Sunday, January 29, 2012

Grace, Period by Graham Powell

"Grace, Period," by Graham Powell, in Bad Men.


Graham Powell was kind enough to send me a copy of this e-collection of short stories.  As you probably guessed, the protagonists are not quite heroes.  Most of them come to bad, if very interesting, ends.

Take Tommy Roccaforte, the main man in our current story.  The witness protection program has just dumped him far from his home in Staten Island, supplying with a nothing job in a second-hand bookstore.  But -- and here is what I love -- Tommy approaches the business like the wise guy that he is.  Who is the competition?  And how can we destroy them?  So the big box chain bookstore had better watch out. The story is witty, with big hints of Elmore Leonard.

Having said that, I have to register a big complaint: I don't buy the ending at all.  Some of the choices made by people around Tommy don't make any sense to me, and one of those characters is just too paper-thin for the role.

You can find a better ending in Powell's "The Leap," in the same collection, but it doesn't have a concept as dazzling as  "Grace."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Out There, by Zoe Beck

"Out There," by Zoe Beck, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, February 2012.



Among the other changes that e-mail has wrought in the world is an improvement in epistolary fiction.  It is possible to exchange letters a lot faster than when DIego de San Pedro wrote the first epistolary novel in the fifteenth century.

And that's what German author Zoe Beck presents with, a story written entirely in e-mails.  Most of them are written by Gil Peters, who is a successful author despite having agoraphobia so fierce that she hasn't left her apartment in eight years.  But that's okay, she has adjusted to it, and with her computer and her shrink on tap she is doing fine.

Then her doctor goes on vacation just when an unacceptable change happens to her home.  Things start to go rapidly out of hand...

The only thing I love better than a twist ending is multiple twists, and Beck provides them.  I thought I knew where the story was going.  Then I thought I saw the new direction.  Nope.  No wonder it won the Glauser prize.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

LIttle Big News: Edgar Nominations

Congrats to all:

BEST SHORT STORY

"Marley’s Revolution" – Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine by John C. Boland (Dell Magazines)
"Tomorrow’s Dead" – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by David Dean (Dell Magazines)
"The Adakian Eagle" – Down These Strange Streets by Bradley Denton (Penguin Group USA – Ace Books)
"Lord John and the Plague of Zombies" – Down These Strange Streets by Diana Gabaldon (Penguin Group USA – Ace Books)
"The Case of Death and Honey" – A Study in Sherlock by Neil Gaiman (Random House Publishing Group – Bantam Books)
"The Man Who Took His Hat Off to the Driver of the Train" – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Peter Turnbull (Dell Magazines)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Shikari, by James Lincoln Warren

"Shikari," by James Lincoln Warren, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, February 2012.


My friend James goes from strength to strength, as the saying goes.  This novelette is the best Sherlock Holmes pastiche I have read since Nicholas Meyer turned the field on its ear with The Seven Percent Solution.

James explains in an introductory note that the idea came when he read that during the nineteenth century the British intelligence service used doctors as spies in Asia.  Of course, Dr. Watson was an army doctor in Afghanistan.  And who was the head of British intelligence?  Sherlock Holmes's brother Mycroft.  If Watson was one of Mycroft's spies, than surely it was no coincidence that he wound up in a position to keep an eye on his boss's eccentric brother...

Wait a minute, the purists cry.  Watson could never have been a spy!  He was too innocent, too open,  and not nearly observant enough.

And how do we know that?  From the books and stories written by Dr. Wat-  Oh.  Hmm...

But Watson could never have fooled Holmes!  Holmes was far too shrewd, too perceptive, and we know that from the books and stor-  Hmm....

You may think I'm giving away the plot.  Actually this is just the premise.  All I will tell you about the actual plot is that it is told by two minor characters in the canon, and it retools some of the Holmes saga, while solving some of the great puzzles of the works (like Watson's famous wandering wound, for instance.)

And the writing sparkles.  Here is one of the narrators: "I had known Lucky Jim Moriarty in India.  We shared a common interest in embezzling from our regiments."

A treat from beginning to end, with some genuine shocks along the way.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Dog Days of Summer, by John Kenyon

"Dog Days of Summer," by John Kenyon, in All Due Respect, January 2012.

Great photo there...  I wonder why I have never seen it on the cover of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine?  Okay, back to our point.

Janice and I were just getting into bed when I remembered I still had Lenny’s body in my trunk. You’d think you wouldn’t forget something like that, but it had been a long day.


So begins our story.  We can guess that Tommy is not the sharpest shooter on the target range, so to speak, and this is proven out.   He works for his uncle, a mobster, the man who ordered him to arrange a burial for the late Lenny.

Alas, Tommy keeps making bad choices, like burying poor Lenny in his yard, right next to the property of a deputy...

Dark and funny.




Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Hedgehog, by Ferdinand von Schirach

"The Hedgehog" by Ferdinand von Schirach, in Crime: Stories, Alfred A. Knopf.

Something very different this week.  Von Schirach is a defense attorney in Germany and these stories are apparently based on true cases, to what degree one can't tell.  The Library of Congress Cataloging in Print says "Fiction," and who am I to argue?  Another odd thing is that all the stories begin with what seems to be a third-person omniscient narration, but at some point a first person speaker arrives, an anonymous defense attorney, whom I assume is supposed to be von Schirach.

The writing style is flat, deliberately plain (or so the translation makes it appear). But now, let's go on to "The Hedgehog."

Once upon a time there were several brothers, all of whom thought they were smart and strong. They all thought the youngest was a fool and a good-for-nothing.  But when an emergency occurred it turned out that the despised youngest brother was the cleverest of them all...

Does that sound familiar?  It should; it is the plot of countless fairy tales.  Von Schirach gives us a modern take in the story of  Karim Abu Fataris.  He is the youngest of nine brothers from Lebanon, part of an extended family of criminals.

When Karim started school, the teachers groaned -- "Yet another Abu Fataris" -- and then treated him like an idiot.  He was made to sit in the back row, and his first-grade teacher told him, at age six, that he wasn't to draw attention to himself, get into fights, or talk at all.

Karim is no idiot but he is willing to let the world, brothers included, think so.  By age ten he is deliberately get C- grades while teaching himself calculus with a stolen textbook.  By the time he leaves school he has an apartment of his own, a girlfriend, and an illegal business, all of them unknown to his family.

But when his favorite brother goes on trial for robbery Karim pits himself against the German legal system.  Who wins?  Well, it can be a great advantage to be underestimated by your enemy...

By the way, "Self-Defense," in this same book, came in a close second this week.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Don't Feed The Bums, by Lisa Brackmann

"Don't Feed The Bums," by Lisa Brackmann, in San Diego Noir, Akashic Press, 2011.

Some stories grab you from the git-go.  I love thinking "ok, a place on the best-of list is yours to lose."  On the other hand, some stories seem just adequate, good enough to keep reading, and then sock you with a great ending.  Brackmann's first published story is one of the latter.

Kari has a problem.  Her life is divided into Before and After and what came between those two was a car accident that changed her life, destroyed parts of her memory, and altered her personality.  She's adjusting to her new self, taking care of animals as wounded as she is, and sleeping with two men, one from each half of her life.  Eventually Kari discovers that someone is plotting against her, and, well, "She wasn't what she used to be, but she wasn't stupid..."  So, watch out.

Once the twists start coming Brackmann keeps them pounding up the beach at you, right to the last perfect sentence, which made me laugh out loud.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Gold Shield Blues, by Jeffrey J. Mariotte

"Gold Shield Blues," by Jeffrey J. Mariotte, in San Diego Noir, Akashic Books, 2011.


The noir city books by Akashic Books are always a mixture of true noir stories and stories that have some but not all elements of the genre.  (The best tales can fall into either category, by the way.)

Mr Mariotte has provided a classic noir tale.  The narrator, Mike Rogers, is a security guard in the swanky Soledad Mountain neighborhood of San Diego.  One night he gets called out to a possible intruder incident and meets a wealthy man with a beautiful young wife.  This being noir you can pretty much guess where things will go.  But Mariotte has some nice surprises for us (and some unpleasant ones for Rogers, of course.)  One thing I like is that he follows the trail of conspiracy to its logical conclusion: how can you trust someone with whom you have shared a betrayal?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pansy Place, by Dan Warthman




"Pansy Place," by Dan Warthman, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2012.

This is just a neat little piece of work. I love how it unfolds one piece at a time, and the gruff writing style that fits nicely with the character.

Jones is fitting into retirement. Bought his condo in Elmwood Village, voted a couple yers ago one of the country's ten best neighborhoods. Second story, corner unit, overlooking Bidwell Parkway... 
 
So it begins. At first we don't learn much about Jones, just about the young cleaning woman he hires and makes friends with. Then we are introduced to her boyfriend.

And then trouble erupts in the life of the young couple and Jones shows his true colors. We meet a few new characters, finely drawn bad guys who cherish the use of the right word and the right action even while they are doing objectively wrong things. As I wrote in this space a few months, it can be good to have a tough guy on your side, even he is allegedly retired.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Satan League, by James Lincoln Warren

"The Satan League," by James Lincoln Warren, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2011. 

You may well accuse me of piling on the bandwagon, since my friend James yesterday won the Black Orchid Novella Award.  But, as ever, I calls 'em as I reads 'em, and this week, the best of the bunch was a historical novella by Mr. Warren.

He has written a number of stories about Alan Treviscoe, an investigator for Lloyd's in late 18th century London.  In this case Treviscoe is asked by a lady he met in an earlier tale to look into the death of her betrothed.  This is no ordinary death, because the victim was found, burned and crushed, in the middle of Stonehenge, on the same night that mysterious lights were seen in the sky.

Since in addition he was the founder of a scientific group called the Luciferian Society, the suspicious naturally see a demonic element in the death. Treviscoe, as you can imagine finds a natural solution to the crime, but as he notes, "in my experience, murder is always the work of the Devil."

One of the trickiest bits about writing historical fiction is making the language sound right.  The difficulty of this is sort of a bell curve, I think.  It gets harder as you go back into the nineties, the eighties, etc. and probably hits a peek of trouble when you hit Shakespeare's time.  After that I think it is less difficult simply because readers understand that you can't be expected to write Chaucer's English, or for that matter, Caesar's Latin, because we wouldn't be able to understand it.

My point is that Warren has the task of sounding appropriately eighteenth century, while still being comprehensible.  He succeeds well, I think, not drowning us in jargon, but capturing the atmosphere nicely.  And so we have references to Treviscoe "making his leg," the meaning of which the reader can deduce from the context.  Or the nicely antiquated dialog: "What's this, sir?  I to remain in London, whilst you place yorself in danger?  In the company of a stranger, yet?  It will not do."  The letter written by the villain is a particularly choice and delightful example, revealing personality as well as grammar.

In that regard I can't resist noting that Treviscoe observes that the bad guy "lies like a French lover."  What a treat..

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Big Band, by Loren D. Estleman

"Big Band," by Loren D. Estleman, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2012.

I have admitted before that I am a sucker for Estleman's stories of the Four Horsemen, the racket squad of the Detroit Police Department.  These not-very-heroic heroes are unloved by their bosses but are determined to keep their jobs, and thereby stay out of the armed services.  The historical detail is perfect and the language is witty and snappy.

This story centers on the leader of the group, Lieutenant Zagreb, who is not in the war because of a heart murmur:  "it kept murmuring Don't go."  He gets a special request from an ex-sweetheart: look after her trumpet-playing lover while she goes off to serve in the WACs.  Turns out the lover is a bad musician and an angry drunk.  Pretty soon there's a murder to solve.

Did I mention the witty language?  Here is a random line, describing a cop named Canal: "He smelled one of his thick black cigars -- no one ever said he wasn't a brave man -- and put a match to it, clouding the air with the stench of boiling bedpans."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Lola, by Jonathan Santlofer

"Lola," by Jonathan Santlofer, in New Jersey Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2011 


I didn't think this story was going to be my favorite of the week.  It felt like a pretty ordinary piece at first.  But stories, like people for that matter, can surprise you.

The narrator is a would-be portrait artist who makes his living preparing stretchers for more successful painters.  One day riding the PATH trains back to Hoboken he becomes attracted to a young woman.  Pretty soon he is obsessed with her, and this is obviously not the first time he has gone down this path.  I was pretty sure I knew where this journey was headed.

Well.  Can't say much more without giving away the store.  Let's just say Santlofer has some surprises in store for his characters, and for us.

A perfect ending is one that leaves the reader saying: "I never saw that coming, but it is the only way the story could have ended."  "Lola" has a perfect ending.

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...