The best books about small towns and big city crime

J.T. Conroe Author Of Blue Hotel
By J.T. Conroe

Who am I?

My family moved frequently and, as a result, I was raised in a number of different small towns in Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, and Massachusetts. I now live in a large city but the experience has never left me. There was always a certain amount of crime and corruption in the towns I grew up in, but I only had a child’s eye view of it. However, a child’s eye view is usually the most vivid. This experience and the books that I have listed above all had a direct influence on Blue Hotel.


I wrote...

Blue Hotel

By J.T. Conroe,

Book cover of Blue Hotel

What is my book about?

It’s the bitter winter of 1947. The young driver for a Chicago gangster flees his boss’s retribution carrying a valise full of stolen mob money. Suffering from an infected bullet wound received during his escape, he leaves his California-bound train and takes refuge in a dying Nebraska railroad town where he encounters a corrupt sheriff and a crippled war veteran who has been traumatized both by his combat experience and a tragic event back home that took place while he was fighting in Europe. This is a novel imagined as a sequel to Stephen Crane’s 1899 short story called “The Blue Hotel”.

The books I picked & why

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The Blue Hotel

By Stephen Crane,

Book cover of The Blue Hotel

Why this book?

This is the story that inspired my novel. It takes place in a small Nebraska railroad town in the bitterly cold winter of 1898. My novel takes place in the bitterly cold winter of 1947, shortly after WW2, mostly in the same blue hotel in the same snowbound town as in Crane’s story.

Crane’s story “is one of the most well-known of the short stories in the collection The Monsters and Other Stories. Although it appears to be a reasonably simple tale about a man who encounters trouble following a stay at the Palace Hotel, several complex themes underpin the story and define many of the overarching themes in novels like Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and more generally, Crane’s corpus. Stylistically, the story breaks free from the norms of the period, often entering the realms of Expressionism, an unusual style to encounter in American literature.”


Road to Perdition: The New, Expanded Novel

By Max Allan Collins,

Book cover of Road to Perdition: The New, Expanded Novel

Why this book?

Road to Perdition takes place during the Great Depression. Like my book, it concerns a man who betrays his Chicago Irish-American mob boss and is forced to flee for his life (accompanied by his young son in this case), pursued by a relentless killer sent by his former boss. Superficially, what appealed to me was the Depression-era atmosphere that the author of Road to Perdition created. On a deeper level, it appealed to me as a story of a man in a battle for the soul of his son. The man, an enforcer for his gangland boss, considers his own soul to be irredeemably lost because of the crimes he has committed, not only survive but to thrive.


No Country for Old Men

By Cormac McCarthy,

Book cover of No Country for Old Men

Why this book?

This too is a novel about a young man being pursued by a remorseless killer. I enjoyed this novel because of its unrelenting suspense and because it represents a struggle, not only for the soul of a young man but for that of the nation. In it, McCarthy gives us a stunning portrait of evil and he shows us what’s at stake. The language is stripped bare, making the story resemble an actual direct experience as opposed to something I was merely reading about in the comfort of home.


Nebraska: Stories

By Ron Hansen,

Book cover of Nebraska: Stories

Why this book?

This is a portrait of Nebraska (and Nebraskans) where most of my own book takes place. It’s also the state where I went to high school. I like Hansen’s spare and precise writing style because it perfectly fits the time and place, as well as the characters themselves who are presented stripped of the conceits and pretensions. For me, it’s a style, though different from McCarthy’s, that creates the illusion of actual direct experience as opposed to something I happen to be reading about. His story “Wickedness” creates a powerful image of winter on the Great Plains and its effect on people.


Montana 1948

By Larry Watson,

Book cover of Montana 1948

Why this book?

I grew up in a small Montana town, so Watson’s novel has a special meaning for me. It is a vivid portrayal of small-town life on the Great Plains and takes place during the same time period as my own book. It tells of the corruption of a trusted official and its effect on his family, his victims, and the town itself. Watson’s novel allowed me to feel and understand the deep emotions, the pain, the anxiety, the love, and the disappointment that his characters were feeling.


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