Sunday, December 27, 2015

Good Neighbors, by Gary Earl Ross

"Good Neighbors," by Gary Earl Ross, in Buffalo Noir, edited by Ed Park and Brigid Hughes, Akashic Press, 2015.

By the time the Washingtons moved into the house two doors away late last summer, Loukas and Athena Demopoulos had lived next to Helen Schildkraut for nearly five years.

Dang, that is a good opening sentence.  Clear, a bit complex, and instantly predicting the conflict that is to come.

Lou and Athena have retired after running their Greek restaurant for decades.  Lou's hobby is antiques.  He doesn't collect them, he just wants to buy low and sell high.  But then he discovers that his elderly neighbor Helen has a house full of them.  And Helen has no relatives, no favorite charities, no one to leave her precious belongings to. So Lou and Athena set out to become really good neighbors and wait for Helen to pass away.

But then the Washingtons -- remember them?  They appear in that crucial first sentence and then disappear for most of the story -- move in on the other side, and they are good neighbors too.

This is one of those rare stories I reread as soon as I finished it, because there was so much in it I wanted to see what I had missed.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Bubble Man of Allentown, by Dimitri Anastasopoulos

"The Bubble Man of Allentown," by Dimitri Anastasopoulos, in Buffalo Noir, edited by Ed Park and Brigid Hughes, Akashic Press, 2015.

I'm not a big fan of experimental or even mainstream literary fiction (sometimes defined as "stories with the last page missing.")  So this story had to be extra good to top my weekly list.

I'm going to tell you about some of the characters and you are going to think it's a funny story.  It isn't.  The key word is actually creepy.  Not horror, but it will get under your skin.

Okay, characters.  Tippett is a sixty-year-old cop, on suspension because of his fascination with contaminating crime scenes with chalk outlines.  He considers it a form of artistic expression.  And then there's the Bubble Man, who sits in his fourth floor apartment all day blowing large bubbles down into the street below.  And a middle-aged woman named Lora Gastineau who left her house in a slip and sneakers and never returned.

Tippett is called back to work when a fresh corpse is found and he rushes to prove himself and then -- well, weird things happen.

The artist had tinkered with the body's appearance after the person had died, Tippett guessed -- a new-age sketch artist, judging by the aura of the total work on the ground.  it betrayed the artist's faith in symmetry and harmony, in the reconstruction of the whole figure.  Techniques popularized in the early 1980s, Tippett thought...

A wild ride.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Stretching Fifteen, by Angel Luis Colón

"Stretching Fifteen," by Angel Luis Colón, in Protectors 2: Heroes, edited by Thomas Pluck,  Goombah Gumbo Press, 2015.

Excuse me while I get professorial for a minute. Time to distinguish apples from oranges.

Every twist ending is a surprise.  Not every surprise ending is a twist.  A twist ending is one that makes you rethink everything that happened before.  The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, for example.

This story is a good example of a surprise ending that is not a twist, not that there is anything wrong with that.  Colón takes his tale in clever and unexpected directions.. 

Second point:  You can describe anyone you want as "my hero," meaning that you admire and wish to emulate the person.  But if you call someone "a hero" you should be describing someone who risked a lot (typically life but I would settle for freedom or fortune) for a worthy cause. Merely saving one's own life doesn't qualify - even if you save other lives at the same time.

Take, for instance, Chesley Sullenberger who successfully landed a jet on the Hudson River, saving the lives of everyone on board.  Was that heroism?  Nope.  Incredible cool-headedness and fantastic skill, but he was not heroic, because he did not volunteer for the job.  He just happened to be the guy in the cockpit, and we are all glad he was.

But - and it's a big but - after the jet landed, Sullenberger stayed in the plane, counting heads, to make sure everyone was safely out before leaving himself.  And that makes him a hero. 

Which brings us, I am sure you are delighted to know, to this week's story.  Chris does something quick and decisive which saves his own life and perhaps that of many others.  He is praised as a hero as only modern America can.

At first he seems to react well.  He knows it's only fifteen minutes of fame and resists the temptation to turn into a media slut.  But when the attention fades away he can't get back into his normal life (could there be PTSD involved?) and starts looking for a way to get the glory back.

I predicted three or four ways the story could turn out and Colón completely fooled me.  Like I said, surprise ending.  And a thought-provoking and satisfying story.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Something I Said, by Bracken MacLeod.

"Something I Said," by Bracken MacLeod, in Protectors 2: Heroes, edited by Thomas Pluck,  Goombah Gumbo Press, 2015.

I can't say much about this story without giving away the store.  So let me point out that the book is a fundraiser for PROTECT, "a non-partisan anti-crime pro-child lobby."  There are worse causes. 

The narrator of the story, Abel, is a bartender and he's back in the tavern on a night off.  He deliberately picks a fight with a regular customer, a guy named Scott.  Scott is what they call a "pick-up artist," who brags on the web about his irresistable techniques for seducing women.

Why does Abel want to get into a fight with this steroid-laden jerk?  What's his game plan? 

That's where I have to stop talking. Except to say that, while the story is serious, there's a line about martial arts that made me laugh out loud.  And the last paragraph is stunning.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Down Home, by Toni Goodyear

"Down Home," by Toni Goodyear, in Murder Under The Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, edited by Art Taylor, Down and Out Books, 2015.   

I have a story in this anthology.  This photo, taken by Gigi Pandian and used with permission, shows me sitting with Toni Goodyear at the mass signing for the book at the Bouchercon.  We happen to be next to each other in the book, and therefore sat together on the assembly line.

Last week I wrote about a tale in it that I described as sweet and twisted.  You might say we're back in that territory again.

Greta is an eighty-year-old widow with a problem: Andy Griffith keeps trying to arrest her.

That's right, the dead actor.  He's dressed as Sheriff Andy Taylor from the old sit-com, but Greta realizes that that was only a character he was playing.  Heck, she's not crazy.

So naturally she had to set her sofa on fire to escape him.  Wouldn't you have?

The doctor says she is suffering "transient paranoid disturbances," but she is more bothered by what she calls "occasional invisibility,"  as cops, doctors, and relatives find it convenient to talk over and  around her.

Okay, Greta clearly has  a clinker in her thinker, but this is a crime story.  What crime could involve a sweet old lady who empties into her .22 Ruger into the wall of the laundry room, gunning for the sheriff of Mayberry?

A wild and satisfying ride.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

#grenadegranny, by Karen Pullen

"#grenadegranny," by Karen Pullen, in Murder Under The Oaks, Bouchercon Anthology 2015, edite by Art Taylor, Down and Out Books, 2015.

I have a story in this anthology.

Ms. Pullen's tale is a heartwarming story of disease, robbery, blackmail, and other disasters.  Trust me.

Martha Sue's life is a mess.  Failing business, runaway husband, furious ex-best friend.  Everything changes when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Her neighbors, all of whom have financial problems of their own, come through in a big way for her.

So, it seems like  the least she can do for them is rob a few banks.  After all, what's the worst the law can do to her:  Put her in prison and give her free medical care?

Funny and sweet, in a twisted way.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Letters to the Purple Satin Killer, by Joshua Chaplinsky

"Letters to the Purple Satin Killer," by Joshua Chaplinsky, in Thuglit 20, 2015.

A funny story on a sad subject: people who obsess about serial killers.  Jonas Williker is on trial for multiple murders and his correspondents (almost all women) can't get enough of him. 

There is a twelve-year-old who wants him to embrace Jesus.  His mother assures him that she is confident he is innocent.  (She is watching Oz to keep informed of his situation.)  Staci, well, Staci is very blunt about what she wants but I can't repeat her requests here.  Then there is Ginny who tells him about the two  kids she adopted ("The approval process is faster for [special needs children], because no one wants them," and says "Whenever I get a letter from you I turn on Court TV and turn the volume down, so I can read it out loud and pretend you're talking to me."  And then there is Candace, a PhD student who wants to study women who are sexually attracted to criminals.  Purely for academic reasons, of course.

Horrible people.  Damned funny story.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Gold Leaf, by Luanne Rice

"Gold Leaf," by Luanne Rice, in Providence Noir, edited by Ann Hood, Akashic Press, 2015.

"The women of Fox Point wore black because someone was always dying."

Nice opening line for a noir story, or a book of the same, true?

This is a tale about making a deal with the devil.  Not literally, but about setting a cat to catch a rat, which always leaves you with a cat to cope with.

The narrator is an artist.  "I worked in shorts and my bra, making portraits with the bodies of angels and the heads of local politicians.  I received good commissions but it didn't matter because my boyfriend was a lobbyist.  He paid my rent."

But when she gets jealous of her lover's wife, she  starts plotting a murder.  And that involves finding someone willing to kill.  If you have read any noir at all, you know this ain't gonna end well...

Very nice writing in a clever story. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Everything is Bashert, by Heywood Gould

"Everything is Bashert," by Heywood Gould, in Jewish Noir, edited by Kenneth Wishnia, PM Press, 2015.

I have a story in this book, but let's talk about Mr. Gould's.  If Yiddish writer I.B. Singer collaborated with my pal R.T. Lawton on one of the latter's Holiday Burglar stories, the latter might be something like "Everything is Bashert."  Lawton's heroes are a couple of burglars whose brilliant plans always go to sheol.  Gould's Franny and Larson are two petty lowlifes who like to spend their days at Aquaduct.

And it is at that race track one day that they run into a hasidic gentleman they call the rabbi (he isn't).  The rabbi has a Bible-based system for betting on the horses, a sure thing of course, and yet somehow he is short of money.  Go figure.  Our heroes lend him some cash and, well, a wild ride commences that involves among other things, breaking into a morgue, and ends with a sort of spiritual enlightment.

"We're committing a mortal sin."
"Not our first.  Might as well get rich doing it."

A treat from start to finish.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Jewish Easter, by David Liss

"Jewish Easter," by David Liss, in Jewish Noir, edited by Kenneth Wishnia, PM Press, 2015.

Full disclosure: I have a story in this anthology.

It's hard to write funny well.  It's hard to write grim well.  Do both at the same time and you've got something.

Al's family moved from Long Island to Jacksonville, Florida, when he was in third grade, because of his stepfather's import business.  Now he is thirteen and has begun to figure out exactly what is being imported.

But that's not his immediate problem.  There are a couple of anti-Semetic rednecks in his class and when they hear about Passover (which the sensitive teacher helpfully describes as "Jewish Easter,") they decide to invite themselves forcefully to the seder.  Let all who are hungry come and eat, right?

Sounds like a Manischewitz-fueled version of Key Largo.  But what I loved about the story is not the suspense but the surprising choices the characters make (especially the grandmother).  Al kept me guessing right up to the last paragraph.

More hardboiled than noir, but a fine piece of work.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Stolen Lives, by Johanna Holmstrom

"Stolen Lives," by Johanna Holmstrom, in Helsinki Noir, edited by James Thompson, Akashic Press, 2015.

This is a complex story, told in multiple flashbacks.  I had to go back and read parts of it a second time to see exactly what happened.  But the ending made it worthwhile.

Carin is a new mother and she blogs a lot about her joy in the experience, and her brilliance  at the task.  Also she hands down her dictates as to what is and isn't fashionable.  And writes about her handsome husband.

Sounds insufferable, huh?  But she isn't the main character.  Celestine lives nearby, and she watches Carin, online in real life.  But mostly Celestine obsesses over the death of her little brother when she was a child, for which she was partly responsible.

Did I mention that Carin leaves her baby, Gabriel, snoozing in his perfect stroller in the lovely fresh air outside her charming window while "Carin, with her shades drawn, is advising clueless mothers on how to best take care of their offspring.  And Celestine is standing on her balcony right across the street..."

Celestine has plans for Gabriel.  They don't go exactly right.  But what happens is quite astonishing, and worth a read.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Gotta Go, by Elaine Viets

"Gotta Go," by Elaine Viets, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November 2015.

Sorry this review is late.  Bouchercon doth make sluggards of us all.

"If you want to be a good-looking corpse, carbon monoxide is the way to go.  Your skin is  a lovely shade of pink."

That helpful tip is the  opening line of this story, which is intended to be the first in a series about Angela Richman, Death Investigator for a Missouri county.  In this tale she is looking into the apparent suicide of a wealthy woman, found in her car in a closed garage.  The detective in charge of the case is an "errorist," a lazy cop who makes a lot of mistakes.  He wants to wrap up this obvious suicide before he goes off-shift.  Angela has a couple of hours to find evidence that the death was (surprise!) murder. 

The story is full of detail, and has a fair-play ending.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Mess With The Bull, Get The Horn, by Michael Terlecki

"Mess With The Bull, Get The Horn," by Michael Terlecki, in  Destination: Mystery, edited by Andrew MacRae, Dark House Books, 2015.

Thomas Gavel had a dream job designing slot machines.  Things go wrong when he visits Las Vegas and gets suckered in a high stakes poker game.  The bad guys say all he has to do to pay off his debt is design a slot machine they can use to get rich with.  But the casino guys will catch any kind of payout pattern.  Can he do it? 

The moral of the story is: don't mess with engineers.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Discovery, by Meg Opperman

"The Discovery," by Meg Opperman, in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 18, 2015.

Celeste is a young woman studying at a university in her native Venezuela.  She meets an American professor named Robert, marries him, and moves to Washington, D.C.  Things go downhill from there.

Robert is  a classic abusive, controlling, husband.  Celeste's every move is watched, her phone calls monitored.  When her bus home is late she is beaten. 

My favorite line in the story?  Reaching into a hand-carved box, I sort through the gold jewelry and select Robert's latest apology.

But what makes this story more than just a tale of domestic misery is that each scene is prefaced with a quotation from Christopher Columbus's letters or logbooks, describing his encounters with the natives of the new world.  It is no accident that Celeste and Robert get married on Columbus Day.  I can't imagine how much work went into finding the appropriate texts for each scene.

Very moving story.  

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Three LIttle Words, by Nancy Pickard

"Three Little Words," by Nancy Pickard, in Mystery Writers of America present Manhattan Mayhem, edited by Mary Higgins Clark, Quirk,2015. 

Priscilla Windsor is a poor little rich girl.  Not only does she come from a horrible wealthy family, but on the first page she discovers that she is about to die.  "Death could only improve my life, she thought, and giggled wildly again."

Her long-time doctor, Sam Waterford, suggests she make a bucket list.  Priscilla's has only one item: TELL THE TRUTH.

Three days later, she is murdered.  Sam feels obliged to look into, not her death so much as her life.  What he finds is disturbing, but does it include the motive for murder?

A lot of twists in here, including one I found unsatisfactory, but a very nice story anyway.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Naomi, by Christopher Rice

"Naomi," by Christopher Rice, in nEvermore!, edited by Nancy Kilpatrick and Caro Soles, EDGE, 2015.

Full disclosure: I have a story in this collection of Poe-inspired tales.

You could argue that this piece is fantasy or horror, not a mystery.  And you'd be right.  But a wise man (me) once pointed out that there seems to be an affinity between mysteries and ghost stories, that does not exist with vampire, zombie, etc. stories.

Besides, this is a tale of crime and revenge, which seems to be right in our wheelhouse.  But enough special pleading. 

Franklin, the narrator, is tormented by the recent death of his niece.  Naomi, a transsexual woman,  was bullied by other students at her high school and committed suicide.

Reporters wait outside the family house and demand: Mr. Franklin, did you do enough to help your niece?  He doesn't respond, although he longs to say, at least you stopped calling her Nathan.  

Now other students from the school have killed themselves.  Copycats, is the community's first thought.   Then: they were the bullies and they did it out of guilt.

But Franklin, a gay man who attended the same school, is convinced that kids like that never feel guilt or remorse.  So what - or who - is causing their deaths?

The answer?  Well, let's say this is a thoroughly modern ghost story, and a very good one.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Meet and Greet, by Ian Rankin

"Meet and Greet," by Ian Rankin, The Strand Magazine, July-October 2015.  

Sometimes you wonder where an author possibly got the idea for  a story.  In the case of this clever tale I think we can all make a guess.

Peppard and Jarman have a plan to make some quick dishonest cash.  Go to an airport and imitate the drivers who stand, holding signs, waiting for passengers to get off planes.  Collect the passenger before the real driver does, whisk him away and rob him.  A sure thing.
Well, if you have read any crime fiction at all, you know a sure thing is sure to go all to hell.  The reason this made my favorites list is the clever, and perfectly logical twist at the very end.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Solo for Shoehorn, by John H. Dirckx

"Solo for Shoehorn," by John H. Dirckx, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2015.

For many years Dirckx has been creating a dependable series of private eye stories for AHMM about Detective (recently Lieutenant) Cyrus Auburn, set in a midwestern city. 

The tale begins when Auburn meets Walter Bottrace, a seventy-five year old man with a mobile van full of vintage LPs and 45s for sale.  When Bottrace is found killed in the woods with a passel of fake IDs, Auburn uncovers a complicated scheme of robberies that have more to do with drugs and, yes, shoehorns, than music.

What makes the stories work are mostly the characters and how they are described.  There is a regular cast, each of whom gets their scene on stage.  For example, evidence tech Kestrel dislikes Stamaty, the coroner's clerk who slows down his work, and in this episode he calls him "the Last Responder."

Monday, August 24, 2015

Big Hard Squall, by Lane Kareska

"Big Hard Squall," by Lane Kareska, in Thuglit, issue 17, 2015.

This review is late because I was at Sasquan, where, among other things,  I heard two editors being interviewed.  They were asked: what type of story are you so tired of you don't want to see any more?  They refused to answer because (and I am paraphrasing, of course), no matter how cliched a category might be, someone is going to come up with the next new and original work in it, and they don't want to miss it.

This week's story starts with a bit of a cliche: The main character has been brutally attacked and locked in the trunk of her car, which is now headed for parts unknown.  We stay in Abby's head as she runs through her life and concludes that there is no one who would want to do this to her.  Therefore the target must be her daughter Margaret, a prosecuting attorney.  Either someone wants to punish Margaret or else put a squeeze on her, and Abby is the pawn in jeopardy.

(By the way, this story is set in 1990.  It stretched my disbelief that a white collar woman born in 1925 would swear like the proverbial sailor.  But maybe that's just me.)

Back to the plot.  So far we are in territory we have seen many times before.  But when the trunk lid comes up, all bets are off.  Nothing after that is predictable at all.  Very nice piece of work.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Box of Horses, by Steve Bailey.

"A Box of Horses," by Steve Bailey, in Thuglit", 17, 2015.

Some stories you read on the edge of your seat, not because of the suspense in the telling, but because there are so many ways the author could go wrong.  Will he make it to the end without screwing up?   Obviously Steve Bailey did or we wouldn't be having this discussion. 

Dianne is a woman who does bad things.  She has her reasons, ugly events that happened in her past. 

She makes her living cleaning people's houses and she is "an explorer, a secret digger inside people's hidden places."  Yes, she steals from her clients, but she is much more interested in investigating their lives than in copping their goods, which in any case she is more likely to keep as souvenirs than to sell.

One day she discovers that a client - a woman with MS and her nine-year-old daughter - have a new neighbor, and she immediately recognizes that this man is in some ways like her.  Up to no good.  And maybe now she knows why several young girls in the city have vanished in the last year. 

Trouble is, he also recognizes her for what she is...  And you think YOUR relationships are problematic.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Shooting Stars, by Richard Helms

"Shooting Stars," by Richard Helms, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2015.

Mr. Helms makes his third appearance on this page, with his second story in this series.  (Here is the first.)

Boy Boatright is a down-on-his-luck police detective, as you can tell from this opening sentence:

Even after the crime-scene guys finished wrecking it, Nigel Bowles's trailer looked nicer than my apartment.

Lovely.  Bowles is, or was, the favorite judge on a top TV talent show, visiting town to film a special episode.  Everyone involved in the series had multiple reasons to want him dead, and most had opportunities.

But that isn't Boatright's real problem.  That would be the fact that one of the other judges is a client of an alleged psychic with the amazing name of Bowie Crapster, and he is the reason Boyright keeps threatening to retire.  Forced, again to work with the Crapster - No more than five and a half feet tall, built like the Pillsbury Doughboy, resplendent in an Italian ice-cream suit with silk cravat and gleaming white patent-leather shoes. His hair, cut in a sort of Caesar style with short bleached bangs, was reflected in his silver Elvis sunglasses.  He looked like a Good Humor Man in Key West. - our hero threatens to resign , but that would spoil the fun.

Crapster isn't quite as charmingly annoying this time, largely because he explains to Boatright and us how he achieves some of his allegedly mystical effects.  A nice example of working your way through the suspects.

One complaint:  Helms is stuck with the names he chose for his heroes but with so many letters in the alphabet why does this story include: Boy Boatwright, Bowie, Belinda, Billy, Baggs, and Bliss?  Why make it harder for the reader to keep the characters straight?

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Red Jacks Wild, by Kim Newman

"Red Jacks Wild," by Kim Newman, in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 17, 2015.

You could argue that this is not the best mystery story I read this week.  At approximately ten thousand words it's more like a novella.  And you could say it's fantasy/horror rather than mystery.

Don't care. 

In any case, it's in a mystery magazine, and a series of murders are solved, and if you don't like that you can start your own review blog.  So there.

I try not to reveal the plot but there is a lot of premise here to explain before we get to the plot.

The narrator is John Carmody, a psychologist in New York in 1951.  He also happens to be Jack the Ripper.

Wait a minute, you say.  He'd have to be a hundred years old. 

Well, he is.  But he looks the same age he did in the 1880s when he started making human sacrifices to Hecate.  Which he still does, every three years.

But not prostitutes every time.  He alters his "disposables-"  And now we come to the first thing I love about this story.

You may be familiar with the theory that popular horror movies are the ones that capture the zeitgeist - I might say the frightgeist - the main thing that people of the time are scared of.  So right after World War II we had Godzilla and other monsters created by nuclear radiation.  At the height of the Cold War we had Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which your best friend or neighbor might turn out to be the enemy!  When AIDS made blood a scary thing Dracula made a big comeback.  I lieave it up to you to decide what the current popularity of brain-seeking zombies means.

My point is that this Jack the Ripper understands the concept.

In New Orleans in 1909 I tok colored children.  They called me the Voo-Doo Man.  The cops didn't listen to the parents until I was done.  In California in 1933, as the Hobo Hacker, I picked on jobless transients.  Last time, the Red Knife, preyed on card-carrying communists...

Carmody picks the people we don't care about.   And, as the FBI's favorite shrink, he gets to steer them to the wrong killers.  But now someone is slaughtering juvenile delinquents - surely a classic "disposable" in America of the 1950s - and it isn't him.

It seems to have something to do with his most famous patient, a publisher of horror comics, who is being tormented by another psychoanalyst, who blames the comics for all the nations ills.  Yes, this story is all about America's twisted psyche, and I loved it.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Canyon Ladies, by Sarah M. Chen

"Canyon Ladies," by Sarah M. Chen, in Sisters in Crime Los Angeles presents LAdies Night, edited by Naomi Hirahara, Kate Thornton, and Jeri Westerson, Down and Out Books, 2015. 

Before we get to the main order of business, may I grumble a bit?  No one has ever been able to stop me before, so I guess I can. 

This is always an awkward time of year for me.  I have run out of paper magazines to review.  That means I either have to buy paper copies of anthologies or get e-versions and in that case I need to drag my iPad to work to read them on my lunch hour.  Yeah, poor me.

None of this is a complaint about this book, which I am enjoying.  In fact, I am grateful to SIC-LA for publishing over the summer.  So many anthologies come out in late fall.  Just in time for Christmas shopping, sure, but a real bummer for people trying to finish their reviews of 2015 before 2016. 

Okay.  Kvetch over.

Speaking of kvetching, Chen's narrator has a reason or two to complain.  Shelby's husband has been caught in dirty business dealings and, although he was miraculously (and suspiciously) acquitted, the social world of Laurel Canyon has not forgiven him. His wife, innocent of any wrong-doing, is a social pariah.

Shelby's having a hard time coping.  "I looked in the mirror as I washed  my hands, and shame, wearing last season's bathing suit, stared back at me.  I bet this is how the fat girl in school felt like every day."

But she a plan for vengeance.  The question is: on whom, exactly?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Canary, by Matthew J. Hockey

"Canary," by Matthew J. Hockey, in Thuglit, 18, 2015.

There is a streak of puritanism running through some noir literature.  Take one step off the straight-and-narrow and you are inevitably doomed.  Things keep getting worse and every attempt you make to correct your path only drags you inexorably toward the pit.

Which brings us to Booster, a fireman with a chemistry degree, which earns him the dubious privilege of being the first into a meth lab gone deadly.  He's the one who enters first in full HAZMAT gear and has to determine if all the idiots inside were killed by the poisonous brew they created or whether there might be survivors.

And this time he finds  a bag stuffed with four hundred grand.  Obviously he ought to leave it where it lies, but who will know if he doesn't?  And so he takes one step off the straight-and-narrow...

Excellent story that kept surprising me.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Mr. Kill-Me, by David Dean

"Mr. Kill-Me, by David Dean, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, August 2015.

With this story by my SleuthSayers blogmate David Dean, it seems unnecessary to ask: where did you get your idea?  Anyone who has ever had a close call on the road will probably think they can guess.

Larry is a real estate agent in a shore town.  One day he backs his BMW out of a driveway and almost hits a man on a bicycle; a strange homeless-looking guy with angry eyes and a weird smile.  The biker disappears before Larry can confront him. 

A few days later, driving down the road, the biker pulls out in front of him again, seeming to demand to be run over.

What the hell is going on?  Is Larry imaging things?  Is someone plotting against him?  If so, what the hell is the purpose?

I should say I saw the end pages before it arrived, but it's a hell of a tale, and worth the trip.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Knock-Out Whist, by David Levien

"Knock-Out Whist," by David Levien, in in Dark City Lights, edited by Lawrence Block, Three Rooms Press, 2015.

This is a story about the levels of life in New York City, and those going up versus those going down.  Jerry Riser - a riser is, of course, one who rises; it is also the part of a step that doesn't get stepped on - is a disgraced ex-cop, reborn as a shady private eye. 

He has just finished a big case for one of the people at the top, causing major trouble for another one, a mayoral candidate.  The politician sends thugs around to find out who hired Riser, and they offer his choice of a beating or a payoff.

He could also use the cash.  On the other hand it was a question of honor, the old vintage.  There were still a few bottles of it left around, and once it was uncorked, it was sticky stuff.

One of the best P.I. stories I have read this year.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Red's White F-150 Blues, by Scott Montgomery

"Red's White F-150 Blues," by Scott Montgomery, in Murder on Wheels, Eleven Tales of Crime on the Move, presented by the Austin Mystery Writers, Wildside Press, 2015.  

The editors sent me a free copy of this book.

Red Clark spends a lot of time taking care of his baby son, because the factory put him on half time and Britney has had to take on more nursing shifts at the hospital.  One day his old friend Billy Ray - part-time drug dealer and non-stop trouble -- shows up to ask a favor.  The bank wants to repossess his truck.  Can he hide it in Red's garage for a while?

Of course, Red says yes.   Of course, Britney gets mad.  While they're arguing about it - and about meatloaf and other affairs of state -- the TV announces that a guard was killed in a bank robbery.  Police are looking for a certain truck.

Uh oh.

What follows are a lot of bad decisions, some startling secrets and - oh yes - a beheading.  This is pretty much what Texas noir means to me. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Bowery Station, 3:15 A.M., by Warren Moore

"Bowery Station, 3:15 A.M.," by Warren Moore, in Dark City Lights, edited by Lawrence Block, Three Rooms Press, 2015.

A little snippet of  a story, but a memorable one.  The nameless narrator is hanging around one of the least used subway stations in the middle of the night, when...

I saw the girl standing on the Brooklyn bound side of the platform.  You might not have noticed anything, but I saw the firsts clenched at her sides and I saw her lips moving, and I knew what she was gearing up to do.

Can he prevent her from taking her own life?  And if he does, what will happen next?

Worth finding out.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Drone, by Rob Hart

"Drone," by Rob Hart, in Thuglit, Issue 16.

I can't find the name of the comedian who complained, approximately: "You always hear on the news about drug deals that went wrong.  Why don't they ever talk about the thousands of drug deals that went right?"

Because they aren't newsworthy, of course.  And they wouldn't make very good fiction.

So you can be pretty sure something is going to go pear-shaped in this tale of three crooks who come up with a brilliant new way to move cocaine around the city.

Melinda is the bright one, and she has built a drone capable of flying five pounds of product.  Billy the narrator, and his short-on-impulse-control brother Richie have the connections with a major drug dealer with the not-at-all-ominous name of T. Rex..  All they need is to demonstrate what inventors call "proof of concept" and they are in for a very profitable partnership.

What could go wrong?  Oh, something or other.  Take it away, Richie:

"Well, there was a wrench up on the roof, and I hit him with it, and that all turned into a thing."

Yeah, I hate it when that happens.  Good story.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Dyed to Death, by K.G. McAbee

K.G. McAbee. "Dyed to Death," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2015. 

Last week I said my favorite story was all about setting.  And here we are again.

McAbee's story won the Black Orchid Novella Award, given each year bu AHMM and the Wolfe Pack for a novella that best carries on the Rex Stout  tradition.  The winners usually have a Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin format, meaning a great detective and an assistant narrates the story.  This is true in "Dyed to Death," but as I said, it is the setting that is the true main character.

It is the late twenties in a company town somewhere in the south.  Our narrator is Sam, a boy in his late teens.  He never recovered from an injury in the cotton mill when he was fifteen (the same mill killed his father) so he works at the company store.  His boss is Guy Henson who, beside running the store is also the village constable.  He also is a former millworker, but  experiences in the Great War left him unable to tolerate loud noises.

When Sam finds a woman drowned in the river, dyed purple from the weekly dumping of a mill vat, Henson has to find out what happened.  Sam, a dedicated reader of Black Mask, is thrilled to be able to participate.

I should say I didn't think the ending of this story was as strong as the rest of it.  But McAbee gives us a strong sense of what life was like in a town where the mill owner set the rules and could throw you out of your home on a whim.  I hope to see more of Guy and Sam.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Monkey's Ghost, by Rosalind Barden

"The Monkey's Ghost," by Rosalind Barden, in History and Mystery, Oh My!, edited by Sarah E. Glenn, Mystery and History, LLC, 2015.

The publisher's sent me a copy of this book for free. 

This story is mostly about setting, if you stretch setting to include the minor characters, which I think you can.

The narrator grew up during the depression in the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles.

To live there was the height of fashion in the Gay Nineties of the previous century,.  The prominent families of the day decorated Bunker Hill's steep streets with colorful candy-like fantasies of Victorian homes.

But by the 1930s the area had fallen on hard times and the narrator and her family live in an apartment building surrounded by these old homes and some old, eccentric neighbors.  One of them (according to a local gossip, an elderly magician) was the only child of a wealthy man, and she married a scoundrel who abandoned her.  But first he bought her a monkey, and the story goes, one day she threw the ape out the window, killing it.  Or maybe the monkey was already dead. Or maybe it wasn't a monkey...

Naturally the local kids become obsessed with this strange story.  I did not expect the outcome.  This was a fun read.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Theory of Murder, by Dennis Palumbo

"A Theory of Murder," by Dennis Palumbo, in And All Our Yesterdays, edited by Andrew MacRae, Darkhouse Books, 2015.

Mea culpa: It took me so long to get around to reading this book that I forgot how I received it.  I should say it was a gift from the publisher.

Wish I'd thought of that.

It's Bern, Switzerland, 1904.  Hector, a clerk in the patent office, is suspected of a series of grisly murders.  Luckily a friend of his, also a patent clerk, is looking into the crimes.  And Albert Einstein is a pretty bright guy...

You may know that 1905 was the "Annus Mirabilis" in which Einstein published four papers that turned Physics on its head.  In this story we see him pondering on some of these points, providing some of the most amusing moments.

For example, he shows up at Hector's house in the middle of the night:

"My God, Albert, do you know the time?"

"More intimately than most, I promise you." 

A very clever story.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Beethoven House, by Albert Tucher

"The Beethoven House," by Albert Tucher, in And All Our Yesterdays, edited by Andrew MacRae, Darkhouse Books, 2015.  

Mea culpa: It took me so long to get around to reading this book that I forgot how I received it.  I should say it was a gift from the publisher.

Last year I noted in this space how cold war spy stories tend to center on Berlin.  In the highlight, so far, of this collection of historical mysteries,  Mr. Tucher moves southeast to another hotbed of espionage: the capital of neutral Austria.

It is 1955, three years after Vienna ceased to be a divided city.  Benjamin is a CIA agent and a local cop calls to inform him that one of his contacts has been found murdered.  Apparently Wolfi Stendl had acquired two tickets to the hottest show in town - the grand reopening of the Opera, after many years of reconstruction after the war.  Why did someone want those seats enough to kill for them?

There are wheels within wheels here, betrayals of betrayals, which as Benjamin notes, is the Viennese way.  An entertaining story of the bad old days.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

On Borrowed Time, by Mat Coward

"On Borrowed Time," by Mat Coward, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May 2015.

I'm a big fan of Mat Coward's funny stories about muddled and desperate  criminals.  The hero, if that's the word I'm looking for, in this story is Nash, a British public servant, of sorts.  He is paid by the government but he is frank that he works for big business.  The job of the Section is to spy on labor leaders, and non-profits, anyone who might upset the corporate status quo.  His personal tasks include secretly opening the mail of a major union boss.

And one day he finds a very expensive watch in the man's mail. Being desperate for money - we don't find out why until much later - he swipes it.  Then he gets worried that - well...

There were several people he might need to kill, and the way he saw it, if all of them were still alive a week from now, that'd be the nearest thing to a proper result he'd have achieved in years.  

It's always good to have goals.
Indeed it is.  You might not think a civil servant would be well-equipped to kill people, but you wouldn't know about the special training sessions the Section provides for it's worker bees. 

Nash had once attended an upskilling weekend on The Rudiments of Self-Defence, which included rudiments such as how to sneak up behind someone in the dark and self-defend yourself against them with a garrotte.

 A very funny tale with a lot of pointed comments on the world we find ourselves living in

Sunday, May 3, 2015

An Invisible Minus Sign, by Denise Mina

"An Invisible Minus Sign," by Denise Mina, in Deadly Housewives, edited by Christine Matthews, HarperCollins e-books, 2015.

Many of the stories I have read in this collection have been jollyish tales of women trying to kill errant husbands, so this detour to noir stands out for contrast.

Moira is a housewife, sick of making no impression on the world.

She no longer knew if she liked strong cheddar or the boys did, whether France was somewhere she wanted to go on holiday or David's choice.  And she didn't even think she liked the hidden Moira enough to send out a search party.

After trying to revive herself with an affair "and a hundred other suburban redemptions," she decides to kill herself.

Of course, she doesn't.  Something else happens and I can't tell you what, but it is worth finding out.  But the main attraction in this story is the language, as demonstrated above.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Edgars are announced

And the winner for Best Short Story is:

"What Do You Do?” – Rogues by Gillian Flynn
(Penguin Random House Publishing – Bantam Books)


Sunday, April 26, 2015

We On The Train! by Margaret Maron

"We On The Train!" by Margaret Maron, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May 2015.  

If you have ever read a book to a small child you know that the highest possible accolade they can offer is an immediate "Read it again!"  The first thing I did after finishing this story is start it over.

Of course, it helps that the story is very short - flash fiction or close to it - but it is so clever that I had to take another look at.

Greg McInnis is a DEA agent who prefers to do his business traveling by train.  On a trip up the east coast he is amused by a young African-American woman who is gleefully phoning everyone she knows to tell them that she is going to visit New York with an older man she says is her Uncle Leon.

Sounds innocent enough, but this is a crime story, so something else must be going on here.  Will our hero figure it out in time?  He only has four pages...

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Two Bad Hamiltons and a Hirsute Jackson, by Robert Mangeot

"Two Bad Hamiltons and a Hirsute Jackson," by Robert Mangeot, in Alfred Hitchcock's mystery Magazine, May 2015.

Mr. Mangeot makes his second appearance here.  This story is all about language and character.

The character is Vi Celucci, and she is an Optimizer, which means she specializes in making your life and workplace more efficient, healthier, and better organized.  Obsession is either funny or tragic, depending on how close you are standing to the fallout, and Ms. Celucci is obsessive about her field, and maybe about everything else.

She received two counterfeit ten dollar bills and  feels the authorities are not up to the job of finding the counterfeiters.  "The Secret Service guy asked me to repeat myself, which did not bode well for either his cognitive or listening skills."

So she decides to crack the case herself.  And this is a formidable lady, determined, and very sure of herself.

I shook my head, and I only shook my head one way: hard right, soft return.  Anything more was wasted motion.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Continental Opposite, by Evan Lewis

"The Continental Opposite," by Evan Lewis, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May 2015.

This dude Lewis is turning into a major threat.  First there were his stories about Skyler Hobbs,who thinks he is the reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes.  Then tales of Davy Crockett's ghost, who harasses his descendents into solving crimes.  And now he has revived Dashiell Hammett's famous character the Continental Op.

Brief pause for confusion from the readers.  But Hammett's family owns the copyright!  And Lopresti doesn't like fan fiction (Author B writing new stories with the characters of Author A)!

True.  But I am sometimes a sucker for reboots, in which Author B rethinks the original and comes up with a new twist.

This story takes place in the fifties, decades after the Op's last appearance.  The main character is a young detective named Peter Collins (he notes bitterly that his father deliberately gave him a name that is gangland slang for "nobody").  Peter works for the Portland, Oregon branch of a national detective agency and when he accuses his boss of corruption the company sends in a retired op who used to work for the San Francisco branch("sometime in the forties Continental had put him out to pasture, and he'd spent the years since killing a vegetable garden, sneering at golf course, and not catching fish.") .  Peter finds him sinister and refers to him as the Old Man.

Hmm.  In Hammett's stories the Op's boss was the Old Man, but it is clearly not the same person.  In fact, this new guy strongly resembles Hammett's hero, much older and, if possible, more cynical.

Now let's address the copyright issue.  Does Lewis use the name of the characters?  No, because the Op never had one.  (And Old Man is hardly a unique moniker either.)  The Op worked for the Continental Detective Agency.  Peter works for Continental Investigations, which recently changed its name from something or other.

A brilliant story, and the first of a series.  I can hardly wait.