Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Gallows-Bird, by Kevin Mims

"The Gallows-Bird," by Kevin Mims, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2013.

Somebody said there are only 36 plots.  I don't know about that but I do know certain plots show up in mystery fiction with greater or lesser frequency.  Man decides to kill wife.  Criminal gets hoist by own petard. Some of these things show up in every anthology or crime magazine you pick up.

But I am more fascinated by the rarer plot, the one that you could probably fill one volume with if you put all the examples together.  And one of those is what we are seeing today: An established writer and a novice writer conspire to commit a fraud on the public.

I suppose the reason this subject interests writers is obvious.  In effect, it is work chatter, right?  In most examples I have seen the older writer wants to hire the younger as a ghost (See Donald Westlake's The Hook, for instance) but Kevin Mims has taken a different approach in this story.

The older writer is a certified great novelist with tons of prizes and a niggling bit of self-doubt.  His rival says he is over-rated because he is a life-time member of the literary establishment (studied under other top people at Ivy League schools who got him great reviews on his first book, etc.).  So he wants his last novel to be published under the name of the young author, in order to get an honest judgment.

If this were a horror movie you would be yelling at the screen "Don't do it!"  Unfortunately, just like the pretty girl heading down the basement of the haunted house, the young writer won't listen...

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Footprints in Water, by Twist Phelan

"Footprints in Water," by Twist Phelan, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2013.

Twist Phelan juggles quite a lot of balls in this story and keeps them flying pretty flawlessly, I think.

Henri Karubje is a detective in the NYPD and he is called out to help investigate the missing daughter of  a Congolese family.  The relationships between the people, and with their medicine man, neighbors, and priest, are complicated to say the least.

Tangling the matter further is that Karubje is not their as investigator, but as translator.  The lead detective is a newly promoted woman he has worked with when she was on patrol.  The cliche here would be to have them in territorial conflict but Phelan chooses instead to have the new detective looking for more help while Karubje insists on making/letting her run the show. 

Karubje is haunted by his childhood in the genocidal conflict of Rwanda and he makes good use of his memories of that horror to sort out the motives and inconsistencies of the characters.  

Definitely worth a read.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Adrift, by Rex Burns

"Adrift," by Rex Burns, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, June 2013.

This is the second time I have reviewed one of Rex Burns' stories about Constable Smith, a half-Aborigine cop in the wilderness of Western Australia.  Smith is a classic type of  character; being neither all one thing or the other, he is doomed to be an outsider everywhere, and makes an excellent guide to both worlds for the reader.

In this case there are not two cultures involved, but three.  Two Japanese tourists chartered a boat to take them out for a day of scuba diving three miles from shore.  The hard-drinking captain insists they never came back up.  His mate, an aborigine has jumped ship and disappeared.  Smith uses his knowledge of Aboriginal culture to find the truth, which is rooted in a bit of Australian history that was certainly new to me.

Good story.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Mayan Rite, by Terence Faherty

"The Mayan Rite," by Terence Faherty, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, June 2013. 


"When I first heard 'Mayan rite,' I thought it might involve a human sacrifice.  Maybe even the removal of a beating heart."
Anya's smile died.  "Every wedding requires a human sacrifice," she said.  "And often the removal of a beating heart."

Well, I don't know about you, but that exchange certainly got my attention.  It happens deep in the middle of this story, which is largely a character study.  My co-blogger Faherty has a great talent for characterization through dialog.  See Anya above, for instance.

The protagonist, Robert, is a middle-aged guy, down in Mexico for a family wedding.  We don't learn a lot about him (not coincidentally he's the one who talks the least, a very reserved sort of guy).  His brother, on the other hand, is more outgoing: "Before we're done, Mexico's gonna be sending out for more tequila!"

But Robert is the one who notices what appears to be an unhappily married couple.  And he notices some bad stuff...  There is clever deduction in here too.  A lovely piece of work.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Tricky Business in Mai Chau, by Nathan j. Beyerlein

The Tricky Business in Mai Chau, by Nathan J. Beyerlein, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 2013.

This is a very old-fashioned story, and I mean that in a good way.  It takes place in a current setting but it is about a man who solves a crime through shrewd deductions.  Moreso, it is narrated by the detective's companion (in this case, client) who is utterly baffled by the brilliant discoveries.  This is aliteraty tradition dating back to Poe, of course, and the first detective stories.  Which doesn't make it less fun.

Bertrand Stein lives in Hanoi and he's in a panic.  An old college friend has come to visit him and disappeared.   Unable to interest the authorities, who figure she is just off sightseeing, he contacts a local American blogger he knows through the Web.  Nat Burg is the brilliant amateur detective who solves the case with some very clever thinking and knowledge of the local scene. He is clearly being set up as a series character with tons of eccentricities, mysterious past, and an acerbic tongue.  "You asked me to help, not give you a tutorial in basic logic."

I look forward to more adventures of these characters.  I do have to point out that when a writer named Nathan Beyerlein writes about a hero named Nat Burg, the name Mary Sue comes leaping to mind.

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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Not A Penny More, by Jon Land

"Not A Penny More," by Jon Land, in The Strand Magazine, February-May 2013.

This story made me nostalgic for Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Magazine, which lived from one end of the 1980s to the other.  It specialized in fantasy and what you might call light horror.  For example, I still remember Evan Eisenberg's "Heimlich's Curse," about an archaeologist who opens a pharoah's tomb and winds up drowning in a vat of peanut butter.

My point is that this nifty story might have been quite comfortable in that late lamented market.  I'm glad it found a home at The Strand.

Walter Schnitzel is a loser and a loner.  He is a middle-aged accountant, watching younger men get promoted over his head.

But his life makes a sudden lurch when he takes an old clunker of a used Buick for a week-long test drive.  All of a sudden Walter gets lucky - in more senses than one.  His whole self-image changes as well.

So, is the car magic?  Is it all coincidence?  And, oh yeah, why is this story in a magazine full of crime stories?

All shall be revealed...


Monday, April 1, 2013

Thriller Nominees

Congratulations to the nominees for the International Thriller Writers' THRILLER Awards.

BEST SHORT STORY
David Edgerley Gates – “The Devil to Pay” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine)
Clark Howard – “The Street Ends at the Cemetery” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine)
Dennis Lehane – “The Consumers” (Mulholland Books)
Gordon McEachern – “The History Lesson” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine)
John Rector – “Lost Things” (Thomas & Mercer)

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Derringer Award Winners, 2013

The winners of the Derringer Awards were announced today by the Short Mystery Fiction Society.  Congratulations to all!


Best Flash Story:
The Cable Job - Randy DeWitt

Best Short Story:
Getting Out of the Box - Michael Bracken

Best Long Story:
When Duty Calls - Art Taylor

Best Novelette:
Wood-Smoke Boys - Doug Allyn

In The After, by John Gilstrap

"In The After," by John Gilstrap, in The Strand Magazine, February-May 2013.

My story in this issue of The Strand  has been described as a tearjerker, which is enough to make me wonder if I'm going soft.  My fondness for Mr. Gilstrap's nasty little tale restores my faith in my own essential wickedness.

Tony and Elly Emerson have just returned home after dropping their daughter off for her first year of college.  They find their home invaded by a stranger who is after vengeance.  It seems a mistake Tony had made many years before has come back home to roost.  Some lives will be changed, and maybe a few ended, before the dust settles.


Tony felt himself breathing heavily again.  "Oh, my God.  You're insane."
Another laugh.  "Hardly.  I'm a teacher with a lesson plan."

Class is in session.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Dead Man's Daughter, by Phillip DePoy

"The Dead Man's Daughter," by Phillip DePoy, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, April 2013.

I have to say this is an unusually good issue, which makes it hard to choose favorites.  (Yes, I know I have a story in it; even barring that, it's full of good stuff.)

I don't think I've ever encountered Mr. DePoy before.  Apparently some of his twelve novels are about the protagonist of this tale, Fever Devilin, a laid-off professor of folklore who has resettled in his parent's old home in the hills of Appalachia.

And a creepy story it is.

There is a place in it called Devil's Hearth, and an apparent ghost, but it turns out the really creepy elements are living people.  At the start Devilin is shot at by a backwoods preacher who seems quite unperturbed to be shooting at the man on his own property.  Then there is a teenage girl who is quite content that her miserable and abusive father was killed years before.  And finally there is someone wandering around outside the cabin at the place called Devil's Hearth.

I think what made this story stand out in a good batch is a particularly brutal line of dialog at the very end.  Talk about noir...

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Not Done With The Night, by Jay Brandon

"Not Done With The Night," by Jay Brandon, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, April 2013.

Unusual story and I can't tell you too much about it without giving stuff away.

Gerald goes into a bar and starts a conversation with a woman, but he obviously has something other than romance on his mind. 

I have said before that I am a sucker for stories in which the character has a chance at redemption, whether or not he takes it.  In this case Gerald realizes the depth of his mistake and risks his life to fix things up. 

Interesting characters, good action.  Nice job.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Wine on Ice, by Cheryl Rogers

"Wine on Ice," by Cheryl Rogers, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2013.

Cheryl Rogers runs a vinyard near Perth, Australia and writes excellent mystery stories - she's been featured here before.  Her regular character is a cop, nicknamed Spanners, who makes up in knowledge of engines what she lacks in social graces.  Her rival for success is a botanist-cop who prefers bicycles to cars.  One gets the impression their boss doesn't like either of them very much.

But he needs their help to investigate the death of a wealth wine grower who was apparently drunk at a huge party (although Spanners notes, she was never seen "tired and emotional" in public before, that being a non-libelous newspaper code for bombed).

Interesting characters, witty dialog, satisfactory plot.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Restraint, by Alison Gaylin

"Restraint" by Alison Gaylin, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2013.

Some stories you know right from the beginning will be your favorite of the week - if they can keep up that pace to the end.  Some don't show their true colors until you get to the stunning ending.

But the rarest of all is the story that doesn't reveal itself as the winner until hours after you read it.  By which I mean, I couldn't stop thinking about this one.  Which is not to say Gaylin hasn't given us a good opening.

When the woman who killed Kevin Murphy's daughter walked into Cumberland Farms to pay for her gas, the first thing Kevin noticed about her was the way she crumpled her money.

Got your attention?  I thought it would.  And the ending is no slouch either.  But in between you will slowly learn about what happened to Murphy's daughter -- none of the obvious things that might pop into your head  -- and about the revenge Murphy plans.  Again, that is a long way from obvious.  It is not bloody or particularly violent, but it will shock you.

Powerful stuff.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Downsized, by Doug Allyn

"Downsized," by Doug Allyn, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 2013.

Trish is a reporter, just laid off from the Detroit Free Press.  Her friend Jane, still employed there, suggests they start a lunch club, mostly for laid-off reporters.  And things go nicely until one member, Grace, brings a friend from church.

Mrs. Alva Warren was pushing sixty, a heavyset widow in a flowered dress.  I doubted she'd stay fifteen minutes.

But stay she did.  And when one of the members suspects that her husband is having an affair Mrs. Warren reveals some surprising aspects of her past and philosophy.

"In my daddy's time we had a few more options."

"What options?" Grace asked.

"Justifiable homicide for one," Mrs Warren said lightly.

I may be giving the wrong impression; this is not a light story and it only gets grimmer.  But it is worth a read.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Button Man, by Joseph D'Agnese

"Button Man," by Joseph D'Agnese, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 2013.

I have said before that my favorite stories tend to have at least one of three characteristcs.  Either they have brilliant basic concepts (like last week's example), or they have surprise endings, or they have what I call heightened writing.  Heightened writing means that the language does something more than merely carry you from the beginning of the plot to the end.

And that is what stands out about this story for me.

He was a nice guy to know, for all his bigness.  He knew how to make animals out of folded paper, and his name was Happy Phelan.  

The nickname arose from many things.   His round baby face.  His strawberry nose.  Those huge hands.  And, no doubt, his colossal innocence.  How he got the lieutenant bars I'll never know.

Frank, the narrator, meets Phelan in the army.  In civilian life they both wind up working in the garment district.  Frank moves ahead but Phelan, despite the advantage  of having a father who owned a company, had a handicap: that innocence and a sense of justice that makes him unable to ignore or forgive the greed and graft that makes the world go round?

Will he adjust to reality, or will it break him? 

"I should have been a cop," he said quietly.  "I wanted to, years ago.  My old man said it was a dirty business.  I don't know why I listened to him.  Is this any better?"

A gripping tale.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Auction, by Christopher Reece.

"The Auction," by Christopher Reece, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January 2013.
I read my EQMMs out of order.  So sue me.

As the editors note, it is always a treat to read a good story written in an unusual format, especially from a new author.  And that is what Mr. Reece provides us with.

The tale relates the history of an unhappy marriage told entirely through the patter of an auctioneer describing the items available at an estate sale.

Those of you familiar with the Inman family  know this room, I'm certain.  Unlike most of the items we've already seen, many of the objects within this room have gained a certain, shall we say, notoriety?  Other things in the collection are valuable because they come from a particular era of history.  These items, why, these items are part of history!  Ladies and gentlemen, you are being granted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to purchase these treasures directly from the estate.  Shall we begin?

I recommend you do.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A Scandal in Bohemia, by Terence Faherty

"A Scandal in Bohemia," by Terence Faherty, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, February 2013.

This is embarassing.  I am in danger of being labeled a Faherty fanboy. 

For the first time since I started these reviews I am featuring the same author two weeks  in a row.  Is it my fault that Terence Faherty has stories in both AH and EQ, and that both are fine?

The title of the story is, no doubt, familiar. This is a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes, which brings me to an old rant.  As I have said before some people use the word pastiche to mean a story about a character written by someone other than the original author.  To me, that is something different (how about "fan fiction?"). 

I argue that to create a pastiche the author has to re-think the original stories in some way, not just add another one to the series.  And a pastiche is not a parody either , which is simply making fun of the original.  To use a popular recent term, a pastiche is a reboot.

Bringing us to Faherty.   He begins by referring to "the recent discovery of the notebooks of Dr. John H. Watson," which allow us to see the rough draft of this famous story, including Watson's editorial notes to himself.  The result is a hilarious fresh look at the "real" story of the famous partnership. 

"And now to work.  Are you willing to break a law or two and perhaps even land yourself in the jug?"
 "In a just cause."
"We're helping a serial defiler of women recover evidence of same from a blackmailing prostitute, so you can work out the justness of our cause at your leisure.  the venture does, however, ensure you an evening out of the house."
"Then I'm your man."

Hilarious.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Little Big News: Shanks Rides Again

I have a story in the latest (April) issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  And I write about it today at SleuthSayers.  Enjoy.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Margo and the Silver Cane, by Terence Faherty

"Margo and the Silver Cane," by Terence Faherty, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February  2013.

Last week I saw All Through The Night, a weird movie with an amazing cast (Bogart, Lorre, Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason, etc.) that starts out as a pretty good comedy and sort of devolves into the Bowery Boys versus the Nazis.  I bring this up because Faherty's plot hits similar territory: a Nazi plot against New York harbor in the days before Pearl Harbor.  I like his story better than the movie, though.

Margo Banning is an ambitious career woman, working as associate producer on a Sunday radio show.  One of the stars is Philip St,  Pierre, a self-proclaimed "radio detective."  And in this week's show he announces that next week he will be revealing the identity of a top German spy.  What follows is a lot of fun and amusingly written.  Take this conversation regarding one of the other performers on the radio show.

"You are not a radio detective?"
"That question takes us into the realm of philosophy.  Or do I mean psychology?  Are we who we decide to be or who the world tells us to be?  For example, I work with a woman who has forced her will upon the world.  She's become a former Broadway star despite the inconvenience of never having been a current one."
"Mamie Gallagher," Edelweiss said a little wistfully.  "She has a very attractive voice.  I imagine her blonde."
"So does she." 

The ending clearly hints at more adventures to come.  I look forward to them.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Diamonds Aren't Forever, by Raymond Goree

"Diamonds Aren't Forever," by Raymond Goree, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,  January/February 2013.

Raymond Goree's first story made my best-of-the-year list last week, so I was delighted to see his second story appear.  It isn't as stunning as his debut, but it is a lot of fun.

Simon Kline is a jeweler, and a very careful man.  His store is encased in steel-impregnated polymer epoxy.  His in-store cameras are linked to his BlackBerry so he can check for intruders without stepping out of his car.  A very careful man.

But this a crime story, so we know something is going to happen.  But exactly what, ah, that's where the twists come.  Clever, amusing story.