Sunday, December 25, 2011

Don't Feed The Bums, by Lisa Brackmann

"Don't Feed The Bums," by Lisa Brackmann, in San Diego Noir, Akashic Press, 2011.

Some stories grab you from the git-go.  I love thinking "ok, a place on the best-of list is yours to lose."  On the other hand, some stories seem just adequate, good enough to keep reading, and then sock you with a great ending.  Brackmann's first published story is one of the latter.

Kari has a problem.  Her life is divided into Before and After and what came between those two was a car accident that changed her life, destroyed parts of her memory, and altered her personality.  She's adjusting to her new self, taking care of animals as wounded as she is, and sleeping with two men, one from each half of her life.  Eventually Kari discovers that someone is plotting against her, and, well, "She wasn't what she used to be, but she wasn't stupid..."  So, watch out.

Once the twists start coming Brackmann keeps them pounding up the beach at you, right to the last perfect sentence, which made me laugh out loud.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Gold Shield Blues, by Jeffrey J. Mariotte

"Gold Shield Blues," by Jeffrey J. Mariotte, in San Diego Noir, Akashic Books, 2011.

The noir city books by Akashic Books are always a mixture of true noir stories and stories that have some but not all elements of the genre.  (The best tales can fall into either category, by the way.)

Mr Mariotte has provided a classic noir tale.  The narrator, Mike Rogers, is a security guard in the swanky Soledad Mountain neighborhood of San Diego.  One night he gets called out to a possible intruder incident and meets a wealthy man with a beautiful young wife.  This being noir you can pretty much guess where things will go.  But Mariotte has some nice surprises for us (and some unpleasant ones for Rogers, of course.)  One thing I like is that he follows the trail of conspiracy to its logical conclusion: how can you trust someone with whom you have shared a betrayal?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pansy Place, by Dan Warthman

"Pansy Place," by Dan Warthman, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2012.

This is just a neat little piece of work. I love how it unfolds one piece at a time, and the gruff writing style that fits nicely with the character.

Jones is fitting into retirement. Bought his condo in Elmwood Village, voted a couple yers ago one of the country's ten best neighborhoods. Second story, corner unit, overlooking Bidwell Parkway... 
So it begins. At first we don't learn much about Jones, just about the young cleaning woman he hires and makes friends with. Then we are introduced to her boyfriend.

And then trouble erupts in the life of the young couple and Jones shows his true colors. We meet a few new characters, finely drawn bad guys who cherish the use of the right word and the right action even while they are doing objectively wrong things. As I wrote in this space a few months, it can be good to have a tough guy on your side, even he is allegedly retired.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Satan League, by James Lincoln Warren

"The Satan League," by James Lincoln Warren, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2011. 

You may well accuse me of piling on the bandwagon, since my friend James yesterday won the Black Orchid Novella Award.  But, as ever, I calls 'em as I reads 'em, and this week, the best of the bunch was a historical novella by Mr. Warren.

He has written a number of stories about Alan Treviscoe, an investigator for Lloyd's in late 18th century London.  In this case Treviscoe is asked by a lady he met in an earlier tale to look into the death of her betrothed.  This is no ordinary death, because the victim was found, burned and crushed, in the middle of Stonehenge, on the same night that mysterious lights were seen in the sky.

Since in addition he was the founder of a scientific group called the Luciferian Society, the suspicious naturally see a demonic element in the death. Treviscoe, as you can imagine finds a natural solution to the crime, but as he notes, "in my experience, murder is always the work of the Devil."

One of the trickiest bits about writing historical fiction is making the language sound right.  The difficulty of this is sort of a bell curve, I think.  It gets harder as you go back into the nineties, the eighties, etc. and probably hits a peek of trouble when you hit Shakespeare's time.  After that I think it is less difficult simply because readers understand that you can't be expected to write Chaucer's English, or for that matter, Caesar's Latin, because we wouldn't be able to understand it.

My point is that Warren has the task of sounding appropriately eighteenth century, while still being comprehensible.  He succeeds well, I think, not drowning us in jargon, but capturing the atmosphere nicely.  And so we have references to Treviscoe "making his leg," the meaning of which the reader can deduce from the context.  Or the nicely antiquated dialog: "What's this, sir?  I to remain in London, whilst you place yorself in danger?  In the company of a stranger, yet?  It will not do."  The letter written by the villain is a particularly choice and delightful example, revealing personality as well as grammar.

In that regard I can't resist noting that Treviscoe observes that the bad guy "lies like a French lover."  What a treat..

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Big Band, by Loren D. Estleman

"Big Band," by Loren D. Estleman, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2012.

I have admitted before that I am a sucker for Estleman's stories of the Four Horsemen, the racket squad of the Detroit Police Department.  These not-very-heroic heroes are unloved by their bosses but are determined to keep their jobs, and thereby stay out of the armed services.  The historical detail is perfect and the language is witty and snappy.

This story centers on the leader of the group, Lieutenant Zagreb, who is not in the war because of a heart murmur:  "it kept murmuring Don't go."  He gets a special request from an ex-sweetheart: look after her trumpet-playing lover while she goes off to serve in the WACs.  Turns out the lover is a bad musician and an angry drunk.  Pretty soon there's a murder to solve.

Did I mention the witty language?  Here is a random line, describing a cop named Canal: "He smelled one of his thick black cigars -- no one ever said he wasn't a brave man -- and put a match to it, clouding the air with the stench of boiling bedpans."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Lola, by Jonathan Santlofer

"Lola," by Jonathan Santlofer, in New Jersey Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2011 

I didn't think this story was going to be my favorite of the week.  It felt like a pretty ordinary piece at first.  But stories, like people for that matter, can surprise you.

The narrator is a would-be portrait artist who makes his living preparing stretchers for more successful painters.  One day riding the PATH trains back to Hoboken he becomes attracted to a young woman.  Pretty soon he is obsessed with her, and this is obviously not the first time he has gone down this path.  I was pretty sure I knew where this journey was headed.

Well.  Can't say much more without giving away the store.  Let's just say Santlofer has some surprises in store for his characters, and for us.

A perfect ending is one that leaves the reader saying: "I never saw that coming, but it is the only way the story could have ended."  "Lola" has a perfect ending.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Soul Anatomy, by Lou Manfredo

"Soul Anatomy," by Lou Manfredo, in New Jersey Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2011.

Before we get to the story I have to start out with a grudge and a gripe.  

My grudge is this: as a writer for a previous Akashic anthology, and as a guy who spent his first 30 years in New Jersey, I was hoping for a chance to submit to this book.  Wires got crossed and that never happened.

Not a big deal, and I only mention it because, as I said, I have a gripe, and full disclosure applies.  You have a right to decide whether sour grapes are speaking here.

Now for the gripe: There are 1,300,000 African-Americans  living in New Jersey, making up 14%  of the population.  And not one of them was willing or able to write a story for this book?  Seriously?  Not typical for Akashic anthologies, either.

Joyce Carol Oates, the editor, knows it's a problem.  She mentions it in an interview with Publisher's Weekly.  "We tried , tried, and tried" to get African-American authors, she says.  Okay, but it sure looks like a big part of the state is missing.

All of which is tangentially relevant to this week's story, which is tangentially about race relations.

When a white rookie police officer kills an African-American man in Camden, one of the most Black and deadliest cities in the Garden State, trouble is pretty much guaranteed to follow.  So, even though almost the entire story consists of a lawyer interviewing the cop, there would be plenty of natural suspense here.

But Manfredo manages to ratchet it up a notch: the rookie is the son of an up-and-coming Republican politician and the attorney sent to rescue him is a well-entrenched Democrat.  In other words, the future of the reformer's family depends on the skills and motivation of the party hack.  How is that going to work out?

I wouldn't say there is a surprise ending, exactly, but there are some surprising revelations that will make you see the story from a new point of view.

And consistently good writing, too.  Here are two attorneys discussing  the rookie:

"This young cop has his own political juice, courtesy of his old man.  If becoming a cop was all he really wanted, his father could have gotten him assigned to bikini patrol in some shore town or crabgrass stakeout in our neck of the woods.  Why would he want to go to Camden?"
"Maybe," Cash offered with little conviction, "he just wants to be a real cop."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Carrot For A Chestnut, by Dick Francis

"Carrot For A Chestnut," by Dick Francis, in Field of Thirteen, Putnam 1998.

(minor spoiler alert)

Well, it finally happened.  I read a lot of stories this week but didn't come across any I liked enough to write about here, so I went to my list of fifty favorite crime short stories and picked one.

Here is something that bugs me: people who hit a grand slam their first time at bat.   Just doesn't seem fair somehow.  Supposedly Sheebeg Sheemore was the first tune O'Carolan ever wrote.  And then there are the first novels that turned out to be the best things the authors ever did.  (That can be thought of as a curse, can't it?)

I hadn't realized until I prepared to write this piece that "Carrot For A Chestnut" was Dick Francis' short story.  Sure, he had been writing for novels for years, but he hadn't tried the short form until 1970 when Sports Illustrated invited him to try his hand - "length and subject matter to be my own choice."

Francis, rather famously, tended to follow a formula in his novels: they were all written in first person, the hero was often a jockey, and was brave, resourceful, and chockful of integrity.  Perhaps it was no surprise that, when considering a short story, he decided to go in a different direction.

Yes, Chick is a jockey.  But his story is told in third person and he is a "thin, disgruntled nineteen-year-old who always felt the world owed him more than he got."   Now Chick has a chance to get a little more, by giving a carrot to a horse in the stable where he worked.  The carrot is dosed with some chemical that will undoubtedly damage the horse's chance at winning a race.  Is Chick willing to betray the people he works with, the people he feels don't treat him well enough?

This is a tale of suspense with a slamming climax.  But the reason the story makes my top fifty is the twist ending that makes everything worse...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Club Dues, by Peter Morin

"Club Dues," by Peter Morin, in Needle, Fall 2011.

I may have to demand my money back.  Needle calls itself "a magazine of noir," but this story isn't noir; it's hardboiled.   Jack Bludis created the classic distinction: "Hardboiled = tough.  Noir = screwed."

But on the other hand, I like hardboiled better than noir, so I suppose I shouldn't complain.

Ray Hannah is an attorney in Hyannis.  His stockbroker calls to report finding a dead body, specifically a crooked hedge fund manager who is one of his clients.   Somebody beat his head in with an antique golf club.

Motives start piling up as last as lies, which is very quick indeed.  Some of the plot twists are easy to see coming, but one caught me by surprise.  The writing is low-key and precise.  And Morin shows proper respect for Italian cooking.  Buon appetito..

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sweet Croquette, by David Barba

"Sweet Croquette," by David Barba, in Barcelona Noir, Akashic Press, 2011.  

When I found out about the disappearance of Swiss gourmet Pascal Henry, I had no doubt that his body had become part of the larder for the liquid croquettes offered on the degustation menu at El Bulli.

Did that opening sentence get your attention?  It certainly grabbed mine.  I should say that Barba's story of madness, murder and cannibalism is not going to be to everyone's, uh, taste.  But it is fascinating and, as it rolls to a bizarre conclusion, hilarious.

The narrator has a job in his family's butcher shop and a wife who has become obsessed with literature at just the point when her husband has sworn never to read another book.  Not a recipe for marital bliss.  The narrator's ambition is to be a great chef and he becomes obsessed with the workings of the high-tech gourmet restaurants of Barcelona.  As you can tell from the first sentence, he draws a conclusion about their secret ingredient, and decides to experiment on his own... in more senses of that phrase than one.

A wild ride.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Plain Reckless, by Scott Mackay

"Plain Reckless," by Scott Mackay, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, December 2011.

To my mind one of the worst phrases used to advertise a crime story (next to "transcends the genre) is "This time it's personal!"  As Jon L. Breen wrote "I think the necessity for the series detective to suffer enormous physical and/or emotional trauma in every book and to be personally involved in every case is one of the worst trends in contemporary crime fiction, but I’m not typical." 

Maybe you aren't typical, Jon, but you are right, because you agree with me. In fact, in the same e-conversation I wrote "Those books are self-limiting in a way. How many times in a series can the detective be betrayed by his lover, best friend, etc., before the series begins to look a little silly? Only in TV do they get away with that sort of stuff."

But the self-limiting issue doesn't apply to a one-off novel or short story.  Take this story of a cop named Michelle Evans investigating a murder.  "With a twinge of anxiety, I realized I now had a personal connection to the case...It happened from time to time.  And it always made me nervous when it did."

A woman is found shot to death in her house, but clearly she had been killed somewhere else.  Her one year old child had been returned to the home.  And she had volunteered at the church where Detective Evans' lover used to work...

I like the way Mackay uses the personal involvement in the story.  A lot of cops say one of the hardest parts of the job is that they find themselves using their work skills on their friends and families and that is what happens here.  When Evans talks to her sweetheart about the case "I detected regret...  I observed guilt and evasion."  How is she supposed to react?  As cop, or as lover?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Who I Am, by Michael Z. Lewin

"Who I Am," by Michael Z. Lewin, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, December 2011. 
 Mr. Lewin becomes the second author (after James Powell) to appear in this column twice. This story raises the question: how do you make a genre story new and unique?

For instance: Indianapolis private eye Albert Samson gets a client whose house has just been robbed.  A few things of no great value were taken, plus a memento of his father.  Samson investigates and finds the culprit.

Well, okay, but we've all read that one a few thousand times before, haven't we?  What makes this story different from the others?

Just one thing really.  Samson's client, who calls himself Lebron James (but isn't the famous basketball player) claims that his father was a space alien.  Samson doesn't believe it, of course, but he does believe the roll of hundred dollar bills Mr. James pays him with.  This is apparently the first in a series of stories about a rather sympathetic guy who his neighbors call "spaceman" and "the weirdo."  I'm looking forward to more.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Investigation of Boyfriend #17, by Maureen Keenan-Mason

"The Investigation of Boyfriend #17," by Maureen Keenan-Mason, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine,  December 2011.

If you look back at your notes from previous classes you will find that I said the one thing the opening of a story must do is keep the reader reading.   I mentioned that there are lots of other things the opening can and probably should do.  One of them is to tell us what kind of a story we are about to read.  It is easy for the opening to tell us: this is noir, get ready for a cosy, there's going to be spooks here, or whatever.

On the other hand, sometimes it can be fun to have no idea where a story is going.  That's what Keenan-Mason pulls off in this tale.

Lila is a twenty-four-old woman who, after several bad experiences, has started investigating each boyfriend. She has a locked desk where she keeps files on each new swain, checking out their stories to see if they have a wife, criminal background or other no-no in their past.

The tone is light but there is an element of creepiness here (does Lila have a hobby or an obsession?  ToMAYto, ToMAHto) and I could easily the story going into nasty territory with either Lila or a boyfriend getting very wicked.  The fun here is not knowing until near the end which road we will be traveling...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Uncleared, by Thomas Pluck

"The Uncleared," by Thomas Pluck, at A Twist of Noir, Friday September 16, 2011.

I have been reading Criminal Thoughts of R. Thomas Brown for some time. Mr. Brown reports almost every day on several flash stories he has read. I usually follow his leads but this is the first time one of his tips made my best of the week.

I have a rule about flash fiction (usually defined as under 1000 words). I think it only works if the story needs to be that short. Either it is a simple anecdote (like a joke, a setup and a punchline) or something so unique that it only makes sense as a very short piece (like Man Changes Mind, by Jason Armstrong).

But Mr. Pluck has made me break my rule. I can easily see this story as the outline for one of those looong broody tales that EQMM loves so much. Instead he fit it on a postcard, and did it with no sense of cramming or shorthand. Quite remarkable.

Here, in brief, is the brief story. When the narrator is in college his parents decide to sell their house. His mother, a brand-new real estate agent, attempts to do so and is found murdered in it.

We learn what happened to the family afterwards, and then there is a twist that is staggering and yet neatly foreshadowed. It all works perfectly and even though it could be told at five times the length, it isn't missing a single necessary detail.
And my, the last sentence...


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hell of an Affair, by Duane Swierczynski

"Hell of an Affair," by Duane Swierczynski, in L.A. Noire, 2011.

L.A. Noire is a video game created by Rockstar Games, and as I understand it, the player has the role of an L.A. cop in the forties, trying to solve various crimes. I don't play video games, having enough addictive habits without that one, thank you very much, but I picked up the accompanying product: L.A. Noire, the complete stories. According to the introduction some of the stories include characters/plots from the games and some just bask in the milieu. So far, this one is my favorite.

Billy Shelton is a land surveyor whose daily grind is to drive "around in the dry heat and set up my theodolite on its tripod and make little measurements and write them down in my notebook. Then I go home to my empty apartment on West Temple Street, where I stare at the walls and try not to climb them."

In other words, a classic noir protagonist, a pile of tinder waiting for someone to throw a match. The match turns out to be (surprise!) a beautiful woman named Bonnie, a waitress who takes an unexpected shine to him. Anyone who has read noir knows she has something nasty in mind, and that's what happens.

But the reason this story made my list is several unexpected turns the story takes near the end. Billy is an organized sort of guy, after all, used to precise mathematical measurements and his mantra becomes I can still set things right... I can still set things right. But there are some angles too bent to measure.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Notes Toward A Novel Of Love in a Dog Park, by Louis Bayard

"Notes Toward A Novel of Love in the Dog Park," by Louis Bayard, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November 2011.
My first thought was to describe this as experimetnal fiction, the catchall term we use for anything that doesn't follow the standard way of writing that has been used for hundreds of years. But actually Bayard could argue that he is using a very old form, the epistolary tale (some of the first novels in ENglish were comprised entirely of letters).

But this story isn't exactly made up of letters. As the title suggests it is notes for a novel, complete with earnest quotations from some writing manual. The question is how much of the scary plotting of the book's narrator is actually things the would'be novelist has done, or is planning to do.

Use passages from journal here. E.g. stripping skin from Ellen's face.

I'm still not sure of exactly what is real and unreal here, but it is a delightfully disturbing tale.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Slip Knot, by David Edgerley Gates

"Slip Knot," by David Edgerley Gates, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November 2011.

I think it was G.K. Chesterton who said (or had a character say) that the criminal is the artist and the detective merely the critic. The reason that the detective nonetheless gets to be the main character is that the story starts after the crime, and the action we follow is the criticism, so to speak, not the creation of the art.

Not so in the usual Gates story. Of course, one can argue that his hero, Mickey Counihan, is not a detective, but he is trying to solve a crime. (In fact, if I were a judge on the Shamus Awards next year I would argue that he meets the qualifications for consideration.)

You see, Mickey is a fixer for the Hannah family, an Irish mob in New York in the 1950s. He usually seems less like a main character than the typical hero of a detective story. More like an observer or not-so-innocent bystander. Because his main job is to watch out for the Hannah family's interests, which may call for him to watch what's going on but not necessarily step in. As someone tells him in this story "You don't have a dog in this fight." Before the tale is over, he very much does.

The story is about a pool match, or really about the betting that goes on before and during the match. No one, including Mickey, can figure out who is manipulating the odds, and to what end. Before it gets straightened out a bunch of people will be dead.

Gates writes convincingly of dangerous men who expect trouble and know how to greet it. But the main reason the story made this list is the sheer casualness of the last paragraph, that treats a stunning detail as less important than a pool shot.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Reason to Believe, by Mat Coward

"Reason to Believe" by Mat Coward, in Death By Horoscope, edited by Anne Perry, Carroll and Graf, 2001.

Ran across this 2001 collection at the library and it had a lot of good authors (Block, Rusch, Lovesey, etc.) so I thought I'd give it a try. Some of the stories assume astrology is real, some assume it is bogus. I, a definite bogus-er, enjoyed some of each, but this was the stand-out.

In a funny story, what exactly is funny? It could be the language. It could be the narration (not quite the same as the language.) It could be situation. It could be character.

I think one of the reason so many of Donald E. Westlake's books were made into bad movies was that a lot of his humor is in the narration, and that doesn't carry over onto the screen at all. And speaking of language, I remember Stephen Fry complaining when he portrayed P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves that the first time Jeeves appears in the books, he "shimmered" in. How exactly was Fry supposed to "shimmer in?"

The humor in this story is mostly character-based. Specifically it revolves around our hero, DS Harry Peacock of the Metropolitan Police. Harry has a somewhat eccentric view of the world and conducts an ongoing conversation with himself that cheerfully overflows in ways that baffle his companions and delight the reader.

Peacock is no fool so when he is talking to his boss his rebellious thoughts stay inside.

"OK. You all right to run with this for a little longer?"

Harry wondered what would happen if he said that, in fact, non, he wasn't OK to run with this, that, in fact, he rather thought he'd spend the rest of the day swmming in the lido. It WAS a hot day. He wouldn't mind a swim.

"Yes sir," said Harry.

Later someone threatens to report him to his superiors and Harry replies: "I have no superiors... They're small men with mustaches."

The story has a plot. Did I mention that? A man who doesn't believe in astrology has been regularly meeting with an astrologer and now he has disappeared. Harry has a strong suspicion as to what has happened and eventually he proves it. But along the way we get conversation like this one with the horoscope scribbler.

"Astrology is not as hot as it was when I started up. The public is fickle."

Harry gave a sympathetic nod. "Those feng shui bastards, eh? Coming over here and stealing our jobs."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cold War, by Cheryl Rogers

"Cold War," by Cheryl Rogers, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2001.

In light of the recent list of nominees for the Shamus Award it seems appropriate to ask: what's a private eye story? The obvious answer seems to be a story about a private eye. But when the Private Eye Writers of America created the rules for the Shamus Awards decades ago they wisely made what I think of as the Scudder Exception.

You see, among the best private eye novels of the modern era are Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder series (and if you haven't read the new one, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, treat yourself), and Scudder is NOT a licensed P.I. So the rule goes approximately like this: the story has to be about someone who is paid to investigate a crime, but is not a government employee. That includes the classic private dick, but it also covers Scudder, and lawyers, and reporters.

All of which is relevant because Cheryl Rogers has written a story about a reporter in Western Australis who is investigating the death of a local wine-maker. Not a very popular wine-maker, as it turns out. His widow says cheerfully "I can't think of many... who didn't want Saxon eliminated, out of the picture, poof!"

The plot thickens when it becomes clear that our narrator had excellent motive to want the man dead herself. The ending surprised me although it was nicely foreshadowed. Well-written and funny. No wonder it won Australia's Queen of Crime Award.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Work Experience, by Simon Brett

"Work Experience," by Simon Brett, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2011.

We're back in dumb criminal territory here. What else can you say about thieves who take a school-aged nephew along on a heist, a sort of take-a-teen-to-work program? The reason Brett's story stood out from the pack is a surprise ending that made perfect sense but which I didn't see coming at all. A lot of fun.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Trial, by Walter Mosley

"The Trial" by Walter Mosley, in Freedom: Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by Amnesty International. 2011.

Interesting idea. Each story in this book is tied to one of the articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Some articles inspired several stories.) I can't tell you how good the whole book is because I just got it and jumped ahead to one of my favorite authors.

Walter Mosley's piece is inspired by Article 7: Equality Before The Law, which is not something his characters feel they have been getting much of. They are African-Americans, residents in a housing complex where drug dealers can get an easy pass from the bribe-taking cops, but more "serious" crimes are punished without much consideration of the issues that caused them.

In this case a drug dealer has been murdered and various community members - his lover, his sometime assistant, the oldest resident, a successful businessman, etc. - have gathered to decide the fate of the confessed murderer.

As the story goes on it goes through fascinating shifts - Was Wilfred the killer justified? Does this group of neighbors have the right to rule on him? Do the courts?

Mosley writes with the easy conversational style of a great mystery writer, but he is discussing deep, deep issues here.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Labor Day

“Labor Day,” by R.T. Lawton, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, October 2011.

Okay, ponder this for one minute: how many subgenres of mystery short stories can you think of?

Off the top of my head I came up with private eye, police procedural, amateur detective, historical, psychological, biter bit, driven-mad-by-guilt, caper, comic caper, etc. I’m sure some Ph.D. student is busily creating a taxonomy of detective stories and will soon be able to report that the story we are discussing today is an example of Motif VI.B.6.c.(ii), with thematic shifts and an interesting color scheme. We will leave him to it.

I am very fond of a variation of the comic caper known as the dumb criminal story. I’ve even written one or two myself. By their very nature dumb criminal stories tend to be one-offs, since the protagonist often gets caught, but my favorite series of d.c. stories are the Holiday Burglar stories written by my buddy, R.T. Lawton.

Yarnell is the mastermind of the crime ring (and that is, as they say, a slow track). He is a worrier, and God knows he has his reasons. His partner, Beaumont, is more phlegmatic (and his cell phone ring tone is the theme from Cops). Their apprentice, the Thin Guy (who they picked up on an earlier caper, sort of like a pet who won’t stop following them), is downright cheerful.

It is the nature of dumb criminal stories for things to go dreadfully wrong, but this time the robbery goes off with hardly a glitch. The boys have broken into an apartment whose owner is away for the holiday weekend.

But the crime isn’t over until you “un-ass the vicinity” as the military cops in Martin Limon’s novels like to say, and getaway, like payback, can be a bitch. Since the apartment is on the thirty-sixth floor that means a long, slow elevator trip, and Yarnell suffers from what he calls “closet-phobia.”

Count the things that can go wrong in an elevator and if you leave out sudden drops and zombie invasions, our heroes experience most of them.. Trust me, you’ll enjoy it more than they do.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Watts Up

"Watts Up" by Doc Finch, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2011.
East over the peaker by Peter Baer
East over the peaker, a photo by Peter Baer on Flickr.

Note: This photo is by Peter Baer, who says it's a Peaker. How would I know? I do not intend to imply that this particular unit is involved in the sort of nefarious dealings that occur in the story. End of legal blather...

Dr. Samuel Johnson said "Only a fool writes for anything but money." I don't mean to denigrate the pecuniary impulse, which is no doubt universal, but I would argue that there are other reasons people choose to write what they do.

People write fiction to entertain, to thrill, to amuse, to persuade... the list goes on. But let's not forget what we might call the educational impulse. The writer writes fiction in order to teach you about something real.

A smart writer is careful not to turn it into a lesson, because people will stop reading. But done well it can be quite enjoyable.

One writer who was excellent at it was Dick Francis. People think of his books as about horse racing, and indeed the ponies appeared in every book. But his protagonists belonged to many different occupations and told us about them. So, depending on the book, you might get a guided tour of the wine industry, glass-blowing, meteorology, etc.

This story is at least the second by Doc Finch concerning Vlad Hammersmith, an energy consultant. And just as Dick Francis seems to know an infinite number of ways to cheat around horses, Finch wants to show us everything that can go criminally wrong around power plants.

Which does not mean you have to sit through a lecture on Our Friend The Electron. Here is how the story starts:

I was in the plant's control room with Joe Lee, examining the vibration readouts on the turbines, when the naked man fell into the room. He blasted through the wood and tarpaper roof, scattering lumber fragments, and was deflected by the equipment racks toward me. He was tumbling, head over heels, with his legs straight and his arms up over his head. For some reason I remember he still had boots on. Muddy Leather ones. Ankle high. And I remember thinking when he collided with me and the blackness gathered quickly, Funny, he looked softer than that.

Has Doc got your attention? He certainly had mine.

When Vlad regains consciousness he finds himself in the middle of the investigation of the mysterious death of the falling naked man. He is helping a female forensic cop who is convinced that the coroner is sweeping things under the rug.

You'll learn a good deal about the kind of power plant called a peaker unit, and you'll have a good time along the way.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Itinerary

"The Itinerary" by Roberta Isleib, in Mystery Writers of America Presents The Rich and the Dead, edited by Nelson DeMille.

So, what does the beginning of a short story need to do?

One thing only, really. It has to convince the reader to keep reading, not to abandon the story in favor of the next one in the book, or a trip to the supermarket, or the latest installment of Real Crap of the Cable Networks.

The opening can and probably should do a lot of other things, but keep- 'em-on-the-ranch is the one necessity. Let's see how much Roberta Isleib manages to accomplish in her first paragraph.

Detective Jack Meigs knew he'd hate Key West the moment he was greeted off the plane by a taxi driver with a parrot on his shoulder. He hadn't wanted to take a vacation at all, and he certainly hadn't wanted to come to Florida, which he associated with elderly people pretending they weren't declining. But his boss insisted, and then his sister surprised him with a nonrefundable ticket; he was screwed. A psychologist had once told him that it took a year for grief to lift and that making major changes during this time only complicated the process, which was why he'd gone to work directly from the funeral and every day in the three months since. There was no vacation from the facts: his wife Alice was dead and she wasn't coming back.

In 130 words we have learned a lot about the protagonist (an older cop mourning his dead wife), the setting (the bizarre end of Florida), the mood of the story (I absolutely love "he was screwed"), and the possible plot (a busman's holiday story).

And that's exactly what it is. Meigs, a thousand miles from home and off duty, witnesses an argument and the next day recognizes that one of the quarrelers is the missing person in the newspaper story. He spends his vacation solving the case - which goes in a direction I would have never guessed.

Did the paragraph do its main job? Every reader has to decide that for themselves, but it certainly kept me reading.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Hand in Glove

“Hand in Glove”by Ysabeau S. Wilce. In Steampunk!, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant. Candlewick Press. 2011.

So, what the hell is steampunk? My unexpert explanation is that it is a subgenre of fantasy that creates a nineteenth century that never was, using technology the Victorians had, or could have had, or is based on scientific theories of the day that didn’t pan out.

Pre-cursors of the field include the Walt Disney movie 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and the TV show The Wild Wild West.

My wife is the main consumer of science fiction and fantasy in my household but she steered me to this story because it is indeed a police procedural, and a very entertaining one.

Some fantasy or alternative history stories create elaborate outlines (in words or in actual charts) of their worlds, but Wilce doesn’t take that route. We don’t learn much about Califa, the place where this story takes place, although the name and Spanish nomenclature of some of the characters certainly suggest California, and the climate and geography suggest we are in what we would call San Francisco.

When the story opens the most celebrated cop in the city is being congratulated on closing another case: a terrifying strangler has just been convicted. But one rookie cop, Estreyo, doesn’t believe they have the right man. She is a believer in scientific crime solving, using such new techniques as fingerprints, and doesn’t trust the instinctual approach of the pretty boy hero detective.

Unfortunately she finds that the fingerprints of the murderer match those of a young man who died before the killings began. Either the theory of fingerprinting is wrong, or something very weird is going on. This being steampunk you can probably guess that it is the latter.

Before the mystery is solved you will see nods to several classic works of literature or film. The writing is light and witty One complaint: there are three important characters who all appear in the same scene and have last names beginning with E. Why make life hard on the reader that way?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead

"Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental," by Robert S. Levinson, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2011.

It's hard enough to make up characters. Using real people doesn't necessarily make it easier. Even ignoring the legal questions (it helps if the people you enlist into your fiction are safely dead) there is the problem of making them believable - which is not the same as making them real. You have to fit what people think is true about them.

I know a little bit of this since a few Real People showed up in my folk music mystery. One of them, Tom Paxton, was (and happily, still is) alive. He gallantly offered to be the murderer, but had to settle for being a suspect.

Robert S. Levinson has lately been making a cottage industry out of writing stories set in the early days of Hollywood, using real movie stars. His "Regarding Certain Occurrences in a Cottage at the Garden of Allah" made my best-of list last year.

The current story is set in the late 1930s and begins with Lupe Velez finding her husband Johnny Weissmuller in a compromising situation in their cottage.

Well no, I tell a lie. The story actually begins: "The way I heard the story.." And each new scene begins with this familiar formula. It pays off nicely at the end, as does the title.

As things get going there is a murder, a cover-up, an ambitious starlet, mogul Louis B. Mayer, and William Powell. There is even a possible explanation of a real-life mysterious death of a Hollywood star. If you can figure out which characters are fictional you will probably guess who the bad guy is, but in any case you'll have a good time.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A New Pair of Pants

“A New Pair of Pants” by Jas. R. Petrin, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. September 2011.

The last time I talked about a series character it was James Powell’s Inspector Bozo, and that piece led Jim to write this excellent piece on how story series develop, so don’t say I never do any good for the world.

Have you noticed that some of the series character who are the most enjoyable to read about (or watch) are people you would NOT want to spend time with in real life? Seriously, how long do you think you could tolerate the presence of Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Columbo, Rumpole, or Dr. House?

Part of their attraction is they don’t obey the rules of society, getting away with stuff our superegos would never permit. One of the reasons Shanks is my favorite among the characters I have created is because he does things I am far too well-behaved to try.

Which brings us to Jas. R. Petrin’s Leo “Skig” Skorzeny. Skig is an aging Halifax loan shark, a quintessential tough guy with a heart of – well, granite mostly, but there is a thin streak of gold running through it somewhere. Skig also has an “imp” in his gut (I think it was defined as stomach cancer in an earlier story) which keeps him popping pills and even crankier than he would other be.

And he has reasons to be cranky. Two of his clients – a cop and a school administrator – can’t pay their debts, and when one of them is suspected of murder it looks like Skig may have to write off the debt. Meanwhile one of the few people he likes, an old woman, is in danger of making a bad business deal, and Skig won’t allow that. And while tough guys can be scary, it’s good to have one on your side.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tools of the Trade

"Tools of the Trade" by Tom Robinson, in Needle, issue 1, number 2.

At Sandra Seamans' indispensable website My Little Corner I recently learned about a new print publication called Needle, a " magazine of noir."

So I got it. And I must say, I don't get it.

Here's what I don't get. Apparently this is not a paying market. So how do they acquire such professional-quality stories? My first theory is that the publishers have a vast research department digging up blackmail evidence for noir writers. My second theory is still being formed.

The stories adhere more strictly to the classic noir formula (a nobody tries to be somebody and gets shafted) than, say, the Akashic noir city anthologies I have read.

For example, Todd Robinson's "Tools of the Trade." The nobody in this case is a card cheat and the way he tries to rise above himself is by playing in a game where he can't cheat. Inevitably, things don't turn out the way he hoped.

The story is told cleverly in a series of flashbacks and fragmented scenes. Eventually you find out what happened and precisely what hole he has dug himself into. And as with most of the stories in Needle, the quality of the writing and language is very high.

Gamblers are like thieves. Real poker players take money that isn't ours and we do it through lies and deception. Every poker face is either a lie or hiding a lie. Like thieves, we're always looking for the great score. The one big haul that will set up up with the house in Cabo and the fleet of Cadillacs.

But that's a lie too.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Sadowsky Manifesto

"The Sadowsky Manifesto," by Karen Catalona, in Mystery Writers of America Presents The Rich and the Dead, edited by Nelson DeMille.

I bought an iPad a few months ago. Mostly I have been using it to check my RSS feeds (see the right column of this screen) for which it seems to work better than my desktop. But it's called an eBook reader, so I had to get around to buying a book, and I have done so. (I hasten to add that I bought it through the website of my local bookstore, thereby contributing to the people who sponsor authors' readings in my town. That's how you buy eBooks, right?)

The MWA anthologies are always themed. The editor invites certain authors to submit; the rest of the slots are available for any MWA member to shoot for. I think I have submitted three times and made it in once.

This year the editor is Nelson DeMille and the theme is the very rich. So far, my favorite story barely qualifies on the theme. But that's okay. It's good anyway.

Max Bergen runs a not-too-successful literary agency. One day a pot of gold rolls in over the transom. More literally it is a manuscript from the serial-killer-du-jour, who had just killed himself. The FBI and publishers are clamoring for the book and Bergen stands to make a fortune on commissions.

Of course, there has to be a problem, right? Sadowsky's book is not an angry political rant. It's a science fiction novel, and it's so bad that after fifty pages readers will be rooting for the giant robots to kill the hero. The book is a disaster and there is no ethical way for an agent to make money off it.

But, hey, Bergen is a literary agent. Who said anything about ethics?
I have never heard of Karen Catalona before, but I hope to run into her again.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Diner

“The Diner” by Sean May. In Crime Factory. Issue 6.

This is the second time my pick of the week is a free-online choice, this time in the zine Crime Factory.

Once again we are back to bad guy meets bad guy, a format I complained about recently. What makes this story a treat is that the narrator is an experienced heist artist critiquing a young punk who is robbing the diner where our hero happens to be having a late dinner.

Yeah, shades of Pulp Fiction, but there are only so many plots in the world and the question is what you do with the plot. May has fun with this one.

I always like to make a good impression on the people I’m holding up, so I always wear a suit whenever I do a job. Nobody expects that the guy in the suit and sunglasses is going to pull a gun on you until you’re looking straight down the barrel of the thing and you’ve got nowhere to go.

And speaking of nowhere to go, this story could have gone in a dozen different directions, so I was kept in suspense wondering which choice the protagonist would make. A lot of fun.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows

“Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows,” by Brad Crowther. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. July/August 2011.
This is the winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award, co-sponsored by AHMM and the Wolfe Pack. The guidelines for this contest specifically say that "We're not looking for anything derivative of the Nero Wolfe character, milieu, etc," but a pastiche of Rex Stout is precisely what they got. And a good one, too. So let’s talk about pastiches.
I have written on this subject before, so let me start by explaining what a pastiche is not. Some dictionaries say the word is interchangeable with parody, a work that uses elements of another work in order to poke fun at it (e.g. Robert L. Fish’s Schlock Holmes of Bagel Street.) Some sources use pastiche when Writer B writes about the characters invented by Writer A, writing a new book in a dead author’s series (e.g Nicholas Meyer's The Seven Percent Solution.

I say no to both. A pastiche is a work in which Writer B uses elements from the character and style of Writer A to create something different. I would suggest there should be two categories in this field. Hard pastiche is the term I use for works in which the original characters exist in thin disguises of new names and addresses. For example: August Derleth’s Solar Pons is an unmistable copy of Sherlock Holmes.

One way to look at is the TV series rule. Imagine that someone turned Donald E. Westlake’s Dortmunder books into a TV show. If they ran out of books a screenwriter could take Jay Cronley’s novel Quick Change, change a few names and other details, and have a script ready to go. That’s a hard pastiche.

A soft pastiche takes more liberties. While it is unmistakable based on its model, and is intended to appeal to the same audience, but it creates a new world for the same formula. For some reason Rex Stout seems to attract a lot of these; see works by Dave Zeltsermen, Lawrence Block, Loren D. Estleman, and now (finally) Brad Crowther.

I knew we’d get to the point eventually. Let’s talk about “Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows.” I’ll assume that you are sufficiently familiar with Stout’s books about Nero Wolfe that I don’t need to connect the dots.

Edna Dugué is an wealthy private eye in Charleston, South Carolina. She is also an attorney, and teaches at a college. “I never pretended that my intentions are honorable,” she tells one visitor, but clearly they are.

Her assistant and the narrator of the story is Jerrelle Vesey, an African-American part-time college student. When Edna was a public defender she had helped him when he was sent to prison for badly beating two white men who killed his brother.

When the story opens a city councilman arrives to tell Edna that his wife has threatened to kill him. Not surprisingly he ends up dead and the widow becomes Edna’s client. What follows is classic Stout territory with Archie – Sorry! Jerrelle – going out to interview half a dozen suspects and bringing the results back to Edna, who figures out whodunit.

Two things make the story a treat. First is Jerrelle's dialog. Here he is chatting with the councilman: "I don't hold any grudges. As a matter of fact, I almost voted for you in the last election. In the end though I threw my support behind our neighbor's pet rat, Lester." I like this guy.

Second, are the set of supporting characters. For example, Edna's police nemesis is a woman, a friend of Jerrelle's family. She was the one who arrested him after his crime, and the one who drove him home after he was pardoned. And we still haven't met Edna's grandfather who lives in the attic.

These are interesting people in a world that feels fully developed and three dimensional. Rex Stout would be proud.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Real Celebrities

"The Real Celebrities," by Michael Mallory. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. July/August 2011.

Okay, now i'm in trouble. Last week I lamented that for a second time in a row the best story I read was by a friend of mine. Now we make it three. In my own defense I don't think I have had any contact with Michael Mallory since we used to appear regularly in Margo Power's Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine back in the nineties.

Back then I seem to recall Michael writing mostly Sherlock Holmes pastiches and nonfiction about Hollywood. Now he has done a mash-up of sorts: fiction about Hollywood. How's this for an opening?

Since Marilyn Monroe hardly ever gave me the time of day, her sidling up to me meant that she wanted something. As a rule, Marilyn remained within her own little world, acting as though the rest of us didn't exist...

Okay, he's got my attention. Is this a historic tale about the real Marilyn? A fantasy story? Perhaps an insane asylum?

None of the above. The characters are impersonators who pose for tips outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre. The narrator dresses as Wolverine and is known as Hugh Jackman.

There are billions of little worlds floating around us and I love the stories that open the doors and let us take a peek inside one. Listen to "Jackman" explaining the service he and his friends provide: "For tourists, those of us on the boulevard are the real celebrities, the ones you can speak to and pose for pictures with. Those other ones, the figures you see on movie and television screens, they're nothing but illusions."

When one of them is murdered our hero feels obliged to try to figure out what happened. The plot won't have anyone puzzled, but you'll enjoy it, and the writing is just the sort of bitter sarcasm you expect from a tale of glitter-land's underclass.

"I'm an asshole' [he] said, by way of greeting.
"You're in the right town for it."

Sunday, May 15, 2011


"Detour" by Neil Schofield. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2011.

If I'm not careful I may be accused of nepotism, logrolling, or some other felony. This is the second week in a row I am reviewing a story written by a friend. Hey, I call 'em like I see 'em.

Let's talk about metaphor. Literary critics love them to death. Is the white whale a symbol of the uncaring universe? Is the yellow brick road a metaphor for the Gold Standard? And is anyone in a work of literature with the initials JC a stand-in for Jesus?

We won't settle those issues today, but Neil Schofield's story is metaphor from title to last sentence. His nameless narrator has gotten off the main track - literally and symbolically. He seems to be working hard at finding ways to avoid working. We learn later on that his personal life has also gotten lost in the rough.

While taking a slow route to a meeting he wishes to avoid he discovers a horrific crime. Last week I talked about interesting readers by giving the protagonist a chance at redemption. I see that chance here because this traumatic event - discovering a brutal crime - could change the course of even a well-adjusted person's life. But will it send our screwed-up hero back onto the main highway of his life, or drag him further into the wilderness?

A quiet, subtle little tale.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Last Laugh in Floogle Park

"Last Laugh in Floogle Park" by James Powell. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine July 2011.

My friend Jim Powell has become our first repeat offender here at LBC. Last time I wrote that a Powell story "contains a fully realized plot stuffed with wild free associations wrapped around a bizarre central idea that, if it had occurred to most writers, would cause them to swear off late-night enchiladas."

In this case, the story is about Chief Inspector Bozo of the Clowntown police force. And this gives us a chance to talk about developing a series.

When you create the first tale in a series you may have already decided there will be more to come or you may think it is a standalone. But when you make the jump to story number two, you have to decide what to bring along and what to leave behind. Presumably you and the reader like the main character, and you probably want to keep the style and the mood. But something needs to change, right? You can't sell the same story over and over again (or at least, you shouldn't.)

Powell's first Bozo story, "A Dirge for Clowntown" introduced us to the concept of a metropolis inhabited entirely by clowns. The second story, "Elephant Pajamas," dealt with foreign policy, the possibility of Clowntown going to war. And this new story concentrates on the neighboring towns: Vaudevilleville, Mimeapolis, and Burlington (the last is where the Burlesque artists live).

Clearly Powell is filling in the details of his universe, which is what you do in a fantasy series. But the fact is this iswhat a good writer does in any series. Even a realistic series (and maybe the more realistic, the truer this is) is only showing a piece of the world, and each new novel or story is a further chance to define your territory, fill in the details of the map, perhaps extend geographically, chronologically or thematically.

But let's get back to Bozo. As I said before, Powell's strength is how, like a comedian riffing on a theme, he shoots out linked idea after idea on his basic concept. So in Vaudevilleville we meet a mute ventriloquist ("he threw his voice and it never came back") who partners with a mindreading dummy (who knows what jokes he wants to tell). The victim died of "a heart attack with severe side splits" from laughing too much. And so on.

Not everyone's cup of tea, I know. But I love it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Martyn Waites, hilarious! by annie_c_2
Martyn Waites, hilarious!, a photo by annie_c_2 on Flickr.

"Love" by Martyn Waites. in London Noir, edited by Cathi Unsworth. Akashic Press. 2006.

I have been reading mostly web-based stories this week and getting frustrated by them. Here is the plot I seem to read over and over: bad guy meets bad guy. One of them gets killed.

Okay, it's a story, I guess. In fact it is the plot of "Loaded," which I reviewed here last week. But by itself, it is not enough. You have to make me care what happens, which bad guy gets killed.

There are lots of ways to make the reader care, and I will discuss this at length in a week or two at Criminal Brief.

But here is one method: give the character a shot at redemption. Whether they take it or not isn't the issue. Give them chance to redeem themselves, to fix the broken part, to take back the mistake. (Ever see the movie In Bruges? It is a sardonically funny, bloody little film, well worth seeing. All three of the main characters, two hitmen and a gang boss, find their individual redemptions in the end, turning out to be slightly better people than we - and maybe they - thought.)

Which brings us to the end of the rant and the beginning of the rave. I have never heard of Martyn Waites before but his story "Love" is one of the highlights in London Noir. The narrator is a skinhead, a racist foot soldier of a racist movement.

Fists an boots an sticks. I take. I give back double. I twist an thrash. Like swimmin in anger. I come up for air an dive back in again, lungs full....

Then I'm not swimmin. Liquid solidifies round me. An I'm part of a huge machine. A muscle an bone an blood machine. A shoutin, chantin cog in a huge hrtin machine. Arms windmillin. Boots kickin. Fueled on violence. Driven by rage.

Lost to it. No me. Just the machine. An I've never felt more alive.

Love it.

Is there a chance for redemption for this guy? Can he retrieve himself from the machine and find his own humanity?

Yes, but this being noir, the cost is extremely high. Impressive story.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


“Loaded” by Ken Bruen. London Noir, edited by Cathi Unsworth. Akashic Press. 2006.

Didn’t run across any new stories I liked this week so I went digging through older books in my collection I hadn’t read yet. Found this older Akashic noir book.

Here’s a doctorate dissertation waiting for somebody to write it: the classic noir story is an example of the hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell.
Specifically, it starts with what Campbell calls the Call to Adventure, in which an average joe runs into something extraordinary. Little girl meets talking frog. Man opens bottle, finds genie.

In the classic noir story the hero (or at least protagonist, cause noir characters ain’t generally heroic) meets a stunningly beautiful woman. From this encounter all his trouble springs.

Leroy is a smart, high-level, drug dealer. The beautiful enticement is an Irish woman named Kelly: “A woman in her late twenties, dressed in late Goth style, lots of black makeup, clothes, attitude… Her face wasn’t pretty, not even close, but it has an energy…”

Leroy is too smart to use his own dope but pretty soon he is hooked on Kelly. This being noir, things are going to end badly for somebody, maybe everybody.

This material could produce a tired, generic story, but it doesn’t because Bruen is a very good writer. He gives Leroy an attitude that keeps us reading. Here are his first words: “Blame the Irish. I always do.” Of course, Bruen is as Irish as Kelly, so who’s side is he on?

Leroy keeps his snotty attitude up right through the bitter end of the story. It’s a good read.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Appointment

"The Appointment:" by Maynard Allington. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. June 2011.

Since Afghanistan, I think a lot about death, as if I were being billed for a broken appointment.

If I wrote that nugget of a sentence I would have probably started the story with it. Allington puts it at the end of a long opening paragraph. But it sets the tone, doesn't it?

Danny Malone got back from the war with brain damage that effects his memory and temper. Now he is wandering through Death Valley because someone has been sending him photographs of the park and he thinks, vaguely, that he is supposed to meet someone there.

And meet someone he does. The man wears a hooded parka - in the desert heat - and appears to have suffered severe burn damage.

"Don't you remember me? We met once in Afghanistan. I got to know some of the men in your platoon. I knew your best friend, Robinson. He spoke highly of you."

"Robbie's dead."

"So I heard..."

So who is the mysterious hooded figure? What does he have in mind for Danny? And, more importantly, is the explanation of what happens criminal, psychological, or even supernatural?

The answers come at the end of this elegant, finely detailed story. Allington is a former military man and he writes well about the troubled veteran.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Man Changes Mind

"Man Changes Mind," by Jason Armstrong. Thrillers, Killers, 'n Chillers. January 4, 2011.

This week I have been surfing the web for fiction (possibly because I just gave in and bought an iPad... and yes, it is very cool.) Most of the stories I looked at were free - both to me and to the publisher, meaning the author didn't get nothin' but fame and glory. Would I find something at that end of the field that was worth sharing with you?

I sure did.

I'm trying to decide whether or not I want to be a serial killer.

I mean, I'll probably just finish up with school and get a good job in management but it just seems like I should be doing something bigger with my life. But I think every young man has this conversation with himself at some point. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather be a superhero. I've had that dream since I was five but there's no such thing as superheroes.

That's the start of this wonderfully quirky tale by Jason Armstrong. The publisher, Thrillers, Killers, 'n Chillers, described it as flash fiction, which astonished me because I thought it was longer than that. (When I say a story seemed longer than it was I don't usually intend it as a compliment, because I like short fiction, but in this case I mean the story packs a lot into a small space.)

Which is not to say a lot happens. As the title implies, it is just a meditation inside the character's brain. But the story manages to be authentically funny and creepy at the same time, a good trick, and leave you wondering: is this guy just a not-bright doofus thinking idle thoughts, or exactly the kind of person who goes off the deep end one day?

It just seems like the best way to be famous; it seems like the best way. I mean, everybody knows who Charles Manson is. But can you name one movie with Sharon Tate?[...] But serial killers have it easy. Just stab your way to success.

Definitely worth a read.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Dark Horizons, by Rex Burns

"Dark Horizons" by Rex Burns. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. June 2011.

I'm no expert on mainstream fiction but it seems to me that the folks on the other side of the fence are not as fond of series characters as us genre people. There is a lot to be said in favor of using one character in a lot of short stories, letting him or her develop through a set of different situations.

Our current subject is part of a series by Rex Burns about Constable Leonard Smith, a half-Aborigine police officer in Western Australia. And that brings up another characteristic of mystery fiction: the tale that informs us about a different culture.

In this case Constable Smith is assigned to visit a small aboriginal settlement where three teenagers have recently committed suicide. What strange plaque is eating up the future of the community?

It turns out to be a very old and familiar evil. The most interesting part is watching Smith adapt standard police techniques to the morés of this society where certain things can't even be spoken of - like religious mysteries or the names of the deceased.

What I would like to see in future stories is more about Smith himself. As I said, story series should let us learn more about the character, and so far he is pretty two-dimensional. But the story itself is fascinating, and an excellent read.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Calling the Shots

"Calling the Shots" by Karen Dionne. in First Thrills, edited by Steve Berry. Forge, 2010.

WARNING: Spoiler alert.

Jason just broke up with his pregnant girlfriend. Now he's in the forest, cutting firewood alone, which he knows is a foolish and dangerous thing to do...

Let's talk a little bit about context. In an ideal world we would come to each short story fresh, and see it as the unique work of literature it is. But on our less-than-perfect planet we sometimes notice the frame around the artwork.

Most of the stories in First Thrills would fit just fine into a magazine of mystery stories. But this particular tale is much better off in a collection of thrillers.

Why? Because in a mystery magazine you would know that before the story is over there will have to be a crime, or the threat of a crime, or the memory of a crime. Otherwise it wouldn't be in the magazine, right? But in this book the story is justified by its thrilling content before anything criminal appears. So the surprise works better here than it would in the other context.

Having said all that this is a terrific tale, with the coldest ending line I have read since the last novel by Richard Stark. If I had read it in 2010 it would be on my best of the year list. Karen Dionne apparently specializes in ecothrillers, and she seems to know her woods and her woodsmen very well.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Dead Club

"The Dead Club" by MIchael Palmer and Daniel James Palmer, in First Thrills, edited by Steve Berry. Forge. 2010.

I have temporarily run short of 2011 stories to read (if you have had one published this year and you want me to read it with the possibility of reviewing it, contact me at lopresti AT Published stories only, please). So I have been reading First Thrills, published last year by the International Thriller Writers.

This brings up the question: what's a thriller? Unfortunately the only definition the book provides is this from David Morrell "If a story doesn't thrill, it's not a thriller." Yeah, and if a statement is not tautological, it's not a tautology.

So, here's my effort: a thriller is an action-oriented suspense story. (And before you ask: a mystery is focused on a crime in the past; suspense focuses on crime yet to come.)

Enough definitionizing. Let's get to the story at hand.

Dr. Robert Tomlinson is a distinguished General Practioner. Bobby Tomlinson is an obsessive gambler. They happen to be the same person, and that leads to trouble when there is a medical conference in Las Vegas.

Bobby plays hooky from the conference to hit the casinos, where he meets a fellow-minded doctor named Grove who tells him about the Dead Club. Using the Internet doctors from around the world read the medical histories of terminally ill patients and bet on how long they will live. It's not illegal, Grove assures him, because all identifying information has been removed. What could go wrong?

This is a very twisty tale. I made several guesses as to where it was going, but the authors, Palmer and Palmer, managed to stay several curves ahead of me.

By the way, "The Thief" by Gregg Hurwitz in the same book, came a damned close second. If I had read these stories in 2010 they would have both made my Best of the Year list.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Guest Review: The Awareness

"The Awareness" by Terrie Farley Moran. in Crimes By Midnight: Mysteries from the Dark Side. Edited by Charlaine Harris. 2010.

When I started this blog I invited you readers to send me reviews of favorite stories. I now have my first bite. Leigh Lundin is an author of excellent short stories and my brother blogger at Criminal Brief. By coincidence he sent me a review on the same subject I chose this week: a story from a book on occult crime. Different story, different book, as it happens. What a coicncidence! Ooh, spooky!

"The Awareness" by Terri Farley Moran.
Reviewed by by Leigh Lundin

I received a surprise gift, Crimes by Moonlight, the latest MWA anthology edited by Charlaine Harris. This volume is unusual in that each story combines traditional mystery with the paranormal.

I flipped through its contents looking for authors I might know. The first name that leaped out at me was Terrie Farley Moran.

That's right, my tease-mate over at Women of Mystery, plunked in the middle of the book. I turned there first.
Another surprise: Terrie isn't so much an author as an artist. She doesn't write– she paints with words. She sketches and shades and sometimes sculpts. Characters emerge in bas-relief. Single sentences become miniature portraits and landscapes.

Terrie's story, "The Awareness", is unusual in another regard. Rather than recycle vampires and werewolves, she cast a banshee as her heroine. The female fairies of the hills, the keening bean-sídhe, sing at the death of those of their clan. Terrie's immortal, living in New York City, realizes the object of her lament was murdered. She sets about to solve– and avenge– the murder.

"The Awareness" is a satisfying story, not the least because of Terrie's artistry and attention to mythological detail. Terrie's selection is all the more impressive because she was up against 240 or so tough competitors.

This is where I need to make full disclosure: I not only submitted a story to the anthology, but I critiqued four others that were so good, I was surprised they didn't make it. The selection committee made difficult decisions and I didn't envy them.

I next took up Mark Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane's story, "Grave Matters", an unusual Mike Hammer Frankensteinisch horror story. Following on my list is Toni Kelner's "Taking the Long View", after which I'll read the stories from the beginning.

Crimes by Moonlight is a hit and I can assure fretting readers of traditional mysteries (like me) that Crimes by Moonlight does not fall back on deus ex machina. Realism and ratiocination trump the psychic aspects.
Get the book: The first three stories I devoured are all winners. Like me, you'll enjoy Terrie Farley Moran's 'The Awareness'.

You Heard It Here First!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Spirit of the Thing

"The Spirit of the Thing" by Simon R. Green. in Those Who Fight Monsters: Tales of Occult Detectives edited by Justin Gustainis. EDGE. 2011.

This week I have been reading an anthology of occult crime tales which Justin Gustainis, the editor, was kind enough to send me.

I am not usually a big fan of occult mysteries, although I only object strongly when a supernatural element is thrown in gratuitously (what I call the "ooh! spooky!" gambit). Bad, but not quite as bad, is the story where you only find out about the supernatural element at the end (and he was a GHOST!). Full disclosure: I wrote a story of that ilk once, but it was in another century, and beside, the magazine is dead.

In any case, no danger of that type of story in this book which promises in advance that each story will feature werewolves, demons, fairies or the like. These tales are all new but each also is part of a series of novels and/or stories by the authors.

I tend to like the tales best that play with the cliches and expectations of the mystery genre. For example, my favorite story is Simon R. Green's "The Spirit of the Thing," in which private eye John Taylor is drinking in a seedy bar when he meets a beautiful woman who wants to hire him. How many times have we read that scene? But here is how it plays in Green's world:

"You have to helo me. I've been murdered. I need you to find out who killed me.

Not every private eye gets hired by a ghost. But Taylor is not your average dick. He works in the Nightside, "the secret hidden heart of London, where it's always the darkest part of the night and the dawn never comes..." Am I the only reader who finds himself picturing Diagon Alley?

Taylor solves the crime without leaving the bar and the bad guy comes to a suitable noir and supernatural end.

Other good stories in the book include "Dusted" by Laura Anne Gilman and "Under the Kill and Far Away" by Caitlin Kittredge.

If you like occult stories this book is worth picking up. And by the way, we will have a special feature at this site later in the week about another book of spooky tales.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Jim Limey's Confession

"Jim Limey's Confession" by Scott Loring Sanders. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. May 2011.

I'm a sucker for historical stories. This one is a special case, taking the form of a deathbed statement the main character made to his granddaughter in 1993.

One issue with historical stories is making the setting believable, leaving out anachronisms and making us suspend disbelief about the time and place of the tale. This story has a special concern because we have to believe in the voice of a southern African-American, talking about his youth in the early twentieth century. It is very believable, to my eye/ear.

The day after Daddy went in the ground, it was time for me to get to work. I was the man of the family then and it was yp to me to take over the business. I'd been gong around with Daddy some anyway, so I knew most everything there was to know about it. I hitched Miss Annabelle to the wagon, loaded up the barrels of lime, then headed to town.

The family business was making lime out of seashells and then using them to clean the outhouses of the white folks. Life isn't easy for a black man in the south in the 1930s, but the focus of the story is a horrific crime and a satisfyingly horrific revenge - and a reminder that there are other uses for lime than making a privy smell better.

I wonder if Mr. Sanders has read Avram Davidson's "The Necessity of His Condition," one of my favorite crime stories? There is a strong plot connection in the sense that if you read them one after the other you would have a good idea of what was going to happen at the end of the second. No matter, if Davidson did inspire Sanders it was a legitimate use of the source material, and a terrific story.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Calculator

Pantip Plaza
Originally uploaded by Mr ATM
“The Calculator” by Mithran Somasundrum” Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, May 2011.

Ah, a good old-fashioned private eye story, all the way from Thailand. Vijay makes his living in Bangkok as a P.I. and a translator. Mostly he deals with divorces but this time his client is Atiya, a young lady worried about an American man she met the day before – a human calculator in town for the world championship. These are the people who can figure out things like the cube roots of long numbers in their heads.

Part of the pleasure of a story like this is the guided tour of a different part of the world. Much of the story takes place at Pantip Plaza, the center for buying consumer electronics. And here's the world outside:

Walking back to Pantip past the mats on the pavement (plastic toys, children’s clothes, mobile-phone cases) and the food carts (fried chicken, gelatin sweets, freshly squeezed orange jouce), I was starting to wonder about Atiya myself.

I was fascinated by the description of the Sois, the long narrow lanes off main streets where motorcyclists make their living carrying people from the bus stops to their homes.

There is humor here, and the plot is clever too, although as is often the case, I have a problem with motive – in this case, an important character who does something important, apparently just to be nice. Actions that are important to the story need clear motivation.

But I still enjoyed the tale.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

When The Time Came

“When The Time Came,” by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis. Copenhagen Noir. Edited by Bo Tao Michaelis. Akashic Press.

I wish this volume came out last year, before my family vacationed in Denmark. It would have made a nicely twisted guidebook. I may be prejudiced in favor of this particular story because it is set in Ørestad, the area where my family had an apartment, and the authors perfectly captured the inorganic brutality of the scenery.

The building looked like every other place out here. Glass and steel. He’d never understood who would want to live in such a place…. The other brand-new glass palaces were lit up as if an energy crisis had never existed, but there was no life behind the windows. Maybe nobody wanted to live this way after all…

Chaltu is a very pregnant African woman, desperate to make it over the bridge to Sweden where she can seek asylum and be reunited with her lover. Unfortunately contractions begin too soon and she is left in an unfinished building in Ørestad. As it happens three Iranian men have chosen the same night to loot fixtures from the empty apartments. On discovering Chaltu one of them calls the “okay secret doctor,” actually Red Cross nurse Nina Borg, the authors’ series character.

By the time Nina arrives the situation has gotten worse , in the form of a murder. (This deserted building seems busier than Tivoli Gardens.) She has to do some fast thinking to get out of the mess.

This is not a true noir story, as I defined it a few weeks ago. And it doesn’t exactly feel like a crime story, in spite of the fact that just about everyone in it is at least technically a criminal. They are breaking the law, but are they evil?

The story is in the book section entitled "Mammon," not the part “Men and Women,” which contains mostly stories related to sex, but in some ways this story is very precisely about men and women. The event of childbirth has a powerful sway over the character's actions and as long as Nina is presiding over the labor she can order the men around, but once the baby is born, “Nina’s reign had ended.”

Powerful stuff.