Sunday, May 17, 2020

Borrowed Brains, by Alaric Hunt

"Borrowed Brains," by Alaric Hunt, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May/June 2020.

Funny thing: last month I was listening to an audiobook of short stories from Black Mask Magazine.  This novella is from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine's Black Mask department, and it is a perfect fit.  I must say I liked it better than some of the stories I heard from the classic magazine.

But this tale takes place in modern times (2005, to be exact), complete with cell phones, bodegas, and audio bugs.

Daniel McLaren, an aging West Virginian rumrunner, is happy working as a messenger in New York City, but when he gets beaten and robbed of a half-million dollar package the cops decide that the ex-convict is obviously guilty - or at least convenient to blame.

Fortunately McLaren has a buddy in the city, a fellow native of the Mountain State named Clayton Guthrie.  And Guthrie is a private eye.  Together they start to unravel a complicated fraud scheme that is going badly wrong, with possibly deadly consequences.

There is some wonderful writing in this story: "The alley was wide enough for two round trash cans and a cat."

Or here is McLaren casting some doubt on the reliability of a witness:

"You didn't notice his hat was lined with tinfoil?"
"I see a lot of that in Brooklyn.  Up in the Bronx, they wear their underwear outside their pants." 

And here is McLaren listening to the bad guys on a bug.

That sounds like the stupid one," and "No, maybe that's the stupid one."

A long ride, but a good one.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Noble Rot, by Richard Helms

"Noble Rot," by Richard Helms, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May/June 2020.

This is the fifth appearance in this slot by Richard Helms, and the third in for this series.

I recently wrote about the ambiguity of some subgenres.  It occurs to me  that I would not like to be on the Shamus Awards committee that has to decide whether this is a private eye story.

The narrator is definitely not a P.I. Boy Boatwright is a cop.  But he is really playing a reluctant Watson to Bowie Crapster.  The Crapster (wonderful name) is not a P.I. either.  He makes his living as a psychic and part of his shtick is using his alleged  magical powers to solve crimes. Does that qualify?  Beats me.

Boy and Bowie don't get along too well.  Witness this piece of phone conversation.

"There's been a murder."
"Please tell me you're the victim."

Ha ha.  Actually a woman has been slain at a winery during a fundraising party full of the rich and influential.  And since Crapster is a friend of the wealthy host/winemaker Boy has to tread lightly.

Helms is juggling a lot of balls in this story.  He has to tell a coherent story, provide clues, and allow Boy to figure out a non-psychic explanation for Crapster's apparently mystical solution. It's a lot of fun.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Dirty Laundry, by Michael Bracken

"Dirty Laundry," by Michael Bracken, in Tough, April 20, 2020.

This is the sixth appearance here by my friend and fellow SleuthSayer, Michael Bracken.  You can read it at the link above.

Sometimes it's nice to indulge in a private eye story.  They can have the inevitability of Greek tragedy.  Infinite variations in a familiar pattern.

Morris Boyette is the P.I., stationed in Waco, Texas.  His client is Julia Poe and the problem is that her brother and his wife were recently murdered.  Not that she wants him to solve a murder - that's the variation.  The killer has been caught.

But Julia's brother's in-laws have taken custody of their granddaughter and won't let Julia have any contact.  She wants Boyette to find a way around that.  Problem is the in-laws are the wealthiest people in town, a family that can definitely make Boyette's life more difficult.  And that's the familiar pattern. 

I enjoyed this very much.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

One Flu Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Kathy Krevat

"One Flu Over the Cuckoo's Nest," by Kathy Krevat, in Crossing Borders, edited by Lia Brackmann and Matt Coyle, Down and Out Books, 2020.

Timing is everything, so they say.

I'm sure the editors and author of this book had no idea what was heading at them when this book came out in February.  You see, the narrator of the very first story is a sentient virus.  Specifically an influenza bug.

The virus travels to a nursing home because it is scheduled to kill an old woman who lives there, but someone has already done that.  The virus, out of curiosity, tries to discover the killer.  It has certain abilities: like a lie detector machine it can detect changes in body patterns that might indicate deception.  And it can influence people in subtle ways...

A truly unusual story.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Free Man in Paris, by Brendan DuBois

"Free Man in Paris," by Brendan DuBois, in The Beat of Black Wings, edited by Josh Pachter, Untreed Reads, 2020.

On occasion I have judged contests which involved reading stories without knowing the identity of the author.  Reading this one, I wondered if my experience would have been different if I hadn't known who the author was.

The reason?  Well here is the first sentence:

Since Sloan's retirement, he has spent his fall and winter months in a remote villa in the village of Ilse-Sur-La-Sorgue in Provence in the south of France, and the spring and summer months in a comfortable and well-hidden flat in Paris.

My question: If I hadn't known that DuBois was the author, would I have instantly known that Sloan is an ex-spy?  Not that DuBois writes primarily about espionage.  Maybe it''s just that he writes well enough to set the mood immediately.  By the way, this is his eighth appearance in this column, which puts him in the lead ove rthe rest of the mystery-writing world, for now.

Back to Sloan who is, indeed, an ex-spy.  If one can ever stop being a spy.  He is constantly on watch for clues about his major concern:

...what really occupies his time is wondering if this is going to be the day when he will finally be killed.

And indeed on this day there is a threat on the horizon.  Watching how he deals with it is intriguing. A nicely written story.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Mixed Identities, by Martin Hill Ortiz

"Mixed Identities," by Martin Hill Ortiz, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, April 2020.

I'm glad I am not on the committee who has to decide if this story is eligible for the Shamus Award for best private eye story.

Our narrator is in a cabin in Northern California and a man has broken in and lies on the floor: "He had spilt enough blood to fill  jumbo jar of Ragu."  His name is Buddy Dale and he thinks our narrator  is the private eye who owns the cabin.

Luckily for him, the man who finds him is just a friend who is borrowing the P.I.'s cabin.  Lucky because the friend is a paramedic who knows how to stop the bleeding.

But Buddy has something else on his mind, perhaps more important than staying alive.  He's an ex-bank robber and someone has been copying his M.O., hoping to pin a series of crimes on him and send him back to prison for life.

Can our paramedic friend solve the crime?  Clever story. 

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire, by Donna Andrews

"Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," by Donna Andrews, in The Beat of Black Wings, edited by Josh Pachter, Untreed Reads, 2020.

All the stories in this book are inspired by Joni Mitchell songs.  I must admit I didn't remember this song.  It ain't bad.

Our narrator is a homeless man.  That's not his biggest problem, though.  He's trying to stay away from the others.

Who are THEY?  Not sure it would help even I knew [sic].  I think it' a what, not a who, but I don't know.  Sometimes I'm tempted to call them the Fae. I'm sure they're behind these legends....

So, yeah the guy has problems. He says that the others try to take over people.  When they fail, you find the body.  When they succeed, the empty shell keeps walking around with one of them in it.

Well, that certainly creeped me out.

He figures his best protection is his knife because, as everyone knows, fairies hate iron and steel.  And knives can come in useful in other ways, can't they?  They  do in this classy tale.