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Mean Streets

Memphis? It’s a mystery.

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It's a new, damn world; killers are smarter, meaner and crazier than ever before, and serial killers are worse."

They sure are — and especially in the Bluff City, where, in this past year alone, fictional detectives and police officers have been hard on the heels of homicidal maniacs wreaking maximum mayhem on the streets of Memphis.

That was the case in two titles published earlier this year, both of them Memphis-set: Don't Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman and The Sleeping and the Dead by Jeff Crook.

The bloody doings of a monstrous maniac is the case too in the pages of Bluff City Butcher (Barringer Publishing) by Steve Bradshaw — pages that do indeed prove in spectacular detail that, as the above quote from that book indicates, killers are smarter, meaner, and crazier than ever before.

And that goes for the killer or killers, who are car-bombing or threatening to car-bomb the living daylights out of a number of characters in James C. Paavola's Which One Dies Today? (J&M Book Publishers), the third title in Paavola's "Murder in Memphis" series starring police lieutenant Julia Todd.

What distinguishes Bradshaw and Paavola? Both authors began writing later in life but with career experience to suit the crime genre. Bradshaw worked for years as a forensics specialist in Dallas, where as a field agent for the medical examiner's office he investigated thousands of unexplained deaths, including hundreds of homicides. (Bradshaw's additional experience as founder and head of more than one biotechnology venture also informs a key plot line in Bluff City Butcher.) Paavola, whose Which One Dies Today? deals in psychological trauma in addition to unsavory but high-profit health-insurance practices, was for decades a psychologist for Memphis City Schools.

"I have always wanted to write," Bradshaw recently wrote by email. "And I have a unique vantage point: high-profile positions in fascinating fields. But I have a dangerously creative imagination too."

And as for the city that inspires Bradshaw, according to the author:

"Memphis and the Mid-South will be the base for my novels, because it's what I know well and it's a very special place in the world that offers a wonderful stage from which to tell a story. Bluff City Butcher is primarily set in Memphis, but the sequel takes place in Barcelona, Moscow, Paris, London, Lima, Peru, and Monterrey, Mexico. All roads, though, lead back to Memphis, where the main characters live and the plot thickens. Even my protagonist, forensic pathologist Elliott Sumner, was smart enough to relocate from Dallas to Memphis ... the international hub of America."

Look for the plot to "thicken" next April, when Steve Bradshaw's sequel to Bluff City Butcher is due to appear.

"Reading for fun? That was an oxymoron," James Paavola admitted when asked about his decades spent as a full-time psychologist struggling with his own learning disability. But writing for fun: That's another matter and what Paavola has been doing — three novels in three years. And to get him going, he goes to what's in the news, be it the financial collapse or bullying or, in the case of Which One Dies Today?, the health-insurance industry.

How, though, does Paavola have such a handle on criminal investigation? He said he doesn't. But he did work in cooperation with police during his tenure at Memphis City Schools, and he does have a continuing relationship with officers and especially those at the Union Avenue precinct near his home in Midtown. It was a retired colonel with the Memphis Police Department who gave Paavola the go-ahead with events described in his latest book.

Procedures change all the time, Paavola was told. If you have something that holds together and makes sense, he was also told, go with it. "We have enough stories in Memphis about what the police have or haven't done, but I've known too many really good officers. They're working hard, and they do a good job," Paavola said.

They're also on the receiving end. Paavola is donating a share of sales of Which One Dies Today? to support local police training.

"It had to be Memphis," Paavola said of the setting for his "Murder in Memphis" series. As with Steve Bradshaw, "I know Memphis" was what Paavola had to add.

Jim Paavola will be signing copies of Which One Dies Today? at the Booksellers at Laurelwood on Saturday, December 15th, at 2 p.m. Steve Bradshaw will be the guest author of the "Books & Beyond" book club at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library on January 15th.

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