Sunday, August 31, 2014

Jaguar, by Joesph Wallace

"Jaguar," by Joseph Wallace, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2014.

I will be writing about the structure of this story on Wednesday at Sleuthsayers.  Book your tickets now. 

Plotwise, this is the story of Ana, who is  a rainforest tour guide in Belize.  She meets a wealthy American tourist who may be able to get her out  of a bad home situation.  But there is more going on than appears at first.  And since the story alternates between Belize and New York City (that structure thing I mentioned) you get to see cause and effect scrambled together very nicely.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Inspector Zhang Gets His Wish, by Stephen Leather

"Inspector Zhang Gets His Wish," by Stephen Leather, on Crime City Central, episode 106. 

Technically this is the best story I heard last week.  I have been enjoying Crime City Central ever since they created a podcast of one of my own stories.   And I have read a few of Mr. Leather's novels. but this is my first exposure to his short stories.

And a good one it is, with a bit of a split personality.  It is set in Singapore, the "city without crime."  An American tourist has been murdered in a hotel and Inspector Zhang calmly works his way through the investigation.

But the whole tone changes when our heroes realizes, with delight, that this is what he has been waiting for his entire career for: a locked room mystery.  He becomes more eccentric as he lectures his suspects and fellow officers on John Dickson Carr's famous seven types of locked room murders.  And inevitably he comes up with a fair solution that the reader should have seen coming.  You won't, of course.  But that's part of the fun.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Pussycat, Pussycat, by Stephen Ross

"Pussycat, Pussycat," by Stephen Ross, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2014.

My fellow SleuthSayers blogger, Stephen Ross, lives in New Zealand, but his latest story is set firmly in the England of the early 1960s.  

The narrator is a hardware salesman.  Don't think hammers and nails.  We're talking about weaponry here.  And Pussycat, one of his good friends, announces he wants to buy a rifle.  He plans to shoot a pumpkin.  Well, that's harmless enough, except he wants to hide in a tree and shoot at the pumpkin when it is on a stick ten feet off the ground.

"It seems to me," I remark, "that your pumpkin had the size and shape of a human head.  Are you planning to shoot somebody?"

Pussycat doesn't answer.  But he does remark later that he hates the Beatles.  "They're what's wrong with this miserable country."

Is he planning to kill a Beatle?  Or is something else going on?

I should say I guessed the punchline, so to speak.  I think anyone who shares certain characteristics with me would.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Francetta Repays Her Debt To Society, by Susan Oleksiw

"Francetta Repays Her Debt To Society," by Susan Oleksiw, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2014.

I thought long and hard before choosing a story for this week.  I find this one problematic, as I will explain, but it reached the top of the pile.

As the story opens Francetta is getting out of prison after six months.  We see her dealing with some people, one way or another, and making some, shall we say, life choices. 

Oleksiw has decided, in this story at least, that less is more.  She tells you as little as she can and makes you work out the rest.

For example, a friend gives Francetta some prescription drugs.  She then walks out of  the building and a policeman promptly searches her, finding nothing.  "Something missing, Officer?"

From this we know: 1) the friend was no friend, 2) at least some of the cops in this town are on the take, and 3) Francetta already knew 1) and 2) and ditched the drugs accordingly.

But none of that is stated in the story.  You have to figure it out, and that can be problematic.  There is a scene near the end where I am still not sure how many characters were present.  But it is a good story, with a  satisfying ending.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

An Open-and Shut Case, by Brian Tobin

"An Open-and Shut Case," by Brian Tobin, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2014.

Hmm... What to say about this one?

Usually when I don't want to say much it is because 1) the story is very short, or 2) there is a twist ending I don't want to give away.

Neither is true in this case.  In fact, the problem is that this story does not twist.  It is a straight line from the beginning to the end.  What makes it stand out is that the hero (and the author) has the nerve to make this plan and carry it out.

When the story begins Sheriff Maloney is looking at the corpse of Curtis Frye, dead in the doorway of his own house.  Frye was bad news, a meth-head who killed a woman for thirty bucks.  He was tried for the crime three times but most of the evidence had been kicked out on a technicality, resulting in three hung juries.

After getting the investigation started Mahoney gets in his car and makes a phone call: 

"You owe me, Roy.  This is me calling in my chit.  Tonight, you cannot kill yourself."

This is the second time Tobin made my list this year.  A dazzling story, right down to the sheriff's explanation of his actions at the very end.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Wildcraft, by Ellen Larson

"Wildcraft," by Ellen Larson, in M: Mystery and Horror, May 2014.

I always warn you if there is a factor outside of a story's own merits that could cause me to favor it.  Usually that means the author is a friend or blogmate of mine.  In this case the reason for full disclosure is somewhat different: Ms. Larson, who I don't know, sent me a copy of this magazine's first issue.

But I definitely enjoyed her story the most of any I read this week, which is the rule for this column.  This is a story about a police chief investigating a crime, which is no surprise, but the crime is unusual and so is the investigation.

Someone has shot a deer a day before the season opens.  That's illegal but what outrages the chief is that the poacher, not having made a clean kill, allows the deer to limp away to die in misery.  And so, rather than hunting the bad guy, our hero goes off in search of the victim, to finish the job as mercifully as possible. Along the way he ponders all his suspects and figures out who the shooter must be.  It's a clever approach.

I do have a caveat.  A few weeks ago in this space I wrote about dialect, and how less is more.  One of Larson's characters talks like this: "I sayed I was trackin' 'im.  I didn't say I'd shot him!  Like yuz, I heard the shot is all."  That is more dialect than I, for one, need.

Best of luck to thenew magazine.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Rough Justice / Tender Mercies, by Leonhard August

"Rough Justice / Tender Mercies," by Leonhard August, in Death and the Detective, edited by Jess Faraday, Elm Books, 2014.

This story has an interesting structure.  The real action takes place on one day, and ends with an act of violence, but the narrative begins after that is over.  Then it runs back to tell us the background of the narrator and his friend Earl.  The story is a quarter over before the action begins.  And after we reach the climax it goes on for almost another quarter, ending up where it started. 

Sounds complicated, but I don't think you could have made this story work any other way.

The main characters are Shadow Wolves, members of the Tohono O'odham tribe working as border agents for Homeland Security.  The main action concerns the discovery that one of their confidential informers, a woman working with a very dangerous group of Mexican smugglers, has been found dead. 

But don't assume you know where the plot is going.  The actual direction is hidden in the background August has so carefully laid out for you. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Murder on Orchard Road, by Nury Vittachi

"Murder on Orchard Road," by Nury Vittachi, in Singapore Noir, edited by Cheryl Lu-Tien Tan, Akashic Press, 2014.

The term "political correctness" or PC has become an epithet.  It is seen as a form of censorship or advocacy of wimpiness.

Wasn't always that way.  As I recall someone asked the folksinger Fred Small if he was ever "not PC."  He replied "Do you mean am I ever intentionally rude?"

I bring this up because most of the stories in Singapore Noir use dialect, by which I mean attempting to indicate on the page the non-standard language and pronunciation of the characters.  Dialect has been out of favor for a long time, for a lot of good reasons: it can be amazingly annoying to read and, it can seem insulting to the people whose language is being mimicked.

On the other hand, a lot of the people in these stories set in Singapore are not going to speak like they went to Harvard or Oxford.  What's an author to do?

The usual thinking these days is that less is more.  Put in just enough dialect to indicate the speech patterns, without driving the ready crazy.  (By the way, if you want to hear my attempt at a dialect story, here is a free podcast.)

Mr. Vittachi's is about an older Chinese may named C.F. Wong.  And here is one of his longer speeches: "Slow race no good.  Makes bad TV.  Sponsors very angry.  Race organizer very angry."

Gives you a sense of how Wong speaks.  Whether it accurately reflects Chinese speech in Singapore is beyond me.

And I suppose that tells you a bit of what the story is about.  But there is more.  Here is the opening:

His New Year's resolution was to give up murders.  Murders were horrible, messy, smelly, difficult, heart-rending things.  And not nearly as profitable as they used to be.

Mr. Wong is a feng shui master and his specialty has been spiritually cleansing murder scenes.  But today he hopes to only deal with a car race (which as you see above, seems to be going wrong).  And then there is the case of the food taster accused of poisoning his clients...


Not noir, but entertaining. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Aix to Grind, by Robert Mangeot

"Aix to Grind," by Robert Mangeot, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2011.

The narrator and his partner Gus are in France in the market for cheese.  Not cheese really,  That's just what they call the artworks they steal from dairies.  Dairies are what they call private art collections.

But this time the narrator wants to rob a factory.  Which is what they call museums.

Oh, never mind.  The point is this is a very witty, cleverly plotted story about a burglary.  Just remember: Ne vous fiez pas n'importe qui.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

It'll Cost You, by Neil Schofield

"It'll Cost You," by Neil Schofield, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2014.

Lawrence Block once wrote that "A story must have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order."  The current fashion is to start as far into the action as you can and then explain what went before in flashbacks.

But what about starting at the end?  I don't mean telling the story in reverse like, for example, the movie Betrayal.  No, I am thinking of stories that begin by revealing how they will end, and then jump to the start.  Two more classic movies come to mind: Sunset Boulevard and American Beauty,  both of which start with the narrator informing you that he gets killed (and one of them still manages to provide a surprise ending).

My friend Neil Schofield has provided a witty and very clever story of this type. Georgie Hopcraft starts out by cheerfully telling us that he is in prison and his cell mate is "another murderer," which is a little misleading because Georgie has been convicted of a murder he did not commit.

Then why is he so cheerful?  Well, it  has to do with that cell mate, and I will leave it at that.

But Georgie goes on to explain the whole story.  He was a somewhat shady owner of a "slightly better-class second and bric-a-brac shop" in London.  But when his soon-to-be ex-wife was dissatisfied with the upcoming settlement she found a way to get him framed into prison.  And we get to watch the whole framing process.

And yet, Georgie remains cheerful.  Hmm. This leads us to...

SPOILER ALERT. 

This story is, oddly enough, a fair play mystery.  That usually means the reader has all the clues needed to figure out the identity of the murderer.  In this story that is a given, but you have all the clues to figure out how Georgie will prove he didn't do it. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Big Little News: Macavity Nominations

The Mystery Readers International have announced the Macavity Award nominations.  Congrats to all!



Best Mystery Short Story 
“The Terminal” by Reed Farrel Coleman (Kwik Krimes, edited by Otto Penzler; Thomas & Mercer)
“The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository” by John Connolly (Bibliomysteries: Short Tales about Deadly Books, edited by Otto Penzler; Bookspan)
“The Dragon’s Tail” by Martin Limon (Nightmare Range: The Collected Sueno and Bascom Short Stories, Soho Books)
“The Hindi Houdini” by Gigi Pandian (Fish Nets: The Second Guppy Anthology, edited by Ramona DeFelice Long; Wildside Press)
“Incident on the 405” by Travis Richardson (The Malfeasance Occasional: Girl Trouble, edited by Clare Toohey; Macmillan)
 “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants” by Art Taylor (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2013) - See more at: http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2014/06/macavity-award-nominations-2014.html#sthash.DKuKS366.dpuf

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Crimes of Passion, by Michael Guillebeau

"Crimes of Passion," by Michael Guillebeau, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, August 2014.

So, when is a stereotype okay in writing?  I don't mean an offensive racial or whatever stereotype, I mean a character who is so perfectly a type that you know what they are going to do before they do.

I guess, as usual, the answer is: it's okay when it works. 

Guillebeau's story is full of characters like this.  Within a few pages you can predict, not precisely what will happen, but who will end up with the dirty end of the stick and who will walk away clean as artisan soap.

Josh is a poor boy who lives in the Florida panhandle.  "Poor" is the keyword because his family's shack is between two mansions, where his best friends live.  Those over-privileged, entitled friends, Waylon and the just-blooming Melody, are the main cliches in the story.

As it begins, the three of them find a dead body in the water.  Waylon finds a stack of money in the man's coat and promptly takes it.  Josh -- the thoughtful member of the three -- has to decide whether to go along with this or tell the truth.  And everything that follows is as inevitable as a Greek tragedy, writ small.

Apparently Guillebeau has a novel about the same character, Josh Somebody.  Might be worth a look-see.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Plow Guy, by Brendan DuBois

"The Plow Guy," by Brendan DuBois, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2014.

Henry Conway has a somewhat eccentric plan for his retirement.  He wants to move to a small town in New Hampshire, buy a dog for company, and plow people's driveways.  Seems easy enough, but he runs into a couple of problems, especially a man who beats his wife, a problem Henry isn't willing to ignore.

But Henry has an interesting skill set.  Did I mention what work he retired from?  Neither does he, exactly.

I chose my retirement home like I was planning for an overseas op.  Oops, I meant to say, setting up a budget spreadsheet.  Or a request for proposals.  Or something innocent like that.

Oddly enough, I enjoyed the story more before the inevitable conflict came along.  Henry is an interesting  fellow and, honestly, the bad guy just wasn't enough of a challenge for him.  But the writing is lovely.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Little Big News: Shamus Nominations

The Private Eye Writers of AMerica have spoken.  Congratulations to the nominees!

BEST P.I. SHORT STORY
“So Long, Chief” by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane in The Strand Magazine
"The Ace I" by Jack Fredrickson in EQMM
“What We Do” by Mick Herron in EQMM
“Extra Fries” by Michael Z. Lewin in EQMM
“The Lethal Leeteg” by Hayford Peirce in EQMM 

BEST P.I. SHORT STORY
“So Long, Chief” by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane in The Strand Magazine
"The Ace I" by Jack Fredrickson in EQMM
“What We Do” by Mick Herron in EQMM
“Extra Fries” by Michael Z. Lewin in EQMM
“The Lethal Leeteg” by Hayford Peirce in EQMM - See more at: http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2014/06/shamus-award-finalists-2014-private-eye.html#sthash.YqFKRsOp.dpuf
BEST P.I. SHORT STORY
“So Long, Chief” by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane in The Strand Magazine
"The Ace I" by Jack Fredrickson in EQMM
“What We Do” by Mick Herron in EQMM
“Extra Fries” by Michael Z. Lewin in EQMM
“The Lethal Leeteg” by Hayford Peirce in EQMM - See more at: http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2014/06/shamus-award-finalists-2014-private-eye.html#sthash.YqFKRsOp.dpuf


BEST P.I. SHORT STORY
“So Long, Chief” by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane in The Strand Magazine
"The Ace I" by Jack Fredrickson in EQMM
“What We Do” by Mick Herron in EQMM
“Extra Fries” by Michael Z. Lewin in EQMM
“The Lethal Leeteg” by Hayford Peirce in EQMM - See more at: http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2014/06/shamus-award-finalists-2014-private-eye.html#sthash.2wRaM6Cn.dpuf

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Mary's Shallow Grave, by Phillip DePoy

"Mary's Shallow Grave," by Phillip DePoy, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2014.

If I am reading the editor's note correctly, this is intended to be the first in a series.  I look forward to the next. 

It's 1975 and the state of Florida has hired our narrator, Foggy, to operate Child Protective Services (for the whole state?  I hope not.).  And he shows up at the bar with the unprepossessing name that gives the story it's title, to tell the cook that his ex-wife in in a coma, her boyfriend is dead, and his eleven-year-old daughter is on the run.

That part of Florida had always been to me, the land of people who gave up.  They piled empty cardboard boxes on the front porch, rolled the broken fridge out onto the lawn; always thought it was too hot to paint the house.  And the flies didn't come in if you just put a piece of plastic over that tear in the screen.  Maybe it was the heat.  Even in October they could get days in the nineties.

There is stolen money, crooked cops, a wealthy Indian with nefarious plans, and a bunch of people using assorted ill-advised self-medication plans.  If there is any hope for an eleven-year-old girl in this mess it is going to have to be carved out of extra-legal maneuvers and deals with assorted devils. 

Fortunately, Foggy is up to the challenge. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

When I'm Famous, by Dara Carr

"When I'm Famous," by Dara Carr, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 2014. 

This is the best first story I have read in some time. Clever setting: Williamsburg, Brooklyn, among the hipsters. Exhibit A is our narrator, Mindy. She is, she tells us, a visual person. She has a "make-believe boyfriend," Marcus, who phones her late at night for "booty calls" and she always goes over.

One might diagnose low self-esteem. Here's another example. When Mindy spots a beautiful woman at a party, a "wallpaper artist," she writes:

...Brooklyn royalty and she knows it, the men twitching like they've been tased, the female viewers emitting a soft electric hum, brains working hard, calculating the age they were when they could have last worn shorts that length in public, let alone to a party; beaches don't count. Age seven would be my answer.

That's good writing.

Pretty soon the wallpaper artist is dead and there is no shortage of suspects.  In fact, they show up one after another like city buses.

But before I go here is one more line from our heroine:

One of the less commonly reported dangers of chronic marijuana use is buying decrepid old houses and thinking you can fix them up.

 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Hooch, by Bill Pronzini

"Hooch," by Bill Pronzini, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 2014.

I know I have said this before (and after you blog for a few years you suspect you have said everything before): the best endings are surprises that feel inevitable.  You want the reader to say "I never saw it coming but that was the only way the story could end."

And that, my friends, ain't easy.

Pronzini's story is about some thugs smuggling booze in from Canada during Prohibition.  Two of them are hardened criminals; the third one, Bennie, is a bright-eyed youngster who got everything he knows about crime from places like Black Mask Magazine.  In fact, he tells his colleagues cheerfully, he's writing a novel about the rum-running business.  All fictionalized of course..  Nothing for them to wrory about...

Well, you can see where this story is heading, can't you?  But there is a twist along the way, one that made me say "that's the only way the story could end."

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Little BIg News: Anthony Nominees, 2014

The Anthony Award nominees have been announced.  They will be voted on by those who attend the
Bouchercon Conference in Long Beach, and announced there in November.

Best Short Story Nominees
Craig Faustus Buck, “Dead Ends”
John Connolly, “The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository”
Deni Dietz, “Annie and the Grateful Dead”
Travis Richardson, “Incident on the 405”
Art Taylor, “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants”
Best Short Story
° “Dead Ends” by Craig Faustus Buck, Untreed Reads
° “The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository” by John Connolly
Bibliomysteries, The Mysterious Bookshop
° “Annie and the Grateful Dead” by Denise Dietz, The Sound and the Furry
° “Incident on the 405” by Travis Richardson, Malfeasance Occasional: Girl Trouble
° “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants” by Art Taylor, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March-April 2013 - See more at: http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2014/05/anthony-nominations-bouchercon-2014.html#sthash.kb1QE2Fz.dpuf
Best Short Story
° “Dead Ends” by Craig Faustus Buck, Untreed Reads
° “The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository” by John Connolly
Bibliomysteries, The Mysterious Bookshop
° “Annie and the Grateful Dead” by Denise Dietz, The Sound and the Furry
° “Incident on the 405” by Travis Richardson, Malfeasance Occasional: Girl Trouble
° “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants” by Art Taylor, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March-April 2013 - See more at: http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2014/05/anthony-nominations-bouchercon-2014.html#sthash.kb1QE2Fz.dpufsss
Best Short Story
° “Dead Ends” by Craig Faustus Buck, Untreed Reads
° “The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository” by John Connolly
Bibliomysteries, The Mysterious Bookshop
° “Annie and the Grateful Dead” by Denise Dietz, The Sound and the Furry
° “Incident on the 405” by Travis Richardson, Malfeasance Occasional: Girl Trouble
° “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants” by Art Taylor, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March-April 2013 - See more at: http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2014/05/anthony-nominations-bouchercon-2014.html#sthash.kb1QE2Fz.dpuf


Best Short Story
° “Dead Ends” by Craig Faustus Buck, Untreed Reads
° “The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository” by John Connolly
Bibliomysteries, The Mysterious Bookshop
° “Annie and the Grateful Dead” by Denise Dietz, The Sound and the Furry
° “Incident on the 405” by Travis Richardson, Malfeasance Occasional: Girl Trouble
° “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants” by Art Taylor, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March-April 2013 - See more at: http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2014/05/anthony-nominations-bouchercon-2014.html#sthash.kb1QE2Fz.dpuf

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Splitting Adams, by Percy Spurlock Parker

"Splitting Adams," by Percy Spurlark Parker, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2014. 


Terry Adams is a very unhappy man.  He's not good with women and he blames it on his big brother Jerry.  Jerry is slick and smooth and always moves in on Terry when he is trying to get started with a new lady. 

It has just happened again and Terry, well, Terry is about to lose it.

A clever piece of flash fiction.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Second Sight Unseen, by Richard Helms

"Second Sight Unseen," by Richard, Helms, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2014.

Helms offers us what is intended to be the first in a series of stories.  The concept here isn't new (hey, Sherlock Holmes wasn't the first genius detective either) but the characters are intersting and the writing is amusing. 

The narrator is Boy Boatwright, a cop who should have retired but is living on booze and adrenalin.  (When the story starts he is waking up with his face on the toilet rim.)  But the hero, for lack of a better word, is the remarkably-named Bowie Crapster.  Crapster is "five and a half feet tall, with a figure like a Bradford pear."  He dresses in flashy clothes and "looked like the vanguard of a midget Elvis parade."

Crapster claims to be a psychic detective but he graciously gives the cops all the credit for his work.  He just wants the reward money.  Boatwright loathes him, but the fact is, he is a pretty shrewd sleuth.  In this case he deals with the apparent kidnapping of the young heir to a wealthy family. 

Will he solve it?  Will he drive Boatwright back to the booze?  "Some days it just doesn't pay to get up out of the toilet."