Sunday, March 18, 2018

Queen and Country, by Robert Mangeot

"Queen and Country," by Robert Mangeot, Mystery Weekly Magazine, March 2018.

This is the third appearance by Robert Mangeot in these hollowed electrons.  He is all about language and this time is practically in Wodehouse territory.  

Well, technically he's in rural France in the late fifties, or at least Nick Torthwaite is.  Nick is an arachnologist, sent over from Britain to hunt for a tropical spider.  Or maybe he's hunting for his despised fellow scientist who traveled there first, in search of the precious queen spider.  In fact, both of them are working for the British government who thinks the deadly spider may have military uses.  But other forces are a t work here and may kill Nick before ge can get to the spider or before the beastie can get to him...

I talked abou the language, so here is our hero bragging about himself and "...the Nick Torthwaite-in-the-field look. Stubble, chronograph, safari vest and poplin slacks, I cut a dashing if stocky figure, the famed scientist after his quarry."  Good luck, Nick.


Sunday, March 11, 2018

High Explosive, by Martin Limon

"High Explosive," by Martin Limón, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March-April 2018.

This is Martin Limón's fourth appearance here.  I am a big fan of  his stories about George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, two Army CID officers in South Korea sometime in the mid-seventies, combating deadly soldiers, corrupt civilians, and bosses more concerned with the chain of command than the chain of evidence.

In this case the National Police's chief investigative officer, Mr. Kill,has called them in because a cab driver was robbed and badly beaten by three young American men. Who could they be but some of the G.I.'s in the country?  Worse, the cabbie's passenger was kidnapped with the car: a young woman.   

And so Sueño and Bascom are on a desperate search to find three soldiers out of 50,000, before something terrible and terminal happens to their victim.  

Limón spent ten years in the army in Korea - although not a cop like his heroes a and as they think through the problem (Who would have had access to diesel to burn up the cab?  Which of the dozens of army bases were large enough to hide a woman on but small enough that the guards might let you get away with it?) it is clear that he knows his subject matter thoroughly.

A terrific story.



Sunday, March 4, 2018

Night Walker, by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg

"Night Walker," by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March-April 2018.


This is Pronzini's second appearance here.

Brevity is not an obstacle to greatness in a short story, but it sure can make it hard to write a review that doesn't give away the store.  This story is under 2,000 words so I won't have much to say about it, good as it is.

Henry Boyd's life changed forever when a moment of his own carelessness destroyed his family.  He hoped to be sent to prison but the courts thought otherwise.  He can't face the thought of suicide so now he walks through the night, hoping some criminal will do to him what he lacks the courage to do to himself.

Instead, what happens is... See?  This is where I have to stop.  But the last sentence is sheer poetry.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Getting Somewhere, by Susan Isaacs

"Getting Somewhere," by Susan Isaacs, in It Occurs to  Me that I Am America, edited by Jonathan Santlofer, Touchstone, 2018.

This is not an anthology of mystery stories.  It is a collection of stories and art of various kinds brought together to benefit the American Civil Liberties Union. 

Susan Isaacs has written a lot of novels, including some pretty good crime fiction.  Is this story crime fiction?

Well, yes and no.  Otto Penzler famously described a mystery as a story in which crime or the threat of crime is a major element.  That covers The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and I, The Jury, and Gone Girl, but it also includes The Brothers Karamazov, Macbeth, and Oedipus Rex.  Most people instinctively reject those stories as being crime fiction.  I don't know how to distinguish between those two kinds of stories exactly, but as the Supreme Court famously said about pornography, I know it when I see it.

So, what do  I see here?  The narrator is Karen, wife of a wealthy man, and she explains  her encounter, in 2002, with a boatload of Haitian refugees on the Causeway outside Miami.  What they are doing is a crime, and so is what she does, which makes this a crime story, although it doesn't feel  like one to me.

Which doesn't mean it isn't a good story.  It is. 

What makes it special is the narrator's voice which is distinctive, amusing, and fascinating.

I was driving my car, a BMW convertible since that was around the time it became chic to be unpretentious.

Listen, I like Cubans and one of the women in my tennis group, Solana Diaz Ruiz, who for some reason didn't have a hyphen, was a total sweetheart and we had lunch once a week and knew all about each other's kids, and probably too much about our husbands.

[A] gift is a gift.  Either you give with a full heart or you just say screw it and hand over a Saks gift certificate.

Whenever I drove, I made myself listen to NPR.  It paid off.  When I stopped at a traffic light, people int he other cars could think, Intellectual.

Intellectual?  Maybe not so much.  But she finds herself at a crisis point with a chance to make a difference  and she knows that whatever she decides will change a lot of lives, including her own...

Monday, February 19, 2018

There Are No Elephants in Peru, by Margaret Maron

"There Are No Elephants in Peru," by Margaret Maron, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2018.

Typo corrected.  Sorry.

Interesting title, no?  Reminds me of the young adult novel by Paula Fox, Blowfish Live In The Sea, with which it has nothing else in common.

This is the second appearance here by MWA Grand Master Margaret Maron.  It is set in North Carolina in 1977.  Dr. Ellen Webster is an archaeologist teaching at a small women's college, and she has been summoned to meet a potential donor who-- Well, let Webster introduce her:

Victoria Hoyt Gardner was as delicate as her china: very thin, very old, very expensive.

Very, very nice writing, that.  Mrs. Gardner is the last of a wealthy family which has donated extensively to the college.  Now she wants to leave her house as a museum.  Her father and grandfather were hunters and the house is full of stuffed animals.

Dubious historic interest, no doubt, but Grandpa also collected trinkets all over the world on his hunting expeditions.  Trinkets like an Egyptian mummy, and pre-Columbian burial jars from South America.  Ellen gets the summer job of beginning to assess the contents of the collection, although there are obviously years of work ahead for someone.  She makes what might be a historic find, but that's not the problem.

The first problem is Mrs. Gardner's obsessive and eccentric demands.  The second is the return of the father of her three-year-old daughter (Ellen is, gasp, an unmarried mother in the 1970s).  He is now married to a rich woman and apparently he wants custody of their child.  Or is the sleazy creep after something else?

All shall be revealed.  The last paragraph is the best I have read in quite some time.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

Burg's Hobby Case, by Matthew Wilson

"Burg's Hobby Case," by Matthew Wilson, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, January/ February 2018.

This is a first story?  Wow.  In  my experience first mystery stories tend to be short and rooted in the author's immediate experience (and nothing wrong with that).  This one is a novella, or pretty close to it, and set forty years ago in a foreign country.  Although, to be fair, Wilson spent six years in the city where it is set.

So, we are in Bad Kissingen, a German spa city near an American military base.  It is the late 1970s, and Hans Burg has just been assigned an important murder case, a young woman shot to death.  That's surprising because he is  a drinker and a screw-up.

More surprisingly, he seems to have no interest in solving this big opportunity.  Instead he is pursuing his "hobby case," a search for certain Nazi memorabilia, banned in West Germany.  Obviously Burg is up to something, but you will have to follow his steps to find out.  Along the way I learned about some nuggets of post-war history that were new to me.

A very satisfying and believable tale.  YOu can read the first few pages for free here.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Crucial Game, by Janice Law

"The Crucial Game," by Janice Law, in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, January-February 2018.

In her fifth appearance at this blog, my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Janice Law has offered a story that is more fantasy than mystery.  But never fear, it does have a criminal, or, as Ellery Queen used to say, criminous, element.

Ever since he lost his wife, Frank had immersed himself in sports, especially in his all-time favorite, ice hockey.

So we begin.   One day lonely Frank, walking through Manhattan sees, among the vendors, a "little makeshift stand offering sports CDs and DVDS..."  The merchant is "thin, almost gaunt, and very dark so that his large eyes gleamed above the bold cheekbones and the wide, and to Frank's mind, somewhat predatory nose."  Sounds a bit spooky?  How about when he calls "I have what you need"?  A cautious man would run but Frank invests ten bucks in a DVD of the 1994 Rangers v. Devils match.  "Take you back where you want to go," the vendor promises.

And sure enough, when he pops it in the machine and starts it, his apartment is suddenly back in 1994, and he hears his wife cooking in the kitchen.  Astonishing.  But, well, what happens when the last game on the DVD ends?

This story grabbed me from beginning to end.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Little Big News: The Year's Best

At SleuthSayers today I list the best short mystery stories of the year.  This is my ninth annual list, and the longest ever.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Family Secrets, by Eric Beetner

"Family Secrets," by Eric Beetner, in Switchblade, #3, 2017.

Thuglit  is dead.  Long live Switchblade.  That was m first thought after reading the first few stories in this magazine.  As far as I know the publishing team of Switchblade has no connection to the late lamented Thuglit, but they share a noir sensibility much truer than the fancypants in the Akashic Press noir cities series.  (For the record,  I have been published by Akashic Press, but not by either of these two magazines.)  I wish Switchblade more success in the market than the old one had.

All right.  Here is how Mr. Beetner introduces his story.

"Daddy," I asked.  "Is that blood?"
Mom waved a hand at me, shooing me out of the bathroom as she pulled the door half closed.  I could still see Dad propping himself up on one hand while the rest of him sprawled out on the tile floor. His free hand stayed pressed hard into the deep red slain on his shirt, down near the hip.

The little boy has just discovered that his family has a secret, and that secret is going to change his life forever.  B eetner shows us very grim, adult, business from the boy's point of view.  Well-written.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Spoils, by William Ryan

"The Spoils," by William Ryan, in CWA Anthology of Short Stories: Mystery Tour, edited by Martin Edwards, Orenda Books, 2017.

An old piece of writing advice is that you should not show all your research.  You want it to inform your story without drowning your reader in it.

The same can be true of the fictional background of a story.  The writer may know more than she tells the reader about the characters, the past, etc.  Think of it as the architecture where the story takes place;  it may not get described, but it shapes where the characters can travel.

Ryan's story is intentionally vague on some points, letting the reader fill in the dots.  For example, Amanda works for The Firm, and we don't know exactly what that august company does, except that "I knew enough about The Firm to put Stacy and the other partners in a federal penitentiary for a very long time."

Oh yes, Stacy.  When the story begins Stacy is firing Amanda.  They were rivals, competing for the same chair at The Firm, and Stacy won.  But it is not just a business rivalry.  It becomes clear that Stacy wants to ruin Amanda's life.  Why?  Well, that's vague, too.

And then there's Angela (ugh... why name two important characters Angela and Amanda?).  She is clearly in the Witness Protection Program for reasons that will eventually become clear.

If this all seems terminally vague, all I can say is, it works.  And when Amanda  seeks revenge, there is nothing vague about it.




 




Friday, January 19, 2018

Little Big News: Edgar Nominations

Congratulations to the Edgar nominations for Best Short Mystery!

“Spring Break” – New Haven Noir by John Crowley (Akashic Books)
“Hard to Get” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Jeffery Deaver (Dell Magazines)
“Ace in the Hole” – Montana Noir by Eric Heidle (Akashic Books)
“A Moment of Clarity at the Waffle House” – Atlanta Noir by Kenji Jasper (Akashic Books)
“Chin Yong-Yun Stays at Home” – Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine by S.J. Rozan (Dell Magazines)

And the winner of the Robert L. Fish Award for Best First Mystery Short:

“The Queen of Secrets” – New Haven Noir by Lisa D. Gray (Akashic Books)

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Travel is Dangerous, by Ed James

"Travel is Dangerous," by Ed James, in CWA Anthology of Short Stories: Mystery Tour, edited by Martin Edwards, Orenda Books, 2017.



The one thing I don't understand about this story is why Edinburgh detectives would be shipped over to Glasgow in order to investigate a murder.  There's no one closer than an hour away?  Maybe it has something to do with the theme of the book being travel?  All right, moving past that.

Cullen is a DS, detective sergeant in Scotland's capital.  He is reluctantly paired with Bain, who complains that breakfast there is (as Cullen sarcastically summarizes) "nowhere near as good as in Glasgow, home of sectarian violence and divine fry-ups..."

A naked dead man has been found in a garbage bin.  Well, not quite naked.  He is wearing a pink diaper.  The murder involved a gay orgy, which does not sit well with Bain.  I can't find the exact phrase but at one point Cullen interrupts his speech "to prevent a hate crime being committed." 

It's a witty story and various kinds of justice are administered before it ends.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Truth Comes Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind, by Thomas Pluck

“Truth Comes Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind," by Thomas Pluck, in Alive in Shape and Color, edited by Lawrence Block, Pegasus Books, 2017.

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

A Significant Find, by Jeffery Deaver

"A Significant Find," by Jeffery Deaver, Alive in Shape and Color, edited by Lawrence Block, Pegasus Books, 2017.

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

One at a Time, by Lissa Marie Redmond

"One at a Time," by Lissa Marie Redmond, in Down & Out Magazine, Issue 2.

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

Burnt Orange, by Shawn Reilly Simmons

"Burnt Orange," by Shawn Reilly Simmons, in Passport to Murder, edited by John McFetridge, Down and Out Books, 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

Jerusalem Syndrome, by Hilary Davidson

"Jerusalem Syndrome," in Passport to Murder, edited by John McFetridge, Down and Out Books, 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

Black Friday, by R.T. Lawton

"Black Friday," by R.T. Lawton, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November/December 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 Mechanical Detective, by John Longenbaugh

"The Mechanical Detective," by John Longenbaugh, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, October 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.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Last Evil, by David Vardeman

"The Last Evil," by David Vardeman, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, November 2017.

Hooboy.  What to say about this week's entry?  It reminded me of Shirley Jackson, John Collier, maybe some shadowy corners of Flannery O'Connor and even James Thurber.  In other words, we are in the strange part of town.

Our protagonist is Mrs. Box, who believes that suffering is good for the soul.  Hence she wears flannel lined with canvas, because parochial school taught her "the value of chafing."

She also believed in doing "a lot of good in the world. But there  was another tinier but just as important point, and that was to get the leap on people.  In her own life she felt a lack of people leaping out at her.  In the past forty days and forty nights, not one soul, nothing, had given her a good jolt.  Mr. Box certainly had not."

Which is why she keeps a live tarantula in her purse, which she pulls out to shock people.  As a good deed.  Or does she do that? 

One thing she does do is meet a man on a train who has something in his briefcase even more frightening than a live tarantula.  Or does he? 

Enough. Read the thing and find out.  It's worth the trip.