Monday, December 28, 2020

Clickbait, by Mark R. Kehl

"Clickbait," by Mark R. Kehl, in Mickey Finn, volume 1, edited by Michael Bracken, Down & Out Books, 2020.

The night of the home invasion, Bobby Lyon was busy jabbing a seventy-three-old index finger at his smart phone, reading reactions to the day's auction.

 That's how we start.  Lyon is a washed-up action movie star, now in a wheelchair, waiting to be moved into a senior home after his possessions were sold to pay ex-wives, the IRS, etc.  But now he may be getting more action than he wants...

I guessed where this story was going, but not every good tale needs a surprise ending.  This one is mostly about heightened language.

The despair that had grown familiar since the world had started tearing away his life in increasingly larger and bloodier chunks embraced him like a ravenous ghost.

Another sound, heavy but muffled, like Frankenstein's monster in bunny slippers.

...words and low laughs, both respectful and irreverent at the same time, like atheists in church.

Mr. Kehl is a master of similes.

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Mailman, by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

 "The Mailman," by Andrew Welsh-Huggins, in Mickey Finn, volume 1, edited by Michael Bracken, Down & Out Books, 2020.

This is the author's third appearance on this page.  

When was the last time I reviewed a good 'ol suspense story?  Been a while, I think.

The nameless protagonist is a deliveryman.  He tells his contact that he has never lost a package.

"A package?" his contact replies.  "Jesus Christ, we're talking about a woman.  A mother and child."

As the story goes on we learn more about why the couple is on the run, and the danger they face.  Because some of the rules get broken the deliveryman finds himself in deep trouble: one small man with no gun up against two bigger, heavily armed toughs.  

Will he find a way to deliver the goods?  I'm rooting for him.  You will find the outcome satisfactory.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Tell Him No, by Scott Turow


"Tell Him No," by Scott Turow, in California Schemin', edited by Art Taylor, Wildside Press, 2020.

What kind of work can an 81-year-old private eye do?  Running and fist-fighting seem to be out of the question.  High-tech is a non-starter.  

But one thing an old dude can do easily is be ignored.  And that's a very good thing for surveillance.

Tim Brodie, ex-cop, is following Dykstra, a man who wants to sell his business to Tim's employer.  Listening in on his conversations turns out to be easy because Dykstra "was the kind who thought they'd invented the cellphone so everyone in the vicinity would know he was important."  Boy, do I know that guy.  

It's fun watching Brodie watching his target, and then learning what he figured out, and how his boss could use it.  An entertaining tale.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Underneath it all Runs the River of Sadness, by Oto Oltvanji

"Underneath it all Runs the River of Sadness," by Oto Oltvanji, in Belgrade Noir, edited by  Milorad Ivanovic, Akashic Press, 2020.

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."  So said Ralph Waldo Emerson.  

I wanted to begin with that because I have often criticized the fine folks at Akashic Press - who sent me a free copy of this book - for including stories in their Noir Cities series that are not noir.  But here I am about to praise a story that also misses the noir mark.

I'm inconsistent.  So sue me.  But this is a fine, sweet, story.

Ranko and Kozma are neighbors and old friends.  Kozma is the troublemaker.  As a cop he did little but paperwork and now, in retirement, he is desperate to actually solve a crime for once.  His attempts to find villainy where there may be none has gotten him into hot water with the police and the neighborhood.

But now, just maybe, he could be onto something.  There's a man on the fourth floor, he tells Ranko, who keeps bringing young women to his apartment.  Nothing wrong with that, except they never come out.  

So the two old men start spying on the young man, and things get complicated.  There is a crime involved, no doubt about that, but what makes the story so charming is the way seemingly unrelated pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle to make a satisfactory whole. 


Sunday, November 29, 2020

My People, by Liza Cody

 "My People," by Liza Cody, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December 2020.

This is Liza Cody's second appearance here.  It is not a conventional crime story a much as a reflection on the fact that, as another British author noted, "a policeman's lot is not a happy one."

I was standing with five other people, arms linked,. protecting a man dressed as a giant cauliflower who had superglued himself to Lambeth Bridge.

Well.  That's an opening gambit that certainly caught my attention.

Shareen Manasseh is our narrator, a Jewish woman whose family came to Britain from India.  She joined the police force and, without much training, was assigned to infiltrate the climate change activists - she calls them rebels - who shut down much of London and were threatening to do it again.

Her time with that group has her rethinking her allegiance.  Did she become a cop to get "black-and-white certainty" or because it was better "to be with the bullies than against them.  I was tired of being picked on; I just want to belong." 

Shareen's loyalties are put to the test when a protester is found dead.  Was this just an accident? Was he beaten in police custody?    Or is there a red wolf among the green lambs?

And most importantly: Is Shareen thinking like a cop or a rebel?

A fine  story with a lot of food for thought.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Death of Another Hero, by Susan Daly

"Death of Another Hero," by Susan Daly, in Ellen Hart Presets: Malice Domestic 15: Murder Most Theatrical, edited by Verona Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons, Wildside Press, 2020.

This is the second appearance in this space by Susan Daly. 

Once upon a time a local theatre group did a new version of Much Ado About Nothing to celebrate the town's hundredth anniversary.  Twenty-five years later they decide to do it again.  Some of the people involved have gone on to fame, none greater than  Gary Mortimer, now a slowly fading star  named Gareth Caulfield.  

But whatever you call him, he is an unpleasant person, and someone is after revenge. The question is: what kind?

The problem with an anthology with this narrow a focus is that a lot of the stories tend to resemble each other.  (Deaths on stage; ambitious understudies...)  Daly manages to break the pattern in interesting ways.  And the title is very clever indeed.


Monday, November 16, 2020

Woodstock, by Michael Bracken

 "Woodstock," by Michael Bracken, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November/December 2020.

This is the seventh appearance in this space by my fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken.  That puts him close to the top of the list of repeat offenders.  This time he is a long distance from his usual territory, both geographically and thematically.

It's August 1969 and Shirley Warner picks up a hitchhiker who explains he is on his way to a music festival near Woodstock, New York.  The hitcher, a hippie, decides she looks like a Shirley.  "A housewife.  Her old man takes the train into the city five days a week, expects dinner on the table and a fresh martini waiting when he gets home.  Most exciting thing a Shirley does is watch Wild Kingdom Sunday nights to see if Him Fowler gets mauled by something." 

Shirley's response?  She throws her wedding rings out the window.

And that is how the story proceeds.  Shirley's reaction to the famous Three Days of Peace and Music, tells us all we know (or need to know) about her immediate past.  By the time it is over her life is moving in a new direction.

A well-written story.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Handed, on a Gold Plate, by Robert Mangeot


"Handed, on a Gold Plate," by Robert Mangeot, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, November 2020.

This is the fifth appearance here by my fellow SleuthSayer, the very funny Robert Mangeot.  

Wade is an auditor and  he is about to achieve his life's ambition by representing the accounting firm on a lottery draw.  

It’s where a star auditor ride gets launched intro flash by intro flash if the auditor is poised enough, debonair enough, the public assured enough.

Perhaps he can work his way up to award shows!

But among the obstacles he faces are the lotto guy who doesn't want to hear a peep out of him.  "I’ll know a peep is coming because your brains will smoke cranking into peep mode."

But the bigger problem is his suspicion that the lottery draw has somehow been fixed.  If he doesn't speak up he is a failure as an auditor, but if he squeals and is wrong... hoo boy.


Sunday, November 1, 2020

My Simple Plan, by Ariel Gore


 "My Simple Plan," by Ariel Gore, in The Nicotine Chronicles, edited by Lee Child, Akashic Press, 2020.

The publisher sent me a free copy of this book.  Much appreciated.

All the stories in this book are about tobacco; not all are about crime.  This one definitely qualifies.

Our nameless narrator is stuck in a tiny village in Tuscany. The residents scorn him as a homosexual and, worse, an American.  But he has a plan for making big bucks.

The Italian tobacco workers are on strike and our hero has two backpacks full of precious ciggies.  He plans to wait a few days for desperation to build up and then sell individual smokes at a boomed-up price.

One tiny problem: someone who arrives in town with black market cigarettes is murdered.  And that means: 1. Someone in town is willing to kill for a smoke, and 2. Anyone with cartons of cigarettes is an obvious suspect for the killing.  So, that's two problems, really, and neither of them are tiny.

I saw one plot twist coming but another one delighted me.  Very clever story.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Goon #4, by Tod Goldberg

 "Goon #4," by Tod Goldberg, in The Darkling Halls of Ivy, edited by Lawrence Block, LB Productions, 2020.

It makes sense that this story appears in an anthology edited by Lawrence Block because the main character reminds me of Block's meditative hitman, Keller.

Goon #4 (his mama named him Blake) is an ex-military thug, now specializing in high-risk assignments, bodyguarding bad guys or making bad guys wish, in one final moment, that they had hired bodyguards.

Blake has made enough money to retire.  But what to do now?  He decides to go to college and winds up, more or less by accident, in a class on radio performing.  Here he is pondering the building in which the class is taught:

Whole place was maybe 2,500 square feet and could be attacked from about twenty-nine different angles.  A totally unsafe spot to conduct an op... but Blake guessed it was probably fine for learning.

So Blake may be has a little trouble separating his past life from his current one.  And when a professor gives him an assignment, rest assured that he takes all assignments seriously.  Perhaps too seriously...

A fun and quirky story.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Alt-AC, by Warren Moore

 "Alt-AC," by Warren Moore, in The Darkling Halls of Ivy, edited by Lawrence Block, LB Productions, 2020.

This is the second appearance here by Warren Moore.  It ranges between the amusing and startling.

I may be prejudiced in favor of this tale because I am both an academic and the father of an academic, so I sympathize with both generations represented here.

Roger Patterson possesses a newly minted PhD. in medieval English.  He has been in Kalamazoo for the annual conference on medieval studies and he offers a Senior Scholar a trip to the airport.  Beggs, the Senior Scholar, turns out to be a historian, with a comfy job of the kind Patterson will probably never get.

Patterson is on the market (a phrase that  "made him feel like a haunted house.  Or a slightly bruised avocado") at a time when there are over a hundred people applying for every position.  He is likely to wind up teaching at  "the Swamp County School of Mortuary Science and Transmission Repair."   Or worse he may need to find an alternative to academia, the dreaded "Alt-AC."

The writing is hilarious but I found myself thinking: this is a book of crime stories.  So somebody has to get naughty, right?  Don't worry.  Somebody does.

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Whole Story, by Andrew Welsh-Huggins


"The Whole Story," by Andrew Welsh-Huggins, in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Issue 7, 2020.

This is the second appearance here by this author.

Hayes is a private eye with a strange assignment.  Bobby Putnam is in prison for driving drunk, resulting in the death of his daughter.  He doesn't deny the crime but he wants Hayes to confirm his impression that the driver whose truck he hit was not looking at him.  His eyes, Putnam insists, were on a man across the street,  man who vanished before the cops arrived.

Not that it would have changed Putnam's guilt.   But he is desperate to know if he's right about this one niggling detail about the event that destroyed his life.

Of course there turns out to be more to this clever story.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Chum in the Water, by Lori Roy

 "Chum in the Water," by Lori Roy, in Tampa Bay Noir, edited by Colette Bancroft, Akashic Press, 2020.

Ms Roy knows her noir, no doubt about that.

Dale is a building contractor and house flipper and he has run into a bad season made worse by bad luck and bad choices.  One of those choices was borrowing a ton of money from Chum Giordano.  Chum has a reputation for not taking kindly to deadbeats.

But on the positive side of the ledger Dale has two items.  His house is about to sell, which will take care of his debt.  And there is an attractive new bartender in his favorite bar who is showing an interest in him.  

Sounds good!  What could possibly go wrong?

Oh yeah.  This is noir...

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Terrible Ideas, by Gregory Fallis

 "Terrible  Ideas," by Gregory Fallis, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, September/October 2020.

It's unusual, I think for a private eye story to travel, third-person, through the heads of more than one character.  But this one does and it works.

Clayton Ellicott is the first viewpoint character.  He is the only fulltime lawyer for Midwest Center for Artists' Rights and most of his work is pretty boring: copyright, contacts, and so on.  

The exception is Triscuit, a petty thief who discovers a talent for photography after stealing an expensive camera.  It isn't the theft that gets him in trouble, though.  That would be a day he spent in the park taking pictures, some of them in the vicinity of small children.  Parents didn't like that.  When the police were called and saw that he was "a six-foot-two bearded man of mixed race" they didn't like it either.

Triscuit knew how to behave around hostile cops, but now he was an artist and they were demanding to see his camera.  He did not react well to that, which is how Ellicott the lawyer got involved.

Things escalate when a teenager girl goes missing from that same park.  Triscuit gets arrested and our lawyer calls in Hockney, a private eye.  

It helped that [Hockney] looked younger than she really was; it helped that she was attractive without being pretty.  it helped that she was slender and lissome and not at all threatening.

It all helped her to be a more effective detective.  But she resented it.  She resented that people -- women included -- took one look at her and immediately, automatically underestimated her...

And here she is talking to Triscuit, who is in jail: 

There's a sixteen-year-old white girl missing and the police think you had something to do with it.  Jesus couldn't get you out of here tonight.

A satisfying story with a surprising (but not twist) ending. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Cough, by Lynn Chandler Willis

 "The Cough," by Lynn Chandler Willis, in Writers Crushing COVID-19, edited by Lawrence Kelter, LightSpeed Books, 2020.

There's been a sort of race going on this year and, as far as I know, Willis is the winner.  She is the first person to get a story published in which COVID masks are used by robbers as a disguise.  You knew it had to be coming. 

That's not why this story is my best of the week, of course. The reason is that it is an amusing story of incompetent criminals.

Marty and Dwayne are hoping to rob a bank but the virus lockdown means that only drive-thru's are open. Foiled again!

Marty is the brains of the operation (and that is a low bar).  Dwayne seems as happy to score some toilet paper as he would be with the contents of a bank safe.

But our hero thinks of a way to rob the WalMart.  You my not be astonished that things don't go perfectly.  You may be even less astonished that COVID is involved.

My favorite line: When the two guys get separated and complain someone asks Marty: "You his emotional support animal or something?" 


Sunday, September 13, 2020

Kevin of the Dead, by Eoin Colfer


"Kevin of the Dead," by Eoin Colfer, in The Strand Magazine, Feb.-May 2020.

A page into this story I found myself hoping a crime would show up.  It was by no means a sure thing that that would happen, and I only review crime stories.  Fortunately, the story turned sufficiently criminous, as Ellery Queen used to say, to meet my standards.

So what is this about if not primarily crime?

It's a vampire story.  But Kevin is not your classic suave gothic (or goth) undead master of minds.  He's a whiny emo young man with a lot to complain about.  

"In my opinion there's a real market for vampire counsellors.  Someone to guide you through the process.  It's very traumatic waking up dead, I can tell you.  Not as traumatic as high school but pretty close."     

Our boy had a hard time getting along with people when he was alive and things haven't improved since he snuffed it.  Colfer offers us a more (dare I say?) realistic look at the undead lifestyle and it's hilarious.  Kevin goes out each night looking for blood but he also hopes his victim has "Netflix on her phone so I can catch up on Stranger Things."

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Golden Lives, by Joseph S. Walker


"Golden Lives," by Joseph S. Walker, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, September, 2020.

Annalee Lincoln left the army due to an accident that removed her foot.  Three months later she is home because her brother Ike died, in another accident.  This one happened while he was attempting to commit a rather stupid felony.

Annalee has trouble grasping that, because Ike was the smart one.  They were raised by their worthless uncle and Annalee feels the guilt common of older siblings who escape from a toxic home and have to leave the younger ones to cope without them.  

She can't bring him back but can she figure out what happened?  And maybe find love along the way?

Very satisfactory story.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

No Body, by Clea Simon

"No Body," by Clea Simon, in Shattering Glass, edited by Heather Graham, Nasty Women Press, 2020.

Before she even spoke she knew her body was gone. It had been a struggle, losing it. 

At first I thought the protagonist was a ghost, but no, she is a person in trauma experiencing, as some people do in such a situation, the sensation of being outside her own body. In fact, she was drugged and is being raped. 

None of the characters in this story are named, and the protagonist is never "the woman," but simply "she." It is a stylistic choice that keeps the story as intimate and claustrophobic. And this story is strong on style. 

The main character is a college student and the rapist is a popular student who lives right down the hall. He doesn't stop tormenting her, either, joking with his friends about her. But then... 

 I said this story is mostly about style, so honestly I was not expecting a clever and unexpected plot twist. But that's what you get.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Nicking Votes, by Stephen Buehler

"Nicking Votes," by Stephen Buehler, in Low Down Dirty Vote 2, edited by Mysti Berry, Berry Content Corporation, 2020.

I have a story in this book, by the way.

It's the summer of 1974 and con man Nick Townson is having a bit of hard luck.  His (stolen) car is overheating so he has to pull into a small desert town named Promise.  He will have to wait overnight for repairs and figures to while away the time by conning the locals out of some money with bar bets and similar tricks.

But it turns out there is an election going on, with two candidates for mayor: a sleazy developer and the attractive owner of the bar where Nick is playing his sneaky games.  Nick has no interest in politics but he may have no choice but to get involved.

A lot of clever twists in this one.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Law of Local Karma, by Susan Dunlap

 "The Law of Local Karma," by Susan Dunlap, in Berkeley Noir, edited by Jerry Thompson and Owen Hill, Akashic Press, 2020.

The publisher sent me an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

When Sergeant Endo Maduri talked about the case later he'd start off, "That was the last time Shelby and I rode together.  It made some of the guys on the force uncomfortable, but Maduri didn't care.

That is the opening paragraph, and it sets the hook nicely.  Is it the last time because Shelby dies, or retires, or because the two cops decide they can't work together?  It certainly made me want to turn pages and find out.

It's a winter afternoon in Berkeley and someone has killed a real estate flipper.  That means there are tons of suspects because lots of people had reasons to hate the guy, including police officer Shelby  and their only witness, a college kid named Janssen.  Maduri and Shelby get the witness in their car for a search around the neighborhood and he manages to include Lisa, a woman who is way out of his league, but would like the excitement of a trip in a police car.

Maduri is trying desperately  to keep the kid's attention on possible suspects while Janssen is much more interested in Lisa.  And Shelby, nearing retirement age and grumpy as hell, seems to have lost interest in the whole deal.  There are some clever twists here.

I must say this story almost lost me on the first page.  Maybe it's just me but I had a hell of a time figuring out who was who.  Is Shelby Callahan's first name?  Is one or both of them the patrolwoman?  Who is the suspect that everyone loses interest in but leaves face down on the sidewalk?  

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Only the Desperate Come Here, by Michael Mallory


"Only the Desperate Come Here," by Michael Mallory, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, August 2020.

I made a huge embarassing gaffe in an earlier version of this review.  My apologies.

 This is the fifth appearance here by my friend Michael Mallory.

When a client goes to attorney Scott Turley they know they are scraping the bottom of the barrel.  He lives in a room at the Y and his dinner is whiskey.

So it is a surprise when Carl Bone the Third, son of a city councilman, comes to him.  Seems he killed an old college buddy in the alley next to the bar where he worked.  Turley knows the ropes and has some tricks up his sleeves, but fate has a few aces he will need to deal with...

My favorite line: "While confession might be good for the soul, it was terrible for billable legal fees."

Clever stuff.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

What Brings You Back Home, by Michelle Richmond

"What Brings You Back Home," by Michelle Richmond, in Alabama Noir, edited by Don Noble, Akashic Press, 2020,

The publisher sent me a free copy of this book.

This is a sly one.  I enjoyed it a lot.

The nameless protagonist has returned to her childhood home of Mobile.  If anyone asks she leads them to think that her work is "as innocuous as it is forgettable.  She's in marketing, right?  Or is it advertising?"

Neither one, as it turns out.  She's up to something else, but maybe not entirely unrelated to those professions mentioned above.  And maybe they aren't as innocuous as they seem...

Twice I thought I knew where this story was going.  Twice I was fooled. Midway through we realize what is going on and the trajectory changes, becomes more, shall we say, polemic.  That wouldn't have worked nearly so well if Richmond hadn't set it up with the first-half.

Title is a nice choice. And here is my favorite bit of writing for the week:

"When you come from poor, poor is always in your head..."

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Colibrí, by Nicolás Obregón

"Colibrí," by Nicolás Obregón, in Both Sides: Stories From The Border, edited by Gabino Iglesias, Polis Books, 2020.

Milagros Posada is the deputy sheriff of a county near the Mexican border.  It is not a job that comes with much respect.

When the body of a dead Mexican teenager is found on the Fourth of July, Mili's boss, the elderly sheriff,  responds  that the "stiff'll keep till Monday."  Mili doesn't accept that and goes out to the scene. "I'm just hiking," she unconvincingly tells the Border Patrol man who finds her there.

There's no crime here except illegal border crossing and human smuggling.  The kid died of natural causes.

But Mili is determined to learn his identity and get the news back to his family.  Nobody else seems interested in the job.  It turns out Mili has tragedy in her past and is willing to use that as a tool to get information.

This is a quiet and moving story.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Cask of Los Alamos, by Cornelia Read

"The Cask of Los Alamos," by Cornelia Read, in Santa Fe Noir, edited by Ariel Gore, Akashic Press, 2020.

The publisher sent me a free copy of this book.

If you were to define stories from Akashic Press's Noir Cities series in one word, which words would show up the most often?  Grim, depressing, violent, affected, suspenseful, cynical...  How about quirky?  Probably not that often.

This story is quirky.  Let's start, reasonably enough, with the first line.

The thousand injuries of Richard Feynman I had borne as best I could. But when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.

If that sentence, together with the title, does not immediately bring a certain short story to mind then you need to enroll immediately in Remedial Mystery Reading 101. 

We are in a historical mystery (also a rarity in the Noir Cities books), not going back to the time of Edgar Allan Poe (except in spirit) but to World War II.  The Manhattan Project is toiling away in New Mexico and our narrator, Thurston, has taken a deep grudge against his fellow physicist.

A good deal of this story is based on Feynman's actual life, and I was amazed to realize how little I had known about it.  For example, the way he chose to watch the first atomic explosion is drawn from life.

Read has combined these true details with her fictional character's plot which is, of course, modeled on Poe's.  She carries off this combination with great panache.  Does Thurston succeed in killing Feynman, turning this into an alternative history story?  Or i this an altogether different type of tale?

Wouldn't you like to know?

Sunday, July 12, 2020

No Honor Among Thieves, by Rob Hart

"No Honor Among Thieves," by Rob Hart, in Lockdown: Stories of Crime, Terror, and Hope During a Pandemic, edited by Nick Kolakowski and Steve Weddle, PolisBooks, 2020.

The proceeds for this book go to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, a very worthy cause.

This is the third appearance in this column by Rob Hart.

Roger is a banker.  He is working from home due to Covid but he needs to get some files he can't access electronically.  Why aren't they available digitally?  Because they contain data you don't dare expose to hackers, stuff that could get people sent to jail.

It turns out other people want those files too.  People who are more determined than he is...

A nice bad guy versus worse guy story.

By the way, Ann Davila Cardinal has a very nice ghost story in this book, but I don't review ghost stories.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Setting the Pick, by April Kelly

"Setting the Pick," by April Kelly, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, July 2020.

Today's story is about an anonymous private eye, of somewhat dodgy ethics, setting up a bad guy to take a fall.  It's fun to try to figure out what our protagonist is up to.

And the writing is fun too. Our P.I. describes his appearance: "A guy a few birthday cakes north of forty, with thinning hair, a slight limp in his left leg, and a suit straight out of a Motel 6 lost and found."


Sunday, June 28, 2020

A Beastly Trial, by Mark Thielman

"A Beastly Trial," by Mark Thielman, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2020.

Oh, what a lovely cover.  This is the fifth appearance in this space by Mark Thielman.  Of his previous successes I count two historical mysteries and two comedies.  This time he combines the two.

The tale is set in sixteenth-century France.  Bernard de Vallenchin is an advocat, essentially a defense attorney, and he has his work cut out for him.  His client, together with her six offspring, committed the unprovoked murder of a small child and the community is demanding vengeance.  But what makes the case particularly challenging--

No.  I can't tell you that.  Major spoiler.

I had no idea where this story was going but I read some hilarious passages to a friend who seldom reads mysteries and she figured it out immediately.  That tells you something about me or about her, I suppose. 

This story is based on an actual trial that took place in France hundreds of years ago.  Thielman makes it clear that it is firmly rooted in a view of the universe that seems more foreign to us than the medieval French language.  But that is part of what makes it a fun story.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Chin Yong-Yun Sets The Date, by S.J. Rozan

"Chin Yong-Yun Sets The Date," by S.J. Rozan, in Deadly Anniversaries, edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, Hanover Square Press, 2020.

This is the fifth appearance here by my friend S.J. Rozan and the second by the formidable Chin Yong-Yun.  She is the mother of Rozan's private eye Lydia Chin, and quite a character herself.  This aging resident of New York's Chinatown combines the modesty of Poirot, the indecisiveness of Holmes, and the lack of curiosity of Marple. 

In this story she notices that Chu Cai, the son of a friend, seems unhappy, even though he has just gotten engaged. Listen to the way she rationalizes her behavior after seeing the Chu family in a restaurant:

I stood on the corner enjoying the warm day.  Eventually the Chu family emerged from the Wo Hop.  I took a few steps over, to the shadows...  I hurried to catch up with Cai.  Since he had been such a good friend of Am-Zhang's, it was only polite that I greet thim.
"Chu Cai!" I said. "Can this be you?"

 She cleverly arranges for him to come to her apartment to tell his problem to Lydia -- who, alas, is not there.  Perhaps, Mrs. Chin says, he can tell her the problem and she can do the groundwork, although she is not quite sure what ground has to do with detective work.

A wonderful character, a charming story.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

If You Want Something Done Right..., by Sue Grafton

"If You Want Something Done Right...," by Sue Grafton, in Deadly Anniversaries, edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, Hanover Square Press, 2020.

The Blogger software is having one of its periodic breakdowns and won't let me put up a picture of the book cover.  I will try to fix this later.

Sue Grafton was one of the finest authors of private eye short stories.  I don't recall ever reading one of your tales that was not about PI. Kinsey Milhone before. But this one is terrific as well.

It falls into the familiar category of spouse-versus-spouse.  Lucy Burgess has reason to think her hubby is planning to get rid of her.  So she plans a preemptive strike, so to speak.

A lucky mistake puts her in touch with a hit man, and this fellow's way with words is a good deal of the charm of the story.

"Keeping my remarks entirely famatory, every matrimonial association is defeasible, am I right?  ...So what I hear you saying is that you and him are engaged in a parcenary relationship of which you'd like to see his participation shifted to the terminus."

Great fun.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Seat 9B, by Luke Foster

"Seat 9B," by Luke Foster, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, June 2020.

How much coincidence can a story stand?  An old rule of thumb is that a coincidence can be the premise of a story but not the climax.  You can start with two old schoolmates meeting by accident after ten years, but you had better not have that meeting happen at the end and the old schoolmate provides our hero with an alibi.  Another rule of thumb is that a story can tolerate one coincidence but not two.

The premise of this story is a huge coincidence.  A second one occurs later in the story, but it is a small, reasonable gimmick and I had no trouble forgiving it.  Okay, on to the plot.

The narrator, Garrison Dallas, is an investigative journalist, covering true crime for TV news shows.  On a flight from Los Angeles he suddenly realizes that the man he is sitting next to is the unknown serial killer the country's cops have been looking for.  And because Dallas has "the world's worst poker face," the killer immediately knows he knows.  And doesn't plan to let him get off the plane alive.

That's what you call a coincidence.

In my opinion this is where a lot of suspense stories get into trouble.  They come up with some limp reason for the hero not to scream for help, call the cops, do something logical which would stop the story in its tracks.

But i fact, this is the best part of our story.  Foster has come up with a strong reason our hero can't ask for help and it not only works, it makes other parts of the story seem more plausible.  A terrific and very suspenseful piece of work.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Honor Guard, by Tom Barlow

"Honor Guard," by Tom Barlow, in Columbus Noir, edited by Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Akashic Press, 2020.

The publisher sent me an advance copy of this book. 

I must say I never thought of the birthplace of James Thurber as a particularly noir city, but so far this book is doing its best to prove me wrong.  (And by the way, if you love noir read Thurber's short story "The Whip-Poor-Will." )

One way of writing a crime story is to take something that happens to many of us and violently crank it up a notch.  The narrator is the only child of Tommy, a former navy man turned plumber.  (He stopped calling him "Dad" when he realized that the man's odd behavior "was the senility speaking."

Tommy is undergoing dementia which is making him violent, profane, and racist, not characteristics he had shown previously.  All very sad, and not an uncommon phenomenon in these modern times, but Barlow takes it up that notch.  On Veterans Day there is a violent confrontation with tragic consequences. 

Which is all very noir but would not have made this the best story of the week.  That is the result of several surprises.  Jeffery Deaver said "Short stories exist only to stun you."  This one qualifies.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

All Big Men Are Dreamers, by Mary Anna Evans

"All Big Men Are Dreamers," by Mary Anna Evans, in The Faking of the President, edited by Peter Carlaftes, Three Rooms Press, 2020.

This book, subtitled "stories of White House noir," is alternative history and many of the tales are satiric. There's nothing wrong with that but this one is deadly serious.

It is a fact that Woodrow Wilson had  stroke in 1919 and a lot of his executive duties during the last year of his presidency were secretly carried out by his second wife, Edith Bolling. 

But in this story Wilson's romance with Edith is interrupted by the arrival of a charming lady named Clara.  Clara has some definite plans in mind, and they will change history.

Some stories, as I have written before, depend largely on finding the right viewpoint.  This one is told by Wilson's good friend and physician, who is also in love with Clara.  When he has to choose between two people he loves things get way complicated.  Very nice and very noir.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Borrowed Brains, by Alaric Hunt

"Borrowed Brains," by Alaric Hunt, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May/June 2020.

Funny thing: last month I was listening to an audiobook of short stories from Black Mask Magazine.  This novella is from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine's Black Mask department, and it is a perfect fit.  I must say I liked it better than some of the stories I heard from the classic magazine.

But this tale takes place in modern times (2005, to be exact), complete with cell phones, bodegas, and audio bugs.

Daniel McLaren, an aging West Virginian rumrunner, is happy working as a messenger in New York City, but when he gets beaten and robbed of a half-million dollar package the cops decide that the ex-convict is obviously guilty - or at least convenient to blame.

Fortunately McLaren has a buddy in the city, a fellow native of the Mountain State named Clayton Guthrie.  And Guthrie is a private eye.  Together they start to unravel a complicated fraud scheme that is going badly wrong, with possibly deadly consequences.

There is some wonderful writing in this story: "The alley was wide enough for two round trash cans and a cat."

Or here is McLaren casting some doubt on the reliability of a witness:

"You didn't notice his hat was lined with tinfoil?"
"I see a lot of that in Brooklyn.  Up in the Bronx, they wear their underwear outside their pants." 

And here is McLaren listening to the bad guys on a bug.

That sounds like the stupid one," and "No, maybe that's the stupid one."

A long ride, but a good one.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Noble Rot, by Richard Helms

"Noble Rot," by Richard Helms, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May/June 2020.

This is the fifth appearance in this slot by Richard Helms, and the third in for this series.

I recently wrote about the ambiguity of some subgenres.  It occurs to me  that I would not like to be on the Shamus Awards committee that has to decide whether this is a private eye story.

The narrator is definitely not a P.I. Boy Boatwright is a cop.  But he is really playing a reluctant Watson to Bowie Crapster.  The Crapster (wonderful name) is not a P.I. either.  He makes his living as a psychic and part of his shtick is using his alleged  magical powers to solve crimes. Does that qualify?  Beats me.

Boy and Bowie don't get along too well.  Witness this piece of phone conversation.

"There's been a murder."
"Please tell me you're the victim."

Ha ha.  Actually a woman has been slain at a winery during a fundraising party full of the rich and influential.  And since Crapster is a friend of the wealthy host/winemaker Boy has to tread lightly.

Helms is juggling a lot of balls in this story.  He has to tell a coherent story, provide clues, and allow Boy to figure out a non-psychic explanation for Crapster's apparently mystical solution. It's a lot of fun.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Dirty Laundry, by Michael Bracken

"Dirty Laundry," by Michael Bracken, in Tough, April 20, 2020.

This is the sixth appearance here by my friend and fellow SleuthSayer, Michael Bracken.  You can read it at the link above.

Sometimes it's nice to indulge in a private eye story.  They can have the inevitability of Greek tragedy.  Infinite variations in a familiar pattern.

Morris Boyette is the P.I., stationed in Waco, Texas.  His client is Julia Poe and the problem is that her brother and his wife were recently murdered.  Not that she wants him to solve a murder - that's the variation.  The killer has been caught.

But Julia's brother's in-laws have taken custody of their granddaughter and won't let Julia have any contact.  She wants Boyette to find a way around that.  Problem is the in-laws are the wealthiest people in town, a family that can definitely make Boyette's life more difficult.  And that's the familiar pattern. 

I enjoyed this very much.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

One Flu Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Kathy Krevat

"One Flu Over the Cuckoo's Nest," by Kathy Krevat, in Crossing Borders, edited by Lia Brackmann and Matt Coyle, Down and Out Books, 2020.

Timing is everything, so they say.

I'm sure the editors and author of this book had no idea what was heading at them when this book came out in February.  You see, the narrator of the very first story is a sentient virus.  Specifically an influenza bug.

The virus travels to a nursing home because it is scheduled to kill an old woman who lives there, but someone has already done that.  The virus, out of curiosity, tries to discover the killer.  It has certain abilities: like a lie detector machine it can detect changes in body patterns that might indicate deception.  And it can influence people in subtle ways...

A truly unusual story.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Free Man in Paris, by Brendan DuBois

"Free Man in Paris," by Brendan DuBois, in The Beat of Black Wings, edited by Josh Pachter, Untreed Reads, 2020.

On occasion I have judged contests which involved reading stories without knowing the identity of the author.  Reading this one, I wondered if my experience would have been different if I hadn't known who the author was.

The reason?  Well here is the first sentence:

Since Sloan's retirement, he has spent his fall and winter months in a remote villa in the village of Ilse-Sur-La-Sorgue in Provence in the south of France, and the spring and summer months in a comfortable and well-hidden flat in Paris.

My question: If I hadn't known that DuBois was the author, would I have instantly known that Sloan is an ex-spy?  Not that DuBois writes primarily about espionage.  Maybe it''s just that he writes well enough to set the mood immediately.  By the way, this is his eighth appearance in this column, which puts him in the lead ove rthe rest of the mystery-writing world, for now.

Back to Sloan who is, indeed, an ex-spy.  If one can ever stop being a spy.  He is constantly on watch for clues about his major concern:

...what really occupies his time is wondering if this is going to be the day when he will finally be killed.

And indeed on this day there is a threat on the horizon.  Watching how he deals with it is intriguing. A nicely written story.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Mixed Identities, by Martin Hill Ortiz

"Mixed Identities," by Martin Hill Ortiz, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, April 2020.

I'm glad I am not on the committee who has to decide if this story is eligible for the Shamus Award for best private eye story.

Our narrator is in a cabin in Northern California and a man has broken in and lies on the floor: "He had spilt enough blood to fill  jumbo jar of Ragu."  His name is Buddy Dale and he thinks our narrator  is the private eye who owns the cabin.

Luckily for him, the man who finds him is just a friend who is borrowing the P.I.'s cabin.  Lucky because the friend is a paramedic who knows how to stop the bleeding.

But Buddy has something else on his mind, perhaps more important than staying alive.  He's an ex-bank robber and someone has been copying his M.O., hoping to pin a series of crimes on him and send him back to prison for life.

Can our paramedic friend solve the crime?  Clever story. 

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire, by Donna Andrews

"Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," by Donna Andrews, in The Beat of Black Wings, edited by Josh Pachter, Untreed Reads, 2020.

All the stories in this book are inspired by Joni Mitchell songs.  I must admit I didn't remember this song.  It ain't bad.

Our narrator is a homeless man.  That's not his biggest problem, though.  He's trying to stay away from the others.

Who are THEY?  Not sure it would help even I knew [sic].  I think it' a what, not a who, but I don't know.  Sometimes I'm tempted to call them the Fae. I'm sure they're behind these legends....

So, yeah the guy has problems. He says that the others try to take over people.  When they fail, you find the body.  When they succeed, the empty shell keeps walking around with one of them in it.

Well, that certainly creeped me out.

He figures his best protection is his knife because, as everyone knows, fairies hate iron and steel.  And knives can come in useful in other ways, can't they?  They  do in this classy tale.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Night Beat, by Ngumi Kibera

"The Night Beat," by Ngumi Kibera, in Nairobi Noir, edited by Peter Kimani, Akashic Press, 2020.

Akashic Press sent me an advance reader copy of this book.

Let's review the basics, shall we? The basics of noir is this: a Nobody gets involved in crime in hopes of becoming a Somebody.  For this act of hubris the universe curb-stomps him or her.

That's what it's all about and we have a pretty good sample here today. 

The sergeant and the corporal are two cops assigned to night duty, which is a drag because there are so few opportunities for graft.  What there are is a ton of minor infractions which the newly-minted corporal is eager to pursue.  The wise old sergeant considers them a waste of energy.

"Corporal, try to remember that this is not Kilimani or those other uppity areas where you book drunks for pissing on fences. We are here for the REAL bad guys."

And sure enough, bad guys arrive, bringing with them an opportunity for graft that may well turn the lives of these officers upside-down. Watch out for that possible curb-stomping, however...

 One note.  Akashic Press books tend to be damn near free of typos but this book had several of the Spellcheck-can't catch variety. Not usually important, but in this tale there is a doozie. If your characters are usually referred to as the sergeant and the corporal, you don't want to reverse them, especially at the beginning of a flashback...

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Plot Ten, by Caroline Mose

"Plot Ten," by Caroline Mose, in Nairobi Noir, edited by Peter Kimani, Akashic Press, 2020.

Akashic Press sent me an advance reader copy of this book.

I confess I don't tend to enjoy books in this series set in third world countries as much as others.  Might be first world privilege speaking but I suspect it may have to do with some of these nations having less of a tradition of mystery writing.  A lot of the stories, even when they have a crime prominently in them, don't feel to me like crime stories.  They feel, dare I say it, mainstream.

This story, on the other hand, works just fine for me.  It is, in fact, a type of whodunit.

The narrator, a high school girl, lives in Plot 10, a neighborhood of ten small houses served by one latrine.  Both the neighborhood and the latrine are kept locked so when the narrator's friend is found butchered in the latter we have a sort of locked room mystery on our hands.

The police arrive and are as vicious as you might fear. Is the crime solved?

Well.  That's an interesting question.

Daryl Gregory once said: "Stop just short of the ending. If you act like Tom Sawyer and let your readers do the rest of the work, they'll be more connected to the story, and thank you for it." 

That is more or less what happens here.  Ms. Mose provides all the clues but leaves it to the reader to connect the pieces.  I thank her for it.  It's a very interesting story.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

What Mr. Leonard Said, by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

"What Mr. Leonard Said," by Andrew Welsh-Huggins, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, March 2020.

People have told the narrator all his life that he was stupid.  His voice doesn't convince me of that, but he certainly sees the world a little differently than us.

When the only teacher whoever took an interest in him disappears he takes an interest in her cheating husband.  And he knows enough from TV dramas to figure out a way to get the husband to reveal his guilt.

It turns out that if you have no compunctions about killing people, you can discover a lot of people who need killing.

I don't care much for the coincidental structure wrapped around the story, but our protagonist is a very interesting guy to spend some time with.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

A Little Help From My Friend, by John Dobbyn

"A Little Help From My Friend," by John Dobbyn, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. March/April 2020.

A quickie this week, although I don't think it quite fits under the line for flash fiction.

John wakes up in the hospital and realizes someone tried to kill him and almost succeeded.  He is almost helpless but he has one surprising ally.  You see, John writes private eye novels, and his star character, Mickey O'Casey, is determined to keep him alive to write more books.

Can a wounded author and a fictional hero work together to figure out whodunit?  This is a very clever story.

One thing: Dobbyn could have used a little help from his editor.  There's a glitch I will explain in a comment.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Night Train to Berlin, by WIlliam Burton McCormick

"Night Train to Berlin," by William Burton McCormick.  Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2020. 

This is McCormick' fourth appearance here, and it's quite a change.  The others were humorous stories but this one is sheer suspense.

It is 1939 and Stalin and Hitler are playing footsie.  As part of their nice-making the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are exchanging prisoners.

Our narrator is a German-born Communist named Moller.  He has lived in the USSR since its origin but is now  being shipped back to his homeland in exchange for some unfortunate Russian the NKVD wants to get their hands on.  He knows that the vehicle he is about to board "might as well be my funeral train."  The Gestapo will soon torture him death.

But there are plots within plots on board that choo-choo, and an unlikely ally might be able to help him out.

I read this in one sitting, because I had to know it ended...

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Bride of Torches, by Kenneth Wishnia

"Bride of Torches," by Kenneth Wishnia, in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery magazine, March/April 2020.

Haven't the AHMM covers been great the last couple of years?  And the recent redesign is fine as well.  My compliments to the design staff.

My friend Ken Wishnia has told a lovely story here.  I should say retold because he is working from the story of Yael in the Book of Judges.  He has filled in the brief biblical tale with a lot of context about the Iron Age.  (Does that sound dull?  It isn't.)

The Kanaanites blocked the roads and barred any contraband iron goods from coming up from the coast.  There were no blacksmiths in the land in those days, so there was no sword or spear made of iron to be found in the land of Yisra'el, and the people had to rely on migrant metalworkers to sharpen their pitchforks...

Ya'el is the wife of one such metalworker and she commits the crime (?) which is the centerpiece of our story.  The main thing Wishnia adds to the Bible tale is giving her a motive.  In fact, he offers two, one of which feels very modern without being anachronistic.

I liked this very much indeed.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Mistaken Identity, by Wayne J. Gardiner

"Mistaken Identity," by Wayne J. Gardiner, in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, January/February 2020.

Gary Hoffman is the senior half of a small town police force.  One night he is called out to a bar where a stranger has snatched up the owner's shotgun and told him to call the cops.  In the fracas that follows Hoffman kills the stranger.

I'm not giving anything away, I should point out.  This is, as they say, the premise of the story.  And it's a wittily written tale.  Take this bit of conversation between Hoffman and his receptionist.

Marie gave him a pat.  "Take all the the time you need," she said.  "I can keep up with the little things."
"Can't take too long," Gary said.  "People might realize this whole operation can run without me."
Marie had issued as much sympathy as she could muster.  "Don't worry about it.  It won't come as a surprise to anybody."

But there will be other surprises in store, as Hoffman tries to figure out why a stranger wanted to kill him.  And whether there may be more danger ahead. 

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Murderer Bill, by John Grant

"Murderer Bill," by John Grant, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, January 2020.

Imagine, if you will, being a single mother with an obstreperous seven-year-old kid.  One day you point out a man on the street and tell your son that he is a murderer.  "Not just any old murderer, Denny... He's the murderer.  Murderer Bill."

You explain that Bill kills children. Only bad ones, of course.  So Denny has nothing to fear if he starts behaving.  

What do you think would happen after that?

Well, I am pretty sure that one thing that would not happen is the Mayor putting a Mother of the Year medal around your neck.  And that isn't what happens in this story.

But when, a few days later, Denny tells his Mom a lie, Murderer Bill shows up in his bedroom. Just a warning this time, but be careful.

So, what the hell is going on?  Is Bill imaginary?  Supernatural?  Or did Mom actually arrange for someone to...  Hmm.

This is an intriguing story.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Deportees, by James Lee Burke

"Deportees," by James Lee Burke, in The Strand Magazine, October-January 2019/2020.

I think we need to begin by talking about years.  Notice that the calendar date on this magazine is 2019/2020.  So why didn't I review it in 2019?  Because it only arrived in my mailbox this week. 

So let's call this my first review of a 2020 story, since through January I was still covering 2019, to give myself as much time as possible to cover those tales.  My Best-of-the-Year list went up at SleuthSayers on Wednesday.

And "Deportees" is a beautifully written story.

The narrator, Aaron, was a child as World War II started.  His father has run off again, and so he has gone with his mother (who was "crazy and had undergone electroshock treatments") to live with his grandfather on a farm in Texas.  Grandfather had been a Texas ranger but had lost almost everything to alcohol.

On the first night a group of refugees come across the Mexican border and find shelter in Grandfather's barn. A local lawman named Mr. Watts comes looking, claiming they might be Japanese infiltrators.

Mother notes the local hypocrisy concerning Mexicans.  "In good times we bring them in by the truckload.  When there's drought, the Mexicans are the devil's creation."

The family has other reasons to despise Watts.  For one, he invites Grandfather to church.  The old man replies: "I know your preacher well.  I saw him at a cross-burning once.  He was setting fire to the cross.  I was writing down license numbers."

But there are reasons much worse than that.  It is worth finding out what they are.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Head Over Heels, by Craig Faustus Buck

"Head Over Heels," by Craig Faustus Buck, in Murder-a-Go-Go's, edited by Holly West,  Down and Out Books, 2019.

This is the third appearance here by Craig Faustus Buck.

When a private investigator encounters a woman being bothered by a stalker you can reasonably assume you are about to read a private eye story. But sometimes things take a sudden shift sideways.  In this case we go crashing into noir territory.

Our narrator is a part-time employer of a private detective, which means she mostly serves summons.  When she meets and falls for a woman at the golf course she agrees to put the papers on the creepy ex-boyfriend.  Of course, she is hoping, in classic noir fashion,  to get closer to this femme fatale. And she does.

But her lover isn't quite over the creepy boyfriend.  So it becomes problematic:  Who is the stalker?  And who the femme fatale?

This one was a lot of fun.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Righter Side, by Reed Farrel Coleman,

"The Righter Side," by Reed Farrel Coleman, in Down to the River,  edited by Tim O'Mara, Down and Out Books, 2019.

This is Coleman's third appearance in this space.  Here is how it starts.

Most places in this state, it’s the wrong side of the tracks. Not in Brixton, no sir. In Brixton it’s the wrong side of the river. That’s funny on its face, ’cause any sane fool’d be hard-pressed to make a case for there being much of a right side in Brixton, neither. Let’s just say that there’s a…righter side. That the folks on the righter side’s got access to better crank.

So we know right away this story isn't going to be about tea parties in an English village.

The narrator is Pete Frame and his best friend is Jack Clooney.  Jack explains that his own family are "a bunch of born scumbags in charge of what we got comin'."

One of the reasons the two guys get along so well is that Pete and his girlfriend Becki provide a beard for Jack who pretends to be dating her, but is really interested in her brother.  That is something Jack's father would never be able to accept and "He has a lot less trouble expressing his will than our Lord and Savior.  He or one of his clan lay hands on you, there ain't no room for spiritual interpretation."

I am quoting a lot because the language is what makes this story so special and enjoyable.