My Fall Crime Reading List

My favorite crime books — fiction and nonfiction alike — hook readers with more than a compelling plot and mystery. They also develop a deep and atmospheric sense of place. Think John Berendt’s Savannah in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” or Raymond Chandler’s noir Los Angeles in any of his Philip Marlowe books.

Now that I’ve finished writing my next book, I have more time to dive into the stack on my nightstand. Here’s some of what I’ll be reading this fall:

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  • As a setting, I’m fascinated by the city of Nashville, and so I can’t resist “Monster City: Murder, Music and Mayhem in Nashville’s Dark Age,” Michael Arntfield’s nonfiction account of multiple serial killers stalking the nation’s country-music capital.

  • Also in my true-crime queue: “The Old Man and the Gun and Other Tales of True Crime,” an anthology from David Grann, author of “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

  • On the crime fiction front, I’ll be picking up Michael Connelly’s latest Harry Bosch mystery, Dark Sacred Night, when it comes out the day before Halloween. I love the setting for this one: Bosch returns to his old Hollywood stomping grounds in the company of the lead character of Connelly’s other detective series, Renée Ballard.

  • Janet Maslin’s review of Joe Ide’s third book, “Wrecked,” made me want to dive into Ide’s world. But obsessive as I am, I have to go back and read his first two books first, starting with “IQ.” I can’t wait to see what he does with the setting of East Long Beach — my own home-base when I first moved to Southern California.

  • Speaking of obsession, I have been speeding through the Walt Longmire series of books by Craig Johnson, with their beautifully rendered portraits of Wyoming life and landscape. I have a dozen books to go before I reach Johnson’s newest installment, “Depth of Winter.” Right now I’m on the fifth, “The Dark Horse,” which I’m listening to in the Audible version, expertly narrated by George Guidall, speaking just how you’d expect Walt would sound if he was kicking back on his porch with you and a couple of ice-cold Rainiers.

He'll Try Anything To Free These 12 Prisoners

Imagine you’re a lawyer with 12 clients in prison you believe to be innocent. How do you get a busy governor to pay attention to your pleas for clemency?

If you’re Justin Brooks, Director of the California Innocence Project in San Diego, you battle in court, you tweet Gov. Jerry Brown daily, and when that fails, you walk. Really, really far.

Brooks will mark the governor’s last 100 days in office by walking 100 miles from Berkeley to the state Capitol in Sacramento to call attention to the “California 12.”

His team has already won freedom for five of them in the courts. A bid to overturn a sixth’s murder conviction awaits a Los Angeles judge’s decision: the case of Jo Ann Parks, chronicled in my upcoming book, Burned. New evidence in the arson-murder case against Parks could set her free, although prosecutors are fighting hard to prove she deserves her life-without-parole sentence. So Brooks is simultaneously needling the governor to grant parole or commutation to her, along with the other members of the California 12 still behind bars.

This is not the first time Brooks has let his feet do the talking: Five years ago, he led his staff on a 712-mile trek from San Diego to Sacramento to introduce the California 12 to the world.

“To get the governor to grant clemency,” Brooks says, “you have to get his attention.”

Will New Science Set a Mother Free After 26 Years in Prison?

I’ve been away for a while, immersed in my next book. But I’m back now, and eager to tell you about Burned, which will be published by Dutton Books in January. 

A few days ago I watched the conclusion to a court hearing on the murder case at the heart of Burned. It was a nail-biter, with the judge’s decision yet to be revealed. Here’s what he’s dealing with:

On an April night in 1989, three small children perished in a Los Angeles apartment fire. Their twenty-three-year-old mother, Jo Ann Parks, escaped unharmed, the sole survivor and only eyewitness. Though they at first believed the fire had been a tragic accident, arson investigators

soon decided that Parks had sabotaged wiring, set several fires herself, and even barricaded her four-year-old son inside a closet to make sure he could not escape the flames. The prosecutor on the case pronounced Parks one of the most monstrous killers in Los Angeles history, motivated by a desire to be free of parental responsibilities and eager to cash in by suing her landlords. Convicted through the power of forensic fire science, Parks remains in prison to this day, sentenced to life without possibility of parole. 

More than a quarter century later, however, there has been a revolution in the science of fire. Much of what was thought to be gospel in 1989 has been revealed to be myth and guesswork disguised as science. Now the Parks case has been reopened and re-investigated, the subject of an intense legal battle stretching over ten months in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Lawyers at the California Innocence Project hope to prove that false assumptions, tunnel vision and outright bias turned a terrible accident into a wrongful murder conviction. Parks, they say, has spent more than half her life in prison for a crime that never happened. 

Will Jo Ann Parks be exonerated? Should she be? Is she “Patient Zero” in an epidemic of wrongful arson convictions waiting to be overturned? Or can prosecutors come up with enough evidence from the ashes to make sure she dies in prison? No matter how this case turns out, someone will be left burned. 

This is my first true crime book in a while. I’m jazzed to be returning to the genre that started my career, with a murder mystery and tale of possible injustice that keeps you guessing until the very end. Stay tuned for more….

Read an excerpt of Burned here.

eBook Debut: Over Here, Buried Secrets, Murderer With a Badge

One of the great things about eBooks is the new life and audiences they can bring to an author's work. So I'm pleased to announce the publication today of three of my earlier titles in eBook editions by Diversion Books.

Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream, shares the stories of famed filmmaker Arthur Penn, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman, political leaders Bob Dole and George McGovern, and other men and women of the Greatest Generation who shared two things in common: they all fought in WW II, and they all used the original GI Bill to transform their own lives — and an entire nation. Over Here is, in short, the "after-the-war story" of the Greatest Generation. The original GI Bill opened college education to the masses, transformed America from a nation of renters into a nation of homeowners, and enabled an era of middle-class prosperity never before seen in the world.

The LA Times wrote of Over Here: "Deeply moving, alive with the thrill of people from modest backgrounds discovering that the opportunities available to them were far greater than anything they had dreamed of… Vivid… inspiring.. told with such warmth and enthusiasm."

Get the eBook in your favorite format.

Buried Secrets: A True Story of Serial Murder, is my first book, a true-crime tale of drug-running, ritual murder and official incompetence on the Texas-Mexican border. When college student Mark Kilroy, nephew of a senior U.S. Customs official, disappeared during spring break in the border town of Matamoros, the manhunt led to a drug-smuggling cult ruled by a Miami priest of black magic, Adolfo Constanzo. Exposed with him was a cult that committed dozens of human sacrifices, followers drawn from the highest levels of Mexican law enforcement, and years of getting away with murder because U.S. border law-enforcement agencies were more interested in fighting one another than fighting crime.

Wrote the Washington Post: "Chilling… a masterful job." Publishers Weekly called Buried Secrets "one of the best true-crime tales in recent times," while Ann Rule, author of The Stranger Beside Me,  said it was "the definitive book on the most despicable yet fascinating criminal of our time."

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Murderer With a Badge: The Secret Life of a Rogue Cop, is the true story of the dirtiest cop in Los Angeles. Nicknamed “Mild Bill” for his unassuming manner, William Leasure, a seemingly ordinary traffic cop by day,  ran a ring of luxury yacht thieves and engineered murders for hire in his spare time. His home was a showcase of stolen property and stolen cars. He owned an airplane and a yacht — yet no one seemed to suspect Mild Bill of anything. Only a chance encounter aboard a stolen vessel led to his arrest. In writing this book, I had access to the investigators who made the case, and to Leasure himself as he sat in jail and handicapped his own trial day after day. That allowed me to  bring readers deep inside the story of what happens when the police investigate one of their own,  and into the mind of a cop who thinks he can get away with anything — and almost did.

The Flint Journal said of Murderer With a Badge: "a riveting glimpse of the dark side of human behavior... a fascinating walk on the wild side... Humes recounts Leasure's story with the skill of a master suspense novelist." The Miami Herald described the book as "Rife with vivid description… Disturbing." And Kirkus Reviews wrote: "Fascinating.. . a superbly crafted chronicle of one of the most complex, enigmatic criminals in memory. Far stronger and more compelling than most crime fiction."

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