Showing posts with label 2019. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2019. Show all posts

Monday, January 27, 2020

Head Over Heels, by Craig Faustus Buck

"Head Over Heels," by Craig Faustus Buck, in Murder-a-Go-Go's, edited by Holly West,  Down and Out Books, 2019.

This is the third appearance here by Craig Faustus Buck.

When a private investigator encounters a woman being bothered by a stalker you can reasonably assume you are about to read a private eye story. But sometimes things take a sudden shift sideways.  In this case we go crashing into noir territory.

Our narrator is a part-time employer of a private detective, which means she mostly serves summons.  When she meets and falls for a woman at the golf course she agrees to put the papers on the creepy ex-boyfriend.  Of course, she is hoping, in classic noir fashion,  to get closer to this femme fatale. And she does.

But her lover isn't quite over the creepy boyfriend.  So it becomes problematic:  Who is the stalker?  And who the femme fatale?

This one was a lot of fun.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Righter Side, by Reed Farrel Coleman,

"The Righter Side," by Reed Farrel Coleman, in Down to the River,  edited by Tim O'Mara, Down and Out Books, 2019.

This is Coleman's third appearance in this space.  Here is how it starts.

Most places in this state, it’s the wrong side of the tracks. Not in Brixton, no sir. In Brixton it’s the wrong side of the river. That’s funny on its face, ’cause any sane fool’d be hard-pressed to make a case for there being much of a right side in Brixton, neither. Let’s just say that there’s a…righter side. That the folks on the righter side’s got access to better crank.

So we know right away this story isn't going to be about tea parties in an English village.

The narrator is Pete Frame and his best friend is Jack Clooney.  Jack explains that his own family are "a bunch of born scumbags in charge of what we got comin'."

One of the reasons the two guys get along so well is that Pete and his girlfriend Becki provide a beard for Jack who pretends to be dating her, but is really interested in her brother.  That is something Jack's father would never be able to accept and "He has a lot less trouble expressing his will than our Lord and Savior.  He or one of his clan lay hands on you, there ain't no room for spiritual interpretation."

I am quoting a lot because the language is what makes this story so special and enjoyable.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Catch and Release, by Chris Knopf

"Catch and Release," by Chris Knopf, in Down to the River,  edited by Tim O'Mara, Down and Out Books, 2019.

Thanks to Kevin Tipple for a correction.

When I started reading this story I had a strange sense of deja vu.  Not that I had red the story before, but something similar.

But don't call the plagiarism police just yet.  The story I was thinking of was also written by Chris Knopf.  In fact, this is his third appearance on this page.

Our nameless character is a pretty cheerful guy but he has some problems.  Take Harry, for instance.  Harry isn't a problem, exactly, but a symptom of one.  You see, he is our protagonist's only friend, and he happens to be from another dimension, and not visible to anyone else.

So, yeah, the guy has problems.

Right now he is living in his summer home, a tarp next to the river in Old Lyme, Connecticut.  His neighbors are a big squatter he calls the Grouchy Witch, and a newly arrived woman is younger and attractive.

But now he has a new problem, because the Witch doesn't like the newcomer.  And she has a big knife... 

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Hard Return, by Art Taylor

"Hard Return," by Art Taylor, in Crime Travel, edited by Barb Goffman, Wildside Press, 2019.

This is the second appearance by my fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor on this page.

All the stories in this book involve crime and time travel, as you can probably guess from the title.  If you are going to write about time travel the first thing you may need to decide is the method involved: science or some form of magic?  Of course, you don't need to go into detail; when he was trying to sell Star Trek Gene Roddenberry pointed out that a starship captain doesn't need to explain his vehicle's propulsion system anymore than the star of a Western needs to describe the anatomy of a horse.  But it's nice if you indicate whether your hero has built a machine, or has supernatural powers, or is simply in the right (?) place at the right (ahem) time.

In Taylor's story the transportation system is a deep psychological truth.  In fact, I think the whole story is a metaphor for certain human interactions.  But hey, no spoilers.

The man and the woman had reached that stage where their relationship would either turn more serious or slowly begin to dissolve.  The seriousness wasn't about sex, a threshold they'd already crossed, but a step into some deeper, more emotional intimacy.

That's how our story begins.  Nice style, isn't it?  We never find out the names of the characters, because those don't matter.

What does matter is that the man asks his lover to tell him something special about herself.  And she does, about something that hurt her badly, a long time ago...

This fine story gives you a lot to think about.


Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Chasing the Straight, by Trey R. Barker

"Chasing the Straight," by Trey R. Barker, in The Eyes of Texas, edited by Michael Bracken, Down and Out Books, 2019.

It is fashionable today for private eyes (and a lot of other protagonists) to have personal problems that affect their cases.  Derrick Kruse has them, in spades.  And that last part was an unintentional pun, as you shall see.

Kruse appears to be autistic and has OCD, which manifests as an obsession ith numbers.  He is bad at poker because he is so desperate for straights, five numbers in a row.  No doubt contributing to his problems is the fact that his father was an abusive monster who, naturally, picked on the kid who was different.

When Kruse spots a burglar in the middle of the night he encounters a woman with an abusive husband who has made off with her daughter, his stepchild.  Naturally, this is not a case he can leave in the hands of the cops. 

There are some unexpected twists an turns in this one.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Click, by Dana Haynes

"Click," by Dana Haynes, in Denim, Diamonds, and Death, edited by Rick Ollerman, Down and Out Books, 2019.

Here's a pro tip for all you professional criminals out there: When an old buddy tells you that a crime is so easy that "This thing steals itself," you probably want to get the hell out of there.

But our narrator, Rush, is visiting an old friend who is dying of emphysema, and he permits Jack to tell him about a crime he planned but doesn't have the time/strength to commit.

The crime may be easy but it isn't simple.  It involves stealing the retirement plan of a Mafiosi after he turns it over to a crooked FBI agent in return for a get-out-of-prison free card.  And to do that Rush will have to con another mobster, kill a bodyguard, and sweet-talk somebody's ex-girlfriend.  Easy, no?

Anyone who reads this kind of stuff is already saying: No.

You will enjoy the twists and turns.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Kindly Dark, by J.B. Toner

"The Kindly Dark," by J.B. Toner, in A Murder of Crows, edited by Sandra Murphy, Darkhouse Books, 2019.

Each story in this book features a term of venery, which is the fancy word for a collective noun for animals.  I guess that makes this the title story.

In ten years of reviewing stories have I ever chosen one with an animal narrator?  Probably, but I don't remember doing so.

Let's begin at the beginning, shall we?

No bleakness is complete without a crow.  A ruined church, a barren moor, a graveyard by a grey and empty sea; without the brooding shadow of a solitary rook, their desolation lacks its full potential.

Okay, Mr. Toner, you have my attention.  What are you going to do with it?

He is going to introduce us to his narrator, a bird named Quick of Lurkwood Murder.  He is fast, but getting older, and his peace has been disturbed because Father McReady has installed a safety light at the door of St. Bernadette's Church, blotting out the comfortable dark of Quick's favorite resting spot.  The wire cage around the light is too strong for Quick to break.  Can he find another way to restore the darkness?

Anthropomorphism isn't for all readers, of course, but Toner's tale is rooted in two factual characteristics of crows, among the cleverest of birds: their ability to recognize those who have done them good or ill, and their willingness to mob a raptor.
I debated whether to review this story, not because of the birdy narrator, but because of its questionable crime content.  The only crime is a case of avian vandalism.  But hey, it's in a book of crime stories and it's a beautiful tale, so that's good enough for me.

When I reread a story immediately it is usually because of a trick ending.  In this case I reread it simply because the writing was such a delight. 

Here is Glint, leader of the Murder, preparing for the caper:


"Here, sir."  Knock was as big as a raven, our strongest fighter. An old scar marked his breast, and his left wing was white as bone.

"Will the raptors fly on such a day as this?"

A wry note entered Knock's voice.  "Only the boldest and the dumbest."

"Perfect.  Ready your team."

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Underground Man, by John Lantigua

"The Underground Man," by John Lantigua, in Ellery Queen Mystery magazine, November. December 2019.

This is the second time I have selected a story by John Lantigua.  Like the first it is about Miami private eye Willie Cuesta.

In this story a lawyer friend asks WIllie to help a client who is an expert on tunneling.  He helped break political prisoners out of incarceration in Uruguay but for the last twenty years he has been doing legit construction work in the U.S. 

Alas, someone blabbed about his past to the wrong people and now some some professional jewel thieves insist he help them tunnel into a jewelry store.  He doesn't want to do it, and even if he did, he thinks they will leave him underground permanently, so to speak.

Turn them in?  Not so easy.  Because the tunneler is in the country illegally.  Quite a dilemma.

Willie comes up with a  stratagem which turns, oddly enough, on the professionalism of the bad guys.  A clever story.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Thanksgiving Eve, by Mark Thielman

"Thanksgiving Eve," by Mark Thielman, in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, November/December 2019.

This the fourth appearance in my space by Mark Thielman. It is very silly.  Not that that is a bad thing.

Our hero -- well, narrator, anyway -- is about to celebrate Thanksgiving in the bosom of his family.  That's a bit of luck because he is on probation "for that unfortunate  incident where Mr. Thompson's car accidentally ended up in my possession."  Apparently that sort of thing happens to him a lot.

He decides he needs to buy some weed to make it through "life's vagaries.  They didn't teach me what a vagary was, but I think it's bad."

Which might not be a problem except that his sister Eve unexpectedly shows up for the dinner with her boyfriend Bill.  And Bill is an agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency.  Suddenly that bag of weed is very much on our guy's mind.

Funny stuff.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Doing Time in the Crunchy Granola Suite, by Tim P. Walker

"Doing Time in the Crunchy Granola Suite," by Tim P. Walker, in Rock and a Hard Place Magazine, #1, 2019.

The publisher sent me a free e-copy of this magazine.

It's a cliche of old gangster movies.  One of the bad guys gets wounded so they show up at a doctor's home, point a gun at the dedicated physician and say: "Fix him up, Doc.  If he dies, you die."

This is a modernized version.  Our doctor had his license suspended for giving out too many prescriptions for goodies.  He is waiting out his sentence by working at a "holistic treatment center with the operating hours of a 7-11."  That is, a joint designed to take in those wounded baddies, for a price.

All well and good except that the desperado at his door tonight wants him to fix a buddy whose booboo is a bullet hole right through the forehead.  And, in classic gangster tradition, he is not taking no for an answer.

"Help him, man," he says.  "I ain't asking you no more."

Lots of suspense and sparkling writing.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Miss Starr's Good-bye, by Leslie Budewitz

"Miss Starr's Good-bye," by Leslie Budewitz, in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, November/December 2019.

It was just last month that I wrote in this space about mysteries that feature historical figures.  Naturally enough such tales are usually about well known people: Samuel Johnson, Weegee, Eleanor Roosevelt...

Not so today.  This is (at least) the second story by Leslie Budewitz about Stagecoach Mary, a former slave who moved to Cascade Montana in 1885 to take care of a member of the family she had worked for back east who was now the head of a Catholic school. 

This story is not about a nun; far from it.  (Although one character makes an innocent comparison between the women, causing Mary to have a coughing fit.  Miss Starr is a prostitute, apparently the only one in Cascade.  Her brother has arrived, wanting her to return to civilization.

Her reply: "If you want to take me back to Philadelphia, you might as well kill me first.  Because a life in a gilded cage would be the death of me."

Someone does die and Mary needs the help of a young Indian girl to solve the puzzle.  Most of the story is told from Josie's viewpoint which makes it all the more intriguing, since we understand much of what she does not. 

Monday, October 14, 2019

The Two-Body Problem, by Josh Pachter

"The Two-Body Problem," by Josh Pachter, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, October 2019.

I admit to being a sucker for stories set in higher education.  Comes from three-plus decades in the academe mob.

My friend Josh Pachter has offered a nice example.  The narrator and his  fiance are both marine biologists, hustling toward the completion of their PhDs.  And that is what brings up the titular dilemma.

With the job market the way it is, it's tough enough for one let's say marine biologist to find a tenure-track position at an R1 -- which is, for the uninitiated, a top-level university... When there are two of you in the same competitive field, the challenge is exponentially compounded.

How do two bodies, excuse me, two academics find jobs at the same top school?  And what happens if they don't? 

I very much enjoyed the light and sparkling tone used in this tale to describe the complexities of the higher ed biz.

My only complaint about this story is that Pachter doesn't explain the origin of the "Two Body Problem."  It's a physics issue having to do with objects in orbit.  This adds another level of academic complexity to the whole shebang.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Miss Martin, by Sheila Kohler

"Miss Martin," by Sheila Kohler, in Cutting Edge, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2019.

The publisher sent me a free ARC of this book.

Diane is a teenager and she is making a special trip home from her private boarding school.  It is the first visit since her father married his secretary, Miss Martin.  This followed her mother running off with a lover.  You will not be surprised to know this is a family with problems.

Take a moment to think about stepmothers.  Trophy wives.  Secretaries who marry their bosses.

Got it?  Okay, throw out all those stereotypes because Miss Martin and Diane are going to write a very different tale...  Nice piece of work.

Monday, September 30, 2019

OBF, Inc, by Bernice L. McFadden

"OBF, Inc," by Bernice L. McFadden, in Cutting Edge, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2019.

The publisher sent me an advance reading copy of this book.

I pondered long before choosing this as my best story of the week, simply because it is so far from what most people would call a mystery.  Like most people these days I use Otto Penzler's definition - a story in which crime or the threat of crime is a major element - and there is crime involved here.

Nonetheless, it is not what the average mystery reader would expect.  It is more political fiction, or social commentary.

However, it is a terrific story, and it does have that saving grace of a crime element, so here goes.  It starts like this:

Andrew was entering his third month of unemployment when he sat down at his computer and opened the inbox of his LinkedIn account.  He'd received a response to a query he'd sent off four days after his friend-turned-manager walked him into a conference room swimming with sunlight, smelling of cologne, and the faintest hint of perfume left behind by a group of attorneys who'd recently vacated the space after a five-hour meeting.

Nice detail there.  Andrew is being laid off because the head of his company has been accused of multiple sexual harassment issues, leading the corporate stock to walk off a cliff. 

But good news!  OBF, Inc. wants to talk to him about a possible job.

And here is the rub, of course.  What is OBF exactly and what do they do?  Obviously I can't tell you that.  But it's extremely interesting and thought-provoking.

The story reminds me of Stephen King's great little tale "Quitters, Inc." about an equally unusual  but very different company.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Pentecost, by Eve Fisher

"Pentecost," by Eve Fisher, in Me Too Stories, edited by Elizabeth Zelvin, Level Best Books, 2019.

This is the second appearance on this page by my fellow SleuthSayer, Eve Fisher.  All the stories in this book deal with sexual violence/harrassment against women.

As usual for Fisher, the story is set in rural South Dakota. It is 1990 and the Lutheran Church in Laskin has just acquired its first female pastor. Darla Koenig actually grew up in Laskin but has just moved back, giving her a unique insider/outsider perspective.  She is trying to settle in with her young daughter, finding her place in the delicate social web.

Her daughter loves the dance classes and there lies the rub, because the girls' dressing room shares an interior window with a respected local attorney.  And somehow the paint covering that window keeps getting scraped away...

Darla knows that raising a stink about it will make her enemies she can't afford.  Can she find another way to deal with it?

You bet.

A fun story.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Stumped, by Gary Pettigrew

"Stumped," by  Gary Pettigrew, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, September 2019.

A charming historical mystery this week.  Let's read the first paragraph...

The summer of 1927 was as idyllic as ever remembered in the South of England.  Old John Ayres had decided to retire to spend more time with his family in Dorset and so the council of Lower Dunston was forced to choose a new village policeman; by popular opinion, George Mahoney was the first name suggested.  Fred Hurst nominated himself, of course, but this was quickly discarded because of the obvious reasons that nobody talked about...

And there is the gaff, the hook.  Are we going to find out "the obvious reasons" or is this just a casual element thrown in to suggest that the village knows too much about its residents?

It turns out to be the former. 

The new copper is found dead two days later and Fred Hurst, obvious reasons and all, finds himself a rookie officer struggling with a murder.  He isn't getting a lot of help from the higher-ups who, when he asks for immediate help, respond "basically, that Mr. Mahoney would not be any deader tomorrow."

And he gets no respect from his fellow villagers, who are at least willing to tell him what he's doing wrong. 

Will Fred solve the crime?  And if he does, considering those annoying "reasons," will he even remember the solution?

Monday, September 9, 2019

The Dead Man in the Pearl Gray Hat,by Bruce W. Most

"The Dead Man in the Pearl Gray Hat," by Bruce W. Most, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, August 2019.

Lillian de la Torre was the pioneer, as far as I know. In the 1940s she started writing stories about "Samuel Johnson, detector."  This was the earliest example I am aware of of mystery writers using real people as their protagonists.  Nowadays you can find everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt to Barack Obama starring in crime novels.

In this case the main character is Weegee the Famous, who was indeed a famous photographer, specializing in street scenes of New York City.

Unlike de la Torre's Johnson, Weegee is not shown as a detective here.  His connection to crime is photographing it, and in the era of Murder, Inc., there is plenty of death to document.  In fact, that is the problem he faces in the story.  Jaded reader are getting tired of his photos of countless thugs and gangsters shot to death.  Editors have stopped buying?  What to do?

Weegee finds a solution.  It is perfectly legal, and as near as I can surmise, it doesn't even violate journalistic canons (unlike his habit of rearranging props at the murder scene to make a more interesting shot).  But boy, it does seem unethical in the extreme.

I have no idea whether Most is describing something that actually happened to Weegee or making it up.  But it's an interesting story that makes you think.   

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Niall Nelson is on my Flight, by Jim Fusilli

"Niall Nelson is on my Flight," by Jim Fusilli, in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, September/October 2019.

This is the second appearance here by Jim Fusilli.

Betty's point: You don't send money back.  You don't negotiate out of insecurity.  You push hard.  You demand.
My question: Do they really want me?

Paul has written a treatment for a movie based on the life of musician Nick Drake and now he is flying to France to talk to a studio interested in  making the flick.  He is afraid he is not good enough.  His much-younger wife Betty clearly thinks he is not ambitious enough.  (He suspects she only stays married to him to provide a father figure for her son.)  And it turns out a famous A-list actor is on their flight, someone Betty thinks he should find a way to talk to...

That's all I will tell you about the plot.  There are two things that made this story stand out for me.

One is Fusilli's use of real people and institutions.  I think most writers would have had their fictional characters fly on Paris Airlines to talk to executives at Seine Studio, but he just flat out says Air France and Canal+.  And Nick Drake too, was a real-life person.  Niall Nelson, of course, is not real, but you don't have to be an addict of Hollywood gossip shows to guess what sixty-ish Irish action star Fusilli is invoking.

The second element is a very blunt form of foreshadowing.  Early twentieth-century crime writer Mary Roberts Rinehard is credited/blamed with being the queen of the "Had I But Known" school of writing, in which suspense is created by lamenting bad decisions.

Fusilli doesn't do the lamenting but he simply warns us that bad things are about to happen.  It was one of those men, I later learned, who set out to harm us.  That's the first of several notes.

I feel like it shouldn't work but it certainly does.  Good story.

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Surrogate Initiative, by Brian Cox

"The Surrogate Initiative," by Brian Cox, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2019.

One of the many things I like about AHMM is that they are willing to push genre boundaries.  They occasionally publish a western, science fiction, or even fantasy story if it has a strong crime element.

Take this tale as an example.  It tells of the first criminal case decided by a jury of AI surrogates.  Nobody wants to be called to jury duty so computer programs are developed with the personalities of potential jurors.  Unlike their real life counterparts they never get sick, or bored, they automatically understand all the technical jargon of expert witnesses and their biases can be tuned by the judge. 

Could it ever happen?  Probably not.  But it's fascinating to think about it, and Cox's story provides several twists along the way to what might be justice.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Do Not Disturb, by Steve Hockensmith

"Do Not Disturb," by Steve Hockensmith, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July/August 2019.

This is the fourth appearance in this column by my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Steve Hockensmith.  And it's a very different story from him. I expect shorter,usually comic pieces but this is a straight-forward novella. And while he often writes about the old west this is, I think, the first time I have read him delving into the 1940s.

In fact it is 1940 in New York.  Colleen Flynn, a former cop, is an assistant hotel detective at the Grand American, a second-string house.  "The guys from Ford and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and General Foods stayed elsewhere.  The Grand American got Studebaker and Republic Pictures and Dr. Ross's Dog and Cat Food."

And the hotel also got a death.  Longtime guest Laurence Kaufman hung himself in the shower.  Except one of the maids, a Polish refugee, informs Colleen that he was probably murdered.  Colleen investigates although her boss points out that her boss points out that bringing bad guys to justice is no longer her job.

Actually, the boss is one of the pleasant surprises in this story, since he goes quite against type.

I wonder if this is to be part of a series because we are definitely left wondering about our heroine.  What's her backstory?  Why did she leave the force?

Ah, so many mysteries.