Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Teapot Mounties Ball

“The Teapot Mountie Ball,” by James Powell. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. March/April 2011. I am a fan and friend of Jim Powell so I say this with respect and affection: The man is as loony as a Canadian dollar coin. The average Powell story contains a fully realized plot stuffed with wild free associations wrapped around a bizarre central idea that, if it had occurred to most writers, would cause them to swear off late-night enchiladas.

This particular specimen is part of a series about Acting Sergeant Maynard Bullock of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. But the central concept is this: in order to avoid infiltrators Canadian organized crime has banned members who meet the height and weight qualifications for Mounties. To foil this strategy the RCMP hires a special squad of undercover agents known as the Teapot Mounties (because they are short and stout, naturally). The one time these diminutive lawmen can wear their red uniforms is the night of their annual ball. This year, the regularly-sized Sergeant Bullock is present, running the soda stand. Naturally he stumbles into a fiendish plot…

So that is the main story line. Here are some random examples of the free associations that grow up around it:
* There was a Mountie named “Gimpy” Flanagan who had “sworn never to pull his revolver without drawing blood, an oath that cost him several toes.”
* Scandanavians tend to underestimate Canadians, seeing them as “a frivolous southern people much like the Italians…”
* The Canadians have sworn to defend the U.S. from an overland attack by Russia, because they know “that if Mexico ever tried to invade Canada by land, the United States would do the same.”

Mad as a March Hare and twice as fun.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Originally uploaded by werewegian
“Icarus” by C.J. Harper. March/April 2011, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

When music professor James Enright loses his wife and daughter in a tragic accident at a bridge it changes his view of fate and the universe. A few months later he starts to have visions of people who have fallen or been thrown off bridges to their death – and the visions are true. Has he been blessed/cursed with psychic powers or is something even worse happening?

I’m not crazy about the plot of this story but I love the language, especially the way Enright links his environment to his agonized feelings. Take this description of his new neighborhood, the Mill District:

Many of these mills exploded from the grain dust that had built up inside them. Destroyed by their own unstable breath. By an unforeseen byproduct of their own existence.

Some of them were rebuilt. Others were left as rubble.

A place of rebirth and ruin.

That is why I moved here.

I knew I’d fit in.

One way or the other.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Pain of Others

“The Pain of Others” by Blake Crouch. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. March 2011.
My favorite stories usually share at least one of three qualities:
* Heightened language (the words do more than just tell the story)
* A great concept
* A surprise ending

Here is how the current story opens:

Letty Dobish, five weeks out of Fluvanna Correctional Center on a nine-month bit for felony theft, straightened the red wig over her short brown hair, adjusted the oversize Jimmy Choo sunglasses she’d lifted out of a locker two days ago at the Asheville Racquet and Fitness Club, and handed a twenty-spot to the cabbie.

“Want change, miss?” he asked.

“On a nine seventy-five fare? What does your heart tell you?”

Heightened language, check. By the fourth page I was also in love with the concept. At that point I thought to myself, “A spot on the Best Of list is yours to lose, Mr. Crouch. Let’s see if you can hold onto it.” Obvously he did.

Letty is a woman of convictions, more judicial than ethical, and during the commission of a crime she overhears a murder plot. It turns out she does care about something besides money. The results are surprising and darker than I would have guessed (see title).

My one complaint is that Letty, while not dumb, suffers from a bit of Dumb Heroine Syndrome, of the “We’re in a house with a murderer so let’s split up” variety. But it’s not fatal. Not to her, anyway.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Powder Goes Hunting

“Powder Goes Hunting” by Michael Z. Lewin. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, February 2011. Last week I wrote about Keller, a hitman who happens to be a very sympathetic character. This week I was introduced to Leroy Powder, a good cop who is a very UNsympathetic character. How can the bad guys seem nice and the good guys irritate us? Not unusual, I guess. Storytelling is full of characters (Holmes, Rumpole, Wolfe, House, etc.) who sound like wonderful fun but you know that if you had to put up with them on a regular basis you would want to strangle them.

Lieutenant Leroy Powder has apparently offended enough people in the Indianapolis police department that he has been booted from detective to Roll Call officer. When the story opens he is about to make himself even more popular by investigating the deer flu – that is, cops who call in sick on the first day of deerhunting season.

As it turns out Powder finds something more dastardly than playing hooky, and along the way he has a chance to work on his goal of making his people into better cops – although it would have been nice to see whether his effort with one impatient officer paid off.

But here is an example of what I mean by saying he is unsympathetic. In one scene he is chatting with a friend (and apparently ex-lover) who was put in a wheelchair by a bullet. When he finds out that she used to be a hunter he asks: “What do you do now? Sit out in the yard with food on your hand and get the wild creatures to come to you? Then strangle them?”

Keller might murder you, but at least he won’t be rude about it.

Friday, January 7, 2011

LIttle Big News: Year in review

If you are curious about the best stories of 2010 I have helpfully provided a complete list. Well, a list of my favorites anyway. The list is at Criminal Brief.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Keller in Houston

“Keller in Houston” by Lawrence Block. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. February 2011. I can’t read one of Larry Block’s tales about Keller without comparing him to Parker, the protagonist of Richard Stark (alias Donald E Westlake).

Both of them are bad guys. Keller is a hit man; Parker is a thief (although if you pick a random book about each of them the chances are that Parker will snuff more people than Keller. But it isn’t his goal; it’s just the cost of doing business in his line of work).

My point is that Parker is a kind of hollow man: we know nothing about him except his current life and crimes. There is no hint of his childhood, the things that shaped him, his hopes and dreams (beyond stealing more and more money.) When he isn ‘t working he’s living with his girlfriend, and as far as we know, doing nothing but waiting for another opportunity to steal something.

J.P. Keller, on the other hand, has what you might call a rich inner life. He’s constantly thinking about the good and bad parts of murdering people for a living, and exploring the world as he finds it. In his very first appearance (a short story called “Answers To Soldier”) he goes to a small town on business and falls in love with the place, so different from his New York world. In other stories he goes into therapy, acquires a dog, and so on.

But his longest-lasting hobby is philately. I n fact, the reason he hasn’t given up his business entirely is the need for extra funds to buy Antiguan blue one-cent triangulars, or the like. And it is one of the wonders of Block that he can make this part of the stories enjoyable for people whose only interest in stamps is sticking one on the gas bill.

In this story Keller is combining business weith pleasure in Houston by attending a stamp auction. “But first he’d have to kill somebody.”

This assignment gives us another glimpse of Keller’s inner being as he copes with the decision of whether to kill someone who is not a part of the assignment. It would be easier and safer to do so but one characteristic of the bystander touches Keller’s – dare we call it a conscience? His solution to the problem is a typically clever touch.

Block is, of course, a very witty writer, but Keller is not a witty character (unlike Block’s burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, for instance). So a lot of the wit in these stories comes from Dot, Keller’s equally murderous agent, who brings him his assignments. Here she is describing her new lifestyle: “I moved to Sedona and the pounds started to drop off right away. The place is crawling with energy vortexes, except I think the plural is vortices.… I think (a vortice) is like an intersection except the streets are imaginary. Anyway, some of the women I know are fat as pigs, and they’ve got the same vortices I do.”

An enjoyable view of an amoral wonderland.

LIttle Big News

Welcome to my new blog. Its mission is clear: there aren't enough places that review mystery short stories, so here is one more. Each week I will review the best story I have read in the last seven days. It might be new, it might be an old one I missed, it might even be a reread of a classic.

If you are inspired, send me a review of the best mystery short you read this week. If I like the review I will put it up here too. Together we can make all the authors of mystery shorts rich and famous. Or have fun, anyway.

Thanks for joining me.