Sunday, December 30, 2012

Mastermind, by Reed Farrel Coleman

"Mastermind" by Reed Farrel Coleman, in Long Island Noir, edited by Kaylie Jones, Akashic Press, 2012.

Dear Akashic Press;

Merely being depressing is not enough to make a story noir.  Please tell your editors.  

Thank you.

Having gotten that out of the way lets move on to a story by Reed Farrel Coleman, who understands noir very well.

Jeff Ziegfeld was always the exception to the rule: the dumb Jew, the blue-collar Jew, the tough Jew.  No matter the Zen of the ethnic group the wheel of fortune got you born into, dumb and poor was the unversal formula for tough.

So Jeff is muscle working for an Israeli-American loan shark who constantly puts him down.  But Jeff isn't always dumb.  He comes up with a big dream: a brilliant scheme for committing a robbery.  It is a plan without a flaw.

Except that this is a noir story, and noir means (remember this, oh editors), that the big dreamer gets flattened.

Another fine story in this collection is Kenneth Wishnia's "Blood Drive."  Tim Tomlinson's "Snow Job" had a great set-up and a disappointing ending.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Lighthouse, by S.J. Rozan

"Lighthouse," by S.J. Rozan, in Staten Island Noir, edited by Patricia Smith, Akashic Press 2012.

This is the second appearance in this space by my friend S.J. Rozan in the last two months. 

In the introduction editor Smith talks about something that happened at a Bouchercon a few years ago: a panel of writers were speaking about crime in New York City and a creative writing teacher complained that the kind of disrespect the panelists were showing for Staten Island was the reason her students there wouldn't write anything about the place they lived. 

I happened to be in the audience.  What Smith doesn't mention is that S.J., who was the first person to joke about Staten Island, not only apologized but offered to come speak to the teacher's class.  Not only a great writer, but a real mensch.

But that has nothing to do with this story, which is about Paul.  And as the first sentence tells us:

It sucked to be him.

Because ever since  he was fourteen Paul shares his skull with The Guys, three space aliens who tell him what to do and give him monstrous headaches if he disobeys.  The only way to quiet the voices in his head is to shoot heroin, and the only way  to get money for that is by breaking and entering.

That wouldn't be so bad except that sometimes he meets someone in the house he is burgling and then he has to hurt them.  And that's the bad part because The Guys like it.  And they want him to do more, and worse.

In this story Paul is planning to bust into a Tibetan museum.  And maybe, just maybe, he can find a kind of redemption there...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Rattle of Darkness, by Martin Roselius

"The Rattle of Darkness," by Martin Roselius, in SoWest: Desert Justice,  DS Publishing, 2012.

I am zipping through anthologies as fast as I can, in preparation to declaring my list of best stories of 2012.  This nasty little piece is my favorite in the anthology by the Sisters in Crime Desert Sleuths Chapter.

Pancho is a very bad guy who lives near the border in Mexico and helps piece slip through a tunnel to the U.S., for a price.  When his debts catch up with him Pancho comes up with a worse way to make more money.  And when those deeds catch up with him things turn very dark indeed...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A User's Guide to Keeping Your Kills Fresh, by Ted Anthony

"A User's Guide to Keeping Your Kills Fresh," by Ted Anthony, in Staten Island Noir, edited by Patricia Smith, Akashic Press, 2012.

Okay, lousy title.  But a good story.

It isn't easy to be really funny and really nasty at the same time.  The humor just sounds mean, or the nastiness seems forced.  But Anthony manages it.

Manny Antonio is a hit man, but he isn't very good at it.  This is the story of his last contract, told by someone who knew him well, and didn't like him very much, nor respect his mental agility. 

If complete clarity were an all-you-can-eat buffet of Chinese food, Manny would ask for the menu and order the chicken and broccoli.

And so we see what should have been an easy assignment turn into a disastrous trek around the metropolitan area with a trunkful of forensic evidence that grows smellier by the hour.  When we are told that shooting a rent-a-cop between the eyes was "the last rational thing he will do on the final night of his life," you know Manny is not having a good week.

Enjoyable, well-written story.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Little Big News: Black Orchid Novella Award

The Wolfe Pack (fans of Rex Stout) just announced the winner of the 2012 Black Orchid Novella Award and guess what?  It was me.  "The Red Envelope" will be published in the July issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, out in April.  My wife and I had a great time at the banquet on Saturday and I highly recommend it to you.  Thanks to all the Wolfe Packers!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hit One Out Of The Park, by Jeff Baker

"Hit One Out Of The Park," by Jeff Baker, in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.

My friend Jeff Baker has written a lovely witty historical story.  It is 1941 and George Keaton has a full-time job taking care of his not-so-bright brother Ward.  Ward has quarreled with his bookie and decided to kill the guy.  Now, the world is littered with blunt objects but Ward manages to find what as a particular weapon?  Joe DiMaggio's stolen baseball bat.  This is not going to go well.

Needless to say keeping tabs on Ward while he was planning doing something in with a murder weapon half of New York was looking for was making my own day the kind Mrs Roosevelt usually didn't write about.

Great fun.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Tell Me About Your Day, by Lynne Lederman

"Tell Me About Your Day," by Lynne Lederman,  in Murder New York Style - Fresh Slices, edited by Terrie Farley Moran, L&L Dreamspell, 2012.

This nifty piece starts out as noir and goes elsewhere.  The narrator is a recovering substance abuser who is trying to be a better person (and if that isn't a formula for a classic noir character, I don't know what is).  He is living in a dumpy apartment, going to AA and NA and making a point of visiting his only living relatives, a niece and her daughter.  The result is that when the niece is murdered the cops and social workers bring the traumatized little girl to him.  They are hoping that a familiar face might encourage her to report something about the unknown killer.

And that leaves our hero trying to figure out how to fit a kid into his tiny, miserable life.

Damn.  Can't smoke with the kid here.  He reomved the cigatette and contemplated it.  Can't go outside, can't leave her.  Realy too cold to hang out the window, let aone sit on the fire escape. She'd know, anyway.  He shredded it into the ashtray. Have to get rid of that, and the matches.  Weren't little kids always playing them, starting fires?

The whole story is in the man's head, trying to sort through his growing responsibilities and limited possibilities.  Then there is an unexpected turn, a clever bit of deduction that suggests there might be a ray of hope ahead.

Nice piece of work. 


Monday, November 19, 2012

Only People Kill People, by Laura K. Curtis

"Only People Kill People," by Laura K. Curtis, in Murder New York Style - Fresh Slices, edited by Terrie Farley Moran, L&L Dreamspell, 2012.

Been working through this anthology produced by the New York chapter of Sisters In Crime.  Curtis takes a unique viewpoint in her story: the narrator is a gun.

For eight years, it was my honor to serve and protect Sam Bradley, his family, and his employers  Sam took care of me, and I took care of him...

But this is a crime story so things have to go bad for Sam and his gun.  Original idea, well written.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dial Country Code 91 +M for Murder, by Stewart Brown

"Dial Country Code 91 +M for Murder," by Stewart Brown, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, December 2012.

It was a tough choice this week between this story and "Dead Men's Socks,"  by David Hewson in the same issue.  I may have bene influenced by the fact that Hewson's story was in the same category as last week's pick, by S.J. Rozan.  Both were excellent stories about maverick cops in foreign countries who solve problems in spite of their superiors.

Brown's first story is very different, more a bit of humor than a traditional tale.

"Welcome to the Spade Detective Angency.  If your life is in immediate danger, please hang up and call the local authorities.  For English, please stay on the line.  Para el Español, por favor, pulse uno.  Press 2 if you would like to hear about our weekly crime-buster specials..."

Yes, even detective work can be outsourced, with someone dubious results.  The unlikely named Hamish, a proud graduate of the New Dehli School for Detective Studies, "the fourth-highest ranked detective school in all of New Delhi," is on the job, or at least the phone.  His client, Miss Nancy Drew, is suspicious about the mysterious death of her husband...

All very silly.  But we can't be noir every week, can we?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Golden Chance, by S.J. Rozan

"Golden Chance," by S.J. Rozan, in Ellery Queen's Magazine, December 2012.

EQMM's last issue of 2012 opens with something different from my buddy S.J. Rozan  The story is set in a small village in Western China, where Lo Pen-wei, "a disheveled lump of a man," investigates crime for the Public Security Bureau.  He is a shrewd, cheerful, Columbo-type cop, the only one of his fellows who bothered to learn the language when he moved to the territory of the Uighurs.  "Lo conceded that... for official interviews and instructions Mandarin would suffice; but  other conversations -- for example, those he would be most interested in overhearing in the streets -- would not be held in Mandarin."

As the story opens Lo is investigating vandalism of the office of the Housing Commission, which he does in a typically indirect way: by playing a chess-like game with his shopkeeper friend Sadiq.   In the course of the game he learns that the people are upset about government plans that would destroy a local landmark.  He also learns that his friend has three marriage-age daughters and no money for doweries.  Possibly he can solve all the problems with cunning plan.  And if he can get one more corrupt official out of office, so much the better.

Mystery stories tend to flourish in democracy and not do so well in dictatorships where no one has faith in justice being done.  (And there is my bland generalization for the day; glad to have it over with.)  But Rozan has created an interesting character and a believable setting.  Perhaps we will hear more about Mr. Lo.



Sunday, October 28, 2012

Trick or Treat, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

"Trick or Treat," by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery magazine, December 2012.

This was a tough week, since Hitchcock featured stories by two of my favorite writers about two wonderful series characters.  Mitch Aldeman's Bubba Simms stories and Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Spade/Paladin tales have several things in common.  Both feature men who are six-five, and both rely more on character and language than on plot.  But there are big differences as well.


Bubba is a three-hundred-pound weightlifter; a private eye in Florida.  Spade is a four-hundred-pound Microsoft millionaire who uses his money and numbers skills as a forensic accountant to run the finances for science fiction conventions.  Spade (that's his nom de fandom, we never learn is real one) has an occasional partner, Paladin, an athletic young woman who is his opposite in physique, temperment, and almost everything except intellect.

The reason I chose Rusch's story this time is that it had a more interesting plot than Aldeman's "Eureka."  I could see where that story was headed pretty much from the beginning, but Rusch's story took it's time in unfolding. 

In "Trick or Treat," Spade is working at a convention in San Francisco on Halloween weekend when Paladin asks him to help out by babysitting a troublesome kid named Casper.  Spade, well aware that an overweight misfit millionaire hanging around with a child could be misconstrued, grumbles "The worst situations in the world always start with the words, 'trust me.'"   But he always finds it hard to resist Paladin.

The center of the story is the fat man and the grumpy Casper, both smart and both lacking social skills, trying to establish a productive relationship.  Naturally, it involves computer programs.  And crime.

Both stories are very much worth a read.

 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

I Heard A Romantic Story, by Lee Child

"I Heard A Romantic Story," by Lee Child, in Love Is Murder, edited by Sandra Brown, Mira, 2012.

When an author makes most of his income writing one kind of novel it must be a great relief to occasionally break loose and write a very different kind of short story.  One example of that is Field of Thirteen, Dick Francis's collection of tales, none of which use the first person narration so familiar from all of his novels.

And Lee Child, when he isn't writing his Reacher novels produces some excellent little stories. And this one is all about style. 

Love is Murder is the third anthology from the International Thriller Writers, and the theme is romantic suspense. Many of the stories are fairly standard romantic suspense - boy and girl either fear each other or fight a common enemy.  But Child is on a very different wavelength. 

Did I mention that this piece is all about style?  For one thing it all written in one long  breathless paragraph.  And here's how it starts:

I heard a romantic story.  It was while I was waiting to kill a guy.  And not just a guy, by the way.  They were calling this guy a prince, and I guess he was... 

The narrator is a hit man for our government and the romantic story involves the spy who authorized the killing and the woman whose job it was to get the mark in the right place at the right time.  You see, she happened to be the boss spy's lover.  But that won't interfere with the plan, will it?

Child is far too good a writer to use the unconventional style just for giggles.  It adds to the suspense, and makes the outcome less predictable.  Nice piece of work.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Double, by Janice Law

"The Double" by Janice Law in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 7

My friend Janice has created a little gem here, I think.

Malik has the fortune, good or bad, of resembling the General, his country's beloved dictator.  Naturally he is assigned the job of impersonating the General, saving him from boring meetings and assassingation attempts.

But the General is a far-thinker and he sends Malik, with proper supervision, to set up a new life for himself in Miami, just in case at some time in the future the General turns out not to be so beloved.  And that works fine until the inevitable happens.

Because only one person can live that new life, right?



Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Premature Murder, by Michael Mallory

"The Premature Murder," by Michael Mallory, in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 7.

I have indicated before I am a sucker for stories that try to rethink some elements of our genre's history.  My old friend Michael Mallory does a fine job in this story.

The time is 1852, the place is Baltimore, and the narrator (anonymous, unless I missed his name somewhere along the line) is a new recruit for a private detective agency, trying to prove he is good for more than filing papers and fetching growlers of beer.

In a bar one night he meets a potential client, a down-on-his-luck actor who wants him to investigate the mysterious death of the actor's estranged son, one Edgar Allan Poe...

The story is full of detail and atmospheric language (our hero doesn't carry a pocket watch, he carries a repeater.  The gun in the story is a Philadelphia Deringer, spelled correctly for once.)  A treat, all in all.

This is my first encounter with Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, and I am enjoying it, but I resent paying for the twenty pages that repeat a Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle.  Don't most of us already have a copy of those books?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Training Day, by Andrei Kivinov

"Training Day," by Andrei Kivinov, in St Petersburg Noir, edited by Julia Goumen and Natalia Smirnova, Akashic Press, 2012.

This new noir volume by Akashic gets started, logically enough, with a story about a policeman's first day on the job.  It rambles a bit but eventually focuses on a mystery of sorts involving the apparently supernatural ability of a corpse to be in two places at once.

It's not a detective story per se, the cops aren't trying  to solve the puzzle.  But in the course of their duties they do.  An interesting glance at what a day in the life of a St. Petersburg cop might look like.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Window of Time, by John H. Dirckx

"Window of Time," by John H. Dirckx, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November 2012.

I wrote once before about Dirckx's series of stories about Cyrus Auburn. I think that one of the things that make these police procedurals memorable is that while Auburn works alone he has a cast of supporting bit characters with recognizable personalities who get to play thier small roles in each episode.  We know that the crime scene man is going to bump horns with the coroner's guy, and so on.

In this case, a nasty gossip columnist has been killed in his own apartment i a high securtiy high rise.  Aubusrn has to figure out who done it, of course.

The other thing that makes these stories stand out is the cleverness of the writing style.  For example, Dirckx could have written "Auburn thought the workmen had probably not been as prompt as they claimed."  Instead he wrote: "Auburn suspected the roundness of these numbers."  Nice.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Good Intentions, by Michael Z. Lewin

"Good Intentions," by Michael Z. Lewin, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,  November 2012.

Last year in this space I reviewed "Who Am I," in which Lewin gave Albert Samson, his Indianapolis private eye an unusual client: a quiet, unremarkable man called LeBron James who was convinced his father was an extraterrestial.

The would-be alien is back, this time calling himself Wolfgang Mozart.  He is still doing good deeds and for his troubles this time he gets stabbed.  Since he is unable to answer questions Samson has to figure out what happened and why. 

Mozart and Samson are sympathetic characters and the story is well-written.  (My favorite line: A nurse named Matty meets Albert's kid the cop.

"And she's YOUR daughter?"  Matty tilted her head.  "Your mother must be very very beautiful."

Saturday, September 15, 2012

LIttle Big Commentary: Not For Sale

It seems ridiculous to even say this but maybe, because of stories like this one, every online critic who can say this, should.   So here goes.

My reviews are not for sale.  Nobody pays me for them.  Sometimes someone sends me a free book (or more often a link to an ebook) in the hope that I will review it.  But there's no payment.

Why are my reviews always positive?  Three reasons:
1.  I don't like writing negative reviews.
2.  Panning a short story is silly; wait five minutes and it will be gone anyway.
3.  Because of reasons 1. and 2. I choose to review the best story I read that week.  If I didn't like any, I choose a classic.

All you other reviewers out there, if you don't get paid (and I assume you don't) maybe it's time to say so.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Final Ballot, by Brendan Dubois

"The Final Ballot," by Brendan DuBois, in Mystery Writers of America presents Vengeance, edited by Lee Child, Mulholland Books, 2012.

Boy, I don't know if it's just the dog days of summer affecting my mood but I can tell you I have just loved  the last three stories I chose for this column.  Real stand-outs.

Beth knew in a flash that she was outgunned.  This man before her had traveled the world, knew how to order wine from a meny, wore the best clothes and had gone to the best schools, and was prominent in a campaign to elect a senator from Georgia as the next president of the Untied States.

She put the tissue back in her purse.   And her?  She was under no illusions.  A dumpy woman from a small town outside Manchester who had barely graduated from high school and was now leasing a small beauty shop in a strip mall.

That's not the opening of the story but it is the core of it.  Ms David, meet Mr. Goliath.

Beth's daughter was brutally attacked by a son of the senator/candidate.  The man-of-the-world described above is the problem solver.  "In other words, I'm the senator's bitch."  He offers her two choices which he insists on calling "avenues."  She can pursue prosecution of the senator's son, guaranteeing herself years of being stripped naked by the press, attacked by his supporters, dragged out as a symbol by his enemies... or she can agree to let the culprit get psychological treatment and accept financial aid from the senator to cover her daughter's long-term medical needs.

I won't spoil it by telling you what happens next.  But two old sayings apply:  Never fight with someone who has nothing to lose.  And: the most dangerous place in the world is between a mother and her children.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

A Change of Heart, by Raymond Goree

"A Change of Heart," by Raymond Goree, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2012.

I'm not on the committee that decides on who gets the Robert L. Fish Award for best first mystery of the year, but they're crazy if they don't give this one a careful look.

The narrator is a Las Vegas cop who, at around age 40, suffers a heart attack.  Turns out his ticker is in horrible shape.  ("Like trying to sew Jell-o together," says the surgeon.)  After some more horrible luck ("Jokes on you, says God.") he gets a heart transplant.  By coincidence he had met  the donor, a cancer patient named Sammy, in the hospital.

After the operation he feels obliged to go to Sammy's favorite restaurant once a month and order the man's favorite, very unhealthy, sandwich.

Sometimes Sammy joins him.  Not to eat, of course, just to watch him eat.  Creepy, huh?

But wait, there's more.  One month Sammy tells our hero that his daughter has gotten involved with would-be bank robbers.  "I cant get through to her," he  complains.  "It's like I'm not even there."

So Sammy wants our hero to stop the robbery and save his daughter.  "You owe me,"  he insists.  But will a robbery really take place?  And if it does, how can the cop explain what he knows? 

Wonderfully written, one-of-a-kind plot.  Highly recommended.