Sunday, August 26, 2012

Frank, by Steve Hockensmith

"Frank" by Steve Hockensmith, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2012.

I admit I may be biased in favor of this story, simply because of its subject matter, which is one my family is dealing with currently.

Frank is a retired police detective, living in an assisted living complex.  Frank's memory is, at best, shaky.  He can't always remember what day it is, or the names of his neighbors (although in the case of at least one neighbor's name, Hockensmith notes drolly, "forgetting it had been a choice.")

But now a series of crimes are happening in the complex -- maybe.  Unless someone is imagining it in senile dimensia.  Can Frank pull himself together long enough to catch the culprit?  And what if he is the culprit?

Witty, touching, and a  twist at the end.  What more do you want?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Key, by Ferdinand Von Schirach

"The Key," by Ferdinand Von Schirach,  in Guilt,  Knopf Books, 2012. 

I reviewed a story in Von Schirach's previous book Crime last year.  He is a criminal attorney in Germany and all of his stories are narrated by an attorney named Von Schirach. leading to some debate as to fictional they are. 

In most of the stories the lawyer is a minor character, but none more so than in "The Key."  You could remove the part about Von Schirach without altering the plot a bit.

And speaking of plot: Frank and Atris are German criminals who visit Amsterdam to obtain, from a nasty and believable Russian general, some designer drugs that encourage women to do things they might otherwise prefer not to.  Frank is the brains, Atris the brawn, and when Frank gets picked up by the cops things start to get very messy for Atris, and for the dog Frank has left in his care.  Atris then finds him in a deepening pool of trouble with a series of sinister people.

At this point I need to say that if cruelty to animals is a turn-off for you, you do NOT want to read this story.

There is a flaw in this story: in order to make everything turn out okay a certain person has to perform out of character - or at least to have hidden reserves which we had not been left to expect.  It made it hard to suspend disbelief, but I enjoyed the story anyway.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Snow Birds, by Gary Phillips

"The Snow Birds," (2009) by Gary Phillips, in Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians, and Killer, Perfect Crime Books. 2012.

Gary Phillips is a very smooth, professional writer (and a hell of a lot of fun to sit next to at a dinner party, by the way).  I was reading through this book and finding mostly what I expected: grim stories about various levels of bad guys.  And suddenly I find him channeling, of all people, Ring Lardner.

Now one time it comes on Thanksgiving or rather two days prior, and we were standing on the sidelines in the midst of our permitating as the Silver Slicers of Bowler Street went at the Cruze Cru of Avenue J.  Sidelines is a relative term when it comes to street polo as it was of necessity that we and the other onlookers had to, at times, quickly move about to avoid say a smashed toe or bruised shin,.  The lads and lasses zoomed back and forth, to and fro, on their steeds of battered alloy whacking the bejeezus out of a croquet ball with their homemade plastic mallets while adroitly slaloming their bikes, most of the time barely sluicing past one another, on the field of play.

So the tale begins, and clearly we are not on the usual mean streets, nor are we in the prose of, say Ernest Hemingway.  I happen to be a fan of rococo language in mystery shorts (James Powell, Avram Davidson, and John Collier come leaping to mind).and have often wished it was a road I could travel further myself.

Phillips is clearly having a fine time as he tells the story of two small gangs battling over a load of Thanksgiving turkeys.  The plot is silly, the joy is in the language.

At this juncture I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that there was an ongoing tiff between the two as, one might suspect, it involved a dame.  In this case it was a lovely young woman named Annakosta, who'd come this close to gracing the pages of a KING magazine thong special.


Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Closed Book, by Mary Hoffman

"A Closed Book," by Mary Hoffman, in Venice Noir, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Akashic Press, 2012.

Jakubowski saved the best for last in this book.  In Hoffman's story an Englishwoman visits Venice, chooses a gondolier, and starts peppering him with questions about the city's most notorious crimes.   She's working on a collection of short stories, she explains, but something about her makes Taddeo, the gondolier, quite uncomfortable. 

When the tourist is found murdered in her hotel room Taddeo is the only suspect and is promptly arrested.  His fellow gondolieri don't believe in his guilt and conduct their own investigation.  The reader knows more than the characters and it is fun to watch as the net closes in. 

I like the subtle way in which the underlying motive -- the crimes behind the crime -- is left below the surface.  We can figure out what is in the victim's short story about Venice; the details are left to our imagination.

A very nice piece of work.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

After Cana, by Terence Faherty

"After Cana," by Terence Faherty, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October, 2012.

"You usually go door-to-door bothering people until one of them knocks you in the head."  That is a friend of Owen Keane, explaining his usual style of amateur detective work.  In this story his approach is more armchair-ish, if that's a word, but very satisfactory.

Keane is a troubled guy with a murky past, explored in previous Faherty tales, and when the current story opens he is accompanying a friend to the wedding of a couple he doesn't know.  The minister's familiar sermon on weddings creating a new community gets him thinking about people in his past, but a few days later the new couple is killed on their honeymoon, and that's what really gets him thinking.

Was it, as it appeared to be, a meaningless mugging death, or is something even more sinister going on?  Keane cleverly traces the roots back to an event that happened fifty years ago, and then forward again to the present day.  The story is well-written with nice characterization of the minor players, which help Keane reach the final deduction.  A nice piece of work.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

My Life With The Butcher Girl, by Heath Lowrance

"My Life With The Butcher Girl," by Heath Lowrance, in Pulp Ink 2, edited by Nigel Bird and Chris Rhatigan,  Snubnose Press, 2012.

 This is a dark ride, a very dark ride.  I am not usually a big fan of stories full of sex and violence, because the authors often seem to forget to include other elements, like a plot and a point. 

I'll be the first to admit a story doesn't necessarily need a point - it can just be an entertaining read - but I do insist on a plot, and if it manages to also raise an interesting question, so much the better.  Lowrance manages all of the above.

The question that he pursues is the psychology of  death groupies - the people who fall in love with serial killers.   As far as I know most of these sad cases are women (because most  of the murderers are men?) but Lowrance's protagonist, Jim, is a guy who becomes obsessed with the Butcher Girl, who is convicted of what used to be called thrill killings, slaughtering three men in sexual situations.

We see their relationship begin and grow and when she is released due to a botched trial, it's inevitable that they wind up together.  But what does Jim want from her?  And what does she want from him?

I certainly didn't guess what was coming.  And the sex and violence are essential to the story.  A good job all around.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Murder... Now And Then, by Penny Mickelbury

Murder...Then And Now" by Penny Mickelbury, in Send my Love and a Molotov Cocktail, PM Press, 2011. 

I missed this book when it came out last year. All the stories involve rebellion,crime and love. They are set in the current war, and the early twentieth century trade union fights, and plenty other places in between.

 My favorite  tale starts in the sixties when five Black college students in the south are planning to disrupt a KKK parade with molotov cocktails. Things go disastrously wrong.

Forty years ater the survivors of the debacle meet to determne what happened... and to settle the accounts. As it happens, one of them is a private eye, Boxer Gordon. While not a traditional private eye story at all, this is still the best P.I. tale I have read so far this year.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Fruit At The Bottom Of The Bowl, by Ray Bradbury

"The Fruit At The Bottom Of The Bowl" by Ray Bradbury, in The Golden Apples of the Sun.  (1948)

This is the first time  in a year and a half this review has been late.  Stuff happens, but it didn't help that nothing I read this week rang my chimes, so for the third time in a year and a half I have had to resort to my list of fifty favorite stories.  It seemed appropriate to honor the late, great Ray Bradbury.

I think most people tend to remember Bradbury for his inspiring go-to-space stories, and forget that he learned his chops on horror.  There is psychological horror in this little masterpiece, but it is first and foremost a crime story.  In fact, it appeared first in Detective Book Magazine and was reprinted five years later in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (under the cutesy title "Touch and Go."  Shame on you, Frederick Dannay.).

The protagonist has just gone to another man's home where they had an argument about a woman, and the home owner gets killed.  The protagonist can get away with murder - if he is sure that he doesn't leave any fingerprints behind.  And soon we are in territory that would be quite familiar to Edgar Allan Poe.

The last paragraph is worth the price of the book.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Beehive Round, by Martin Limón

"Beehive Round" by Martin Limón, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2012.

I remember Martin at an MWA-NW meeting in Seattle many years ago telling us that his novel Jade Lady Burning was being published.  That book, and all those that have followed, are about two CID officers (army detectives) in Korea in the mid-seventies.

So when I started this story and saw that it was set in the same time and place I was patienly expecting Sergeants Sueño and Bascom to arrive.  They don't.  The crime this time is solved by Vern Kruckman, a newly-retired sergeant. 

Like the cliche of the retired firehorse reacting to a bell, Kruckman leaps out of bed when an alert is sigalled.  Unable to sleep he goes outside and this puts him in the right place at the right time to discover a murder.  Both the Korean police and the U.S. army would be happy to cover it up for their own reasons, but Kruckman, with time on his hands, and a sense of duty to the other soldiers, keeps after it.

Limón is a master of setting.  He gives you all the details you need to believe in this foreign and forty-year old situation.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Little Big News: Brutal

My story "Brutal" is in the Current (September) issue of Hitchcock's.  You can read about it at SleuthSayers.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Losing It, by Melodie Johnson Howe

"Losing It," by Melodie Johnson Howe, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, August 2012.

To be honest, I am not a great fan of the subgenre of stories about mousy women being abused, physically or emotionally, by bullying men.  Just not my cup of tea.

But my friend Melodie made me a believer in this one, largely because the story is so twisty it makes a corkscrew look like a knitting needle.

Callie Taylor is the mouse in question, a manicurist.  Mike is the boyfriend, supposedly working on a screenplay, but apparently only working on the groceries Callie brings home on her paycheck.

One night Callie rebels against her life by spending a thousand dollars she can't afford on a shawl.  Mike hates it because it keeps her from looking "normal," the ordinary person he wants her to be.

And then, late one night in a bar, she loses the shawl.  And worse, one of her wealthy customers shows up wearing the shawl - complete with the tears Mike's dog put in it.  How can Callie get it back without losing her job?

That's where I have to stop, so as not to reveal any twists.  Let's just say, whatever you think is going to happen, you're wrong.

But you'll have a very good time being wrong.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Street Ends At The Cemetery, by Clark Howard

"The Street Ends At The Cemetery," by Clark Howard, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, August 2012.  

I am surprised EQMM didn't use their Black Mask category for this story.  It has all the meaness and violence you could ask for in such a tale.

In classic noir fashion Cory Evans's life is changed forever by an encounter with a woman, although she is not exactly a femme fatale.  Cory is a corrections officer and Billie Sue is the girlfriend of a prisoner.  When Cory sees her standing in the rain outside the prison, waiting for a bus that won't come for an hour, he violates the fraternization rule by giving her a ride.

There's no conspiracy going on here.  Cory wasn't trying to seduce her.  Billie Sue wasn't looking for a guard to cuddle up to.  But things go to hell all the same.  You can say Cory is an innocent victim of circumstance, but as Rex Stout said "No man was ever taken to hell by a woman unless he already had a ticket in his pocket or at least had been fooling around with timetables."

The intriguing thing in this piece is that every character, including the alleged law-enforcers, has a dirty trick up their sleeve, a double-cross in their heart, and a gun or two in their pockets.  Does it end happily?  Look at the title.  What do you think?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Celtic Noir, by Paul BIshop

"Celtic Noir," by Paul Bishop, in Running Wylde. 2012.

This story was originally published in Murder Most Celtic, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, in 2001.  I caught up with it in Bishop's e-collection of stories.

Meet Decco, an Irish fella with a bad attitude...

You might think I'm stupid.  I ain't.  I done loads of them Open university courses on the telly.  I ain't stupid. i just ain't like you, and i don't want to be.

I hate effin squares like you - sitting there on your arse reading books.  you're boring.  i hate boring.  Get up, get out, smash somebody's face in.  that's what it's all about - a little aggro makes the world go round.

As the story opens a couple of thugs are attempting to round up Decco for a little meeting of the minds with a crime boss named Mandrake.  Mandrake's daughter has gone missing and he decided Decco is just the lad to get her back.  Before our hero can get started a tough female cop scoops him up.  She also wants him to find the daughter, but with a different goal.  Then there is a rival gang of bad guys with their own plans...

Good story with an action-packed ending.

A couple of notes.  I am no expert on how the Irish speak - the works of Roddy Doyle and Ken Bruen constitute my main first-hand experience - but there is a slight touch of the begorrah-it's-a-leprechan to Decco's prose stylings, as far as I am concerned.  Didn't spoil it for me.

More problematic is the e-book itself.  There are many styles of e-book production but this may be the sorriest I've run across.  No page numbers, no table of contents, no way to get from the beginning to a particular story except by hitting the screen over and over and over....

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Case of the Pink Lady, by Casper Bogart

"The Case of the Pink Lady," by Casper Bogart, via Amazon.

"Audacity, more audacity, always audacity," so said Georges Jacques Danton.  It is a good motto for writers.  I love fiction that drops your jaw and makes you say, "can you do that?"  

The pseudonymous Mr. Bogart succeeded in being audacious with this e-tale.  It features as its protagonist-detective none other than Dick Nixon.  This takes place in 1late 962, one of the lowest points of Tricky's career.  After losing the presidency by a hair's breath (and arguably by fraud) he loses a race for governorship in California.  As the story begins he makes his famous announcement that the press won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.

A day later he gets a panicked phone call from his campaign manager: there is a dead woman in a convertible in the manager's driveway and the cops want to know what happened.  Nixon volunteers to act as the man's attorney and quickly discovers (with a little help from his buddy J. Edgar Hoover) that the dead woman is connected to both him and some high-up Democrats.  Dirty tricks abound.

The story is about as believable as Grimm's Fairy Tales (my problem is not the political shenanigans, but Nixon's brilliant detectivizing), but it has an interesting viewpoint on Nixon's character and some wonderful flashes of wit.

The phone rang.
A female operator.  "Long distance from Washington, D.C."
Nixon snorted.  "You bet it is."

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Jackie Boy, by Sam Roseme

"Jackie Boy" by Sam Roseme, in West Coast Crime Wave, edited by Brian Thornton.  BSTSLLR.COM, 2011.

West Coast Crime Wave is an e-anthology that was published last year.  I'm not a big iPad book-reader, so I am just getting around to it now.

This is a private eye story but you can kick that Humphrey Bogart image right out of your head.  Jackie Giacomo is  300 pounds of grumpy and he got into the business by helping some friends in the mob.

This is how it works: a firm -- either some mobsters or a hedge fund -- buys a bunch of shares in a company.  If that investment doesn't provide the returns they were expecting, they find dirt on the CEO or chairman of the board.  You know, drugs, cheating on his wife, sex with boys, that kind of stuff.  That's where I come in.  I follow Mr. CEO around for awhile  with my camera and take pictures of him doing his dirty deeds.  My client shows the offender snapshots of him playing priest to a choirboy and gives him an offer he can't refuse: buy the shares back at a premium and the photos don't accidentally find their way to the New York Post.

So speaking of choirboys, fat Jackie ain't one.  He is also living in San Francisco, in exile from New York because of  a disagreement with a mobster friend.  As the story opens he has a new case but it turns out to be connected to his New York troubles, which come from protecting one of the few people he actually cares about.

It is a fun twist on the P.I. story.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Burning Daylight, by David Edgerley Gates

"Burning Daylight" by David Edgerley Gates, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2012.

Well, Mr. Gates is having a good year.  This is the third time in nine months he has made my best-of-the-week list.  And the stories have been very different.  One historical, one urban, and now a rural police procedural.

Hector is a deputy in Montana, near a national forest.  When two kids report seeing a double-wide trailer explode he knows it was a meth lab.  Since the drug-maker went up with his product Hector could have let it go at that but he is a good cop and wants to know what happened: specifically, how did a Gulf War vet wind up making drugs out in the wilderness?  And which comes first, supply or demand?  The trail becomes darker and grimmer.

"With all due respect, don't preach the law to me."
"The law's all we've got between us and the stone age."
"Frank, for Christ's sake, this IS the stone age."

A powerful piece of work.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Acting On A Tip, by Barbara Arno Modrack

"Acting On A Tip," by Barbara Arno Modrack, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2012.

 I have said before that I am a sucker for stories about the possibility of redemption, whether the protagonist chooses to take it or not.  This is a nice example.

Marty had been a reporter for the Detroit Free Press for decades when the buyouts started.  One day his editor urged him to take the proffered buyout, and the reason clearly had less to do with his age than with the booze Marty was drinking for breakfast. 

When he found himself unemployed and probably unemployable Marty's wife made him the following offer:

They would sell the house and move Up North to the family cottage she had just inherited.  Ryan, their youngest, would complete his senior year in high school there.  Jenny would refresh her nursing license and become the breadwinner.  And if they did all that and Marty quit drinking, they could do it together and Jenny would not leave him.

A few months later Marty is clinging to sobriety by his fingernails when he wakes to a radio report of three murders in the little town where they are living.  Maybe the Free Press would like a reporter on the scene?  Maybe he can drag a scrap of self-worth out of the ruins?

Very satisfactory piece of work.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Five Stars, by Mike Baron

"Five Stars," by Mike Baron, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2012.

I am not surprised that Baron got his start writing comic books.  This is one of the most intensely visual stories I have read in a long time.  Or, to be more specific, the climax is wildly, inventively, visual.

Bill Scald is a restaurant critic (and what a wonderful name for a critic!). Much to his disgust his boss orders him to review a new Italian restaurant that is clearly owned as  a money-laundering site by a mob family.  Scald points out that in this case a bad review could have extremely nasty results.  His editor, blithely uninterested in such niceties as journalistic integrity, tells him to go off and say something nice.

So Scald decides to dine with protection in the form of  his nephew, "a human pit bull with shaved skull, tribal tats, and the flat eyes of a shark.  Dyson's favorite cuisine was buffalo wings, but he...was too stupid to know fear."  And that's when things get lively and, as I have already indicated, visual.  Fun stuff.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

His Daughter's Island, by Brendan DuBois

"His Daughter's Island," by Brendan DuBois, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2012.

Very nice piece opens the new issue of EQMM.  Zach Ford is a mild-mannered accountant in a small town in Maine.  His beloved daughter goes off to a party at the home of a millionaire and dies.  The millionaire's son is whisked out of the country, far from the possibility of justice.

In some stories the next step would be a whole lot of guns and blood, but Mr. Ford has a different idea.  He studies up on the millionaire, and then he studies the state and local ordinances.  And starts plotting a completely legal vengeance.

DuBois' story reminds me of one of my all-time favorites, "Privilege," by Frederick Forsyth.  Both are about a "little man" who uses lateral thinking to go after a foe who seems to powerful to attack.  Good piece.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Jenny's Ghost, by David Dean

"Jenny's Ghost" by David Dean, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 2012.

After I read this story I asked my friend David if there was a crime in it.  He replied: "there is no crime in 'Jenny's Ghost'; only consequences."   But, he noted, there is a mystery.  Having thought about it, I decided there is a crime, of sorts. I'd be interested to know what you thought.

David wrote about the genesis of this story last month at SleuthSayers, but even if he hadn't I would have suspected it started with the location.

Picture the setting: you are in an airport, stuck in that endless half-life between flights and suddenly you spot something that can't possibly be there: a woman who died a decade before.  Hell of a set-up, isn't it?

David noted that this is a story about consequences.  Not surprisingly it is also about guilt, and the chance of redemption.  These are subjects for fiction I am very much drawn to.  (Hey, my CD is called Can I Blame You?)  David's stories often have a strong spiritual component.  (One of his recurring characters is a priest.)  As I said, there is a possibility of redemption at the end of this story.  Airports can seem like hell, but you don't have to stay in one forever.