Rambling On

Anthony R. Cardno's Fiction and Commentary

TITLE: Forever Haunt (The Jimmy McSwain Files #5)

AUTHOR: Adam Carpenter

287 pages, MLR Press, paperback and e-book formats, ISBN 978-1944770587

DESCRIPTION: (from the back cover): For Hell’s Kitchen private detective Jimmy McSwain, his father’s death has defined him, defied him, and denied him his chance at happiness. But the shooting death of a young officer named Denson Luke has re-ignited the investigation into the mysterious Blue Death conspiracy. But Jimmy still must earn a living, so he cannot ignore a family in distress.

New neighbors Carmen Ramirez and her young son, Sonny, are clearly running from danger. Overnight, their case becomes one involving a missing father, a Chinese crime syndicate, and an abduction which threatens to overwhelm Jimmy’s mission of solving his father’s case. His relationship status with Frank Frisano on and off again, Jimmy tries to do double duty, jeopardizing his own safety.

It’s only when another murder occurs that Jimmy finally finds the path that has eluded him. His investigation finally leads him back home, where a devastating family secret overshadows all he’s learned, and the cost to the McSwain family may never be repaid. Jimmy realizes the blood on his hands will forever haunt him.

MY RATING: Five out of five stars

MY THOUGHTS: Adam Carpenter has successfully and satisfactorily brought this first arc of Jimmy McSwain mysteries to a conclusion with Forever Haunt, weaving together hints and threads from each of the four previous novels and answering the series’ longest-running question: who orchestrated the death of Jimmy’s father?

The third book in the series, Stage Fright, represented a low-point for Jimmy: distracted by clues regarding his father’s long cold case, he dropped the ball on a client’s case and was beaten to the solution by someone else. The fourth book, Guardian Angel, saw Jimmy a bit more back on his game, and that trend continues here: Jimmy is paying attention, making connections, not letting his life’s unanswered questions distract him from helping others – and not letting other people solve the crimes he’s investigating.

Jimmy’s character arc across the series has been a realistic one, with setbacks in his love life because of work and his work and family life because of work. Setbacks abound in this final volume, but with some interesting twists. Jimmy learns secrets that have been hinted at in the previous four books: about his parents, his neighbors, his mentor, and his adversaries and friends on the police force.

Because everyone has secrets, so many secrets you almost need a score-card to keep track. Some of the secrets are explosive (just how much did Jimmy’s mother know or suspect, and how exactly was Jimmy’s father’s partner (and Jimmy’s mentor) involved in what happened?). Some of the secrets revealed are more personal (Jimmy’s sister Mallory comes to a hard decision, following one of the funniest “drunk siblings” scenes I’ve ever read).  Long-standing questions are definitively answered, with no ambiguity. And as I’ve said, the answers we get are satisfactory: there’s a sense of “fair play” between author and reader at work here. The reveals make sense, nothing comes completely out of left field. Carpenter also seems to wink at other theories readers may have had, acknowledging that being fair and generous with clues doesn’t preclude the author from throwing a few red herrings into the mix of possibilities.

Carpenter intended from the beginning for this to be a tight five-book journey for Jimmy McSwain, and he’s held to his original plan. There’s something to be said for an author who sticks to an original plan (and releases the planned installments in a timely manner) even when the popularity of a series might inspire the publisher to want more books. A different writer might have strung these reveals out for three or five or ten more books, diluting the impact as storylines stagnate until the final book is scheduled. The good news is: while this particular arc is over, Jimmy McSwain will be back in future books. But that’s a matter to discuss later in this review.

Every McSwain File has had two storylines running concurrently. Sometimes the mystery of Jimmy’s father’s death takes a secondary role to the other storyline, and sometimes Carpenter reverses it. This time the new case is the secondary mystery. It involves Jimmy’s new neighbor Carmen and her missing son, and if it’s not quite as compelling as the mysteries Jimmy has investigated in the previous books, that’s okay.

In this book, the secondary mystery serves two purposes. The first is to distract Jimmy at key points, so that his focus is split between helping himself and helping people who can’t help themselves.  As authorial as well as in-story distractions, I don’t feel like we got quite the same depth of character for the Ramirez clan that we’ve gotten for the characters in those previous cases. They’re not cardboard place-holders; there’s still enough depth that they feel real. It helps that just as they’re new to the reader, they’re also new to the neighborhood. Jimmy’s getting to know them at the same time as we are, and so first impressions are enough. This secondary mystery is not padding, though — it has its own arc and mostly satisfactory conclusion, its own internal consistency. And that enables it to serve its second purpose.

Carpenter has said there are plans to come back to Jimmy McSwain, his boyfriend Frank Frisano, and the rest of the recurring characters in a new arc. Without spoilers, I can say that the secondary mystery gives us the motivation for that new arc. It’s not a motivating factor I was particularly happy to read (in fact, I tweeted the author a rather indignant “I think I hate you now” moments after finishing the book), but it does the job it needs to do, giving author, reader, and characters a reason to return. I do think the Jimmy McSwain Files could have continued on without the need for a new “season arc,” ala characters like Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr or MC Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth. But I can also see the allure of a an arc to run through however many books will comprise Jimmy’s “second season,” since the main arc of this first “season” worked so well.

I’ll miss Jimmy and his cohorts between now and when the next series starts. And while we wait, I recommend to folks who like gritty NYC PI stories with a touch of erotic content: find the first book in this series, “Hidden Identity,” and get caught up.


This week I welcome my friend, the enigmatic Carolyn Gray, to Ramble On with me about her books. Okay, she’s not quite as enigmatic as Lemony Snicket was when he made his debut — but she is just as camera-shy, which is why no author photo accompanies this interview! I’d normally run an author bio here at the start, but Carolyn shares a lot of details of her life as it influenced her writing and vice-versa in our conversation. So without further ado:

ANTHONY: Let’s start with a couple of questions about your novel A RED-TAINTED SILENCE. What originally led you to write a gay thriller/romance?

CAROLYN: Thanks Anthony for having me as your guest. Writing Red, or ARTS as it is known by fans, was inspired by a Savage Garden fan video made by a person named aussieray. I didn’t know much about Savage Garden at the time, but I did own their second (and last) album. I was actually looking for a representative face for a fantasy character and had the cd sitting on my desk at work – Darren Hayes was quite unique looking back then (dramatic blue eyes, black-dyed hair) and I thought “Oh, perfect face! Which one is he?” See, not a fan. Then. So I looked the band up on the internet and stumbled across a fan group for the band. Curious, as I was very bored that day at work apparently, I poked around some more and saw one of the active people was named Linda, and on a whim emailed her. We became friends and she introduced me to the band’s music and their story (they’d recently broken up and quite dramatically) and sent me the link to that video. By then I knew that people were actually writing stories about these guys. (I was such an innocent but no more lol).

The video really touched me, and I thought oh it might be fun to write a story too! Like a lot of authors do, I found inspiration in real life people, but the story I created was completely my own. The only detail I took from their actual lives other than their appearances and talents was how they met (via a newspaper advertisement). I’d dabbled in writing – actually had a mystery published by then – but Real Life (yes, with capital letters) was rearing its head in a bad way, and that story soon became my solace. My husband was diagnosed with a very serious heart condition, and suddenly everything that was sure in life no longer was. But, with two young kids, and a scary diagnosis, I had to be strong, could not let go. Except, thankfully, through my writing. This is why the characters cry too much (as some readers complain and yes, that makes me grin, as I don’t disagree! They do!). Writing ARTS became my therapy, my lifeline, my escape. This is why the original manuscript was almost 300k words long.

ANTHONY: What was the timeline like from initially conceiving the story to publication by Loose-ID?

CAROLYN: I never meant to sell this book. Ever. This was very personal, shared with just a few friends, but after my husband died, I decided to take the kids to Seattle to a writer’s workshop. Jim Butcher was the guest of honor. On a whim, I decided that I would enter the first chapter into their contest – an all-genre contest. By then I’d had the story completed for about a year – so three years from when I started it, I tossed it into the fray.

To my shock and delight I came in second overall! ME? WHOA. At the award’s dinner, I happened to sit at the same table – with my kids who were 13 and 16 by then – as the Loose-Id people. They were a hoot and were so good to my kids! My son really liked them lots (me too). I had already pitched the story to Ellora’s Cave that morning, but a card traveled down the table to me from one of the editors. I kept that card, just simply on cloud 9. The first really good thing to happen to me in a long time!

When Ellora’s Cave passed on the story as not right for them, I emailed Loose-Id and got a fast reply back. “We’ve been waiting!” I felt such love and so much right at that moment. I sent in my manuscript, they requested changes to the back part, I did that and sent it back and sold ARTS. That was five years ago, and the story is still selling well for me to this day. I am so grateful I got that first rejection from EC, as my home is Loose-Id.

ANTHONY: Who would you cast as Brandon and Nicholas in the movie version of ARTS?

CAROLYN: Well… Unknown actors, but I would want them to look like I always envisioned them (not the hunky guy on my cover lol). Nicholas would be dark haired, vivid blue eyes, cherubic in appearance. Not an athletic body, but one sizzling and crackling with energy. Brandon would be taller, a runner’s body, blond and hazel-eyed and yes, to this day I see them as they are on the cover of the Affirmation CD cover.

ANTHONY:Knowing of your love of fan-fiction, I have to ask: has there been any ARTS fan-fiction that you know of?

CAROLYN: Oh would that just be the ultimate or what? To me, having fans who want to write about your characters would be the most incredible thing. I know many, many authors disagree with that, but I would be flattered down to my socks. The answer is no, though . Unless there are things going on out there I don’t know about. I am such a hermit!

ANTHONY: Your new book, LONG WAY HOME, is out from Loose-ID October 18th. While it shares a character with ARTS, band-mate and best friend Lee, can it really be called a sequel?

CAROLYN: Thank you for asking this question. I have found to my minor dismay that it is being touted as a sequel. Spinoff? Yes, as I wanted to write about Lee. Sequel? No, though Nicholas and some of the other band members are in the first part of the book. But the setting and story have nothing to do with the first book. I have found, to my surprise, that I prefer writing stand-alones. It is Very tough to write continuations like this – all the details to remember, plus in this case, completely different story and style. But it looks like you are asking about that in the next question.

ANTHONY: Is LONG WAY HOME a thriller-romance like ARTS, or is it a different kind of book?

CAROLYN: It is a mystery-romance. I love a good mystery, in fact not sure how to write a story without one. But it is very different from ARTS in other ways too – first, the POV is third, instead of first person. I struggled with this, as I love writing in first person so very much, and plan to again for another story I will be starting soon. But I wanted to tell both of their stories and for this plot, I needed third. It is also not deeply angsty like ARTS is, and I know many readers have expressed sadness about this, but there was a reason ARTS was so deeply angsty and sad – because I was. I am happy now, and hope never to have a time like that in my life again.

ANTHONY: Do Brandon and Nicholas play a large role in Lee’s story?

CAROLYN: Nick and Brandon are good friends of Lee’s, needless to say. So they – especially Nicholas – are interested in what is going on in Lee’s life. I chose only to have Nick actually in the story, and only to serve the purpose of prodding Lee to get started. Once Lee set out on his journey though, Nick belonged back in Colorado with his own man. Also, as a character Nicholas is very dynamic and frankly, a diva – he could easily take over any story I would choose to write.

ANTHONY: You’ve said before that LONG WAY HOME is the book you didn’t expect to write. What finally inspired you to pick up Lee’s story?

CAROLYN: I had quit writing. Life after my husband died took an unexpected turn – I met someone who changed my life, and encouraged me to do things I had never done before, and put myself first for a change. I was too busy living that life, and being a solo parent to my kids, working at a job I loved, and being happy simply encouraging others to write. I was also so wrung out over writing ARTS! And, it was the story of my heart – still is – and I wasn’t sure I could write another story worth anything again. So, I didn’t try.

But then, Nanowrimo came around a couple of years ago, and I met my friends Cid Tyer and Suzan Butler. Cid especially dragged me kicking and screaming back into writing, but even then, I just poked around it for a while. I wrote the first part of LWH with a bad attitude, just bumbling through it, set it aside for months, picked it back up, not really devoting myself to anything. Another Nano rolled around! By then I had come to know Cid and Suzan and the other two members of our crit group, Alice (who now lives in Japan) and Linda. We had been meeting regularly at McAllister’s on Thursday nights, and so I had no choice (literally, they told me I had no choice) but to take a stab at Nano again. I decided to drag LWH out and finish it. And then I did. And then I sent a tentative email to my editor, and thankfully they still wanted to see my work.

ANTHONY: You know I’m always interested in a writer’s process, so what was your process like for LWH, and how did it differ from ARTS?

CAROLYN: Writing ARTS was a dream. Every night after the kids fell asleep, and my husband did too (early, due to his heart condition), I would go upstairs to the cranky old internet-less computer and put on my headphones and pound out words. ARTS flowed, it poured from my fingers, had no plan, no real anything to it. Again, I was not writing it for anyone but me and about ten readers. It was very personal, and I had such freedom to do whatever I wanted! At that pace I wrote about a chapter a week. 300k (or more) words later, I finished it…and was so sad! I still miss writing that book. Seriously do.

LWH was written in fits and starts. I struggled, and fought for everything. I chose to write it in third, but missed first so much, it was hard to connect to the characters. I persevered though, and am better for it. It taught me a lot about what works for me best, and what doesn’t, and also I learned that I had let myself go stale with my writing. Thankfully, my editor Raven worked hard with me to bring the story up to publishable standards. I am very lucky to have an editor who cares so much, and understands why this was hard for me, and how difficult transitioning from writing a story like ARTS – the old me – was to finding new writing legs – the new me – was. I am happy with the way the story turned out, but always know it could be better. But! After finishing LWH, I sat down and wrote a new story – new setting, new characters, very different situation – and it flowed! Writing the last parts of LWH I finally found my sea legs again, and now am working on the rewrite of the new one and I am very happy with it. I hope to turn it in within the next couple of weeks.

ANTHONY: Are you typically a “detailed outliner” or more of a “seat-of-your pantser” when you’re preparing to work on a new project?

CAROLYN: While ARTS was completely pantser, I’ve since come to realize what works best for me is to figure out the skeleton of the story. Very basically what will happen – the main points. The characters are the most important though – I am mulling over the next story for Loose-Id and most of the mulling focuses on who the characters are, their backgrounds, and what kind of story would work best for them. For my other big project, which is a fantasy, I am using Scrivener, and fully outlining it as there are several POV’s, and Scrivener is helping me see their stories separately and how they weave together. I also use OneNote for other details (setting information, character sketches, world building, research notes.)

ANTHONY: Now that LONG WAY HOME has made its way into the world, what’s next from Carolyn Gray? I hear rumors of a historical drama…

CAROLYN: I will get to that story eventually! I have the characters, the basic idea, but need more plot. In the meantime, I am working on the fantasy mentioned above. However, the fantasies will not be Carolyn Gray books. I will revert back to the name I wrote my mystery under, Carolyn Rogers. Or maybe C.E. Rogers to be all clever… I will be targeting a different publisher for these books. I am rather smitten with Lou Anders of Pyr Books since being in a workshop with him this summer. But the fantasies are not fast writes.

ANTHONY: And my usual final question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to convince someone who hasn’t read it that they should read it?

CAROLYN: Whenever I am asked this question, the first book that pops into my mind is probably one that people would not expect me to say. But, this book had an unusual impact on me, and forever will stay on my keeper shelf. The book is Joe Lansdale’s THE BOTTOMS. Say what? Why?

This is a bit Amazon’s fairly decent description: A thriller with echoes of William Faulkner and Harper Lee, The Bottoms is classic American storytelling in its truest, darkest, and more affecting form.

The book is thrilling, deeply thought-provoking, racism is its central core and while I was brought up by parents who believed in equality, I learned from this book that I still had beliefs that needed to change. The characters moved me, and stayed with me – haunted me even. Joe Lansdale’s voice is like a warm comfortable coat insulating against the harshness, but not preventing access to it. Rather, encouraging it, forcing the reader to open their eyes to brutalities that were commonplace.

I absolutely love Joe Lansdale. Have heard him speak at cons many times. He is a storyteller of the best kind, a weaver of humor, truth, harshness and joy, all wrapped up in a lovely Texas accent that is warm and inviting. I have reread this book so many times and in fact think I will take it off my bookshelf right now and read it again.

ANTHONY: I definitely need to read more Lansdale! Thanks again, Carolyn!

CAROLYN: And thank you for having me and my wordy self!

You can find A RED-TAINTED SILENCE and LONG WAY HOME on the Loose-ID website.