Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Paler Shade of Death, by Laura Benedict

"A Paler Shade of Death," by Laura Benedict, in St. Louis Noir, edited by Scott Akashic Press, 2016.

This may the grimmest story I ever chose as my best of the week.  Nothing jolly here, folks.

Becca is moving to a duplex because her husband has a restraining order out against her.  Seems she threw some tea cups at him, among other things.

Their son died a few years ago and they have recovered at different paces, which leads to tension.  That can happen after a tragedy.

But there are rumors flying around the neighborhood that the child's death was not an accident.  And Becca is drinking a lot.  Plus there is a little boy who keeps following her around, a few years older than her own son would have been.  What's that all about?

I sometimes complain that the editors of the Akashic Noir series forget that it isn't enough just to be depressing; the stories need crime as well.  No worries here; Benedict is not afraid to get her characters' hands dirty.  If you like your fiction grim, I recommend it.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Playing the Ace, by Loren D. Estleman

"Playing the Ace," by Loren D. Estleman, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2016.

This is the second appearance in this space for Estleman and his stories of the Four Horsemen.  While it is not a whodunit there are mysteries of a sort that left me pleasantly puzzled.  We will get to them.

The Four Horsemen are what remains of the vice squad of the Detroit Police Department during World War II.  They are not popular with the bosses but are determined to stay  in nice safe Michigan and not get sent to, say Iwo Jima.

In this case they are given the job of bodyguarding a flying ace who is in Detroit on a tour to promote war bonds.  Problem is he turns out to not be a very nice person.  And that's putting it mildly.  So our alleged  heroes have to decide what to do about that.

Which brings up my puzzles.  If this a crime story, what crime exactly is the subject?  And are the Horsemen working for or against the war effort in  this affair?

Read it and decide for yourself.  You will enjoy it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Asleep When Awake, by Duane Swierczynski

"Asleep When Awake," by Duane Swierczynski, in The Strand Magazine, June-September 2016.

This is Swierczynski's second appearance here.
 
As I have said before, yea, in this very space, you don't need a new plot device to write a terrific story.  You can just think of something original to do with an old one.

The idea of two personalities inhabiting one body goes back at least to Robert Louis Stevenson.  And that appears to be what's going on.

Gibbs is keeping a journal to try to make sense of what's going on in his life, and maybe in his head.  A woman in California invited him to her party so he driving all the way from Philadelphia for the occasion.  He has no clue why he would agree to do that.

But someone else writes in the journal too when Gibbs is drunk, and then maliciously destroys the pages...

Is this a simple case of psychosis or is something much more sinister going on?

I can't much more without giving stuff away. It is a satisfactory tale with several twists I did see coming.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Prowl, by James Creally


"Prowl," by James Creally, in Thuglit: Last Writes, 2016.

I am sorry to say goodbye to Thuglit.  Todd Robinson and his staff have done terrific work with this magazine - last year two of the 14 stories on my Best Of list came from Thuglit.  I am sorry the market didn't support the magazine as well as it deserved.

My favorite story in this issue is by James Creally.  Try this line on for size:

"I'm sorry.  Things just aren't working out."

That is a man breaking up with his girlfriend.  What a cliche, right?  Why would I bore you with such a banal line?

Well, Lonnie, our protagonist, is saying it to the woman who has just broken into his apartment with a hired thug because she discovered he was stealing from her.  Which makes the cliche response a bit more interesting.

Lonnie is a failed scriptwriter, now making his living by bedding older women, i.e. cougars, and robbing them.  It is not, as they say, sustainable, so he is trying to find a different approach as well, which may mean asking someone else he robbed for help.  Comic noir.

I was a bit disappointed by the ending, but a very good story over all.

And goodbye, Thuglit.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Voices in the Cistern, by William Burton McCormick

"Voices in the Cistern," by William Burton McCormick in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, August 2016.

This is McCormick's  second story about Quintus the Clever, a thief in the early days of the Roman empire.  And Quintus is having a bad day.

It isn't enough that he is in a city under seige by the Roman's deadly Scythian enemies.  No, he also has to deal with Vibius, a large, nasty, unscrupulous rogue.  The brute has decided Quintus is the perfect co-conspirator to help him with a dangerous scheme.  The last person involved was actually killed by, uh, Vibius.  So, what could go wrong?

At one point they pass through a house whose residents had been killed, supposedly in a Scythian attack.

"Since when do the Scythians use short swords, Vibius?"
"Since I sold them short swords," he grunts.

So things are pretty bad for Quintus.  But don't worry; they will get worse.  And then Quintus has to make a decision and either choice will break his tiny, larcenous heart...

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Meter of Murder, by Mark Thielman

"A Meter of Murder," by Mark Thielman, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2016.

In his first published story (!) Mark Thielman seems to have played midwife to the love child of Rex Stout and Lillian de la Torre. Or maybe I have just been infected with his characters' love of metaphor.

"A Meter of Murder" is this year's winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award, which is co-sponsored by AHMM and the Wolfe Pack, dedicated fans of Rex Stout.  Often but not always the winner follows the formula of Stout's Nero Wolfe stories: a genius detective who seldom goes anywhere, and a narrator who does the footwork.  So it is in Thielman's story.

But this novella is also part of a subgenre which, as far as I know was invented by Lillian de la Torre.  I assume she was reading Arthur Conan Doyle one day and noticed that Holmes referred to Watson as "my Boswell."  And she thought: If Watson is Boswell why can't Boswell be Watson?  And so she created the Samuel Johnson: Detector series, the first mystery stories to make use of a real person as the fictional hero.

And now, at last,  we can get to Thielman's story.

London in 1661 was a very dangerous place.  King Charles II had just taken the throne and anyone who had been on the Roundhead side in the Civil War, or worked with Cromwell after, had to keep one eye over his shoulder, expecting arrest or worse.

One of those was the blind poet John Milton, not yet the creator of Paradise Lost.  The narrator of the novella is Milton's younger friend, Andrew Marvell, who was both a member of Parliament and a poet.

At the beginning of what turns out to be a very long day Marvell comes to tell his friend that a royalist member of the House of Commons has been killed in circumstances that suggest a possible political motive.  If someone doesn't find out whodunit, then the people of their party may be chosen as the killer.

And so Milton gets on the case, sending Marvell out to investigate and bring back suspects.  Thielman clearly knows his Restoration London and his Rex Stout.  I enjoyed this novella a lot.

One line made me laugh out loud.  Milton to a suspect: "Sir, don't be pugnacious.  Spare us your vehemence."

Doesn't that sound exactly like Nero Wolfe?

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Shortcut to Gringo Hill, by James Nolan

"Shortcut to Gringo Hill," by James Nolan, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2016.

Lot of good stories in this issue but so far the laurel wreath goes to this somewhat bizarre story by James Nolan.

The narrator is a recovering alcoholic who gets a call from Grasshopper, for whom he has been acting as AA sponsor.  Grasshopper has been diagnosed with stage-three liver cancer and has decided to drink himself to death in Mexico.

Off he goes to the sunny southland but the big C is not what takes him away.  Instead his head has found on the short cut between the local village and the suburb for American ex-pats.  His body never turns up.  So our hero heads down there to recover the head and try to find out what happened.

Did I say bizarre?  He meets an ex-stripper, a couple of midgets, a crooked cop, a grouchy dentist - and all in a town where "the funeral home is the only place open all night."


Very compelling story with well-drawn characters.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Gathering of Great Detectives, by Shawn Reilly Simmons

"A Gathering of Great Detectives," by Shawn Reilly Simmons in Malice Domestic: Murder Most Conventional, edited by Verena Rose, Barb Goffman, and Rita Owen, Wildside Press, 2016.

All the stories in this book take place at conventions, conferences, club meetings, or the like and part of the fun is seeing how the authurs use that.  Simmons features, largely enough, a mystery weekend.

The twist is that all the guests - and hosts - come dressed as great fictional detectives, and are penalized if they dare to speak out of character. Now Inspector Bucket (from Dickens' Bleak House)
has tumbled down a flight of stairs and two genuine cops are trying to figure it out how it happened.

Their big problem is that the suspects and witnesses think they are part of the act and start ringing penalty bells if they try to speak as if this was a real-life event.  Funny, and bizarre.

I may be prejudiced in favor of this story because it reminds me (in a non-plagiarizing way) of my story "Shanks Gets Killed," which also involves a murder weekend and a Maltese Falcon-related prize.  But in any case, Simmons has given us a fun read.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Flight, by Trina Corey

"Flight," by Trina Corey, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, in July 2016.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a story featuring amnesia and said that what matters is not that a device has been used before, but what you do with it this time.  This week the device is paralysis

Rachel is in a nursing home.  She can only move a few facial muscles and, on a good day, twitch the fingers of one hand.

At night, some creepy man has been coming into her dark room to cheerfully tell her about his career as a serial killer and his plans to kill another of the residents.  Is he a resident, a staffer, or someone else?  She can't see him.  But clearly he is getting pleasure from telling his plans to a person who can't tell anyone.

Can Rachel find a way to tell someone what is happening?  Will anyone believe her?  A very suspenseful story.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Blame the Bear, by Brian Haycock

"Blame the Bear," by Brian Haycock, in Mystery Weekly, June 11, 2016.

I believe this is the first story from Mystery Weekly to make my weekly best.  It was also their free sample of the week, which you can get sent to your email.

The story is a little thing, flash fiction or close to it, more anecdote than full-blown story.  But it's interesting. containing a character sketch (the narrator), nice language use, and something to think about.

Here's how it starts:

I only know three ways people ever get eaten by bears. There could be others, but I haven’t run across them. 

The gentleman meditating here is a  small-town coroner in West Texas, and as you may have guessed, he is dealing with the results of one of those three methods.  The victim is a meth cooker who apparently lost a fight with a colleague, which led to him starting a new career as bear chow.

Our coroner explains what he can tell from the partial remains that have been brought in by the violently ill deputies. Then he ponders the unfairness of the future that is sure to be waiting for the bear.

And that's about it.  Like I said, it's slight, but it hangs together, and is definitely worth a read.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Blank Shot, by Craig Faustus Buck.

"Blank Shot," by Craig Faustus Buck, in Black Coffee, edited by Andrew MacRae, Dark House Books, 2016.

This is the second appearance on this page by Craig Faustus Buck.

Amnesia appears in fiction more often than it does in real life.  But then again, so do dying message clues, femme fatales, genius detectives and a lot of other tools of the trade.  The trick is what use you make of the item.

Buck has taken us to 1960, East Berlin at the height of the Cold War.  Our protagonist has been shot in the head, a grazing blow that vaporized his memory - or most of it.  Now the cops want to know what happened, and the deadly secret police, the Stasi, are lurking on the sidelines, up to God knows what.

Our hero speaks German and English.  Which is he?  He has the name Slade tattooed on his arm.  Is that his name?  Will he figure out who he is before the shooter realizes he is alive and makes another try?

A fine piece of work.



Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Hotel Hate, by Michael Chandos

"Hotel Hate," by Michael Chandos, in Black Coffee, edited by Andrew MacRae, Darkhouse Books.

This story is set in the world of prohibition in one of the fancy backwoods hotels where gangsters could relax until the heat cooled down.  Our narrator is the owner of Hotel Hatteras in Michigan, called Hotel Hate by her rotten husband who deserted her years ago.  Now he's back and trouble follows...

A nice tale with plenty of period touches.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Best Laid Plans, by Barb Goffman

"The Best Laid Plans," by Barb Goffman, in Malice Domestic: Murder Most Conventional, edited by Verena Rose, Barb Goffman, and Rita Owen, Wildside Press, 2016.

My fellow SleuthSayer Barb Goffman has contributed a nice tale to Malice Domestic's latest anthology, which contains stories related to conventions, conferences, and suchlike scenes of murder and mayhem.   Oops, I should have mentioned that this is her second appearance in this column.  I like to keep track of that.)

Including Malice International, the mystery conference to which narrator Eloise Nickel has been invited for a lifetime achievement award.  Should be a thrill but the guest of honor happens to be Kimberly, a former protege who had gone on to fame and "dropped me like a bloody knife." Kimberly takes  gleeful opportunity to do it again in an article published just before the conference.  She compares her own suspenseful novels to Eloise's old-fashioned cozy books, which some the elderly readers still apparently like -  Well, you get the idea.  It ain't pretty.

Eloise starts plotting revenge. Not murder, of course.  Just some dreadful pain and misery for her rival, to be delivered at the conference.

But, alas, that doesn't seem to be as easily done as said.  People keep rescuing Kimberly, purely by accident.  What's a frustrated revenge-planner to do?

The main reason this story made my Best Of column was the surprise - not twist -ending.  A nice little trick provided a satisfying conclusion.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sugar, by Michael Bracken

"Sugar," by Michael Bracken, Crime Syndicate, Issue 2, 2016.

I would say any writer who appears in this space twice in a year can think he's having a good year.  That's not ego on my part; I would be happy if any non-relative thought I scored twice in one spin around the sun.

Mr. Bracken is making his second appearance at Little Big Crimes this month.

This story is about Samuel "Sugar" Cane, a Texas thug who has worked, since he was a crooked high school football player, for a crime boss named De La Rosa.  As he goes about his daily work of collecting debts for the big man he meets a woman whose mother used to be his lover.  Hmm..

A popular topic in writing circles is first person versus third.  This story would be much less powerful if it were in first, or if we could tell what'd going on in Sugar's head.  We ave to figure it out, which keeps the suspense high.

This story reminds me of Michael Koryta's "A People Person," which I wrote about here back in 2013.  Both are about a thorough-going baddie who finds himself unexpectedly facing a line he may not be willing to cross.

And both are terrific stories.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

"Restoration" by Art Taylor.

"Restoration" by Art Taylor, in Crime Syndicate, 1, 2016.

My fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor scores in the first issue of this new mystery fiction magazine, although a purist might say this one is more science fiction than mystery.  Actually, it's both.

The narrator is a salesman, trying to convince a family to buy a restoration service.  You see, they take a DNA sample and occasional brain scans, and then, if heaven forbid, you should die violently, they can whip up a clone of you in under a month, and family bliss is restored.  Only violent deaths; the ethicists forbid interfering with natural exits.  But, you know, there is so much violence these days.

The wife is all for it.  The husband (and from the salesman's point of view, they have and need no other identities) is extremely dubious.  Can our hero close the sale?

Here is our salesman explaining his work:


Discretion was key.  And indirection.  Euphemisms helped.  You didn't talk about death at all, didn't even use the word, much less talk explicitly about the man who was shot in the eye while walking to lunch, or the woman who was tortured for hours before she was killed, or the children who...

No.  Let the prospective clients put it together on their own.

I thought I saw where this story was going and I was totally wrong, which pleased me greatly. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Battlefield Reunion, by Brendan DuBois

"A Battlefield Reunion," by Brendan DuBois, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, June 2016.

The June issue of AHMM is awfully good, making it hard for me to pick winners. That's a better problem than the occasional weeks when I can't find a story I enjoy, so I won't complain.
 
This marks DuBois' sixth appearance in this space, tying him with Terence Faherty for first place.

It's 1946 in Boston.  Billy Sullivan is a private eye with a guilty conscience because, as an Army MP, he spent most of the war out of harm's way, while his brother died in the infantry.

His client, Ronny Silver, is also having trouble with dealing with his war memories.  But he recently spotted someone he knew from his time in Europe, a war correspondent who had promised to send the G.I.s photos.  Ronny thinks if he can get those pictures he won't forget his buddies who died.  Can  Sullivan help him find the reporter?

If you have read any private eye fiction it won't be a spoiler if I tell you there is more going on than what appears on the surface.  Interesting twists, interesting characters...



Sunday, May 8, 2016

Chase Your Dreams, by Michael Bracken

"Chase Your Dreams," by Michael Bracken, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, June 2016.

A very touching story by this year's winner of the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement in the mystery short story.

Picture a small town in Texas, one so set in its ways that the whites and blacks still use seperate cemeteries.  Cody is a gay man, deep in the closet.  His secret lover, Chase, on the other hand, was "leading one-man Gay Pride parades."

When Chase disappears, Cody has to decide what is more important: finding out the truth, or staying safe?

"Nobody's filed a missing person report," Junior said. "Not sure anybody around here cares one way or the other."

"I could file a report."

Junior lowered his ice cream-laden spoon and stared straight into my eyes.  "You might could," he said, "but are you sure you want to do that, Cody?  People will talk."

Friday, May 6, 2016

Anthony Award Nominees

The Anthony Award nominations have been announced.  Congrats to all!


BEST SHORT STORY
"The Little Men: A Bibliomystery" - Megan Abbott
"The Siege" EQMM, Dec 2015 - Hilary Davidson
"Feliz Navidead" Thuglit Presents: Cruel Yule - Brace Godfrey/Johnny Shaw
"Old Hands" Dark City Lights - Erin Mitchell
"Quack and Dwight" Jewish Noir - Travis Richardson
"Don’t Fear the Ripper" Protectors 2: Heroes - Holly West



BEST ANTHOLOGY OR COLLECTION
Safe Inside the Violence - Christopher Irvin
Protectors 2: Heroes - Thomas Pluck, ed.
Thuglit Presents: Cruel Yule - Todd Robinson, ed.
Murder Under the Oaks - Art Taylor, ed.
Jewish Noir - Kenneth Wishnia, ed.