Family, Loyalty, and Pride in “Hard Cash Valley”

In his latest thriller, Hard Cash Valley, Brian Panowich returns to Georgia’s McFalls County and the blood feuds, crime dynasties, drug-running, and dark secrets that define its backcountry. Lifetime McFalls County resident and ex-arson investigator, Dane Kirby, is called back to service to consult on a seemingly straightforward murder but soon finds himself facing international criminal conspiracies, grisly gun battles, and betrayals from every side. As Dane and his FBI counterpart, Special Agent Roselita Velasquez, race to rescue a boy with autism whose special talents are invaluable to powerful gangs of desperados, Dane is forced to come to terms with his own history of tragedy and guilt.

Fans of the fast-paced Southern noir that made the first two novels of this series (Bull Mountain and Like Lions) runaway hits will not be disappointed. Again, Panowich serves up a tightly-plotted thriller full of broken men, strong women, vicious criminals, heart-stopping action, and too many twists to count. I got a chance to speak with Panowich the week of Hard Cash Valley’s release to find out more about his inspirations and what keeps bringing him back to the mountains and valleys of McFalls County, Georgia.

Hard Cash Valley, like the two previous novels in the series, serves up an impressive cast of memorable and complex characters, each one packed with secrets, heartbreak, and history. In a recent interview, however, I heard you say that the main character in all three books of this series and another one in the works is the fictional McFalls County, the Northern Georgia mountains and valleys where all three books are set. What fascinates you about this place and how did you first conceive it?

My main draw was that for most of my life, I didn’t even realize that part of the state existed. I know that sounds bizarre, but seeing that my father was military (he retired from The Army at Ft. Gordon), and I attended school at Georgia Southern University, the only part of Georgia I was intimately familiar with from the age of twelve to my early twenties was the flat, relatively unremarkable areas. I say unremarkable with some hesitation now because as a man in my forties, I’ve come to appreciate those areas a lot more, but it wasn’t until my thirties, did I return home to Georgia from Florida, where I’d moved to after college, and taken my first trip north to the Blue Ridge Foothills. I was taken back. Not only by the beauty of the place, but by the realization that my desire to leave Georgia as a younger man was so uninformed. I found a place in North Georgia that finally provided me with a sense of home and pride in my home state that never existed before. Now It serves as the backdrop of my novels because it’s truly my favorite place on earth and writing about it puts me there no matter where I’m at.

You begin Hard Cash Valley with this from a Cory Branan song: “They say it makes you stronger, but first you gotta survive / What didn’t kill you, will make you wish you died…” That might as well be the theme song for Dane Kirby, the McFalls County native and Georgia Bureau of Investigations arson investigator at the center of Hard Cash Valley. He spends most of the novel trying to weather external attacks by epically violent criminals and the internal turmoil of secret and not-so-secret pain and guilt. McFalls County comes across not as a place one settles, but a place one is lucky to get out of alive — and an awful lot of your characters don’t. Can you talk a little bit about your fondness for characters who, no matter how bad they are whipped, keep coming back for more?

It’s funny that you mention that Cory Branan song could be Dane Kirby’s theme song because that’s exactly the way I described that tune for a song-by-song breakdown of a playlist I created for the novel. I’m a huge Cory Branan fan anyway, but that song in particular was almost as if it were being sung by Dane himself. As far as the characters that populate McFalls County despite the hazards that exist there, well, it’s complicated.

And it was something else that fascinated me about the real people of North Georgia in real places like Rabun County or Fannin — something I’ve come to admire greatly. It’s the almost living and breathing connection between the people there and the land. Not the houses they live in, or the neighborhoods, or their money, or even each other, but the land itself. I explored that connection a lot in my first two books. The land is believed to be God-given to many of the people there and nothing or no one can convince them otherwise. No matter how horrible or desolate staying there might be. Try and take it away, and they will fight back tooth and nail.

Even I’m still an outsider there, despite my genuine love for the area. And being raised in a family that traveled from place to place my entire childhood, the idea that a person could be rooted so deeply to a piece of land not only fascinated me but made me want to be a part of it. I’ve lived in places where people are proud of their homes or their jobs or their status, but none of that is worth laying your life down for. In McFalls County, it’s the only thing that matters to that much of a degree. You also have to remember that I’m a crime writer, so please don’t make the mistake of thinking that McFalls County is a completely accurate depiction of North Georgia. It’s a beautiful place filled with beautiful people. I encourage anyone and everyone to go there — just stay off the unmarked dirt roads. They aren’t marked for a reason.

Oh, and here’s a link to the Hard Cash Valley Soundtrack I mentioned.

In all three of your novels, the people of McFalls County — regardless of what side of the law they are on — operate by a moral code that depends more on their loyalty to home, family, and friends, than by anything written in the criminal laws. Sure, rough justice is a staple feature of Southern noir, but are you saying something more about what places like McFalls County (and characters like Dane Kirby) can teach us about honor?

The very first word of the very first novel is “family.” I did that for a reason. Other than the connection my characters have to the land, the most important thing in life is looking after your own — being part of a tribe and protecting that tribe no matter the cost. I, of course, jack that concept up to eleven in my books, but if you were to ask me whose side I’d take between a member of my own family or anyone else on earth — including the law — it would be my tribe every time, right or wrong. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Do I believe that lawlessness should be a staple in life when it comes to your kin? No. But I do believe that some rules are meant to be broken, or at least bent, if it means doing right by your people. Dane would die for Ned Lemon. Ned would die for Dane. If the call came at two in the morning to bail each other out of jail, they’d go and do it. No questions asked. Doing what’s right by who you love, even if it’s wrong in the eyes of the masses, is honor. It’s loyalty. It’s North Georgia. It’s McFalls County. And yes, it is most definitely Dane Kirby.

You at one time worked as a firefighter. How much of your experience informs the character of Dane Kirby?

The short answer is not much.

I wanted Dane to have that vocation in case I ever did want to pull it out of the mental toolbox I try to keep filled, so that in the future I might be able to draw on my own experience as a fireman and as a first responder, but it’s tricky to talk about or use in my stories. Some scenes in my books were pulled directly from stories I heard sitting around the firehouse. The scene in Bull Mountain involving the packing peanuts and the blowup doll actually happened. Two fellow firemen I know actually pulled that silliness on each other and it was too funny not to write it down. Another example is during the botched robbery in the beginning of my second book, Like Lions, a character puts diesel fuel in the gas tank of the getaway car instead of gasoline. That was based on a fireman I know who did the exact opposite and nearly blew up Engine One in my Company. Again, that was too funny not to it write down. But these humorous anecdotes didn’t require the characters in my books to be firemen.

I did come a little closer to the reality of fighting fire later in that book where I describe in painstaking detail a terrible housefire, but that was mainly due to it being integral to the story, but even then, I didn’t go into detail about the type of carnage I’ve been exposed to during my tenure with the fire service. I did it more to accurately convey the total and absolute damage that losing everything — and I mean everything — can do to a person’s life, but I also kept it written in a very generalized way. Even then, I had several people who adore my books tell me that they had to skip over that part because it hit too close to home.

And I completely get that.

So that is the main reason I stay away from it. I’ve seen first-hand how painful it can be. I guess what I’m saying is that I feel like the tragedies I witnessed over the past decade of being a firefighter don’t belong to me. They aren’t my stories to tell. The horrific and life-altering disasters I did my best to stop from happening, although not nearly enough, happened to other people and those heartaches and miseries are their own. I’d be doing them a huge disservice and dishonoring those people by trying to capitalize on their pain and suffering. That’s just something I just can’t and won’t ever do.

Dane Kirby is haunted (and sometimes stunted) by the wife and child he lost years before the action in Hard Cash Valley. The love, and often pain, of family legacies is a theme that runs through the novel as well as its predecessors. Many of the most interesting characters in Hard Cash Valley are shaped by their longtime love for their partners or spouses — Dane Kirby most obviously but also others I won’t mention so as not to spoil the surprise. For a story that has so much violence, cruelty, and greed in it, there’s also a great deal of romance, some of it beautifully rendered and heartbreaking. How do you balance those two threads?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Where characters like Clayton Burroughs (ed. note, the main character in Bull Mountain and Like Lions) come from a long line of outlaws, I come from a long line of romantics. Most of a person’s life is centered around relationships, intimate ones and broken ones. It’s the life blood of any good story. A writer I know, and respect very much, once told me that all stories are love stories. I think that’s true. But in the case of Dane Kirby and his wife, in fact, the whole underlining theme of Hard Cash Valley is the power love has over everything. People can feel love immediately when it’s pure and they can feel when it’s missing or gone, too, in ways that no other emotion can accomplish. Love can define a person, or it can break them completely. Either way it’s the most powerful force on earth and exploring the lengths a man or a woman or a mother or father would go to prove that makes for some intriguing writing. Sure, the twists, and the mysteries are fun, and the action and suspense can keep the pages turning, but it’s love that makes a story worth reading, so I don’t think I could stop injecting that into my writing if I tried.

In this novel, with FBI Agent Roselita Velasquez, and in past novels with characters like Kate Burroughs, you’ve written strong female protagonists who are often tougher and smarter than their male counterparts. Why is it important to you to write against the stereotype of the Southern woman?

Because the stereotype is unfounded. I think it’s about time that Southern women, and women in general, are given the spotlight they deserve by male writers like me. It wasn’t until I wrote and sold my first book that I discovered that there is a stigma about women in the South being in some way inferior to women in other places of the country. Here’s an example of what I mean. If there is a powerful woman executive in New York, then no one bats an eye, because, of course there is. But if there is a powerful woman executive in rural Georgia then she must’ve really pulled herself up by the bootstraps or perhaps just gotten really lucky.

That’s just bullshit.

I want that stigma to go away, hence Roselita, a proud Latina lesbian FBI agent who is clearly a better detective than her counterpart, Dane. Or, Kate Burroughs, a schoolteacher willing to take on an army of horrible people, and win, to protect her son — and husband. Female writers are doing a wonderful job of shredding those tired ‘damsel in distress’ tropes, but not enough men are, so I figured I’d start with me. The strongest women I’ve ever known are southern born and bred. I also have three daughters that are going to change the world in ways I never did. So, my motivation to write about powerful women — on both sides of the law (Vanessa Viner, wink, wink) is based mostly on what I owe to those three beautiful, smart, and amazing little girls across the house from me right now.

Along with Cory Branan, you quote Hemingway in the epilogue of Hard Cash Valley. You end the book with a piece by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. I know your tight plotting and sharp dialogue are often (and I think accurately) compared to that of Elmore Leonard, but the struggles of your characters to come to terms with painful family histories or define their places in a violent world remind me more of Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies. And your characterizations through deft use of the third person omniscient point of view seem right out of Anna Karenina. Are there classics or authors writing outside the crime genre that have inspired your work?

This is another wonderful question that had me thinking long and hard about how to answer. I’ve never considered myself a literary type, or even that well-read to tell the truth. I grew up on comic books and Elmore Leonard novels (so thank you for that wonderful compliment), but I feel like other more classical writers have been seeping into my brain over the past decade or so. I read The Old Man and the Sea a few years ago at a friend’s behest because they thought it was insane that I’d never read a Hemingway novel. It took me about four hours to finish it, and I finally got what all the fuss was about. I began to devour the rest of his work, starting with his short stories until it was fair to say, I understood the hype.

Poetry is also something that came to me later in life. I remember in college having to read and dissect famous poems and always wondered why the writer didn’t just tell the whole story? Why make the reader guess what he was saying? Then one day it dawned on me. I’d been writing songs for decades. Wasn’t it basically the same thing? In fact, Cory Branan, who we talked about earlier, is one of the greatest living poets in the world. So, not long ago another friend gave me a book called The Moons of August by a modern poet named Danusha Laméris, and her plainly spoken work started me down a rabbit hole that eventually led me right back to the same famous poets I’d dismissed when I was younger, Neruda now being one of my all-time favorites. In fact, Neruda’s book of 100 Love Sonnets, written entirely to his wife, has been something I’ve kept handy and close by during this pandemic because of the comfort it brings me. See? I told you I was a romantic.

The obligatory question these days: How are you and your family weathering the pandemic? Have you been able to find time to write? Also, how do you think the people of McFalls County might fare under a stay-at-home order? Being as isolated as they are, operating under their own laws, would they even notice?

It’s been an up and down world around here. As I’m sure it’s been for everyone. The massive amount of misinformation and my quest to dig through it caused me a lot of anxiety and knowing that my new book would be coming out in the middle of this chaos weighed on me pretty heavy. Combine that with having to learn how to homeschool four kids ranging in age from fifteen to ten was stressful enough to age me in dog years, but then I stopped digging through all the trash information out there and decided to just make the best of it. I’m not getting the writing done at the same pace I’m used to, since I have a full house all day long — I typically write while the kids are at school — but I can’t control that, so I decided to focus on the things I can control, like spending the unexpected time I have with my kids doing things we normally don’t get to as a family.

As far as the people in McFalls County, I think maybe Dane would have the sense to stay home and be responsible, but the Burroughs Clan would be doing whatever they pleased. Not even a pandemic would be enough for those folks to stop the cashflow. I believe the virus would be scared of them, not the other way around.

These are tough times for authors releasing books. I’m guessing there’s no chance for a traditional book tour. How are you promoting Hard Cash Valley? Are there any online events or readings I could share with our readers?

Luckily I have an amazing team of folks at St. Martin’s and Minotaur Books that have been working around the clock for me to swap over all the cancelled personal events and appearances into virtual ones, along with a lot of other creative ways via social media to help keep Hard Cash Valley on people’s radar. I’m blessed to have them. Here is a look at all the virtual events coming up.

And hopefully that list will grow as bookstores continue to grow into the new normal. So, I hope folks keep checking back. It’s actually pretty cool that under these dire circumstances a reader could potentially be at all my events instead of just the traditional one in their hometown. So that’s a bright side. I find that if you look for the silver lining in times of trouble, most times you find it.

Hard Cash Valley
By Brian Panowich
Minotaur Books
Published May 5, 2020