Sunday, May 22, 2022

Dreaming of Ella, by Francelia Belton

 



"
Dreaming of Ella," by Francelia Belton, in Denver Noir, edited by Cynthia Swanson, Akashic Press, 2022.

The publisher sent me a copy of this book.
 
It is 1956 and Morgan plays trumpet in a nightclub in the Five Points, Denver's home for jazz and African-American culture.  He inherited the horn and his talent from his father, who died young.  HIs mother told him that his dad "was playing the devils' horn and one day the devil would collect his due." 

Well, you can't complain that this story isn't noir enough, can you?

Morgan's great dream is to play some day with Ella Fitzgerald and, wonder of wonders, one night she walks into the club.  She wants to sing a number with the band.  And yes, she may even be in the market for a new trumpet player.

And then a phone call changes everything and Morgan's life begins to skid wildly off the rails.  It seems like the devil may be back for a second helping.

I often wish the Akashic Books' Noir Cities series had more historical tales.  This is a nice one.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Zebras, by Stacy Woodson


"Zebras," by Stacy Woodson, in The Tattered Blue Line: Short Stories of Contemporary Policing, edited by Frank Zafiro, Code 4 Press, 2022.

An epistolary story set in a school  Makes me think of Up the Down Staircase.  But this one uses mostly email instead of memos.

K-9 Officer Bradley is assigned to an elementary school as a resource officer, largely because his charge,k Boomer, flunked his test as a drug-sniffing dog.  Now Bradley is using the pooch to try to make connections with the kids.  And Boomer starts getting disturbing letters from a third-grader.  Is she just having every-day kid problems or is something much more serious going on?

This story is something different and I enjoyed it a lot.


 

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Junk Feed, by Mark Stevens

 


"Junk Feed," by Mark Stevens, in Denver Noir, edited by Cynthia Swanson, Akashic Press, 2022.

The publisher sent me a free copy of this book.

A private eye story with a twist.  Wayne Furlong became a P.I. because he got laid off from his previous work as a newspaper restaurant critic.  Since he wrote under a pseudonym no one knows that he was the guy who wrote those vicious critiques - including his current client,  a hotel manager whose restaurant still hasn't recovered.

But the problem she hires him to deal with took place many floors above the dubious charms of the food shop.  A marketing guru had been decapitated in a hotel room a year ago and the crime had not been solved.  The manager hoped that if the killer is caught the bad attention, in the form of reporters and podcasters, would blessedly retreat.

Furlong approaches the problem with the exquisite eye for detail of an experienced food critic, and that is what makes the story unique.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Detective Anne Boleyn, by Susan Breen


"Detective Anne Boleyn," by Susan Breen, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,  May/June 2022.

This is Breen's second appearance in this space.

So, what's Anne Boleyn been up to lately?

Same old, same old.  Wandering around the Tower of London, but in spite of the famous music hall song, she has her head firmly on her shoulders, not underneath her arm.

An American tourist named Kit discovers this when she drops dead in the Tower and Queen Anne arrives for a chat.  I am describing this as if the story is a comedy but it isn't. Boleyn comes across as a tragic figure, and very sharp except for her blind love for that nasty husband of hers.

How sharp?  She is the one who figures out that Kit was poisoned.  (She is shocked that Kit has no poison tester.)

The two wronged women managed to help each other out in this very clever story.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Murder, She Chiselled, by Marilyn Todd


 "Murder, She Chiselled," by Marilyn Todd, in Death of a Bad Neighbour: Revenge is Criminal, edited by Jack Calverley, Logic of Dreams, 2022.

 I have a story in this book.

 This is the second appearance here by Marilyn Todd. And this is a very silly story.  Not that that is a bad thing.

"Was I the luckiest girl in the Jurassic, or what!"

So says Dinah Sewer, cave woman, who is married to the famous singer-songwriter-hunter Spruce Stonesteen.  When Spruce is leaving for work he asks his wife whether she wants bison or antelope for dinner.

"'Bison," I said.  I'm not into fast food."

The puns only get worse, if you don't like puns.  And eventually a rival singer named Jagga gets killed...

I enjoyed it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

The Last of Their Line, by Robin Hazard Ray


 "The Last of Their Line," by Robin Hazard Ray, in Mystery Magazine, April, 2022.

A nice historical story.  

It's Boston, 1857.  Sumner Bascomb is the superintendent of Mount Auburn Cemetery and he receives a letter from Thomas Damon, wishing to purchase a lot big enough to accommodate 24 bodies.  He has decided to move all the remains of his family from the Trinity Church Burying Ground.

If that doesn't sound complicated enough, it turns out that Damon is not actually in charge of his family's estate.  That privilege belongs to his sister, who lives in the same house as him, but they haven't spoke in twenty years.

A lot of family secrets here, with interesting motives...

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Amnesty Box, by Tim McLoughlin

 




"Amnesty Box," by Tim McLoughlin, in Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, Akashic Press, 2022.

This is a collection of stories and essays.  If I am reading the acknowledgements correctly, this story is one of three new ones.

It is sometimes poor form for a reviewer to reveal that a story has an unreliable narrator.  But since McLoughlin's character  begins by saying "Appearance is everything and I'm a fraud" I don't think I'm giving away any secrets.

The protagonist is a postal service police officer in New York City.  One reason he describes himself as a fraud is that he can accurately say he has been shot twice, in combat and on the job, but this ignores the fact that they were both minor injuries caused by friendly fire.  Not as heroic as it sounds.

But the main thread of the story is a stunt he creates to speed up the occasional metal detector check which they run on post office customers, always on Friday because that is the lightest work day.  You see, nobody want to spend the beginning of their weekend processing a bust.

Arrests go down on weekends, they go down in nice weather, they go down when they are inconvenient. Conversely, they spike shortly after Halloween and remain high through Thanksgiving, when overtime checks will arrive in time for Christmas shopping.

The cop invents the Amnesty Box, explaining that customers can drop into this cardboard box anything they know they shouldn't be taking through the metal detector.  The catch is they won't get the dumped items back.  "Even on a slow day we would collect a couple small bags of weed and a few knives."

A harmless-enough trick until something much more dangerous is dumped in the box.  Then the story takes several surprising turns...

Sunday, April 3, 2022

The Book of Eve (The First Mystery), by Steve Hockensmith


 "The Book of Eve (The First Mystery), by Steve Hockensmith, Death of a Bad Neighbour: Revenge is Criminal, edited by Jack Calverley, Logic of Dreams, 2022.

I have a story in this book.

This is the sixth appearance in this column by my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Steve Hockensmith.

As the title suggests, this is a retelling of the first murder mystery.  Abel has gone missing and his mother Eve is looking for him.  

Much of the pleasure in this story is in the way it's told, the language of the characters.  And not all of them are human.  For example, here is a sheep complaining of the absence of Abel, the shepherd.

"It's a bummer, too.  We've had lions come by, hyenas, wild dogs.  There's an eagle that's gotten, like six lambs.  It's a wonder the jerk can still fly."

The ewe bent her head and tore out another mouthful of grass.

"I can hardly believe I'm still alive," she muttered.

"Why didn't you come down out of the hils?" Eve aske her.  "Get me and Adam? Or Cain?"

The eye lifted her head again.  But it wasn't to look at Eve and the serpent.  It was to glance around at the other sheep languidly gazing nearby.

"What?" she said.  "And leave the flock?"

A very funny story that manages to be surprisingly moving as well.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Crime Scene, by Joseph S. Walker.


"Crime Scene," by Joseph S. Walker, in Malice in Dallas: Metroplex Mysteries Volume 1, edited by Barb Goffman, Sisters in Crime North Dallas, 2022.

This is the fifth appearance in this column by Walker.

Adler had done a lot of jobs in fields of work where nobody writes a résumé.  

In recent times, in fact, he's been working as a hitman.  His latest assignment is a very strange one: Kill a millionaire businessman in Dealey Plaza on November 22.  

The contract is so bizarre that Adler's curiosity is piqued.  Why is someone willing to  pay a large amount to see Alex Lersch killed, and why at this time and place?  

His research doesn't help much.  Lersch's fortune is going to big institutions, not likely to rush the inheritance illegally.  No one seems to hate or fear the man.  His only unusual characteristic is that he is obsessed with  a certain assassination...

A clever and thoughtful story.


Sunday, March 20, 2022

The Peculiar Affliction of Allison White, by Jesse Bethea

 


"The Peculiar Affliction of Allison White," by Jesse Bethea, in Chilling Crime Short Stories, Flame Tree Publishing, 2022.

Most of the stories in this book are reprints, including one by me.  Bethea's tale is one of nine originals, if I counted correctly.

This is a story about science versus superstition.  We are in rural New England in the late nineteenth century. The narrator is a physician.

His problem is that a young girl - his own niece - is claiming to be ill and furthermore saying that she is being attacked by vampires.  The irrational villagers believe her bizarre story and are digging up the graves of the supposed monsters, searching for signs that the dead have been escaping from their graves.  "T]here are no signs of things that don't exist," the doctor grumbles.

If he can't find a way of conquering this madness corpses are not the only victims who will be harmed.  This is a very clever story.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Morbid Phenomena of the Most Varied Kind, by Mat Coward

 


"Morbid Phenomena of the Most Varied Kind," by Mat Coward, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2022.

This is the seventh appearance in this column by Mat Coward.  He writes extremely silly stories and he does it very well.  Consider this opening paragraph:

If you were thinking of assassinating a politician, my main advice would be don't bother -- they keep spares.  You could spend a whole week popping off the corrupt, the cruel, the ruthless, and the irritating, and they'd just keep replacing them faster than you could reload.

Josh has just fired three shots at a businessman-cum-politician.  He missed, but that was the idea.  He and his roommate are totally against violence.  They simply want to make the big man look imperiled because they want to make money by selling his stock short. 

Amazingly enough, the plan works.  Now all they need to do is keep from getting caught.  The potentially fatal piece of evidence is the rifle Josh fired at the bigwig.  See, it could be traced to Oscar.  They found a clever way to dispose of it but because of crooked businesses and surprisingly efficient government bureaucrats - you can't trust anyone these days -  the rifle has disappeared into a landfill.  Our heroes feel they need to rescue it before a bad guy - or worse, an investigating lawman - finds it.

Then we could take it back home and think of another way of getting rid of it.  Being back at square one with no idea what to do next would be  a huge relief.

Hilarious.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Death Floor, by Martin Limón,

 


"Death Floor," by Martin Limón, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2022.


This is the fifth appearance in this space by Martin Limón and I believe it is the fourth showing for George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, investigators for the CID of the American Eighth Army.  They work in South Korea, eternally in the mid-seventies.  (They have starred in a dozen novels.)

In this story senior clerk Riley, their old frenemy, has been put in a hospital by a beating.  The colonel in charge of CID had sent him on an off-the-books operation, and it had gone badly.  

It seems an officer had a gambling problem and the bad guys he owed money too swiped the half-American little boy he wanted to adopt, as collateral.  Hence the colonel's desire to keep the case hush-hush.

So Sueño and  Bascom have to find and rescue the little boy and punish the people who beat up Riley, and do it all if possible without making a stink.   Good luck, soldiers.

I wrote two weeks ago that Rafe McGregor convinced me he knew all about nineteenth century British army life.  In the same way Limón is absolutely sure-footed in describing Korea in the 1970s and the tricky lives of the CID agents.  Always a fascinating journey with them.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Red Flag, by Gregory Fallis


"Red Flag," by Gregory Fallis, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2022. 

This is the second appearance in this column by Gregory Fallis.

There are many ways to tell a story.  First things first is not always the best approach.  Fallis starts in the middle of the action and then fills in the backstory; a very common method these days.

But it leaves the critic in an awkward position, doesn't it?  I have to explain some of the backstory so you know what's going on.

Porter moved from Michigan to Los Angeles and had a relatively successful acting career, which was interrupted when he was injured during a mass shooting.

Back in Lansing he leads a quiet life until one day his financial advisor asks him to talk to a client's son. Seems the son has expressed an interest in committing mass murder.  Maybe Porter can talk him out of it? 

Porter talks to the young man, a terrifying and depressing encounter.  Then he talks to the cops who explain that there is basically nothing they can do until the man buys a gun and starts shooting.

Which leaves Porter holding the bag.

A fascinating story.  The ending is not a surprise, but it is a satisfactory one.


 

Sunday, February 20, 2022

The Case of the Colonel's Suicide, by Rafe McGregor

 


"The Case of the Colonel's Suicide," by Rafe McGregor, in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 29, 2022.

A pastiche is a story written in the style and characters of another author, attempting to add to the existing corpus of those works.  Fan fiction, if you like.

A homage, on the other hand, uses  elements of the original author's universe in a new way. 

You could call this story a homage since it name-checks two characters by a well-known author. But that would be a stretch, because the tale would work just as well if those two names were replaced by Smith and Jones.

We are in Victorian England and the narrator is Chief Inspector Langham of the Metropolitan Police.  A retired colonel has committed suicide and Langham, himself a former military man, is asked to examine the scene.

What he sees convinces him that the colonel, although burdened with debts and other serious problems, was murdered.  And so Langham begins to delve deeper into the man's troubled past.

What makes this story stand out for me is its use of detail.  My knowledge of 19th century English military customs is nil, but I am convinced that McGregor knows his stuff, and he makes it fascinating.


Monday, February 14, 2022

Bad News, by Steve Hockensmith


"Bad News," by Steve Hockensmith , in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, January.February 2022.

This is the fifth appearance here by my friend and former SleuthSayer Steve Hockensmith.  It is the second showing by the characters who star in his highly original novel series.

For those of you who are new to the tales, these are westerns starring Gustav and Otto Amlingmeyer, better known as Old Red and Big Red.  Big Red narrates the tales with a breezy sense of humor.  His older brother is a sour pessimist who, after discovering the reports on Sherlock Holmes's adventures, has determined to become a detective.  He has the brains but his big liability is that he never learned to read.

In this story the brothers, now running the A.A. Western Detective Agency, arrive in Little, Colorado to help a publisher who has been held up and robbed of a whole edition of the paper - apparently by a lone Ku Klux Klansman.  The obvious suspect is a rival publisher who hails from the south.  

But Old Red is no sucker for obvious solutions.

Half the joy in these tales is Gustav's deductions.  The other is Otto's witty asides.   "I'd say I know my brother like the back of my hand even though it's another kind of backside he more often brings to mind."

The story is a treat. 

 

Monday, February 7, 2022

Everybody's Business, by Ken Teutsch


 "Everybody's Business," by Ken Teutsch, in Mystery Magazine, February 2022.

When Karl gets out of prison he returns to his hometown.  Most of his neighbors want nothing to do with him but the exception are two brothers. Far from being turned off by Karl's record, Tommy and Randall are thrilled to know  a genuine convict.  As you may guess, they are not the brightest knives on the tree.

One night they come to Karl with an exciting deal: a grouchy old lady wants them to kill her neighbor.  Karl can split the money with them if he is willing to help.  And by help they mean doing the, well, killing part.

Karl agrees, but he has a plan of his own.  And what could possibly go wrong?  

Some fun twists in this one.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

The Best of 2021

 


Over at SleuthSayers I have just posted my list of the best short mystery stories of 2021.  Congratulations to all the writers, and thanks for many hours of pleasurable reading.

Monday, January 31, 2022

Locked-In, by WIlliam Burton McCormick


"Locked-In," by William Burton McCormick, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2022.

 I find myself in an awkward position for the second time.  Well, actually I have been in awkward positions many times.  But this is only the second time for this one. 

 Occasionally I will exchange critiques with another writer.  That is, I will send them a story and ask for advice on it.  They do the same with me.

So I saw a version of this story back in 2019.  It is possible McCormick adopted some of my suggestions.  (Don't ask me what I suggested; it was three freaking years ago.) You can therefore say I am not objective about it, so take my opinion with however many grains of salt you think appropriate.  But it is the best story I read this week.

Oh, and this is the fifth time McCormick has made it into this column.  Now, down to business.

It's 1943.  An insurance man named Jeff has just rented a house in a new city.  His landlord warns him that the cellar door is tricky and can slam shut.  That's what happens in the first paragraph, locking our hero in behind a steel door.

Oops. 

Well, embarassing but no big problem.  He just has to attract the attention of a passer-by who happens to near his lonely alley:

"Help me, please, miss!" I shout.  "I've locked myself in this basement.  Can you come inside and unfasten the door?"

Her stare is icy cold.  "If you think I'm coming in there alone with you, fellah, you're crazy!"

"But--" 

"No. Not with all the odd things and killings happening in this part of town.  Sorry."

"Odd things and killings..."  You don't have to be an MWA Grand Master to guess what happens next.  When Jeff finally gets the attention of someone willing to enter, it is the man responsible for those other bad events.  And a game of cat and mouse begins.

This is a pure suspense story, and very well done. I am especially fond of the last paragraph, in which McCormick tips his hat to another well-known suspense author.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Ballad of 223, by Preston Lang


"The Ballad of 223," by Preston Lang, in Under the Thumb: Stories of Police Oppression, edited by S.A. Cosby, Rock and a Hard Place Press, 2021. 

This is the second story by Lang to appear in this column.

It may be worth noting that my favorite story in this book is one of the few with a White protagonist.  It is also one of the more -- I won't say optimistic, but less pessimistic.

Which may be considered as evidence that it would be helpful to have more people with varied backgrounds reviewing short stories.  If anyone wants to get into the rewarding (well, only intellectually) business of writing a column like this, let me know.

Okay, on to the business at hand.

Alan makes his living play the lute at renaissance festivals.  While hitchhiking to one on a highway he is stopped by state police officers who are baffled by the instrument, the man, and his costume.  "Dancing around in tights and slippers?"

Things go badly sideways and Alan winds up in prison.  But he has a plan on how to get out. It's a longshot, but any shot might be worth taking...

An intriguing tale.

Monday, January 17, 2022

One Tossed Match, by Joseph S. Walker


 "One Tossed Match," by Joseph S. Walker, in Cemetery Plots of Northern California, Capitol Crimes, 2021.

This is the fourth appearance in this space by Walker, his third with a 2021 publication.  That's unusual.

Also unusual is that this anthology appears to have come into existence without an editor.  Amazing when that happens.

Abe, the narrator, is an ex-con, now working as a bartender.  One day Russ Leopold shows up.

Forty years ago, in 1976, Russ and Gabe Booth and  I were in a crew, and I don't mean we rowed for Stanford. 

The crew committed armed robberies.  Gabe was the planner.  It went well until it didn't. After a botched diamond robbery Russ and Abe got lighter sentences by testifying against Gabe.

Now Russ has learned that Gabe is dead.  No one ever found the millions of dollars worth of diamonds that they stole.  Would Abe like to go to Gabe's little home in the country for a look-see?

This is a story that would fit comfortably in Ellery Queen's Black Mask department.  Don't go hunting for happy endings.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Book Drop, by Susan A. Bresniker

 


"Book Drop," by Susan A. Bresniker, in The Fish That Got Away, edited by Linda M. Rodriquez, Wildside Press, 2021.

I admit to bias on this one.  In fact I am doubly prejudiced.

First, it's about librarians, which is the occupation I pursued for more than forty years.  This is a double-edged sword, of course: If the writer doesn't know the library biz I get turned off immediately.  But Bresniker, being one of the gang herself, doesn't fall into that trap.

The second reason for my prejudice is more complicated.  See if you can figure it out.

The narrator is Arlie, who works at a public library.  Her colleague is Sal.  The director, their boss, is an obese and brilliant woman named Nora.

Many of you have figured it out by now.  Let me add that Nora is somehow wealthy enough to have a chef named Mitzie...

This is a clever homage to one of my favorite mystery writers.  Hence my biased enjoyment.

I will say that my suspension of disbelief had a hard time coping with Nora's wealth.  I have only known two millionaire librarians.  One inherited money.  The other founded a publishing house and sold it to a big company.  Both promptly left the biz.

But that didn't keep me from enjoying the strange of someone "stealing books for a library."



Sunday, January 2, 2022

Catch and Release, by Mark Thielman


"Catch and Release," by Mark Thielman, in The Fish That Got Away, edited by Linda M. Rodriquez, Wildside Press, 2021.

This is the seventh appearance in this column by my fellow SleuthSayer.

I let a murderer go today.

That's how the tale begins. You might feel that the prosecutor is being a little hard on himself, because he did try his best to get Thomas Edmonds convicted.  (Didn't he?)

He walks you through the trial, through every maddening moment that caused his case to slip away.  And through it all Edmonds sits there, as unconcerned as a bystander at a church picnic.  No wonder the narrator is so upset.  But then unexpected things happen.

You could argue that this story is a stunt. Ah, but it is a satisfying stunt.