Sunday, April 20, 2014

Hunters, by John M. Floyd

"Hunters," by John M. Floyd, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May 2014.

So, where do you get your ideas?  That's a question writers hear a lot.

One place is news stories.  Sometimes I will run across some bizarre thing that actually happened and file it away, thinking, hmm, yes, that could turn into fiction. 

My friend and fellow SleuthSayer, John M. Floyd, made something out of one of those news items that I never got around to, and more power to him.

Occasionally you hear about someone going on trial because they tried to hire a hitman, often in a bar, to kill someone.  It seems to me that it is usually a woman trying to bump off her husband, but that might be selective memory.

And this story is about Charlie Hunter, who owns a bar in a bump-in-the-road town in Mississippi and has an envelope full of cash ready to pay the hitman he is hiring to solve his marital problem.  As you can guess, things don't go according to plan.

What makes this story different is that it is not the usual bad-guy-tangled-in-his-own-web tale, but more of a mediocre-guy-with-second-thoughts affair.  No heroes, not a lot of villains, and a lot of gray lines.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Teddy, by Brian Tobin

"Teddy," by Brian Tobin, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May 2014.

No fireworks in this one, no groundshaking concept or twist ending.  Just a solid story about two men, both of whom turn out to be a little better than they/we thought. 

Sean is a homeless man, a guy whose trail of bad luck runs from childhood, through service in Iraq to his current miserable life.  The one bright point is Teddy, the puppy he rescued from drowning two years ago.  In return Teddy has given him companionship, protection, and a reason to get up in the morning.

Andy, on the other hand, is making a lot of money in a quasi-legal business, but is willing to go further over the line to make more.  His problem is that he believes in the Sam Spade code: When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it.  When that happens, Andy steps up like a good citizen, and disaster follows.  

What ties these two men together is Teddy, the dog.  And maybe all three of them can find a way out of their mutual mess. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

It's So Peaceful In The Country, by WIlliam Brandon

"It's So Peaceful In The Country," by William Brandon, in Black Mask Magazine, 1943, reprinted in The Hard-boiled Detective, edited by Herbert Ruhm, Vintage Books, 1977.

I have been reading a lot of old hard-boiled stories lately, mostly from the Black Mask school.  A lot of them read like photocopies of Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op stories, some blurrier than others.  It made this story stand out by contrast. 

Brandon's hero is Horse Luvnik, just out of jail on burglary charges and feeling unhappy because his beloved wife has decided she doesn't want him back until he goes straight.  And she has decided that going straight means buying a cigar store.  How he is supposed to gather enough coin to do that is his problem.  (I guess he can go straight after that.)

Things look bad but then Horse gets an invitation to Vermont.  A gentleman scholar there named Dingle is working on what he hopes will be the definitive book on Edgar Allan Poe's first editions.  The problem is that some of the information  he needs is in the home of his hated rival, a woman who lives a few miles away.  And since she refuses to share Dingle hires Horse to steal her notes every night -- and then smuggle them back into her house every morning.

As you can imagine, things quickly get silly.  It is as if Damon Runyan and P.G.Wodehouse collaborated on a hard-boiled tale.  The Continental Op might spin in his grave, but I enjoyed it.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Little Big News: Derringers 2014

The Short Mystery Fiction Society has announced the winners of the Derringer Awards for 2014 and I am somewhat stunned to report that I am one of them.  You can read more about me me me here.

For Best Flash (Up to 1,000 words)

  • "Final Statement" by Robert Bailey (The Flash Fiction Offensive, July 18, 2013)
  • "Not My Day" by Stephen Buehler (Last Exit to Murder, Down & Out Books, June 2013)
  • "The Needle and the Spoon" by Allan Leverone (Shotgun Honey, November 15, 2013)
  • "Luck is What You Make" by Stephen D. Rogers (Crime Factory, May 2013)
  • "Terry Tenderloin and the Pig Thief" by John Weagly (Shotgun Honey, June 21, 2013)

For Best Short Story (1,001–4,000 words)
  • "Pretty Little Things" by Chris F. Holm (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2013)
  • "The Present" by Robert Lopresti (The Strand Magazine, February-May 2013)
  • "The Sweetheart Scamster" by Rosemary McCracken (Thirteen by the Mesdames of Mayhem, August 2013)
  • "The Little Outlaw" by Mike Miner (Plan B Magazine, August 9, 2013)
  • "The Cemetery Man" by Bill Pronzini (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2013)

For Best Long Story (4,001–8,000 words)
  • "Myrna!" by John Bubar (Best New England Crime Stories 2014: Stone Cold, Level Best Books, September 2013)
  • "Bloody Signorina" by Joseph D'Agnese (Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2013)
  • "GIVE ME A DOLLAR" by Ray Daniel (Best New England Crime Stories 2014: Stone Cold, Level Best Books, September 2013)
  • "Dance Man" by Andrew Jetarski (Last Exit to Murder, Down & Out Books, June 2013)
  • "A Dangerous Life" by Adam Purple (Best New England Crime Stories 2014: Stone Cold, Level Best Books, September 2013)

For Best Novelette (8,001–20,000 words)
  • "The Serpent Beneath the Flower" by Jack Bates (Mind Wings Audio, April 2013)
  • "The Goddaughter's Revenge" by Melodie Campbell (Orca Rapid Reads, October 2013)
  • "For Love's Sake" by O'Neil De Noux (Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2013)
  • "The Antiquary's Wife" by William Burton McCormick (Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 2013)
  • "Last Night in Cannes" by James L. Ross (Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November 2013)

EDWARD D. HOCH MEMORIAL GOLDEN DERRINGER FOR LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT
  • Ed Gorman

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Knock On The Door, by Jas. R. Petrin

"A Knock On The Door," by Jas. R. Petrin, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, April 2014.

I have written before about my admiration for Jas. R. Petrin's stories about Skig Skorzeny, an aging Halifax loanshark with a gut full of cancer and a heart of, well, not gold, but something more than the rock he pretends to possess.

I'm not going to dwell on the plot of this story (late wife's niece, missing person) but instead I want to concentrate on the writing.  As I went through the tale I found myself marking passages I like (perhaps the only benefit  of my not having a story of my own in this issue.  I don't need to save it).  So, with no further ado:

Skig to a delinquent customer who is suffering from a protection racket: 

"Those partners of yours bleed you again before I get paid, I'm gonna attend their next shareholders meeting.  In fact, I might anyway."
"Please don't do that."
"Could be fun.  A hostile takeover.  Tell 'em."

Skig about to have an MRI:
"So, Mr. Skorzeny, is there any metal, iron, nickel, or cobalt on or in your body?"
"Cobalt?  What the hell is cobalt?"
"A metal--"
"Inside me?"
"Yes."
"How would I know?  This body's been through some pileups.  Do bullets have cobalt in them?"

The narrator explains why Skig moved into an old filling station:
After Jeanette died, the house had seemed too empty during the day, and too full at night, all the ghosts peering out of the woodwork.

A cop asks Skig for help:
"Help you?  Listen, I'm responsible for half the overtime you get."

And, at random:
"Nobody knows nothing anymore," Skig said.  "The information age."

Treat yourself.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Lord of Central Park, by Avram Davidson

"The Lord of Central Park," by Avram Davidson, in The Investigations of Avram Davidson, St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Well, it has happened again as it occasionally does.  I did not read any stories this week I liked enough to report on so instead I am bringing up one from my top fifty.  I remember reading this novella when it originally appeared in the October 1970 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, under the dreadful name of "Manhattan Night's Entertainment."  Frederic Dannay was a great editor but a horrific tinkerer with titles.

Avram Davidson had one of those staggering imaginations, like John Collier, James Powell, or Terry Pratchett.  You just never knew what would pour out of his typewriter.  In this case it the simple story of a young lady from New Jersey and her encounters with a pickpocket, the Mafia, the Nafia, an Albanian Trotskyite who wants to blow up the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Hudson River pirates, and, of course, the Lord High Keeper of the Queen's Bears, who lives in a cave in Central Park.

Okay, maybe I lied about it being a simple story.

The main character is really the titular Lord, alias Arthur Marmaduke Roderick Lodowicke William Rufus de Powisse-Plunkert, 11th Marques of Grue and Groole in the peerage of England, 22nd Baron Bogle in the Peerage of Scotland, 6th Earl of Ballypatcooge in the Peerage of Ireland, Viscount Penhokey in the Peerage of the United Kingdom, Laird of Muckle Greet, Master of Snee, and Hereditary Lord High Keeper of the Queen's Bears.

By now you have probably figured out that Davidson loves words, for their own sake.  He also uses them to tell a wonderful story. 

The Marquess is broke and dishonest, which explains why he lives in a cave, cadging most of his meals from meat his trained falcon steals off grills on the surrounding balconies.  He is a sharp fellow and when he spots rope in a store window that could only have been swiped from the British Navy he finds himself confronting the aforementioned river pirates who vehemently deny that they are pirates.  You see, Peter Stuyvesant gave the family the right to collect taxes in 1662, just before the Dutch surrendered to the British.

For a moment no word broke the reverent silence.  Then, slowly, Lord Grue and Groole removed his cap.  "And naturally," he said, "your family has never recognized that surrender.  Madam, as an unreconstructed Jacobite, I honor them for it, in your person."  He gravely bowed.

I won't attempt to explain how everyone else fits into this mad mosiac.  Just get your hands on the story and read it.  Why it hasn't been made into a movie is one of those inexplicable mysteries.  It's practically a film right on the page.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Busting Red Heads, by Richard Helms

"Busting Red Heads," by Richard Helms, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,  March/April
2014.

I have said before that my favorite stories tend to have at least one of three qualities: a great concept, heightened language, or a surprise ending.  Helms' story scores on the first two and makes a shot at the third.

Here's the concept: Tommy Crane fought in World War I, joined the Boston Police, and then figured he could make more money by joining a detective agency.  But like a lot of "detectives" in the twenties his job wasn't to solve crimes; it was to stop Bolsheviks, being defined as anyone who wanted to form or join a union.  This is a part of the private dick business I don't remember anyone writing about before.

 By heightened language I mean that the words are there for something more than just telling the story.  In this case, they tell you a lot about character:

Three of us -- me, Everett Sloop, and Warren Johns -- were sitting in the Kansas City office in August of 1923, trying to stay cool and counting the minutes until we could shove off and grab a cool beer down the street.  Jess Coulter, our commander, walked in and scowled when he saw us.
"You guys packed?"
"We goin' somewhere?" Johns asked. 
"Rawlings, Kentucky."
"Don't much care for Kentucky," Sloop said.
"There's the door," Coulter said.  "Nobody's holding you here."
That shut Sloop up but good.

In Kentucky they get to work beating up strikers but things go wrong when they  attack the union office.  The wrong people die and there's a mystery to solve.   Good story.