Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Blunt Instruments, by James Powell

"Blunt Instruments," by James Powell, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January 2014.


I say this with great fondness and admiration: Jim Powell is a nut.  Exhibit A is the latest of a long line of  stories he has written in honor of Christmas, one more fantastical than the next.  Plots against Santa Claus, plots by Santa Claus...

This story involves two professors at the University of Toronto and a theory for the origin of that most inexplicable piece of the holiday experience: the fruitcake.  I won't go further except to say that the origin is Not Of This World.

The story barely qualifies as a mystery -  or putting it another way, Powell tucks in a crime to make it fit into EQMM when it might otherwise have been happier in a fantasy magazine.  But I am not complaining, because if it had shown up there I might not have had the chance to read it, or report it here, and that would have been a shame.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Confidante, by Diana Dixon Healy

"The Confidante," by Diana Dixon Healy, in Best New England Crime Stories 2014: Stone Cold, edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross, and Leslie Wheeler, Level Best Books, 2013.

This is the best political fiction I have read in some time.  (Insert a joke about Obamacare or the George Washington Bridge here if you wish.)

I remember almost twenty years ago thinking that someone could craft a nice piece of fiction out of the fifteen minutes of fame of Linda Tripp.  You may remember that she was the bureaucrat Monica Lewinsky unwisely confided in.  I never got around to writing such a piece but Healy has, combining it with traces of another political scandal of more recent vintage.

Peggy is a mousy young woman who works for a presidential campaign. She is flattered when the more vibrant worker Kim takes an interest in her.  They start meeting regularly and Kim begins to tell her secrets, secrets that could change political history...

Some lovely twists in this one.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Little Big News: Edgar nominees 2014

MWA has announced them.  The whole list is here, but the short stories are below.  Congratulations to all!
"The Terminal" – Kwik Krimesby Reed Farrel Coleman (Amazon Publishing – Thomas & Mercer)
"So Long, Chief" – Strand Magazine
by Max Allan Collins & Mickey Spillane (The Strand)
"The Caston Private Lending Library & Book Depository" – Bibliomysteries
by John Connolly (Mysterious)
"There are Roads in the Water" – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
by Trina Corey (Dell Magazines)
"Where That Morning Sun Does Down" – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
by Tim L. Williams (Dell Magazines)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Downhill Slide, by Jeff Howe

"Downhill Slide," by Jeff Howe, in Moon Shot, edited by J. Alan Hartman, Untreed Books, 2013.

This book is a collection of science fiction mysteries (which gives me a chance to write about genre crossovers next Wednesday at SleuthSayers).  One frequent complaint about combining these two fields is that you can't write a fairplay mystery in a science fiction world, because the reader can't know enough about the environment.  This is a fairplay story, of sorts, and you will have to decide whether it follows the rules.


At first the plot sounds like one of those gook luck/bad luck jokes.

A miner gets killed on an asteroid, and that's bad.

But someone confessed, and that's good.

Except it turns out that the confessed killer couldn't have done it, and that's bad.

However, a detective is heading to the scene of the crime to interview the other suspects, and that's good.

But there aren't any other suspects.  No one else on the whole asteroid.  And that's -- well, that stinks.

There are some lovely twists in this story, including one that I seem to remember from a science fiction movie of a few years back.  But to be fair (there's that word again) I still didn't see it coming.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Full Moon, by Lauren Davis

"Full Moon," by Lauren Davis, in Dallas Noir, edited by David Hale Smith, Akashic Press, 2013.

For those who came late, here's what noir is:  A loser tries to be more, gets involved in crime (on one side or the other) and gets screwed.

This is a pretty good one.

Danny Contreras is an investment broker, but not destined to be one long.  He is using drugs like they were dental floss and giving his Rolex to the dealer in lieu of payment.  On the way back to his apartment he has an accident and winds up with a ton of money.  He also has some bad guys following him.  And possibly another companion: a giant owl out of Mexican legend .  Whether the owl is real or in his head, it doesn't mean anything good. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Hole-Man, by Matt Bondurant

"Hole-Man," by Matt Bondurant, in Dallas Noir, edited by David Hale Smith, Akashic Press, 2013.

A nice, gloomy tale about the isolation of suburbia, especially in a hot climate where everyone stays locked up in their air-conditioned palaces.  Anders lives in the White Rock section of Dallas with his wife, young daughter, and a million mosquitoes.  When he realizes the skeeters are breeding in his neighbor's swampy swimming pool - and this is druing a West Nile outbreak -- he starts taking an interest in what's going on in the houses around him.  Maybe too much interest, according to the scary men who claim to be there to do roof and yard work...

Very satisfying story.  



Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Hotel des Mutilées, by Jim Williams

"The Hotel des Mutilées," by Jim Williams, in Knife Edge Anthology, Marble City Publishing, 2013.

Earlier this week I read a review written by a man who normally deals with nonfiction.  This piece was about a novel and he ended with a variation of that phrase so familiar from fifth grade book reports: "To find out what happens next you will have to read the book."

I shook my head at that amateur effort, but now I am feeling some sympathy.  I can't tell you much about this excellent tale by Jim Williams without giving away the store.  So forgive me if I keep it brief.

It's Paris between the wars and our narrator meets an American in a bar who says he is a writer.  The narrator explains that he fixes situations, no details given.  The writer, who calls himself Scotty, asks him to talk about the most fascinating person he ever met.  So the fixer talks about a guy he met in World War I.

And that's where I have to stop, lest I say too much.  This is one of the stories where the joy comes in figuring out what's going on.  For me, the enlightment came in three distinct bursts, about three different characters.

To find out what happened... oh, you know.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Acting Lessons, by Amanda Stern

"Acting Lessons," by Amanda Stern, in The Marijuana Chronicles, edited by Jonathan
Santlofer, Akashic Press, 2013.

So: what's a mystery story? 

People who don't read them think they know.  A mystery is a story in which someone gets murdered and a detective looks for clues, talks to suspects, and reveals the killers.  Easy-peasy.

People who actually read mysteries know that that was a pretty good description of the field in 1922.  Since then it got a little more complicated.

Otto Penzler describes a mystery (and I am paraphrasing)  as a astory in which crime or the threat of crime, is a major element.  And that indeed covers P.I. stories, suspense, inverted detective stories, and other tales that don't fit the first description.

Unfortunately, it also covers The Scarlet Letter, Hamlet, Oedipus Rex, and The Brothers Karamazov,  none of which most people would consider mysteries.  So there is something missing, maybe an attitude thing, that separates crime stories.

All of which is my way of explaining that this week's story barely qualifies for my field.  After all, this book doesn't promise stories about crime; just stories about pot.  I suppose you could argue that if drugs are illegal then all stories about drugs are crime stories, but then we get into that attitude problem again.

So why am I reviewing this story?  Because it is so good, that's why.  Here's the opening.

The initial quantum fluctuation that burst forwrd to create this universe implanted particles prgrammed, in years nine to fourteen of a human girl's life, to flood the neural regions and saturate her suggestible self with one single, rabid desire: to become an actress.

Okay, I loved that.

The narrator  describes her experiences at age fourteen taking lessons from Ian and Caroline a perfect Californai-style couple in New York who specialize in drama lessons for teenagers.  They want to know what deep-secret agonies their students are concealing, so that they may build their acting skills out of them.  And our heroine finds herself lacking: "I was furious that my parents didn't pull out my hair or toss me from windows."

Of course, she has a deepset problem and that is the insecure need to please Ian and Caroline.  Especially Ian.  And Ian figures she can reveal her deep secrets if she only tries some pot.  Or how about cocaine?

So if there is a crime here it is an adult man giving drugs to a fourteen year old girl.  And certainly there is the not-so-hidden reason he wants to get close to her.  If this was a standard crime story something nastier would happen.  But I am happy with the way it turns out.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Little Big News: Black Orchid Novella Award winner

Last night the Wolfe Pack held their annual banquet in honor of Rex Stout and gave the Black Orchid Novella Award to Susan Thibadeau for "The Discarded Spouse."  The winning novella will be published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in 2014. 

I won last year and I wish I could have been there in person to pass on the tiara and sceptre to Susan in person, but I am sure she had a great time without me.  Congratulations!

The Waverley Knees, by Ray Banks

"The Waverley Knees," by Ray Banks, in Noir Nation 2, edited by Eddie Vega, 2013.

What I like best about this story, I suppose, is its central conceit: that to a homeless guy on the sidewalk, the good citizens passing by are just a collection of knees.

Living down here, the knees were all you saw, and they saw little of you.  they were international  -- those trousers had a German accent, that skirt was French, those massive backpacks over there were probably Dutch or whatever language it was that sounded like English in reverse.

Grizzly is the homeless guy, stuck in front of Waverley Station in Edinburgh with his dog Winston.  Except Winston used to belong to someone else, which is where the conflict comes in, and gives Grizzly reason to get up off the sidewalk and, in true noir style, try to accomplish something.  But, in true noir fashion, there are no happy endings.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Saving Bessie's Worms, by Lynne Murphy

"Saving Bessie's Worms," by Lynne Murphy, in Mesdames of Mayhem: Thirteen, edited by
M.H. Callway, Donna Carrick, and Joan C. O'Callaghan, Carrick Publishing, 2013.

What we have here is a collection of crime stories by Canadian women.  So far, this is my favorite.  It is an example of what has been called "geezer noir," which seems to be a growing field as my fellow baby boomers head into retirement.  Not that this particular example is exactly noir.

The setting is the Cottonwoods Condo, a senior residence, and home to Bessie Bottomly.  A few days after she is hospitalized with a broken hip her neighbors realize that no one is taking care of her worms.  She raised them to make compost for the building's plants. 

The Sisterhood rushes to form Operation Worm Rescue, but it turns out that there is one resident in the Condo who is not a fan of invertebrates.  Can the Sisterhood save the worms?

Each of these ladies has a distinct personality, and their own way of talking.  I like 'em.

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
2013.

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.

 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Dead and Buried Treasure, by Barb Goffman

"Dead and Buried Treasure," by Barb Goffman, in All Hallow's Evil, edited by Sarah E. Glenn, Mystery and Horror, LLC.


The creators' of this book were kind enough to send me a copy. Thirteen stories with a Halloween theme.  So far, this bit of romantic suspense is my fave.

At age twenty-five, Lizzie is the last member of her college crowd to remain single, a fact that her dear friends are not about mentioning.  At a wedding she meets a waiter who seems like a nice guy, but those same friends -- all married to doctors and lawyers, all thinner and more attractive than Lizzie -- are incredulous of the very idea of dating a waiter.  

And Lizzie begins to wonder who her friends are, in more senses than one.  Eventually, of course, there is a crime, and that reminded me of a very old joke about the difference between friends and real friends.

There is a twist at the end that didn't turn the whole story upside down but did make me say hmm...

A fun read.