Sunday, November 30, 2014

My Sweet Angel of Death, by Hilary Davidson

My Sweet Angel of Death, by Hilary Davidson, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, December 2014.

The narrator of this story has just arrived in South America on a one-way ticket.  We don't know her story at first, just that there is a tragedy in the background.  Was she victim, villain, or something else? 

While we ponder that we meet the other vacationers at the hacienda in rural Peru where she is staying.  One is a sleazy actor, on the make.  But the others may bear watching as well.  And our protagonist just wants to be left alone to fulfill a grim promise...

This is one of those stories that sneaks up on you.  I like a story in which a character has a second chance, as happens here, but I had no idea it would be my best of the week until I got to one sentence that made my jaw drop.  If I had come up with that bit of plot I would have spent at least a page on it; Davidson fires it off in ten well-chosen words.  Hammett and Stark would be proud.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Disco Donna, by Shari Randall

"Disco Donna," by Shari Randall, in Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays, edited by Donna Andrews, Barb Goffman, and Marcia Talley, Wildside Press, 2014.

Following last week's grim story of a disappearing child in Sweden, here is a much lighter story of a murdered teenager in Maryland.  Go figure.

The narrator and her two friends are high school girls preparing to dress as hippies for Halloween.  In a used clothing store they find a box of leftovers from Disco Donna, the town's legendary unsolved murder victim.  (Her former home had just been renovated.)  This leads to a second box that had been donated to the town library, and in that box they find a clue to the murderer.

The main pleasure here is the language of the teenagers.

People cracked.  That happened on Lifetime all the time, too.

We OMG'ed up the stairs.

She reverted to Korean, which she did only when she was completely unhinged or in gym class.

Fun stuff.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Day and Night My Keeper Be, by Malin Persson Giolito

"Day and Night My Keeper Be," by Malin Persson Giolito, in A Darker Shade of Sweden, edited by John-Henri Holmberg, Grove-Atlantic, 2014.

Sorry this review is late; I was at Bouchercon.

Now we are back in Sweden again, literarily speaking, for a much grimmer story than last week.  (But if the subject as I describe it might scare you away from reading the story, please read the SPOILER I put at the end of this review.)

Petra is a single mother and after a long December day is at the end of her rope, so she decides to take her children to the Christmas market.  And - boom - her four-year-old daughter disappears.  And the tension rockets.

She presses a few buttons, shakes it, but it's pointless.  Her daughter is gone and the phone won't ring and fear has to duck because now terror runs up her back, with sharp talons and pointed teeth.

Evetually the cops arrive and Officer Helena Svensson becomes the viewpoint character.  She is trying to lead the investigation, while judging whether Petra's reactions are normal -- and what's normal in a situation like this?  And she is keenly aware that in Stockholm in December a child who falls asleep outside could die of exposure.

At Bouchercon a panel was debating enthusiastically whether a crime story needed a surprise ending.  This tale doesn't have one.  It ends with the cop - and the reader - asking a set of plaintive questions.  Not at all a standrad crime story, but a doozy nonetheless.

And now: SPOILER ALERT: For some readers the death of a child is taboo, so: No childen die in this one.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

An alibi for Señor Banegas, by Magnus Montelius

"An alibi for Señor Banegas," by Magnus Montelius, in A Darker Shade of Sweden, edited by John-Henri Holmberg, Grove-Atlantic, 2014.

Funny story: when I heard about this book I went to a big ebook store to buy it.  The store was convinced I wanted to buy a different book with shades in the title.  Something about the color grey.  Eventually we worked that out.

The Swedes and I seem to have a disagreement about what constitutes a good ending.  Several times I would be enjoying a story, thinking, this could be the best of the week, and then it would end and I would think, don't call us, we'll call you.

That's not a problem with the story my Mr. Montelius.  It is also the lightest story I have come across so far in this intentionally dark collection.  That may have helped it in my evaluation.

Adam works for a company that wants a contract from the Honduran government, and so he is playing host to an official, Señor Banegas, who is visiting Stockholm in December.  The problem is, Banegas has fallen in love and wants to spend the week with his sweetheart, not his wife.  To arrange that, he has created an elaborate schedule, supposedly Adam's work, that fills all of his daylight hours.

But here's the catch.  Banegas' wife is so suspicious - God knows why! - that she might well check up on him.  So he wants Adam to tell his wife the same story, and stay away from home for most of Christmas week.

An outrageous demand, but there is a twist -  Adam is delighted to cooperate because his loathsome inlaws are visiting.  He can slip away, claiming he is visitng Banegas, and spend the day in a museum or coffee shop, far from the annoying relatives.

What could possibly go wrong?

The fact that the story begins with Adam talking to a defense attorney gives you a hint...



Sunday, November 2, 2014

Male Leary Comes Home, by Michael Guillebeau

"Male Leary Comes Home," by Michael Guillebeau, in The Anthology of Cozy Noir, edited by Andrew MacRae, Dark House Books, 2014.

First things first: I have a story of my own in this anthology, so that may affect my objectivity.

And let's talk about the theme of this anthology: what the heck is cozy noir?  Besides an oxymoron, I mean.

Cozy has been defined as "a mystery in which people get killed but no one gets hurt."  Noir, as I said a few weeks ago, is fiction in which a nobody tries to be somebody and gets stomped for it.  There isn't really much overlap between those two fields.  Most of the authors I the book (so far as I have read) have interpreted it more or less this way: Something violent and nasty happens in a relatively idyllic place.  Fair enough.

We are almost to this story, the second by Mr. Guillebeau that has made my column this year.  But first, we have to talk its subgenre.

There are two ways to build a piece of historical fiction: external and internal.  (They are not exclusive, by the way).  External means you bury yourself in the details of the time and place you are writing about, so that the reader is convinced that you know (even if you don't tell) who built every conestoga wagon, Byzantine chariot, or Ford Flivver your characters rush to the rescue in.

Internal means that you create characters who talk, speak (within reasonable limits) and most importantly, think like people of that time and place.  That's much harder than figuring out what an eighteenth-century policeman would have had for breakfast.  One reason it's hard is that, if we are honest, a lot of people in the past are going to have opinions we find unpleasant or unacceptable.  Do you really want your protagonist to talk about African-Americans like a real cop in the forties might have done?

And so you may get the feeling that under that Roman toga the hero is wearing modern Fruit-of-the-Looms.

The reason I like this story so much is that (while it is not offensive to modern eyes) it reads like the author grew up on Black Mask magazines, fought in World War II, and came back to write about what he found at home.

Which brings us to the Leary guy in the title.  He was baptized Robert T.  His birth certificate calls him Male.  His friends call him Mister.

Under any name, he was in the Navy during the War and then joined the merchant marine.  When the story opens he's back from sea and learns that the father of his girlfriend is having trouble with a gang boss.   Leary and a friendly bar owner get involved and - something violent and nasty happens in a relatively idyllic place..

The last few paragraphs, with Hammett-esque irony, illustrate the cozy-noir theme so well that they might have been written with this book in mind.  In any case, the story is a treat.




Sunday, October 26, 2014

Little Big News: Big book of Shanks stories

I am pleased to report that my first collection of short stories has been published.  There are thirteen stories about Leopold Longshanks, plus author's notes and two blog entries about the curmudgeonly mystery writer (him, not me).  Four of the stories are new, the rest appeared in Alfred Hitchcok's Mystery Magazine.  Enjoy.

Milk and Tea, by Linda Michelle Marquardt

"Milk and Tea," by Linda Michelle Marquardt, in Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2014.

We are back for a second helping of Prison Noir.  Last week was about a clever concept, skillfully executed.  This week is all about heightened language.  One advantage of using an e-reader is you can mark interesting passages, and in this story I highlighted too many to review here.

The story begins with a description of a suicide in the prison.  Then:  Damn!  I was jealous.

That's our first indication that the story is in first person.  The protagonist is a woman who killed her abusive partner.  (And I should say that the abuse is described pretty graphically; this is the most violent tale I have read so far in this book.)

Love of her children keeps her from reaching for death, although I crave it like iced tea on a summer day.  See what I mean about heightened language?

Here she deals with the ever-recurring question: why does a woman stay with a bad man?

Apparently, if you're an educated person, this can be held against you, as if there is some Abuse 101 course in college that prepares you to recognize the waring signs.  There isn't.


This is a powerful piece of writing.

Ms. Marquardt, like her protagonist, is incarcerated at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Michigan.


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.