Monday, October 15, 2018

The Threshold, by R.M. Greenaway

"The Threshold," by R.M. Greenaway, in Vancouver Noir, edited by Sam Wiebe, Akashic Press, 2018.

This is the second story by R.M. Greenaway to make this page in two months.  She seems to be having a good year.

"The collection is called City. That's all.  City. Lot of structure, not a lot of people shots, 'cause that's been done to death.  But they're in there, like puzzle pieces, just part of the chain-link right?  Or the asphalt, or the puddles.  Except for on the cover I've got an old guy..."

The speaker is Blaine and as you may have guessed he's a photographer.  Perhaps a bit obsessive about it.  And one morning, just at sunrise, he's out snapping pictures at the waterfront and he find a very fresh corpse.  Of course he knows he should call 911, but the lighting is perfect, and how long will it last?  Surely it won't hurt if he just changes lenses and takes a couple of artful frames...

And then the dead man twitches.

I'm going to stop here.  This is a masterful story and I don't want to give anything away.


Monday, October 8, 2018

Mr. Sugarman Visits The Bookmobile, by Michael Bracken

"Mr. Sugarman Visits The Bookmobile," by Michael Bracken, in Shhh... Murder!, edited by Andrew MacRae, Darkhouse Books, 2018.

This is the fifth appearance in this column by winner of the Golden Derringer Award and fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken.  It is mostly a very nice character sketch.

Graham Sugarman lives in Quarryville, a "dried-out scab of a town" in West Texas.  The highlight of his week is Tuesday morning when the bookmobile arrives. Because he is only allowed to check out five books per visit he takes the heftiest ones available. 

When asked if he has any plans he replies: "Same as always.  I plan to read."  And that's pretty much all he does.

You might get the feeling Mr. Sugarman is not quite normal.  You're right.  The reason for that turns out to be quite interesting. 

But his very regular life is interrupted when the librarian who drives the bookmobile is murdered, stopping his service...

The third act is not as strong here as the earlier ones, but Mr. Sugarman is an interesting and believable character.



Monday, October 1, 2018

Eight Game-Changing Tips on Public Speaking, by Sheena Kamal

"Eight Game-Changing Tips on Public Speaking," by Sheena Kamal, in Vancouver Noir, edited by Sam Wiebe, Akashic Press, 2018.  

Mags is writing a note to her boss whom she does not like very much.  Since he does a lot of public speaking and is not so good at it, she offers him some friendly advice.  Well, maybe not so friendly.

2. Use the stage, but don't pace.  It makes you look like an asshole when you do that.  All those years you spent dodging the homeless and the addicts on Hastings has [sic] made you surprisingly agile for a man your age but you don't need to advertise this during your speeches.  Plus, your fashion sense can't hold up to that kind of scrutiny... 

Turns out her boss has a whole lot of dirty secrets.  Turns out Mags, his much mistreated executive assistant, knows all of them.  And the worm has begun to turn.

A charming tale of revenge. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

There's an Alligator in my Purse, by Paul D. Marks

"There's an Alligator in my Purse," by Paul D. Marks, in Florida Happens, edited by Greg Herren, Three Rooms Press, 2018.

The latest Bouchercon anthology is all about that most interesting state in our southeast.  This tale is by my fellow SleuthSayer, Paul D. Marks.

Our narrator is Ed, a cheerful professional.  He likes to satisfy his customers, so he takes lots of photos of the corpses.  Corpses the clients wanted dead, obviously. 

In this case that client is Ashley Smith - the lady with the titular pocket book reptile.  She had expected to inherit a lot of money when her elderly husband died happily due to her enthusiastic ministrations.  When she fond out the dough was going to the first wife, she went looking for someone with Ed's skill set.  It wasn't really his photographic skills that she was interested in...

A breezy tale of multiple conspiracies.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Problems Aren't Stop Signs, by Robert Mangeot

"Problems Aren't Stop Signs," by Robert Mangeot, in  Mystery Weekly Magazine, September 2018.

This is Mangeot's fourth appearance here.

Tori is the mayor of a small town in the Florida Panhandle, and she has had some bad luck.  Not that it was her fault, of course.  How could she know, when she stole city funds to buy some land, that the state would cancel the project they were planing to build on it?

Obviously there is only one possible solution: convince her useless brother to dress up as a swamp ape and use her female wiles to persuade a local reporter to come out where said monster can be witnessed, thereby bringing a storm of tourists to the site.

Simple, really.  What could possibly go wrong?

Mangeot is one of our foremost writers of funny short crime stories.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Rozotica, by R.M. Greenaway

"Rozotica," by R.M. Greenaway, in The Dame Was Trouble, edited by Sarah L. Johnson, Halli Lilburne, and Cat McDonald, Coffin Hop Press, 2018.

This is a weird story.  By that I do not mean it is science fiction, or supernatural, or falls into all those bins we label "experimental fiction."  It just goes in many unexpected directions.  And that's a good thing.

It's 1973 and Heather is a waitress in Vancouver, B.C.  In fact she has been a waitress since tenth grade, and a virgin for much longer than that, and nothing seems likely to change.

Except for Milestone.  He's a hippy.  He likes her and he has a plan.  "You're the key.  It's your face.  It's perfect."

This is not a compliment, as it turns out.  Milestone has a scam in mind: convincing a bunch of investors that he has the latest thing in sex toys, a female-looking robot straight from Japan.  And Heather's not-quite-normal features make her the ideal prototype.  "You're kind of cold and synthetic looking," Milestone explains.  What girl could resist a come-on like that?

And so, having taken care of the virginity problem, they meet with a gang of pathetic men who are more interested in getting a realistic sex doll than they are in investing a bundle.  What could possibly go wrong?

While you are make a no doubt lengthy list of possible answers to that question, I will explain that several of them are about to happen.  But what makes the story truly interesting is what happens after things go pear-shaped.  I especially enjoyed the conversation near the end by two people trying to make sense of it all.

A fun and imaginative piece.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Rats, by Tom Savage

"Rats," by Tom Savage, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Mystery, September/October 2018.

Are you familiar with the term logline?  Think of the one sentence description of a movie or a TV show you see in TV Guide or Netflix.

Here's a logline for a short story:

A senior citizen combats the bad element that is taking over the neighborhood.

I  have probably read a dozen stories that fit that line. Of course, there are no new plots, just new things to do with the old ones.  Is the senior alone or does he have allies?  What kind of plot does he dream up?  Does he succeed or fail?  I remember decades ago reading a story in which an older woman, tired of having her purse snatched, carried a hand grenade in the purse with a string tied from her wrist to the pin.  A mugger grabbed the purse and three seconds later, BOOM. 

But that's not Savage's idea.  Alice lives in New York City.  She still teaches a few days a week at a middle school.  She lives in a co-op which has always been  neighborly and well-maintained, but recently a dozen apartments were purchased by a Russian mobster.  Worse, he has moved his nephew, "a huge, unkempt, unfriendly, leather-jacketed hell-raiser named Georgi," into one of the apartments.  Things start to go downhill.  Alice's friend Marco, a retired circus performer gets robbed and beaten, and that's not the worst of it.

But when Alice sees the janitor putting out rat poison she gets an idea on how to solve the Georgi problem.  If only she can get Marco to go along with it.

I did not see the ending of this one coming.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Unity Con, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

"Unity Con," by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2018.

Rusch is one  of my favorite writers of mystery short stories.  She has appeared on this blog seven times, which ties her for first place with Brendan DuBois and Terence Faherty.  I believe she is more prolific in science fiction, which relates to this story.

It is strictly down-to-earth, but it is set in the world of science fiction fandom, and reflects on some events which have damaged that community in recent years.

Her series characters (making their third appearance in this blog) are dedicated members of the world of fandom.  The narrator, Spade, is a six-foot-six 400 pound Microsoft millionaire who uses his spare time and financial savvy to help with the money side of science fiction conventions.  His friend (and he wishes she were much more) is Paladin, a beautiful but brittle young private eye who specializes in fandom crimes and missing children.

Science fiction fandom is famous for tolerating or even embracing people lacking in social skills and these two have found happy homes in that world.  But the conflicts of recent years are threatening it now.  Although Rusch does not mention it by name she is clearly referring to the Sad Puppies debacle which reached its climax (or nadir, if you prefer) at the World Science Fiction convention in Spokane in 2015.  I happened to attend that event and you can read my interpretation of it here. To oversimplify, there was a group of people who felt that the wrong people were getting awards, and those wrong folks seemed to be mostly women and people of color.

Spade gets a call from the eternally-testy Paladin who demands that he rush to a distant ranch in Texas where some SF writers decided that they know how to run a science fiction convention better than the SMoFs (Secret Masters of Fandom) like Spade.  Their product is Unity Con which they were confident could settle the dispute between differing factions. 

Instead one controversial writer, rumored to be a neo-Nazi, is dead under mysterious circumstances.  Money from the con's account is vanishing.  Can Spade, who despised the writer, solve both crimes before irreparable harm is done to his beloved community?

This is not a fair-play whodunit.  The emphasis is on the characters, whom Rusch makes you care about, and that raises the stakes for the world that they care about as well.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Cold Hunt, by Ken Brosky

"The Cold Hunt," by Ken Brosky, Mystery Weekly Magazine, August 2018.

I tend to think of didactic mysteries as being limited to novel-length, but they don't have to be.  The term simply means a piece of fiction that attempts to teach something, rather than just entertain.  Think of Dick Francis's novels that usually explore some industry or other field of endeavor: painting, trucking, glassblowing, investment banking...

Brosky's excellent story has an element of that.  He wants to tell you about the life of tigers in Siberia.

Roxy is a young American biologist.  She and her mentor, Dr. Siddig, have been called to investigation what appears to be a killing by a big cat.  The evidence of footprints and corpse show that the tiger had a big meal of the flesh of a local man.  But the evidence does not prove that the man was alive when the tiger arrived.

The villagers are ready to hunt and kill the beast.  Can the scientists prove it is innocent of the killing - if indeed it is?

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Sorority House, by Eve Fisher

"Sorority House," by Eve Fisher, in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, #3, 2018.

A nice story by my fellow Sleuthsayer, Eve Fisher, set as many of her stories are, in South Dakota.

The narrator is a woman in her thirties who has moved into an apartment house filled mostly with older people and thinks that's just fine.  Then a wave of new divorcees come in and, alas, they are the "mean girls" from high school.   Lots of requests for favors and "Is your husband out of prison yet?"
  
One of them disappears rather scandalously and then her body is discovered even more so.  The obvious suspect turns out to have an alibi.  Can our hero spot the killer before somebody else gets tagged?

I can't remember the last time an actual whodunit made it onto my best of the week page.  Well done.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Beached, by Ray Daniel

"Beached," by Ray Daniel, in Low Down Dirty Vote, edited by Mysti Berry, Berry Content, 2018.

This is an anthology of crime stories about voter suppression, with the profits going to the ACLU Foundation.  It starts out with this light piece set in Massachusetts.

Our narrator is Thomas Coffee, a private eye who is hired by a rather obnoxious woman to find her father who vanished a few hours earlier.  In fact, a whole segment of the town has disappeared.  On the very day of the traditional New England town meeting.  Hmm...

Here is a bit of the flavor of  the place and the story:

In 1903 the Joppa Town Meeting accepted, by a vote of 128 to 126, a twenty-thousand dollar library grant from Andrew Carnegie.  The close vote showed that the only thing flinty New Englanders trusted less than outsiders was outsiders with money.

They may have a point.  Fun story anyway. 



Sunday, July 29, 2018

Uncle Sam, by Leye Adenle

"Uncle Sam," by Leye Adenle, in Lagos Noir, edited by Chris Abani, Akashic Press, 2018.

This is Adenle's second appearance in this column.

Many is the time I have kicked myself for not seeing the ending of a story coming.  This time I should have seen the subject coming.

This is a book of crime stories about Nigeria.  Of course there had to be a story about the 419 scheme.  You may know that better as the Nigerian Prince scam.  "I am the widow of the head of an oil company and I need the help of some honest foreign stranger to illegally smuggle zillions of bucks out of Nigeria..."  419 refers to the section of the Nigerian criminal code which (attempts to) ban such things.

Which brings us to Dougal, newly arrived at the airport in Lagos, and terrified that he may have gotten himself into a you-know-what.  Apparently an uncle he didn't know he had has died, leaving him a ton of money.  He has to come to Lagos in person to collect it.  Someone who claims to represent his uncle's law firm has even provided the money for him to fly there. What could possibly go wrong?

There are bad guys in Lagos, but there are good guys too.  Can Dougal tell them apart?

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Made Men, by Timothy O'Leary

"Made Men," by Timothy O'Leary, in  Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2018.

Catterly never pictured himself going out this way; standing in some godforsaken heat sink, clad in the official old man's uniform of big-butt cargo shorts and a Tommy Bahama Hawaiian shirt, guzzling white wine...

Not that Catterly is in imminent danger of checking out.  He's just miserable about having to leave his Montana farm to winter in Arizona.  But his wife Gracie has put up with 45 winters up north and he acknowledges she is due for a change.  Doesn't mean he has to like it.

Things get more, well, interesting, when he catches another old codger cheating at gin. Thomas DeVito does not take it well.  And DeVito, as it turns out, is a retired Mafiosi.  The other retirees say Catterly is now in danger and he has to apologize.  Our hero doesn't see it that way. You might say the threat of death gives him something to live for...

Nicely written and amusing.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Joy, by Wale Lawal

"Joy," by Wale Lawal, in Lagos Noir, edited by Chirs Abani, Akashic Press, 2018.

Third person narrative is the norm.  First person has advantages and limitations.  Second person is a gimmick. (And here is the best second-person story I have ever read.)


This story tells (in second person) about a pregnant wife who hires a house servant named Joy.  It is clear that the master-servant relationship in Nigeria would not be acceptable in the U.S. (Displaying all her possessions when she arrives?  Kneeling when she speaks?)

But the protagonist begins to suspect that Joy has nefarious intentions, especially about her husband.  Is this a pregnant woman with a dangerous delusion, or is something worse happening here? Somebody is going to get hurt...

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Isaac's Daughters, by Anita Page

"Isaac's Daughters," by Anita Page, in Malice Domestic Presents: Murder Most Geographical, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons, Wildside Press, 2018.

This is Anita Page's second appearance on this blog.

There is a TV series called Penn & Teller Fool Us in which magicians from around the world try to outsmart the titular wizards.  This spring there was an extra episode called the April Fool Us Special, which looked back at some of the highlights.

They mentioned a kind of viewer feedback they sometimes get.  I am going to make up the details but it goes like this:

How could you be fooled by that man making an elephant appear?  If you look at the tape you can clearly see him tuck the elephant up his sleeve!

To which Penn replied, approximately, We didn't know in advance that it was an elephant we should be looking for, and we don't get to roll the tape back for a second look.

Which is sort of like foreshadowing in literature.  Once you finish the story it is easy to see the one clue tucked in among a thousand details.  But when you're reading it, not knowing where the story is going, you can't tell which of those details is the crucial ones.

I don't think I have given away the store by telling you that Page has some clever foreshadowing in here.  You still won't spot the elephant before she reveals it.

The narrator is an old woman, relating  how she came to America from Russia at the age of fourteen in 1911.  The reason for the voyage is that her mother has just received a message that "your Isaac has taken up with a whore from Galicia."  Is it just me or does it seem like Galicia is the most offensive part of the whole thing?

So our narrator's mother wants to find her husband and reunite the family.  They start out on the difficult voyage, and things happen.

One of the reasons I started this review by talking about magic is that it matters in this story.  The family is divided between the father and narrator who you might describe as new-world rationalists, and the mother and sister who are subject to old-world superstitions, believing in demons and lucky charms.

A question that comes up in the story more than once is: Does magic work if you don't believe in it?  Page offers an answer to that in this excellent tale. 


Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Black Drop of Venus, by Mark Thielman

"The Black Drop of Venus," by Mark Thielman, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2018.

The Black Orchid Novella Award is co-sponsored by the Wolfe Pack and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  It is intended to promote the sort of fair play detective stories illustrated by Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novellas.

The rules do not require that the story follows the structure of Stout's work, but most of the winners have done that.  (Full disclosure: mine did.)  Here's what I mean by that structure: the narrator does the legwork of investigating a crime, bringing back clues to an older and wiser character, who solves the crime, usually by bringing all the suspects together for a chat.

Thielman has followed that pattern, as he did with his 2015 winner, which also made my best-of list.  Both of his novellas use actual historical figures.

It is 1769, deep in the South Pacific.  Our narrator is Joseph Banks, chief naturalist on the HMS Endeavour, which has been sent on a scientific investigation to observe the Transit of Venus.  When one of Banks's assistants is found with his throat cut just as they arrive at Tahiti, Banks is ordered to investigate the crime by none other than Captain James Cook.  He is handicapped by his lack of knowledge of navy ways and nautical  vocabulary, but he brings back the facts which allow Cook to cleverly determine the identity of the murderer.

Cook is a wonderful character here.  Witness his comment on another character:

I wished I had the opportunity to have spoken more with the man.  Of course, I may have ended up ordering him hanged, but up to then, he would have proved a fascinating man with whom to converse.  A pity I missed the opportunity.


Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Hateful in the Eyes of God, by Eric Rutter

"Hateful in the Eyes of God," by Eric Rutter, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2018.

This is a terrific story, full of historic detail, plot twists, and much to reflect on.

It is London in the 1830s.  John Alcorn is a freelance reporter, a "penny-a-liner."  His specialty is the criminal courts because, then as now, scandal is always popular.  He is in the gallery when Charles Stanbridge is brought into the courtroom.  This fine, outstanding married gentleman has been accused of indecent assault, which is a reduced version of the charge of "the infamous crime,"  alias, homosexuality.  That greater offense could get a man sentenced to exile or even death.

Alcorn offers to sell his story on the case to the defendant, rather that to the press, a form of extortion which is perfectly legal.  But when Stanbridge apparently kills himself the reporter feels guilt and tries to learn more about the case.

And so he, and we, find out a good deal about the secret life of what we would call gay men, but what in this era were called sods or Mary Anns.  As I said there are plot twists I never saw coming, but the whole story is fascinating.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The End of the World, by Susan Breen

"The End of the World," by Susan Breen, in Malice Domestic Presents: Murder Most Geographical, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons, Wildside Press, 2018.

Cosima Bell lived in the thrall of her father, a pianist who became obsessed with the music of Liszt and dedicated his life to mastering the complex music.  (Cosima was named after the composer's daughter... creepy.)

When the story begins dear old Dad has just been convicted of murdering several young men in the basement.  Cosima insists to the press that she had no idea what he was up to but, well, let's say she isn't out trying to prove him innocent either. 

She has enough money to start a new life which she does by heading to a resort in Tahiti.Very peaceful and beautiful, except the couple a few cottages down keeps arguing about money.  Nothing unusual about that, except that the quarrels are about ten million dollars.  And the quarrels are getting nasty. 

If another crime occurs, will Cosima be trying to explain she didn't know anything about this one too?

A tricky tale that caught me by surprise.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Kyiv Heat, by Alex Shaw

"Kyiv Heat," by Alex Shaw, in Noirville, Fahrenheit Press, 2018.

 Gennady Dudka is a top director of the Ukraine's Security Service.  He is too set in his ways to cope with new technology.  "Dudka's radio, like him, was old and refused to retire."  Just before the Kyiv Day holiday he receives a disturbing package from as it turns out, an old friend who is a retired KGB agent.

Dudka is under pressure to find out who set a bomb that killed a reporter.  His friend's information suggests it was Ukrainian spies working for the Russians.  But can the information be trusted or is someone being set up?  And if so, who is the schemer and who is the potential victim?

A neat little tale of the world in which the back of every cloak is targeted by a dagger.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Where the Strange Ones Go, by Steve Hockensmith

"Where the Strange Ones Go," by Steve Hockensmith, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May/June 2018.

This is Hockensmith's second appearance here.

It's 1995 and a young and naive college student gets a job as a receptionist at a video matchmaker service.  (The story is peppered with sad and hilarious ads, like the woman who prefers lizards to other pets, or the man who offers to take you on a tour of Ed Gein's farm, the inspiration for the movie Psycho.)  

She quickly figures out that her main job is providing  a layer of protection between her slime devil boss and his dissatisfied customers.  But things have a way of turning around and the ending is full of clever twists.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Fast Bang Booze, by Lawrence Maddox

"Fast Bang Booze," by Lawrence Maddox, Shotgun Honey, 2018.

Lot of housekeeping to get through today, so bear with me.

1. My friend Lawrence Maddox is making his second appearance in this column.  He sent me a free e-copy of this book, which includes the title piece and another story.

2. If you published (or were published in) a book of mystery stories this year, you can send me a free copy if you want, just like Maddox.  I promise to start reading it.  If it's the best story I read that week I'll review it here.  Contact me for instructions.

3.  Is this a short story?  What's the defining factor?  The classic definition is fiction that you can read in one sitting.  It would take a lot of sitzfleisch to read some of the stories at the end of this list in one round.  Another definition used to be that it was something too short to publish as a book, but e-books can work at any length.  This one is 25,000 words, which is long for a novella, short for a novel.  I'm going to review it.  If you disagree with my verdict, as I have said before, get your own blog.

4.  (Trust me, we're getting closer.)  I'm sure you have heard or read someone say that in a dangerous situation it felt like time slowed down.  A few years ago a scientist decided to test this concept.  How could he do that?  Well his hypothesis was that when it felt like time was slowing down what really happened was that the brain sped up.   He found a clever way to test that and alas, found that it wasn't true.

Why am I bringing this up?  Because for Frank, the narrator of Fast Bang Booze, it's true.  His nervous system really does work faster than everyone else. For example, he can see a punch coming and get out of the way.   That makes him a heck of a driver, and good in a fight.  Unfortunately it also makes his voice come out as a "schizoid turkey gobble."

He can slow his brain down with a depressant, i.e. alcohol,  which allows him to talk like a normal person.  But then he loses his, well, super powers, too.  What a dilemma.

As this tale starts, he is being discovered by Popov, a Russian gangster who decides such a fast fighter would be a useful addition to his crew.  Popov is arranging  that noir cliche, One Last Job, in this case a drug deal which will make him or break him.  This being noir, a whole lot of people and things will get broken, shot, tied up, crashed, stolen, drugged, whipped, etc.  It's a wild ride and it reads a lot faster than 25,000 words sounds.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

10,432 Serial Killers (in Hell), by Emily Devenport

"10,432 Serial Killers (in Hell)," by Emily Devenport, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2018.

Let me start out by saying the last few issues of AHMM have had outstanding cover art.  Truly.

It's hard enough to write a good crime story.  Some people  choose to increase the degree of difficulty by adding fantasy elements.  Now you're trying to satisfy the strictures of two genres, and you know some people will reject your tale because they only enjoy one of them.  So if you try it, you better know what you're doing.

Devenport, obviously, does.

The story begins with a bus driver spotting a "white lady hurrying toward her empty bus at eleven thirty night.  The lady had pajamas on under her bathrobe and big, fat slippers on her feet, which explained why she couldn't break into a run."  She also had a small dog under one arm, and a cat under the other.

Obviously a comic situation.  But Katie Thomas is in a serious mess.  She is running away from "the serial killer in my apartment."  His name, she says, is John Fogus and they met in Hell.

Say what?

Katie explains to an officer: She had been in a car accident two years earlier and was dead for thirty seconds.  She spent that time in Hell, where she met 10,432 serial killers.

"That's a lot of people, Katie."
"They were all in one place together."
"Kind of like a stadium setting?"
"Kind of."

So Katie is obviously crazy.  Except someone did break into her apartment and left hints that tied him to unsolved killings.

A fun story which even offers an interesting take on Hell. 



Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Last Siege of Bothwell Castle, by Chris Brookmyre

"The Last Siege of Bothwell Castle," by Chris Brookmyre, in Bloody Scotland, edited by James Crawford, Pegasus, 2018.

Each of the stories in this book was written by a Scottish author and inspired by one of the nation's historic buildings.

In all fairness I should say I am pretty much the ideal target for this book.  You know how I feel about mystery stories and I love Scotland.  I have been in at least three of the buildings described herein.

But not Bothwell Castle, where our story takes place. There's a historical reenactment going on and the place is crowded with tourists, and also with some very bad people up to no-good.  Soon they are taking hostages and making demands.

A cop named Catherine McLeod takes control of the situation but the hostages' best chance for rescue might be Sanny and Sid, two young sneak thieves who were scooped up with the tourists.

The plot is clever but what I most admire about the story is its language which is alive and feels real.  (One of the young thieves make a complaint about telecommunicaations that made me laugh out loud.)

But in the passage below  Sid has just called one of other hostages a "Septic," and the man demands an explanation.

"Septic tank.  Yank."
This doesnae go down well either.
"I ain't no Yankee.  I'll have you know I'm a proud Georgian.  I'm from the South."
"The south of whit?" Sid asks.
"The Southern states," Sanny tells him.  "Sure, the ones that got pumped in the Civil War."
"Silence," says the gunman...   "Do not speak.  And give me your phones.  All of you."
This provokes a load of moaning, like the prospect of handing over their mobiles is worse than the prospect of imminent death...


Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Icing on the Cake, by Russell Day


"The Icing on the Cake," by Russell  Day, in Noirville, Fahrenheit Press, 2018.

This is a tasty piece of work and I can't do justice to it in a plot summary.  But here goes.

The narrator, Gareth, is a gofer for Mr. Driscoll, a British crime boss.  Today his mission is to drive a Jaguar down to a prison where the car's owner, Harry the Spider Linton, is being released after  seven years for robbing a post office.  Although, as it turns out, Harry thinks he owes his incarceration to the stupidity of Mr. Driscoll.

Harry's rage is so feverish that it seems like it might end the trip prematurely.  Gareth might me in danger.  What is going to happen if/when Harry gets to his old mate's mansion, and encounters the man he now sees as the cause of his lost years?

Well, I can't tell you that.  But I will say that the ending sent a shiver down my spine, and it is a rare story these days that gives me a spinal freeze.  

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Canary Islands Crime Boss, by Glenda Young

"The Canary Islands Crime Boss," by Glenda Young, in Noirville, Fahrenheit Press, 2018.

Poor Jimmy.  An accountant isn't supposed to get in this sort of trouble.  Yes, when he married Linda he knew her brother was in organized crime.  But he never guessed Larry would rope him in to do the books.  And once you're in that business the severance package is... severe.

Larry has called them down to the Canary Islands so Jimmy can help with his latest project, which is a little odd.  "We'll be the baked bean underbelly of Britain," he declares, and, no, I won't attempt to explain that.

But Larry has enemies.  Maybe Jimmy does too.  Maybe his wife is jealous of his assorted affairs.  Maybe things aren't as sunny in the islands as the tourist brochures would have you believe...

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Curse, by Mark Edwards

"The Curse," by Mark Edwards, in Night of the Flood, edited by E.A. Aymar, and Sarah M. Chen.  Down and Out Books, 2018.

This is an example of a Shared Universe book, a concept which I am not going to discuss in detail here because I think I will probably write about it at length in SleuthSayers one of these days.

The short version is this: In the small western Pennsylvania town of Everton, Maggie Wilbourne murdered the men she said raped her.  For this she was executed.  As revenge, a group of feminist terrorists called the Daughters blow up the dam, flooding Everton.  Each story in this book, written by different authors,  takes place on the night of this event.  Some move the main story line, about the Daughters.  Some have no connection to it except for the flood event.  This witty story is one of the latter.

Ed and Rhi are Britons, moved to the small town of Everton, PA to dodge what they believe is a curse.  It seems that Rhi met a demon named Frank (Frank?) who offered her a winning lottery ticket in return for a horrible deed to be done later.  After they have spent most of the money Frank calls up and demands they do the unspeakable thing he wants.  When they refuse he threatens them with a curse.

And suddenly their life is burdened with bugs, and boils, and a fire.  So they escape to America and encounter, naturally, a flood.  In the anarchic night of crime and looters they can probably get away with what Frank demands, but are the willing to do it?

More importantly, is there really a demon named Frank?  I'm not the one to tell.  But let me remind you of something a very wise man said last week in this very space:

By the way, not all surprises are created equal.  If a meteor struck the bad guy, that would be surprising but not satisfying.

The ending of this story is straight out of left field, but I found it completely satisfying.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Kindness, by Tom Hallman, Jr.

"Kindness," by Tom Hallman, Jr., in Mystery Weekly Magazine, April 2018.

I like surprises.  Not in real life, I hasten to add, so put down that seltzer bottle.  But surprises in fiction are definitely a good thing.

The main reason that this story made my page this week is that twice I thought Well, I see where this is headed, and both times I was wrong.  That's nice.

Phil's family moved to an inner city neighborhood that is gentrifying.  Great house, nice neighbors.  But then the old man across the street dies and his house is inherited by a jerk who parties all night The jerk is a huge guy who "reminded me of one of those men featured on cable shows taking viewers inside America's roughtest prisons."

When this guy takes an unhealthy interest in Phil's teenage daughter things seem really desperate.  But  then Phil meets Deke, a motorcyclist and a proud one-percenter.  This does not refer to the one-percent who own so much of our country; it's an older term referring to the supposed one percent of motorcyclists who are criminals.

Phil helps Deke with a problem.  Will Deke help Phil with his?  Or, hint hint, will something different happen?

By the way, not all surprises are created equal.  If a meteor struck the bad guy, that would be surprising but not satisfying.  But the twists in this tale are nicely foreshadowed.  There is a flaw in the plot (let's just say it's better to be lucky than to plan well), but it didn't stop my enjoying the story.

Another complaint, which you've heard me make before.  There are not a lot of characters in this story, so why do three of them need to be named Amy, Allison, and Anderson? 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Gunfighters, by Michael Cebula

"The Gunfighters," by Michael Cebula, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, April 2018.

I don't go looking for western stories, because that's not what I'm in the business of reviewing, but this one showed up in Mystery Weekly Magazine, and it has plenty of the right elements.  Plus it's a good story.

In a  cliched western when two gunfighters face off one usually ends up dead and the other unhurt.  But as our tale begins the two antagonists are both gut shot and dying.

Deadeye Danny is a "a skinny rumor of a man," so narcissistic that he refers to himself by his self-anointed nickname and talks like a character out of a dime novel.

Harris is a trick shooter, both laconic and sardonic.  At one point he asks the doctor if his wound is going to be fatal.  The doctor assures him that it is and begins to explain what damage was done.

“Was only asking what time it was, Doc,” Harris said. “No need to explain how the clock was built.” 

As the two enemies sit, more or less abandoned, waiting for the end, they try to settle a question: how exactly did they wind up fighting each other in the first place?  And there is the mystery, a clever one at that.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Wedding Ring, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

"The Wedding Ring," by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2018.

This is Rusch's sixth appearance on this site.

I try to treat all my little darlings equally, rooting the same for every story I read but I admit that sometimes a concept or opening is so strong I find myself cheering the author on:  Keep going!  Don't screw this up!  

Rusch didn't screw it up.  Here is the concept I liked so much: Serena is a classics professor and after a bad breakup she goes to Las Vegas for what she calls her Liberation Vacation.  There she meets the man of her dreams.  Shortly after that they are married.  Shortly after that he disappears, taking her cash, self-confidence, and so much more.

One cop says about the crooks: "They're not in it for the money.  They're in it to destroy their marks."

Serena replies.  "They didn't destroy me...  I'm right here. And I'm going to destroy them right back."   To do that all she has to do is become a completely different person.  Hell hath no fury, and all that...

There's a lot of thoughtful detail in this novella.  For example: the title does not refer to a piece of jewelry.  Or consider the name: Serena.  Or the final moniker the bad guy chooses.  (It tolls for thee, baby.)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Submarine of Walker Lake, by Brendan DuBois

"The Submarine of Walker Lake," by Brendan DuBois, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2018.

Correction made, thanks to Kevin Tipple.

Great title, huh?  This is DuBois' seventh appearance in this blog, which ties him with Terence Faherty.  It's not a typical DuBois story, being funnier and shorter than I am used to from him.

Sean Sullivan, our narrator, is an ex-Bostn cop, having lost his job in a reshuffle after a scandal.  The only job he could find was as a patrolman in a small town called Walker, New Hampshire.  He is still getting used to the place and the pace, and when some odd assignments come in he isn't sure whether someone is pranking the new boy.

For example Lon Kotkin claims he has seen a submarine in Walker Lake.  Is he nuts, Sullivan asks the chief.  "Compared to what?" is the reply.

I won't spoil the best line in the story by repeating it here, but it involves a bad guy asking a classic question and getting a rather startling reply.

It's a fun tale.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Queen and Country, by Robert Mangeot

"Queen and Country," by Robert Mangeot, Mystery Weekly Magazine, March 2018.

This is the third appearance by Robert Mangeot in these hollowed electrons.  He is all about language and this time is practically in Wodehouse territory.  

Well, technically he's in rural France in the late fifties, or at least Nick Torthwaite is.  Nick is an arachnologist, sent over from Britain to hunt for a tropical spider.  Or maybe he's hunting for his despised fellow scientist who traveled there first, in search of the precious queen spider.  In fact, both of them are working for the British government who thinks the deadly spider may have military uses.  But other forces are a t work here and may kill Nick before ge can get to the spider or before the beastie can get to him...

I talked abou the language, so here is our hero bragging about himself and "...the Nick Torthwaite-in-the-field look. Stubble, chronograph, safari vest and poplin slacks, I cut a dashing if stocky figure, the famed scientist after his quarry."  Good luck, Nick.


Sunday, March 11, 2018

High Explosive, by Martin Limon

"High Explosive," by Martin Limón, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March-April 2018.

This is Martin Limón's fourth appearance here.  I am a big fan of  his stories about George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, two Army CID officers in South Korea sometime in the mid-seventies, combating deadly soldiers, corrupt civilians, and bosses more concerned with the chain of command than the chain of evidence.

In this case the National Police's chief investigative officer, Mr. Kill,has called them in because a cab driver was robbed and badly beaten by three young American men. Who could they be but some of the G.I.'s in the country?  Worse, the cabbie's passenger was kidnapped with the car: a young woman.   

And so Sueño and Bascom are on a desperate search to find three soldiers out of 50,000, before something terrible and terminal happens to their victim.  

Limón spent ten years in the army in Korea - although not a cop like his heroes a and as they think through the problem (Who would have had access to diesel to burn up the cab?  Which of the dozens of army bases were large enough to hide a woman on but small enough that the guards might let you get away with it?) it is clear that he knows his subject matter thoroughly.

A terrific story.



Sunday, March 4, 2018

Night Walker, by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg

"Night Walker," by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March-April 2018.


This is Pronzini's second appearance here.

Brevity is not an obstacle to greatness in a short story, but it sure can make it hard to write a review that doesn't give away the store.  This story is under 2,000 words so I won't have much to say about it, good as it is.

Henry Boyd's life changed forever when a moment of his own carelessness destroyed his family.  He hoped to be sent to prison but the courts thought otherwise.  He can't face the thought of suicide so now he walks through the night, hoping some criminal will do to him what he lacks the courage to do to himself.

Instead, what happens is... See?  This is where I have to stop.  But the last sentence is sheer poetry.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Getting Somewhere, by Susan Isaacs

"Getting Somewhere," by Susan Isaacs, in It Occurs to  Me that I Am America, edited by Jonathan Santlofer, Touchstone, 2018.

This is not an anthology of mystery stories.  It is a collection of stories and art of various kinds brought together to benefit the American Civil Liberties Union. 

Susan Isaacs has written a lot of novels, including some pretty good crime fiction.  Is this story crime fiction?

Well, yes and no.  Otto Penzler famously described a mystery as a story in which crime or the threat of crime is a major element.  That covers The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and I, The Jury, and Gone Girl, but it also includes The Brothers Karamazov, Macbeth, and Oedipus Rex.  Most people instinctively reject those stories as being crime fiction.  I don't know how to distinguish between those two kinds of stories exactly, but as the Supreme Court famously said about pornography, I know it when I see it.

So, what do  I see here?  The narrator is Karen, wife of a wealthy man, and she explains  her encounter, in 2002, with a boatload of Haitian refugees on the Causeway outside Miami.  What they are doing is a crime, and so is what she does, which makes this a crime story, although it doesn't feel  like one to me.

Which doesn't mean it isn't a good story.  It is. 

What makes it special is the narrator's voice which is distinctive, amusing, and fascinating.

I was driving my car, a BMW convertible since that was around the time it became chic to be unpretentious.

Listen, I like Cubans and one of the women in my tennis group, Solana Diaz Ruiz, who for some reason didn't have a hyphen, was a total sweetheart and we had lunch once a week and knew all about each other's kids, and probably too much about our husbands.

[A] gift is a gift.  Either you give with a full heart or you just say screw it and hand over a Saks gift certificate.

Whenever I drove, I made myself listen to NPR.  It paid off.  When I stopped at a traffic light, people int he other cars could think, Intellectual.

Intellectual?  Maybe not so much.  But she finds herself at a crisis point with a chance to make a difference  and she knows that whatever she decides will change a lot of lives, including her own...

Monday, February 19, 2018

There Are No Elephants in Peru, by Margaret Maron

"There Are No Elephants in Peru," by Margaret Maron, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2018.

Typo corrected.  Sorry.

Interesting title, no?  Reminds me of the young adult novel by Paula Fox, Blowfish Live In The Sea, with which it has nothing else in common.

This is the second appearance here by MWA Grand Master Margaret Maron.  It is set in North Carolina in 1977.  Dr. Ellen Webster is an archaeologist teaching at a small women's college, and she has been summoned to meet a potential donor who-- Well, let Webster introduce her:

Victoria Hoyt Gardner was as delicate as her china: very thin, very old, very expensive.

Very, very nice writing, that.  Mrs. Gardner is the last of a wealthy family which has donated extensively to the college.  Now she wants to leave her house as a museum.  Her father and grandfather were hunters and the house is full of stuffed animals.

Dubious historic interest, no doubt, but Grandpa also collected trinkets all over the world on his hunting expeditions.  Trinkets like an Egyptian mummy, and pre-Columbian burial jars from South America.  Ellen gets the summer job of beginning to assess the contents of the collection, although there are obviously years of work ahead for someone.  She makes what might be a historic find, but that's not the problem.

The first problem is Mrs. Gardner's obsessive and eccentric demands.  The second is the return of the father of her three-year-old daughter (Ellen is, gasp, an unmarried mother in the 1970s).  He is now married to a rich woman and apparently he wants custody of their child.  Or is the sleazy creep after something else?

All shall be revealed.  The last paragraph is the best I have read in quite some time.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

Burg's Hobby Case, by Matthew Wilson

"Burg's Hobby Case," by Matthew Wilson, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, January/ February 2018.

This is a first story?  Wow.  In  my experience first mystery stories tend to be short and rooted in the author's immediate experience (and nothing wrong with that).  This one is a novella, or pretty close to it, and set forty years ago in a foreign country.  Although, to be fair, Wilson spent six years in the city where it is set.

So, we are in Bad Kissingen, a German spa city near an American military base.  It is the late 1970s, and Hans Burg has just been assigned an important murder case, a young woman shot to death.  That's surprising because he is  a drinker and a screw-up.

More surprisingly, he seems to have no interest in solving this big opportunity.  Instead he is pursuing his "hobby case," a search for certain Nazi memorabilia, banned in West Germany.  Obviously Burg is up to something, but you will have to follow his steps to find out.  Along the way I learned about some nuggets of post-war history that were new to me.

A very satisfying and believable tale.  YOu can read the first few pages for free here.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Crucial Game, by Janice Law

"The Crucial Game," by Janice Law, in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, January-February 2018.

In her fifth appearance at this blog, my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Janice Law has offered a story that is more fantasy than mystery.  But never fear, it does have a criminal, or, as Ellery Queen used to say, criminous, element.

Ever since he lost his wife, Frank had immersed himself in sports, especially in his all-time favorite, ice hockey.

So we begin.   One day lonely Frank, walking through Manhattan sees, among the vendors, a "little makeshift stand offering sports CDs and DVDS..."  The merchant is "thin, almost gaunt, and very dark so that his large eyes gleamed above the bold cheekbones and the wide, and to Frank's mind, somewhat predatory nose."  Sounds a bit spooky?  How about when he calls "I have what you need"?  A cautious man would run but Frank invests ten bucks in a DVD of the 1994 Rangers v. Devils match.  "Take you back where you want to go," the vendor promises.

And sure enough, when he pops it in the machine and starts it, his apartment is suddenly back in 1994, and he hears his wife cooking in the kitchen.  Astonishing.  But, well, what happens when the last game on the DVD ends?

This story grabbed me from beginning to end.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Little Big News: The Year's Best

At SleuthSayers today I list the best short mystery stories of the year.  This is my ninth annual list, and the longest ever.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Family Secrets, by Eric Beetner

"Family Secrets," by Eric Beetner, in Switchblade, #3, 2017.

Thuglit  is dead.  Long live Switchblade.  That was m first thought after reading the first few stories in this magazine.  As far as I know the publishing team of Switchblade has no connection to the late lamented Thuglit, but they share a noir sensibility much truer than the fancypants in the Akashic Press noir cities series.  (For the record,  I have been published by Akashic Press, but not by either of these two magazines.)  I wish Switchblade more success in the market than the old one had.

All right.  Here is how Mr. Beetner introduces his story.

"Daddy," I asked.  "Is that blood?"
Mom waved a hand at me, shooing me out of the bathroom as she pulled the door half closed.  I could still see Dad propping himself up on one hand while the rest of him sprawled out on the tile floor. His free hand stayed pressed hard into the deep red slain on his shirt, down near the hip.

The little boy has just discovered that his family has a secret, and that secret is going to change his life forever.  B eetner shows us very grim, adult, business from the boy's point of view.  Well-written.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Spoils, by William Ryan

"The Spoils," by William Ryan, in CWA Anthology of Short Stories: Mystery Tour, edited by Martin Edwards, Orenda Books, 2017.

An old piece of writing advice is that you should not show all your research.  You want it to inform your story without drowning your reader in it.

The same can be true of the fictional background of a story.  The writer may know more than she tells the reader about the characters, the past, etc.  Think of it as the architecture where the story takes place;  it may not get described, but it shapes where the characters can travel.

Ryan's story is intentionally vague on some points, letting the reader fill in the dots.  For example, Amanda works for The Firm, and we don't know exactly what that august company does, except that "I knew enough about The Firm to put Stacy and the other partners in a federal penitentiary for a very long time."

Oh yes, Stacy.  When the story begins Stacy is firing Amanda.  They were rivals, competing for the same chair at The Firm, and Stacy won.  But it is not just a business rivalry.  It becomes clear that Stacy wants to ruin Amanda's life.  Why?  Well, that's vague, too.

And then there's Angela (ugh... why name two important characters Angela and Amanda?).  She is clearly in the Witness Protection Program for reasons that will eventually become clear.

If this all seems terminally vague, all I can say is, it works.  And when Amanda  seeks revenge, there is nothing vague about it.




 




Friday, January 19, 2018

Little Big News: Edgar Nominations

Congratulations to the Edgar nominations for Best Short Mystery!

“Spring Break” – New Haven Noir by John Crowley (Akashic Books)
“Hard to Get” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Jeffery Deaver (Dell Magazines)
“Ace in the Hole” – Montana Noir by Eric Heidle (Akashic Books)
“A Moment of Clarity at the Waffle House” – Atlanta Noir by Kenji Jasper (Akashic Books)
“Chin Yong-Yun Stays at Home” – Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine by S.J. Rozan (Dell Magazines)

And the winner of the Robert L. Fish Award for Best First Mystery Short:

“The Queen of Secrets” – New Haven Noir by Lisa D. Gray (Akashic Books)

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Travel is Dangerous, by Ed James

"Travel is Dangerous," by Ed James, in CWA Anthology of Short Stories: Mystery Tour, edited by Martin Edwards, Orenda Books, 2017.



The one thing I don't understand about this story is why Edinburgh detectives would be shipped over to Glasgow in order to investigate a murder.  There's no one closer than an hour away?  Maybe it has something to do with the theme of the book being travel?  All right, moving past that.

Cullen is a DS, detective sergeant in Scotland's capital.  He is reluctantly paired with Bain, who complains that breakfast there is (as Cullen sarcastically summarizes) "nowhere near as good as in Glasgow, home of sectarian violence and divine fry-ups..."

A naked dead man has been found in a garbage bin.  Well, not quite naked.  He is wearing a pink diaper.  The murder involved a gay orgy, which does not sit well with Bain.  I can't find the exact phrase but at one point Cullen interrupts his speech "to prevent a hate crime being committed." 

It's a witty story and various kinds of justice are administered before it ends.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Truth Comes Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind, by Thomas Pluck

“Truth Comes Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind," by Thomas Pluck, in Alive in Shape and Color, edited by Lawrence Block, Pegasus Books, 2017.

This is the second appearance in this blog by my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Thomas Pluck.  And that brings up an interesting point. Most of the stories I have read by him are somewhat raw and visceral. This one is nuanced and sophisticated.  Notice I am not saying that one is better than the other.  Pluck has fit his style to his material, as good writers do.

The narrator is the host of TV shows about archaeology.  He has been invited to a German dig by Emma, a woman he knew in school, who is leading the dig.  But he is not there because of old memories, or his TV show.  He is an expert in the Kurgan civilization, which is known only by the strange burials they left behind.

And there may be Kurgan burials here.  Emma has found some weird stuff, like evidence of cannibalism, and a headless female skeleton in a well.  Very mysterious stuff.

Speaking of mysteries, reasonable people could disagree over whether this is a mystery, i.e., a crime story, or something else.  But if you don't like my decision, start your own damn blog.  And that's about as raw and visceral as I get here.

Monday, January 1, 2018

A Significant Find, by Jeffery Deaver

"A Significant Find," by Jeffery Deaver, Alive in Shape and Color, edited by Lawrence Block, Pegasus Books, 2017.

This is Deaver's third appearance in this column, second one this year.

Each story in the book is inspired by a work of art, which appears in front of it.  In this case it the Cave Paintings of Lascaux, some of the oldest art work in the world.

Sometimes the difference between a good story and a great one is the structure.  I can't imagine this tale working nearly as well without the simple device Deaver uses to introduce it.

It begins with Roger and Della having a crisis of conscience.  They are a married couple, both moderately successful mid-career archaeologists, and they are in France for a conference.

Why the crisis?  Well, let's put it this way.  Suppose Professor A gets a clue to a career-changing discovery but doesn't realize how to use it.  If he tells Professors B and C about it and they are more clever at interpreting the puzzle, are B and C required to share the credit with A?

An ethical dilemma indeed.  And Roger and Della are about to face more dilemmas, but I can't tell you about that without giving away the store.  Or the cave.  Some lovely twists in this one.