling Brothers fire was handled and investigated was criminal. Just for the record, O’Nan is one of the authors I want to be when I grow up. Also, grab up Columbine by Dave Cullen, the deepest and broadest of all the books about Columbine, and New Jack by Ted Conover. Conover went uncover for a year working as a guard in Sing Sing Prison in New York and man, oh, man, is that book a singularly blasted look into life in prison.
These are some of the writers and books that do it for me, and if you want more info about what turns me on, it’ll cost you a good Irish whiskey at the bar when next we meet.
See you then!
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