Sunday, August 28, 2011

Reason to Believe, by Mat Coward

"Reason to Believe" by Mat Coward, in Death By Horoscope, edited by Anne Perry, Carroll and Graf, 2001.

Ran across this 2001 collection at the library and it had a lot of good authors (Block, Rusch, Lovesey, etc.) so I thought I'd give it a try. Some of the stories assume astrology is real, some assume it is bogus. I, a definite bogus-er, enjoyed some of each, but this was the stand-out.

In a funny story, what exactly is funny? It could be the language. It could be the narration (not quite the same as the language.) It could be situation. It could be character.

I think one of the reason so many of Donald E. Westlake's books were made into bad movies was that a lot of his humor is in the narration, and that doesn't carry over onto the screen at all. And speaking of language, I remember Stephen Fry complaining when he portrayed P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves that the first time Jeeves appears in the books, he "shimmered" in. How exactly was Fry supposed to "shimmer in?"

The humor in this story is mostly character-based. Specifically it revolves around our hero, DS Harry Peacock of the Metropolitan Police. Harry has a somewhat eccentric view of the world and conducts an ongoing conversation with himself that cheerfully overflows in ways that baffle his companions and delight the reader.

Peacock is no fool so when he is talking to his boss his rebellious thoughts stay inside.

"OK. You all right to run with this for a little longer?"

Harry wondered what would happen if he said that, in fact, non, he wasn't OK to run with this, that, in fact, he rather thought he'd spend the rest of the day swmming in the lido. It WAS a hot day. He wouldn't mind a swim.

"Yes sir," said Harry.

Later someone threatens to report him to his superiors and Harry replies: "I have no superiors... They're small men with mustaches."

The story has a plot. Did I mention that? A man who doesn't believe in astrology has been regularly meeting with an astrologer and now he has disappeared. Harry has a strong suspicion as to what has happened and eventually he proves it. But along the way we get conversation like this one with the horoscope scribbler.

"Astrology is not as hot as it was when I started up. The public is fickle."

Harry gave a sympathetic nod. "Those feng shui bastards, eh? Coming over here and stealing our jobs."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cold War, by Cheryl Rogers

"Cold War," by Cheryl Rogers, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2001.

In light of the recent list of nominees for the Shamus Award it seems appropriate to ask: what's a private eye story? The obvious answer seems to be a story about a private eye. But when the Private Eye Writers of America created the rules for the Shamus Awards decades ago they wisely made what I think of as the Scudder Exception.

You see, among the best private eye novels of the modern era are Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder series (and if you haven't read the new one, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, treat yourself), and Scudder is NOT a licensed P.I. So the rule goes approximately like this: the story has to be about someone who is paid to investigate a crime, but is not a government employee. That includes the classic private dick, but it also covers Scudder, and lawyers, and reporters.

All of which is relevant because Cheryl Rogers has written a story about a reporter in Western Australis who is investigating the death of a local wine-maker. Not a very popular wine-maker, as it turns out. His widow says cheerfully "I can't think of many... who didn't want Saxon eliminated, out of the picture, poof!"

The plot thickens when it becomes clear that our narrator had excellent motive to want the man dead herself. The ending surprised me although it was nicely foreshadowed. Well-written and funny. No wonder it won Australia's Queen of Crime Award.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Little Big News: Shamus nominees

The Private Eye Writers of America have announced the nominees for the 2011 Shamus Award. Here are the best private eye stories of the year:

Best P.I. Short Story:
• “The God of Right and Wrong,” by Steven Gore (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, January/February 2010)
• “The Lamb Was Sure to Go,” by Gar Anthony Haywood (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, November 2010)
• “The Girl in the Golden Gown,” by Robert S. Levinson (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March/April 2010)
• “Phelan’s First Case.” by Lisa Sandlin (Lone Star Noir, edited by Bobby Byrd and Johnny Byrd; Akashic Books)
• “A Long Time Dead,” by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (The Strand Magazine, June-Sept. 2010)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Work Experience, by Simon Brett

"Work Experience," by Simon Brett, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2011.

We're back in dumb criminal territory here. What else can you say about thieves who take a school-aged nephew along on a heist, a sort of take-a-teen-to-work program? The reason Brett's story stood out from the pack is a surprise ending that made perfect sense but which I didn't see coming at all. A lot of fun.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Trial, by Walter Mosley

"The Trial" by Walter Mosley, in Freedom: Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by Amnesty International. 2011.

Interesting idea. Each story in this book is tied to one of the articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Some articles inspired several stories.) I can't tell you how good the whole book is because I just got it and jumped ahead to one of my favorite authors.

Walter Mosley's piece is inspired by Article 7: Equality Before The Law, which is not something his characters feel they have been getting much of. They are African-Americans, residents in a housing complex where drug dealers can get an easy pass from the bribe-taking cops, but more "serious" crimes are punished without much consideration of the issues that caused them.

In this case a drug dealer has been murdered and various community members - his lover, his sometime assistant, the oldest resident, a successful businessman, etc. - have gathered to decide the fate of the confessed murderer.

As the story goes on it goes through fascinating shifts - Was Wilfred the killer justified? Does this group of neighbors have the right to rule on him? Do the courts?

Mosley writes with the easy conversational style of a great mystery writer, but he is discussing deep, deep issues here.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Labor Day

“Labor Day,” by R.T. Lawton, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, October 2011.

Okay, ponder this for one minute: how many subgenres of mystery short stories can you think of?

Off the top of my head I came up with private eye, police procedural, amateur detective, historical, psychological, biter bit, driven-mad-by-guilt, caper, comic caper, etc. I’m sure some Ph.D. student is busily creating a taxonomy of detective stories and will soon be able to report that the story we are discussing today is an example of Motif VI.B.6.c.(ii), with thematic shifts and an interesting color scheme. We will leave him to it.

I am very fond of a variation of the comic caper known as the dumb criminal story. I’ve even written one or two myself. By their very nature dumb criminal stories tend to be one-offs, since the protagonist often gets caught, but my favorite series of d.c. stories are the Holiday Burglar stories written by my buddy, R.T. Lawton.

Yarnell is the mastermind of the crime ring (and that is, as they say, a slow track). He is a worrier, and God knows he has his reasons. His partner, Beaumont, is more phlegmatic (and his cell phone ring tone is the theme from Cops). Their apprentice, the Thin Guy (who they picked up on an earlier caper, sort of like a pet who won’t stop following them), is downright cheerful.

It is the nature of dumb criminal stories for things to go dreadfully wrong, but this time the robbery goes off with hardly a glitch. The boys have broken into an apartment whose owner is away for the holiday weekend.

But the crime isn’t over until you “un-ass the vicinity” as the military cops in Martin Limon’s novels like to say, and getaway, like payback, can be a bitch. Since the apartment is on the thirty-sixth floor that means a long, slow elevator trip, and Yarnell suffers from what he calls “closet-phobia.”

Count the things that can go wrong in an elevator and if you leave out sudden drops and zombie invasions, our heroes experience most of them.. Trust me, you’ll enjoy it more than they do.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Watts Up

"Watts Up" by Doc Finch, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2011.
East over the peaker by Peter Baer
East over the peaker, a photo by Peter Baer on Flickr.

Note: This photo is by Peter Baer, who says it's a Peaker. How would I know? I do not intend to imply that this particular unit is involved in the sort of nefarious dealings that occur in the story. End of legal blather...

Dr. Samuel Johnson said "Only a fool writes for anything but money." I don't mean to denigrate the pecuniary impulse, which is no doubt universal, but I would argue that there are other reasons people choose to write what they do.

People write fiction to entertain, to thrill, to amuse, to persuade... the list goes on. But let's not forget what we might call the educational impulse. The writer writes fiction in order to teach you about something real.

A smart writer is careful not to turn it into a lesson, because people will stop reading. But done well it can be quite enjoyable.

One writer who was excellent at it was Dick Francis. People think of his books as about horse racing, and indeed the ponies appeared in every book. But his protagonists belonged to many different occupations and told us about them. So, depending on the book, you might get a guided tour of the wine industry, glass-blowing, meteorology, etc.

This story is at least the second by Doc Finch concerning Vlad Hammersmith, an energy consultant. And just as Dick Francis seems to know an infinite number of ways to cheat around horses, Finch wants to show us everything that can go criminally wrong around power plants.

Which does not mean you have to sit through a lecture on Our Friend The Electron. Here is how the story starts:

I was in the plant's control room with Joe Lee, examining the vibration readouts on the turbines, when the naked man fell into the room. He blasted through the wood and tarpaper roof, scattering lumber fragments, and was deflected by the equipment racks toward me. He was tumbling, head over heels, with his legs straight and his arms up over his head. For some reason I remember he still had boots on. Muddy Leather ones. Ankle high. And I remember thinking when he collided with me and the blackness gathered quickly, Funny, he looked softer than that.

Has Doc got your attention? He certainly had mine.

When Vlad regains consciousness he finds himself in the middle of the investigation of the mysterious death of the falling naked man. He is helping a female forensic cop who is convinced that the coroner is sweeping things under the rug.

You'll learn a good deal about the kind of power plant called a peaker unit, and you'll have a good time along the way.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Itinerary

"The Itinerary" by Roberta Isleib, in Mystery Writers of America Presents The Rich and the Dead, edited by Nelson DeMille.

So, what does the beginning of a short story need to do?

One thing only, really. It has to convince the reader to keep reading, not to abandon the story in favor of the next one in the book, or a trip to the supermarket, or the latest installment of Real Crap of the Cable Networks.

The opening can and probably should do a lot of other things, but keep- 'em-on-the-ranch is the one necessity. Let's see how much Roberta Isleib manages to accomplish in her first paragraph.

Detective Jack Meigs knew he'd hate Key West the moment he was greeted off the plane by a taxi driver with a parrot on his shoulder. He hadn't wanted to take a vacation at all, and he certainly hadn't wanted to come to Florida, which he associated with elderly people pretending they weren't declining. But his boss insisted, and then his sister surprised him with a nonrefundable ticket; he was screwed. A psychologist had once told him that it took a year for grief to lift and that making major changes during this time only complicated the process, which was why he'd gone to work directly from the funeral and every day in the three months since. There was no vacation from the facts: his wife Alice was dead and she wasn't coming back.

In 130 words we have learned a lot about the protagonist (an older cop mourning his dead wife), the setting (the bizarre end of Florida), the mood of the story (I absolutely love "he was screwed"), and the possible plot (a busman's holiday story).

And that's exactly what it is. Meigs, a thousand miles from home and off duty, witnesses an argument and the next day recognizes that one of the quarrelers is the missing person in the newspaper story. He spends his vacation solving the case - which goes in a direction I would have never guessed.

Did the paragraph do its main job? Every reader has to decide that for themselves, but it certainly kept me reading.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Hand in Glove

“Hand in Glove”by Ysabeau S. Wilce. In Steampunk!, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant. Candlewick Press. 2011.

So, what the hell is steampunk? My unexpert explanation is that it is a subgenre of fantasy that creates a nineteenth century that never was, using technology the Victorians had, or could have had, or is based on scientific theories of the day that didn’t pan out.

Pre-cursors of the field include the Walt Disney movie 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and the TV show The Wild Wild West.

My wife is the main consumer of science fiction and fantasy in my household but she steered me to this story because it is indeed a police procedural, and a very entertaining one.

Some fantasy or alternative history stories create elaborate outlines (in words or in actual charts) of their worlds, but Wilce doesn’t take that route. We don’t learn much about Califa, the place where this story takes place, although the name and Spanish nomenclature of some of the characters certainly suggest California, and the climate and geography suggest we are in what we would call San Francisco.

When the story opens the most celebrated cop in the city is being congratulated on closing another case: a terrifying strangler has just been convicted. But one rookie cop, Estreyo, doesn’t believe they have the right man. She is a believer in scientific crime solving, using such new techniques as fingerprints, and doesn’t trust the instinctual approach of the pretty boy hero detective.

Unfortunately she finds that the fingerprints of the murderer match those of a young man who died before the killings began. Either the theory of fingerprinting is wrong, or something very weird is going on. This being steampunk you can probably guess that it is the latter.

Before the mystery is solved you will see nods to several classic works of literature or film. The writing is light and witty One complaint: there are three important characters who all appear in the same scene and have last names beginning with E. Why make life hard on the reader that way?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead

"Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental," by Robert S. Levinson, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2011.

It's hard enough to make up characters. Using real people doesn't necessarily make it easier. Even ignoring the legal questions (it helps if the people you enlist into your fiction are safely dead) there is the problem of making them believable - which is not the same as making them real. You have to fit what people think is true about them.

I know a little bit of this since a few Real People showed up in my folk music mystery. One of them, Tom Paxton, was (and happily, still is) alive. He gallantly offered to be the murderer, but had to settle for being a suspect.

Robert S. Levinson has lately been making a cottage industry out of writing stories set in the early days of Hollywood, using real movie stars. His "Regarding Certain Occurrences in a Cottage at the Garden of Allah" made my best-of list last year.

The current story is set in the late 1930s and begins with Lupe Velez finding her husband Johnny Weissmuller in a compromising situation in their cottage.

Well no, I tell a lie. The story actually begins: "The way I heard the story.." And each new scene begins with this familiar formula. It pays off nicely at the end, as does the title.

As things get going there is a murder, a cover-up, an ambitious starlet, mogul Louis B. Mayer, and William Powell. There is even a possible explanation of a real-life mysterious death of a Hollywood star. If you can figure out which characters are fictional you will probably guess who the bad guy is, but in any case you'll have a good time.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A New Pair of Pants

“A New Pair of Pants” by Jas. R. Petrin, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. September 2011.

The last time I talked about a series character it was James Powell’s Inspector Bozo, and that piece led Jim to write this excellent piece on how story series develop, so don’t say I never do any good for the world.

Have you noticed that some of the series character who are the most enjoyable to read about (or watch) are people you would NOT want to spend time with in real life? Seriously, how long do you think you could tolerate the presence of Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Columbo, Rumpole, or Dr. House?

Part of their attraction is they don’t obey the rules of society, getting away with stuff our superegos would never permit. One of the reasons Shanks is my favorite among the characters I have created is because he does things I am far too well-behaved to try.

Which brings us to Jas. R. Petrin’s Leo “Skig” Skorzeny. Skig is an aging Halifax loan shark, a quintessential tough guy with a heart of – well, granite mostly, but there is a thin streak of gold running through it somewhere. Skig also has an “imp” in his gut (I think it was defined as stomach cancer in an earlier story) which keeps him popping pills and even crankier than he would other be.

And he has reasons to be cranky. Two of his clients – a cop and a school administrator – can’t pay their debts, and when one of them is suspected of murder it looks like Skig may have to write off the debt. Meanwhile one of the few people he likes, an old woman, is in danger of making a bad business deal, and Skig won’t allow that. And while tough guys can be scary, it’s good to have one on your side.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tools of the Trade

"Tools of the Trade" by Tom Robinson, in Needle, issue 1, number 2.

At Sandra Seamans' indispensable website My Little Corner I recently learned about a new print publication called Needle, a " magazine of noir."

So I got it. And I must say, I don't get it.

Here's what I don't get. Apparently this is not a paying market. So how do they acquire such professional-quality stories? My first theory is that the publishers have a vast research department digging up blackmail evidence for noir writers. My second theory is still being formed.

The stories adhere more strictly to the classic noir formula (a nobody tries to be somebody and gets shafted) than, say, the Akashic noir city anthologies I have read.

For example, Todd Robinson's "Tools of the Trade." The nobody in this case is a card cheat and the way he tries to rise above himself is by playing in a game where he can't cheat. Inevitably, things don't turn out the way he hoped.

The story is told cleverly in a series of flashbacks and fragmented scenes. Eventually you find out what happened and precisely what hole he has dug himself into. And as with most of the stories in Needle, the quality of the writing and language is very high.

Gamblers are like thieves. Real poker players take money that isn't ours and we do it through lies and deception. Every poker face is either a lie or hiding a lie. Like thieves, we're always looking for the great score. The one big haul that will set up up with the house in Cabo and the fleet of Cadillacs.

But that's a lie too.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Sadowsky Manifesto

"The Sadowsky Manifesto," by Karen Catalona, in Mystery Writers of America Presents The Rich and the Dead, edited by Nelson DeMille.

I bought an iPad a few months ago. Mostly I have been using it to check my RSS feeds (see the right column of this screen) for which it seems to work better than my desktop. But it's called an eBook reader, so I had to get around to buying a book, and I have done so. (I hasten to add that I bought it through the website of my local bookstore, thereby contributing to the people who sponsor authors' readings in my town. That's how you buy eBooks, right?)

The MWA anthologies are always themed. The editor invites certain authors to submit; the rest of the slots are available for any MWA member to shoot for. I think I have submitted three times and made it in once.

This year the editor is Nelson DeMille and the theme is the very rich. So far, my favorite story barely qualifies on the theme. But that's okay. It's good anyway.

Max Bergen runs a not-too-successful literary agency. One day a pot of gold rolls in over the transom. More literally it is a manuscript from the serial-killer-du-jour, who had just killed himself. The FBI and publishers are clamoring for the book and Bergen stands to make a fortune on commissions.

Of course, there has to be a problem, right? Sadowsky's book is not an angry political rant. It's a science fiction novel, and it's so bad that after fifty pages readers will be rooting for the giant robots to kill the hero. The book is a disaster and there is no ethical way for an agent to make money off it.

But, hey, Bergen is a literary agent. Who said anything about ethics?
I have never heard of Karen Catalona before, but I hope to run into her again.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Diner

“The Diner” by Sean May. In Crime Factory. Issue 6.

This is the second time my pick of the week is a free-online choice, this time in the zine Crime Factory.

Once again we are back to bad guy meets bad guy, a format I complained about recently. What makes this story a treat is that the narrator is an experienced heist artist critiquing a young punk who is robbing the diner where our hero happens to be having a late dinner.

Yeah, shades of Pulp Fiction, but there are only so many plots in the world and the question is what you do with the plot. May has fun with this one.

I always like to make a good impression on the people I’m holding up, so I always wear a suit whenever I do a job. Nobody expects that the guy in the suit and sunglasses is going to pull a gun on you until you’re looking straight down the barrel of the thing and you’ve got nowhere to go.

And speaking of nowhere to go, this story could have gone in a dozen different directions, so I was kept in suspense wondering which choice the protagonist would make. A lot of fun.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows

“Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows,” by Brad Crowther. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. July/August 2011.
This is the winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award, co-sponsored by AHMM and the Wolfe Pack. The guidelines for this contest specifically say that "We're not looking for anything derivative of the Nero Wolfe character, milieu, etc," but a pastiche of Rex Stout is precisely what they got. And a good one, too. So let’s talk about pastiches.
I have written on this subject before, so let me start by explaining what a pastiche is not. Some dictionaries say the word is interchangeable with parody, a work that uses elements of another work in order to poke fun at it (e.g. Robert L. Fish’s Schlock Holmes of Bagel Street.) Some sources use pastiche when Writer B writes about the characters invented by Writer A, writing a new book in a dead author’s series (e.g Nicholas Meyer's The Seven Percent Solution.

I say no to both. A pastiche is a work in which Writer B uses elements from the character and style of Writer A to create something different. I would suggest there should be two categories in this field. Hard pastiche is the term I use for works in which the original characters exist in thin disguises of new names and addresses. For example: August Derleth’s Solar Pons is an unmistable copy of Sherlock Holmes.

One way to look at is the TV series rule. Imagine that someone turned Donald E. Westlake’s Dortmunder books into a TV show. If they ran out of books a screenwriter could take Jay Cronley’s novel Quick Change, change a few names and other details, and have a script ready to go. That’s a hard pastiche.

A soft pastiche takes more liberties. While it is unmistakable based on its model, and is intended to appeal to the same audience, but it creates a new world for the same formula. For some reason Rex Stout seems to attract a lot of these; see works by Dave Zeltsermen, Lawrence Block, Loren D. Estleman, and now (finally) Brad Crowther.

I knew we’d get to the point eventually. Let’s talk about “Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows.” I’ll assume that you are sufficiently familiar with Stout’s books about Nero Wolfe that I don’t need to connect the dots.

Edna Dugué is an wealthy private eye in Charleston, South Carolina. She is also an attorney, and teaches at a college. “I never pretended that my intentions are honorable,” she tells one visitor, but clearly they are.

Her assistant and the narrator of the story is Jerrelle Vesey, an African-American part-time college student. When Edna was a public defender she had helped him when he was sent to prison for badly beating two white men who killed his brother.

When the story opens a city councilman arrives to tell Edna that his wife has threatened to kill him. Not surprisingly he ends up dead and the widow becomes Edna’s client. What follows is classic Stout territory with Archie – Sorry! Jerrelle – going out to interview half a dozen suspects and bringing the results back to Edna, who figures out whodunit.

Two things make the story a treat. First is Jerrelle's dialog. Here he is chatting with the councilman: "I don't hold any grudges. As a matter of fact, I almost voted for you in the last election. In the end though I threw my support behind our neighbor's pet rat, Lester." I like this guy.

Second, are the set of supporting characters. For example, Edna's police nemesis is a woman, a friend of Jerrelle's family. She was the one who arrested him after his crime, and the one who drove him home after he was pardoned. And we still haven't met Edna's grandfather who lives in the attic.

These are interesting people in a world that feels fully developed and three dimensional. Rex Stout would be proud.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Real Celebrities

"The Real Celebrities," by Michael Mallory. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. July/August 2011.

Okay, now i'm in trouble. Last week I lamented that for a second time in a row the best story I read was by a friend of mine. Now we make it three. In my own defense I don't think I have had any contact with Michael Mallory since we used to appear regularly in Margo Power's Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine back in the nineties.

Back then I seem to recall Michael writing mostly Sherlock Holmes pastiches and nonfiction about Hollywood. Now he has done a mash-up of sorts: fiction about Hollywood. How's this for an opening?

Since Marilyn Monroe hardly ever gave me the time of day, her sidling up to me meant that she wanted something. As a rule, Marilyn remained within her own little world, acting as though the rest of us didn't exist...

Okay, he's got my attention. Is this a historic tale about the real Marilyn? A fantasy story? Perhaps an insane asylum?

None of the above. The characters are impersonators who pose for tips outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre. The narrator dresses as Wolverine and is known as Hugh Jackman.

There are billions of little worlds floating around us and I love the stories that open the doors and let us take a peek inside one. Listen to "Jackman" explaining the service he and his friends provide: "For tourists, those of us on the boulevard are the real celebrities, the ones you can speak to and pose for pictures with. Those other ones, the figures you see on movie and television screens, they're nothing but illusions."

When one of them is murdered our hero feels obliged to try to figure out what happened. The plot won't have anyone puzzled, but you'll enjoy it, and the writing is just the sort of bitter sarcasm you expect from a tale of glitter-land's underclass.

"I'm an asshole' [he] said, by way of greeting.
"You're in the right town for it."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Little Big News: Apex Magazine, In Search Of

One of my all time favorite crime stories is available on the web for free. "In Search Of" by Will Ludwigsen has been reprinted in the current issue of Apex Magazine. It's very short and brilliant. Originally published in Hitchcock's, by the way, back in 2008.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


"Detour" by Neil Schofield. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2011.

If I'm not careful I may be accused of nepotism, logrolling, or some other felony. This is the second week in a row I am reviewing a story written by a friend. Hey, I call 'em like I see 'em.

Let's talk about metaphor. Literary critics love them to death. Is the white whale a symbol of the uncaring universe? Is the yellow brick road a metaphor for the Gold Standard? And is anyone in a work of literature with the initials JC a stand-in for Jesus?

We won't settle those issues today, but Neil Schofield's story is metaphor from title to last sentence. His nameless narrator has gotten off the main track - literally and symbolically. He seems to be working hard at finding ways to avoid working. We learn later on that his personal life has also gotten lost in the rough.

While taking a slow route to a meeting he wishes to avoid he discovers a horrific crime. Last week I talked about interesting readers by giving the protagonist a chance at redemption. I see that chance here because this traumatic event - discovering a brutal crime - could change the course of even a well-adjusted person's life. But will it send our screwed-up hero back onto the main highway of his life, or drag him further into the wilderness?

A quiet, subtle little tale.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Last Laugh in Floogle Park

"Last Laugh in Floogle Park" by James Powell. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine July 2011.

My friend Jim Powell has become our first repeat offender here at LBC. Last time I wrote that a 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."

In this case, the story is about Chief Inspector Bozo of the Clowntown police force. And this gives us a chance to talk about developing a series.

When you create the first tale in a series you may have already decided there will be more to come or you may think it is a standalone. But when you make the jump to story number two, you have to decide what to bring along and what to leave behind. Presumably you and the reader like the main character, and you probably want to keep the style and the mood. But something needs to change, right? You can't sell the same story over and over again (or at least, you shouldn't.)

Powell's first Bozo story, "A Dirge for Clowntown" introduced us to the concept of a metropolis inhabited entirely by clowns. The second story, "Elephant Pajamas," dealt with foreign policy, the possibility of Clowntown going to war. And this new story concentrates on the neighboring towns: Vaudevilleville, Mimeapolis, and Burlington (the last is where the Burlesque artists live).

Clearly Powell is filling in the details of his universe, which is what you do in a fantasy series. But the fact is this iswhat a good writer does in any series. Even a realistic series (and maybe the more realistic, the truer this is) is only showing a piece of the world, and each new novel or story is a further chance to define your territory, fill in the details of the map, perhaps extend geographically, chronologically or thematically.

But let's get back to Bozo. As I said before, Powell's strength is how, like a comedian riffing on a theme, he shoots out linked idea after idea on his basic concept. So in Vaudevilleville we meet a mute ventriloquist ("he threw his voice and it never came back") who partners with a mindreading dummy (who knows what jokes he wants to tell). The victim died of "a heart attack with severe side splits" from laughing too much. And so on.

Not everyone's cup of tea, I know. But I love it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Martyn Waites, hilarious! by annie_c_2
Martyn Waites, hilarious!, a photo by annie_c_2 on Flickr.

"Love" by Martyn Waites. in London Noir, edited by Cathi Unsworth. Akashic Press. 2006.

I have been reading mostly web-based stories this week and getting frustrated by them. Here is the plot I seem to read over and over: bad guy meets bad guy. One of them gets killed.

Okay, it's a story, I guess. In fact it is the plot of "Loaded," which I reviewed here last week. But by itself, it is not enough. You have to make me care what happens, which bad guy gets killed.

There are lots of ways to make the reader care, and I will discuss this at length in a week or two at Criminal Brief.

But here is one method: give the character a shot at redemption. Whether they take it or not isn't the issue. Give them chance to redeem themselves, to fix the broken part, to take back the mistake. (Ever see the movie In Bruges? It is a sardonically funny, bloody little film, well worth seeing. All three of the main characters, two hitmen and a gang boss, find their individual redemptions in the end, turning out to be slightly better people than we - and maybe they - thought.)

Which brings us to the end of the rant and the beginning of the rave. I have never heard of Martyn Waites before but his story "Love" is one of the highlights in London Noir. The narrator is a skinhead, a racist foot soldier of a racist movement.

Fists an boots an sticks. I take. I give back double. I twist an thrash. Like swimmin in anger. I come up for air an dive back in again, lungs full....

Then I'm not swimmin. Liquid solidifies round me. An I'm part of a huge machine. A muscle an bone an blood machine. A shoutin, chantin cog in a huge hrtin machine. Arms windmillin. Boots kickin. Fueled on violence. Driven by rage.

Lost to it. No me. Just the machine. An I've never felt more alive.

Love it.

Is there a chance for redemption for this guy? Can he retrieve himself from the machine and find his own humanity?

Yes, but this being noir, the cost is extremely high. Impressive story.