Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Message In The Breath Of Allah, by Ali F. Sareini

"A Message In The Breath Of Allah," by Ali F. Sareini, in Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2014.

My problem with thematic anthologies is that I usually like the theme better than most of the stories.  Take, for instance, this book which has a brilliant plan: invite current or former guests of the American correctional system to write fiction about it.  Great idea.  And some of the stories are fine.

But so far, most of the ones I have read aren't crime stories.

Yes, I know.  Prison implies crime.  But if your subject is surviving in a hostile environment, the fact that a felony got you into the place doesn't by itself make it a crime story.

And then there is the whole noir thing.  Merely being violent and gloomy does not qualify a piece of fiction as noir.  As I have said here, too often, a noir story ideally has three elements: 1) a nobody, who 2) tries to be somebody, and 3) gets stomped on by fate.  Why are those the elements of noir?  For the same reason a sonnet has fourteen lines.

Having whined sufficiently for one day, let me address this masterful story by Ali F. Sareini, who recently finished a term for second degree homicide.

Ali (the character, not the author, I hope), has been praying to Allah for decades to be released from prison.  A weaker spirit might feel a twinge of doubt after all that time, but Ali concludes that his prayers are simply  the wrong media to get his message across.

He decides he needs to send a messenger directly to Allah.  Fortunately, he is working as a helper in the part of the prison full of elderly and ill inmates. "I reverently called the unit 'the messengers' home.'" So all he has to do is explain clearly the plea he wants delivered and then, immediately, send the astonished courier off to the afterlife.

That's the creepiest motive for murder I have run across in a long time.

(By the way, should I have included a spoiler alert?  No, because this isn't the plot of the story: it's the premise.)

So, does this story have crime?  Check.  Does it have a nobody trying to be somebody?  I would say trying to negotiate directly with Allah counts.  As for whether the ending counts as noir, telling that would need a spoiler alert.

By the way, this is a story with its theme showing.  (The theme is what the story is about, other than the plot and character.  Some people like it visible and some don't.)  The theme, repeated in several contexts is this: Why do we take care of each other?

Much to ponder in this great story.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Pit Stop, by Raymond Khoury and Linwood Barclay

"Pit Stop," by Raymond Khoury and Linwood Barclay, in Face-Off, edited by David Baldacci, Simon and Schuster, 2014. 

Still enjoying this collection of pairing-ups by members of the International Thriller Writers.  This week, my first encounter with  two authors.

Glen Garber is not your hero for a series of thrillers.  He's a builder, not a spy or criminologist.  And rather being a ladies' man, he's a widower with a ten-year-old daughter.  All he wants to do is bid on a farmhouse renovation when, well, he gets thrown into thriller territory.

Glen Garber had been given his coffee, but was still waiting for an order of chicken nuggets for his daughter, Kelly, when a woman raced into the restaurant screaming that some guy was on fire in the parking lot.

Well, that would get your attention.

Turns out the man on fire was just a distraction to help a bad guy get away from Sean Reilly, who is much more your standard thriller hero: the kind of FBI agent who doesn't let a little thing like a fresh concussion stop him from pursuing a maniac with a biological bomb.  And, did I mention he just kidnapped Glen Garber's daughter?

And that turns out to be a very bad idea, for the bad guy...
 


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Red Eye, by Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly

"Red Eye," by Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly, in Face-Off, edited by David Baldacci, Simon and Schuster, 2014.

The International Thriller Writers came up with a clever idea for an anthology: pair up top writers in stories in which their characters meet each other.  I'm enjoying it, so far.

My favorite at this point is the first story, in which Michael Connelly's L.A. cop Harry Bosch travels to Boston to get a DNA sample from a suspect in an old open case.  He "meets cute" as they say in Hollywood, with Dennis Lehane's private eye Patrick Kenzie, who suspects the same guy is involved in a current kidnapping.

So why aren't the Boston police leading the search for the missing teenager?  Kenzie explains: "She's the wrong color, the wrong caste, and there's enough plausible anecdotal shit swirling around her situation to make anyone question whether she was abducted or just walked off."

Lucky for her there are two men willing to break the rules to find her.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Crush Depth, by Brendan Dubois

"Crush Depth," by Brendan Dubois, in Mystery Writers of America present Ice Cold: Tales of Intrigue from the Cold War, 2014.

Hard time choosing between two very different stories this week, both in Ice Cold, and both excellent.  Sara Paretsky's "Miss Bianca" is about intrigue in a biological research lab, as seen through the eyes of a child.  "Crush Depth" is a look back at a genuine mystery of American military history, offering a possible explanation.  The first is cute, the latter is grim.  What finally decided me was their surprise endings.  Paretsky's seemed tacked on, while Dubois's was a genuine twist, putting a new light on everything that went before.


In "Crush Depth" it is a year after the Soviet Union collapsed and an intelligence agent named Michael is hanging around the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, naval yard, trying to make contact with someone who knows the truth behind a naval tragedy from the 1960s.

Michael thought it ironic that his work and the work of so many others was still going on, despite peace supposedly breaking out everywhere.

Cold war or hot war, there was always plenty of work to be done...

True and sad enough. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Last Confession, by John Lescroat

"The Last Confession," by John Lescroat, in Mystery Writers of America present Ice Cold: Tales of Intrigue from the Cold War, 2014.

Not surprisingly, a lot of these stories about the Cold War focus on Berlin.  But my favorite so far takes place in the good ol' U.S.A. and features nary a soldier nor spy.  Instead Lescroat is interested in how the Cuban Missile Crisis affects one American family.  The narrator, now an adult, was a high school boy whose younger brother was what we would now call autistic.  He has a hard time in school but things seem to be going okay until that awful October, 1962...

I think what I like best in this story is a character type I don't remember seeing in fiction before, but whom I recognize from real life: a vain, charismatic guy who has no clue as to how he can damage people's lives.  And in this case, alas, he's a priest.



Sunday, September 14, 2014

It's a Wonderful Rat-Race, by James Powell

"It's a Wonderful Rat-Race," by James Powell, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November 2014.  

I guess it makes a sort of sense that when my friend James Powell writes about madness the result is slightly less crazy than his usual work.  His usual tale contains a free-association of bizarre connections, like a garden sprinkler shooting water in all directions.  This one is more tightly focused (although he does offer some odd riffs on human conception and the well-known Jimmy Stewart movie).

Obsession is either comic or tragic, depending on how close you stand to the fallout.  Hilda Ross is a neatnik.  She is delighted when her grown children move away because she can finally get wall-to-wall white carpeting.  And she loves her house and her less fastidious neighbor, because "to really succeed neatness-wise you needed a messy best friend."

But one day that friend's husband casually releases a piece of folk wisdom that turns Hilda's life upside down, turning good into bad, light into dark, and--  Well, you have to read it.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Crossing the River Styx, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

"Crossing the River Styx," by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November 2014.

They'd left, all of them.  They'd left, taking the light with them.  Now Edith huddled in the darkest place she'd ever been in, her face, hands, and shirtwaist soaked with blood.  Frank was dead beside her.  She'd known that from the moment the shot hit him.  Hot blood spurted out of him, coating her, and he made all kinds of groaning sounds.

Someone shouted, "Murder!" and the others ran as if their lives depended on it...

Well.  That's an exciting way to start a story, isn't it?

The illustration clued me in to the fact that this takes place in the 1920s, which made me think we were in a Bonnie-and-Clyde scenario, but not quite.  Edith is a proper young woman on her honeymoon and Frank has taken her to the Oregon Caves.  That's where the extreme darkness comes in.

Now Edith has to find a way out of the cave by herself (crossing a creek known as, yes River Styx) and figure out whether she is in danger from the men who fought with  her husband.

The other key viewpoint character is Albert, a mechanic employed by the Forest Service that runs the caves. They will both learn something about themselves before the night is over.

As usual, a very good story from Ms. Rusch.