Monday, December 27, 2021

Born a Ramblin' Man, by Michel Lee Garrett

"Born a Ramblin' Man," by Michel Lee Garrett, in Trouble No More: Crime Fiction Inspired by Southern Rock and the Blues, edited by Mark Westmoreland, Down & Out Books 2021. 

This is a pretty silly story.  Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Ray is the ramblin' man.  He decides to leave Nashville with only one possession: a guitar he recently "liberated."  It's not a particularly wonderful guitar; he just wanted one.

His plan for leaving town is to sneak into the back of a truck full of fireworks.  Might work okay, except that there is already some contraband cargo in the vehicle: two women who do not want to be headed wherever the driver is taking them.

Luckily they have a rescuer on board.  Unluckily, the hero is Ray, and Ray, well...

"How goddamn dumb are you?"

"Um... fairly."

The fun part of the story is the conversation between Ray and the two prisoners.  And the fireworks, both literal and figurative.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Search for Eric Garcia, by E.A. Aymar

 "The Search for Eric Garcia," by E.A. Aymar, in Midnight Hour, a Chilling Anthology of Crime Fiction From 20 Authors of Color, edited by Abby L. Vandiver, Crooked Lane Books, 2021

I  am not a big fan of stories told in the second person, as I have mentioned the, um, four other times one of them has made it onto this page.  But Aymar makes this one work very well.

You're sitting at the bar, thinking about choices.

The protagonist's life is going down the tubes.  His daughter died in an accident that he feels responsible for, although the authorities disagreed.  

His wife is living with Eric Garcia, who owns the store where our hero works.  Eric is everything he is not: a confident, successful man.  And our protagonist feels that the world isn't big enough to hold both of them.

This is a very clever story, one where the telling is as essential as the plot.  I do think it has some rough edges.  If I were the editor I would have asked Aymar to polish a few of them harder.  But this is a terrific piece of work.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Temptation is a Gun, by James D.F. Hannah


"Temptation is a Gun," by James D.F. Hannah, in Trouble No More
: Crime Fiction Inspired by Southern Rock and the Blues, edited by Mark Westmoreland, Down & Out Books 2021. 

The evening after he gets out of prison after 22 years, Roy returns to the dingy tavern where his life went off the rails.

If you are now thinking: "Hmm.  Sounds like noir," then congratulations.  You have just aced your quiz in Subgenre Recognition 101. 

The story slips between Roy's present visit to Murphy's Tavern and his first fateful encounter there at age 16.  Turns out that back then he met Murphy's much-abused wife.  And you know what happens when a noir protagonist meets an attractive woman.

Classic noir with some clever twists.  

Monday, December 6, 2021

Two Birds, One Todd, by Karen Harrington


"Two Birds, One Todd," by Karen Harrington, in Shotgun Honey.

This is the second appearance by Harrington in my column this year.

I think five or six flash stories have made it to my best-of-the-week list.  This story could probably have been expanded to three or four times its current length, but it wouldn't have made it a better story.  All the details you need are here.

Todd comes to clean the pool just as Ava is backing out of her driveway.  There is a fatal collision.

Such a tragedy.  Imagine how devastated Todd's widow must be.  She's the one at the funeral with big dark glasses to cover the last time he slapped her...

I did not see where this clever tale was headed.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Hit and Run, by Doug Allyn

"Hit and Run," by Doug Allyn, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December 2021.

This is the fifth appearance here by Allyn. It is also the second week in a row that I chose a short story by authors known for much longer tales.

Imagine you are stuck in traffic on your way to an important, even life-and-death meeting.  Not good.

Now imagine you get rear-ended by a woman who is not paying attention.  Even worse.

But the frosting on the cake is that the accident makes your trunk fly open, revealing the bag of cocaine you are bringing to the meeting...

What follows is more twists and turns per page than any story I can remember in years.  Quite a ride. 

Monday, November 22, 2021

Killers, by Brendan DuBois

"Killers, A Story of Love in Four Acts," by Brendan DuBois, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery magazine, November/December 2020.

This is the ninth appearance in this space by DuBois, tying him with Michael Bracken.  Other than high quality, it doesn't have much in common with his other stories here, which tended to be long tales of good guys overcoming bad guys. "Killers," on the other hand, is a short and quirky tale about somewhat eccentric baddies.

Palmer and York are ex-cops, turned to a more profitable career as hitmen.  They are sitting in a car one night, waiting for a couple who they have been assigned to attend to.  Alas, the targets are late and the old friends run out of things to talk about.  And so, to keep awake, Palmer says: "Tell me the most romantic thing you've ever done."

Well.  That's a surprising turn.  What follows are a couple of revealing anecdotes from the killers' past.  And in the last scene we see how they are affected by these memories.

I thought I knew where this charming story was headed.  DuBois fooled me completely.


Monday, November 15, 2021

The Trouble with Rebecca, by Larry Light

"The Trouble with Rebecca," by Larry Light, in Alfred Htichcock's Mystery Magazine, November/December 2021. 

Generally a piece of fiction has a premise (woman comes to private detectives seeking protection; one of them is promptly killed) and a plot (see, there's this statue of a bird rom Malta, and some very bad guys want it...).

And also generally, a reviewer can discuss the premise but shouldn't give away too much of the plot.  This becomes a problem if the story is halfway over before the premise is clear.  So I will be revealing a lot of the set-up because, what else can I do?  Discuss the punctuation?

Max is a "tech geek," working for a company that does hush-hush security stuff.  Because he hates the social side of work he invents Rebecca, a non-existent wife.  This imaginary person is his excuse to avoid after-work events and the like.

All goes well until he falls in love with a flesh-and-blood co-worker.  His tightly zipped employer does not approve of infidelity.  Leaving Max with a thorny dilemma:

How do you rid yourself of a wife who does not actually exist?

This story is a real treat.  


Sunday, November 7, 2021

Back Down to Black, by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

"Back Down to Black," by Andrew Welsh-Huggins, in Mystery Magazine, November 2021. 

This is the fourth appearance here by Welsh-Huggins,and I think it is the second appearance by protagonist Mercury Carter.  It's hard to tell because the hero of "The Mailman" is nameless, as far as I can tell.  They certainly seem to be the same guy.

So who is that guy?  He's a delivery man, the person you contact when the package absolutely, positively needs to be there on time - and bad guys are ready to kill to prevent that.  In the first story the package was two people.  Today it is a flash drive full of potentially life-saving data needed by a virologist.

Someone once described Thomas Perry's novels as "competence porn," meaning that his protagonists don't make mistakes and have whatever skills they need.  We are in that territory here.

Here is Carter reacting to someone putting a gun against the back of his head and telling him "Don't do anything stupid."

'Sure,' said Carter, and did something stupid, driving his left elbow back into the man's chest.  Carter was hardly big enough to do any kind of damage with such a move, which almost any schoolboy could manage better, but it startled No. 4 and the gun barrel slipped off Carter's neck momentarily and he turned and broke the man's nose with his left palm, rocketing his hand forward like a power to the people salute gone terribly wrong.

Actually the character reminds me less of Perry's heroes than of Richard Stark's Parker, although Carter appears to be a good guy.  A most enjoyable story.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Night Bus by Ellen Clair Lamb


"Night Bus," by Ellen Clair Lamb,
 in This Time For Sure: Bouchercon Anthology 2021, edited by Hank Phillippi Ryan,  Down & Out Books, 2021. 

The writing advice for decades has been: Start as far along in the action as you can.  If backstory is necessary, you can fill it in after drawing the reader into the story.  One result  of that is that a lot of the time the mystery is not "Who done it?" but "What was done?"  

Jodie is getting on a bus late at night and she wants to be left alone. Unfortunately the last seat open is next to a chipper old lady who is eager to chat.  Her name is Barbara and she is observant, too observant for Jodie's liking because Jodie has a secret to keep.  And that secret - what was done? - will keep you turning pages.  

Just like last week (and from the same book) it is the last sentence that made this story my favorite.  Very clever tale.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Killing Calhoun Again, by Alan Orloff

 "Killing Calhoun Again," by Alan Orloff, in This Time For Sure: Bouchercon Anthology 2021, edited by Hank Phillippi Ryan,  Down & Out Books, 2021. 

"The first time I killed Royce Calhoun I’d been floating on three Wild Turkeys and a raft of rage."

And so we begin.  Jake Pardee got jealous because Calhoun had been "doing the nasty" with his girlfriend Angela May, so he shot him, twice., and then took off  Apparently he should have gone for the hat trick, because Jake's friend Mouse tells him that Calhoun is back, insufficiently dead, and still hanging around with Angela May.  

"I had no reason to doubt Mouse, not about this anyhow. He spouted some conspiracy nonsense at times, and he had trouble always knowing right from wrong, but when it came to something like this— ratting someone out— he was usually dead on."

Charming language these low-lifes speak. 

I admit it was the last sentence of the story - not so much a twist as a punchline - that made this my favorite of the week. 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Big Store, by Terence Faherty


"The Big Store," by Terence Faherty, in Monkey Business:Crime Fiction Inspired by the Films of the Marx Brothers, edited by Josh Pachter, Untreed Reads, 2021.

I have a story in this book.

This is the eighth appearance in this space by my fellow SleuthSayer Terence Faherty.

Last week I wrote about a story in this book that gave us a view of the Marx Brothers as they might have appeared in real life  Today we go to the opposite extreme with a story that could be a sequel to the movie in question -  and it's odd that such a bad movie could lead to such a good story.

Our narrator is private eye Wolf J. Flywheel. Groucho's character. Based on his success in saving Martha Phelps' department store in the movie  he now has an office in her shop and is pursuing his detective business while also pursuing the boss.

"Martha, Martha, Martha. I could say her name a million times. Once for every greenback she has in the bank."

If his motives are less than pure, his language is pretty hilarious, and convincingly Marxist.

"The department store business is one tough racket. Machine Gun Kelly once tried to return a violin case to Macy’s without a receipt and ended up kissing the sidewalk."

I won't go into the plot.  Let's just say mischief is afoot and Flywheel has to rush to the rescue with the assistance, if that;s the word I'm searching for, of an Italian blackmailer and a silent harpist.    Good times.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

A Day at the Races, by Joseph S. Walker


"A Day at the Races," by Joseph S. Walker, in Monkey Business:Crime Fiction Inspired by the Films of the Marx Brothers, edited by Josh Pachter, Untreed Reads, 2021.

I have a story in this book.

This is the third appearance here by Joseph S. Walker, the second this year.

One of the interesting things about an anthology like this one is seeing the many different ways authors interpret the theme.  Some use the plot of the film as a jumping-off place.  Others work with the on-screen personas of the brothers.  This is the first one I have read that tries to show us our heroes as they might have appeared in real life.

Julia Simmons is the head of personnel and payroll at Santa Anita Racetrack and this is the day before the film crew will arrive to shoot the racing scenes for the new Marx Brothers movie.  Unfortunately it is also the day that the manager of the track is murdered.  The handsome detective in charge of investigating the case has many questions which keeps Julia rushing back to her office - where an odd little man in a gray suit is hanging around for no apparent reason.  We will figure out his part in the story long before she does, but it's fun hearing his commentary on the action.

There's a lot of wit in this tale, and a satisfactory plot.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Providence, by Clark Boyd

 "Providence," by Clark Boyd, in This Time For Sure, edited by Hank Phillippi Ryan, edited by Down and Out, 2021. 

Xavier has job satisfaction problems.  He's a hitman for One Shot Valenti and he doesn't feel a lot of job security.  This is a business where getting laid off involves ceasing to breath.

Our hero has an interesting view of the world.  Here he is watching a baseball game: "[W]hen there’s a conference on the mound, I amuse myself by pretending, aloud, that they’re discussing existentialist philosophy. “Coach, I can get this guy. Take a leap of faith.” “But Pedro, did the great Dane not also say, ‘The specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair?’ Now hand me the goddamn ball."

Honestly I didn't find the plot all that convincing, but the characters are dialog are more than worth the ride.


Sunday, September 26, 2021

Funeral Games, by Hal Bodner

"Funeral Games," by Hal Bodner, in Avenging Angelenos, edited by Sarah M. Chen, Wrona Gall and Pamela Samuels Young, Down and Out Books, 2021.

This is a very silly story.  That is not an insult.

Southern California's funeral industry is viciously competitive when it comes to celebrity funerals.  People measure a memorial park's cachet by how many stars are buried on-site.  Needless to say, the plots and crypts are priced accordingly.  It never fails to astonish me how many people will pay top dollar to spend their eternal rest within spitting distance of a rock star when in life, they'd have been outraged by the loud parties next door and called the police on the groupies throwing up on their lawn.

Mickey owns one such memorial park.  His nemesis and ex-lover is the wonderfully named Julia Shrike.  They will do anything to steal top-of-their-fame dead rockers or even over-the-hill movie stars from each other.  Bribery, lies, and even grave-robbing are not off the menu.

As the tit-for-tat escalates it is anyone's guess who will wind up on top.  Great fun.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Incident at a Diner, by Chris Miller

 "Incident at a Diner," by Chris Miller, in Dead-End Jobs: A Hitman Anthology, edited by Andy Rausch, All Due Respect, 2021.

This is one of those stories that grew on me, meaning I liked it better the more I thought about it.  There are so many moving pieces it takes a while to sort everything out.

Sam and Millie are meeting for breakfast in a diner in rural Texas.  They are deep in lust and soaking in guilt because Sam is cheating on his wife.  

But they aren't the only people having trouble in that joint.  A man and woman are arguing furiously about something.  Two gangster-types from New Jersey are complaining about an associate has screwed up.  And then there's the old cowboy who seems to have his own agenda.  How is this all going to work out? And, let's remember: why is this story in a book about hit men?

The climax surprised me a lot.

Monday, September 13, 2021

A Hell of a Thing, by Wayne J. Gardiner

 "A Hell of a Thing," by Wayne J. Gardiner, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2021.

This is the second appearance here by Wayne J. Gardiner.  It doesn't have a complicated plot, more of a slice-of-life story.  

On the first page Carly does something most officers never need to do in their whole careers: fire her weapon in action.  In fact, she shoots three armed robbers and she shoots them all dead.

The rest of the story is about her trying to find ways to cope with her reactions and those of the people around her.  And, perhaps inevitably, there is a niggling self-doubt: Is she sure the first robber was turning his gun toward her?

It is a moving tale, well-told.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Glass, by James R. Benn

 "Glass," by James R. Benn, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2021.

One of the many reasons AHMM is my favorite magazine is that they occasionally take a chance on a crime-related story from a different genre.  This story, for example, has a clear science fiction orientation.

The proton moved an at insane speed.  If it had been capable of fear, it would have been terrified.  Contained within an oval tube, traveling just short of the speed of light, it whipped around the 54.1-mile circuit ceaselessly as other protons shout past it from the opposite direction.  Collisions sparked all around it, sending smashed protons against the smooth metalic surface which contained its universe.

 That's the start.  We follow the path of this proton for an entire page before things go awry. The superconducting super-collider goes boom and a piece of 21st-century technology is blasted back through time to 1965 where it is discovered by hapless recently-fired salesman Guy Tupper.  Guy brings it to his cousin Jerry who runs a repair shop.  Together they figure out just enough to get the device working, and then...

Well.  That would be telling.

There is a clever roman a clef here, with a well-known writer being referenced under a transparent pseudonym.  The best part is that the plots of his novels fit spookily to the situation Guy and Jerry find themselves in.

There is a twist in this tale that made me gasp audibly.  That doesn't happen very often.


Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Stain of Memory, by Thomas K. Carpenter

 "The Stain of Memory," by Thomas K. Carpenter, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2021.

This is the second appearance in this column by Carpenter and his Roman detective.

Carpenter's Ovid is not the great poet, but a magistrate serving in a poor neighborhood of Alexandria.  He is a long ways from a conventional hero, modern or Roman, being overweight and somewhat dithering.  But he is clever, and honest, and has an excellent grasp of Roman law, which is vital because these stories tend to turn on quirks of this legal system.

As usual, Ovid finds himself between a rock and a hard place.  To be specific, his boss, who is in charge all the magistrates and the military in the city, has brought a charge against the governor.  Both of them demand that Ovid, as presiding magistrate, rule in their favor.  Either can destroy him at will.  

As I said, Ovid has been in tough spots before, but this time he learns something that makes the problem very personal.  So, in effect, he is his own client.  

A very clever story, and an excellent portrayal of the time period.  

Monday, August 23, 2021

Perfect Strangers, by Tilia Klebenov Jacobs

 "Perfect Strangers," by Tilia Klebenov Jacobs, in When A Stranger Comes To Town, edited by Michael Koryta, Hanover Square Press, 2021.

Gershom is finishing his second prison term for armed robbery when his cellmate Dougal points out the new gold mine: marijuana dispensaries.  Cash-rich and security-poor, they are a robber's dream.  So when he gets out Gershom begins to plan an elaborate robbery, because he does not intend to go down a third time...

The writing here is very witty. "Five years [in prison] went by like a snail with a hangover."  "If this went sideways, they'd lock me up and melt down the warden." And so on.

If you have read a few hundred stories like this you know something will go sideways,  But Jacobs found a clever and unexpected way to do that.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Skull Collector, by Joe R. Lansdale

"The Skull Collector," by Joe R. Lansdale, in Collectibles, edited by Lawrence Block, LB Productions, 2021.

This is Lansdale's third appearance here.  

If a story is told in first person, style is character.  Here is our heroine describing her boss, a fence, dealing with a dissatisfied customer:

"He was a tough old guy, Ruby said.  Big, cold crack walnuts with harsh language, chase a squirrel up a tree with bad breath. She had to use an axe handle to sort the guy out a little.  It wasn't too bad.  He was able to leave on his own, though not without a certain amount of pain and difficulty..."  

That tells you a lot about Ruby, sure, but we also find out a lot about the narrator, especially that "It wasn't too bad." What does she consider a real problem?

Ruby has been hired by a Texas bigwig to steal a skull form a cemetery  -- I'll leave the reason for that a secret -- and she ropes our heroine in.  Things get worse.  Then they get worse.  And... you get the idea.

Here is the assistant fence describing the hasty exit made by two thugs: "Bridge Support and his Kemosabe left out of there so fast they didn't even leave body odor."

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Yelena Tried to Kill Me, by Trey Dowell


"Yelena Tried to Kill Me," by Trey Dowell, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, August 2021.

"The first time I saw Yelena Nevsky, she tried to kill me."

Well, that opening line got my attention.  Our hero participates in armored duels at a renaissance fair.  Yelena, dressed in Russian medieval chain mail, battles him for the championship.  I won't tell you who wins, but the result is a romance.  

The protagonist's friend isn't buying it.  Why would a sexy Russian fall for a nothing like him?  And as a Russian cultural attache she must be a spy, right?  "And she's, what, stealing all the classified info I keep in my corner coffee shop?"

Maybe not, but something must be going on or this wouldn't be in a mystery magazine.  The story has some clever twists.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Sweeps Week, by Richard Helms

 "Sweeps Week," by Richard Helms, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2021.

This is the eighth appearance in this column by Richard Helms, and his third in 2021.  Somebody's having a good year.

I'm the Invisible Man.

That's the opening sentence.  The narrator is a homeless guy, an ex-cop.  An ex-dirty cop, he would be quick to add.

Sonny, a homeless guy with mental problems, has gone missing. Worse, a national political convention is coming to town, which means it is Sweeps Week.  That doesn't refer to the time when the TV networks put out their best, but the time when the city kicks out its worst - or at least most unpleasant-to-look-at.  

So our hero is trying to figure out what happened to Sonny.  One of the places  he looks is, well: "Hospital ER waiting rooms are like resort spas for homeless guys.  You get AC, free TV - even if they always seem to be tuned to the Disney channel -  and a place to sit unmolested as long as you don't draw attention to yourself."

Gritty and well-written.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

A Career Spent Disappointing People, by Tod Goldberg

"A Career Spent Disappointing People," by Tod Goldberg, in Palm Springs Noir, edited by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, Akashic Press, 2021.

The publisher sent me a free copy of this book.  

This is the second appearance here by Mr. Goldberg.

Shane leads an interesting life.  He makes part of his living singing karaoke.  He makes the rest of it robbing houses with his Gold Mike, using information gathered from the people who listened to him singing karaoke.

But that's in the past because when our story begins Shane has a bullet hole in his foot and several large chunks of Gold Mike in the trunk of his car.  These two facts are not unrelated.

When that car breaks down in a small desert town Shane finds himself in a bar having a conversation with an attorney and a clown. The attorney wants to give him advice, possibly have him as a client, and has another use for him in mind.  The clown, well, it takes a while to figure out what the clown wants.

A bizarre story of desperate people.  What made this the best-of-the-week for me was the ending, which I wouldn't characterize as a twist, but definitely a surprise.    

Monday, July 19, 2021

Sonny's Encore, by Michael Bracken

"Sonny's Encore," by Michael Bracken, in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, #9.

This is the ninth appearance in this column by my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken, which puts him in the lead, if this is a race, which of course it isn't.  This here is art.

The depression was hard on everyone, even big bands traveling through the south.  Sonny Goodman and his troupe of musicians have found a way to supplement their income with a little larceny.    But when things go wrong they go wrong in a big way.  That could be the end of the story, but Bracken has some surprises in store.

The fun of this story is the details of the well-thought-out capers.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Candidate, by Tom Ziegler


"The Candidate," by Tom Ziegler, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July, August 2021.

It is unusual for me to select three stories from the same publication in a row.  It's not like I'm not reading others at the same time...

Frank is a bagman, collecting money all over the midwest for a crime organization in Chicago.  The old mob is changing with the times and wants Frank to take on a more varied role and he isn't sure if he wants to. But how easy is it to quit the mob?

Things come to a head when a famous (or infamous) character dies of natural but embarrassing causes in a brothel with mob collections.   Somehow erasing the connection turns out to be Frank's job.

What follows is a methodical operation with a few surprising twists. 

Sunday, July 4, 2021

The Sweet Life, by Eve Fisher


"The Sweet Life," by Eve Fisher, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2021.

This is the third appearance here by my fellow SleuthSayer Eve Fisher.

As I have said before, some stories sneak up on you.  I'm not talking about surprise endings.  I'm talking about a story that you finish and think, "Well, that was okay," but then the next day you realize you're still thinking about it.  Maybe you reread it to catch more of the details.  As Paul Hanson said "I may be done with the book, but it’s not done with me.” 

This is one of those stories, for me anyway.

Carrie is a teenager who has had a rotten life.  She considers her time with Ethan to have been pretty good because, while he made her sell drugs, he didn't force her into prostitution.  That's a highlight.

When that arrangement collapses she lucks into a gig with an agency that cleans houses.  (She has to lie about her age, and other things.)  Turns out that's work she is happy with, even though some of the customers are a little weird.

But then Molly comes back into her life, and Molly is bad news.  Just the kind of person to steal something from a house they are cleaning and ruin it for everyone.  

What happens is more complicated than that, and more interesting.  Not a twist ending, but I definitely did not predict how the story turned out.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Waiting Game, by Dana Haynes


"The Waiting Game," by Dana Haynes, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2021.

 This is the second time Haynes has appeared in these electrons.  It is my first encounter with his series characters, Fiero and Finnigan, who run  St. Nicholas  Salvage & Wrecking, which is actually a bounty hunter firm that chases international bad guys.  But that's not the problem they are dealing with here.

Finnigan has been kidnapped by very nasty Russians who want Fiero to revert to her old occupation of assassin.  Only she can get close to a certain target for them.  They show her a video of her business partner being beaten and promise to produce another film of him being clobbered every day until the job is done. Finnigan, we learn is locked in a cinder block bunker with an iron door; escape is impossible.

The Russians have a great plan. But as von Moltke said 150 years ago, no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and Fiero and Finnigan have no intention of following the bad guys' rule book.  I won't give anything away but will say they kept delighting and surprising me.  I was reminded of that classic TV show The Avengers.

One thing amused me: Finnigan is unimpressed by the beating or the lockdown but something upsets him.  He asks his captors to bring him a crossword puzzle book.  "But not Sudoku!  I hate that shit!" I wonder if Haynes knows where Dell Magazines (which published AHMM) makes a lot of their money?


Sunday, June 20, 2021

Capes and Masks, by Richard Helms,


"Capes and Masks," by Richard Helms, Mystery Weekly Magazine, June 2021.

This is the third time in ten years of weekly reviews that I am featuring a story by the same author two weeks in a row.  (Mat Coward and Terrence Faherty were the others).

And except for quality, they couldn't be more different.  Last week I critiqued a war-and-crime story.  Today we have a quirky tale of a superhero, Captain Courageous:

"You know the story. Stolen by aliens who crashed my fourth birthday party.  Returned when I was seventeen, but I was somehow... different than when I left.  Well, duh,  I was thirteen years older, had all this weird hair growing where it never had, and my voice sounded like I was shaving a cat with a cheese greater."

If that sounds a bit... hardboiled... for a superhero it is no accident.  His cover identity is Eddie Shane, private eye.  He mostly deals with divorce work but when a caped dude named Sunburst is found mysteriously dead, this is no job for a superhero.  We need a detective to save the day.  

Very funny and clever.

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.