Sunday, November 23, 2014

Disco Donna, by Shari Randall

"Disco Donna," by Shari Randall, in Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays, edited by Donna Andrews, Barb Goffman, and Marcia Talley, Wildside Press, 2014.

Following last week's grim story of a disappearing child in Sweden, here is a much lighter story of a murdered teenager in Maryland.  Go figure.

The narrator and her two friends are high school girls preparing to dress as hippies for Halloween.  In a used clothing store they find a box of leftovers from Disco Donna, the town's legendary unsolved murder victim.  (Her former home had just been renovated.)  This leads to a second box that had been donated to the town library, and in that box they find a clue to the murderer.

The main pleasure here is the language of the teenagers.

People cracked.  That happened on Lifetime all the time, too.

We OMG'ed up the stairs.

She reverted to Korean, which she did only when she was completely unhinged or in gym class.

Fun stuff.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Day and Night My Keeper Be, by Malin Persson Giolito

"Day and Night My Keeper Be," by Malin Persson Giolito, in A Darker Shade of Sweden, edited by John-Henri Holmberg, Grove-Atlantic, 2014.

Sorry this review is late; I was at Bouchercon.

Now we are back in Sweden again, literarily speaking, for a much grimmer story than last week.  (But if the subject as I describe it might scare you away from reading the story, please read the SPOILER I put at the end of this review.)

Petra is a single mother and after a long December day is at the end of her rope, so she decides to take her children to the Christmas market.  And - boom - her four-year-old daughter disappears.  And the tension rockets.

She presses a few buttons, shakes it, but it's pointless.  Her daughter is gone and the phone won't ring and fear has to duck because now terror runs up her back, with sharp talons and pointed teeth.

Evetually the cops arrive and Officer Helena Svensson becomes the viewpoint character.  She is trying to lead the investigation, while judging whether Petra's reactions are normal -- and what's normal in a situation like this?  And she is keenly aware that in Stockholm in December a child who falls asleep outside could die of exposure.

At Bouchercon a panel was debating enthusiastically whether a crime story needed a surprise ending.  This tale doesn't have one.  It ends with the cop - and the reader - asking a set of plaintive questions.  Not at all a standrad crime story, but a doozy nonetheless.

And now: SPOILER ALERT: For some readers the death of a child is taboo, so: No childen die in this one.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

An alibi for Señor Banegas, by Magnus Montelius

"An alibi for Señor Banegas," by Magnus Montelius, in A Darker Shade of Sweden, edited by John-Henri Holmberg, Grove-Atlantic, 2014.

Funny story: when I heard about this book I went to a big ebook store to buy it.  The store was convinced I wanted to buy a different book with shades in the title.  Something about the color grey.  Eventually we worked that out.

The Swedes and I seem to have a disagreement about what constitutes a good ending.  Several times I would be enjoying a story, thinking, this could be the best of the week, and then it would end and I would think, don't call us, we'll call you.

That's not a problem with the story my Mr. Montelius.  It is also the lightest story I have come across so far in this intentionally dark collection.  That may have helped it in my evaluation.

Adam works for a company that wants a contract from the Honduran government, and so he is playing host to an official, Señor Banegas, who is visiting Stockholm in December.  The problem is, Banegas has fallen in love and wants to spend the week with his sweetheart, not his wife.  To arrange that, he has created an elaborate schedule, supposedly Adam's work, that fills all of his daylight hours.

But here's the catch.  Banegas' wife is so suspicious - God knows why! - that she might well check up on him.  So he wants Adam to tell his wife the same story, and stay away from home for most of Christmas week.

An outrageous demand, but there is a twist -  Adam is delighted to cooperate because his loathsome inlaws are visiting.  He can slip away, claiming he is visitng Banegas, and spend the day in a museum or coffee shop, far from the annoying relatives.

What could possibly go wrong?

The fact that the story begins with Adam talking to a defense attorney gives you a hint...



Sunday, November 2, 2014

Male Leary Comes Home, by Michael Guillebeau

"Male Leary Comes Home," by Michael Guillebeau, in The Anthology of Cozy Noir, edited by Andrew MacRae, Dark House Books, 2014.

First things first: I have a story of my own in this anthology, so that may affect my objectivity.

And let's talk about the theme of this anthology: what the heck is cozy noir?  Besides an oxymoron, I mean.

Cozy has been defined as "a mystery in which people get killed but no one gets hurt."  Noir, as I said a few weeks ago, is fiction in which a nobody tries to be somebody and gets stomped for it.  There isn't really much overlap between those two fields.  Most of the authors I the book (so far as I have read) have interpreted it more or less this way: Something violent and nasty happens in a relatively idyllic place.  Fair enough.

We are almost to this story, the second by Mr. Guillebeau that has made my column this year.  But first, we have to talk its subgenre.

There are two ways to build a piece of historical fiction: external and internal.  (They are not exclusive, by the way).  External means you bury yourself in the details of the time and place you are writing about, so that the reader is convinced that you know (even if you don't tell) who built every conestoga wagon, Byzantine chariot, or Ford Flivver your characters rush to the rescue in.

Internal means that you create characters who talk, speak (within reasonable limits) and most importantly, think like people of that time and place.  That's much harder than figuring out what an eighteenth-century policeman would have had for breakfast.  One reason it's hard is that, if we are honest, a lot of people in the past are going to have opinions we find unpleasant or unacceptable.  Do you really want your protagonist to talk about African-Americans like a real cop in the forties might have done?

And so you may get the feeling that under that Roman toga the hero is wearing modern Fruit-of-the-Looms.

The reason I like this story so much is that (while it is not offensive to modern eyes) it reads like the author grew up on Black Mask magazines, fought in World War II, and came back to write about what he found at home.

Which brings us to the Leary guy in the title.  He was baptized Robert T.  His birth certificate calls him Male.  His friends call him Mister.

Under any name, he was in the Navy during the War and then joined the merchant marine.  When the story opens he's back from sea and learns that the father of his girlfriend is having trouble with a gang boss.   Leary and a friendly bar owner get involved and - something violent and nasty happens in a relatively idyllic place..

The last few paragraphs, with Hammett-esque irony, illustrate the cozy-noir theme so well that they might have been written with this book in mind.  In any case, the story is a treat.




Sunday, October 26, 2014

Little Big News: Big book of Shanks stories

I am pleased to report that my first collection of short stories has been published.  There are thirteen stories about Leopold Longshanks, plus author's notes and two blog entries about the curmudgeonly mystery writer (him, not me).  Four of the stories are new, the rest appeared in Alfred Hitchcok's Mystery Magazine.  Enjoy.

Milk and Tea, by Linda Michelle Marquardt

"Milk and Tea," by Linda Michelle Marquardt, in Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2014.

We are back for a second helping of Prison Noir.  Last week was about a clever concept, skillfully executed.  This week is all about heightened language.  One advantage of using an e-reader is you can mark interesting passages, and in this story I highlighted too many to review here.

The story begins with a description of a suicide in the prison.  Then:  Damn!  I was jealous.

That's our first indication that the story is in first person.  The protagonist is a woman who killed her abusive partner.  (And I should say that the abuse is described pretty graphically; this is the most violent tale I have read so far in this book.)

Love of her children keeps her from reaching for death, although I crave it like iced tea on a summer day.  See what I mean about heightened language?

Here she deals with the ever-recurring question: why does a woman stay with a bad man?

Apparently, if you're an educated person, this can be held against you, as if there is some Abuse 101 course in college that prepares you to recognize the waring signs.  There isn't.


This is a powerful piece of writing.

Ms. Marquardt, like her protagonist, is incarcerated at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Michigan.


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.