The Devil’s Country, out April 11, is the latest crime thriller from local author Harry Hunsicker, whose novels and short stories tend to take place in and around his hometown of Dallas. The new book, however, is largely set in the fictional Piedra Springs in remote West Texas and centers on Arlo Baines, an itinerant ex-cop from Dallas whose wife and children were murdered nine months before. While passing through Piedra Springs, Baines uncovers an arcane religious cult in connection to a woman’s murder and the disappearance of her two children: a formidable entity that appears to have its hooks in the town.
Ahead of his book presentation at the Wild Detectives on April 12, we spoke with Hunsicker about his writing process, career trajectory and how e-readers can visually experience The Devil’s Country through the new Kindle in Motion format.
Dallas Observer: You’ve written seven crime novels: three with the protagonist Lee Henry Oswald, three with the protagonist Jon Cantrell, and The Devil’s Country introduces Arlo Baines. Will this be the start of a series as well?
Hunsicker: Right now, it’s a one-off; I’m waiting to hear if they want to do a new series. I left it so it could go either way. But I’d like to write about him again. He’s an interesting guy.
Something your protagonists have in common is that they’re all connected to law enforcement. Oswald is a private investigator, Cantrell is a DEA agent and Baines is a former Texas Ranger. Do you have experience or know people who are involved in that world?
No, I made it all up [laughs]. I started with a private detective, because no one knows what private detectives do — because what they really do is sit at a computer all day, and that’s the most boring thing in the world. But people who read about private detectives want to read about them driving around, chasing people, and you can fictionalize that.
I also didn’t want to write about police, because I didn’t want to research how they put on handcuffs and all of that. For my process, that bogs me down, which bogs down the story. Cantrell was a private law enforcement contractor — sort of a cop, sort of not, in that he doesn’t really follow the rules — and Baines is an ex-cop: he’s got the cop background, but he’s not acting like a cop. My thinking was, “I’ve got to get these guys involved in crime somehow,” so they’re all law enforcement-adjacent.
When devising this new protagonist, was it helpful to think about his motivation in terms of him being another cop character, with a propensity for solving problems and helping other people?
That’s why my protagonists are cops or ex-cops. They have to be in the life, and I have to get them in a situation where they want to help people. They’re all investigators. They want to solve the puzzle. They want to right a wrong. And that’s the heart of most crime fiction: The protagonist wants to fix or solve something, or help someone. It’s in his nature.
Do you follow a specific formula for your crime novels, even when the specifics of the stories change? Are there certain beats you’re trying to hit?
Yeah. I don’t think about it when I write, but I’ve read so much that it’s ingrained. The three-act structure is in everyone, because it’s in almost every film and TV episode you see; on Law & Order, it’s a four-act structure. But I don’t consciously follow that, and I don’t know any writer who consciously does. But it’s so ingrained in every person, writers and non-writers, that it just comes out that way.
Did you read a lot of crime and mystery novels growing up?
I was always reading everything when I was growing up. And I think every reader has that moment where they go, “Gosh, I could do this.” So I had that moment early on, and I toyed with it for a while. And I guess around 2000 — the new millennium was coming on, and it was a new era — I started looking at the calendar and thinking about how old I was, and thought, “If you’re gonna write, you need to get on it.” I took a couple classes at SMU, and they had and have a great continuing education creative writing department, so that got me going. And my first book [Still River] came out in 2005.
Do you have to know how the book will end before you start writing?
It’s better for me and for everyone around me if I know how it ends. I don’t need to know everything in the middle, but I need to know that twist, and every story’s got a little twist. So if you can write to that, it’s easier. Some writers can start with an opening line and let the wind take them from there. I don’t know how they do it.
Something I enjoyed about this book, and your writing style, is that it plays like a movie.
It does, yeah. My publisher [Thomas & Mercer] is a division of Amazon, and they have a new format called Kindle in Motion; my book is the second mystery-thriller they’ve done.
It’s like a graphic novel, but the images are moving. It’s part of the e-book; so when you buy the e-book on Kindle, and when you read it, there’ll be text and a movie at the top that ties into the text. So, the text says a guy walks into a bar; and at the top there’ll be a guy walking down the street and pushing open the door of a bar.
My editor liked the book because it felt cinematic to her. So, she pitched it for this new program; and they did a week-long shoot out in Nevada, and I went out and watched them make the movie.
How did you come up with this town, Piedra Springs?
The name is based on a real town, but the town itself is fictional. There’s a town called Rock Springs, down near Del Rio, and I just loved the name. Piedra means ‘stone’ in Spanish, so, the fictional town is ‘Stone Springs.’ But other than the name, the towns are completely different; I did that deliberately.
Because in The Contractor, my fourth book that introduced Jon Cantrell, that was a road story. Cantrell had to get away from the bad guys and get this witness to the courthouse in Marfa, so they [drove] across Texas to Marfa, which is a real place. And I wanted to go somewhere that was completely fictional.
Everything that I’ve done has been set in Dallas or in rural areas, so I wanted Baines to be somewhere he had never been, and seeing everything with fresh eyes.
At the same time, it’s refreshing to read books that are set in Dallas, because so many are set in New York, San Francisco, Paris and London: places where a lot of writers live, in no small part because of the proximity to major publishing houses.
My agent is in New York, and my first publishing house was in New York; my second publishing house is in Seattle.
You kind of have to fight to avoid being a ‘regional writer.’ I don’t want to be a regional writer, because Dallas is its own place. Why is it that Robert Price, who writes detective stories set in Los Angeles, why isn’t he a regional writer? L.A. is a region.
The good thing is that people love reading about Texas. They love Dallas: J.R. Ewing, the Dallas Cowboys, all of that stuff. And people love Texas stories because they’re larger than life.
This interview has been edited and condensed.