Monday, February 25, 2019

Shall I Be Murder?, by Mat Coward

"Shall I Be Murder?", by Mat Coward, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2019.

A lot of good stories in this issue, by the way. 

This is the fourth appearance on this site for Mr. Coward. Sometimes it is difficult to define what subgenre a story belongs to. Not in this case.  Here is the first sentence:

"As for myself, I belong to that delicious subgenre, the self-confessed unreliable narrator."

This remarkable tale-teller then tells us his tale but how much of it are we to believe?  Certainly some of it is a lie, but how much of it? 

He explains that a doctor told him he needed to take walks for his health and, since he is allergic to dogs, he wound up walking to a self-storage facility.  There he rented two units, giving up one after setting up a hidden camera in it.  Then he waits for the right type of people to rent that facility.

That much of his story is probably (?) true.  Well, part of it, at least.  But what follows is a riddle stuffed into an enigma.  Is he a blackmailer?  A killer?  Something else entirely, as a police officer suggests?

It is not just that he is lying but that doing so, publicly and deliberately, is part of his plan.  Which he cheerfully admits.  One imagines the prosecutor tearing out his hair, but the reader will have fun.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Stranger Inside Me, by Loes den Hollander

"The Stranger Inside Me," by Loes den Hollander, in Amsterdam Noir, edited by Rene Appel and Josh Pachter, Akashic Press, 2019.

You could call this a ghost story but you probably won't.  The narrator is a troubled young man who gets regular nightly visits from Ted Bundy.  The deceased serial killer (we never read his actual words) wants him to carry on the tradition by killing women who resemble ones who got away from Bundy.


This disturbs our protagonist enough that his arguments with said killer wake his mother who brings in a social worker.  He isn't very fond of the caseworker.  He doesn't seem to get along with anyone, really...


A very creepy story, although thankfully not filled with gore and horror.  Many surprises along the way.

 

Monday, February 11, 2019

My Christmas Story, by Steve Hockensmith

"My Christmas Story," by Steve Hockensmith, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2019.

This is the third appearance here by my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Steve Hockensmith.  I am rather surprised that it is the first one I have listed concerning his series characters the Amlingmeyer brothers.  Old Red and Big Red are cowboys at the end of the nineteenth century. Old Red is illiterate but a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes.  His younger brother Big Red is his long-suffering Watson.

When this story opens Gus and Otto (to give them either more formal names)  have just settled in Ogden, Utah, where they have opened a detective agency. Due to Big Red's big mouth they find themselves out in the hills searching for a pine tree to help their landlady celebrate Christmas.  This being a crime story, other stuff happens.

What makes these tales a treat is a combination of great characters and fine language.  For example, our heroes meet three children and here is a bit of conversation with two of them.

"We were out looking for a Christmas tree," the boy said, "and we spotted a bear and-"
 "I spotted it," the girl -- Sariah -- interjected.  
Her brother ignored her.
"--we think it might be dead, but if it's alive we thought we could shoot it and sell the meat in town--"
"I thought we could shoot it and sell the meat in town," Sariah said.
Ammon kept plowing on.
"--but we don't have a gun, so we sent our little brother to find somenoe who did--"
"I sent our little brother..." Sariah began...

You can picture them, can't you?

By the way, if you want to know what happens to the brothers next, you can find out in Hockensmith's new book The Double A Western Detective Agency.  I can testify that it is, as Big Red, would say, a real ripsnorter.

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Case of The Truculent Avocado, by Mark Thielman

"The Case of The Truculent Avocado," by Mark Thielman, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2019.

This is the third appearance in this space by Mark Thielman.  The first two were somber  tales featuring actual historical personages.  The current entry is not like that, as you can probably guess from the title.

The narrator is a part-time private eye who makes most of his living dressed as a potato, promoting the cause at various supermarkets.  He says the Potato Board calls him the "Spud Stud."

Lately he's been doing his thing at Uncle Bob's Natural Food Emporium, but someone murdered Charlie, the produce manager, who was dressed as, yup, an avocado.  The deputy suspects our hero.  His only ally is an actress dressed as Babs the Baguette.

No, not somber this time.  But enjoyable.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

It Follows Until It Leads, by Dillon Kaiser

"It Follows Until It Leads," by Dillon Kaiser, in Santa Cruz Noir, edited by Susie Bright, Akashic Press, 2018.

We are very noir today, with a sense of doom hanging over every page of this story.  Here is the opening paragraph:

My papa died when I was a baby, shot in the crossfire between the cartel and the police.

Our narrator grows up to be a soldier for the cartel but he swears to get his family out of the life and into the United States.  He succeeds, but how long can a good thing last.

At one point there is a gun in his house and he says "eso infecta."  It is infected.  He isn't referring to anything as natural as a germ, just a very human illness.

Grim and moving.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Treasure island, by Micah Perks

"Treasure island," by Micah Perks, in Santa Cruz Noir, edited by Susie Bright, Akashic Press, 2018.

I admit I may be prejudiced about this story because I just finished watching The Kominsky Method on Netflix and in my head I can hear Alan Arkin reciting the whole tale. 

In any case Perks has come up with something delightful and hilarious.

Mr. Nowicki is, he tells us, "a seventy-two-two-year-old retired middle school assistant principal who has lived in Grant Park for forty years."  He is furious about what is happening in his neighborhood so he has gone to a website called Good Neighbor!(tm) to report what he sees.

And he has strong opinions about that.  For example he has a problem with his neighbor who is (the internal quotation marks are his): "a 'writer' who 'works' from home.  ('Writer' always takes morning tea on his porch in his pajamas and at five p.m., takes cocktail on porch, still in his pajamas.  You've probably seen him on your way to and from actual work.)"

Then there is a young woman, possibly a thief, possibly something else, who claims to be named Jim  Hawkins.   Takes Mr. Nowicki a while to figure out why. 

One more quote from our hero, after he has seen "three apparently Hispanic males, ages approximately eight or nine years old," putting trash in said neighbors "Little Library."

I descend, which takes some time due to bum hip, retrieve plastic bag and 'trash grabber' ($6.47, Amazon Prime, you can read my review, three stars because the sharp tongs are dangerous), exit house, open gate, cross street to nieighbor's 'Little Library" (a glassed-in cabinet painted a glaring aqua, plunked onto a post).

Glad you're taking an interest, Mr. Nowicki.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Milquetoast, by Olaf Kroneman

"Milquetoast," by Olaf Kroneman, in  The Strand Magazine, October 2018/January 2019.

Chances are you have met someone a bit like Colin Anderson.  Chances are you didn't enjoy it much.  He's the kind of middle-aged guy who invites you to dinner and makes you look at pictures of his championship college lacrosse team.  Oh joy.

Colin is now a successful surgeon but he isn't interested in working hard.  He prefers to spend his time being tennis and golf champion at the country club, and spending his wife's money.

But when she finds out what - or who - he is spending the money on, his life takes a sharp sudden turn. 

This is a clever story that involves a phenomenon so strange I had to look it up to see if it is real.  It is.  The delightful twists keep coming straight to the end.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Faith, by Stuart Neville

"Faith," by Stuart Neville, in Blood Work: Remembering Gary Shulze: Once Upon A Crime, edited by Rick Ollerman, Down and Out Books, 2018.

The day I lost my belief was the same day Mrs. Garrick asked me to help kill her husband.

That's the first sentence of this story.  If it doesn't make you want to read the second, my word, why are you reading fiction at all?

The narrator is an Irish clergyman, five years a widower. Mrs. Garrick's husband was brutally maimed in a terrorist attack.  Our protagonist tries to comfort her and one thing leads to another.

But it isn't the request that he help murder Mr. Garrick that causes the clergyman to lose his faith.  It is his conclusion that "There is no sin because there is no God.  There is no God because there is only us and our impulses..."

In that case there is nothing to keep him from killing the invalid and living happily ever after with the widow.  What could possibly go wrong?

A tight and surprising little tale.

 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Devil's Island, by Mensje van Keulen

"Devil's Island," by Mensje van Keulen, in Amsterdam Noir, edited by Rene Appel and Josh Pachter, Akashic Press, 2019.

To get the Full Disclosure bit out of the way: Akashic Press sent me this book for free, for which I am grateful.  One of the editors, Josh Pachter, is a friend of mine.  Now on to the main course.

And what a treat it is.  The narrator is trying to be helpful to his friend, Jacob, who is becoming a real pain.  Jacob's girlfriend has left him and he can't seem to get over it.  On one bad night he even says "I'd sell [the devil] my soul if he'd make Martha come back to me."

Later that evening they are standing among the cigarette puffers outside a pub when a stranger comes out of the smoke and asks Jacob for a light.  He says that he prefers the old-fashioned wooden matches called lucifers.  "I like the smell of them, though, that momentary blast of sulfur..."


This is a story built on details, cleverly used. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Seven Fiancees, by David Housewright

"Seven Fiancees," by David Housewright, in Blood Work: Remembering Gary Shulze Once Upon A Crime, edited by Rick Ollerman, Down and Out Books, 2018.

Ah, a private eye story.  Pretty charming one, too.

Looking back, I probably should have let the woman shoot the tuba player, because God knows, he had it coming.

Nice opening sentence, that.  P.I. Holland Taylor is in a jazz club when a young woman named Virginia tries to shoot the tubaist. Taylor prevents that. Seems tuba guy is her fiance.  Seems she just found out he is also engaged to six other women.

Virginia's lawyer hires Taylor to contact the six other ladies, looking for mitigating circumstances that may help reduce his client's sentence. (Seems pretty damned mitigated to me already.) Taylor meets them, each a different personality with a different reaction to the discovery of their true love's philandering.

There is a climax of sorts, but as is so often true in life, the true joy is in the journey.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Character is Everything, by Jon McGoran

"Character is Everything," by Jon McGoran,  in Unloaded Volume 2, edited by Eric Beeetner and A.Y. Aymar, Down and Out Books, 2018.

And today we are in science fiction territory.  At least, I hope it remains SF for a few more years.

Roscoe Boyer is an endangered species.  He is the last employed writer in the world.  

Roscoe had started out writing honest-to-God books, but he'd changed with the times -- video games, social media micro shorts, story interactives.  Finally this. 

This is creating character outlines for robots.  And now Roscoe is being fired from even that job. Ah, but Roscoe has a trick up the old sleeve...  A clever story.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Pan Paniscus, by James W. Ziskin

"Pan Paniscus," by James W. Ziskin, in Unloaded Volume 2, edited by Eric Beetner and A.Y. Aymar, Down and Out Books, 2018.

The theme of these collections is simple: crimes without guns. Certainly this story has plenty of plot.  Here is the first sentence:

The adolescent bonobo named Bingo escaped from the zoo in the early hours of an October morning.

Animal lovers may be glad to know that Bingo is not a crime victim.  Human beings are not so lucky.

Bingo is spotted on the property of Mitch and Fiona Hirsch.  Mitch is a bleeding heart liberal who annoys his law firm by working on pro bono cases.  His wife Fiona is the daughter of wealth and doesn't seem to do much except drink her way through book club meetings.  And then there is Evelio, their gardener.  He is, not surprisingly, illegal.

When Bingo shows up unexpectedly all their lives are changed dramatically, forever....

Monday, November 26, 2018

Plan Z, by Travis Richardson

"Plan Z," by Travis Richardson, in Deadlines: A Tribute to William E. Wallace, edited by Chris Rhatigan and Ron Earl Phillips,  Shotgun Honey, 2018.

This is the second appearance here by Richardson.
 
 Sometimes it is 10% tale and 90% telling.  This is a simple story of three guys who "decide to up their game from B&E and liquor stores."  We don't learn much more about Ted, Greg, and Hector than what position they used to play back in Little League.

So this piece is not big on plot or character development.  What it does have is a wonderful way of unwrapping the adventures of our unlucky trio.  You see, Plan A is to rob a cash-checking joint.  They throw that over for Plan B which is an armored car that Greg's Uncle Arnie drives.  

But Arnie gets fired, leading to Plan C.  Except Arnie shows up, drunk and demands to participate, which brings on Plan D...

Pretty funny.
 

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Keep Walking, by Geoffrey Household

"Keep Walking," by Geoffrey Household, in The Days of Your Fathers, 1987.  (Originally published 1968)

Sorry this is late; I have been on vacation.  That might also explain why I did not read any new stories this week I liked enough to review.  As I have done before when this happened I am going to review a classic story, one of my favorites.

I first read this story in the 1970s, published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, with a stupid title I won't repeat here.  (Editor Frederic Dannay was famous for deciding he knew more about titles than the authors of the stories he published.)

This is a spy story and a great suspense tale.  The nameless protagonist is a spy in a hostile country, also unnamed.  It is implied that she is working for a Western democracy.  And she is in big trouble.

She has just posted an incriminating report when she realizes the police are watching her.  At any moment they will scoop her up. torture her, interrogate her, and kill her.

But there is one fragile reed she can cling to.  If the bad guys don't think she has seen them, they will keep following her, hoping she will lead to useful information.

If she runs, they'll grab her.  If she tries to get on a bus, they will collect her.  All she can do is keep walking, and hope desperately to find a way out...

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Strangers on the Run, by Sarah M. Chen

"Strangers on the Run," by Sarah M. Chen, in Deadlines: A Tribute to William E. Wallace, edited by Chris Rhatigan and Ron Earl Phillips,  Shotgun Honey, 2018.

This is the second appearance in this space by Chen.

Imagine being an illegal immigrant in this country.

Now imagine you have murdered your sister's abusive husband.

Now imagine that said husband was a gangleader, so now both cops and mobsters are chasing you and your sister.

Sounds like enough trouble for one man to bear?

Now imagine your sister has Alzheimer's...

And you think you've had a bad year...  A very moving and suspenseful tale.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Top Ten Vacation Selfies of Youtube Stars, by Preston Lang

"Top Ten Vacation Selfies of Youtube Stars," by Preston Lang, in Deadlines: A Tribute to William E. Wallace, edited by Chris Rhatigan and Ron Earl Phillips,  Shotgun Honey, 2018.

To the best of my knowledge I have never read any work by the late William E. Wallace, reporter and mystery writer.  But I have read enough of this book to get some sense of what his writing may have been like.  Pretty noir stuff.

The narrator of this tale, Michael Roth, also used to be a reporter.  Or maybe we should say he is currently a reporter without a job, struggling to survive as a freelancer, writing Internet clickbait. (See the title of this story.)

He gets a call from somebody named Brack who used to be a hitman.  Would he like to meet and talk about Brack's illustrious career?

He would.  But Brack, as it turns out,  has another, more dangerous offer to make...


Monday, October 29, 2018

Jenny's Necklace, by O.A. Tynan

"Jenny's Necklace," by O.A. Tynan, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November/December 2018

We writers prattle on endlessly about the importance of the right opening, but sometimes they matters more than others.  Sometimes it would be a completely different story without the proper beginning.

The last time I saw Jenny, she was lying unconscious in the sandy hollow at the foot of Danagher's Head...

That's the first sentence.  The rest of the paragraph describes Jenny's appearance, and ends with a "sudden hoarse shout as someone found us." 

So as the story progresses we have a good idea of what the climax will be.  We are watching for clues as to what causes Jenny's fate.

The narrator explains: "That was long ago, in the summer of 1961.  I was nine years old at the time..."  This is Ireland and she belongs to a wealthy family with a summer home on the coast.  Jenny is a naive country girl, and more fun than all the governesses the girl has ever had.

But something results in innocent Jenny crashing off that cliff.  Was the narrator's distant but chivalrous father up to no good?  Was her sinister mother jealous?  What about Jenny's mysterious boyfriend who supposedly gave her the beautiful necklace?

Maybe you will guess the answer.  I sure didn't.

Monday, October 22, 2018

This Quintessence of Dust, by Marshall Moore

"This Quintessence of Dust," by Marshall Moore, in Hong Kong Noir, edited by Jason Y. Ng and Susan Blumberg-Kason, Akashic Press, 2018.

I should say I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.  Thanks much.

Some stories start off so strongly that I am rooting for them.  This one started so slowly I didn't really expect it to go anywhere.  Obviously I was wrong.

The narrator is a Hong Kong native, a gay man, who has just returned after breaking up with his lover in England.  Something else happened back there, something bad, but we won't get the details for a while.

He is living on Cheung Chau, a small island off the main part of Hong Kong.  For some reason a lot of people go there to die.  His parents have made a lot of money investing in the resulting depressed prices: "Investing in Suicide Island took a certain sangfroid unique to the Chinese. [Mom] was a bank manager.  Death could be lucrative."

Then there are his two uncles who are doing well, but the source of whose money is not clear.  And a young woman he meets drowns herself.

How does all this connect to our protagonist, and his very much alive ex-lover back in Britain?  All shall be revealed and it shall be surprising...


Monday, October 15, 2018

The Threshold, by R.M. Greenaway

"The Threshold," by R.M. Greenaway, in Vancouver Noir, edited by Sam Wiebe, Akashic Press, 2018.

This is the second story by R.M. Greenaway to make this page in two months.  She seems to be having a good year.

"The collection is called City. That's all.  City. Lot of structure, not a lot of people shots, 'cause that's been done to death.  But they're in there, like puzzle pieces, just part of the chain-link right?  Or the asphalt, or the puddles.  Except for on the cover I've got an old guy..."

The speaker is Blaine and as you may have guessed he's a photographer.  Perhaps a bit obsessive about it.  And one morning, just at sunrise, he's out snapping pictures at the waterfront and he find a very fresh corpse.  Of course he knows he should call 911, but the lighting is perfect, and how long will it last?  Surely it won't hurt if he just changes lenses and takes a couple of artful frames...

And then the dead man twitches.

I'm going to stop here.  This is a masterful story and I don't want to give anything away.


Monday, October 8, 2018

Mr. Sugarman Visits The Bookmobile, by Michael Bracken

"Mr. Sugarman Visits The Bookmobile," by Michael Bracken, in Shhh... Murder!, edited by Andrew MacRae, Darkhouse Books, 2018.

This is the fifth appearance in this column by winner of the Golden Derringer Award and fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken.  It is mostly a very nice character sketch.

Graham Sugarman lives in Quarryville, a "dried-out scab of a town" in West Texas.  The highlight of his week is Tuesday morning when the bookmobile arrives. Because he is only allowed to check out five books per visit he takes the heftiest ones available. 

When asked if he has any plans he replies: "Same as always.  I plan to read."  And that's pretty much all he does.

You might get the feeling Mr. Sugarman is not quite normal.  You're right.  The reason for that turns out to be quite interesting. 

But his very regular life is interrupted when the librarian who drives the bookmobile is murdered, stopping his service...

The third act is not as strong here as the earlier ones, but Mr. Sugarman is an interesting and believable character.