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.