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.