Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Wentworth Letter, by Jeff Soloway

"The Wentworth Letter," by Jeff Soloway, in Malfeasance Occasional: Girl Trouble, edited by Clare Toohey.


The folks at Criminal Element have produced what they (and I) hope will be the first in a long series of e-anthologies.  I should say I have a story in this collection, so I have reason to be fond of it.  Editor Toohey has organized these stories of "girl trouble" in a way that I have never encountered before: from least to most graphic.  In other words, things will get nastier as you move through the text.  (My story comes about halfway through.)

I am still in the light and fluffy section I guess, and very much enjoyed this story by Jeff Soloway.  It starts with a new student arriving in a college class studying the works of Jane Austen.  Alex is the only man in the class and he is vulgar and rude.  He also claims to have a rare letter written by Austen (and recently stolen from a museum).

The professor, Charles, happens to be the son of a wealthy woman who is an Austen fanatic.  He's also sleeping with one of his students.  Things get very complicated fast.

And besides a clever plot there is wonderful writing.  Take the scene in which the professor's overbearing mother meets his lover for the first time, semi-dressed in his bedroom.

"I suppose your father is something virtuous, like a policeman or a tennis instructor?"
"You'll have to ask him," said Cheryl.  "First you'd have to find him.  My mother's a bank teller."
"And you're an English major.  I'm sure she hopes you go to law school."
"All she wants for me is a job where I don't have to make change."
"Consider taking credit cards, dear.  Charles, when you're done disgracing your profession, please make an appearance downstairs....Without concubine." 

This story plays in two ways on the theme of girl trouble.  First is the professor's involvement with his student.  Second is the debate over whether Jane Austen is merely "women's fiction," and somehow less worthy of study than serious fiction written, by male authors.  In light of the recent David Gilmour controversy the tale is oddly topical.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Queen of Yongju-gol, by Martin Limón

"The Queen of Yongju-gol," by Martin  Limón, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,
November 2013.

As I said last time I reviewed one of Martin's stories here, all of his books are set in South Korea in the 1970s.  In this tale he has changed time but not place, and his series characters, two army investigators, are nowhere to be seen.  Instead the hero is Roh Yonk-bok, one of the wealthiest men in Korea.

But, as we learn, he didn't start out that way.  He was able to get an education only through  money sent back home from his big sister who was working as a bar girl in Yongju-gol, a community that served American G.I.'s, where Koreans were forbidden as customers.  One day his sister disappeared and now, years later, Roh is determined to find out what happened to her.

It is a dark tale, full of betrayal and hard-learned cynicism.

"Canyou trust these people, sir?"
Roh turned to look at his bodyguard.  He was a faithful man -- in fact chosen for that quality -- and competent at his job, but he had little imagination.
"They want money, don't they?" Roh replied.
"Yes, sir."
"Then I have trust.  Not for them but for their greed."

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Small Kingdoms, by Charlaine Harris

"Small Kingdoms," by Charlaine Harris, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November 2013.

On this particular spring Tuesday, Anne Dewitt was thrown off her regular schedule.  Between brushing her teeth and putting on her foundation, she had to kill a man.

Got your attention?  I would think so.  This story has a lovely opening, reminiscent of my favorite start to a Richard Stark Novel: When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.  (Firebreak)

I have never read Ms. Harris before but as I understand it she had made her reputation throwing unlikely worlds together.  Anne DeWitt is, of all things, a high school principal, but as you can guess from her ability to off a bad guy in her bathroom before breakfast, she has a past.  The past not only explains her ease at handling a killer, but also the presence of the killer. 

Besides transporting a dead body she also has to deal with unreasonable demands and criminal behavior by the shcool's star athlete.  Fortunately she finds an unlikely ally.

Was this story a bit of wish-fulfillment?  If every school had a staff member who could handle problems so efficiently,  our academic careers might have been more pleasant.  For the good guys, at least.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Sons of Tammany, by Mike Carey

"The Sons of Tammany," by Mike Carey, in Beyond Rue Morgue, edited by Paul Kane and Charles Prepolec, Titan Books, 2013.

Ever look at something simple and brilliant, like a Post-It Note, or White-Out, and say "why didn't I think of that?"  Well, I have just had two of those Post-It moments.

There have been approximately seven gazillion attempts to rewrite Sherlock Holmes or create new stories about him but as far as I know Kane and Prepolec have come up with a brand new idea: invite the creation of new stories about the first literary sleuth, Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin.  Brilliant idea!  After all, Poe only wrote three.  Plenty of room for more.

Honestly I don't know how good the book turned out, because I have only finished the first story.  But that one is a doozy of a pastiche.

Let's take a moment to define pastiche, shall we?  Some dictionaries say it means the same thing as parody.  They're wrong.  Some people use it to mean a new story about existing characters in imitation of the original; i.e. seven gazillion new Sherlock Holmes stories.  I think there is another name for those: "fan fiction."

I reserve the word pastiche for stories that rethink the original and take a new take on it.  See the British series Sherlock, for example. 

It's possible that the rest of the stories in the book are fan fiction; I don't know.  But Mike Carey has written a clever pastiche.  "The Sons of Tammany" takes place in 1870 when an elderly Dupin visits New York and is shown around by a young cartoonist, the soon-to-be-famous Thomas Nast.  As the title implies, they get involved with the corrupt gang at Tammany Hall -- and also with one of the greatest construction jobs of the ninetheenth century, the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. 

Clever idea, and amusing writing.

 Dupin had gotten the hang of summoning cabs now, and that was a terrible power to put in a Frenchman's hands.

Read it.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Game Played, by Jonathan Rabb

"A Game Played," by Jonathan Rabb, in The Strand Magazine, June-September 2013.


Last week a private eye story, this week spies. 

George Philby is a member of Britain's diplomatic core, stationed in Washington.  He is a quiet, self-effacing man, and his great burden is his name.  Kim Philby was the most famous British traitor in a century, so he is somewhat in the position of a man named Benedict Arnold joining the U.S. Army.  "It made them all think too much, a sudden hesitation in the voice."

And in D.C. it leads to an odd friendship with Jack Crane, an American oil man.  Crane brings Philby out of his shell a bit and the relationship leads to -- well, that would be telling.  But one question this story asks is: Does your name determine your destiny?

I liked this low-key tale better the day after I read it.  Then I read it a second time and liked it more.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Gypsy Ring, by James L. Ross

"The Gypsy Ring," by James L. Ross, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2013.

As I recall, Donald E. Westlake said that the essence of the private eye story can be found in the etymology of the phrase hardboiled dick.  "Hardboiled," meaning a tough person to deal with, comes from the American army during World War I.  "Dick," meaning detective, comes from Quebecois rumrunners during Prohibition.  So the private eye story begins where the newly cynical veterans of the Great War met organized crime spawned by Prohibition.

Meaning, among other things, that the P.I. story dates from an era long past.   So is it too dated to be of interest anymore?  Let's see what James. L. Ross manages to do with it.

The story has a very traditional beginning.  A woman's ring has been stolen.  She wants it back but more importantly, she wants to know if her boyfriend is the thief.


How many motifs of the P.I. story show up om those two sentences?  The female client.  A hidden agenda behind a seemingly simple assignment.

But this is clearly a very modern story.  For one thing the client quite casually explains that the boyfriend is the guy she sees when her fiance is out of town.   And she works for a Wall Street firm that specializes in computerized trades based on miniscule momentary gaps between values of stocks.  Finally, the nameless P.I. hero is also dealing with "my wife's boyfriend."

Not something Sam Spade had to worry about.

Of course, the ring just turns out to be the tip of the iceberg.  There are murders, and theft, and corruption; areas where Mr. Spade would feel quite at home.

The P.I. story seems to be adjusting just fine. 




Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Last Sitcom, by Lawrence Maddox


"The Last Sitcom" by Lawrence Maddox, at Beat To A Pulp, 2013.

I remember reading a supposedly-true story (maybe in the I, Anonymous column  of The Stranger?) about someone who found a cell phone on election night 2008.  The owner had been texting and receiving viciously racist jokes.  The finder composed a note in the owner's name confessing that his racism was a disguise for his sexual longing for Black men.  He sent it to everyone on the owner's mailing list except his mother.

I was reminded of this by Maddox's story (freely available, by the way), about a sitcom writer who wanders into a computer cafe in L.A. and discovers that the previous user hadn't signed out.  Turns out he was a member of a band called the Hillbilly Death Squad.

Doug, our alleged hero, decides to amuse himself by sending out some inappropriate emails in the name of the musician.  As you can guess, bad things result.

It's a funny story, a sort of good luck/bad luck roller coaster as Doug and the musicians strive to get the upper hand.  As for who wins, well, it isn't so much that have to find out for yourself, as that you have to decide for yourself.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Dress Blues, by Chirs Muessig

"Dress Blues," by Chris Muessig, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2013.


Why did this story, definitely not science fiction, make me think of Isaac Asimov?

Glad you asked.

Some thirty years ago I heard Asimov speak and he said (I am paraphrasing, obviously) that science fiction's great contribution to literature was starting in the middle.  If you think about it, nineteenth century fiction (and earlier) often started by telling you the hero's ancestry and background, describing the town, etc.

If science fiction began that way, you would never get to the story and readers would give up before you were halfway through detailing the planet's history.  So science fiction writers learned to leap in and fill in the details where and when needed.  Readers had to keep up and most of them found that they enjoyed it, I think because it gave them a mystery to solve (Oh, there are different bases on Luna, each founded by a different country as you can tell by their names...)

But one problem for a reviewer is: how much should he or she reveal?  Take Muessig's story.  It's not like there is a a big twist ending but he definitely expects you to sort out the time, place, and circumstance a bit at a time.  And why should I deprive you of the pleasure?

The protagonist is Sergeant Nolan, a Marine sergeant who suddenly finds himself facing multiple crises.  His wife has left him for reasons you will discover.  He has to decide whether to re-enlist for another six-year hitch.  And his boss goes off on extended duty, leaving him as the only Corps member to look after a private who has been arrested for murder.  Worse, that private is a Black man and this story takes place in a time and place where that can be a dangerous place to be -- especially if you are accused of killing a white man.

A fascinating tale, and one that told me a lot I didn't know about its time period.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Borrowed Time, by Doug Allyn

"Borrowed Time," by Doug Allyn, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2013.

The word "prequel" was apparently coined by Anthony Boucher in the 1950s, but I first heard it twenty years later when someone had the unfortunate idea of making a movie about Butch and Sundance before things started to get messy for them.

Prequels are one of those ideas that tend to sound better than they turn out.  (Cough, cough, Star Wars)  But as always the proof is in the pudding.

This story is a prequel to "Wood Smoke Boys," which made a lot of best-of lists last year, including mine.  "Boys" is about  Dylan LaCrosse, a cop in the north territory of Michigan.  In the present story we learn about the circumstances that caused him to leave the Detroit Police Department and retreat back to his home turf in the north.

And the circumstances involve taking a bullet in the head in the middle of the kind of hellish cop's nightmare in which there can be no good action to take.  LaCrosse survives the injury and is booted out of the force.  Now to survive he has to deal with crooked cops and missing money.

A very satisfactory prequel.  Maybe George Lucas should have hired Doug Allyn.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Little Big News: Two Men, One Gun

I have a story in the October issue of AHMM.  You can read all about how I came to write it at SleuthSayers.

The Hunting Party, by Tony Richards

"The Hunting Party," by Tony Richards, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2013.


Editor Linda Landrigan has been doing something risky in AHMM in the last couple of years and I haven't seen anyone else mention it.  She has occasionally published science fiction mysteries.

The usual thinking is that mystery fans don't want to read science fiction.  I think it goes back to the idea that you can't have a fair-play mystery if the solution depends on the detective knowing that the Model K3 ray guy has a defenerator switch on the left side, not the right, or who was elected emperor in 2994.  Of course, that's nonsense; a fair-play set in the present or past can be just as unfair. 

Besides, most mystery stories today are not traditional fair-play, anyway.


Which is also true of Richards' tale.  It is (at least) the second story about Lieutenant Abel Enetame, a cop in Federated Africa, a continent that has made tremendous gains over today's gloomy situation.  Unfortunately there are some fanatics who want to force a return to the good old days of tribal violence. 

The leader of this group, Chief Manuza, appeared in the first story.  Now he is more dangerous because he has an ally,  a Nobel Prize-winning physicist named Kanai. 

"There is a saying in the scientific world," Mweru told me.  "Einstein stood on the shoulders of others.  Kanai stood on the shoulders of Einstein...and then just floated off into thin air."

Such a man could give Manuza's rebels a dangerous weapon in their fight against progress.  But weapons can be dangerous in more ways than one as we learn in the stories very satisfying ending.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Samsa File, by Jim Weikart

"The Samsa File," by Jim Weikart, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2013.


I wonder what percentage of AHMM's readers got a few pages into this story and said "What the hell?"  Maybe five percent?  Ten?

I, on the other hand, eat this sort of thing up.

Unless you are in that undefined percentage, the title should give a good hint as to what you are in for.  Havel, a police detective in present-day Prague is assigned to investigate the apparent murder by poisoning of a young man named Gregor Samsa.  Except - surprise! - Gregor had somehow transformed into a giant cockroach.

This is sort of reverse steampunk, transforming a Victorian plot -- Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, of course -- into the modern era, and a modern genre, the police procedural.  Weikart even offers something that Kafka had no interest in, an explanation for Samsa's transformation. 

Of all the stories I have read so far this year, this one is probably the one I most wish I had written.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Departmental Issue, by John H. Dirckx

"
Departmental Issue," by John H. Dirckx, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2013.

For many  years John H. Dirckx has been publishing stories about Cyrus Auburn, a police detective in what I had thought was an unnamed city.  In this one it appears to be Cleveland.  Who knew?

The stories tend to be pretty straight police procedurals, without a lot of personal side trips, but in this case Auburn, newly promoted to lieutenant is feeling a certain amount of paranoia.  His old boss asks him to take on a case too ticklish to share with anyone else in the department: a custodian fell to his death from the roof of skyscraper, leaving behind a former- police department laptop that  was sold to someone at an auction.  Is a cop the killer?

This story lacks one of my favorite things about Dirckx's stories: the interaction between all the regulars.  Since Auburn is on his own we get much less of his co-workers than usual.  But the other wonderful characteristic is Dirckx's imaginative writing style.  Consider: how can you describe a pile of dirt on the floor and make it interesting?

A pile of refuse had been swept into a corner, where it skulked in the lee of a wide broomleaning against the wall.

"Skulked in the lee."  Lovely.

Some more examples:

Rober's wallet was as devoid of interest as a wet paper towel, and his cell phone had come out of the fall with an incurable case of amnesia.

Amid an atmosphere thick with the scent of scorched grease and freshly chopped onions, white-capped and white-aproned servers of both genders took orders, delivered food and drink, and bussed tables with unflagging lethargy.




Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Secret Life of Books, by Angela Gerst

"The Secret Life of Books," by Angela Gerst,  in Mystery Writers of America Presents The Mystery Box, edited by Brad Meltzer, Grand Central Publishing, 2013.

It is a tricky business, writing fiction about real people; more so if the non-fictioner is your main character.  Besides the boring risk of being sued, there is the problem or doing research, and the fact that many of your readers may have a strong sense of what your character should be like, and that may disagree with yours.

I think Gerst does a good job, although I have to say that before I knew the story I knew nothing about Colette except that she was a famous French author, and the creator of Gigi, which became a famous movie.   So I may be off in my assessment of the story, but Gerst certainly convinced me she was drawing an accurate picture.

The story takes place late in Colette's life when her health makes her almost a prisoner in her apartment.  A famous prisoner, with a steady stream of visitors, some famous, and some not.  One of them is Roland, an ambitious chef whose boring chatter she tolerates for the extravagant dishes he brings her.  Roland is marrying a much younger country lass, who hopes to save her family's dwindling estate.  When someone gets killed, Colette must come to the rescue. 

The writing is good, and here is my favorite example.

"How long will your dear husband be away?"

"Too long."  Colette explained that Maurice was promoting her books in the world's richest land, "now that Europe has again reduced itself to ashes."

My darling Colette" -- Liane helped herself to more coffee -- "nobody reads in America."

"Oh, but there are so many of them, even nobody is ten thousand."

Sunday, June 30, 2013

A People Person, by Michael Koryta

"A People Person," by Michael Koryta, in The Strand Magazine, November-February 2012-2013.

The Private Eye Writers of America named the Shamus nominees today and one of them is the story I chose last week: "The Sequel," by Jeffrey Deaver.  Excellent choice, but I am still feeling justified in listing Deaver's story and this one as 2013 because 1) I didn't read them until this year, and 2) the issue date covers through February of this year.  So there.

What Koryta has given us is a lovely little character study about Thor, who has been the hit man for two decades for Belov, who is the head of organized crime in Cleveland.  These two have been through tough times on two continents and, in a business that doesn't  support long-lasting relationships, they seem inseparable.

Thor had seen his father killed at age six, and that was not the first corpse he had viewed.

 The English word for the way Thor felt about killing was "desensitized," but he did not know that it was a proper fit.  Maybe he was overly sensitized.  Maybe he understood it more than most.  Maybe the poeple who had not killed or could not imagine being killed were the desensitized breed.

What could come between Thor and his boss?  Could there, to his own amazement, be a line he could not cross? 

Yup, and a very unexpected one it turns out to be.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Sequel, vy Jeffrey Deaver

"The Sequel," by Jeffrey Deaver, in The Strand Magazine, November-February 2012-2013.


What do these novels have in common?
A Confederacy of Dunces
Gone With The Wind
Mister Roberts 
Raintree Country
To Kill A Mockingbird

Well, besides being considered important American novels, they are each the only book by their authors.  There seems to be a special catgory in the American imagination for these books that stand alone either because the author died soon after writing it, or because the author chose to give up the field.

But imagine if another manuscript by such an author was found.  And what if it is a sequel to the classic?

That's the concept of Deaver's novella, and it is great fun.  Frederick Lowell is an elderly literary agent and one day he gets a letter that hints that one of his deceased clients wrote a sequel to his classic novel.  Lowell travels around the country in pursuit of it and - well, a lot of things happen.  In fact, it almost feels like Deaver made a list of every way this story could work out and then rang  the changes, covering every possibility. 

In the first half of the story he gives us a classic quest structure but when that ends we get a mystery, one with several red herring solutions, clever reversals and unexpected twists.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Remaining Unknowns, by Tony Broadbent

"The Remaining Unknowns," by Tony Broadbent, in Mystery Writers of America Presents The Mystery Box, edited by Brad Meltzer, Grand Central Publishing, 2013.

True confessions: I am not a big reader of suspense or thriller fiction, and that's what we have here.  Mr. Broadbent has presented a fine example of the genre, taut and well-written.  I enjoyed it a lot.

Bobby is a member of the bomb squad in New York City and he is tasked with disarming a van full of nasty stuff.  He reminds us of the saying that when you are about to die your life goes through your mind, and so we see his life, including the tragic circumstances that may have led him to the bomb squad.  The story flashes between the bomb job and the story of his life.

Hell of a life.  Here is part of his explanation of why he is unmarried:

Love may conquer all, but not all fears.  Love opens you up to fear in ways unimaginable before that love ever took hold of your heart.  I can walk into the mouth of hell every single day, but I will not take a woman or child I love in there with me.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Newton's Law, by John M. Floyd

"Newton's Law," by John M. Floyd, at The Big Adios, May 28, 2013.


My friend and fellow blogger John M. Floyd is a master of a certain type of very short story.  Typically there is a puzzle and a single clue the reader should be able to figure out.  Think Encyclopedia Brown for grown-ups.  John gets a lot of these stories into Women's World, a market I have, alas, never managed to breach.

This western crime story reminds me of those, although it isn't a solve-it-yourself kind of story.  In fact, it takes quite a way in before you realize the puzzle that is being solved.  (That's the cleverest part of the tale.)

So what's it about?  A lawman and his assistant are bringing a suspect back to town when they get into big trouble.  And in a situation like that, who do you trust?  That, as Wild Bill Shakespeare said, is the question.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Stimulus Money, by Dan Warthman

"Stimulus Money," by Dan Warthman, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2013.

Imagine you have written a story and, lucky you, gotten it published.  You want to write more about the same character.  How do you go about doing it again, but doing it different?

Charles M. Schulz said "A cartoonist is someone who has to draw the same thing day after day without repeating himself."  And that is sort of the challenge an author faces with a series.   People want to meet the same Sherlock Holmes in every Doyle story, but they want him to be doing something different.

Warthman is facing this issue in his second published story about retired hitman Jones (after "Pansy Place," which made my best-of list for last year.)  (And by the way, he writes about creating the mysterious Mr. Jones at Trace Evidence.)

In the first story Warthman established a cast of characters: Jones "trying to fit into retirement," his former boss Konnie, who is the jolliest crime boss I have ever encountered, and Akin, the young hitman Jones is mentoring.

If all this crime sounds like I am describing a grim story, I am misleading you.  They are witty Robin Hood tales in which Jones uses his particular skill set to help out somebody. 

These days, doing a few pro bono jobs, solving problems for people, civilians.  Aggravations and frustrations.  Jones cut through the formalities, the rules, the mores, the laws, and gets matters settled.  Helps people out.

 In this case, Akin's mother's boyfriend has gotten into debt with a payday lender of dubious ethics.

It might be interesting to compare Warthman's tales to  Jas. R. Petrin’s stories about Canadian loan shark, Leo “Skig” Skorzeny, who is always reluctantly willing (if that phrase makes any sense) to get his friends out of trouble.

Both series are well-written and fun.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Waco 1982, by Laura Lippman

"Waco 1982," by Laura Lippman, in The Mystery Writers of America present The Mystery, Box, edited by Brad Meltzer, Grand Central Publishing, 2013. 



I opened, well, e-opened the new MWA anthology, and came across this nice and melencholy tale.  Marissa is a new and somewhat accidental reporter, on her first job in Waco, Texas.  Her tempermental boss gives her what feels like a fairly pointless assignment: writing an article about the sort of stuff that winds up in the lost and found boxes of motels in Waco.

And pointless it is.  But it turns out someone does have an ulterior motive, and there are layers of small city life under the surface that even that person is unaware of...  A nicely brooding reminder of life between the sexual revolution and the AIDS crisis.  Oh, and before the journalism market went down the tubes, too.