Sunday, November 13, 2011

Soul Anatomy, by Lou Manfredo

"Soul Anatomy," by Lou Manfredo, in New Jersey Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2011.


Before we get to the story I have to start out with a grudge and a gripe.  

My grudge is this: as a writer for a previous Akashic anthology, and as a guy who spent his first 30 years in New Jersey, I was hoping for a chance to submit to this book.  Wires got crossed and that never happened.

Not a big deal, and I only mention it because, as I said, I have a gripe, and full disclosure applies.  You have a right to decide whether sour grapes are speaking here.

Now for the gripe: There are 1,300,000 African-Americans  living in New Jersey, making up 14%  of the population.  And not one of them was willing or able to write a story for this book?  Seriously?  Not typical for Akashic anthologies, either.

Joyce Carol Oates, the editor, knows it's a problem.  She mentions it in an interview with Publisher's Weekly.  "We tried , tried, and tried" to get African-American authors, she says.  Okay, but it sure looks like a big part of the state is missing.

All of which is tangentially relevant to this week's story, which is tangentially about race relations.

When a white rookie police officer kills an African-American man in Camden, one of the most Black and deadliest cities in the Garden State, trouble is pretty much guaranteed to follow.  So, even though almost the entire story consists of a lawyer interviewing the cop, there would be plenty of natural suspense here.

But Manfredo manages to ratchet it up a notch: the rookie is the son of an up-and-coming Republican politician and the attorney sent to rescue him is a well-entrenched Democrat.  In other words, the future of the reformer's family depends on the skills and motivation of the party hack.  How is that going to work out?

I wouldn't say there is a surprise ending, exactly, but there are some surprising revelations that will make you see the story from a new point of view.

And consistently good writing, too.  Here are two attorneys discussing  the rookie:

"This young cop has his own political juice, courtesy of his old man.  If becoming a cop was all he really wanted, his father could have gotten him assigned to bikini patrol in some shore town or crabgrass stakeout in our neck of the woods.  Why would he want to go to Camden?"
 
"Maybe," Cash offered with little conviction, "he just wants to be a real cop."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Carrot For A Chestnut, by Dick Francis

"Carrot For A Chestnut," by Dick Francis, in Field of Thirteen, Putnam 1998.

(minor spoiler alert)


Well, it finally happened.  I read a lot of stories this week but didn't come across any I liked enough to write about here, so I went to my list of fifty favorite crime short stories and picked one.

Here is something that bugs me: people who hit a grand slam their first time at bat.   Just doesn't seem fair somehow.  Supposedly Sheebeg Sheemore was the first tune O'Carolan ever wrote.  And then there are the first novels that turned out to be the best things the authors ever did.  (That can be thought of as a curse, can't it?)

I hadn't realized until I prepared to write this piece that "Carrot For A Chestnut" was Dick Francis' short story.  Sure, he had been writing for novels for years, but he hadn't tried the short form until 1970 when Sports Illustrated invited him to try his hand - "length and subject matter to be my own choice."

Francis, rather famously, tended to follow a formula in his novels: they were all written in first person, the hero was often a jockey, and was brave, resourceful, and chockful of integrity.  Perhaps it was no surprise that, when considering a short story, he decided to go in a different direction.

Yes, Chick is a jockey.  But his story is told in third person and he is a "thin, disgruntled nineteen-year-old who always felt the world owed him more than he got."   Now Chick has a chance to get a little more, by giving a carrot to a horse in the stable where he worked.  The carrot is dosed with some chemical that will undoubtedly damage the horse's chance at winning a race.  Is Chick willing to betray the people he works with, the people he feels don't treat him well enough?

This is a tale of suspense with a slamming climax.  But the reason the story makes my top fifty is the twist ending that makes everything worse...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Club Dues, by Peter Morin

"Club Dues," by Peter Morin, in Needle, Fall 2011.


I may have to demand my money back.  Needle calls itself "a magazine of noir," but this story isn't noir; it's hardboiled.   Jack Bludis created the classic distinction: "Hardboiled = tough.  Noir = screwed."

But on the other hand, I like hardboiled better than noir, so I suppose I shouldn't complain.

Ray Hannah is an attorney in Hyannis.  His stockbroker calls to report finding a dead body, specifically a crooked hedge fund manager who is one of his clients.   Somebody beat his head in with an antique golf club.

Motives start piling up as last as lies, which is very quick indeed.  Some of the plot twists are easy to see coming, but one caught me by surprise.  The writing is low-key and precise.  And Morin shows proper respect for Italian cooking.  Buon appetito..

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sweet Croquette, by David Barba

"Sweet Croquette," by David Barba, in Barcelona Noir, Akashic Press, 2011.  


When I found out about the disappearance of Swiss gourmet Pascal Henry, I had no doubt that his body had become part of the larder for the liquid croquettes offered on the degustation menu at El Bulli.

Did that opening sentence get your attention?  It certainly grabbed mine.  I should say that Barba's story of madness, murder and cannibalism is not going to be to everyone's, uh, taste.  But it is fascinating and, as it rolls to a bizarre conclusion, hilarious.

The narrator has a job in his family's butcher shop and a wife who has become obsessed with literature at just the point when her husband has sworn never to read another book.  Not a recipe for marital bliss.  The narrator's ambition is to be a great chef and he becomes obsessed with the workings of the high-tech gourmet restaurants of Barcelona.  As you can tell from the first sentence, he draws a conclusion about their secret ingredient, and decides to experiment on his own... in more senses of that phrase than one.

A wild ride.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Plain Reckless, by Scott Mackay

"Plain Reckless," by Scott Mackay, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, December 2011.

To my mind one of the worst phrases used to advertise a crime story (next to "transcends the genre) is "This time it's personal!"  As Jon L. Breen wrote "I think the necessity for the series detective to suffer enormous physical and/or emotional trauma in every book and to be personally involved in every case is one of the worst trends in contemporary crime fiction, but I’m not typical." 

Maybe you aren't typical, Jon, but you are right, because you agree with me. In fact, in the same e-conversation I wrote "Those books are self-limiting in a way. How many times in a series can the detective be betrayed by his lover, best friend, etc., before the series begins to look a little silly? Only in TV do they get away with that sort of stuff."

But the self-limiting issue doesn't apply to a one-off novel or short story.  Take this story of a cop named Michelle Evans investigating a murder.  "With a twinge of anxiety, I realized I now had a personal connection to the case...It happened from time to time.  And it always made me nervous when it did."

A woman is found shot to death in her house, but clearly she had been killed somewhere else.  Her one year old child had been returned to the home.  And she had volunteered at the church where Detective Evans' lover used to work...

I like the way Mackay uses the personal involvement in the story.  A lot of cops say one of the hardest parts of the job is that they find themselves using their work skills on their friends and families and that is what happens here.  When Evans talks to her sweetheart about the case "I detected regret...  I observed guilt and evasion."  How is she supposed to react?  As cop, or as lover?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Who I Am, by Michael Z. Lewin

"Who I Am," by Michael Z. Lewin, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, December 2011. 
 Mr. Lewin becomes the second author (after James Powell) to appear in this column twice. This story raises the question: how do you make a genre story new and unique?

For instance: Indianapolis private eye Albert Samson gets a client whose house has just been robbed.  A few things of no great value were taken, plus a memento of his father.  Samson investigates and finds the culprit.

Well, okay, but we've all read that one a few thousand times before, haven't we?  What makes this story different from the others?

Just one thing really.  Samson's client, who calls himself Lebron James (but isn't the famous basketball player) claims that his father was a space alien.  Samson doesn't believe it, of course, but he does believe the roll of hundred dollar bills Mr. James pays him with.  This is apparently the first in a series of stories about a rather sympathetic guy who his neighbors call "spaceman" and "the weirdo."  I'm looking forward to more.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Investigation of Boyfriend #17, by Maureen Keenan-Mason

"The Investigation of Boyfriend #17," by Maureen Keenan-Mason, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine,  December 2011.


If you look back at your notes from previous classes you will find that I said the one thing the opening of a story must do is keep the reader reading.   I mentioned that there are lots of other things the opening can and probably should do.  One of them is to tell us what kind of a story we are about to read.  It is easy for the opening to tell us: this is noir, get ready for a cosy, there's going to be spooks here, or whatever.

On the other hand, sometimes it can be fun to have no idea where a story is going.  That's what Keenan-Mason pulls off in this tale.

Lila is a twenty-four-old woman who, after several bad experiences, has started investigating each boyfriend. She has a locked desk where she keeps files on each new swain, checking out their stories to see if they have a wife, criminal background or other no-no in their past.

The tone is light but there is an element of creepiness here (does Lila have a hobby or an obsession?  ToMAYto, ToMAHto) and I could easily the story going into nasty territory with either Lila or a boyfriend getting very wicked.  The fun here is not knowing until near the end which road we will be traveling...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Uncleared, by Thomas Pluck

"The Uncleared," by Thomas Pluck, at A Twist of Noir, Friday September 16, 2011.



I have been reading Criminal Thoughts of R. Thomas Brown for some time. Mr. Brown reports almost every day on several flash stories he has read. I usually follow his leads but this is the first time one of his tips made my best of the week.

I have a rule about flash fiction (usually defined as under 1000 words). I think it only works if the story needs to be that short. Either it is a simple anecdote (like a joke, a setup and a punchline) or something so unique that it only makes sense as a very short piece (like Man Changes Mind, by Jason Armstrong).

But Mr. Pluck has made me break my rule. I can easily see this story as the outline for one of those looong broody tales that EQMM loves so much. Instead he fit it on a postcard, and did it with no sense of cramming or shorthand. Quite remarkable.

Here, in brief, is the brief story. When the narrator is in college his parents decide to sell their house. His mother, a brand-new real estate agent, attempts to do so and is found murdered in it.

We learn what happened to the family afterwards, and then there is a twist that is staggering and yet neatly foreshadowed. It all works perfectly and even though it could be told at five times the length, it isn't missing a single necessary detail.
And my, the last sentence...

Admirable.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hell of an Affair, by Duane Swierczynski

"Hell of an Affair," by Duane Swierczynski, in L.A. Noire, 2011.



L.A. Noire is a video game created by Rockstar Games, and as I understand it, the player has the role of an L.A. cop in the forties, trying to solve various crimes. I don't play video games, having enough addictive habits without that one, thank you very much, but I picked up the accompanying product: L.A. Noire, the complete stories. According to the introduction some of the stories include characters/plots from the games and some just bask in the milieu. So far, this one is my favorite.

Billy Shelton is a land surveyor whose daily grind is to drive "around in the dry heat and set up my theodolite on its tripod and make little measurements and write them down in my notebook. Then I go home to my empty apartment on West Temple Street, where I stare at the walls and try not to climb them."

In other words, a classic noir protagonist, a pile of tinder waiting for someone to throw a match. The match turns out to be (surprise!) a beautiful woman named Bonnie, a waitress who takes an unexpected shine to him. Anyone who has read noir knows she has something nasty in mind, and that's what happens.

But the reason this story made my list is several unexpected turns the story takes near the end. Billy is an organized sort of guy, after all, used to precise mathematical measurements and his mantra becomes I can still set things right... I can still set things right. But there are some angles too bent to measure.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Notes Toward A Novel Of Love in a Dog Park, by Louis Bayard

"Notes Toward A Novel of Love in the Dog Park," by Louis Bayard, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November 2011.
My first thought was to describe this as experimetnal fiction, the catchall term we use for anything that doesn't follow the standard way of writing that has been used for hundreds of years. But actually Bayard could argue that he is using a very old form, the epistolary tale (some of the first novels in ENglish were comprised entirely of letters).

But this story isn't exactly made up of letters. As the title suggests it is notes for a novel, complete with earnest quotations from some writing manual. The question is how much of the scary plotting of the book's narrator is actually things the would'be novelist has done, or is planning to do.

Use passages from journal here. E.g. stripping skin from Ellen's face.

I'm still not sure of exactly what is real and unreal here, but it is a delightfully disturbing tale.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Slip Knot, by David Edgerley Gates

"Slip Knot," by David Edgerley Gates, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November 2011.



I think it was G.K. Chesterton who said (or had a character say) that the criminal is the artist and the detective merely the critic. The reason that the detective nonetheless gets to be the main character is that the story starts after the crime, and the action we follow is the criticism, so to speak, not the creation of the art.

Not so in the usual Gates story. Of course, one can argue that his hero, Mickey Counihan, is not a detective, but he is trying to solve a crime. (In fact, if I were a judge on the Shamus Awards next year I would argue that he meets the qualifications for consideration.)

You see, Mickey is a fixer for the Hannah family, an Irish mob in New York in the 1950s. He usually seems less like a main character than the typical hero of a detective story. More like an observer or not-so-innocent bystander. Because his main job is to watch out for the Hannah family's interests, which may call for him to watch what's going on but not necessarily step in. As someone tells him in this story "You don't have a dog in this fight." Before the tale is over, he very much does.

The story is about a pool match, or really about the betting that goes on before and during the match. No one, including Mickey, can figure out who is manipulating the odds, and to what end. Before it gets straightened out a bunch of people will be dead.

Gates writes convincingly of dangerous men who expect trouble and know how to greet it. But the main reason the story made this list is the sheer casualness of the last paragraph, that treats a stunning detail as less important than a pool shot.


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?