Sunday, December 24, 2023

A Right Jolly Old Elf, by Joseph S. Walker


"A Right Jolly Old Elf," by Joseph S. Walker, Black Cat Weekly, #120, 2023.

This is the eleventh story by my friend  to grace this column, making Walker the undisputed champion, for the moment.  

I am a sucker for comic caper stories.  I don't remember the last time I laughed out loud so many times at a story as I did at this one, from its sly first sentence to its calamitous end.

Marty is a no-talent who manages to marry into an influential family.  Sounds good, right? Alas, the family happens to be the Irish mob.  They get tired of him being useless and decide he has to become part of a robbery.  He will attend an office party dressed as Santa while his two brothers-in-law, dressed as elves, slip off to rob another office. What could possibly go wrong?

Colm punched Marty hard in the arm. “Stop saying ho ho ho,” he said. “You sound like somebody beat you over the head with the North Pole.”

And then there's the cops.  And the strippers.  Ho ho ho.


Sunday, December 17, 2023

Eleanor Rigby, by John Copenhaver

"Eleanor Rigby," by John Copenhaver, in Happiness is A Warm Gun: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of the Beatles, edited by Josh Pachter, Down and Out Books, 2023.

I have a story in this book.

One of the interesting things about  themed anthologies is how different authors choose wildly different approaches.  If the theme is a song, do you riff on the plot (like last week's story) or take a completely different approach?

Jimmy is married to Clark, a successful writer.  The relationship works pretty well but Jimmy feels Clark has secrets, things he can't really know. "It's like staring at a bright-flecked pet goldfish.  You admire it, feed it, clean its bowl, but you can't quite reach it.  After all, you breathe air, while it breathes water.  That's what you sign up for when you marry a writer."

I hope my wife doesn't think of me as a goldfish, but that's neither here nor there.

One day Jimmy sees Baxter, a former friend of Clark's, leaving their apartment building.  And he learns about a secret those two share, not an infidelity, but something much worse.  

How does that relate to the song "Eleanor Rigby?" Ah, that's the cleverest part of the story.

Monday, December 11, 2023

I'll Be Back, by Christine Poulson

"I'll Be Back," by Christine Poulson, in Happiness is A Warm Gun: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of the Beatles, edited by Josh Pachter, Down and Out Books, 2023.

I have a story in this book.

A few weeks ago I wrote here that I prefer my horror human. I will let you decide whether this story is horror, and if so whether my preference apples.

Lindsay and Julian plan a vacation in the hopes of enlivening their marriage.  Unfortunately their preferred destination falls through so they are offered a larger and more expensive house to stay in.  Turns out there is a reason the house is not so popular: several murders took place there.

As soon as Lindsay approaches the place she gets a bad feeling, like something doesn't want her to go in... I should mention that Lindsay had a bad accident years ago that leaves her with headaches.  Is there a connection between her illness and the unwelcoming sensation?

A nicely suspenseful and spooky tale with layers of complication I haven't even mentioned.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Chrysanthemums, by Asaf Schurr

"Chrysanthemums," by Asaf Schurr, in West Jerusalem Noir, edited by Maayan Eitan, Akashic Press, 2023.

The publisher sent me a free copy of this book.

One night Nahum is awakened by a banging at the door.  His grown daughter Michal has arrived.

"I killed him.  I killed him. I think I killed him."

It was a traffic accident, a hit-and-run.  Nahum is determined to protect her from the police, whatever it takes.  He has the obvious paternal reasons, but there is also an incident in his past that adds to his sense of responsibility.

A nice, suspenseful story.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Kit's Pad, by David Krugler

"Kit's Pad," by David Krugler, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December 2023.

 Kit's life went to hell two years ago and he has been homeless in Chicago ever since. One freezing day  he figures out a way to break into a mansion which is empty and for sale.  The perfect place to get a warm night's sleep!

It turns out to not be so easy.  Every night someone new shows up, searching for a hard drive the absentee owner possibly hid in the building.

What's on the drive? Who are all the people who want it?  And, most important, where the heck is it?

A fun story.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Spear Carriers, by Richard Helms

 "Spear Carriers," by Richard Helms, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December 2023.

As far as I can tell, this is only the second time an author has appeared in my best-of column twice in the same month.  Even more impressive (to me, at any rate), this is Helms' tenth story to make it here, which puts him in a tie for first place with Mark Thielman, Joseph S. Walker, and Terence Faherty.  

Dave and Sam have bit parts in a Broadway play, as policemen.  They only show up at the very end which leaves them with a lot of time on their hands.  One night Dave goes out for a bite and the clerk gives him his food for free. "Thank you for your service."

This happens because Dave is wearing his costume - which is to say, something that looks very much like a police uniform.


Dave reports this to Sam who is the imaginative type.  I'll bet you can think of some of the plans he comes up with.  And being brighter than Sam you can probably foresee some of the things that could go wrong.

But not all of the ones Helms dreams up. 

Clever plot and very funny writing.  

"If we're caught, we'll be fired!" I yelled.

"We're actors!" Sam yelled back.  "Getting fired is part of the deal!"

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Prisoner of Love, by James W. Ziskin

 "Prisoner of Love," by James W. Ziskin, in Get Up Offa That Thing: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of James Brown, edited by Gary Phillips, Down and Out Books, 2023.

This is the second story by Ziskin I have reviewed here. 

Dialog is character.  If fiction is told in first person, narrative is also character.  

Though I cannot claim to be a handsome man, I, Nelson Blanchard am -- as it happens -- a rich one.  Quite rich, in fact. And that state of affairs has long compensated for my lack of physical allure.

I think that piece tells you a lot more about Nelson than just his financial state and appearance.  His personality rings through, doesn't it?

Nelson has been summoned to a hotel where a wife-swapping event has been going on. While annoyed that he was left out (does his personality have something to do with it?) he is being asked to solve the murder by strangulation of one of the participants.  

Why him and not the police? Well, he is a doctor.  And if they can solve the case before the cops arrive things will be a lot less messy.

And so Nelson interrogates the suspects, and falls in love and/or lust with at least one of them.  A funny and clever story. 

Sunday, November 5, 2023

West of the Ashley, by Richard Helms


"West  of the Ashley," by Richard Helms, in Prohibition Peepers: Private Eyes During the Noble Experiment, edited by Michael Bracken, Down and Out Books 2023.

This is the ninth appearance in my column by Richard Helms. A perusal of those tales shows that he is one of my favorite current authors of private eye stories. One reason for that is that he finds unusual things for his P.I.s to do.

Take, for instance, Cletus Nobile, a World War I veteran, now doing the gumshoe gig in Charleston. His current assignment? Figure out who is selling unauthorized booze in the segregated section of town. "You can sell all you want west of the Ashley River.  Nobody cares what you do out there.  Try to sell your hooch south of the Citadel and between the rivers, you'll dance with the devil, and he always leads."

Good writing, good plot.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Scariest. Story. Ever, by Richard Van Camp

 "Scariest. Story. Ever," by Richard Van Camp, in Never Whistle at Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology, edited by Shane Hawk, and Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr., Random House, 2023.

The first four paragraphs of what I wrote last week apply again to this one.

So: What's a mystery? Most of the world goes by Otto Penzler's definition: A mystery is a story in which crime or the threat of crime is a major element.  It's useful, although a little broad.  (It includes Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, and The Brothers Karamazov, for example.) 

When I first read Van Camp's piece I thought: This is a really fine tale.  Too bad it isn't a crime story, because if it was, it would be my choice for the week.

But then I thought about it some more (and this is definitely a story you are likely to think about) and concluded, heck yes, it is a crime story.  Just not one that fits into any of the familiar subgenres. So here we are.

The narrator has just made it to the finals of the Scariest. Story. Ever contest using a story he learned from a village elder.  Tomorrow he will be flown to Yellowknife for the finals.  But he needs to find an even better story to tell, so he goes to another elder, his Uncle Mike. and tries to convince him to tell him a properly horrifying tale.

And Mike obliges.  Sort of.  

How does crime get involved?  And why is there so much to think about?  You'll probably want to read the story twice to sort it all out.  It's worth it.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

White Hills, by Rebecca Roanhorse

"White Hills," by Rebecca Roanhorse, in Never Whistle at Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology, edited by Shane Hawk, and Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr., Random House, 2023.

Bear with me.  I have a lot to say before I get to the story today.

Let's start with the subtitle of the book.  Since reading Adam Smyer's book I have tried to avoid using the word "dark" except to mean a level of light or color. Not my place to tell people of color what words to use, but it was the first thing I noticed.

Second, I figured "dark fiction" probably meant crime here, but in this book it generally  means horror.  Horror is not my thing and writing about it is not my mandate here. But I have been working my way through the book, looking for relevant material that rang my chimes.

Third, I did not technically read this book at all. I have an audiobook version so, for the first time in my memory, I am reviewing stories I listened to.  That just means I am less likely to quote passages.

Now, onto the story, which is terrific.  Here is how it starts:

White Hills is everything Marissa ever wanted, right down to the welcome sign by the community mail drop reminding everyone of the HOA rules. Some people don't like HOAs, but Marissa loves them. 

Let's hear some more about our protagonist.

Marissa has many accomplishments. Her body, for one. Tucked and toned and filled to perfection by the best professional surgeons, trainers, and estheticians Houston has to offer. 

So Marissa is perhaps a bit shallow and self-satisfied with  her wealthy new husband.  As the story goes on we watch her rattling off current cliches and mantras with her life.  But does she really fit in in White Hills?

One night she springs two surprises on her husband.  The one she is excited about: she's pregnant.  The one she didn't give a thought to before mentioning: she's part Native American.  And suddenly things change.

You may assume that this is a story about a husband turning violent.  It's not.  It isn't supernatural either.  If there is horror here it is strictly human, and that's the way I like it.


Sunday, October 15, 2023

Shamu, World's Greatest Detective, by Richie Narvaez


"Shamu, World's Greatest Detective," by Richie Narvaez, in Killin' Time in San Diego, edited by Holly West, Down and Out Books, 2023.

Well, you can't argue about truth in advertising.  The title tells you exactly what this story is about.  Shamu is an orca at SeaWorld (the eighteenth to bear that name) and thanks to new technology she is able to communicate with people.  Turns out she is, as the title says, a brilliant detective.  The story is narrated by her assistant, Angie Gomez.

A billionaire who owns a baseball team wants to hire Shamu to find a missing ballplayer.  Shamu turns him down because, she says, his moustache "reminded me of a sea lion with whom I once shared billing.  An unapologetic ham." But when the ballplayer is murdered and his sister comes looking for help, Shamu takes on the case.

One of the pleasures of this story is Shamu's dialog.  Here she is talking to her police nemesis: "I can solve the case in time for you to get home and rest your minuscule human brain." 

I can't help wondering whether this story was an entry for the Black Orchid Novella Award.  It has several winks to Rex Stout fans.  (Shamu's use of the word "flummery, for example.) And it cleverly forces the protagonist to be an "armchair" detective.  Shamu ain't going to the scene of the crime.

Clever and fun.

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Dead Even, by J.R. Sanders


"Dead Even," by J.R. Sanders, in Killin' Time in San Diego, edited by Holly West, Down and Out Books, 2023.

A nice private eye story. I can't quite figure out when it takes place, except that Hollywood is swarming with B-movie cowboys. One of them is a friend of our narrator, P.I. Nate Ross, and that friend has a friend and business partner named (all right, nicknamed) Pooter.  Pooter has two things of great interest: a ton of money and a girlfriend named Cassie Plumm.

Nate, "being both by profession and disposition  [a] suspicious guy" thought she might be more interested in Pooter's bankroll than his charming personality.  Then Cassie comes to him for his professional help.  A former boyfriend is threatening her and she wants Nate to eliminate him.  Nate doesn't specialize in the kind of elimination she is hoping for but he is willing to look into the matter.

I won't go into detail about what happens but it hits a lot of the classic hardboiled dick motifs.  And it's a fun read.

Monday, October 2, 2023

The Little Library Thief, by Scott William Carter


"The Little Library Thief," by Scott William Carter, in Mystery, Crime and Mayhem, Issue 15: Library Cases, 2023.

Gavin's retirement is not going the way he hoped.  His beloved wife died just after they moved into their new home.  He isn't functioning well, just going through the motions, and some of those motions involve putting up in his yard the little library Stacey had purchased. A teacher, she had acquired heaps of children's books and wanted to give them away.

Dutifully, Gavin sets up the little library and stocks it with books.  But someone keeps emptying it, stealing all the contents.  Is it Fay, the nice divorcee who has taken an interest in him? Is it some local no-good?  Maybe a kid?

This is a well-written story I enjoyed.  I have to say I wasn't crazy about the ending.  Could have used a little foreshadowing, in my opinion.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Never Enough, by Liza Cody


"Never Enough," by Liza Cody, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2023.

This is Liza Cody's third appearance in this column.

Among the rules decreed to new writers of fiction is this one: Create a likable protagonist.

Cody seems to have missed the memo. Sheena, the narrator of this tour-de-force novella, is a horrible person and I can't remember the last tine I rooted so hard for the main character of a tale to lose.

How bad is she?  Well, she never refers to her only child  as anything but "the annoying kid."  She has nothing but insults for her only two friends, one of whom she says "I don't like much."

But worse, when she decides that "the marriage was worn as thin as the hall carpet," she set her sights on an artist.  The fact that he had been in a  relationship for decades only made it more of a challenge. She describes the long process of joining up with the artist. 

Sheena is a scary, narcissistic, probably delusional, menace.  You wouldn't want to meet her, but she makes a fascinating protagonist.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Lavender Diamond, by Edward Sheehy


"Lavender Diamond," by Edward Sheehy in Crimeucopia: Boomshakalaking! Modern Crimes for Modern Times, Murderous Ink Press, 2023.

This is one of those mysterious books that came into existence without an editor.  And this is, I believe the first story from Crimeucopia to make my best of the week list.

What is the difference between comedy and farce?  Farce is the extreme end of the spectrum, clowning, no suspension of disbelief necessary.  Neil Simon's The Odd Couple is comedy, his Murder by Death is farce.

And what Sheehy offers us today is farce.  Here's how it starts:

I'm done writing first-person point-of-view stories.  My latest saga of a modern family stretching back several generations, voiced by 72 first-person characters including pet dogs and cats and a crow circling the narrative dispensing omniscient commentary, had been soundly rejected by dozens of publishers.

Can't say that I blame them.  But my first question: is this meta?  Is this Sheehy telling us something about his writing?

No, as it turns out this is his character, who is a writer.  But now it gets confusing, because our hero, still writing in first person, visits a library where he encounters...

A tall dude, six-feet-four with a shaved head, wore a gold chain over a tight turtleneck that showed off a thick musculature gained from years of pumping iron at Cumberland Correction on a narcotics charge.  Inside the joint the dude known as Craz had been the leader of a brutal and murderous prison gang.

Wait a minute!  How does our character know all this?  Have we wandered into third person omniscient narration?

Strap in.  It's going to be a wild ride.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

The Last Shot, by Dave Waskin


"The Last Shot," by Dave Waskin, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2023.

I don't usually notice a theme in issues of AHMM or EQMM but this one is  centered on  games.  Last week I wrote about a boxing story.  This week it's basketball.  There's also baseball, computer games, and I haven't finished it yet.

But let's get to Waskin's tale.

Connor is a college ball player but he knows he isn't good enough to make it  to the NBA.  That's just the tip of the iceberg of his problems: his father's in prison, his girlfriend seems to be out of his league, and he's having trouble with his classes.

And then the team's star player tries to drag him into a point-shaving scam with some very nasty gangsters.

But that's just the surface.  There are layers within layers here, wheels within wheels.I won't go further except to say Connor has enemies and allies you won't expect.  I enjoyed this one a lot.

Monday, September 4, 2023

Doing Business, by Mark Hannon


"Doing Business," by Mark Hannon, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2023.

Foreshadowing in a story can take many forms.  This tale starts deep into the action and then goes back to the beginning.  I don't usually think of that as a form of foreshadowing, but it feels like it here, partly because that first scene is just a few paragraphs long.

But there is another type of foreshadowing through the story, a kind of trouble coming at the protagonist.  It is obvious to the reader but it is not at all clear whether the hero, who is also the narrator, sees it.  And that makes for a lovely bit of suspense.

Kelvin is a boxer, about to go into the biggest match of his career.  His manager, sparring partner, and the inevitable hangers-on are all providing well-meaning contradictory advice. Ah, but is all the advice well-meaning?  And will Kelvin see the spider in the web?

A very nicely written first story.  

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Your 10th Bond Is Free!, by Wendall Thomas

 "Your 10th Bond Is Free!, by Wendall Thomas, Crime Under the Sun, A Sisters in Crime Anthology, edited by Matt Coyle, Naomi Hirahara, and Tammy Kaehler, Down and Out Books, 2023. 

Ava is struggling to keep the family business afloat after her father's death.  The business happens to be As You Were Bail Bonds.  This means that as she grew up her family friends were cops and petty criminals.  Petty because her father didn't have enough money to bail out, say murderers.

Our business model depended on aspirational, incompetent criminals accused of crimes with a bail amount  under twenty-five grand.

I love that word aspirational.

When her business card is found in a homicide victim's pocket Ava's life and career are endangered.  A quirky story that provides a new look at the bail bond business.


Saturday, August 19, 2023

The Regular, by James Thorpe


"The Regular," by James Thorpe, in Crime Under the Sun, A Sisters in Crime Anthology, edited by Matt Coyle, Naomi Hirahara, and Tammy Kaehler, Down and Out Books, 2023. 

Ray is drinking more than he should  His wife is gone and that led to him making a bad mistake.  What's worse is that Veronica knows about it.  She is the pianist at the bar where Ray does his too-much-drinking.

And, ironically, she starts nagging him just like his wife did toward the end of their marriage.  Why doesn't he demand a promotion?  He needs to make more money...

Just like his wife, except that Veronica's motive is different.  That link between pianist and wife is the amusing spark that kept me turning pages, but there are many clever twists to come in this neat little tale.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Making the Bad Guys Nervous, by Joseph S. Walker


"Making the Bad Guys Nervous," by Joseph S. Walker, in Black Cat Weekly, #102.

This is Walker's third appearance in my column this year.  It is his  tenth overall, which ties him with Terence Faherty and Mark Thielman at the top of the pantheon, for the moment.

Tim Chadwick is a disgraced ex-cop who sometimes fills the times between drinks by doing some unlicensed private eye work. (cough cough Scudder? cough cough).

A client is worried that his mother's suburban neighborhood is being plagued with porch pirates - people stealing packages left by delivery workers.  He wants the bad guys caught before they escalate to violence and he is willing to pay Tim to put a week into it.

So Tim finds himself sitting in the living room of Sandy, the client's mother, peering out the window, eating her sandwiches, and listening to her attempt to play the piano.

"Is that Springsteen?"

"If you're feeling generous."

It's a low-key story that shifts to a low-key sort of violence.  Very clever.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Lenny, but not Corky, by Daniel Stashower


"Lenny, but not Corky," by Daniel Stashower,  in Cleveland Noir, edited by Michael Ruhlman and Miesha Wilson Headen, Akashic Press, 2023.

The publisher sent me a copy of this book.

Cleveland rocks.  There are a lot of good stories in this anthology.

Some stories are primarily about plot, others about character. This one is about style.

The narrator is talking to a reporter, "you." We never hear her speak, just Anders' reaction to her questions.  

We learn that she is writing an article about the disappearance of a paper boy fifty years earlier.  Everyone refers to him as a boy, but he was actually nineteen.  Anders and his wife were hippies and they were close friends with the kid.  They could have been the last people to see him alive, except they had had a fight.  The guy who wrote a book about the disappearance "the great and all-knowing Julian Story," Anders calls him, made it look as if it was Anders' fault, that if hehad been there the boy might have been saved.

Anders doesn't like Julian Story or the book, and he thinks this article may be his last chance to spell things out.

If you have to drag all this up again, at least let me tell it my way, like you said.  No, I'm not bitter... 

Oh, he's bitter, all right.  And he has a fine story to tell.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Silent Partner, by Susan Petrone


"The Silent Partner," by Susan Petrone, in Cleveland Noir, edited by Michael Ruhlman and Miesha Wilson Headen, Akashic Press, 2023.

The publisher sent me a free copy of this book.

I have said, more than once, that Akashic's Noir Cities series would be improved by having more historical tales.  This story proves me right for it is historical in more senses than one.

It's 1970.  The narrator (if he has a name I didn't catch it) writes about baseball history for the Cleveland Press.  He has to cover the 50th anniversary of the day a Cleveland player was killed by a pitch thrown by a Yankee.

The more he investigates  the more it appears that something weird happened.  Weird, like the beanball being deliberate?  Much weirder than that.

  This terrific story reminds me of W.P. Kinsella's many magic realism tales about baseball (Field of Dreams was adapted from one of his books). And that's a compliment. 

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Her Upstairs, by Michael Z. Lewin


"Her Upstairs," by Michael Z. Lewin, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2023.

This is the fourth appearance in this column by Mr. Lewin.

I just checked.  I have used the word "silly" in reviews here at least fifteen times.  Last time I wrote: "A very silly story, but satisfying.  (Hey, what's that but about?  Let's say and satisfying.)"

And here we are again.

Barry and Evvie are an older couple whose happy home is disturbed by a very annoying upstairs neighbor.  They get desperate enough that they start thinking about killing the bad lady.  But first they decide to pray on it.

Well, not pray exactly.  You see, they believe in the old gods, the Greek ones, and they know that the gods communicate with humans through... cribbage?  Seriously?

There's a lot of technical cribbage stuff in here I mostly ignored but the  dialog between Olympian deities was right up my alley.  

Aphrodite, known for her reason and passion, was first to speak.  "Aw, isn't that lovely. They have a problem and they want our help."

"That's not what The Game is for," Zeus roared again...

"Blow them away!" Ares, the God of War, urged.  "Rules are rules."

Aphrodite is known for reason?  Don't think so.  But the story is a treat.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Tamsin & the Church Ladies, by Susan Daly


"Tamsin & the Church Ladies," by Susan Daly, in Malice Domestic 17: Mystery Most Traditional, edited by Verona Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons, Wildside Press, 2023.

This is the third story by Daly to make it into this blog.  It has just about everything I want in a cozy: interesting small town setting, eccentric and memorable characters, a reasonable motive, and good writing.

It's a small town in Ontario in the 1970s and the first source of conflict is an unlikely match-up.  Tamsin, our narrator, is a Women's Studies professor when the "discipline was so new the paint was still wet on the department head's door."  She marries Mike, an Anglican minister, even though that isn't her faith.

Would you be astonished that some of the congregants disapprove of her?  Me neither.  And when Tamsin finds the corpse of her husband's most vocal opponent floating in the river, things get more complicated.

 I do have one complaint with this story: the solution comes way too easily, pretty much unearned by our sleuth.  But it's a fun trip to get there.




Sunday, July 9, 2023

Martin, the Novelist, by Marcel Aymé


"Martin, the Novelist," by Marcel Aymé, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July/August 2023. 

Can I call this a 2023 story?  It seems to have been written (or set) in the 1930s, and the author died in 1967.  But I think this is it's first publication in English.

And it is a treat.

Martin is a successful novelist with one great flaw.  He kills off his characters.  Even his protagonists.  Sometimes in the middle of a book.  In one novel he killed off everybody.

His publisher can't stand it anymore and extracts a promise that no one important will die in his next book, or no money.

That's hard enough for Martin to bear but even worse is a visit from one of his characters, who is very unhappy with the plot.  Everybody's a critic, right? 

And then one of his friends comes with a special request: Could Martin put a certain real person in his book, kill her, and thereby bump her off for real?

Talk about meta.  Aymé rings more changes on the theme and they are delightful.   

Monday, July 3, 2023

Writer's Block, by Ed Ridgley


"Writer's Block," by Ed Ridgley, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2023

Each issue of AHMM features a contest called the Mysterious Photograph.   To enter you have to write a crime story of no more than 250 words based on the picture.

In the thirteen years I have been reviewing short stories I have covered perhaps a dozen pieces of flash fiction but I think this is  the first time one of these contest winners has been my pick of the week.

Here it is, Writer's Block.  This is where all the writers go when they can't think of a word to say...

So what we have here is a metaphor, a parable if you wish.  I happen to love parables (Kafta, Borges, LuGuin, all greats).

Until, at the end, the story makes a turn so sharp you could cut yourself.

And I'll stop there so as to stay shorter than Mr. Ridgley's tale.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Concrete Dog, by Stephen Ross

"Concrete Dog," by Stephen Ross, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2023.

This is the third appearance in my column by Stephen Ross, my fellow SleuthSayer. 

It is 1940 in New Zealand (Ross's home turf.)

Frank has enlisted in the army and is about to go off to the war.  But the day before he sails he is considering  something really dangerous: doing a favor for his crooked brother.

Brother offers him fifty pounds to steal concrete dog from a rich man's house.  Brother has health problems and  can't possibly lift the beast, hence the request/offer.  Why is the stone pooch worth that kind of money?  Well, brother offers an explanation which doesn't hold a lot of water.  Of course, there is more going on...

But Frank and his wife really need the money.

Things go in a surprising and satisfactory direction.

Monday, June 19, 2023

Wrong Road to Nashville, by Joseph S. Walker

"Wrong Road to Nashville," by Joseph S. Walker, in
Weren't Another Other Way to Be: Outlaw Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Waylon Jennings, edited by Alex Cizak, Gutter Books, 2023.

Walker hasn't appeared on this page since, um, last month. This is his ninth story to make my best-of-the-week list.  Very different from the last.

Our hero is Caleb, a school custodian, built like a pro wrestler.  His goal is to be a Nashville singer-songwriter and it looks like he may have the talent for it.

But first he has a little problem to solve.  His new girlfriend has been kidnapped by bad guys who want him to drive a load of contraband to... Nashville.  This wasn't the way he planned to get there, but you do what you have to do.

 A nice story of steadily building suspense.



Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Good Neighbor, by Jeff Abbott


"The Good Neighbor," by Jeff Abbott, in Austin Noir, edited by Hopeton Hay, Scott Montgomery, and Molly Odintz, Akashic Books, 2023.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher.

We're in suburbia where good local schools make a house worth keeping forever, and neighbors have known each other for decades.

Bill dies of a heart attack. leaving behind his much-younger trophy wife Dierdre and resentful college-age son Peyton.  This is not a happy home.

Viv, their neighbor, also a widow, loves the whole family.  The conflict she sees across the cul-de-sac makes her very uncomfortable. Then she discovers something that makes her suspicious and even more uncomfortable. 

The suspense builds nicely as Viv tries to figure out what she can and should do.

Sunday, June 4, 2023

A Flash of Headlights, by Ken Linn

"A Flash of Headlights," by Ken Linn, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2023.

This one is right in my wheelhouse, as they say.   I am drawn to stories about people who screw up and then seek redemption, successfully or not.  

Brody does yard maintenance.  A year earlier he was charged with a DUI.  He has been sober ever since, just barely.

But that's not the issue for which he seeks redemption.

He makes a casual spur-of-the-moment decision to do what he considers a friendly gesture.  This leads to a tragedy - a tragedy which affects people he cares about.  

Many years ago I wrote here: "There is a streak of puritanism running through some noir literature.  Take one step off the straight-and-narrow and you are inevitably doomed.  Things keep getting worse and every attempt you make to correct your path only drags you inexorably toward the pit."

This story doesn't have the feel of noir, but it does have that sense. Every move Brody can make feels like it will make his situation worse.

If there is a moral in this fine story it is this: To achieve your goal you first need to figure out what your goal really is.  

Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Incurious Man, by Terence Faherty

"The Incurious Man," by Terence Faherty, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2023.

This is the tenth appearance in this column by Faherty, which ties him at the tippy-top with Mark Thielman.  Mark is a fellow SleuthSayer while Faherty is a SleuthSayer alum.

I think it was Michael Mallory who predicted that most crime fiction in the future would  be set in the days before smart phones and the Internet made certain kinds of research (and calls for help) inconveniently convenient.  This story is an example.  It is set in the 1990s and if it were written about the world of today it would have to be quite different.

Owen Keane is a private detective and he is starting a job at a law firm.  Well, not much of a job.  He has been hired on a temporary basis mostly to provide company for a friend who has reluctantly taken over the family business.

But on his first day, taking the train from New Jersey to New York City, he encounters something very strange.  Every day for a week a woman near Rahway has held up a sign for people on the train to see.  The signs seem ominous, if not threatening, and refer to Giovanni and Elvira, whoever they are.

Everyone on the train is fascinated by the signs except one man who ignores them.  And that attitude fascinates Keane, and makes him suspicious, because he is a curious man.  His lawyer friend says: "It might be dangerous for you  two to come together.  Like matter meeting antimatter.  There could be an explosion."

Of course Keane ignores his advice and discovers a particularly cruel  scheme.  Terrific story.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

We Are The Stonewall Girls, by Joseph S. Walker

 "We Are The Stonewall Girls," by Joseph S. Walker, in More Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties,, edited by Michael Bracken, Down and Out Books, 2023.

This is the eighth appearance in this space by Joseph S. Walker, which puts him near the top of the heap.

Narrator Neil Fell is a gay private eye in New York City in June 1969.  That plus the title should tell you what the story is going to be about.

A wealthy man named Grierson comes to Fell with a problem.  He is not gay but he has made friends with some of the young men in Christopher Park, the ones who call themselves queens.  Now one of them, Alice, has disappeared and Grierson is worried about him. He has approached police and other private eyes but they assume he is interested for sexual reasons and are anything but helpful.

Fell takes on the case and, as you can imagine, winds up involved in the Stonewall Riots.  I thought I knew that subject fairly well but I learned a lot of details.  

The case is interesting as well, and the solution is satisfactory.    

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Murder Mnemonic, by Loretta Sue Ross

 "Murder Mnemonic," by Loretta Sue Ross, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2023.

A very silly story, but satisfying.  (Hey, what's that but about?  Let's say and satisfying.)

Here's the start:

Gilbert DuPont fell off a cliff and landed someplace really weird.

In fact Gilbert has been murdered and now he is being reincarnated.  He remembers his past life - parts of it anyway.

By the time he turned three he was talking in complete sentences, though he still lacked the fine control to properly pronounce R and L. So when he told his mother about being "Gibbewt" and being "moodood" he did it in a matter-of-fact little high-pitched voice with an adorable lisp. 

How does a family adjust to having a reincarnated murder victim in the nursery?  And what happens when he believes he sees the people who killed him?

A very clever story right up to the satisfying last paragraph.

Monday, May 8, 2023

One Night in 1965, by Stacy Woodson


"One Night in 1965," by Stacy Woodson, in More Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties,, edited by Michael Bracken, Down and Out Books, 2023.

This is the second appearance by Woodson in my column. 

The night in question is August 26, the last opportunity for young men to avoid the draft by getting married.

Jack Taylor is a private eye in Las Vegas.  He is also a Korean War veteran who doesn't appreciate men who are trying to dodge Vietnam.

He is hired by a U.S. senator from Nevada whose son has gone missing.  The senator fears that he is about to make a hasty marriage to avoid induction into the army which is scheduled for the next day.  The truth turns out to be more complicated.

One problem with writing historical fiction  - especially when history is recent enough for readers to remember the time - is the danger of anachronisms.  Did anyone refer to men's abdomens as six-packs in 1965?  And definitely nobody was using the term Ms.

But that's nitpicking. This is an interesting story that takes a different approach to the private eye story.  

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Brick Fiend, by Joseph S. Walker

"Brick Fiend," by Joseph S. Walker, in Die Laughing: An Anthology of Humorous Mysteries, edited by Kerry Carter, Mystery Weekly Magazine, 2021.

I usually review stories in the year in which they are published, but I did not get my hands on this book (in which I have a story) until a few months ago. 

This story, by the way, marks Walker's seventh appearance in this blog. It reminds me of a New Yorker casual, since it begins with (and was no doubt inspired by) clippings from two articles.  They refer to a "massive LEGO theft ring," stealing sets of the popular toys to sell at a sizable markup.

The narrator is a brick fiend, shamefully addicted to LEGO games, "that sweet space where all that matters is the next brick and the rest of the world just gently detaches itself and drifts away."

When his pusher's supply dries up our hero gets desperate.  Worse, he is being pursued by a cop: "Partner of mine stepped on a loose pile of two-by-two bricks one of you animals left laying around." Very funny stuff.

Monday, April 24, 2023

Drinking in the Afternoon, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch


"Drinking in the Afternoon," by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2023.

This is the eighth appearance on this blog by Rusch.

Here is a proposition I would hate to have to defend: Maybe writing a compelling low-key story requires more skill than writing a fast-paced action tale.  I think bullets and mayhem may tend to keep me turning pages more than subtle psychological stuff.

On the other hand, come back next week and I may disagree with myself.

This is a low-key but compelling story that caught my attention immediately and never let go.  Here is how it starts:

When it was all over, he didn't count how many friends he had lost.  He just walked out of the hospital into the thin sunlight on that hot August afternoon, tossed his uniform in the nearest bin, and did not look back.  He left his car in the employee parking lot.

Good writing?  Oh yes.  And so many questions we want answers to.  When what was all over? Did his friends die or simply cease to be his friends?  What type of job did he have that required a uniform?  And why would he abandon his job, his car, and presumably the life he has been living?

On the side of avoiding spoilers I will fail to answer these questions but I will say that Quinn (like everything else going forward, his name is brand new and almost randomly chosen) is not a criminal and is not on the run from anything except bad memories.

He winds up in the southwest, a thousand miles from his past, and starts to build a new life, totally different from the one he left.  Then there is the possibility of a crime, and a puzzle that needs solving.  And oddly enough, the solution may connect to the choice he made...


Saturday, April 15, 2023

Of Average Intelligence, by O'Neil De Noux

 "Of Average Intelligence," by O'Neil De Noux, in Black Cat Weekly, #85.

This is the second appearance here by my friend and fellow SleuthSayer. De Noux is a retired police officer so it is not surprising that many of his stories feature cops.  As does this.

Let's look at the opening:

"No offense, Office Kintyre.  But I'm smarter than you."

Have you already taken offense?  I certainly have.  Attorney Matt Glick is the speaker and he has recently killed his wife.  The cops have a ton of circumstantial evidence against him and he has a ready explanation for every bit of it.

Blood in the bathtub?  She cut her hand on an X-acto knife.  Hair in the trunk of his car?  She borrowed it and had to change a tire. And so on.  

In fact the only thing Glick doesn't have  a ready work-around for is his own smug superiority, and you know darn well that that is what is going to bring him down.  Which it does. 

You will enjoy the process.


Monday, April 10, 2023

The Boys Were Seen, by Patrick Whitehurst

 "The Boys Were Seen," by Patrick Whitehurst, in Trouble in Tucson, edited by Eva Eldridge, 2023,

I have written here before about the opportunities in tropes (or if you prefer, cliches) of our field.  The private eye being visited in his office by the mysterious femme fatale.  The nice suburbanite who wants to kill a spouse.  Etc.

There are obvious dangers here. Not another story about a crook being double-crossed by his partners!

But there are wonderful opportunities as well, simply because the reader thinks they know what is coming.  If you can subvert that, you may have something good.

Terry Carson is a hit man for Alan, a crime boss.  Alan calls him in because some of his thugs were seen committing a crime and now they are about to kill the witness.  Carson is to be the backup in case anything goes wrong.  But it turns out he knows the witness, quite well...

Well, there's your cliche.  Bad guy has to decide what to do when his job conflicts with his personal life.  We've all seen that one before.

But Whitehurst takes it in an unexpected direction.  Quite a treat.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Steer Clear, by Mark Thielman

 "Steer Clear," by Mark Thielman, in Reckless in Texas: Metroplex Mysteries, Volume 2, edited by Barb Goffman, North Dallas Chapter of Sisters in Crime, 2023.

This is the tenth appearance in this space by my fellow SleuthSayer, Mark Thielman, which I believe makes him the current record-holder.

Any story that makes me laugh out loud several times has a good chance of making this list. And this story is even a locked room mystery.  

Okay, a locked barn mystery.

 Detective Alpert of the Fort Worth Police has been assigned to look into the disappearance of a steer.  Yes, it's a famous piece fo beef, but does it really deserve the attention of a Major Case Division cop?

Maybe it wouldn't except that the night before Alpert left a party with the ex-wife of his boss.  "[H]e should have ignored those whispers emerging from his glass of Jim Beam.  Jim had made sure he had noticed Brittney's leather pants..."  

Funny story with a satisfying solution.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Mrs. Hyde, by David Dean


"Mrs. Hyde," by David Dean, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2023.

This is the seventh appearance here by my friend and fellow SleuthSayer.

Regular readers of this column may recall that I am not a big fan of pastiches, but I do like homages.

The pastiche is fan fiction: Author B trying to create a story in the style of and with the characters of Author A. Consider, for example, ten zillion Sherlock Holmes stories not written by Conan Doyle.  

A homage on the other hand is something more subtle. B delves into the universe A has created and produces something new and different.

Dean has offered us a homage here and, boy, it is a doozy.

This is apparently the first in a series of Victorian-era stories about Dr. Beckett Marchland.  He is an alienist, which is to say, an early psychologist.  One day he receives a troubling letter from a woman who reports that her once loving and kindhearted husband is being changed for the worse by a bad companion.

The woman is Mrs. Edward Hyde.  The wicked friend is Dr. Henry Jekyll.

At this point the reader may be excused for saying: Huh?

Dean has turned Robert Louis Stevenson's novella inside out and takes us to very interesting territory indeed.  I should mention that this tale takes place in London, 1888, during the plague of attacks by Jack the Ripper.  Could Jekyll and/or Hyde be involved in those grisly crimes?

Purists may point out that Stevenson's book appeared in 1886, but that's a small bit of disbelief to suspend for such a wonderful story.  The characterization is rich and one twist literally made  my jaw drop.



Sunday, March 19, 2023

The Cancun Game, by Tosca Lee

 "The Cancun Game," by Tosca Lee, in Infinity: A Suspense Magazine Anthology, edited by Catherine Coulter, Suspense Publishing, 2023.

I received a free copy of this book from an author.

I read a lot of stories that claim to be set in the present yet show no sign of knowing about recent developments.  Consider the thousands of protagonists who go off to meet bad guys without bringing a cell phone.

So I appreciate a story that is firmly rooted in a recent trend.

Piper is an online influencer.  She gets free clothing, jewelry, and trips, just for posting pictures of herself with all these luxuries.

Sounds like the good life, right?

Well, there's a downside.  It takes a support team of two of her friends plus the occasional hairdresser or make-up artist to make it work. And a lot of the pictures are faked.  (Pictures of two free days at a resort are stretched out to look like two weeks, etc.)

Still, things are looking up.  Piper is moving up toward the top of the influencers on the social media channel.  But then, someone starts killing whoever gets to the top...

I figured out where this was going, but I enjoyed the trip a lot.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Kimchi Kitty, by Martin Limón


"Kimchi Kitty," by Martin Limón, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2023.

This is the seventh story by Limón to make it onto my list.  

His work reminds me of the TV show MASH.  Both involve the U.S. military and Korea, of course, but I am thinking of an odder coincidence.  The cast of that show spent, I think, eleven years portraying a war that lasted just over three.  

Limón's characters have filled more than a dozen novels and many short stories in South Korea without ever escaping from the early 1970s.  

George Sueño and Ernie Bascom are CID officers, U.S. Army detectives and their stories are police procedurals, showing in meticulous detail how they track down bad guys in Seoul and other points.  The stories are believable, nuanced, and fascinating.

In this one our heroes are chasing a mugger, probably an American serviceman, who is attacking GIs and getting more violent with each attack.  Sueño guesses that he is obsessed with Kimchi Kitty, a Korean national who sings in a country band.

The cops hope to use her as bait to catch the bad guy before things get even worse. But Kitty, frightened as she is, turns out to have more agency than expected...

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Margo and the Yachting Party, by Terence Faherty

"Margo and the Yachting Party," by Terence Faherty, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2023.

This is the ninth appearance in this space by Terence Faherty and the second for these characters.

It's 1941.  Margo Banning is an assistant on a radio show in New York City.  One of the stars of the show is criminologist Philip St. Pierre.  He is an odd duck with elaborate tastes in clothing and a new hobby of sorts: he is hunting for Nazi spies.

On the show he announces that "Certain German sympathizers here in our fair city have hatched a scheme to resupply the German U-boats operating off our coast."  He urges everyone to be on the lookout for a "pirate yacht."

After the show an FBI agent arrives with the bad news that a Nazi courier St. Pierre had caught earlier had escaped.  The detective refuses to help the Feds, being determined to hunt for his mystery ship.

It seems like St. Pierre knows more than he is telling (as usual).  And Margo gets caught up in the mess (also as usual).

A light and fun historical.


Sunday, February 26, 2023

Crime and Convenience, by Steve Shrott

 "Crime and Convenience," by Steve Shrott, in Hook, Line, and Sinker: The Seventh Guppie Anthology, edited by Emily P.W. Murphy, Wolf's Echo Press, 2023.

"Look, I never told you, but I have a bit of a record.  I can't get mixed up in something like this."

"I ask when you hired if have record.  You say no."

"That could be interpreted many ways."

Dialog is character.  

The first speaker is Cathy. She has a bit of a problem with honesty.

The second speaker is Amir, who owns the convenience store where she works.  He is a very honest man and he has a bit of a problem with Cathy.  

When the story starts Amir has discovered that she stole a man's wallet.  He insists that they go together to return it.  This leads to the discovery of a corpse and a lot of trouble.  It's almost like honesty is not the best policy.

A funny story.

Monday, February 20, 2023

The Puzzle Master, by David Morrell

"The Puzzle Master," by David Morrell, in Playing Games, edited by Lawrence Block, LB Productions, 2023.

 This is the second story by Morrell to appear here. 

Quentin has just finished his latest mystery novel and is getting antsy waiting for his editor's reaction.  His wife Beth suggests they kill some time putting a jigsaw puzzle together.  

The illustration on [the box] showed what looked like a square in a New England village, with rustic shops, Victorian houses behind them, and a tree-covered hill in the distance.  A farmer's market was in progress.  Smiling families paused at tables that displayed tomatoes, peppers, apples, and jars of what a sign said was strawberry jam.

Sounds charming, doesn't it?

They have such a good time that they start working on another puzzle, created by the same artist.  Is this the same village?  Are they seeing some of the same people?  And is something... wrong with this picture somehow?

There are seven puzzles and if you work them in the order they were created (you need to put them together because you can't see all the details from the box cover), they seem to tell a story.  Or so Quentin, the mystery writer suspects.  

Clever story, cleverly told.

 I don't usually talk about runners-up, but the proceeding story in the book, "Lightning Round," by Warren Moore, made it hard to choose.


Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Soiled Dove of Shallow Hollow, by Sean McCluskey


"The Soiled Dove of Shallow Hollow," by Sean McCluskey, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2023.

It is rare that a first story makes my best-of-the-week list, rarer still when that first story  is a long, possibly novelette-length piece.  This is one.

And it's a private eye story, of sorts.  What's a private eye story?  If you say a story about a private eye you are clearly unaware of what I call the Scudder exception.

When the Private Eye Writers of America were creating the rules for their Shamus Awards one of the very best characters in the field was Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder.  For most of his career he had no P.I. licence.  So it is not surprising that the rules said, essentially, that a P.I. story had to be about someone who investigates crimes for pay, but doesn't work for the government.  

So a lawyer or journalist would qualify but not  a cop or a spy.  And people like Scudder who, as he put it, did favors for friends who then bought him gifts, was eligible. 

Which brings us to Shane Caine, the narrator of our tale.  One night in a bar in Georgia he brags about some crimes he solved, not a P.I., but as a person who  "just sort of stumble[d] into things."

A man named McDounagh overhears him and is desperate for his help.  He lost his wallet to a couple of con artists in a  badger game.  The wallet contains a top-security I.D. card and if he doesn't get it back by 8 A.M. he will lose his job.

Caine immediately recognizes that  the badger game was not the usual variety.  Something odd is going on, something beyond a casual theft.  What follows is a long but fast investigation that ends in a trail of blood.

I enjoyed the adventure and hope Shane Caine stumbles into some more of them.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Snake, by Mike McHone

 "The Snake," by Mike McHone, in Mystery Magazine, February, 2023.

Certain themes or premises show up so often in any genre that they more or less make up a subgenre of their own.

Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen Mystery magazine, has said that the type of story she sees the most often is someone plotting to kill their spouse.  An overlapping story is the hitman. 

So how do you create something new and original in this category?  As Charles M. Schulz said, drawing a comic strip means doing the same thing every day, but doing it different.

McHone manages it.  

David is hiring a hitman to kill his wife.  Here's the opening:

"I want you to listen because this is the only time I 'm going to say it.  You don't think you can go through with this, you think you're going to crack up when the cops come, I walk.  Hear me?  And before you think to ask, no, you won't get your down payment back.  Period."

That's good writing.  Good dialog is personality and we know a lot about the hitman just from his voice.  This story is something like 80% dialog, more if you count David's inner monologue.

So, the writing keeps us reading, but do we get anywhere interesting?  Most definitely.  McHone has come up with more than one original twist on the classic premise.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Elvis Duty, by Matthew Wilson

 "Elvis Duty," by Matthew Wilson in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2023.

First of all: great title.  

This is Wilson's second appearance in this blog. It is also the second appearance by his main character, although this one takes place a decade before the first.  

Hans Burg is a police detective in Bad Kissington, West Germany, in 1959..  He is trying to solve the death of a doctor who appears to have died of a drug injection in a cheap hotel.  This problem is complicated by another duty he is assigned; helping to protect Elvis Presley, already a music sensation, who is serving his army tour in Germany.

The two cases come together in ways that are logical and sad.  A well-written story.