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.

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.

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.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Catch and Release, by Chris Knopf

"Catch and Release," by Chris Knopf, in Down to the River,  edited by Tim O'Mara, Down and Out Books, 2019.

Thanks to Kevin Tipple for a correction.

When I started reading this story I had a strange sense of deja vu.  Not that I had red the story before, but something similar.

But don't call the plagiarism police just yet.  The story I was thinking of was also written by Chris Knopf.  In fact, this is his third appearance on this page.

Our nameless character is a pretty cheerful guy but he has some problems.  Take Harry, for instance.  Harry isn't a problem, exactly, but a symptom of one.  You see, he is our protagonist's only friend, and he happens to be from another dimension, and not visible to anyone else.

So, yeah, the guy has problems.

Right now he is living in his summer home, a tarp next to the river in Old Lyme, Connecticut.  His neighbors are a big squatter he calls the Grouchy Witch, and a newly arrived woman is younger and attractive.

But now he has a new problem, because the Witch doesn't like the newcomer.  And she has a big knife... 

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Black Friday, by Steve Brewer

"Black Friday," by Steve Brewer, in Beast Without A Name, edited by Brian Thornton, Down and Out Books, 2019.

On the day of the latest stock market crash, twenty-two people plunged to their deaths from New York City skyscrapers.  One of them was pushed.

That's a nice opening, don'tcha think?

Alan Webster, our narrator, was part of a gang that robbed a casino.  Everything went perfect except the casino turned out to be owned by the mob and the mob doesn't collect their insurance and shrug it off when that sort of thing happens.

So they all went into hiding.  Alan is in Australia when he hears that Fred supposedly jumped out a window.  He doesn't believe it so he decides to be proactive, so to speak, by heading back to New York and convincing the mob that he is too much trouble to kill.

There is, it seems to me, a significant plot hole in the story (how did X find out about Y?) but it didn't keep me from enjoying it.