Saturday, June 12, 2021

Goodnight Saigon, by Richard Helms


 "Goodnight Saigon," by Richard Helms, in Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel, edited by Josh Pachter, Untreed Reads, 2021.

I have a story in this book.

This is the sixth appearance on this page by Richard Helms.  It is more war story than mystery but there is plenty enough crime to qualify.

And a riveting war story it is.  It's 1958 and soldier Owen Wheeler, for offenses unknown to him, has been transferred from a cushy assignment in Germany to a job in Vietnam training the nation's soldiers.  It wasn't supposed to be combat work "but once the black flag rose and the bullets flew, every man in a uniform was fair game."

Taking the trainees out on a long-range recon patrol Wheeler encounters deadly enemies, human and otherwise.  In the process he captures a Viet Cong soldier and brings him back for interrogation.  And that's when the story turns to crime, and gets very very twisty.

You'll want to read all the way to the satisfactory ending in one sitting.


Sunday, June 6, 2021

Crown Jewel, by Joseph S. Walker


 "Crown Jewel," by Joseph S. Walker, in Moonlight and Misadventure, edited by Judy Penz Sheluk, Superior Shores Press, 2021. 

The publisher sent me a copy of this book.

This cheerful romp is the second appearance here by Walker.

Like all genres the mystery field is full of repeating tropes.  Locked rooms.  Dying messages.  Private eyes with drinking problems.

And identical twins. Lots of interesting ways to play with identical twins.  Whodunit when both who's look alike?

The late great Jack Ritchie loved mocking such memes and in one story his cop hero was broken-hearted when he realized that the identical twins had nothing to do with the solution to the crime.  So sad.

Which brings us to today's adventure, which is a tale of obsession.  Obsession tends to be funny or tragic depending on how close you are standing to the shrapnel.  this one is pretty funny.

Keenan Beech is a compulsive collector of vinyl, and his golden fleece is The Beatles, better known as the White Album.  You see, the first few million copies have a number stamped on the cover and collectors like Keenan keep buying, buying, buying them, trying to get closer to the elusive lower numbers.  Yeah, obsessive. 

But that's not his big problem.  That would be his identical twin Xavier.  Keenan is a hard working guy; Xavier is an unsuccessful scoundrel.  And when a record store offers Keenan a rare copy of the White Album for a mere five grand Xavier somehow gets his hands on it first by, duh, pretending to be Keenan.

Can our hero somehow steal the album back?  And if he does, will that just be the beginning of his troubles?  A cautionary tale for all the obsessive collectors out there.

Monday, May 31, 2021

The Case of the Brain Tuber, by Mark Thielman

 


"The Case of the Brain Tuber," by Mark Thielman, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2021.

This is the sixth appearance here by my fellow SleuthSayer Mark Thielman, and the second by his unlikely hero.

Sheer silliness here.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The narrator is a private eye whose side gig is dressing up as a potato for marketing events at supermarkets.  They call him the Spud Stud.

But this time he gets to appear as a normal person for a special event at the Idaho Potato Museum. They are celebrating the newest inductees to the Potato Hall of Fame.  So get ready for tater-based humor.

The band is called the Twice-Baked.  The name tags were "shaped like small packages of freeze-dried hash browns." They are serving vodka (of course) but you can also get a sparkling wine called Potateau.

Like I said: silly.  But when one of the guests of honor dies and the cops are delayed the Spud Stud has to solve the crime. His method is clever.      


Monday, May 24, 2021

Brain Damage by Tom Leins


 "Brain Damage," by Tom Leins, in Coming Through in Waves: Crime Stories Inspired by the Songs of Pink Floyd, edited by T. Fox Dunham, Gutter Books, 2021.

Rey is out of prison but he visits Barrett there because Barrett saved his life once.  Of course Barrett wants a favor: "My wife's sister is missing."  She was thrown down the stairs by her ex-boyfriend resulting in brain damage.  

Rey finds out that the wife used to work at sex parties for a crooked lawyer named Thorgerson and Thorgerson used to take an interest in the little sister.  Maybe too much interest...

A hard-boiled private eye-type story with an unusual protagonist. A lot to recommend it.


Monday, May 17, 2021

The Witches of Endor, by Janice Law

 

"The Witches of Endor," by Janice Law, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2021.

Janice Law is one of my favorite contemporary short storyists, as demonstrated by the fact that this is her seventh appearance here.  She is also my friend and a fellow SleuthSayer.

Edie and Cynthia are older women, two sisters with an unusual occupation.  They create highly detailed dioramas of crime scenes.  Usually they are commissioned by forensic conferences to show actual murders or create training puzzles.

But their current assignment is different.  A private client has asked them to reconstruct the scene of an unsolved murder.  What's his motive?

"It was an article of faith with [Cynthia] that a really complete reconstruction held the solution..."

The ending cleverly ties the title in.  I wonder how many readers will understand that part?


Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Frank Scarso Finds His Life, by Doug Crandall

 


"Frank Scarso Finds His Life," by Doug Crandall, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May/June 2021.

Walter Mosley, who knows a thing or two about writing fiction, said "Story is what happens. Plot is when the reason it happens or the reasons that it happens are revealed to the reader."

In other words, you don't necessarily want to have the beginning, middle, and end of your story in that order.  

The first thing we learn in this tale is that whatever occurs in it  lands our protagonist in prison. And he doesn't seem to be too upset about that.

Frank Scarso was  in prison before because of a tragic mistake he made.  Now, in his sixties, he is looking for a chance to do a little good. In a word, he is hunting for redemption.

He gets a job in a home for kids with serious problems and finds himself oddly bonding with an autistic boy whose life has been one horror after another.  Frank thinks he can maybe help, and if that brings him grief, so be it...     

What does Crandall gain by putting the cart before the horse, so to speak, telling us how Frank's story will end?  I will paraphrase another author, Jean Anouilh, who said the difference between tragedy and melodrama is that we know how tragedy will end, so the struggle to survive takes on a sort of nobility. We know where this is going but it is a fascinating trip...  

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Relative Stranger, by Amanda Witt

 


"Relative Stranger," by Amanda Witt, in When A Stranger Comes To Town, edited by Michael Koryta, Hanover Square Press, 2021.

This is your basic suspense story, nice and simple.  Protagonist in danger.  High stakes.  Nothing extra needed.   

Glory Crockett lives on a farm and one day a stranger knocks on the door.  What's disturbing is that he resembles her husband, Owen.  Turns out his name is also Owen Crockett.  He's the bad-news cousin she has heard about but never met, largely because he has spent most of his life in prison: "a one-man crime spree."  Now here he is, with a glib charm that rings completely false.

And somewhere outside the farmhouse is Glory's husband and her four young sons.

Anything else to mention?  Oh yes. When the cousin comes in he leaves a spot of fresh blood on the door.  But he's not the one bleeding...

You'll read this tale in one sitting.



 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Return to Sender, by Gar Anthony Haywood


 "Return to Sender," by Gar Anthony Haywood, in Jukes and Tonks, edited by Michael Bracken and Gary Phillips, Down & Out Books, 2021.

Somebody stole Binny's favorite possession right out of his bar: "his late father's jukebox, the one that had been sitting near the door off the parking lot, next to the candy machine, since the fall of 1961."  

Binny suspects that his ex-wife Peoria (what a great name) is behind the theft.  He's right. But how can he prove it, much less get his beloved box back?

A tall order.  But luckily the clowns who did the  theft damaged the machine and needed to find a repairman, and that lead to...

A convoluted but enjoyable story.


Sunday, April 18, 2021

Yeah, I Meant To Do That, by Mat Coward


"Yeah, I Meant To Do That," by Mat Coward, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March/April 2021.

This is the sixth appearance in my column by Mat Coward, who writes very funny stories.  Here is how this one begins:

"At some point you're going to have to grab everything and run.  And the chances are, when that happens, you'll be wearing duck feet and a blindfold and trying to carry twenty thousand pounds in coins in a wet paper sack."

How's that for an arresting image?  These words of wisdom are spoken by Barber, an aging con man trying to educate a group of proteges.  They want his help in scamming a bad guy named Spencer who has gotten rich on ripping off people in trouble.

Barber has a cunning plan, if he can trust his new friends to carry it out correctly.  Ah, but can con men ever trust each other?  This one is a treat.


Monday, April 12, 2021

Ghost of a Ghost, by Martin Hill Ortiz


 "Ghost of a Ghost," by Martin Hill Ortiz, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, April 2021.

This is, I think, at least the fourth story in this series.  One of them made my best of the week page before.

Phillip Prince is a private eye (well, those of us who have read the other tales know it's more complicated than that, but let's skip the backstory).  He lives in a cabin in northern California and occasionally gets unwelcome visitors, like Sherm, who just tried to punch him and got shot for his troubles.

Some careers don't jibe well with mediocrity. Being a thug-for-hire doesn't come with a health plan, which is what Sherm needed now.

On the way to the emergency room Sherm explains that he was hired to kill him by Lancer.  Which rather confuses things because: "There were two reasons why Ted Lancer wouldn't kill me: number one, he had hired me to keep him alive; and number two, I failed  While my failure gave him a motive, death makes for a fine alibi."

A nicely convoluted tale.

 

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Who Stole The Afikomen?, by Elizabeth Zelvin


 "Who Stole The Afikomen?," by Elizabeth Zelvin, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March/April 2021.

I won't even pretend to be objective about this story by my fellow SleuthSayer.   Let me explain why.

The narrator, Andy, is a Catholic and he is about to meet his new fiancee's extended family at their Passover dinner - his first experience at a seder.

I was raised Catholic and have attended many seders with my wife's family and now at our own house.  So I know just where Andy is coming from.

The story is hilarious.      

Uncle Manny kept saying, "Focus, people, focus.  We've got a goal here."
"To get the Jews out of Egypt?" I whispered.
"To get past the rabbis to the gefilte fish," Sharon whispered back.
"Is that the Promised Land?"
"The pot roast is the Promised Land."

But this is EQMM so naturally there has to be a crime.  The afikomen goes missing, and with it a valuable diamond. And since Andy is a cop if he can't find it he's a putz.  But if he accuses a member of the family of theft - oy gevalt!

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Ladies of Wednesday Tea, by Michael Bracken


"The Ladies of Wednesday Tea," by Michael Bracken, in Bullets and Other Hurting Things, edited by Rick Ollerman, Down and Out Books, 2021.

This is the eighth appearance here by my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken, which ties him with Brendan DuBois for first place. 

Florence Quigly owns a florist shop in a small Texas town.  Her best friends are three other older women.  When her useless grandson gets in trouble with some local bad guys Flo and friends prove that you don't want to mess around with four old ladies.  

Over the years each had lost a spouse or a significant make figure, though LOST might not be the appropriate term.  They knew where the bodies were...

It's fun seeing how their skills and history complement each other.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Phone Message, by Robert Cummins

 


"The Phone Message," by Robert Cummins, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March/April 2021.

 I think it has been years since I reviewed an author's first story here. This is a very nice one.

The beginning is likely to remind you of Columbo.  In the first scene Carole Donaldson calmly kills her husband.  Police detective Wesley Lovett is in charge of the investigation.  Ms. Donaldson, just as calmly,  informs him that she had motive for the crime.  Tons of motive. But she also appears to have an unbreakable alibi.

So far, as I said, so Columbo.  But what makes this story unusual is that Wes begins to wonder whether he wants to break the alibi.   That gives a nice variation on the usual cat-and-mouse game.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

A Winter Night's Dream, by Michael Wiley


 "A Winter Night's Dream," by Michael Wiley, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March/April 2021.

This is the second appearance here by Mr. Wiley.

The private eye story goes back at least to Sherlock Holmes.  The version we think of as the hardboiled dick is a product of the 1920s.  (As Donald Westlake pointed out "hardboiled" is WWI slang and "dick" for detective springs from Prohibition.)  It is nice to see people think up new clothes for this old hero to wear.

Take Sam Kelson, the hero of this story.  He calls himself a "not-so-private investigator."  Due to a  brain injury he can't help but tell you whatever's on his mind.  "I'm an open book -- unzipped -- a gushing hydrant."

Fascinating concept, and suboptimal for a P.I.  His potential client isn't impressed:

"You're something of  a bastard, Mr. Kelson."

"That's CANDOR to you, Chubby Knees."

Chubby - excuse me, the client - walks out of the office and is promptly murdered.  Kelson wants to catch the killer.  The police detective in charge is also unimpressed.

"First, there's no WE," she said.  "There's the police and the not-police.  You're the not-police.  That means you can only make things worse." 

Snappy dialog throughout.  By the way, most of the characters in this story are librarians, Wiley doesn't fall into the usual stereotype traps.

"Librarians like to talk.  They could make reality TV out of this place."


Sunday, March 7, 2021

Truckstop Salvation, by Leigh Lundin


 "Truckstop Salvation," by Leigh Lundin, in The Great Filling Station Holdup, edited by Josh Pachter, Down and Out Books, 2021.

This collection of stories inspired by Jimmy Buffett songs starts off with a bang, with a tale by my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Leigh Lundin.

It's 1978 in eastern Tennessee.  The narrator is a TV reporter and he witnesses the arrival of Tommy Peters, a hometown boy who made it big as a country singer.  

The town is about to be flooded to make room for a dam, and Peters offers to hold a benefit festival to raise money.  That makes him a hero for some people, but not all the locals love him.  Like the sheriff whose ex-wife used to be Peters' lover.  And the ex-wife's brother, now a fire-and-brimstone preacher.  No surprise that bad things are going to happen at the festival.

Some clever lines here:  "Sheriff Bulwark hadn't yet succumbed to the fat-Southern-deputy stereotype, but he'd been studying the brochure."


Saturday, February 27, 2021

Katerina Goes to Studio City, by Thomas Perry


 "Katerina Goes to Studio City," by Thomas Perry, in The Strand Magazine, LXII, 2020
.

This story puts me in an awkward position.  I always publish my best-of-the-year list in my final SleuthSayers column of January, to give me a few extra weeks to catch those last stories.  But this issue of The Strand didn't arrive until late February.  I will have to go back and add this tale to my list.  Ah well.

Katerina is a teenager leading a miserable life in Moscow with no hint of a better future.  Then her best friend escapes to the United States and Katerina, a very resourceful girl, arranges to go as well.

Naive as she is, she does not realize why a Russian oligarch ("He's like a king,") would be willing to help a beautiful young girl come to California.  He sends a different man  to her apartment every night and Katerina develops a wide assortment of tricks and games to keep them out of her bed.

Does this begin to sound familiar?  Are you perhaps humming a few bars of Scheherazade?  

Before this very clever story ends Katerina will ring in a different and also very old tale.



Monday, February 22, 2021

The Tennis Church, by Sophie Hannah

 


"The Tennis Church," by Sophie Hannah, in The C Word, Spellbound Books, 2021.

The proceeds from this book go to support Britain's National Health Service.  The title refers to COVID, but few of the stories make any reference to that plague.  Always weird to come across an anthology with no editor.

"I haven't disappeared," said the voice on the other end of the line.  No hello, no introduction, nothing.

Nice starting point.  The person receiving the call is Charlie Zailer, She's a cop.  And the caller, she realizes is Tasha, an old friend she hasn't heard from in years.  What was this strange conversation about?

Charlie has her own problems, mostly in-laws who have a very different worldview than she and her husband.  And oddly enough, that is not unrelated to the trouble with Tasha who, on Christmas day, does seem to have disappeared. 

A clever story with a satisfactory ending.


Sunday, February 14, 2021

Boo Radley College Prep, by Karen Harrington

 


"Boo Radley College Prep," by Karen Harrington, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2021.

As I have said before, sometimes I read the first page of a story and find myself silently telling the author: You got something good here.  Don't screw it up.  Harrington, it turns out,  is not a screw-up.

Which is more than we can say about Tony Reyes.  He is fifteen years old, short on luck and, he will tell you, short on brains.  A hurricane has forced him and his mother to move in with the brother of his deceased father, and it isn't a happy or healthy home.

Right down the block, however, is what his uncle calls "the Boo Radley house," a spooky looking joint whose owner never seems to appear in public.  Curiosity - and the hopes of earning chore money - causes Tony to visit.

And there he meets a grouchy old man with a lot of brains and a good reason to hide from the public.

Two desperate souls in situations that are only getting worse.  Can they help each other somehow?

Hell of a story.

 

   

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Flinders' Flit, by H.L. Fullerton


"Flinders' Flit," by H.L. Fullerton, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, February 2021.

The defining experience of Cassie's life was her father abandoning the family when she was eight years old. So when her husband disappears one day leaving behind "drawers upended, hall closet ransacked, its door drooping off its track, books and belongings scattered to the four winds..." it doesn't occur to her that he might not have left of his own accord.  

The police find that suspicious, to say the least.  

Your husband was gone, your house was a disaster and you didn't call the police?

I figured he left in a hurry.

There is a mystery here and Cassie works out in a satisfactory manner.


Monday, February 1, 2021

A Family Matter, by Barb Goffman,


"A Family Matter," by Barb Goffman, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, January/February 2021. 

I corrected a bad typo in my original entry.  My apologies.

This is the third appearance here by my fellow SleuthSayer Barb Goffman.

I have said before that I like stories in which a character has a chance at redemption, whether they wind up taking it or not.  Here is an example.

It's 1962 and Doris lives in a very nice suburb called The Glen.  Most of her friends are married to men who work for the big pharmaceutical company in town.  The place has standards.  

And the new neighbors, Ginny and Bill do not meet them.  They raise chickens.  They hang up their laundry in the yard.  Doris is determined that these offensive violations of the norms will not stand.

But when she realizes another very different norm is being broken she has to determine what really matters in her neighborhood.  And that may offer a bit of redemption.

A classy story.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Underneath, by Stephen Ross


 "The Underneath," by Stephen Ross, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2021.

 This is the second appearance by my fellow Sleuthsayer, Stephen Ross.  It's a quicky, but clever. 

William is a seventy-two-year-old retired zookeeper, a bachelor (or widower, depending on which page you believe...oops).    One of his few pleasures in life is riding the bus to town on Friday mornings with his neighbor, the charming young Julie. 

But one Thursday night William hears her arguing with her husband, Doug.  The next day: no Julie on the bus.  Hmm...

The suspicious neighbor is a set-up we have read many times but, as usual, what matters is what you do with the set-up.  I won't give anything away but in just a few pages William conducts his investigation and makes a very clever plan.


Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Monday, January 18, 2021

Just A Little Before Winter's Set In, by Larry Tyler


"Just A Little Before Winter's Set In," by Larry Tyler, in Masthead: Best New England Crime Stories, edited by Verena Rose, Harriette Sackler, and Shawn Reilly Simmons, Level Best Books, 2020.

Let's start with a little whining, shall we?  First, as I say every time I recommend a story from this series, to call an anthology the "best" implies that its contents are selected from already published stories, which these are not.  Second, should there really be an apostrophe-S in that title?  I don't see it myself.

Okay, moving on.

In most stories you want the structure to be transparent.  By this I mean that the reader shouldn't be aware of how the tale is organized; it should flow as much like reality as possible.  But some stories are translucent: the structure filters the events.  Think of William Faulkner's "A Rose For Emily," in which the narrator is we, the whole community.  Tell the tale differently and it would be a very different story. It's not that one way is better than the other; just a different choice.

This story is translucent.

The narrator is essentially a hermit (although that word never appears), living alone in the Maine woods.  After describing his life he switches to third person, describing an encounter  a hermit (hmm...) named Teddy Seay  has with Elliot Kayman, a wealthy banker.

Kayman is fleeing (or flying) from the law, hoping to get to Canada as the first step in his escape to no-extradition land.  Alas, his plane crashes and no one is around to help him but the greedy Teddy Seay who won't help him without being paid and paid often.

One suspects where this story is going but you will definitely want to find out for sure.



Sunday, January 10, 2021

Cahoots, by C.C. Guthrie


"Cahoots," by C.C. Guthrie, in Cozy Villages of Death, edited by Lyn Worthen, Camden Park Press, 2020.

Alan Peterson is a banker, and son of the wealthiest man in a small East Texas town.  The story opens with him running into Beulah's diner in a panic because his beautiful wife TeriLyn has disappeared.  

Scary stuff but things don't seem to add up.  She's only been gone a few hours.  And isn't Alan supposed to be out of town?  And why is he claiming she has been having mental problems?

Very suspicious.  Beulah tells us the details of the search that goes on for weeks, and the reaction of the town's residents.  My favorite are the two gossips known  as the mover and the shaker.

A well-structured story with a very satisfactory climax.


Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Camberwell Crackers, by Anthony Horowitz


  "Camberwell Crackers," by Anthony Horowitz, in California Schemin', edited by Art Taylor, Wildside Press, 2020.

This is a very silly story.  That's certainly not a demerit as far as I'm concerned.  More problematic for some readers might be that the subject is Christmas crackers, a British holiday custom which, like pantomimes, has never really caught on on this side of the pond (south of the Great Lakes at least).

Camberwell Crackers is a long-established family company that manufactures these novelties.  It seems a very cheerful place to work.  But a man named Osborne was planning to take over the company, and now he has been murdered.  The inexperienced Detective Inspector is hoping to make his reputation by solving the crime, but he can't seem to make sense of the clues.  And, oh, there are clues...

I think I'll stop there.