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.