Sunday, December 3, 2023

Chrysanthemums, by Asaf Schurr

"Chrysanthemums," by Asaf Schurr, in West Jerusalem Noir, edited by Maayan Eitan, Akashic Press, 2023.

The publisher sent me a free copy of this book.

One night Nahum is awakened by a banging at the door.  His grown daughter Michal has arrived.

"I killed him.  I killed him. I think I killed him."

It was a traffic accident, a hit-and-run.  Nahum is determined to protect her from the police, whatever it takes.  He has the obvious paternal reasons, but there is also an incident in his past that adds to his sense of responsibility.

A nice, suspenseful story.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Kit's Pad, by David Krugler

"Kit's Pad," by David Krugler, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December 2023.

 Kit's life went to hell two years ago and he has been homeless in Chicago ever since. One freezing day  he figures out a way to break into a mansion which is empty and for sale.  The perfect place to get a warm night's sleep!

It turns out to not be so easy.  Every night someone new shows up, searching for a hard drive the absentee owner possibly hid in the building.

What's on the drive? Who are all the people who want it?  And, most important, where the heck is it?

A fun story.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Spear Carriers, by Richard Helms

 "Spear Carriers," by Richard Helms, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December 2023.

As far as I can tell, this is only the second time an author has appeared in my best-of column twice in the same month.  Even more impressive (to me, at any rate), this is Helms' tenth story to make it here, which puts him in a tie for first place with Mark Thielman, Joseph S. Walker, and Terence Faherty.  

Dave and Sam have bit parts in a Broadway play, as policemen.  They only show up at the very end which leaves them with a lot of time on their hands.  One night Dave goes out for a bite and the clerk gives him his food for free. "Thank you for your service."

This happens because Dave is wearing his costume - which is to say, something that looks very much like a police uniform.


Dave reports this to Sam who is the imaginative type.  I'll bet you can think of some of the plans he comes up with.  And being brighter than Sam you can probably foresee some of the things that could go wrong.

But not all of the ones Helms dreams up. 

Clever plot and very funny writing.  

"If we're caught, we'll be fired!" I yelled.

"We're actors!" Sam yelled back.  "Getting fired is part of the deal!"

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Prisoner of Love, by James W. Ziskin

 "Prisoner of Love," by James W. Ziskin, in Get Up Offa That Thing: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of James Brown, edited by Gary Phillips, Down and Out Books, 2023.

This is the second story by Ziskin I have reviewed here. 

Dialog is character.  If fiction is told in first person, narrative is also character.  

Though I cannot claim to be a handsome man, I, Nelson Blanchard am -- as it happens -- a rich one.  Quite rich, in fact. And that state of affairs has long compensated for my lack of physical allure.

I think that piece tells you a lot more about Nelson than just his financial state and appearance.  His personality rings through, doesn't it?

Nelson has been summoned to a hotel where a wife-swapping event has been going on. While annoyed that he was left out (does his personality have something to do with it?) he is being asked to solve the murder by strangulation of one of the participants.  

Why him and not the police? Well, he is a doctor.  And if they can solve the case before the cops arrive things will be a lot less messy.

And so Nelson interrogates the suspects, and falls in love and/or lust with at least one of them.  A funny and clever story. 

Sunday, November 5, 2023

West of the Ashley, by Richard Helms


"West  of the Ashley," by Richard Helms, in Prohibition Peepers: Private Eyes During the Noble Experiment, edited by Michael Bracken, Down and Out Books 2023.

This is the ninth appearance in my column by Richard Helms. A perusal of those tales shows that he is one of my favorite current authors of private eye stories. One reason for that is that he finds unusual things for his P.I.s to do.

Take, for instance, Cletus Nobile, a World War I veteran, now doing the gumshoe gig in Charleston. His current assignment? Figure out who is selling unauthorized booze in the segregated section of town. "You can sell all you want west of the Ashley River.  Nobody cares what you do out there.  Try to sell your hooch south of the Citadel and between the rivers, you'll dance with the devil, and he always leads."

Good writing, good plot.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Scariest. Story. Ever, by Richard Van Camp

 "Scariest. Story. Ever," by Richard Van Camp, in Never Whistle at Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology, edited by Shane Hawk, and Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr., Random House, 2023.

The first four paragraphs of what I wrote last week apply again to this one.

So: What's a mystery? Most of the world goes by Otto Penzler's definition: A mystery is a story in which crime or the threat of crime is a major element.  It's useful, although a little broad.  (It includes Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, and The Brothers Karamazov, for example.) 

When I first read Van Camp's piece I thought: This is a really fine tale.  Too bad it isn't a crime story, because if it was, it would be my choice for the week.

But then I thought about it some more (and this is definitely a story you are likely to think about) and concluded, heck yes, it is a crime story.  Just not one that fits into any of the familiar subgenres. So here we are.

The narrator has just made it to the finals of the Scariest. Story. Ever contest using a story he learned from a village elder.  Tomorrow he will be flown to Yellowknife for the finals.  But he needs to find an even better story to tell, so he goes to another elder, his Uncle Mike. and tries to convince him to tell him a properly horrifying tale.

And Mike obliges.  Sort of.  

How does crime get involved?  And why is there so much to think about?  You'll probably want to read the story twice to sort it all out.  It's worth it.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

White Hills, by Rebecca Roanhorse

"White Hills," by Rebecca Roanhorse, in Never Whistle at Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology, edited by Shane Hawk, and Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr., Random House, 2023.

Bear with me.  I have a lot to say before I get to the story today.

Let's start with the subtitle of the book.  Since reading Adam Smyer's book I have tried to avoid using the word "dark" except to mean a level of light or color. Not my place to tell people of color what words to use, but it was the first thing I noticed.

Second, I figured "dark fiction" probably meant crime here, but in this book it generally  means horror.  Horror is not my thing and writing about it is not my mandate here. But I have been working my way through the book, looking for relevant material that rang my chimes.

Third, I did not technically read this book at all. I have an audiobook version so, for the first time in my memory, I am reviewing stories I listened to.  That just means I am less likely to quote passages.

Now, onto the story, which is terrific.  Here is how it starts:

White Hills is everything Marissa ever wanted, right down to the welcome sign by the community mail drop reminding everyone of the HOA rules. Some people don't like HOAs, but Marissa loves them. 

Let's hear some more about our protagonist.

Marissa has many accomplishments. Her body, for one. Tucked and toned and filled to perfection by the best professional surgeons, trainers, and estheticians Houston has to offer. 

So Marissa is perhaps a bit shallow and self-satisfied with  her wealthy new husband.  As the story goes on we watch her rattling off current cliches and mantras with her life.  But does she really fit in in White Hills?

One night she springs two surprises on her husband.  The one she is excited about: she's pregnant.  The one she didn't give a thought to before mentioning: she's part Native American.  And suddenly things change.

You may assume that this is a story about a husband turning violent.  It's not.  It isn't supernatural either.  If there is horror here it is strictly human, and that's the way I like it.