Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Stoning Before Breakfast, by Azardokht Bahrami

"A Stoning Before Breakfast," by Azardokht Bahrami, in Tehran Noir, edited by Salar Abdoh, Akashic Books, 2014.

If I were picking the best story titles of 2014, a big chunk would come of this book.  "Fear is the Best Keeper of Secrets."  "A Woman's Geography is Sacred."  "The Shelf Life of Revenge."  "The Whitest Set of Teeth in Tehran."

And today's entry. 

The narrator is a prostitute.  Her friend Elika is being stoned to death for adultery - although the actual reasons are more complicated than that.  While this story makes no reference to the obvious Christian analog - "let he who is without sin..." - Elika's customers are in the crowd, very reluctant to participate.

This is not a standard crime story, more a slice-of-death piece, but powerfully written.

One of the women asks out loud why they haven't covered her face.  she insists that this is the law.  It's as if she's some kind of Minister of Stoning.

Kati insisted there was not a man on earth who would stay faithful for long.  Except maybe the prophet Adam, and that was only because in his particular sad case there wasn't a second option.

This boy's a natural.  They should bring him to every stoning within driving distance.

Another fine story in the collection is "Not Every Bullet is Meant for a King," (another great title) by Hossein Arkenar, a sort of textual Pulp Fiction about people who get involved in a bank robbery.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Wehrkraftzersetzung, by Stephen D. Rogers

"Wehrkraftzersetzung," by Stephen D. Rogers, in Rogue Wave,: Best New England Crime Stories 2015,  edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, and Leslie Wheeler, Level Best Books, 2014.

We must begin with my annual complaint about the titles of the books in this series.  Since the book is published in 2014, clearly these aren't the anything stories of 2015.  And since they are published here for the first time, who the heck has decided they are the best of the year?

Having gotten that out of the way, let's discuss Mr. Rogers contribution.  This is a traditional detective story, in the sense that a murder is committed and solved, and I don't remember the last time one of those made my best-of list.  Not because I have a prejudice against them (as I admitted last week concerning fan fiction) but because they are a small percentage of the field these days.

One problem with the traditional formula in short story form is that it can fall into the category of eeny meeny murder mo,  in which the killer was either A, B, or C and you have no particular reason to care which of them did it because the characters are not much more than letters of the alphabet.

There is some of that in this story, but it is so unusual in its setting that Rogers easily overcomes that limit.  The story takes place on the Russian front during World War II.  Steiner, the narrator, is a German soldier.  In the middle of a very bad situation one of four new replacement soldiers has been killed - not by the enemy but by one of his comrades.  Steiner has apparently acquired a reputation for investigation and his commander orders him to figure out whodunit.  The search is short and cleverly done.  The conclusion is a logical extension of what happens in war.  A good, tough, story.
Best New England Crime Stories,” edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross, Leslie Wheeler. Level Best Books, 2014, - See more at:
Best New England Crime Stories,” edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross, Leslie Wheeler. Level Best Books, 2014, - See more at:
Best New England Crime Stories,” edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross, Leslie Wheeler. Level Best Books, 2014, - See more at:
edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross, Leslie Wheeler. Level Best Books, 2014, - See more at:
edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross, Leslie Wheeler. Level Best Books, 2014, - See more at:

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dr. Watson's Casebook, by Alan Grant

"Dr. Watson's Casebook," by Alan Grant, in In The Company of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Laurie R. King, and Leslie Klinger, Pegasus Crime, 2014.

I admit to a prejudice against fan fiction, the attempt to add a new work to some other author's corpus.  To make my best list such a story would pretty much have to be better than the original.

Pastiches, on the other hand, are a different animal. 

While there are different interpretations of the word, I define a pastiche as a work that uses a previous author's work but doesn't attempt to reproduce it.  A reboot, in other words.  Television's Sherlock and Elementary both qualify, but you don't have to switch to modern times to qualify.  My friend James Lincoln Warren's "Shikari," which imagines Dr. Watson as an agent of British Intelligence, is a perfect example.

This book contains examples of both categories, plus some modern stories with more or less reference to Doyle's character. 

My favorite is solidly in the pastiche camp, with tongue firmly in cheek.  Quite simply, Alan Grant has retold The Hound of the Baskervilles as it might have appeared through social media.

Dr. John Watson has shared a link to the London Meteorological Serivce - Likelihood of Severe Fog: 90%.
* The Hound likes this.
* Sherlock Holmes does not like this.

Very silly.  Very enjoyable.

My other favorite in this book was "By Any Other Name," by Michael Dirda, a clever example of the "Great Game," scholarship that assumes Holmes was real.  But, alas, it is not a crime story, so it does not qulaify here.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Swirl, by Siljie Bekeng

"Swirl," by Siljie Bekeng, in Tel Aviv Noir, edited by Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron, Akashic Press, 2014.

Hmm.  You need to sue a spoiler warning if you reveal the plot, but do you need one if you reveal there is no plot? 

This story is so light on the plot side that it could pass for mainstream, but there is crime in it, and excellent writing, which is how it happened to end up being my best-of-the-week. 

When I read a story on my tablet I mark interesting passages that I might want to quote on this page.  In this story I marked seven which is a record, I think.  But we will get to that.

The narrator describes herself as an expat.  Her husband is an executive of an international corporation and they live on Rothschild Boulevard in downtown Tel Aviv.  She is isolated in many ways, including having no knowledge of Hebrew.  But worse, there are protests going on in the city and the corporation keeps urging employees to avoid a certain area -- the place where she lives. 

But that's not the scary part.  When she does go out she sometimes comes back to find evidence that someone has been in the apartment.  Apparently Shin Bet, the Israeli security service, has a habit of leaving these little reminders for expats: we are watching you.  But our narrator suspects that this is more personal, that the watcher has taken a particular interest in her.

If this were a straight crime story you know how it would go, but as I said already, it isn't.  And the ending, well, it descends into mainstream coyness, but the rest is very good. And here are a few of those lines I highlighted:

Those single socks that never return from the washing machine?  Shin Bet has a storage room full of socks lifted from diplomats, lobbyists, and international aid workers.  On casual Fridays the Shin Bet people wear the mismatched socks themselves, for fun.

There is something embarrassing about listening in to someone else's social protest, like getting stuck at the table during someone else's family argument.

We are the kind of people they send in helicopters for.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

My Sweet Angel of Death, by Hilary Davidson

My Sweet Angel of Death, by Hilary Davidson, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, December 2014.

The narrator of this story has just arrived in South America on a one-way ticket.  We don't know her story at first, just that there is a tragedy in the background.  Was she victim, villain, or something else? 

While we ponder that we meet the other vacationers at the hacienda in rural Peru where she is staying.  One is a sleazy actor, on the make.  But the others may bear watching as well.  And our protagonist just wants to be left alone to fulfill a grim promise...

This is one of those stories that sneaks up on you.  I like a story in which a character has a second chance, as happens here, but I had no idea it would be my best of the week until I got to one sentence that made my jaw drop.  If I had come up with that bit of plot I would have spent at least a page on it; Davidson fires it off in ten well-chosen words.  Hammett and Stark would be proud.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Disco Donna, by Shari Randall

"Disco Donna," by Shari Randall, in Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays, edited by Donna Andrews, Barb Goffman, and Marcia Talley, Wildside Press, 2014.

Following last week's grim story of a disappearing child in Sweden, here is a much lighter story of a murdered teenager in Maryland.  Go figure.

The narrator and her two friends are high school girls preparing to dress as hippies for Halloween.  In a used clothing store they find a box of leftovers from Disco Donna, the town's legendary unsolved murder victim.  (Her former home had just been renovated.)  This leads to a second box that had been donated to the town library, and in that box they find a clue to the murderer.

The main pleasure here is the language of the teenagers.

People cracked.  That happened on Lifetime all the time, too.

We OMG'ed up the stairs.

She reverted to Korean, which she did only when she was completely unhinged or in gym class.

Fun stuff.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Day and Night My Keeper Be, by Malin Persson Giolito

"Day and Night My Keeper Be," by Malin Persson Giolito, in A Darker Shade of Sweden, edited by John-Henri Holmberg, Grove-Atlantic, 2014.

Sorry this review is late; I was at Bouchercon.

Now we are back in Sweden again, literarily speaking, for a much grimmer story than last week.  (But if the subject as I describe it might scare you away from reading the story, please read the SPOILER I put at the end of this review.)

Petra is a single mother and after a long December day is at the end of her rope, so she decides to take her children to the Christmas market.  And - boom - her four-year-old daughter disappears.  And the tension rockets.

She presses a few buttons, shakes it, but it's pointless.  Her daughter is gone and the phone won't ring and fear has to duck because now terror runs up her back, with sharp talons and pointed teeth.

Evetually the cops arrive and Officer Helena Svensson becomes the viewpoint character.  She is trying to lead the investigation, while judging whether Petra's reactions are normal -- and what's normal in a situation like this?  And she is keenly aware that in Stockholm in December a child who falls asleep outside could die of exposure.

At Bouchercon a panel was debating enthusiastically whether a crime story needed a surprise ending.  This tale doesn't have one.  It ends with the cop - and the reader - asking a set of plaintive questions.  Not at all a standrad crime story, but a doozy nonetheless.

And now: SPOILER ALERT: For some readers the death of a child is taboo, so: No childen die in this one.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

An alibi for Señor Banegas, by Magnus Montelius

"An alibi for Señor Banegas," by Magnus Montelius, in A Darker Shade of Sweden, edited by John-Henri Holmberg, Grove-Atlantic, 2014.

Funny story: when I heard about this book I went to a big ebook store to buy it.  The store was convinced I wanted to buy a different book with shades in the title.  Something about the color grey.  Eventually we worked that out.

The Swedes and I seem to have a disagreement about what constitutes a good ending.  Several times I would be enjoying a story, thinking, this could be the best of the week, and then it would end and I would think, don't call us, we'll call you.

That's not a problem with the story my Mr. Montelius.  It is also the lightest story I have come across so far in this intentionally dark collection.  That may have helped it in my evaluation.

Adam works for a company that wants a contract from the Honduran government, and so he is playing host to an official, Señor Banegas, who is visiting Stockholm in December.  The problem is, Banegas has fallen in love and wants to spend the week with his sweetheart, not his wife.  To arrange that, he has created an elaborate schedule, supposedly Adam's work, that fills all of his daylight hours.

But here's the catch.  Banegas' wife is so suspicious - God knows why! - that she might well check up on him.  So he wants Adam to tell his wife the same story, and stay away from home for most of Christmas week.

An outrageous demand, but there is a twist -  Adam is delighted to cooperate because his loathsome inlaws are visiting.  He can slip away, claiming he is visitng Banegas, and spend the day in a museum or coffee shop, far from the annoying relatives.

What could possibly go wrong?

The fact that the story begins with Adam talking to a defense attorney gives you a hint...

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Male Leary Comes Home, by Michael Guillebeau

"Male Leary Comes Home," by Michael Guillebeau, in The Anthology of Cozy Noir, edited by Andrew MacRae, Dark House Books, 2014.

First things first: I have a story of my own in this anthology, so that may affect my objectivity.

And let's talk about the theme of this anthology: what the heck is cozy noir?  Besides an oxymoron, I mean.

Cozy has been defined as "a mystery in which people get killed but no one gets hurt."  Noir, as I said a few weeks ago, is fiction in which a nobody tries to be somebody and gets stomped for it.  There isn't really much overlap between those two fields.  Most of the authors I the book (so far as I have read) have interpreted it more or less this way: Something violent and nasty happens in a relatively idyllic place.  Fair enough.

We are almost to this story, the second by Mr. Guillebeau that has made my column this year.  But first, we have to talk its subgenre.

There are two ways to build a piece of historical fiction: external and internal.  (They are not exclusive, by the way).  External means you bury yourself in the details of the time and place you are writing about, so that the reader is convinced that you know (even if you don't tell) who built every conestoga wagon, Byzantine chariot, or Ford Flivver your characters rush to the rescue in.

Internal means that you create characters who talk, speak (within reasonable limits) and most importantly, think like people of that time and place.  That's much harder than figuring out what an eighteenth-century policeman would have had for breakfast.  One reason it's hard is that, if we are honest, a lot of people in the past are going to have opinions we find unpleasant or unacceptable.  Do you really want your protagonist to talk about African-Americans like a real cop in the forties might have done?

And so you may get the feeling that under that Roman toga the hero is wearing modern Fruit-of-the-Looms.

The reason I like this story so much is that (while it is not offensive to modern eyes) it reads like the author grew up on Black Mask magazines, fought in World War II, and came back to write about what he found at home.

Which brings us to the Leary guy in the title.  He was baptized Robert T.  His birth certificate calls him Male.  His friends call him Mister.

Under any name, he was in the Navy during the War and then joined the merchant marine.  When the story opens he's back from sea and learns that the father of his girlfriend is having trouble with a gang boss.   Leary and a friendly bar owner get involved and - something violent and nasty happens in a relatively idyllic place..

The last few paragraphs, with Hammett-esque irony, illustrate the cozy-noir theme so well that they might have been written with this book in mind.  In any case, the story is a treat.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Milk and Tea, by Linda Michelle Marquardt

"Milk and Tea," by Linda Michelle Marquardt, in Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2014.

We are back for a second helping of Prison Noir.  Last week was about a clever concept, skillfully executed.  This week is all about heightened language.  One advantage of using an e-reader is you can mark interesting passages, and in this story I highlighted too many to review here.

The story begins with a description of a suicide in the prison.  Then:  Damn!  I was jealous.

That's our first indication that the story is in first person.  The protagonist is a woman who killed her abusive partner.  (And I should say that the abuse is described pretty graphically; this is the most violent tale I have read so far in this book.)

Love of her children keeps her from reaching for death, although I crave it like iced tea on a summer day.  See what I mean about heightened language?

Here she deals with the ever-recurring question: why does a woman stay with a bad man?

Apparently, if you're an educated person, this can be held against you, as if there is some Abuse 101 course in college that prepares you to recognize the waring signs.  There isn't.

This is a powerful piece of writing.

Ms. Marquardt, like her protagonist, is incarcerated at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Michigan.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Message In The Breath Of Allah, by Ali F. Sareini

"A Message In The Breath Of Allah," by Ali F. Sareini, in Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2014.

My problem with thematic anthologies is that I usually like the theme better than most of the stories.  Take, for instance, this book which has a brilliant plan: invite current or former guests of the American correctional system to write fiction about it.  Great idea.  And some of the stories are fine.

But so far, most of the ones I have read aren't crime stories.

Yes, I know.  Prison implies crime.  But if your subject is surviving in a hostile environment, the fact that a felony got you into the place doesn't by itself make it a crime story.

And then there is the whole noir thing.  Merely being violent and gloomy does not qualify a piece of fiction as noir.  As I have said here, too often, a noir story ideally has three elements: 1) a nobody, who 2) tries to be somebody, and 3) gets stomped on by fate.  Why are those the elements of noir?  For the same reason a sonnet has fourteen lines.

Having whined sufficiently for one day, let me address this masterful story by Ali F. Sareini, who recently finished a term for second degree homicide.

Ali (the character, not the author, I hope), has been praying to Allah for decades to be released from prison.  A weaker spirit might feel a twinge of doubt after all that time, but Ali concludes that his prayers are simply  the wrong media to get his message across.

He decides he needs to send a messenger directly to Allah.  Fortunately, he is working as a helper in the part of the prison full of elderly and ill inmates. "I reverently called the unit 'the messengers' home.'" So all he has to do is explain clearly the plea he wants delivered and then, immediately, send the astonished courier off to the afterlife.

That's the creepiest motive for murder I have run across in a long time.

(By the way, should I have included a spoiler alert?  No, because this isn't the plot of the story: it's the premise.)

So, does this story have crime?  Check.  Does it have a nobody trying to be somebody?  I would say trying to negotiate directly with Allah counts.  As for whether the ending counts as noir, telling that would need a spoiler alert.

By the way, this is a story with its theme showing.  (The theme is what the story is about, other than the plot and character.  Some people like it visible and some don't.)  The theme, repeated in several contexts is this: Why do we take care of each other?

Much to ponder in this great story.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Pit Stop, by Raymond Khoury and Linwood Barclay

"Pit Stop," by Raymond Khoury and Linwood Barclay, in Face-Off, edited by David Baldacci, Simon and Schuster, 2014. 

Still enjoying this collection of pairing-ups by members of the International Thriller Writers.  This week, my first encounter with  two authors.

Glen Garber is not your hero for a series of thrillers.  He's a builder, not a spy or criminologist.  And rather being a ladies' man, he's a widower with a ten-year-old daughter.  All he wants to do is bid on a farmhouse renovation when, well, he gets thrown into thriller territory.

Glen Garber had been given his coffee, but was still waiting for an order of chicken nuggets for his daughter, Kelly, when a woman raced into the restaurant screaming that some guy was on fire in the parking lot.

Well, that would get your attention.

Turns out the man on fire was just a distraction to help a bad guy get away from Sean Reilly, who is much more your standard thriller hero: the kind of FBI agent who doesn't let a little thing like a fresh concussion stop him from pursuing a maniac with a biological bomb.  And, did I mention he just kidnapped Glen Garber's daughter?

And that turns out to be a very bad idea, for the bad guy...

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Red Eye, by Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly

"Red Eye," by Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly, in Face-Off, edited by David Baldacci, Simon and Schuster, 2014.

The International Thriller Writers came up with a clever idea for an anthology: pair up top writers in stories in which their characters meet each other.  I'm enjoying it, so far.

My favorite at this point is the first story, in which Michael Connelly's L.A. cop Harry Bosch travels to Boston to get a DNA sample from a suspect in an old open case.  He "meets cute" as they say in Hollywood, with Dennis Lehane's private eye Patrick Kenzie, who suspects the same guy is involved in a current kidnapping.

So why aren't the Boston police leading the search for the missing teenager?  Kenzie explains: "She's the wrong color, the wrong caste, and there's enough plausible anecdotal shit swirling around her situation to make anyone question whether she was abducted or just walked off."

Lucky for her there are two men willing to break the rules to find her.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Crush Depth, by Brendan Dubois

"Crush Depth," by Brendan DuBois, in Mystery Writers of America present Ice Cold: Tales of Intrigue from the Cold War, 2014.

Hard time choosing between two very different stories this week, both in Ice Cold, and both excellent.  Sara Paretsky's "Miss Bianca" is about intrigue in a biological research lab, as seen through the eyes of a child.  "Crush Depth" is a look back at a genuine mystery of American military history, offering a possible explanation.  The first is cute, the latter is grim.  What finally decided me was their surprise endings.  Paretsky's seemed tacked on, while Dubois's was a genuine twist, putting a new light on everything that went before.

In "Crush Depth" it is a year after the Soviet Union collapsed and an intelligence agent named Michael is hanging around the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, naval yard, trying to make contact with someone who knows the truth behind a naval tragedy from the 1960s.

Michael thought it ironic that his work and the work of so many others was still going on, despite peace supposedly breaking out everywhere.

Cold war or hot war, there was always plenty of work to be done...

True and sad enough. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Last Confession, by John Lescroat

"The Last Confession," by John Lescroat, in Mystery Writers of America present Ice Cold: Tales of Intrigue from the Cold War, 2014.

Not surprisingly, a lot of these stories about the Cold War focus on Berlin.  But my favorite so far takes place in the good ol' U.S.A. and features nary a soldier nor spy.  Instead Lescroat is interested in how the Cuban Missile Crisis affects one American family.  The narrator, now an adult, was a high school boy whose younger brother was what we would now call autistic.  He has a hard time in school but things seem to be going okay until that awful October, 1962...

I think what I like best in this story is a character type I don't remember seeing in fiction before, but whom I recognize from real life: a vain, charismatic guy who has no clue as to how he can damage people's lives.  And in this case, alas, he's a priest.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

It's a Wonderful Rat-Race, by James Powell

"It's a Wonderful Rat-Race," by James Powell, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November 2014.  

I guess it makes a sort of sense that when my friend James Powell writes about madness the result is slightly less crazy than his usual work.  His usual tale contains a free-association of bizarre connections, like a garden sprinkler shooting water in all directions.  This one is more tightly focused (although he does offer some odd riffs on human conception and the well-known Jimmy Stewart movie).

Obsession is either comic or tragic, depending on how close you stand to the fallout.  Hilda Ross is a neatnik.  She is delighted when her grown children move away because she can finally get wall-to-wall white carpeting.  And she loves her house and her less fastidious neighbor, because "to really succeed neatness-wise you needed a messy best friend."

But one day that friend's husband casually releases a piece of folk wisdom that turns Hilda's life upside down, turning good into bad, light into dark, and--  Well, you have to read it.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Crossing the River Styx, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

"Crossing the River Styx," by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November 2014.

They'd left, all of them.  They'd left, taking the light with them.  Now Edith huddled in the darkest place she'd ever been in, her face, hands, and shirtwaist soaked with blood.  Frank was dead beside her.  She'd known that from the moment the shot hit him.  Hot blood spurted out of him, coating her, and he made all kinds of groaning sounds.

Someone shouted, "Murder!" and the others ran as if their lives depended on it...

Well.  That's an exciting way to start a story, isn't it?

The illustration clued me in to the fact that this takes place in the 1920s, which made me think we were in a Bonnie-and-Clyde scenario, but not quite.  Edith is a proper young woman on her honeymoon and Frank has taken her to the Oregon Caves.  That's where the extreme darkness comes in.

Now Edith has to find a way out of the cave by herself (crossing a creek known as, yes River Styx) and figure out whether she is in danger from the men who fought with  her husband.

The other key viewpoint character is Albert, a mechanic employed by the Forest Service that runs the caves. They will both learn something about themselves before the night is over.

As usual, a very good story from Ms. Rusch.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Jaguar, by Joesph Wallace

"Jaguar," by Joseph Wallace, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2014.

I will be writing about the structure of this story on Wednesday at Sleuthsayers.  Book your tickets now. 

Plotwise, this is the story of Ana, who is  a rainforest tour guide in Belize.  She meets a wealthy American tourist who may be able to get her out  of a bad home situation.  But there is more going on than appears at first.  And since the story alternates between Belize and New York City (that structure thing I mentioned) you get to see cause and effect scrambled together very nicely.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Inspector Zhang Gets His Wish, by Stephen Leather

"Inspector Zhang Gets His Wish," by Stephen Leather, on Crime City Central, episode 106. 

Technically this is the best story I heard last week.  I have been enjoying Crime City Central ever since they created a podcast of one of my own stories.   And I have read a few of Mr. Leather's novels. but this is my first exposure to his short stories.

And a good one it is, with a bit of a split personality.  It is set in Singapore, the "city without crime."  An American tourist has been murdered in a hotel and Inspector Zhang calmly works his way through the investigation.

But the whole tone changes when our heroes realizes, with delight, that this is what he has been waiting for his entire career for: a locked room mystery.  He becomes more eccentric as he lectures his suspects and fellow officers on John Dickson Carr's famous seven types of locked room murders.  And inevitably he comes up with a fair solution that the reader should have seen coming.  You won't, of course.  But that's part of the fun.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Pussycat, Pussycat, by Stephen Ross

"Pussycat, Pussycat," by Stephen Ross, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2014.

My fellow SleuthSayers blogger, Stephen Ross, lives in New Zealand, but his latest story is set firmly in the England of the early 1960s.  

The narrator is a hardware salesman.  Don't think hammers and nails.  We're talking about weaponry here.  And Pussycat, one of his good friends, announces he wants to buy a rifle.  He plans to shoot a pumpkin.  Well, that's harmless enough, except he wants to hide in a tree and shoot at the pumpkin when it is on a stick ten feet off the ground.

"It seems to me," I remark, "that your pumpkin had the size and shape of a human head.  Are you planning to shoot somebody?"

Pussycat doesn't answer.  But he does remark later that he hates the Beatles.  "They're what's wrong with this miserable country."

Is he planning to kill a Beatle?  Or is something else going on?

I should say I guessed the punchline, so to speak.  I think anyone who shares certain characteristics with me would.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Francetta Repays Her Debt To Society, by Susan Oleksiw

"Francetta Repays Her Debt To Society," by Susan Oleksiw, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2014.

I thought long and hard before choosing a story for this week.  I find this one problematic, as I will explain, but it reached the top of the pile.

As the story opens Francetta is getting out of prison after six months.  We see her dealing with some people, one way or another, and making some, shall we say, life choices. 

Oleksiw has decided, in this story at least, that less is more.  She tells you as little as she can and makes you work out the rest.

For example, a friend gives Francetta some prescription drugs.  She then walks out of  the building and a policeman promptly searches her, finding nothing.  "Something missing, Officer?"

From this we know: 1) the friend was no friend, 2) at least some of the cops in this town are on the take, and 3) Francetta already knew 1) and 2) and ditched the drugs accordingly.

But none of that is stated in the story.  You have to figure it out, and that can be problematic.  There is a scene near the end where I am still not sure how many characters were present.  But it is a good story, with a  satisfying ending.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

An Open-and Shut Case, by Brian Tobin

"An Open-and Shut Case," by Brian Tobin, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2014.

Hmm... What to say about this one?

Usually when I don't want to say much it is because 1) the story is very short, or 2) there is a twist ending I don't want to give away.

Neither is true in this case.  In fact, the problem is that this story does not twist.  It is a straight line from the beginning to the end.  What makes it stand out is that the hero (and the author) has the nerve to make this plan and carry it out.

When the story begins Sheriff Maloney is looking at the corpse of Curtis Frye, dead in the doorway of his own house.  Frye was bad news, a meth-head who killed a woman for thirty bucks.  He was tried for the crime three times but most of the evidence had been kicked out on a technicality, resulting in three hung juries.

After getting the investigation started Mahoney gets in his car and makes a phone call: 

"You owe me, Roy.  This is me calling in my chit.  Tonight, you cannot kill yourself."

This is the second time Tobin made my list this year.  A dazzling story, right down to the sheriff's explanation of his actions at the very end.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Wildcraft, by Ellen Larson

"Wildcraft," by Ellen Larson, in M: Mystery and Horror, May 2014.

I always warn you if there is a factor outside of a story's own merits that could cause me to favor it.  Usually that means the author is a friend or blogmate of mine.  In this case the reason for full disclosure is somewhat different: Ms. Larson, who I don't know, sent me a copy of this magazine's first issue.

But I definitely enjoyed her story the most of any I read this week, which is the rule for this column.  This is a story about a police chief investigating a crime, which is no surprise, but the crime is unusual and so is the investigation.

Someone has shot a deer a day before the season opens.  That's illegal but what outrages the chief is that the poacher, not having made a clean kill, allows the deer to limp away to die in misery.  And so, rather than hunting the bad guy, our hero goes off in search of the victim, to finish the job as mercifully as possible. Along the way he ponders all his suspects and figures out who the shooter must be.  It's a clever approach.

I do have a caveat.  A few weeks ago in this space I wrote about dialect, and how less is more.  One of Larson's characters talks like this: "I sayed I was trackin' 'im.  I didn't say I'd shot him!  Like yuz, I heard the shot is all."  That is more dialect than I, for one, need.

Best of luck to thenew magazine.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Rough Justice / Tender Mercies, by Leonhard August

"Rough Justice / Tender Mercies," by Leonhard August, in Death and the Detective, edited by Jess Faraday, Elm Books, 2014.

This story has an interesting structure.  The real action takes place on one day, and ends with an act of violence, but the narrative begins after that is over.  Then it runs back to tell us the background of the narrator and his friend Earl.  The story is a quarter over before the action begins.  And after we reach the climax it goes on for almost another quarter, ending up where it started. 

Sounds complicated, but I don't think you could have made this story work any other way.

The main characters are Shadow Wolves, members of the Tohono O'odham tribe working as border agents for Homeland Security.  The main action concerns the discovery that one of their confidential informers, a woman working with a very dangerous group of Mexican smugglers, has been found dead. 

But don't assume you know where the plot is going.  The actual direction is hidden in the background August has so carefully laid out for you. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Murder on Orchard Road, by Nury Vittachi

"Murder on Orchard Road," by Nury Vittachi, in Singapore Noir, edited by Cheryl Lu-Tien Tan, Akashic Press, 2014.

The term "political correctness" or PC has become an epithet.  It is seen as a form of censorship or advocacy of wimpiness.

Wasn't always that way.  As I recall someone asked the folksinger Fred Small if he was ever "not PC."  He replied "Do you mean am I ever intentionally rude?"

I bring this up because most of the stories in Singapore Noir use dialect, by which I mean attempting to indicate on the page the non-standard language and pronunciation of the characters.  Dialect has been out of favor for a long time, for a lot of good reasons: it can be amazingly annoying to read and, it can seem insulting to the people whose language is being mimicked.

On the other hand, a lot of the people in these stories set in Singapore are not going to speak like they went to Harvard or Oxford.  What's an author to do?

The usual thinking these days is that less is more.  Put in just enough dialect to indicate the speech patterns, without driving the ready crazy.  (By the way, if you want to hear my attempt at a dialect story, here is a free podcast.)

Mr. Vittachi's is about an older Chinese may named C.F. Wong.  And here is one of his longer speeches: "Slow race no good.  Makes bad TV.  Sponsors very angry.  Race organizer very angry."

Gives you a sense of how Wong speaks.  Whether it accurately reflects Chinese speech in Singapore is beyond me.

And I suppose that tells you a bit of what the story is about.  But there is more.  Here is the opening:

His New Year's resolution was to give up murders.  Murders were horrible, messy, smelly, difficult, heart-rending things.  And not nearly as profitable as they used to be.

Mr. Wong is a feng shui master and his specialty has been spiritually cleansing murder scenes.  But today he hopes to only deal with a car race (which as you see above, seems to be going wrong).  And then there is the case of the food taster accused of poisoning his clients...

Not noir, but entertaining. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Aix to Grind, by Robert Mangeot

"Aix to Grind," by Robert Mangeot, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2011.

The narrator and his partner Gus are in France in the market for cheese.  Not cheese really,  That's just what they call the artworks they steal from dairies.  Dairies are what they call private art collections.

But this time the narrator wants to rob a factory.  Which is what they call museums.

Oh, never mind.  The point is this is a very witty, cleverly plotted story about a burglary.  Just remember: Ne vous fiez pas n'importe qui.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

It'll Cost You, by Neil Schofield

"It'll Cost You," by Neil Schofield, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2014.

Lawrence Block once wrote that "A story must have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order."  The current fashion is to start as far into the action as you can and then explain what went before in flashbacks.

But what about starting at the end?  I don't mean telling the story in reverse like, for example, the movie Betrayal.  No, I am thinking of stories that begin by revealing how they will end, and then jump to the start.  Two more classic movies come to mind: Sunset Boulevard and American Beauty,  both of which start with the narrator informing you that he gets killed (and one of them still manages to provide a surprise ending).

My friend Neil Schofield has provided a witty and very clever story of this type. Georgie Hopcraft starts out by cheerfully telling us that he is in prison and his cell mate is "another murderer," which is a little misleading because Georgie has been convicted of a murder he did not commit.

Then why is he so cheerful?  Well, it  has to do with that cell mate, and I will leave it at that.

But Georgie goes on to explain the whole story.  He was a somewhat shady owner of a "slightly better-class second and bric-a-brac shop" in London.  But when his soon-to-be ex-wife was dissatisfied with the upcoming settlement she found a way to get him framed into prison.  And we get to watch the whole framing process.

And yet, Georgie remains cheerful.  Hmm. This leads us to...


This story is, oddly enough, a fair play mystery.  That usually means the reader has all the clues needed to figure out the identity of the murderer.  In this story that is a given, but you have all the clues to figure out how Georgie will prove he didn't do it. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Crimes of Passion, by Michael Guillebeau

"Crimes of Passion," by Michael Guillebeau, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, August 2014.

So, when is a stereotype okay in writing?  I don't mean an offensive racial or whatever stereotype, I mean a character who is so perfectly a type that you know what they are going to do before they do.

I guess, as usual, the answer is: it's okay when it works. 

Guillebeau's story is full of characters like this.  Within a few pages you can predict, not precisely what will happen, but who will end up with the dirty end of the stick and who will walk away clean as artisan soap.

Josh is a poor boy who lives in the Florida panhandle.  "Poor" is the keyword because his family's shack is between two mansions, where his best friends live.  Those over-privileged, entitled friends, Waylon and the just-blooming Melody, are the main cliches in the story.

As it begins, the three of them find a dead body in the water.  Waylon finds a stack of money in the man's coat and promptly takes it.  Josh -- the thoughtful member of the three -- has to decide whether to go along with this or tell the truth.  And everything that follows is as inevitable as a Greek tragedy, writ small.

Apparently Guillebeau has a novel about the same character, Josh Somebody.  Might be worth a look-see.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Plow Guy, by Brendan DuBois

"The Plow Guy," by Brendan DuBois, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2014.

Henry Conway has a somewhat eccentric plan for his retirement.  He wants to move to a small town in New Hampshire, buy a dog for company, and plow people's driveways.  Seems easy enough, but he runs into a couple of problems, especially a man who beats his wife, a problem Henry isn't willing to ignore.

But Henry has an interesting skill set.  Did I mention what work he retired from?  Neither does he, exactly.

I chose my retirement home like I was planning for an overseas op.  Oops, I meant to say, setting up a budget spreadsheet.  Or a request for proposals.  Or something innocent like that.

Oddly enough, I enjoyed the story more before the inevitable conflict came along.  Henry is an interesting  fellow and, honestly, the bad guy just wasn't enough of a challenge for him.  But the writing is lovely.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Mary's Shallow Grave, by Phillip DePoy

"Mary's Shallow Grave," by Phillip DePoy, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2014.

If I am reading the editor's note correctly, this is intended to be the first in a series.  I look forward to the next. 

It's 1975 and the state of Florida has hired our narrator, Foggy, to operate Child Protective Services (for the whole state?  I hope not.).  And he shows up at the bar with the unprepossessing name that gives the story it's title, to tell the cook that his ex-wife in in a coma, her boyfriend is dead, and his eleven-year-old daughter is on the run.

That part of Florida had always been to me, the land of people who gave up.  They piled empty cardboard boxes on the front porch, rolled the broken fridge out onto the lawn; always thought it was too hot to paint the house.  And the flies didn't come in if you just put a piece of plastic over that tear in the screen.  Maybe it was the heat.  Even in October they could get days in the nineties.

There is stolen money, crooked cops, a wealthy Indian with nefarious plans, and a bunch of people using assorted ill-advised self-medication plans.  If there is any hope for an eleven-year-old girl in this mess it is going to have to be carved out of extra-legal maneuvers and deals with assorted devils. 

Fortunately, Foggy is up to the challenge. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

When I'm Famous, by Dara Carr

"When I'm Famous," by Dara Carr, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 2014. 

This is the best first story I have read in some time. Clever setting: Williamsburg, Brooklyn, among the hipsters. Exhibit A is our narrator, Mindy. She is, she tells us, a visual person. She has a "make-believe boyfriend," Marcus, who phones her late at night for "booty calls" and she always goes over.

One might diagnose low self-esteem. Here's another example. When Mindy spots a beautiful woman at a party, a "wallpaper artist," she writes:

...Brooklyn royalty and she knows it, the men twitching like they've been tased, the female viewers emitting a soft electric hum, brains working hard, calculating the age they were when they could have last worn shorts that length in public, let alone to a party; beaches don't count. Age seven would be my answer.

That's good writing.

Pretty soon the wallpaper artist is dead and there is no shortage of suspects.  In fact, they show up one after another like city buses.

But before I go here is one more line from our heroine:

One of the less commonly reported dangers of chronic marijuana use is buying decrepid old houses and thinking you can fix them up.


Sunday, May 25, 2014

Hooch, by Bill Pronzini

"Hooch," by Bill Pronzini, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 2014.

I know I have said this before (and after you blog for a few years you suspect you have said everything before): the best endings are surprises that feel inevitable.  You want the reader to say "I never saw it coming but that was the only way the story could end."

And that, my friends, ain't easy.

Pronzini's story is about some thugs smuggling booze in from Canada during Prohibition.  Two of them are hardened criminals; the third one, Bennie, is a bright-eyed youngster who got everything he knows about crime from places like Black Mask Magazine.  In fact, he tells his colleagues cheerfully, he's writing a novel about the rum-running business.  All fictionalized of course..  Nothing for them to wrory about...

Well, you can see where this story is heading, can't you?  But there is a twist along the way, one that made me say "that's the only way the story could end."

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Splitting Adams, by Percy Spurlock Parker

"Splitting Adams," by Percy Spurlark Parker, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2014. 

Terry Adams is a very unhappy man.  He's not good with women and he blames it on his big brother Jerry.  Jerry is slick and smooth and always moves in on Terry when he is trying to get started with a new lady. 

It has just happened again and Terry, well, Terry is about to lose it.

A clever piece of flash fiction.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Second Sight Unseen, by Richard Helms

"Second Sight Unseen," by Richard, Helms, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2014.

Helms offers us what is intended to be the first in a series of stories.  The concept here isn't new (hey, Sherlock Holmes wasn't the first genius detective either) but the characters are intersting and the writing is amusing. 

The narrator is Boy Boatwright, a cop who should have retired but is living on booze and adrenalin.  (When the story starts he is waking up with his face on the toilet rim.)  But the hero, for lack of a better word, is the remarkably-named Bowie Crapster.  Crapster is "five and a half feet tall, with a figure like a Bradford pear."  He dresses in flashy clothes and "looked like the vanguard of a midget Elvis parade."

Crapster claims to be a psychic detective but he graciously gives the cops all the credit for his work.  He just wants the reward money.  Boatwright loathes him, but the fact is, he is a pretty shrewd sleuth.  In this case he deals with the apparent kidnapping of the young heir to a wealthy family. 

Will he solve it?  Will he drive Boatwright back to the booze?  "Some days it just doesn't pay to get up out of the toilet."

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Little Big delay

Today's review will be a few days late.  To make it up to you, here is a webpage where you can find free links to  two of my own stories, one of them brand new.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

"Anchor Baby," by Shauna Washington

"Anchor Baby," by Shauna Washington, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May 2014.

Write what you know, so Shauna Washington, a Las Vegas-based fashion stylist, writes about Stacey Deshay, a Las Vegas-based fashin stylist. It's so crazy it just might work. 

And it works fine in this caper in which Stacey makes a special trip to Arizona to deliver a client's maid and baby to the mansion of the client's soon-to-be-ex-husband.  She gets their just in time to witness a murder and after that, things get worse.

Best thing about this story is the writing.  First person narrator is character.  "It was a long time since I'd traveled this far on a job, but since the recession hit, my new motto was 'Go where the money is, since it sure isn't coming to me.'

Sunday, April 27, 2014

International Vogue And The Pajama Fiasco Weekend, by Rosalind Barden

"International Vogue And The Pajama Fiasco Weekend," by Rosalind Barden, in Mardi Gras Murder, edited by Sarah E. Glenn, Mystery and Horror, LLC, 2014.

One of those subjects that literature professors like to discuss is the unreliable narrator.  That can be a person who is deliberately lying, like the narrator of a famous Agatha Christie novel.  But it can also be someone so deeply in denial or self-disception that he or she can only give us the most warped view of what is going on.

Among the latter you will find Josh McConnley, or at least we can call him that.  "That last name is one I've been trying out lately.  Goes with my persona.  Very strong, masculine, yet, sympathetic."

Josh, or whoever he is, is an actor, or is trying to be, and so obsessed with himself that the world is just a static backdrop to his running commentary.  Here he is chatting to an unwilling listener, of sorts:

I told him about my time studying Shakespeare in Pasadena, about my time in my high school drama club where no one appreciated how much more talented I was than them.  Of course I highlighted the airline commercial and pointed out how stupid the airline was.  When the airline dumped me, the agent I had back then dumped me too.  She said she was keeping my bad luck from "spreading."  That led me to discussion of my father.

All the characters are similarly pathetic types trying desperately to take advantage of each other.  Good luck with that.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Hunters, by John M. Floyd

"Hunters," by John M. Floyd, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May 2014.

So, where do you get your ideas?  That's a question writers hear a lot.

One place is news stories.  Sometimes I will run across some bizarre thing that actually happened and file it away, thinking, hmm, yes, that could turn into fiction. 

My friend and fellow SleuthSayer, John M. Floyd, made something out of one of those news items that I never got around to, and more power to him.

Occasionally you hear about someone going on trial because they tried to hire a hitman, often in a bar, to kill someone.  It seems to me that it is usually a woman trying to bump off her husband, but that might be selective memory.

And this story is about Charlie Hunter, who owns a bar in a bump-in-the-road town in Mississippi and has an envelope full of cash ready to pay the hitman he is hiring to solve his marital problem.  As you can guess, things don't go according to plan.

What makes this story different is that it is not the usual bad-guy-tangled-in-his-own-web tale, but more of a mediocre-guy-with-second-thoughts affair.  No heroes, not a lot of villains, and a lot of gray lines.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Teddy, by Brian Tobin

"Teddy," by Brian Tobin, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May 2014.

No fireworks in this one, no groundshaking concept or twist ending.  Just a solid story about two men, both of whom turn out to be a little better than they/we thought. 

Sean is a homeless man, a guy whose trail of bad luck runs from childhood, through service in Iraq to his current miserable life.  The one bright point is Teddy, the puppy he rescued from drowning two years ago.  In return Teddy has given him companionship, protection, and a reason to get up in the morning.

Andy, on the other hand, is making a lot of money in a quasi-legal business, but is willing to go further over the line to make more.  His problem is that he believes in the Sam Spade code: When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it.  When that happens, Andy steps up like a good citizen, and disaster follows.  

What ties these two men together is Teddy, the dog.  And maybe all three of them can find a way out of their mutual mess. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

It's So Peaceful In The Country, by WIlliam Brandon

"It's So Peaceful In The Country," by William Brandon, in Black Mask Magazine, 1943, reprinted in The Hard-boiled Detective, edited by Herbert Ruhm, Vintage Books, 1977.

I have been reading a lot of old hard-boiled stories lately, mostly from the Black Mask school.  A lot of them read like photocopies of Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op stories, some blurrier than others.  It made this story stand out by contrast.

Brandon's hero is Horse Luvnik, just out of jail on burglary charges and feeling unhappy because his beloved wife has decided she doesn't want him back until he goes straight.  And she has decided that going straight means buying a cigar store.  How he is supposed to gather enough coin to do that is his problem.  (I guess he can go straight after that.)

Things look bad but then Horse gets an invitation to Vermont.  A gentleman scholar there named Dingle is working on what he hopes will be the definitive book on Edgar Allan Poe's first editions.  The problem is that some of the information  he needs is in the home of his hated rival, a woman who lives a few miles away.  And since she refuses to share Dingle hires Horse to steal her notes every night -- and then smuggle them back into her house every morning.

As you can imagine, things quickly get silly.  It is as if Damon Runyan and P.G.Wodehouse collaborated on a hard-boiled tale.  The Continental Op might spin in his grave, but I enjoyed it.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Knock On The Door, by Jas. R. Petrin

"A Knock On The Door," by Jas. R. Petrin, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, April 2014.

I have written before about my admiration for Jas. R. Petrin's stories about Skig Skorzeny, an aging Halifax loanshark with a gut full of cancer and a heart of, well, not gold, but something more than the rock he pretends to possess.

I'm not going to dwell on the plot of this story (late wife's niece, missing person) but instead I want to concentrate on the writing.  As I went through the tale I found myself marking passages I like (perhaps the only benefit  of my not having a story of my own in this issue.  I don't need to save it).  So, with no further ado:

Skig to a delinquent customer who is suffering from a protection racket: 

"Those partners of yours bleed you again before I get paid, I'm gonna attend their next shareholders meeting.  In fact, I might anyway."
"Please don't do that."
"Could be fun.  A hostile takeover.  Tell 'em."

Skig about to have an MRI:
"So, Mr. Skorzeny, is there any metal, iron, nickel, or cobalt on or in your body?"
"Cobalt?  What the hell is cobalt?"
"A metal--"
"Inside me?"
"How would I know?  This body's been through some pileups.  Do bullets have cobalt in them?"

The narrator explains why Skig moved into an old filling station:
After Jeanette died, the house had seemed too empty during the day, and too full at night, all the ghosts peering out of the woodwork.

A cop asks Skig for help:
"Help you?  Listen, I'm responsible for half the overtime you get."

And, at random:
"Nobody knows nothing anymore," Skig said.  "The information age."

Treat yourself.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Lord of Central Park, by Avram Davidson

"The Lord of Central Park," by Avram Davidson, in The Investigations of Avram Davidson, St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Well, it has happened again as it occasionally does.  I did not read any stories this week I liked enough to report on so instead I am bringing up one from my top fifty.  I remember reading this novella when it originally appeared in the October 1970 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, under the dreadful name of "Manhattan Night's Entertainment."  Frederic Dannay was a great editor but a horrific tinkerer with titles.

Avram Davidson had one of those staggering imaginations, like John Collier, James Powell, or Terry Pratchett.  You just never knew what would pour out of his typewriter.  In this case it the simple story of a young lady from New Jersey and her encounters with a pickpocket, the Mafia, the Nafia, an Albanian Trotskyite who wants to blow up the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Hudson River pirates, and, of course, the Lord High Keeper of the Queen's Bears, who lives in a cave in Central Park.

Okay, maybe I lied about it being a simple story.

The main character is really the titular Lord, alias Arthur Marmaduke Roderick Lodowicke William Rufus de Powisse-Plunkert, 11th Marques of Grue and Groole in the peerage of England, 22nd Baron Bogle in the Peerage of Scotland, 6th Earl of Ballypatcooge in the Peerage of Ireland, Viscount Penhokey in the Peerage of the United Kingdom, Laird of Muckle Greet, Master of Snee, and Hereditary Lord High Keeper of the Queen's Bears.

By now you have probably figured out that Davidson loves words, for their own sake.  He also uses them to tell a wonderful story. 

The Marquess is broke and dishonest, which explains why he lives in a cave, cadging most of his meals from meat his trained falcon steals off grills on the surrounding balconies.  He is a sharp fellow and when he spots rope in a store window that could only have been swiped from the British Navy he finds himself confronting the aforementioned river pirates who vehemently deny that they are pirates.  You see, Peter Stuyvesant gave the family the right to collect taxes in 1662, just before the Dutch surrendered to the British.

For a moment no word broke the reverent silence.  Then, slowly, Lord Grue and Groole removed his cap.  "And naturally," he said, "your family has never recognized that surrender.  Madam, as an unreconstructed Jacobite, I honor them for it, in your person."  He gravely bowed.

I won't attempt to explain how everyone else fits into this mad mosiac.  Just get your hands on the story and read it.  Why it hasn't been made into a movie is one of those inexplicable mysteries.  It's practically a film right on the page.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Busting Red Heads, by Richard Helms

"Busting Red Heads," by Richard Helms, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,  March/April

I have said before that my favorite stories tend to have at least one of three qualities: a great concept, heightened language, or a surprise ending.  Helms' story scores on the first two and makes a shot at the third.

Here's the concept: Tommy Crane fought in World War I, joined the Boston Police, and then figured he could make more money by joining a detective agency.  But like a lot of "detectives" in the twenties his job wasn't to solve crimes; it was to stop Bolsheviks, being defined as anyone who wanted to form or join a union.  This is a part of the private dick business I don't remember anyone writing about before.

 By heightened language I mean that the words are there for something more than just telling the story.  In this case, they tell you a lot about character:

Three of us -- me, Everett Sloop, and Warren Johns -- were sitting in the Kansas City office in August of 1923, trying to stay cool and counting the minutes until we could shove off and grab a cool beer down the street.  Jess Coulter, our commander, walked in and scowled when he saw us.
"You guys packed?"
"We goin' somewhere?" Johns asked. 
"Rawlings, Kentucky."
"Don't much care for Kentucky," Sloop said.
"There's the door," Coulter said.  "Nobody's holding you here."
That shut Sloop up but good.

In Kentucky they get to work beating up strikers but things go wrong when they  attack the union office.  The wrong people die and there's a mystery to solve.   Good story.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Assumption of Seamus Tyrrell, by David Dean

"The Assumption of Seamus Tyrrell," by David Dean, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,  March/April 2014.

David Dean is having a good year.  For brother SleuthSayer is appearing in this space for the second time in a month.

Exhibit B, if you will, is his entry in EQMM's Black Mask Department, and a tough-as-nails piece it is. It begins in Florida where a hit man is having a very bad day.  He's being followed by a cop car and there is a packet of drugs sitting cozily on his passenger seat.  Things then turn much worse -- I won't tell you how, but it's a doozy -- and this sets up the rest of the story, which takes place in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

When Seamus Tyrrell walked into the backroom of the Shamrock Bar and Grill he understood that everything had changed in his absence.  In the few seconds that it took to push through the door, shout, "Hello, girls!" and set the satchel full of cash down on the sticky floor, everything he knew and trusted began to dissolve into a blur of action.

For some reason Seamus's boss and friends want him dead and make a concerted effort to achieve that goal.  Escaping by a narrow margin he has to figure out why this happened, and more importantly, how to change the equation. 

The Catholic Church often has a big role in Dean's stories, and this is true here, but that doesn't mean things get, shall we say, spiritual.  Last time I wrote about the hero of his story having a chance to redeem himself.  This time, not so much.   A gripping tale, worth reading.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Raider, by Janice Law

"The Raider," by Janice Law, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 2014.

Can you set a mystery story in a war?

Of course, you can.  There are plenty of examples, but it seems odd.  Hundreds or thousands of people getting killed and somehow we choose to focus on one death and say that one was wrong.

This was brought to mind by an excellent story by my fellow SleuthSayer, Janice Law.  It is set during the Bleeding Kansas period, a few years before the Civil War when people were in brutal combat over whether that territory would be a free or slave state.

They were burned out on the spring of '56 in a raid that left nothing but the walls of the soddy and a few chickens that flew down out of the oak trees and pecked through the debris.  His father sat by the ruins of the new barn with his head in his hands and his face the color of ashes....

Young Chad wants to get a horse and seek revenge.  He gets his wish and the story turns grim.  In a situation like this, maybe there can't be any good guys.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Clan, by Tony Richards

"The Clan," by Tony Richards, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 2014.

I have written once before about Tony Richards' satisfying series of science-fiction mystery stories set in a near-future Federated Africa.  To my mind, this story is the best so far.

Abel Enetame has been promoted to captain in the African police for his work against people who would like to reduce the continent to the good old days of tribal warfare, but now he is pressured to go undercover against a new enemy.  The Anti-Caucasian Clan is attacking Caucafricans -- white citizens of the federated state.  Worse, they are killing them in impossible ways, getting in and out of locked rooms at will.

Abel goes undercover in situations that put him in ethically sticky situations and watching him slip around them is one of the pleasures of the story.  His method of defeating the impossible killers is the other.  

Monday, February 17, 2014

Murder Town, by David Dean

"Murder Town," by David Dean, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, February 2014.

My fellow SleuthSayer David Dean has written a fine story in the "Most Dangerous Game" variety.   Terry Holliday is in a Mexican prison for crimes he committed, and some he didn't.  his is not what you would call a model prison either.

'Of course, you realize that should you choose to stay with us here, you will surely die," the commandante offered smoothly.  He didn't appear to be particularly troubled by the possibility."

Holliday is presented with a chance to get away from the guards and fellow prisoners who want him dead.  It seems a group of wealthy philanthropists are running a parole program for certain prisoners.  Ah, but we already know that there is a catch.  The program sends him to Murder Town.

I have said before I enjoy stories in which characters have a chance at redemption, even if they choose not to take it.  Holliday has to find a way to survive, but he may also have a way to dig himself out of the moral pit he has trapped himself in. 

Lovely story with a very convincing view of Yucatan along the way.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Assets Protection, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

"Assets Protection," by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2014.  

Rusch is one of my favorite current authors of mystery short stories, and this caper story is a good example of why.

Carla is an ex-con, gone straight after a fashion.  She gets hired by businesses to test their security, especially their susceptibility to high-level shoplifting schemes.

At a conference she sees Grady, the abusive cop who arrested her.  He is now living high on the hog as the head of security for a department store chain.  It doesn't take Carla long to discover that he has a sneaky money-making scheme of his own, and so she sets out to derail him.  "She needed to show Grady just what it was like to lose."

To do this she needs the help of a low-level celebrity, and fortunately she knows one, an actor named Jimmy who used to share her lawyer before he got famous.  He doesn't need the money, but he does crave a little larceny...

I would enjoy seeing these two in action again.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Art of Authentification, by Christopher Welch

"The Art of Authentification," by Christopher Welch., in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2014.

This is at least the fourth story by Welch in this series, but the first time he has made my best-of-the week list.  Bridgman is an art dealer in the Berkshires.  In each story he and his partner find themselves reluctantly involved in crimes related to art.

And let us pause to talk about one of the many things a mystery can do.  It can reveal details about some aspect of the world that most of us know nothing about.  In this case the subject is art authentification.

Bridgman's gallery contains some paintings by a recently deceased artist named Madie Balan.  The trust that supervises her estate insists that he can't legally sell them unless (and until) they authenticate them as genuine Balans.  But the members of the trust own some of her work, which means every work they declare genuine makes their own property less rare and therefore less valuable.

Conflict of interest?  You betcha.  But that's not the whole story, because determining whether the works are genuine may be impossible.  Apparently the artist sometimes started a work and let someone else finish it.  (Hey, so did Rembrandt...nothing new there.)  So the matter of real and fake is almost a matter of philosophy.

And I haven't even mentioned the murder. 

Two complaints about the story.  The protagonists don't actually solve it.  They merely accidentally cause the killer to reveal himself.  Yes, they fall into the category of amateur detectives, but that's a little more amateur than I prefer.

And second is a more personal gripe.  This story features characters named Bridgman, Balan,  Bess, and Bosch.  At two points the author and/or editor get confused and Bess becomes Beth.  There are twenty-six perfectly good letters in the alphabet.  Why torture the reader like that?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Blunt Instruments, by James Powell

"Blunt Instruments," by James Powell, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January 2014.

I say this with great fondness and admiration: Jim Powell is a nut.  Exhibit A is the latest of a long line of  stories he has written in honor of Christmas, one more fantastical than the next.  Plots against Santa Claus, plots by Santa Claus...

This story involves two professors at the University of Toronto and a theory for the origin of that most inexplicable piece of the holiday experience: the fruitcake.  I won't go further except to say that the origin is Not Of This World.

The story barely qualifies as a mystery -  or putting it another way, Powell tucks in a crime to make it fit into EQMM when it might otherwise have been happier in a fantasy magazine.  But I am not complaining, because if it had shown up there I might not have had the chance to read it, or report it here, and that would have been a shame.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Confidante, by Diana Dixon Healy

"The Confidante," by Diana Dixon Healy, in Best New England Crime Stories 2014: Stone Cold, edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross, and Leslie Wheeler, Level Best Books, 2013.

This is the best political fiction I have read in some time.  (Insert a joke about Obamacare or the George Washington Bridge here if you wish.)

I remember almost twenty years ago thinking that someone could craft a nice piece of fiction out of the fifteen minutes of fame of Linda Tripp.  You may remember that she was the bureaucrat Monica Lewinsky unwisely confided in.  I never got around to writing such a piece but Healy has, combining it with traces of another political scandal of more recent vintage.

Peggy is a mousy young woman who works for a presidential campaign. She is flattered when the more vibrant worker Kim takes an interest in her.  They start meeting regularly and Kim begins to tell her secrets, secrets that could change political history...

Some lovely twists in this one.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Downhill Slide, by Jeff Howe

"Downhill Slide," by Jeff Howe, in Moon Shot, edited by J. Alan Hartman, Untreed Books, 2013.

This book is a collection of science fiction mysteries (which gives me a chance to write about genre crossovers next Wednesday at SleuthSayers).  One frequent complaint about combining these two fields is that you can't write a fairplay mystery in a science fiction world, because the reader can't know enough about the environment.  This is a fairplay story, of sorts, and you will have to decide whether it follows the rules.

At first the plot sounds like one of those gook luck/bad luck jokes.

A miner gets killed on an asteroid, and that's bad.

But someone confessed, and that's good.

Except it turns out that the confessed killer couldn't have done it, and that's bad.

However, a detective is heading to the scene of the crime to interview the other suspects, and that's good.

But there aren't any other suspects.  No one else on the whole asteroid.  And that's -- well, that stinks.

There are some lovely twists in this story, including one that I seem to remember from a science fiction movie of a few years back.  But to be fair (there's that word again) I still didn't see it coming.