Daniel Kraus’ Blood Sugar, from Hard Case Crime, is a Halloween story not quite like any you’ve read before. In a ruined house at the end of Yellow Street, an angry outcast hatches a scheme to take revenge for all the wrongs he has suffered.
With the help of three alienated kids, he plans to hide razor blades, poison, and broken glass in Halloween candy, maiming or killing dozens of innocent children. But are all three of his helpers really going to go through with the plot, or will any turn against him?
A book of slowly building tension, that gets under your skin while often making you laugh, Blood Sugar gets its claws in you early and doesn’t let you go until it’s finished. I was glad I had the opportunity to talk with Daniel Kraus about it – because I did have a number of questions.
Scott Adlerberg: Blood Sugar takes place during the lead up to and on Halloween, and I love how you work with that, taking the old fear of someone putting razor blades in the children’s candy or apples and building tension from there.
I remember, when trick or treating, there’d be the one or two houses we’d avoid every year because my friends and I just knew the creepy guys who lived in them probably put razors or poison in the candy. I have to ask: Did you like Halloween as a kid? Or did you have a bad Halloween experience at some point?
Daniel Knaus: (Chuckles.) No, nothing like that. Halloween was my favorite holiday. I grew up in Iowa, and it was a lot of fun going around trick or treating. But when I’d get home after that, my mother would go through all my candy, and after the fun you’d had, you’d have the sobering thought that somebody may have tried to kill you.
Scott: Jody, the narrator, is a teenager, a youngish teenager, and he has a really distinctive voice. He has his own lingo and expressions – just his own way of putting words together. It’s even hard to tell for a while whether he’s white or black – which is something I really liked. He could be either, it seems. How did you come up with that?
Daniel: It’s interesting. I live in Chicago now and that voice came from kids I’d hear while riding the subway. The conversations of these kids, how they talked with each other. Sometimes they could be kids up to no good – no doubt about that – but what would come through was their excitement. Their exuberance for what they were doing or planned to do.
Scott: Did you build the novel around that voice? Or around the character of Jody? What came to you first for Blood Sugar?
Daniel: First came the plot. And I have to say Blood Sugar is a book that was written over a long time, seven years, between other much longer, very complicated works. I wrote it on and off, and it took on a kind of free form. It was a release from the other books I did during that time. I could sit down with Blood Sugar and say, “What am I going to write today?” and go with that.
Scott: Sounds fun, liberating.
Daniel: It was.
Scott: In the story you have three kids – thirteen, fourteen, a little younger – who spend most of their time hanging out with an adult, in his remarkably messy and decrepit house. There’s the narrator Jody, his foster sister Midge, and a girl who’s their mutual friend named Dag.
First came the plot. And I have to say Blood Sugar is a book that was written over a long time, seven years…
The guy they hang with, Robbie, is a former town high school football star. He was a star running back but had to endure sexual abuse at the hands of the team’s assistant coach. The head coach, a legend in the town himself, knows about the abuse but ignores it. It was hard not to think of Jerry Sandusky when reading that, Sandusky and Joe Paterno, the whole Penn State thing.
Daniel: I can see that and there are similarities, but actually because I did start the book so long ago, the whole idea, with the assistant coach and everything, came to me before all the Sandusky stuff.
Scott: Robbie is definitely in a certain tradition. The adult who’s still young but whose best days are behind him. He peaked in high school when he was a sports star. It had me thinking even of a character like John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, different as Robbie is from Rabbit.
And the scene where Robbie gets his revenge on the high school team’s head coach for ignoring the abuse he’s suffered – I could see that happening and chaos breaking out on the field and in the stands. What a scene! Can you imagine a scene like that on Friday Night Lights?
Daniel: That’s right. And that hits on something I like to do in my books, which is to take iconic American things, like the story of the one–time high school football star, and turn it inside out a bit.
Scott: You certainly do that here. And it’s great because the whole situation is complicated. Robbie is plotting something terrible – poisoning the town’s kids – to get back at the entire town for how he’s been treated by everyone since the football incident with the coach, but you understand why he feels the way he does. You get his motivation. And overall, he’s pretty good to Jody, Midge, and Dag.
Daniel: Robbie is hurt. That’s the thing. You can see that. So are the others, the kids with him.
Scott: That comes through. Though Dag might be a little bit different?
Daniel: That’s true. She is different. If there’s villain in the book in fact, I’d have to say it’s Dag.
Scott: The character who has the most. Robbie has almost nothing, Jody has no father and a mother who’s mentally not there anymore, and Midge, after years with different foster families, has got all sorts of issues. But Dag comes from an affluent family.
Daniel: Dag is angry. That’s the key. After what happened to her sister [who has been institutionalized], all the pressure is on her. Her parents now have everything resting on her. But she’s cold.
Scott: That’s a good point. None of the others come across as cold. For all their problems, they’re not that. She’s like ice.
Daniel: Despite her advantages. As a matter of fact, she lives in a development built right over the remains of where poor people used to live.
Scott: Yes, I liked how that was shown. The town has a suburban feel, but even here, there’s gentrification going on, people being forced to leave their neighborhoods so new ones can go up, the disparity between the wealthier types and the people with very little. Robbie’s house, needless to say, is in the rough area.
Daniel: Yes, that social justice aspect is there, very intentional.
As the book goes on, the characters you thought were bad seem less so. The line there becomes blurry.
Scott: Oh, you draw a great picture. The adults in that part of town seem no happier than Robbie and his crew. There’s Dick Trickle, for example, as Jody calls him, a guy who works in the Walmart the teenagers go to often for candy and household products. Jody sees him as an enemy, but he’s really just a pathetic old man. When he was younger, Jody’s age, is this what Dick Trickle dreamed of becoming – a Walmart security guy?
Daniel: Exactly. And that relates to something I develop in this story and like to do in general. As the book goes on, the characters you thought were bad seem less so. The line there becomes blurry. Take the high school team head football coach, for example, when you find out what became of him after the incident with Robbie – what the coach did was bad, but does he get a bit more than he deserved?
Scott: I think he did, when you consider the shape he’s in at the end. That ambiguity in how the characters are presented is quite effective.
Daniel: Nothing in the book is starkly black or white.
Scott: Looking at your body of work to date, it’s clear that you like stories for children and stories for, shall we say, young adults, but dark. Dark tales. What are some of the books and movies in this vein that have influenced you?
Daniel: There are so many, in books and films, but George Romero and Rod Serling are where I’d start when it comes to influences. I saw Night of the Living Dead when I was six with my mother, who was a horror fan. Made a big impact. And The Twilight Zone of course. Among other things, both Romero and Sterling were very concerned with social justice and corrupting systems of power, and that’s something that stuck with me.
Scott: My last question. With Blood Sugar – it’s primarily about kids and it’s narrated by a kid, but as I think we’ve made clear, it goes into some very dark places. It’s also unclassifiable in terms of genre, not a straight crime story, some horrific things in it but not a horror story per se. Do you see it as a young adult novel, though?
Daniel: Well, as I see it, anyone can read it. The language is very simple and accessible. So kids, if they’re so inclined, could read it…or adults.
To read Scott Adlerberg’s collection of essays on Mystery Tribune, see here.