Thursday, March 31, 2011

Little Big News: Derringer Winners

The Short Mystery Fiction Society has just announced the winners of the Derringer Award for 2011. Congratulations to all!

Best Flash Fiction Story (under 1,000 words)
"The Book Signing," by Kathy Chencharik, in Thin Ice: Crime Stories by New England Writers. Edited by Leslie Wheeler, Mark Ammons, Barbara Ross, Kat
Fast, Level Best Books, November, 2010
"The Unknown Substance" by Jane Hammons, A Twist of Noir December 27,

Best Short Story (1,001-4,000 words)

"Pewter Badge," by Michael J. Solender, Yellow Mama, August, 2010

Best Long Story (4,001-8,000 words)
"Care of the Circumcised Penis" by Sean Doolittle, in Thuglit
Presents: Blood, Guts & Whiskey
Edited by Todd Robinson, Kensington
Publishing Corp., May, 2010
"Interpretation of Murder" by B. K. Stevens, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery
, December, 2010

Best Novelette (8,001-17,500 words)

"Rearview Mirror" by Art Taylor,
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine March, 2010

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Calling the Shots

"Calling the Shots" by Karen Dionne. in First Thrills, edited by Steve Berry. Forge, 2010.

WARNING: Spoiler alert.

Jason just broke up with his pregnant girlfriend. Now he's in the forest, cutting firewood alone, which he knows is a foolish and dangerous thing to do...

Let's talk a little bit about context. In an ideal world we would come to each short story fresh, and see it as the unique work of literature it is. But on our less-than-perfect planet we sometimes notice the frame around the artwork.

Most of the stories in First Thrills would fit just fine into a magazine of mystery stories. But this particular tale is much better off in a collection of thrillers.

Why? Because in a mystery magazine you would know that before the story is over there will have to be a crime, or the threat of a crime, or the memory of a crime. Otherwise it wouldn't be in the magazine, right? But in this book the story is justified by its thrilling content before anything criminal appears. So the surprise works better here than it would in the other context.

Having said all that this is a terrific tale, with the coldest ending line I have read since the last novel by Richard Stark. If I had read it in 2010 it would be on my best of the year list. Karen Dionne apparently specializes in ecothrillers, and she seems to know her woods and her woodsmen very well.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Dead Club

"The Dead Club" by MIchael Palmer and Daniel James Palmer, in First Thrills, edited by Steve Berry. Forge. 2010.

I have temporarily run short of 2011 stories to read (if you have had one published this year and you want me to read it with the possibility of reviewing it, contact me at lopresti AT Published stories only, please). So I have been reading First Thrills, published last year by the International Thriller Writers.

This brings up the question: what's a thriller? Unfortunately the only definition the book provides is this from David Morrell "If a story doesn't thrill, it's not a thriller." Yeah, and if a statement is not tautological, it's not a tautology.

So, here's my effort: a thriller is an action-oriented suspense story. (And before you ask: a mystery is focused on a crime in the past; suspense focuses on crime yet to come.)

Enough definitionizing. Let's get to the story at hand.

Dr. Robert Tomlinson is a distinguished General Practioner. Bobby Tomlinson is an obsessive gambler. They happen to be the same person, and that leads to trouble when there is a medical conference in Las Vegas.

Bobby plays hooky from the conference to hit the casinos, where he meets a fellow-minded doctor named Grove who tells him about the Dead Club. Using the Internet doctors from around the world read the medical histories of terminally ill patients and bet on how long they will live. It's not illegal, Grove assures him, because all identifying information has been removed. What could go wrong?

This is a very twisty tale. I made several guesses as to where it was going, but the authors, Palmer and Palmer, managed to stay several curves ahead of me.

By the way, "The Thief" by Gregg Hurwitz in the same book, came a damned close second. If I had read these stories in 2010 they would have both made my Best of the Year list.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Guest Review: The Awareness

"The Awareness" by Terrie Farley Moran. in Crimes By Midnight: Mysteries from the Dark Side. Edited by Charlaine Harris. 2010.

When I started this blog I invited you readers to send me reviews of favorite stories. I now have my first bite. Leigh Lundin is an author of excellent short stories and my brother blogger at Criminal Brief. By coincidence he sent me a review on the same subject I chose this week: a story from a book on occult crime. Different story, different book, as it happens. What a coicncidence! Ooh, spooky!

"The Awareness" by Terri Farley Moran.
Reviewed by by Leigh Lundin

I received a surprise gift, Crimes by Moonlight, the latest MWA anthology edited by Charlaine Harris. This volume is unusual in that each story combines traditional mystery with the paranormal.

I flipped through its contents looking for authors I might know. The first name that leaped out at me was Terrie Farley Moran.

That's right, my tease-mate over at Women of Mystery, plunked in the middle of the book. I turned there first.
Another surprise: Terrie isn't so much an author as an artist. She doesn't write– she paints with words. She sketches and shades and sometimes sculpts. Characters emerge in bas-relief. Single sentences become miniature portraits and landscapes.

Terrie's story, "The Awareness", is unusual in another regard. Rather than recycle vampires and werewolves, she cast a banshee as her heroine. The female fairies of the hills, the keening bean-sídhe, sing at the death of those of their clan. Terrie's immortal, living in New York City, realizes the object of her lament was murdered. She sets about to solve– and avenge– the murder.

"The Awareness" is a satisfying story, not the least because of Terrie's artistry and attention to mythological detail. Terrie's selection is all the more impressive because she was up against 240 or so tough competitors.

This is where I need to make full disclosure: I not only submitted a story to the anthology, but I critiqued four others that were so good, I was surprised they didn't make it. The selection committee made difficult decisions and I didn't envy them.

I next took up Mark Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane's story, "Grave Matters", an unusual Mike Hammer Frankensteinisch horror story. Following on my list is Toni Kelner's "Taking the Long View", after which I'll read the stories from the beginning.

Crimes by Moonlight is a hit and I can assure fretting readers of traditional mysteries (like me) that Crimes by Moonlight does not fall back on deus ex machina. Realism and ratiocination trump the psychic aspects.
Get the book: The first three stories I devoured are all winners. Like me, you'll enjoy Terrie Farley Moran's 'The Awareness'.

You Heard It Here First!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Spirit of the Thing

"The Spirit of the Thing" by Simon R. Green. in Those Who Fight Monsters: Tales of Occult Detectives edited by Justin Gustainis. EDGE. 2011.

This week I have been reading an anthology of occult crime tales which Justin Gustainis, the editor, was kind enough to send me.

I am not usually a big fan of occult mysteries, although I only object strongly when a supernatural element is thrown in gratuitously (what I call the "ooh! spooky!" gambit). Bad, but not quite as bad, is the story where you only find out about the supernatural element at the end (and he was a GHOST!). Full disclosure: I wrote a story of that ilk once, but it was in another century, and beside, the magazine is dead.

In any case, no danger of that type of story in this book which promises in advance that each story will feature werewolves, demons, fairies or the like. These tales are all new but each also is part of a series of novels and/or stories by the authors.

I tend to like the tales best that play with the cliches and expectations of the mystery genre. For example, my favorite story is Simon R. Green's "The Spirit of the Thing," in which private eye John Taylor is drinking in a seedy bar when he meets a beautiful woman who wants to hire him. How many times have we read that scene? But here is how it plays in Green's world:

"You have to helo me. I've been murdered. I need you to find out who killed me.

Not every private eye gets hired by a ghost. But Taylor is not your average dick. He works in the Nightside, "the secret hidden heart of London, where it's always the darkest part of the night and the dawn never comes..." Am I the only reader who finds himself picturing Diagon Alley?

Taylor solves the crime without leaving the bar and the bad guy comes to a suitable noir and supernatural end.

Other good stories in the book include "Dusted" by Laura Anne Gilman and "Under the Kill and Far Away" by Caitlin Kittredge.

If you like occult stories this book is worth picking up. And by the way, we will have a special feature at this site later in the week about another book of spooky tales.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

LIttle Big News: Derringer Nominees

The Short Mystery Fiction Society has listed their nominees for best stories of 2010. Congratulations to all!

Flash Story (-1000 words)

"Blues in the Night," by Carol Kilgore, *Dark Valentine*, May 2010

"Homeless," by Patricia Morin, *MYSTERY MONTAGE*, 2010

"Stick a Needle in My Eye," by Julia Madeleine, *Powder Burn Flash*No. 302, May 5, 2010

"The Book Signing," by Kathy Kencharik, *THIN ICE: CRIME STORIES BYNEW ENGLAND WRITERS*, 2010

"The Unknown Substance," by Jane Hammons, *A Twist of Noir*, Dec.27, 2010

Short Story (1001 - 4000 words)

"My Asshole Brother" by Eric Beetner, *A Twist of Noir,* May 7, 2010

"Seventy-hours of Less" by Michael J. Solender, *A Twist of Noir,* April 23, 2010

"Broken Down on the Bonneville Flats" by Jack Bates, *Beat to a Pulp,* October 17, 2010

"Angel of Mercy" by David Price, *Beat to a Pulp,* Jan. 31, 2010

"Pewter Badge" by Michael J. Solender, *Yellow Mama," August, 2010.

Long Story (4001 - 8000 words)

"A Tour of the Tower," by Christine Poulson, *Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine*, March/April 2010

"Care of the Circumcised Penis," by Sean Doolittle, *THUGLIT PRESENTS: BLOOD, GUTS, AND WHISKEY*, 2010

"Interpretation of Murder," by B. K. Stevens, *Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine*, December 2010

"Silicon Kings," by Richard Helms, *The Back Alley Webzine*, April 2010

" The Little Nogai Boy," by R. T. Lawton, *Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine*, September 2010

Novelette (8001 - 17,500 words)

"Deserters," by Chris Muessig, *Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine*, March 2010

"Rearview Mirror," by Art Taylor, *Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine*, March 2010

"The Gods for Vengeance Cry," by Richard Helms, *Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine*, November 2010

"The Man With One Eye," by Stephen Ross, *Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine*, December 2010

"The Scent of Lilacs," by Doug Allyn, *Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine*, September/October 2010

Jim Limey's Confession

"Jim Limey's Confession" by Scott Loring Sanders. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. May 2011.

I'm a sucker for historical stories. This one is a special case, taking the form of a deathbed statement the main character made to his granddaughter in 1993.

One issue with historical stories is making the setting believable, leaving out anachronisms and making us suspend disbelief about the time and place of the tale. This story has a special concern because we have to believe in the voice of a southern African-American, talking about his youth in the early twentieth century. It is very believable, to my eye/ear.

The day after Daddy went in the ground, it was time for me to get to work. I was the man of the family then and it was yp to me to take over the business. I'd been gong around with Daddy some anyway, so I knew most everything there was to know about it. I hitched Miss Annabelle to the wagon, loaded up the barrels of lime, then headed to town.

The family business was making lime out of seashells and then using them to clean the outhouses of the white folks. Life isn't easy for a black man in the south in the 1930s, but the focus of the story is a horrific crime and a satisfyingly horrific revenge - and a reminder that there are other uses for lime than making a privy smell better.

I wonder if Mr. Sanders has read Avram Davidson's "The Necessity of His Condition," one of my favorite crime stories? There is a strong plot connection in the sense that if you read them one after the other you would have a good idea of what was going to happen at the end of the second. No matter, if Davidson did inspire Sanders it was a legitimate use of the source material, and a terrific story.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Calculator

Pantip Plaza
Originally uploaded by Mr ATM
“The Calculator” by Mithran Somasundrum” Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, May 2011.

Ah, a good old-fashioned private eye story, all the way from Thailand. Vijay makes his living in Bangkok as a P.I. and a translator. Mostly he deals with divorces but this time his client is Atiya, a young lady worried about an American man she met the day before – a human calculator in town for the world championship. These are the people who can figure out things like the cube roots of long numbers in their heads.

Part of the pleasure of a story like this is the guided tour of a different part of the world. Much of the story takes place at Pantip Plaza, the center for buying consumer electronics. And here's the world outside:

Walking back to Pantip past the mats on the pavement (plastic toys, children’s clothes, mobile-phone cases) and the food carts (fried chicken, gelatin sweets, freshly squeezed orange jouce), I was starting to wonder about Atiya myself.

I was fascinated by the description of the Sois, the long narrow lanes off main streets where motorcyclists make their living carrying people from the bus stops to their homes.

There is humor here, and the plot is clever too, although as is often the case, I have a problem with motive – in this case, an important character who does something important, apparently just to be nice. Actions that are important to the story need clear motivation.

But I still enjoyed the tale.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

LIttle Big News: HItchock and I

I have a story in the current (May) issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. "Why" is my seventeenth appearance there, and next month marks thirty years since my first. Time flies.

I wrote a piece about why and how I wrote "Why" and you can find it at Criminal Brief.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

When The Time Came

“When The Time Came,” by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis. Copenhagen Noir. Edited by Bo Tao Michaelis. Akashic Press.

I wish this volume came out last year, before my family vacationed in Denmark. It would have made a nicely twisted guidebook. I may be prejudiced in favor of this particular story because it is set in Ørestad, the area where my family had an apartment, and the authors perfectly captured the inorganic brutality of the scenery.

The building looked like every other place out here. Glass and steel. He’d never understood who would want to live in such a place…. The other brand-new glass palaces were lit up as if an energy crisis had never existed, but there was no life behind the windows. Maybe nobody wanted to live this way after all…

Chaltu is a very pregnant African woman, desperate to make it over the bridge to Sweden where she can seek asylum and be reunited with her lover. Unfortunately contractions begin too soon and she is left in an unfinished building in Ørestad. As it happens three Iranian men have chosen the same night to loot fixtures from the empty apartments. On discovering Chaltu one of them calls the “okay secret doctor,” actually Red Cross nurse Nina Borg, the authors’ series character.

By the time Nina arrives the situation has gotten worse , in the form of a murder. (This deserted building seems busier than Tivoli Gardens.) She has to do some fast thinking to get out of the mess.

This is not a true noir story, as I defined it a few weeks ago. And it doesn’t exactly feel like a crime story, in spite of the fact that just about everyone in it is at least technically a criminal. They are breaking the law, but are they evil?

The story is in the book section entitled "Mammon," not the part “Men and Women,” which contains mostly stories related to sex, but in some ways this story is very precisely about men and women. The event of childbirth has a powerful sway over the character's actions and as long as Nina is presiding over the labor she can order the men around, but once the baby is born, “Nina’s reign had ended.”

Powerful stuff.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Little Big News: Agatha Nominations

Malice Domestic has announced the nominees for the Agatha Awards of 2011. Here are story nominations. Congratulations to all.

"Swing Shift" by Dana Cameron, Crimes by Moonlight(Berkley)
"Size Matters" by Sheila Connolly, Thin Ice (LevelBest Books)
"Volunteer of the Year" by Barb Goffman,Chesapeake Crimes: They Had it Comin' (Wildside Press)
"So Much in Common" by Mary Jane Maffini, ElleryQueen Mystery Magazine - Sept./Oct. 2010
"The Green Cross" by Liz Zelvin, Ellery QueenMystery Magazine - August 2010

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sweet Thing Going

“Sweet Thing Going,” by Percy Spurlark Parker. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. April 2011.

I have written here about nice bad guys and nasty good guys, but what about stories where the protagonist is a nasty bad guy? Well, the story can go three ways:
1. The bad guy wins. Not very common, except in heist stories, like Richard Stark’s Parker books. (I also remember an astonishing story I read in AHMM, probably thirty years ago in which the tale ends not with the crime being solved but with the sheriff getting a satisfactory bribe from a suspect… Don’t know the author or the title, but I still remember the plot.)
2. The bad guy turns out to be a good guy. Usually an example of what I call the Unknown Narrator story, in which the reader only knows what people are saying about the main character, and, as is often the case, the common knowledge is wrong.
3. The bad guy gets caught in his own trap. Also known as The Biter Bit.

The thing about Biter Bit stories is that you can usually see them coming. Percy Spurlark Parker’s story is about a cop named Rycann who is as dirty as they come, squeezing the petty crooks on his beat for money and sex. You know he’s going to get his comeuppance, so the question is: how will it happen?

And this is where the question of story length comes in. When I turned to the last page I could see that it was the last page and as I read down I was thinking: there’s no way he can pull off a surprising and satisfying ending in the space that’s left.

Obviously I was wrong or I would be writing about a different story this week. Nice job.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Leopard of Ti Mourne

“The Leopard of Ti Morne” by Mark Kurlansky. Haiti Noir. edited by Edwidge Danticat.

So, what is noir? Glad you asked. Here’s the essence: You’re a nobody, you try to be more, you get shafted and end up in a worse place than you started (likely dead or in jail).

The various books in the Akashic Press Noir Cities series have hundreds of stories, and probably the majority of them don’t fit that description very well. Some have nothing in common with it except being pessimistic.

Kurlansky’s story is probably the story in Haiti Noir that comes closest to my definition. That’s not the reason it’s my favorite, but I admit it helps.

The story is funny, in parts, at least. Our nobody-hero is Izzy Goldstein a Miami Beach Jewish guy who “felt in his heart that he was really Haitian.” After years of eating Haitian food, hanging around in Little Haiti, and learning Creole he decides it’s time to do something for his spiritual home. He buys a boat and starts a charity. Not surprisingly, the sharks start to circle, and I am not talking about the ocean.

Kurlansky makes nice use of Haitian mythology. It isn’t a major part of the story but he ties tales of the lwas, Vodou spirits, into the chain of events that Izzy accidentally starts.

Another main character is the wealthy Madame Dumas, very real, but effectively the spirit of malevolent greed that distorts everything Izzy tries to accomplish.

She was wrapped in a thick red fox coat. Her body stuck out at angles, a hard thin body. Her straightened black hair was swept up on her head. She wore shiny dark-purple lip gloss with an even darker liner. Her green eyes were also traced in black, which matched the carefully painted polish on her long nails filed to severe points. All this dark ornamentation on her gaunt face made her skin look pale with a fat finish, like gray cardboard.

Another good (and noir) story in the book is Katia D. Ulysse’s “The Last Department.” It’s full of wonderful writing, but the ending didn’t satisfy me.

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.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Little Big News: Edgar Nominations

The Mystery Writers of America have announced the Edgar Nominations. Here are the short story nods:

"The Scent of Lilacs" – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Doug Allyn (Dell Magazines)
"The Plot" – First Thrills by Jeffery Deaver (Tom Doherty – Forge Books)
"A Good Safe Place" – Thin Ice by Judith Green (Level Best Books)
"Monsieur Alice is Absent" – Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine
by Stephen Ross (Dell Magazines)
"The Creative Writing Murders" – Dark End of the Street by Edmund White (Bloomsbury)

And the winner of the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best first story is
"Skyler Hobbs and the Rabbit Man" – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Evan Lewis (Dell Magazines)

Congratulations to all!

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.