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.