Connecting Texas books and writers with those who most want to discover them
Each week Lone Star Literary profiles a newsmaker in Texas books and letters, including authors, booksellers, publishers.
Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph Ranch and A Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.
Bill Crider was born and brought up in Mexia, Texas; received degrees from The University of Texas and North Texas State University; and taught high school and college classes for many years. In 2002 he retired as shair of the Division of English and Fine Arts at Alvin Community College, in Alvin, where he lives with his wife, Judy.
For more than four decades Bill Crider has had a following of Texas readers—and for more than twenty novels Crider’s Sheriff Dan Rhodes has been holding his own with the likes of such sleuths as Stephanie Plum and Kinsey Milhone. The Alvin, Texas, “retiree” whose most recent novel came out in August talked with us via email about writing, Sheriff Dan, and what’s next, in this week’s Lone Star Listens.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Bill, you’ve been a successful author for four decades. Your life began in Mexia in 1941, the year of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. What was it like growing up in a small Texas town in the forties and fifties, and how did it inform your writing?
BILL CRIDER: There’s no question that there’s a lot of Mexia and my upbringing in my books. Mexia was the kind of town where you began first grade with sixty or so other kids and when you walked across the stage to get your diploma twelve years later, most of those same kids walked with you. It was the kind of town where kids were free to roam all over, on foot or on bicycles, and where they played outside from daylight until dark in the summertime unless their mothers (like mine) demanded that you stay inside during “the heat of the day.”
I listened to a lot of baseball games in the heat of the day. Movies were cheap, and we had two theaters. Everybody went to the Saturday matinee at the Palace, where there was always a double feature, usually a couple of B-westerns, along with a serial, a cartoon, a newsreel, and some previews of coming attractions. The audience was often rowdy, but nobody seemed to mind much. Later on a new, air-condtioned theater was built, and the rowdy days were over. If you want to know what high school was like, watch American Graffiti. I think every town in America must have been like that in the ’50s. I miss the old days, but you have to realize that I was a middle-class white kid who wasn’t “woke” in the current sense of the word. That didn’t come until about my senior year in high school and especially my freshman year in college, when my eyes really got opened.
How many books have you written? I counted more than sixty.
I’m one of those unorganized people who doesn’t keep a list. I suspect that the number of books under my own name and others is approaching 100, but I’m not really sure. It’s probably best that I don’t know.
After getting your master’s at UNT, then attended UT Austin, where you were awarded your PhD where you wrote your dissertation on the hard-boiled detective novel. When and how did you discover for your affinity for mysteries?
I went from NTSU (as it was known at the time) to UT, where I got my doctorate, and then I taught at Howard Payne in Brownwood for a dozen years. Anyway, I discovered my affinity for mysteries, crime, and spy fiction when John F. Kennedy mentioned reading Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Up until then I’d read mostly science fiction and fantasy, but after James Bond there was no turning back for me.
Your debut novel, Too Late to Die, a Sheriff Dan Rhodes mystery, was published in 1986 and was winner of the 1987 Anthony Award for Best First Novel. How did your first big break come about?
I could (and often do) turn this into a long and complex story, but I’ll give you the short version. At an MWA [Mystery Writers of America] party in Houston I met Ruth Cavin, who was at that time an editor at Walker. I talked to her about my book, and she asked to see it. The rest, as they say, is history.
You’ve written thirty years’ worth of books about Sheriff Dan Rhodes, including your most recent Survivors Will Be Shot Again (St. Martin’s, 2016). Tell us about Sheriff Rhodes, where he’s been, and what the latest book is about.
As far as the books go, Sheriff Rhodes hasn’t been anywhere. He’s always been sheriff. The town around him has changed a lot, though, and I like to think that the town is as much a character in the book as the sheriff or anyone else. The books, to me, are really about the town and the people and the changes there as they are about the sheriff and the crimes. In Survivors, Sheriff Rhodes is investigating a murder that grows out of a series of thefts in a thinly populated part of the country, but the town is soon involved. There’s even an alligator in this one.
After grad school at you moved to Alvin where you were chair of the Division of English and Fine Arts at Alvin Community College until you retired in August 2002 to become a full-time writer. I’ll ask you the question I ask every academic/author. Can writing be taught—why or why not?
At Howard Payne I did teach a creative writing course, but I doubt that I ever taught anyone to write. In fact, I had so many doubts that on moving to Alvin, I was relieved to learn that there was already an established creative writing course taught by a talented and popular teacher named Gilbert Benton, so I wouldn’t have to teach the course there. I think you might be able to teach the mechanics of writing, and you might be able to teach things like narrative structure, but I’m not sure you can teach anybody how to write a story or a book or a poem. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t, at any rate. I suspect that Gilbert Benton had more success than I did.
In addition to Sheriff Dan Rhodes books you’ve written a variety of mysteries and Westerns. What is your creative process like? How have you managed to write so many books?
The secret to writing a lot of books is the old cliché: Put the seat of the pants in the seat of the chair. For years I wrote every day after getting home from my teaching job, and I mean every day, including holidays and my birthday. I’ve slowed down considerably since then, however. My creative process usually consists of coming up with a title and an opening sentence and then going from there. So far that’s worked out okay.
How has publishing changed since you started?
You could write a book in answer to that question. We’ve had the purchase and consolidation of most of the major houses, not to mention the eBook revolution. Let’s just say that almost nothing is the same as when I started and let it go at that. I feel like a dinosaur.
Now that you’re retired what authors, do you enjoy reading? Specifically, what Texas authors do you enjoy reading?
I enjoy so many writers that it would be impossible to list them all. As for Texas writers, even that list would be so long that if I made one I’d leave someone out. Joe R. Lansdale has been a friend of mine for going on 40 years now, and I never miss one of his books. I suspect I’m one of the few people who can claim to have been reading James Lee Burke since before he became famous. I still have my paperback copies of a couple of his books I bought in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He wasn’t a crime writer then, but he was already great in my eyes. Here are some of the Texans I read, but I know I’m missing a few: Carole Nelson Douglas, Chris Rogers, David Lindsey, Dean James (who’s decamped to Mississippi), George Weir, Harry Hunsicker, Jan Grape, Jay Brandon, Jeff Abbott, Kay Finch, Livia Washburn, Margaret Moseley, Reavis Wortham, Susan Wittig Albert, Susan Rogers Cooper, Terry Shames, Tim Hemlin, and a host of others. What’s a little amusing about this is that back when I started writing, I was one of a few Texans doing crime fiction. Now there must be hundreds.
What’s next for Bill Crider?
Next I need to finish the book I’m working on, tentatively titled “That Old Scoundrel Death,” a Sheriff Rhodes book. After that, who knows? Maybe it’s time to retire. Or not. I’ll see how I’m feeling when the book’s done.
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"Like the rest of Crider's long string of Dan Rhodes novels, the latest keeps you guessing and chuckling." ―Kirkus Reviews on Between the Living and the Dead
“It is easy to see why Crider has had a following through twenty prior Dan Rhodes mysteries. The characters could easily become beloved friends in the vein of Stephanie Plum’s sidekicks or Kinsey Millhone’s neighborhood buddies, especially to the lover of cozies.” ―Writers’ League of Texas on Half in Love with Artful Death
“Bill Crider writes some the finest traditional mysteries around. He is a first rate plotter who also knows how to pace his material. Such a mixture of mystery, humor and even an occasional horrific moment give his work its unique mastery.” ―Ed Gorman, on Survivors Will Be Shot Again
“Anthony Award–winner Crider’s 20th mystery featuring sheriff Dan Rhodes...offers the usual enjoyable combination of witty help from dispatcher Hack Jensen, minor crises like a hog loose in Hannah Bigelow's house, the theft of hair extensions from Lonnie Wallace's Beauty Shack, and a major crime or two....Rhodes, often embarrassingly compared to fictional sheriff Sage Barton, successfully emulates that action hero in the clever and satisfying resolution.” ―Publishers Weekly on Compound Murder
“Kudos to Crider for his 20th entry (after Murder of a Beauty Shop Queen).... As expected, humor and comfort are part of the mix.” ―Library Journal on Compound Murder
“Since 1986, Crider of Alvin has been turning out novels in his Dan Rhodes series about a sheriff in fictional Blacklin County who solves folksy mysteries involving barbershop quartets and beauty parlors. This twentieth installment finds Rhodes dealing with the murder of a college instructor, but rest assured, the main character still finds time to ruminate about such Texas glories as his beloved―and now discontinued―Dublin Dr Pepper.” ―Texas Monthly on Compound Murder
“Enjoyable . . . Rhodes's encounters with the overly enthusiastic amateur sleuth Seepy Benton and his inability to persuade his colleagues and neighbors that he bears no resemblance to fictional crime-busting sheriff Sage Barton are continuing sources of fun.” ―Publishers Weekly on Murder of a Beauty Shop Queen
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