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.


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!"


"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.