Sunday, July 24, 2016
In his first published story (!) Mark Thielman seems to have played midwife to the love child of Rex Stout and Lillian de la Torre. Or maybe I have just been infected with his characters' love of metaphor.
"A Meter of Murder" is this year's winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award, which is co-sponsored by AHMM and the Wolfe Pack, dedicated fans of Rex Stout. Often but not always the winner follows the formula of Stout's Nero Wolfe stories: a genius detective who seldom goes anywhere, and a narrator who does the footwork. So it is in Thielman's story.
But this novella is also part of a subgenre which, as far as I know was invented by Lillian de la Torre. I assume she was reading Arthur Conan Doyle one day and noticed that Holmes referred to Watson as "my Boswell." And she thought: If Watson is Boswell why can't Boswell be Watson? And so she created the Samuel Johnson: Detector series, the first mystery stories to make use of a real person as the fictional hero.
And now, at last, we can get to Thielman's story.
London in 1661 was a very dangerous place. King Charles II had just taken the throne and anyone who had been on the Roundhead side in the Civil War, or worked with Cromwell after, had to keep one eye over his shoulder, expecting arrest or worse.
One of those was the blind poet John Milton, not yet the creator of Paradise Lost. The narrator of the novella is Milton's younger friend, Andrew Marvell, who was both a member of Parliament and a poet.
At the beginning of what turns out to be a very long day Marvell comes to tell his friend that a royalist member of the House of Commons has been killed in circumstances that suggest a possible political motive. If someone doesn't find out whodunit, then the people of their party may be chosen as the killer.
And so Milton gets on the case, sending Marvell out to investigate and bring back suspects. Thielman clearly knows his Restoration London and his Rex Stout. I enjoyed this novella a lot.
One line made me laugh out loud. Milton to a suspect: "Sir, don't be pugnacious. Spare us your vehemence."
Doesn't that sound exactly like Nero Wolfe?
Sunday, June 28, 2020
Oh, what a lovely cover. This is the fifth appearance in this space by Mark Thielman. Of his previous successes I count two historical mysteries and two comedies. This time he combines the two.
The tale is set in sixteenth-century France. Bernard de Vallenchin is an advocat, essentially a defense attorney, and he has his work cut out for him. His client, together with her six offspring, committed the unprovoked murder of a small child and the community is demanding vengeance. But what makes the case particularly challenging--
No. I can't tell you that. Major spoiler.
I had no idea where this story was going but I read some hilarious passages to a friend who seldom reads mysteries and she figured it out immediately. That tells you something about me or about her, I suppose.
This story is based on an actual trial that took place in France hundreds of years ago. Thielman makes it clear that it is firmly rooted in a view of the universe that seems more foreign to us than the medieval French language. But that is part of what makes it a fun story.
Sunday, July 1, 2018
The Black Orchid Novella Award is co-sponsored by the Wolfe Pack and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. It is intended to promote the sort of fair play detective stories illustrated by Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novellas.
The rules do not require that the story follows the structure of Stout's work, but most of the winners have done that. (Full disclosure: mine did.) Here's what I mean by that structure: the narrator does the legwork of investigating a crime, bringing back clues to an older and wiser character, who solves the crime, usually by bringing all the suspects together for a chat.
Thielman has followed that pattern, as he did with his 2015 winner, which also made my best-of list. Both of his novellas use actual historical figures.
It is 1769, deep in the South Pacific. Our narrator is Joseph Banks, chief naturalist on the HMS Endeavour, which has been sent on a scientific investigation to observe the Transit of Venus. When one of Banks's assistants is found with his throat cut just as they arrive at Tahiti, Banks is ordered to investigate the crime by none other than Captain James Cook. He is handicapped by his lack of knowledge of navy ways and nautical vocabulary, but he brings back the facts which allow Cook to cleverly determine the identity of the murderer.
Cook is a wonderful character here. Witness his comment on another character:
I wished I had the opportunity to have spoken more with the man. Of course, I may have ended up ordering him hanged, but up to then, he would have proved a fascinating man with whom to converse. A pity I missed the opportunity.
Sunday, April 2, 2023
"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.
Monday, February 4, 2019
This is the third appearance in this space by Mark Thielman. The first two were somber tales featuring actual historical personages. The current entry is not like that, as you can probably guess from the title.
The narrator is a part-time private eye who makes most of his living dressed as a potato, promoting the cause at various supermarkets. He says the Potato Board calls him the "Spud Stud."
Lately he's been doing his thing at Uncle Bob's Natural Food Emporium, but someone murdered Charlie, the produce manager, who was dressed as, yup, an avocado. The deputy suspects our hero. His only ally is an actress dressed as Babs the Baguette.
No, not somber this time. But enjoyable.
Sunday, November 13, 2022
"A Rat Tale," by Mark Thielman, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November/December 2022.
Mark Thielman, my fellow SleuthSayer, is having a good year This is his third appearance on my list in 2022 and his ninth overall, which I believe has him tied at the top. It is also the second story in this series to make my best-of-the-week list.
Bernard de Vallenchin is a sixteenth century French attorney with an odd specialty. Medieval law allowed animals to be tried for their alleged crimes.In this case the farmers of a region are demanding that rats be punished for ravishing their crops. Our advocate faces penalties if he can't find an adequate defense.
What follows is what they refer to in TV legal dramas as "winning on a technicality," as de Vallenchin embraces the skewed logic that says rodents can be taken to court. A very funny story, based on an actual case.
Sunday, October 9, 2022
"Future Tense," by Mark Thielman, in Black Cat Magazine, #57. 2022.
Terran Korb and his pregnant wife want to move to a better apartment in a safer neighborhood. But that requires more Citizenship Points. The cameras of the Panopticon are constantly on watch, looking for good and bad behavior. Pick up litter? Good. Fail to smile at your neighbors? Bad.
It doesn't seem like Korb will ever score enough points to get what he wants. But there are rumors about brokers, people who have learned to work the system, and can set you up with the points you need. But when you make a deal like that there is always a price to be paid...
This story is a treat.
Monday, November 4, 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.
Monday, May 31, 2021
"The Case of the Brain Tuber," by Mark Thielman, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2021.
This is the sixth appearance here by my fellow SleuthSayer Mark Thielman, and the second by his unlikely hero.
Sheer silliness here. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
The narrator is a private eye whose side gig is dressing up as a potato for marketing events at supermarkets. They call him the Spud Stud.
But this time he gets to appear as a normal person for a special event at the Idaho Potato Museum. They are celebrating the newest inductees to the Potato Hall of Fame. So get ready for tater-based humor.
The band is called the Twice-Baked. The name tags were "shaped like small packages of freeze-dried hash browns." They are serving vodka (of course) but you can also get a sparkling wine called Potateau.
Like I said: silly. But when one of the guests of honor dies and the cops are delayed the Spud Stud has to solve the crime. His method is clever.
Sunday, January 2, 2022
"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.
Monday, August 14, 2023
"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, May 28, 2023
"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, November 19, 2023
"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, October 30, 2022
"Do-Ye0n Performs a Cost-Benefit Analysis on a Career Based on Questionable Activities," by Mark Niemann-Ross, in Crooked 2, edited by Jessie Kwak, Bad Intentions Press, 2022.
Oddly enough, this is the second story I reviewed this month which qualifies as science fiction. Both are set in the near future and involve a society in which one's access to resources is strictly regimented by one's activities.
In Thielman's story your ability to progress depends on your perceived good citizenship. In Niemann-Ross's world it depends on what job you can get.
And Do-Ye0n is stuck at Level One because of a screw-up he made at his last position. His automated job coach tells him he can get a job in "corporate network penetrative testing," which is to say ransomware.
It is highly lucrative, and legal. Well, sort of legal. Unless some agency, or some other entity decides it would be better to make it temporarily illegal...
Robert Heinlein wrote a novella called "If This Goes On--" and that is one of my favorite types of science fiction: the one that extrapolates from what the author sees as a growing trend in our society. Niemann-Ross has written an interesting example.