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.