Sunday, November 24, 2013

I am not Fluffy, by Liza Cody

"I Am Not Fluffy," by Liza Cody, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, December 2013.

There's a lot going on in this one.  It takes a while to piece the story together and understand the way the narrator is telling it.  So, who is she (besides not being Fluffy, I mean)?

I worked as a hostess and greeter at a bar-restaurant six nights a week for five years while Harvey qualified to be a tax lawyer.  And for two nights a week Harvey was going round to Alicia's flat to bounce her bones.  "you were never there," he complained.  "What was I supposed to do all by myself every night?"

What indeed.  Insult to injury: Alicia was an old friend of hers.  And now that Harvey is making a bundle he wants a no-fault divorce and a big white wedding to his new love.

Our narrator goes for textbook passive-aggressive tactics: refusing to sign the divorce papers.  She can't afford a lawyer on her hostess salary so she changes to a less respectable but more remunerative profession.   

And she begins writing her protests against the world around her in chalk on the sidewalk, signing them Fluffy.

Is this a story about a nervous breakdown?  A split personality?  Or is our heroine learning to not be Fluffy anymore, to be a person who can take care of herself?

Damn good work.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Othello Revised, by Denise Middlebrooks

"Othello Revised," by Denise Middlebrooks, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, December 2013.

One big problem with little stories is they don't leave much room for us critics to pontificate and display our wisdom.  Last week I talked about my philosophy concerning flash fiction.  This week we aren't dealing with a flash, but definitely a short tale.

And it is one I like a lot.  In fact, I probably care for it more than most people would, for two reasons.  First, I find myself in a circumstance not too far removed from the protagonist, and second, the story, Middlebrooks' first, reminds me of a certain piece by James Thurber, one of my heroes.

The narrator has just written a mystery novel and his wife recommends he takes it to a professional editor.  The editor turns out to be an interesting person, a real estate agent who reinvented herself in the recession, and she has some fascinating suggestions about the book.  Or what she thinks is the book.

And there we have to stop.  Go read the story.  It's November and you deserve a treat.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Acknowledgments, by Christopher Coake

"Acknowledgments," by Christopher Coake, in Kwik Krimes, edited by Otto Penzler, Thomas and Mercer, 2013.

Kwik Krimes is a collection of flash fiction, mysteries under 1000 words long.  I have written before about flash stories and concluded that there are basically three categories: outline, anecdote, and other.

The outline is generally the least satisfactory.  It attempts to cram into onto a postcard a plot that really needed more room to grow.  The anecdote tends to work better; one little slice of life (or in the case of this book, often a slice of death).  By the other I mean something bizarre, often something that would be painful at greater length but uniquely fits the little niche of the flash.

Take for example, Mr. Coake's contribution, which immediately made me think: why didn't I think of that?

The narrator simply offers his deep thanks to everyone who made his latest work possible, and we get the idea he is not talking about a work of literature:

Margaret, my wife.  You were this story's subject, its reason for being.  I think, by the end, you understood me at last. 

Very clever.

Other stories I like a lot in the part I have read so far include stories by Chuck Caruso and Bill Crider, as well as tales from  friends of mine, Gary Alexander and Jo Dereske.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Psychic Investigator, by Janice Law

"The Psychic Investigator," by Janice Law, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, December

I believe in full disclosure, which in the case of this blog means that you deserve to know if I might have some reason to favor a story other than its quality.

In this case it is a triple threat.  Not only is Janice Law a friend of mine,  and a fellow blogger at SleuthSayers, but I can also claim a tiny bit of credit for this story existing at all.  I was the one who suggested to Janice that she do something she had never done before: write more than one story about a character.  I think this is the fourth in this series, although I might be off.

And what a wonderful character she is.  Madame Selina is a spiritualist in New York City in the years after the Civil War, when quite a number of people long to speak to their dead loved ones.  Madame is assisted by Aurelius, the former emperor of Rome who allegedly speaks to her in trances, and by Nip Tompkins, formerly of the orphan's home, who assists with clouds of smoke and other special effects when the emperor proves unreliable.

In this adventure, a psychic investigator has arrive din the Big Apple and is making good money by revealing the tricks used by so-called mediums.  Madame Selina, no shrinking violet, applies the challenge direct, publishing an open letter thanking the professor on behalf of the true psychics for revealing their fraudulent competition.  She knows this will bring the man to her parlor.  Now she needs young Nip to find a weakness she can use...

"The mind needs little helps," explains Madame Selina.  And by hook or by crook she will provide them, and catch the bad guy in the process. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Benign, by Caroline J. Orvis

"Benign," by Caroline J. Orvis, in Malfeasance Occasional: Girl Trouble, edited by Claire Toohey, Criminal Intent, 2013.

When was the last time I featured the first published story by an author in this column?  It may have been this one by Raymond Goree last year.  In any case, Ms. Orvis offers us a unique story of revenge.

The subtitle for this issue of Malfeasance Occasional is "Girl Trouble," and in this tale it refers to female biology.  The narrator had a biopsy to look for possible breast cancer.  It left her with permanent pain and she isn't getting much sympathy.  After all, pain is subjective; maybe it's all in her head.  Why isn't she just grateful that the results were benign?

She doesn't see it that way.  Two years, three months, and five days of constant pain has left her bankrupt, alone, and in high rage. 

I started stalking my breast surgeon almost by accident.  I was sitting in my car weeping, again, after the latest useless appointment.

Well-written story with an ending I did not expect.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Eye For A Eye, by Wenda Morrone

A Eye For A Eye," by Wenda Morrone, in All Hallows' Evil, edited by Sarah E. Glenn, Mystery and Horror, LLC, 2013.

A ten-year-old ghetto kid running drugs should be a sympathetic character, I guess.  I mean ten year olds don't do that sort of thing without encouragement from people who should be taking better care of them, right?

And Little J deserves a little of our sympathy, but he seems to have plenty of autonomy and street smarts as he works his way through Greenwich Village's Halloween parade, lookiug for the customer who was expecting a bag of dope.  Somebody gets killed and Little J tries to find the killer before the cops can blame it on him.

It's an interesting story and the most sympathetic character is the one person who actually seems to care about Little J, a cop who is careful to remind him that if he hadn't been dealing drugs, an innocent man wouldn't have died...

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Murderer At The Cabin, by Robert Holt

"The Murderer At The Cabin," by Robert Holt, in All Hallow's Evil, edited by Sarah E. Glenn, Mystery and Horror, LLC.

As I have said before, occasionally I will get a page or two into a story and think Okay, the Best Of slot is yours to lose, friend.  Don't screw up.

Mr. Holt didn't screw up.  The odd thing is, this tale is more horror than mystery, and therefore not my usual thing at all.  But the concept is  clever and the follow-through is close to perfect.  I worried about revealing too much and everything I am about to tell you appears in the first quarter of the story.  But if you have an intense dislike of spoilers feel free to stop reading this and go find the story.

Lexington is a very bad fella.   He's a serial killer with a complicated system of picking his victims and a suitably insane motive.  As the story starts he is looking for a new person to focus his attention on.  And he finds one in a cabin in the woods where a dozen wealthy people are holding a meeting.  So he takes his hatchet and prepares to single out his first victim.

Now, you might well be saying: hold it.  This is nothing special.  It's the plot of any slasher movie.

Yes, but here's the twist.  The people in the cabin have paid big money for a high-grade murder theatre experience, complete with elaborate props and make-up.  So when Lexington starts his work they think it's part of the show.

Okay, now it's up to a slightly clever slasher flick.

Then how about the second twist?  Unlike the seemingly omniscient monsters in those movies, Lexington doesn't know about the mystery theatre aspect and he is as baffled by his victims as they are by him.

What we have here is a failure to communicate. And that's a lot of bloody fun.