After verifying that the box doesn’t contain a bomb, Snow opens it and finds an empty Skittles wrapper. It’s a welcome home “gift” from one of his many shadowy friends, and one of many entertaining red herrings in Stephen Mack Jones’ new book, “August Snow.”
Jones begins his debut mystery thriller with this humorous episode. It isn't the last, but in between there’s enough over-the-top violence, crazy sieges and military weaponry from some of the ugliest bad guys around to keep you reading long into the night.
“I was mowing the lawn a couple years back, and the name August Snow popped into my mind,” Jones said. “I thought, ‘What a juxtaposition.’ It wouldn’t leave me alone, and I began exploring who this person is. I’d always been a mystery fan, from Dashiell Hammett to Robert B. Parker.”
Jones said he admires characters like Hawk, the sidekick to Spenser in Parker’s popular detective novels. Hawk, he explained, is a tough black man who works a little outside the law.
“There are great minority characters in crime fiction, but they were always in the background, never in the foreground,” Jones said. “I wanted to explore that.”
Snow, for example, is “blaxican” born of a Mexican mother and a black father.
“I wanted my character to represent the major minorities in Metro Detroit, and the blacks and Mexicans in Detroit rarely joined hands,” he said. “I needed to reflect the new Detroit. Snow enjoys being from both cultures.”
Although Jones writes about Detroit like a native, he grew up about 80 miles northwest in Lansing. He graduated from J.W. Sexton High School in 1972 before going to Michigan State University to earn a degree in advertising.
He fondly recalls Knapp’s department store at Christmas time and shopping at J.C. Penney with his mom, who now lives in Okemos. As an MSU student, he remembers selling some Scrooge McDuck comics to Ray Walsh at an early iteration of Curious Books.
“My dad lived a hard-scrabble life, but all in all it was good,” Jones said of his time in Lansing.
Growing up, he lived on Hammond Street just off of South Logan Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) where he frequented a nearby Polish grocery store.
“For the longest time, I thought golumpki, pierogis and kielbasa was soul food,” Jones said.
Jones, 62, is following in the footsteps of other ad men-turned-authors like James Patterson and Detroit mystery writer Elmore Leonard. After retiring from a career in writing advertising copy and managing creative services for clients at agencies like McCann Erickson and Young & Rubicam, Jones is blazing new ground as a crime writer.
But it’s not the first time blazing new ground for Jones. As an African-American in the advertising business, Jones said, “I was often the only one.”
While moving up in the advertising business, Jones wrote two well-received plays, “Back in the World” and “The American Boys,” about African-American Vietnam veterans returning home to an uncertain world. “Back in the World” opened at Detroit’s Attic Theatre before going to Boston and off-Broadway — so far off-Broadway, Jones joked, that it was “one inch from the border of Jersey.”
“August Snow” is reminiscent of George Pelecanos’ Washington D.C. novels, but Jones introduces enough twists and turns in “August Snow” to be his own creature. His protagonist is a well-read ex-military sniper and a hardcore Detroiter who likes the city’s varied food offerings.
As an ex-cop, he knows the streets are mean, but after his multi-million dollar settlement, he decides to continue restoring his childhood home and buying up the rest of the trashed block for later restoration. While he works in these humble digs, it’s not long before he’s pulled into an upper-crust plot of murder and financial corruption of international proportions. Along the way, he’ll take down devious bankers and tough soldiers of fortune.
“I can’t really tell you where the idea came from,” he said, referring to the corrupt financial industry Snow finds himself fighting. “I think it was what all of us went through in 2008 and what was happening to the banking industry.”
Jones said he was careful not to make his bad guys cartoonish.
“There’s nothing quite so good as a really bad person in literature,” Jones said. “I want to know how they became that person — human beings with good intentions, but somehow they go terribly wrong.”
Get a Clue presents Detroit author duo Stephen Mack Jones and Aaron Foley
7 p.m. Thursday, March 2
Schuler Books & Music (Meridian Mall location)
1982 W. Grand River Ave., Okemos
(517) 349-8840, schulerbooks.com