Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Message In The Breath Of Allah, by Ali F. Sareini

"A Message In The Breath Of Allah," by Ali F. Sareini, in Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2014.

My problem with thematic anthologies is that I usually like the theme better than most of the stories.  Take, for instance, this book which has a brilliant plan: invite current or former guests of the American correctional system to write fiction about it.  Great idea.  And some of the stories are fine.

But so far, most of the ones I have read aren't crime stories.

Yes, I know.  Prison implies crime.  But if your subject is surviving in a hostile environment, the fact that a felony got you into the place doesn't by itself make it a crime story.

And then there is the whole noir thing.  Merely being violent and gloomy does not qualify a piece of fiction as noir.  As I have said here, too often, a noir story ideally has three elements: 1) a nobody, who 2) tries to be somebody, and 3) gets stomped on by fate.  Why are those the elements of noir?  For the same reason a sonnet has fourteen lines.

Having whined sufficiently for one day, let me address this masterful story by Ali F. Sareini, who recently finished a term for second degree homicide.

Ali (the character, not the author, I hope), has been praying to Allah for decades to be released from prison.  A weaker spirit might feel a twinge of doubt after all that time, but Ali concludes that his prayers are simply  the wrong media to get his message across.

He decides he needs to send a messenger directly to Allah.  Fortunately, he is working as a helper in the part of the prison full of elderly and ill inmates. "I reverently called the unit 'the messengers' home.'" So all he has to do is explain clearly the plea he wants delivered and then, immediately, send the astonished courier off to the afterlife.

That's the creepiest motive for murder I have run across in a long time.

(By the way, should I have included a spoiler alert?  No, because this isn't the plot of the story: it's the premise.)

So, does this story have crime?  Check.  Does it have a nobody trying to be somebody?  I would say trying to negotiate directly with Allah counts.  As for whether the ending counts as noir, telling that would need a spoiler alert.

By the way, this is a story with its theme showing.  (The theme is what the story is about, other than the plot and character.  Some people like it visible and some don't.)  The theme, repeated in several contexts is this: Why do we take care of each other?

Much to ponder in this great story.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Pit Stop, by Raymond Khoury and Linwood Barclay

"Pit Stop," by Raymond Khoury and Linwood Barclay, in Face-Off, edited by David Baldacci, Simon and Schuster, 2014. 

Still enjoying this collection of pairing-ups by members of the International Thriller Writers.  This week, my first encounter with  two authors.

Glen Garber is not your hero for a series of thrillers.  He's a builder, not a spy or criminologist.  And rather being a ladies' man, he's a widower with a ten-year-old daughter.  All he wants to do is bid on a farmhouse renovation when, well, he gets thrown into thriller territory.

Glen Garber had been given his coffee, but was still waiting for an order of chicken nuggets for his daughter, Kelly, when a woman raced into the restaurant screaming that some guy was on fire in the parking lot.

Well, that would get your attention.

Turns out the man on fire was just a distraction to help a bad guy get away from Sean Reilly, who is much more your standard thriller hero: the kind of FBI agent who doesn't let a little thing like a fresh concussion stop him from pursuing a maniac with a biological bomb.  And, did I mention he just kidnapped Glen Garber's daughter?

And that turns out to be a very bad idea, for the bad guy...
 


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Red Eye, by Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly

"Red Eye," by Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly, in Face-Off, edited by David Baldacci, Simon and Schuster, 2014.

The International Thriller Writers came up with a clever idea for an anthology: pair up top writers in stories in which their characters meet each other.  I'm enjoying it, so far.

My favorite at this point is the first story, in which Michael Connelly's L.A. cop Harry Bosch travels to Boston to get a DNA sample from a suspect in an old open case.  He "meets cute" as they say in Hollywood, with Dennis Lehane's private eye Patrick Kenzie, who suspects the same guy is involved in a current kidnapping.

So why aren't the Boston police leading the search for the missing teenager?  Kenzie explains: "She's the wrong color, the wrong caste, and there's enough plausible anecdotal shit swirling around her situation to make anyone question whether she was abducted or just walked off."

Lucky for her there are two men willing to break the rules to find her.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Crush Depth, by Brendan Dubois

"Crush Depth," by Brendan DuBois, in Mystery Writers of America present Ice Cold: Tales of Intrigue from the Cold War, 2014.

Hard time choosing between two very different stories this week, both in Ice Cold, and both excellent.  Sara Paretsky's "Miss Bianca" is about intrigue in a biological research lab, as seen through the eyes of a child.  "Crush Depth" is a look back at a genuine mystery of American military history, offering a possible explanation.  The first is cute, the latter is grim.  What finally decided me was their surprise endings.  Paretsky's seemed tacked on, while Dubois's was a genuine twist, putting a new light on everything that went before.


In "Crush Depth" it is a year after the Soviet Union collapsed and an intelligence agent named Michael is hanging around the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, naval yard, trying to make contact with someone who knows the truth behind a naval tragedy from the 1960s.

Michael thought it ironic that his work and the work of so many others was still going on, despite peace supposedly breaking out everywhere.

Cold war or hot war, there was always plenty of work to be done...

True and sad enough. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Last Confession, by John Lescroat

"The Last Confession," by John Lescroat, in Mystery Writers of America present Ice Cold: Tales of Intrigue from the Cold War, 2014.

Not surprisingly, a lot of these stories about the Cold War focus on Berlin.  But my favorite so far takes place in the good ol' U.S.A. and features nary a soldier nor spy.  Instead Lescroat is interested in how the Cuban Missile Crisis affects one American family.  The narrator, now an adult, was a high school boy whose younger brother was what we would now call autistic.  He has a hard time in school but things seem to be going okay until that awful October, 1962...

I think what I like best in this story is a character type I don't remember seeing in fiction before, but whom I recognize from real life: a vain, charismatic guy who has no clue as to how he can damage people's lives.  And in this case, alas, he's a priest.



Sunday, September 14, 2014

It's a Wonderful Rat-Race, by James Powell

"It's a Wonderful Rat-Race," by James Powell, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November 2014.  

I guess it makes a sort of sense that when my friend James Powell writes about madness the result is slightly less crazy than his usual work.  His usual tale contains a free-association of bizarre connections, like a garden sprinkler shooting water in all directions.  This one is more tightly focused (although he does offer some odd riffs on human conception and the well-known Jimmy Stewart movie).

Obsession is either comic or tragic, depending on how close you stand to the fallout.  Hilda Ross is a neatnik.  She is delighted when her grown children move away because she can finally get wall-to-wall white carpeting.  And she loves her house and her less fastidious neighbor, because "to really succeed neatness-wise you needed a messy best friend."

But one day that friend's husband casually releases a piece of folk wisdom that turns Hilda's life upside down, turning good into bad, light into dark, and--  Well, you have to read it.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Crossing the River Styx, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

"Crossing the River Styx," by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November 2014.

They'd left, all of them.  They'd left, taking the light with them.  Now Edith huddled in the darkest place she'd ever been in, her face, hands, and shirtwaist soaked with blood.  Frank was dead beside her.  She'd known that from the moment the shot hit him.  Hot blood spurted out of him, coating her, and he made all kinds of groaning sounds.

Someone shouted, "Murder!" and the others ran as if their lives depended on it...

Well.  That's an exciting way to start a story, isn't it?

The illustration clued me in to the fact that this takes place in the 1920s, which made me think we were in a Bonnie-and-Clyde scenario, but not quite.  Edith is a proper young woman on her honeymoon and Frank has taken her to the Oregon Caves.  That's where the extreme darkness comes in.

Now Edith has to find a way out of the cave by herself (crossing a creek known as, yes River Styx) and figure out whether she is in danger from the men who fought with  her husband.

The other key viewpoint character is Albert, a mechanic employed by the Forest Service that runs the caves. They will both learn something about themselves before the night is over.

As usual, a very good story from Ms. Rusch.

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.