Monday, January 8, 2018
This is the second appearance in this blog by my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Thomas Pluck. And that brings up an interesting point. Most of the stories I have read by him are somewhat raw and visceral. This one is nuanced and sophisticated. Notice I am not saying that one is better than the other. Pluck has fit his style to his material, as good writers do.
The narrator is the host of TV shows about archaeology. He has been invited to a German dig by Emma, a woman he knew in school, who is leading the dig. But he is not there because of old memories, or his TV show. He is an expert in the Kurgan civilization, which is known only by the strange burials they left behind.
And there may be Kurgan burials here. Emma has found some weird stuff, like evidence of cannibalism, and a headless female skeleton in a well. Very mysterious stuff.
Speaking of mysteries, reasonable people could disagree over whether this is a mystery, i.e., a crime story, or something else. But if you don't like my decision, start your own damn blog. And that's about as raw and visceral as I get here.
Monday, January 1, 2018
This is Deaver's third appearance in this column, second one this year.
Each story in the book is inspired by a work of art, which appears in front of it. In this case it the Cave Paintings of Lascaux, some of the oldest art work in the world.
Sometimes the difference between a good story and a great one is the structure. I can't imagine this tale working nearly as well without the simple device Deaver uses to introduce it.
It begins with Roger and Della having a crisis of conscience. They are a married couple, both moderately successful mid-career archaeologists, and they are in France for a conference.
Why the crisis? Well, let's put it this way. Suppose Professor A gets a clue to a career-changing discovery but doesn't realize how to use it. If he tells Professors B and C about it and they are more clever at interpreting the puzzle, are B and C required to share the credit with A?
An ethical dilemma indeed. And Roger and Della are about to face more dilemmas, but I can't tell you about that without giving away the store. Or the cave. Some lovely twists in this one.
Sunday, December 24, 2017
It's just my luck to get locked in a trunk of a car so old there's no emergency latch.
Some people will whine about anything, won't they? That opening sentence stole my heart, in part because I know that if I had been writing this story I would have gone for the cliche: I was trapped in the trunk of a car, on my way to certain death, or the like.
Instead our hero is griping about the lack of modern conveniences. That's just lovely.
Marcus is, as he admits, a screw-up. In and out of jail. Now a bad guy gives him a simple job: pick up this 1969 Ford Fairlane and drive it to a specific spot. Collect five grand out of the glove compartment and walk away clean. Easy peasy, no?
Except that on the drive over Marcus hears strange noises from the trunk, like someone trying to get out...
I love stories about a guy who is ashamed of himself for what he sees as weakness, namely having done the right thing.
By the way, the publisher sent me this magazine for free.
Sunday, December 17, 2017
This is Simmons' second appearance in this blog. "Burnt Orange" is a fresh tale, by which I mean it went in directions I did not expect at all.
Shelby is a teenager with a problem. She likes to burn things.
Her mother is driving her to a reform school. Her mother, by the way, is a narcissist and a bit of a fabulist, which is no doubt is connected to the roots of Shelby's problems.
So I was expecting a story about a troubled kid, and I suppose in a way that's what I got.
But there are worse people out there than Shelby and her mother, and folks with worse problems. And if Shelby thinks fast enough she may be able to save a few lives. She may even get to use her, well, special talents to do it.
A clever tale.
Sunday, December 10, 2017
This is Davidson's second appearance in this column.
Usually when I point out that I might not be objective about a story it is because I am friends with the author (like last week). This week the reason is different: I have visited most of the places she describes.
Suzanne is visiting Israel for the first time. It would be a great visit except for the people she is traveling with, a group from her church. Well, not exactly her church. Husband Bobby made them join it because it is the road to promotion at his company.
And the head of the church, Pastor Ted, is a major jerk. He's the one who brings up Jerusalem Syndrome -- and let's talk about that for a moment. It refers to a mental derangement in which the patient, typically an American or European Christian visits the Holy Land and freaks out. Suddenly they are out on the streets of Jerusalem, wrapped in bed sheets, proclaiming themselves John the Baptist or Mary Magdalene.
I understand why it occurs. People have heard about these places since they were toddlers and suddenly each one is real. The road you take to Jericho is the same one in the parable of the Good Samaritan. It's sort of like visiting the Black Forest and the tour guide casually pointing to a decaying cabin and says "That's where Goldilocks met the Three Bears." Except more so, because this is about your religion. Some people's heads just explode.
When I read the story I thought it was odd that Pastor Ted describes something much more minor as Jerusalem Syndrome, but it actually makes perfect sense. He is a control freak and part of that is attacking any sign of rebellion.
And Suzanne is beginning to rebel... I enjoyed this story a lot.
Sunday, December 3, 2017
I knew that if I wrote these reviews long enough I would eventually have to tell you about George F. Will. That day has come.
In 1980 President Jimmy Carter debated candidate Ronald Reagan. Among those asked on television to evaluate their performances was conservative pundit George F. Will. Not surprisingly he praised Reagan's showing. More surprisingly, it turned out that he had been one of Reagan's debate coaches. So he was praising his own work without bothering to mention it.
And that's why you have never heard of George F. Will again.
Here's why I bring this up. R.T. Lawton and I are first readers for each other. Before I send a story to an editor I ask him to critique it. He does the same with me.
That means I read an earlier version of this story and made some suggestions for improving it, a few of which, I think, the author took. So you can argue that I have no subjectivity about it now. All I can say in reply is that the first version I read would also have been the best of the week, before I got my grubby hands on it.
This is part of a series of stories about Yarnell and Beaumont, a sort of low-rent version of Donald Westlake's Dortmunder and Kelp, marginally successfully thieves. It is the day after Thanksgiving and Yarnell is visiting a pawn shop to retrieve his wife's wedding ring. Unfortunately there is a robbery going on.
"Not so fast," said the robber.
Yarnell wasn't sure if that meant he was now supposed to move in slow motion or not at all, so to be on the safe side, he quit moving altogether. In fact, he thought it best under these circumstances to have his brain check to see if his lungs were still pumping air.
Eventually Beaumont shows up. He is the smarter half of the team - although that is not a fast track by any means - and finds a hilarious way of settling the issue.
My favorite element of this story is Lebanese George, owner of the pawnshop who remains unflappable. Another day, another hold-up. Ho-hum.
This is a treat.
Sunday, November 26, 2017
The more observant among you may be wondering why I am reviewing a story in the October issue of Mystery Weekly Magazine when last week I covered a tale from their November issue. The answer is that I am a wild soul, a born free spirit who scorns chronological order. Ha ha!
Sorry. Where was I? Oh, yes.
Another thing I scorn is fan fiction, where a person attempts to add another story to someone else's ouevre, either taking advantage of public domain, or with permission of the heirs, or just hoping that they will never notice or care to sue. Not fond of those stories. But I sometimes enjoy what I call a pastiche in which the writer uses elements of another writers world to create something different. Heck, I have even indulged in that game myself.
And so has Longenbaugh. In his world it is 1889, eight years after the Great Detective (unnamed, but you-know-who) has arrived on the scene, and London is stinky with consulting detectives, each with their own gimmick. Allow me to introduce Ponder Wright, the Mechanical Detective.
Wright is not truly mechanical but rather what we would call a cyborg, having had various parts of his body replaced by machinery after an accident. This was due to the kindness of his wealthy and influential brother. "I daresay my soul is my own," he notes, "but far too much of the rest of me is merely leased from Mordecai."
He says this, by the way, to his roommate and biographer, Danvers, who is a "mechanical surgeon,"
fully human, but skilled at repairing delicate bio-gadgets.
In this story Wright has been summoned to examine the case of a professor who has apparently been killed by one of his automatons. But these robots can only do what they have been programmed to do. Has the War Department violated treaties by asking the professor to build killing machines? Or is there another explanation?
One thing that requires an explanation, of course, is how steam-powered London possesses such advanced machinery. Longenbaugh offers one which requires more suspension of disbelief that Ponder Wright's solution to the mystery, but I enjoyed it all. This is a fun piece of work.