Sunday, December 30, 2012

Mastermind, by Reed Farrel Coleman

"Mastermind" by Reed Farrel Coleman, in Long Island Noir, edited by Kaylie Jones, Akashic Press, 2012.

Dear Akashic Press;

Merely being depressing is not enough to make a story noir.  Please tell your editors.  

Thank you.

Having gotten that out of the way lets move on to a story by Reed Farrel Coleman, who understands noir very well.

Jeff Ziegfeld was always the exception to the rule: the dumb Jew, the blue-collar Jew, the tough Jew.  No matter the Zen of the ethnic group the wheel of fortune got you born into, dumb and poor was the unversal formula for tough.

So Jeff is muscle working for an Israeli-American loan shark who constantly puts him down.  But Jeff isn't always dumb.  He comes up with a big dream: a brilliant scheme for committing a robbery.  It is a plan without a flaw.

Except that this is a noir story, and noir means (remember this, oh editors), that the big dreamer gets flattened.

Another fine story in this collection is Kenneth Wishnia's "Blood Drive."  Tim Tomlinson's "Snow Job" had a great set-up and a disappointing ending.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Lighthouse, by S.J. Rozan

"Lighthouse," by S.J. Rozan, in Staten Island Noir, edited by Patricia Smith, Akashic Press 2012.

This is the second appearance in this space by my friend S.J. Rozan in the last two months. 

In the introduction editor Smith talks about something that happened at a Bouchercon a few years ago: a panel of writers were speaking about crime in New York City and a creative writing teacher complained that the kind of disrespect the panelists were showing for Staten Island was the reason her students there wouldn't write anything about the place they lived. 

I happened to be in the audience.  What Smith doesn't mention is that S.J., who was the first person to joke about Staten Island, not only apologized but offered to come speak to the teacher's class.  Not only a great writer, but a real mensch.

But that has nothing to do with this story, which is about Paul.  And as the first sentence tells us:

It sucked to be him.

Because ever since  he was fourteen Paul shares his skull with The Guys, three space aliens who tell him what to do and give him monstrous headaches if he disobeys.  The only way to quiet the voices in his head is to shoot heroin, and the only way  to get money for that is by breaking and entering.

That wouldn't be so bad except that sometimes he meets someone in the house he is burgling and then he has to hurt them.  And that's the bad part because The Guys like it.  And they want him to do more, and worse.

In this story Paul is planning to bust into a Tibetan museum.  And maybe, just maybe, he can find a kind of redemption there...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Rattle of Darkness, by Martin Roselius

"The Rattle of Darkness," by Martin Roselius, in SoWest: Desert Justice,  DS Publishing, 2012.

I am zipping through anthologies as fast as I can, in preparation to declaring my list of best stories of 2012.  This nasty little piece is my favorite in the anthology by the Sisters in Crime Desert Sleuths Chapter.

Pancho is a very bad guy who lives near the border in Mexico and helps piece slip through a tunnel to the U.S., for a price.  When his debts catch up with him Pancho comes up with a worse way to make more money.  And when those deeds catch up with him things turn very dark indeed...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A User's Guide to Keeping Your Kills Fresh, by Ted Anthony

"A User's Guide to Keeping Your Kills Fresh," by Ted Anthony, in Staten Island Noir, edited by Patricia Smith, Akashic Press, 2012.

Okay, lousy title.  But a good story.

It isn't easy to be really funny and really nasty at the same time.  The humor just sounds mean, or the nastiness seems forced.  But Anthony manages it.

Manny Antonio is a hit man, but he isn't very good at it.  This is the story of his last contract, told by someone who knew him well, and didn't like him very much, nor respect his mental agility. 

If complete clarity were an all-you-can-eat buffet of Chinese food, Manny would ask for the menu and order the chicken and broccoli.

And so we see what should have been an easy assignment turn into a disastrous trek around the metropolitan area with a trunkful of forensic evidence that grows smellier by the hour.  When we are told that shooting a rent-a-cop between the eyes was "the last rational thing he will do on the final night of his life," you know Manny is not having a good week.

Enjoyable, well-written story.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hit One Out Of The Park, by Jeff Baker

"Hit One Out Of The Park," by Jeff Baker, in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.

My friend Jeff Baker has written a lovely witty historical story.  It is 1941 and George Keaton has a full-time job taking care of his not-so-bright brother Ward.  Ward has quarreled with his bookie and decided to kill the guy.  Now, the world is littered with blunt objects but Ward manages to find what as a particular weapon?  Joe DiMaggio's stolen baseball bat.  This is not going to go well.

Needless to say keeping tabs on Ward while he was planning doing something in with a murder weapon half of New York was looking for was making my own day the kind Mrs Roosevelt usually didn't write about.

Great fun.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Tell Me About Your Day, by Lynne Lederman

"Tell Me About Your Day," by Lynne Lederman,  in Murder New York Style - Fresh Slices, edited by Terrie Farley Moran, L&L Dreamspell, 2012.

This nifty piece starts out as noir and goes elsewhere.  The narrator is a recovering substance abuser who is trying to be a better person (and if that isn't a formula for a classic noir character, I don't know what is).  He is living in a dumpy apartment, going to AA and NA and making a point of visiting his only living relatives, a niece and her daughter.  The result is that when the niece is murdered the cops and social workers bring the traumatized little girl to him.  They are hoping that a familiar face might encourage her to report something about the unknown killer.

And that leaves our hero trying to figure out how to fit a kid into his tiny, miserable life.

Damn.  Can't smoke with the kid here.  He reomved the cigatette and contemplated it.  Can't go outside, can't leave her.  Realy too cold to hang out the window, let aone sit on the fire escape. She'd know, anyway.  He shredded it into the ashtray. Have to get rid of that, and the matches.  Weren't little kids always playing them, starting fires?

The whole story is in the man's head, trying to sort through his growing responsibilities and limited possibilities.  Then there is an unexpected turn, a clever bit of deduction that suggests there might be a ray of hope ahead.

Nice piece of work. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Only People Kill People, by Laura K. Curtis

"Only People Kill People," by Laura K. Curtis, in Murder New York Style - Fresh Slices, edited by Terrie Farley Moran, L&L Dreamspell, 2012.

Been working through this anthology produced by the New York chapter of Sisters In Crime.  Curtis takes a unique viewpoint in her story: the narrator is a gun.

For eight years, it was my honor to serve and protect Sam Bradley, his family, and his employers  Sam took care of me, and I took care of him...

But this is a crime story so things have to go bad for Sam and his gun.  Original idea, well written.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dial Country Code 91 +M for Murder, by Stewart Brown

"Dial Country Code 91 +M for Murder," by Stewart Brown, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, December 2012.

It was a tough choice this week between this story and "Dead Men's Socks,"  by David Hewson in the same issue.  I may have bene influenced by the fact that Hewson's story was in the same category as last week's pick, by S.J. Rozan.  Both were excellent stories about maverick cops in foreign countries who solve problems in spite of their superiors.

Brown's first story is very different, more a bit of humor than a traditional tale.

"Welcome to the Spade Detective Angency.  If your life is in immediate danger, please hang up and call the local authorities.  For English, please stay on the line.  Para el Español, por favor, pulse uno.  Press 2 if you would like to hear about our weekly crime-buster specials..."

Yes, even detective work can be outsourced, with someone dubious results.  The unlikely named Hamish, a proud graduate of the New Dehli School for Detective Studies, "the fourth-highest ranked detective school in all of New Delhi," is on the job, or at least the phone.  His client, Miss Nancy Drew, is suspicious about the mysterious death of her husband...

All very silly.  But we can't be noir every week, can we?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Golden Chance, by S.J. Rozan

"Golden Chance," by S.J. Rozan, in Ellery Queen's Magazine, December 2012.

EQMM's last issue of 2012 opens with something different from my buddy S.J. Rozan  The story is set in a small village in Western China, where Lo Pen-wei, "a disheveled lump of a man," investigates crime for the Public Security Bureau.  He is a shrewd, cheerful, Columbo-type cop, the only one of his fellows who bothered to learn the language when he moved to the territory of the Uighurs.  "Lo conceded that... for official interviews and instructions Mandarin would suffice; but  other conversations -- for example, those he would be most interested in overhearing in the streets -- would not be held in Mandarin."

As the story opens Lo is investigating vandalism of the office of the Housing Commission, which he does in a typically indirect way: by playing a chess-like game with his shopkeeper friend Sadiq.   In the course of the game he learns that the people are upset about government plans that would destroy a local landmark.  He also learns that his friend has three marriage-age daughters and no money for doweries.  Possibly he can solve all the problems with cunning plan.  And if he can get one more corrupt official out of office, so much the better.

Mystery stories tend to flourish in democracy and not do so well in dictatorships where no one has faith in justice being done.  (And there is my bland generalization for the day; glad to have it over with.)  But Rozan has created an interesting character and a believable setting.  Perhaps we will hear more about Mr. Lo.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Trick or Treat, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

"Trick or Treat," by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery magazine, December 2012.

This was a tough week, since Hitchcock featured stories by two of my favorite writers about two wonderful series characters.  Mitch Aldeman's Bubba Simms stories and Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Spade/Paladin tales have several things in common.  Both feature men who are six-five, and both rely more on character and language than on plot.  But there are big differences as well.

Bubba is a three-hundred-pound weightlifter; a private eye in Florida.  Spade is a four-hundred-pound Microsoft millionaire who uses his money and numbers skills as a forensic accountant to run the finances for science fiction conventions.  Spade (that's his nom de fandom, we never learn is real one) has an occasional partner, Paladin, an athletic young woman who is his opposite in physique, temperment, and almost everything except intellect.

The reason I chose Rusch's story this time is that it had a more interesting plot than Aldeman's "Eureka."  I could see where that story was headed pretty much from the beginning, but Rusch's story took it's time in unfolding. 

In "Trick or Treat," Spade is working at a convention in San Francisco on Halloween weekend when Paladin asks him to help out by babysitting a troublesome kid named Casper.  Spade, well aware that an overweight misfit millionaire hanging around with a child could be misconstrued, grumbles "The worst situations in the world always start with the words, 'trust me.'"   But he always finds it hard to resist Paladin.

The center of the story is the fat man and the grumpy Casper, both smart and both lacking social skills, trying to establish a productive relationship.  Naturally, it involves computer programs.  And crime.

Both stories are very much worth a read.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

I Heard A Romantic Story, by Lee Child

"I Heard A Romantic Story," by Lee Child, in Love Is Murder, edited by Sandra Brown, Mira, 2012.

When an author makes most of his income writing one kind of novel it must be a great relief to occasionally break loose and write a very different kind of short story.  One example of that is Field of Thirteen, Dick Francis's collection of tales, none of which use the first person narration so familiar from all of his novels.

And Lee Child, when he isn't writing his Reacher novels produces some excellent little stories. And this one is all about style. 

Love is Murder is the third anthology from the International Thriller Writers, and the theme is romantic suspense. Many of the stories are fairly standard romantic suspense - boy and girl either fear each other or fight a common enemy.  But Child is on a very different wavelength. 

Did I mention that this piece is all about style?  For one thing it all written in one long  breathless paragraph.  And here's how it starts:

I heard a romantic story.  It was while I was waiting to kill a guy.  And not just a guy, by the way.  They were calling this guy a prince, and I guess he was... 

The narrator is a hit man for our government and the romantic story involves the spy who authorized the killing and the woman whose job it was to get the mark in the right place at the right time.  You see, she happened to be the boss spy's lover.  But that won't interfere with the plan, will it?

Child is far too good a writer to use the unconventional style just for giggles.  It adds to the suspense, and makes the outcome less predictable.  Nice piece of work.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Double, by Janice Law

"The Double" by Janice Law in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 7

My friend Janice has created a little gem here, I think.

Malik has the fortune, good or bad, of resembling the General, his country's beloved dictator.  Naturally he is assigned the job of impersonating the General, saving him from boring meetings and assassingation attempts.

But the General is a far-thinker and he sends Malik, with proper supervision, to set up a new life for himself in Miami, just in case at some time in the future the General turns out not to be so beloved.  And that works fine until the inevitable happens.

Because only one person can live that new life, right?

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Premature Murder, by Michael Mallory

"The Premature Murder," by Michael Mallory, in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 7.

I have indicated before I am a sucker for stories that try to rethink some elements of our genre's history.  My old friend Michael Mallory does a fine job in this story.

The time is 1852, the place is Baltimore, and the narrator (anonymous, unless I missed his name somewhere along the line) is a new recruit for a private detective agency, trying to prove he is good for more than filing papers and fetching growlers of beer.

In a bar one night he meets a potential client, a down-on-his-luck actor who wants him to investigate the mysterious death of the actor's estranged son, one Edgar Allan Poe...

The story is full of detail and atmospheric language (our hero doesn't carry a pocket watch, he carries a repeater.  The gun in the story is a Philadelphia Deringer, spelled correctly for once.)  A treat, all in all.

This is my first encounter with Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, and I am enjoying it, but I resent paying for the twenty pages that repeat a Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle.  Don't most of us already have a copy of those books?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Training Day, by Andrei Kivinov

"Training Day," by Andrei Kivinov, in St Petersburg Noir, edited by Julia Goumen and Natalia Smirnova, Akashic Press, 2012.

This new noir volume by Akashic gets started, logically enough, with a story about a policeman's first day on the job.  It rambles a bit but eventually focuses on a mystery of sorts involving the apparently supernatural ability of a corpse to be in two places at once.

It's not a detective story per se, the cops aren't trying  to solve the puzzle.  But in the course of their duties they do.  An interesting glance at what a day in the life of a St. Petersburg cop might look like.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Window of Time, by John H. Dirckx

"Window of Time," by John H. Dirckx, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November 2012.

I wrote once before about Dirckx's series of stories about Cyrus Auburn. I think that one of the things that make these police procedurals memorable is that while Auburn works alone he has a cast of supporting bit characters with recognizable personalities who get to play thier small roles in each episode.  We know that the crime scene man is going to bump horns with the coroner's guy, and so on.

In this case, a nasty gossip columnist has been killed in his own apartment i a high securtiy high rise.  Aubusrn has to figure out who done it, of course.

The other thing that makes these stories stand out is the cleverness of the writing style.  For example, Dirckx could have written "Auburn thought the workmen had probably not been as prompt as they claimed."  Instead he wrote: "Auburn suspected the roundness of these numbers."  Nice.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Good Intentions, by Michael Z. Lewin

"Good Intentions," by Michael Z. Lewin, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,  November 2012.

Last year in this space I reviewed "Who Am I," in which Lewin gave Albert Samson, his Indianapolis private eye an unusual client: a quiet, unremarkable man called LeBron James who was convinced his father was an extraterrestial.

The would-be alien is back, this time calling himself Wolfgang Mozart.  He is still doing good deeds and for his troubles this time he gets stabbed.  Since he is unable to answer questions Samson has to figure out what happened and why. 

Mozart and Samson are sympathetic characters and the story is well-written.  (My favorite line: A nurse named Matty meets Albert's kid the cop.

"And she's YOUR daughter?"  Matty tilted her head.  "Your mother must be very very beautiful."

Saturday, September 15, 2012

LIttle Big Commentary: Not For Sale

It seems ridiculous to even say this but maybe, because of stories like this one, every online critic who can say this, should.   So here goes.

My reviews are not for sale.  Nobody pays me for them.  Sometimes someone sends me a free book (or more often a link to an ebook) in the hope that I will review it.  But there's no payment.

Why are my reviews always positive?  Three reasons:
1.  I don't like writing negative reviews.
2.  Panning a short story is silly; wait five minutes and it will be gone anyway.
3.  Because of reasons 1. and 2. I choose to review the best story I read that week.  If I didn't like any, I choose a classic.

All you other reviewers out there, if you don't get paid (and I assume you don't) maybe it's time to say so.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Final Ballot, by Brendan Dubois

"The Final Ballot," by Brendan DuBois, in Mystery Writers of America presents Vengeance, edited by Lee Child, Mulholland Books, 2012.

Boy, I don't know if it's just the dog days of summer affecting my mood but I can tell you I have just loved  the last three stories I chose for this column.  Real stand-outs.

Beth knew in a flash that she was outgunned.  This man before her had traveled the world, knew how to order wine from a meny, wore the best clothes and had gone to the best schools, and was prominent in a campaign to elect a senator from Georgia as the next president of the Untied States.

She put the tissue back in her purse.   And her?  She was under no illusions.  A dumpy woman from a small town outside Manchester who had barely graduated from high school and was now leasing a small beauty shop in a strip mall.

That's not the opening of the story but it is the core of it.  Ms David, meet Mr. Goliath.

Beth's daughter was brutally attacked by a son of the senator/candidate.  The man-of-the-world described above is the problem solver.  "In other words, I'm the senator's bitch."  He offers her two choices which he insists on calling "avenues."  She can pursue prosecution of the senator's son, guaranteeing herself years of being stripped naked by the press, attacked by his supporters, dragged out as a symbol by his enemies... or she can agree to let the culprit get psychological treatment and accept financial aid from the senator to cover her daughter's long-term medical needs.

I won't spoil it by telling you what happens next.  But two old sayings apply:  Never fight with someone who has nothing to lose.  And: the most dangerous place in the world is between a mother and her children.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

A Change of Heart, by Raymond Goree

"A Change of Heart," by Raymond Goree, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2012.

I'm not on the committee that decides on who gets the Robert L. Fish Award for best first mystery of the year, but they're crazy if they don't give this one a careful look.

The narrator is a Las Vegas cop who, at around age 40, suffers a heart attack.  Turns out his ticker is in horrible shape.  ("Like trying to sew Jell-o together," says the surgeon.)  After some more horrible luck ("Jokes on you, says God.") he gets a heart transplant.  By coincidence he had met  the donor, a cancer patient named Sammy, in the hospital.

After the operation he feels obliged to go to Sammy's favorite restaurant once a month and order the man's favorite, very unhealthy, sandwich.

Sometimes Sammy joins him.  Not to eat, of course, just to watch him eat.  Creepy, huh?

But wait, there's more.  One month Sammy tells our hero that his daughter has gotten involved with would-be bank robbers.  "I cant get through to her," he  complains.  "It's like I'm not even there."

So Sammy wants our hero to stop the robbery and save his daughter.  "You owe me,"  he insists.  But will a robbery really take place?  And if it does, how can the cop explain what he knows? 

Wonderfully written, one-of-a-kind plot.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Frank, by Steve Hockensmith

"Frank" by Steve Hockensmith, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2012.

I admit I may be biased in favor of this story, simply because of its subject matter, which is one my family is dealing with currently.

Frank is a retired police detective, living in an assisted living complex.  Frank's memory is, at best, shaky.  He can't always remember what day it is, or the names of his neighbors (although in the case of at least one neighbor's name, Hockensmith notes drolly, "forgetting it had been a choice.")

But now a series of crimes are happening in the complex -- maybe.  Unless someone is imagining it in senile dimensia.  Can Frank pull himself together long enough to catch the culprit?  And what if he is the culprit?

Witty, touching, and a  twist at the end.  What more do you want?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Key, by Ferdinand Von Schirach

"The Key," by Ferdinand Von Schirach,  in Guilt,  Knopf Books, 2012. 

I reviewed a story in Von Schirach's previous book Crime last year.  He is a criminal attorney in Germany and all of his stories are narrated by an attorney named Von Schirach. leading to some debate as to fictional they are. 

In most of the stories the lawyer is a minor character, but none more so than in "The Key."  You could remove the part about Von Schirach without altering the plot a bit.

And speaking of plot: Frank and Atris are German criminals who visit Amsterdam to obtain, from a nasty and believable Russian general, some designer drugs that encourage women to do things they might otherwise prefer not to.  Frank is the brains, Atris the brawn, and when Frank gets picked up by the cops things start to get very messy for Atris, and for the dog Frank has left in his care.  Atris then finds him in a deepening pool of trouble with a series of sinister people.

At this point I need to say that if cruelty to animals is a turn-off for you, you do NOT want to read this story.

There is a flaw in this story: in order to make everything turn out okay a certain person has to perform out of character - or at least to have hidden reserves which we had not been left to expect.  It made it hard to suspend disbelief, but I enjoyed the story anyway.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Snow Birds, by Gary Phillips

"The Snow Birds," (2009) by Gary Phillips, in Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians, and Killer, Perfect Crime Books. 2012.

Gary Phillips is a very smooth, professional writer (and a hell of a lot of fun to sit next to at a dinner party, by the way).  I was reading through this book and finding mostly what I expected: grim stories about various levels of bad guys.  And suddenly I find him channeling, of all people, Ring Lardner.

Now one time it comes on Thanksgiving or rather two days prior, and we were standing on the sidelines in the midst of our permitating as the Silver Slicers of Bowler Street went at the Cruze Cru of Avenue J.  Sidelines is a relative term when it comes to street polo as it was of necessity that we and the other onlookers had to, at times, quickly move about to avoid say a smashed toe or bruised shin,.  The lads and lasses zoomed back and forth, to and fro, on their steeds of battered alloy whacking the bejeezus out of a croquet ball with their homemade plastic mallets while adroitly slaloming their bikes, most of the time barely sluicing past one another, on the field of play.

So the tale begins, and clearly we are not on the usual mean streets, nor are we in the prose of, say Ernest Hemingway.  I happen to be a fan of rococo language in mystery shorts (James Powell, Avram Davidson, and John Collier come leaping to mind).and have often wished it was a road I could travel further myself.

Phillips is clearly having a fine time as he tells the story of two small gangs battling over a load of Thanksgiving turkeys.  The plot is silly, the joy is in the language.

At this juncture I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that there was an ongoing tiff between the two as, one might suspect, it involved a dame.  In this case it was a lovely young woman named Annakosta, who'd come this close to gracing the pages of a KING magazine thong special.


Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Closed Book, by Mary Hoffman

"A Closed Book," by Mary Hoffman, in Venice Noir, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Akashic Press, 2012.

Jakubowski saved the best for last in this book.  In Hoffman's story an Englishwoman visits Venice, chooses a gondolier, and starts peppering him with questions about the city's most notorious crimes.   She's working on a collection of short stories, she explains, but something about her makes Taddeo, the gondolier, quite uncomfortable. 

When the tourist is found murdered in her hotel room Taddeo is the only suspect and is promptly arrested.  His fellow gondolieri don't believe in his guilt and conduct their own investigation.  The reader knows more than the characters and it is fun to watch as the net closes in. 

I like the subtle way in which the underlying motive -- the crimes behind the crime -- is left below the surface.  We can figure out what is in the victim's short story about Venice; the details are left to our imagination.

A very nice piece of work.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

After Cana, by Terence Faherty

"After Cana," by Terence Faherty, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October, 2012.

"You usually go door-to-door bothering people until one of them knocks you in the head."  That is a friend of Owen Keane, explaining his usual style of amateur detective work.  In this story his approach is more armchair-ish, if that's a word, but very satisfactory.

Keane is a troubled guy with a murky past, explored in previous Faherty tales, and when the current story opens he is accompanying a friend to the wedding of a couple he doesn't know.  The minister's familiar sermon on weddings creating a new community gets him thinking about people in his past, but a few days later the new couple is killed on their honeymoon, and that's what really gets him thinking.

Was it, as it appeared to be, a meaningless mugging death, or is something even more sinister going on?  Keane cleverly traces the roots back to an event that happened fifty years ago, and then forward again to the present day.  The story is well-written with nice characterization of the minor players, which help Keane reach the final deduction.  A nice piece of work.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

My Life With The Butcher Girl, by Heath Lowrance

"My Life With The Butcher Girl," by Heath Lowrance, in Pulp Ink 2, edited by Nigel Bird and Chris Rhatigan,  Snubnose Press, 2012.

 This is a dark ride, a very dark ride.  I am not usually a big fan of stories full of sex and violence, because the authors often seem to forget to include other elements, like a plot and a point. 

I'll be the first to admit a story doesn't necessarily need a point - it can just be an entertaining read - but I do insist on a plot, and if it manages to also raise an interesting question, so much the better.  Lowrance manages all of the above.

The question that he pursues is the psychology of  death groupies - the people who fall in love with serial killers.   As far as I know most of these sad cases are women (because most  of the murderers are men?) but Lowrance's protagonist, Jim, is a guy who becomes obsessed with the Butcher Girl, who is convicted of what used to be called thrill killings, slaughtering three men in sexual situations.

We see their relationship begin and grow and when she is released due to a botched trial, it's inevitable that they wind up together.  But what does Jim want from her?  And what does she want from him?

I certainly didn't guess what was coming.  And the sex and violence are essential to the story.  A good job all around.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Murder... Now And Then, by Penny Mickelbury

Murder...Then And Now" by Penny Mickelbury, in Send my Love and a Molotov Cocktail, PM Press, 2011. 

I missed this book when it came out last year. All the stories involve rebellion,crime and love. They are set in the current war, and the early twentieth century trade union fights, and plenty other places in between.

 My favorite  tale starts in the sixties when five Black college students in the south are planning to disrupt a KKK parade with molotov cocktails. Things go disastrously wrong.

Forty years ater the survivors of the debacle meet to determne what happened... and to settle the accounts. As it happens, one of them is a private eye, Boxer Gordon. While not a traditional private eye story at all, this is still the best P.I. tale I have read so far this year.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Fruit At The Bottom Of The Bowl, by Ray Bradbury

"The Fruit At The Bottom Of The Bowl" by Ray Bradbury, in The Golden Apples of the Sun.  (1948)

This is the first time  in a year and a half this review has been late.  Stuff happens, but it didn't help that nothing I read this week rang my chimes, so for the third time in a year and a half I have had to resort to my list of fifty favorite stories.  It seemed appropriate to honor the late, great Ray Bradbury.

I think most people tend to remember Bradbury for his inspiring go-to-space stories, and forget that he learned his chops on horror.  There is psychological horror in this little masterpiece, but it is first and foremost a crime story.  In fact, it appeared first in Detective Book Magazine and was reprinted five years later in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (under the cutesy title "Touch and Go."  Shame on you, Frederick Dannay.).

The protagonist has just gone to another man's home where they had an argument about a woman, and the home owner gets killed.  The protagonist can get away with murder - if he is sure that he doesn't leave any fingerprints behind.  And soon we are in territory that would be quite familiar to Edgar Allan Poe.

The last paragraph is worth the price of the book.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Beehive Round, by Martin Limón

"Beehive Round" by Martin Limón, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2012.

I remember Martin at an MWA-NW meeting in Seattle many years ago telling us that his novel Jade Lady Burning was being published.  That book, and all those that have followed, are about two CID officers (army detectives) in Korea in the mid-seventies.

So when I started this story and saw that it was set in the same time and place I was patienly expecting Sergeants Sueño and Bascom to arrive.  They don't.  The crime this time is solved by Vern Kruckman, a newly-retired sergeant. 

Like the cliche of the retired firehorse reacting to a bell, Kruckman leaps out of bed when an alert is sigalled.  Unable to sleep he goes outside and this puts him in the right place at the right time to discover a murder.  Both the Korean police and the U.S. army would be happy to cover it up for their own reasons, but Kruckman, with time on his hands, and a sense of duty to the other soldiers, keeps after it.

Limón is a master of setting.  He gives you all the details you need to believe in this foreign and forty-year old situation.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Losing It, by Melodie Johnson Howe

"Losing It," by Melodie Johnson Howe, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, August 2012.

To be honest, I am not a great fan of the subgenre of stories about mousy women being abused, physically or emotionally, by bullying men.  Just not my cup of tea.

But my friend Melodie made me a believer in this one, largely because the story is so twisty it makes a corkscrew look like a knitting needle.

Callie Taylor is the mouse in question, a manicurist.  Mike is the boyfriend, supposedly working on a screenplay, but apparently only working on the groceries Callie brings home on her paycheck.

One night Callie rebels against her life by spending a thousand dollars she can't afford on a shawl.  Mike hates it because it keeps her from looking "normal," the ordinary person he wants her to be.

And then, late one night in a bar, she loses the shawl.  And worse, one of her wealthy customers shows up wearing the shawl - complete with the tears Mike's dog put in it.  How can Callie get it back without losing her job?

That's where I have to stop, so as not to reveal any twists.  Let's just say, whatever you think is going to happen, you're wrong.

But you'll have a very good time being wrong.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Street Ends At The Cemetery, by Clark Howard

"The Street Ends At The Cemetery," by Clark Howard, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, August 2012.  

I am surprised EQMM didn't use their Black Mask category for this story.  It has all the meaness and violence you could ask for in such a tale.

In classic noir fashion Cory Evans's life is changed forever by an encounter with a woman, although she is not exactly a femme fatale.  Cory is a corrections officer and Billie Sue is the girlfriend of a prisoner.  When Cory sees her standing in the rain outside the prison, waiting for a bus that won't come for an hour, he violates the fraternization rule by giving her a ride.

There's no conspiracy going on here.  Cory wasn't trying to seduce her.  Billie Sue wasn't looking for a guard to cuddle up to.  But things go to hell all the same.  You can say Cory is an innocent victim of circumstance, but as Rex Stout said "No man was ever taken to hell by a woman unless he already had a ticket in his pocket or at least had been fooling around with timetables."

The intriguing thing in this piece is that every character, including the alleged law-enforcers, has a dirty trick up their sleeve, a double-cross in their heart, and a gun or two in their pockets.  Does it end happily?  Look at the title.  What do you think?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Celtic Noir, by Paul BIshop

"Celtic Noir," by Paul Bishop, in Running Wylde. 2012.

This story was originally published in Murder Most Celtic, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, in 2001.  I caught up with it in Bishop's e-collection of stories.

Meet Decco, an Irish fella with a bad attitude...

You might think I'm stupid.  I ain't.  I done loads of them Open university courses on the telly.  I ain't stupid. i just ain't like you, and i don't want to be.

I hate effin squares like you - sitting there on your arse reading books.  you're boring.  i hate boring.  Get up, get out, smash somebody's face in.  that's what it's all about - a little aggro makes the world go round.

As the story opens a couple of thugs are attempting to round up Decco for a little meeting of the minds with a crime boss named Mandrake.  Mandrake's daughter has gone missing and he decided Decco is just the lad to get her back.  Before our hero can get started a tough female cop scoops him up.  She also wants him to find the daughter, but with a different goal.  Then there is a rival gang of bad guys with their own plans...

Good story with an action-packed ending.

A couple of notes.  I am no expert on how the Irish speak - the works of Roddy Doyle and Ken Bruen constitute my main first-hand experience - but there is a slight touch of the begorrah-it's-a-leprechan to Decco's prose stylings, as far as I am concerned.  Didn't spoil it for me.

More problematic is the e-book itself.  There are many styles of e-book production but this may be the sorriest I've run across.  No page numbers, no table of contents, no way to get from the beginning to a particular story except by hitting the screen over and over and over....

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Case of the Pink Lady, by Casper Bogart

"The Case of the Pink Lady," by Casper Bogart, via Amazon.

"Audacity, more audacity, always audacity," so said Georges Jacques Danton.  It is a good motto for writers.  I love fiction that drops your jaw and makes you say, "can you do that?"  

The pseudonymous Mr. Bogart succeeded in being audacious with this e-tale.  It features as its protagonist-detective none other than Dick Nixon.  This takes place in 1late 962, one of the lowest points of Tricky's career.  After losing the presidency by a hair's breath (and arguably by fraud) he loses a race for governorship in California.  As the story begins he makes his famous announcement that the press won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.

A day later he gets a panicked phone call from his campaign manager: there is a dead woman in a convertible in the manager's driveway and the cops want to know what happened.  Nixon volunteers to act as the man's attorney and quickly discovers (with a little help from his buddy J. Edgar Hoover) that the dead woman is connected to both him and some high-up Democrats.  Dirty tricks abound.

The story is about as believable as Grimm's Fairy Tales (my problem is not the political shenanigans, but Nixon's brilliant detectivizing), but it has an interesting viewpoint on Nixon's character and some wonderful flashes of wit.

The phone rang.
A female operator.  "Long distance from Washington, D.C."
Nixon snorted.  "You bet it is."

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Jackie Boy, by Sam Roseme

"Jackie Boy" by Sam Roseme, in West Coast Crime Wave, edited by Brian Thornton.  BSTSLLR.COM, 2011.

West Coast Crime Wave is an e-anthology that was published last year.  I'm not a big iPad book-reader, so I am just getting around to it now.

This is a private eye story but you can kick that Humphrey Bogart image right out of your head.  Jackie Giacomo is  300 pounds of grumpy and he got into the business by helping some friends in the mob.

This is how it works: a firm -- either some mobsters or a hedge fund -- buys a bunch of shares in a company.  If that investment doesn't provide the returns they were expecting, they find dirt on the CEO or chairman of the board.  You know, drugs, cheating on his wife, sex with boys, that kind of stuff.  That's where I come in.  I follow Mr. CEO around for awhile  with my camera and take pictures of him doing his dirty deeds.  My client shows the offender snapshots of him playing priest to a choirboy and gives him an offer he can't refuse: buy the shares back at a premium and the photos don't accidentally find their way to the New York Post.

So speaking of choirboys, fat Jackie ain't one.  He is also living in San Francisco, in exile from New York because of  a disagreement with a mobster friend.  As the story opens he has a new case but it turns out to be connected to his New York troubles, which come from protecting one of the few people he actually cares about.

It is a fun twist on the P.I. story.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Burning Daylight, by David Edgerley Gates

"Burning Daylight" by David Edgerley Gates, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2012.

Well, Mr. Gates is having a good year.  This is the third time in nine months he has made my best-of-the-week list.  And the stories have been very different.  One historical, one urban, and now a rural police procedural.

Hector is a deputy in Montana, near a national forest.  When two kids report seeing a double-wide trailer explode he knows it was a meth lab.  Since the drug-maker went up with his product Hector could have let it go at that but he is a good cop and wants to know what happened: specifically, how did a Gulf War vet wind up making drugs out in the wilderness?  And which comes first, supply or demand?  The trail becomes darker and grimmer.

"With all due respect, don't preach the law to me."
"The law's all we've got between us and the stone age."
"Frank, for Christ's sake, this IS the stone age."

A powerful piece of work.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Acting On A Tip, by Barbara Arno Modrack

"Acting On A Tip," by Barbara Arno Modrack, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2012.

 I have said before that I am a sucker for stories about the possibility of redemption, whether the protagonist chooses to take it or not.  This is a nice example.

Marty had been a reporter for the Detroit Free Press for decades when the buyouts started.  One day his editor urged him to take the proffered buyout, and the reason clearly had less to do with his age than with the booze Marty was drinking for breakfast. 

When he found himself unemployed and probably unemployable Marty's wife made him the following offer:

They would sell the house and move Up North to the family cottage she had just inherited.  Ryan, their youngest, would complete his senior year in high school there.  Jenny would refresh her nursing license and become the breadwinner.  And if they did all that and Marty quit drinking, they could do it together and Jenny would not leave him.

A few months later Marty is clinging to sobriety by his fingernails when he wakes to a radio report of three murders in the little town where they are living.  Maybe the Free Press would like a reporter on the scene?  Maybe he can drag a scrap of self-worth out of the ruins?

Very satisfactory piece of work.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Five Stars, by Mike Baron

"Five Stars," by Mike Baron, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2012.

I am not surprised that Baron got his start writing comic books.  This is one of the most intensely visual stories I have read in a long time.  Or, to be more specific, the climax is wildly, inventively, visual.

Bill Scald is a restaurant critic (and what a wonderful name for a critic!). Much to his disgust his boss orders him to review a new Italian restaurant that is clearly owned as  a money-laundering site by a mob family.  Scald points out that in this case a bad review could have extremely nasty results.  His editor, blithely uninterested in such niceties as journalistic integrity, tells him to go off and say something nice.

So Scald decides to dine with protection in the form of  his nephew, "a human pit bull with shaved skull, tribal tats, and the flat eyes of a shark.  Dyson's favorite cuisine was buffalo wings, but he...was too stupid to know fear."  And that's when things get lively and, as I have already indicated, visual.  Fun stuff.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

His Daughter's Island, by Brendan DuBois

"His Daughter's Island," by Brendan DuBois, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2012.

Very nice piece opens the new issue of EQMM.  Zach Ford is a mild-mannered accountant in a small town in Maine.  His beloved daughter goes off to a party at the home of a millionaire and dies.  The millionaire's son is whisked out of the country, far from the possibility of justice.

In some stories the next step would be a whole lot of guns and blood, but Mr. Ford has a different idea.  He studies up on the millionaire, and then he studies the state and local ordinances.  And starts plotting a completely legal vengeance.

DuBois' story reminds me of one of my all-time favorites, "Privilege," by Frederick Forsyth.  Both are about a "little man" who uses lateral thinking to go after a foe who seems to powerful to attack.  Good piece.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Jenny's Ghost, by David Dean

"Jenny's Ghost" by David Dean, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 2012.

After I read this story I asked my friend David if there was a crime in it.  He replied: "there is no crime in 'Jenny's Ghost'; only consequences."   But, he noted, there is a mystery.  Having thought about it, I decided there is a crime, of sorts. I'd be interested to know what you thought.

David wrote about the genesis of this story last month at SleuthSayers, but even if he hadn't I would have suspected it started with the location.

Picture the setting: you are in an airport, stuck in that endless half-life between flights and suddenly you spot something that can't possibly be there: a woman who died a decade before.  Hell of a set-up, isn't it?

David noted that this is a story about consequences.  Not surprisingly it is also about guilt, and the chance of redemption.  These are subjects for fiction I am very much drawn to.  (Hey, my CD is called Can I Blame You?)  David's stories often have a strong spiritual component.  (One of his recurring characters is a priest.)  As I said, there is a possibility of redemption at the end of this story.  Airports can seem like hell, but you don't have to stay in one forever.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

One Soul At A Time, by Dana Cameron

"One Soul At A Time," by Dana Cameron, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 2012.

The latest issue of EQMM gets off to a bang with this story by Dana Cameron.  The narrator is a woman who has recently changed names and started a new life.  We find out a little bit about why she made this switch, and can guess more.  She has had, shall we say, an interesting career.

The story begins with her receiving the obituary of her mentor, a former college professor who changed her life forever.  She spots a clue in the obituary that the death was not the accident the authorities claimed and goes rushing off to Maine to discover the truth.  This turns out to involve some very bad locals with even worse allies.  Our nameless character reluctantly finds herself getting deeper and deeper into the mess, first to pay the debt to her mentor and then, when that is done, for "extra credit, bonus points."

The wise heads tell me that suspense stories are personal and thrillers are global.  The world is in danger!  But to my mind a suspense story is about what we might call a civilian in danger, while a thriller is about a pro.  This story is a thriller, and a very good one.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Teed Off, by Mark Troy

"Teed Off," by Mark Troy, in Game Face.

This ebook was available for free.   It is a collection of stories about Val Lyons, a Hawaii-based private eye.

Glenn Floeck moved down Concourse C of Honolulu International Airport as if he expected everyone to get out of his way.

This first sentence tells us a good deal about Mr. Floeck, doesn't it?  Val has signed on as personal driver for this obnoxious golf millionaire who is actually a lousy golfer and a worse human being.  we will discover she has an ulterior motive for tolerating his crude advances.  She is working on behalf of a client whose sister got a restraining order against Flock, not long before falling of a hotel balcony to her death.  Interesting protagonist, good story.

By the way, it first appeared in Fedora, edited by Michael Bracken.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

In Brightest Day, by Toni L.P. Kelner

"In Brightest Day" by Toni L.P. Kelner, in Home Improvement: Undead Edition, edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner.  Ace.  2011.

Now that the voting for the Derringer Awards are over I can report that my favorite nominee, among those I didn't read last year, was this novella by an author I have long admired, Toni Kelner.  Apparently this whole book is full of "surreal estate," horror stories related to do-it-yourself.  (This makes good sense.  All of my attempts at home repair have turned into horror stories.)

“Rebound Resurrections,” I said in my best business voice. “How can I help you?”
“Dodie? It’s Shelia Hopkins. Gottfried is dead.”
“Well, yeah.” He’d been dead for a couple of weeks.
“I mean he’s dead again.”

The best fantasy and science fiction tales create a world with its own rules and logic and that's what we have here.  Dodie  Kilburn is a hougan in a reality in which these zombie-creators have their own professional organization and code of ethics.  It turns out you can only bring someone back from the dead if the deceased was obsesses about an uncompleted task.  In the case of Gottfried he wanted to finish retrofitting a house, so that's all well and good.  But someone doesn't want the house finished and is willing to keep killing Gottfried over and over to get his way...

An added treat here is Dodie's conflict with the hougan guild which disapproves of her methods.  Fun story.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

House Rules, by Libby Fischer Hellmann

"House Rules," by Libby Fischer Hellmann, in A Woman's Touch, Sniplets Publishing.  2010.

I've been reading the e-anthology,  A Woman's Touch. So far this is my favorite.  Marge and Larry Farley take a vacation in Las Vegas, but Larry isn't much impressed.  First, he loses a bundle in a casino, then he finds the great outdoors "too hot.  And dusty.  Let's go back."   His view changes when  he finds a mysterious box in the sand. When he brings it back to the hotel all hell breaks loose.  Turns out somebody ditched the box in the desert for a reason. Turns out a whole lot of people want it back.  No one is who they seem and Marge, who is a self-help book kind of person, may or may not be able to rescue Larry from the mess he has gotten them into.

A fun read.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Come Back, Come Back, by Donald E. Westlake

"Come Back, Come Back," by Donald E. Westlake, in Levine, 1984.

Well, it has happened again.  For the second time in fifteen months I haven't read any new stories I liked enough to write about here, so I am going to review one of my all-time favorite stories.

I actually read this one as a teenager in one of those Alfred Hitchcock paperback story collections.  It was my first introduction to Donald E. Westlake, and while I always remembered the story, it was many years before I connected this tale with the author of so many comic crime classics.

In the early sixties Westlake wrote a series of stories about Abe Levine, a New York City cop with one distinguishing feature: he has a heart condition which he quite reasonably fears will kill him.  So each of his cases is colored by this, you might say, existential lens.

Take this story.  Levine and his partner are rushed to a skyscraper where a businessman is threatening to jump off a high ledge.  See the ironic contrast: a young, healthy, successful man who apparently wants to die and Levine, a middle-aged, broke, cop with a heart condition who desperately wants to live.  Can these two guys teach each other anything?

A stunning piece of work and a demonstration of the unusual things that can be done in the name of crime fiction.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Turkey Hill Affair, by Warren Bull

"The Turkey Hill Affair," by Warren Bull, in Murder Manhattan Style, Untreed Reads, 2012.

Warren Bull was kind enough to send me a proof of his new e-book.  Most of the stories are historical mysteries, and most are set in either Manhattan, New York, or Manhattan, Kansas.  Quite a difference between those two locations, huh?

Being a contrary sort, I suppose, my favorite is set in Iowa, although it is a sequel to one of the stories set in New York.  Roxie was a showgirl there who fled to Turkey Hill, Iowa with new sweetheart Bob, because her old boyfriend Frank was a mobster who "took advantage of my loving nature and snapped some photos of me loving some well-known people."

By the time this story starts Roxie and Bob have split up and she is astonished to discover an old friend named Bennie trying to rob a bank in Turkey Hill.  He's not very good at it but with her help - who ever heard of a hostage picking up the robber's gun for him? - he manages to escape.

After that she has a somewhat revealing discussion with the sheriff, who turns out to be a bit of a surprise for post-war Iowa, and she solves a crime worse than bank robbery.  A very amusing tale.

I should add that the best idea  for a story in the book was "Heidegger's Cat," but I thought it needed another round of editing.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Mr. Crockett and the Bear, by Evan Lewis

"Mr. Crockett and the Bear," by Evan Lewis, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May 2012.

The annual humor issue at AHMM is very good this year (says the guy with the cover story), including tales by my friends John M. Floyd and R.T. Lawton.  But I have to say the story I admired the most was by Evan Lewis.

Mr. Lewis is one of those unique minds.  I could see him developing into the next Jack Ritchie or James Powell.  He won the MWA Robert L. Fish Award for his first story, "Skylar Hobbs and the Rabbit Man," which was about a guy who thought he was the reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes.

This issue features the story of a direct descendent of Davy Crockett, whose gift/burden is having the legendary frontiersman as a conscience.   Sort of a Jiminy Crockett, sorry.

The modern narrator is a lawyer and he is trying to defend a zoo whose prize black bear is accused of attacking a keeper.  Obviously he needs to consult the bear.  Fortunately his great-greaty-great-grandfather Davy knows how to do a little "bear whispering." The solution, when it comes, is decidedly non-supernatural, I am happy to report.

Sparkling language in the story as well.  I love the report that a couple were "close enough to share the same toothpick."  I hope we will more from the Crocketts, and from Skylar Hobbs as well.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Devil to Pay, by David Edgerley Gates

"The Devil to Pay," by David Edgerley Gates, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, April 2012.

If you like Elmore Leonard's casserole's fo good guys/bad guys plotting against each other, you should enjoy this story.  Tommy Meadows, fresh out of jail, is just what the FBI needs to find out what happened to a shipment of guns and ammo intended for the Army.  All he has to do is stay alive long enough to outsmart the Russian mob.  Good luck with that, Tommy boy.

I think the main reason this story made my weekly hit list is the two words a femaie fed makes after shooting someone.  Hilarious.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Wrecked, by Therese Greenwood

"Wrecked" by Therese Greenwood, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2012.
Some stories are about plot.  Some are about suspense, or language.  This one is all about character.

The narrator is Rosie, who runs a small-town auto wrecker.  She's interesting in her own way, with her fatalism about her business and her pride in her nephew the cop who was "the grade-two knock-knock joke champion of St. Paul's school."  And there is her mechanic Gary, who can't stop being snotty to that same cop, no matter how ill-advised his attitude is, or how bad his jokes are.

But the star of the show is Floyd the Buddhist, a senior citizen Vietnam vet, who makes his living delivering Vietnamese food and constantly babbles karma-speak.   Why is he always scrounging used car parts?  "My vehicle strives for rebirth."

When a murdered man is found in the car crushing machinery Rosie will need help from all these characters to catch the bad guy.

Fun story.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Rolling Rivera, by Steven Torres

"Rolling Rivera," by Steven Torres, in The Precinct Puerto Rico Files.  2012.

I am not the first to notice that detective fiction tends to flourish only in democracies.  In fact, I think you could make a case that the popularity of different genres of crime stories gives you a sort of national temperature.  When World War I and Prohibition made us cynical about the powers that be, we stopped reading classical mysteries (in which the bad guy was brought to governmental justice) and turned to hard-boiled (in which the law is corrupt and the good guy is on his own).  Nowadays we seem to have thrillers (confirmation for the paranoids among us) and noir (nourishment for nihilists).

I was pondering this as I read The Precinct Puerto Rico Files, an e-book that Steven Torres was kind enough to send me.  His hero usually solves the crime, but he can't solve the underlying economic social problems that caused the mess, and will cause more.  So justice becomes a little, shall we say, ad lib.

I should explain that the hero, Luis Gonzalo, is the sheriff of Angustias (the anguishes) a small mountain town in Puerto Rico.  The time is the 1970s.

A good example of my thesis is "Rolling Rivera."  Abraham Rivera, an abusive husband and father, lives in a wheelchair because of an earlier drunken folly.  He is found dead, run over on a road.  The legal question is: was it another booze-soaked accident, or did someone set him up to be killed?  And the bigger question is: if the latter, should we prosecute or celebrate?

Another very good story in this book is "The Driver," in which a small mistake builds up, with the inevitability of Greek tragedy, into a pointless disaster.  One more thing I really liked about the book was the brief note Torres placed after each story explaining where he got the idea.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Wood-Smoke Boys by Doug Allyn

"Wood-Smoke Boys," by Doug Allyn, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2012.

When I was ten years old, my favorite uncle murdered my favorite aunt.

Thus begins a wonderfully-written story of country folk versus city folk in the north woods of Michigan.  Dylan LaCrosse is the narrator and his back woods family suffers some terrible times, but they don't suffer quietly, which leads to the local warning: "Never cross a LaCrosse."

Now Dylan is a cop and state police are coming in to investigate the murder of a state legislator who caused tragedy to the LaCrosse family.  Can Dylan stay alive and solve the puzzle?  And whose side is he on?

Two more wonderful lines from the story:

In the deep woods, amid the shadows and feral silences, man's place atop the food chain is still up for debate.

The kid's mentally challenged.  His rat-bastard brothers use him for a guard dog to save the price of Alpo.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Grace, Period by Graham Powell

"Grace, Period," by Graham Powell, in Bad Men.

Graham Powell was kind enough to send me a copy of this e-collection of short stories.  As you probably guessed, the protagonists are not quite heroes.  Most of them come to bad, if very interesting, ends.

Take Tommy Roccaforte, the main man in our current story.  The witness protection program has just dumped him far from his home in Staten Island, supplying with a nothing job in a second-hand bookstore.  But -- and here is what I love -- Tommy approaches the business like the wise guy that he is.  Who is the competition?  And how can we destroy them?  So the big box chain bookstore had better watch out. The story is witty, with big hints of Elmore Leonard.

Having said that, I have to register a big complaint: I don't buy the ending at all.  Some of the choices made by people around Tommy don't make any sense to me, and one of those characters is just too paper-thin for the role.

You can find a better ending in Powell's "The Leap," in the same collection, but it doesn't have a concept as dazzling as  "Grace."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Out There, by Zoe Beck

"Out There," by Zoe Beck, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, February 2012.

Among the other changes that e-mail has wrought in the world is an improvement in epistolary fiction.  It is possible to exchange letters a lot faster than when DIego de San Pedro wrote the first epistolary novel in the fifteenth century.

And that's what German author Zoe Beck presents with, a story written entirely in e-mails.  Most of them are written by Gil Peters, who is a successful author despite having agoraphobia so fierce that she hasn't left her apartment in eight years.  But that's okay, she has adjusted to it, and with her computer and her shrink on tap she is doing fine.

Then her doctor goes on vacation just when an unacceptable change happens to her home.  Things start to go rapidly out of hand...

The only thing I love better than a twist ending is multiple twists, and Beck provides them.  I thought I knew where the story was going.  Then I thought I saw the new direction.  Nope.  No wonder it won the Glauser prize.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Shikari, by James Lincoln Warren

"Shikari," by James Lincoln Warren, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, February 2012.

My friend James goes from strength to strength, as the saying goes.  This novelette is the best Sherlock Holmes pastiche I have read since Nicholas Meyer turned the field on its ear with The Seven Percent Solution.

James explains in an introductory note that the idea came when he read that during the nineteenth century the British intelligence service used doctors as spies in Asia.  Of course, Dr. Watson was an army doctor in Afghanistan.  And who was the head of British intelligence?  Sherlock Holmes's brother Mycroft.  If Watson was one of Mycroft's spies, than surely it was no coincidence that he wound up in a position to keep an eye on his boss's eccentric brother...

Wait a minute, the purists cry.  Watson could never have been a spy!  He was too innocent, too open,  and not nearly observant enough.

And how do we know that?  From the books and stories written by Dr. Wat-  Oh.  Hmm...

But Watson could never have fooled Holmes!  Holmes was far too shrewd, too perceptive, and we know that from the books and stor-  Hmm....

You may think I'm giving away the plot.  Actually this is just the premise.  All I will tell you about the actual plot is that it is told by two minor characters in the canon, and it retools some of the Holmes saga, while solving some of the great puzzles of the works (like Watson's famous wandering wound, for instance.)

And the writing sparkles.  Here is one of the narrators: "I had known Lucky Jim Moriarty in India.  We shared a common interest in embezzling from our regiments."

A treat from beginning to end, with some genuine shocks along the way.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Dog Days of Summer, by John Kenyon

"Dog Days of Summer," by John Kenyon, in All Due Respect, January 2012.

Great photo there...  I wonder why I have never seen it on the cover of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine?  Okay, back to our point.

Janice and I were just getting into bed when I remembered I still had Lenny’s body in my trunk. You’d think you wouldn’t forget something like that, but it had been a long day.

So begins our story.  We can guess that Tommy is not the sharpest shooter on the target range, so to speak, and this is proven out.   He works for his uncle, a mobster, the man who ordered him to arrange a burial for the late Lenny.

Alas, Tommy keeps making bad choices, like burying poor Lenny in his yard, right next to the property of a deputy...

Dark and funny.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Hedgehog, by Ferdinand von Schirach

"The Hedgehog" by Ferdinand von Schirach, in Crime: Stories, Alfred A. Knopf.

Something very different this week.  Von Schirach is a defense attorney in Germany and these stories are apparently based on true cases, to what degree one can't tell.  The Library of Congress Cataloging in Print says "Fiction," and who am I to argue?  Another odd thing is that all the stories begin with what seems to be a third-person omniscient narration, but at some point a first person speaker arrives, an anonymous defense attorney, whom I assume is supposed to be von Schirach.

The writing style is flat, deliberately plain (or so the translation makes it appear). But now, let's go on to "The Hedgehog."

Once upon a time there were several brothers, all of whom thought they were smart and strong. They all thought the youngest was a fool and a good-for-nothing.  But when an emergency occurred it turned out that the despised youngest brother was the cleverest of them all...

Does that sound familiar?  It should; it is the plot of countless fairy tales.  Von Schirach gives us a modern take in the story of  Karim Abu Fataris.  He is the youngest of nine brothers from Lebanon, part of an extended family of criminals.

When Karim started school, the teachers groaned -- "Yet another Abu Fataris" -- and then treated him like an idiot.  He was made to sit in the back row, and his first-grade teacher told him, at age six, that he wasn't to draw attention to himself, get into fights, or talk at all.

Karim is no idiot but he is willing to let the world, brothers included, think so.  By age ten he is deliberately get C- grades while teaching himself calculus with a stolen textbook.  By the time he leaves school he has an apartment of his own, a girlfriend, and an illegal business, all of them unknown to his family.

But when his favorite brother goes on trial for robbery Karim pits himself against the German legal system.  Who wins?  Well, it can be a great advantage to be underestimated by your enemy...

By the way, "Self-Defense," in this same book, came in a close second this week.