Sunday, July 29, 2018
Uncle Sam, by Leye Adenle
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
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
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
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 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.
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