Monday, June 19, 2023

Wrong Road to Nashville, by Joseph S. Walker

"Wrong Road to Nashville," by Joseph S. Walker, in
Weren't Another Other Way to Be: Outlaw Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Waylon Jennings, edited by Alex Cizak, Gutter Books, 2023.

Walker hasn't appeared on this page since, um, last month. This is his ninth story to make my best-of-the-week list.  Very different from the last.

Our hero is Caleb, a school custodian, built like a pro wrestler.  His goal is to be a Nashville singer-songwriter and it looks like he may have the talent for it.

But first he has a little problem to solve.  His new girlfriend has been kidnapped by bad guys who want him to drive a load of contraband to... Nashville.  This wasn't the way he planned to get there, but you do what you have to do.

 A nice story of steadily building suspense.



Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Good Neighbor, by Jeff Abbott


"The Good Neighbor," by Jeff Abbott, in Austin Noir, edited by Hopeton Hay, Scott Montgomery, and Molly Odintz, Akashic Books, 2023.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher.

We're in suburbia where good local schools make a house worth keeping forever, and neighbors have known each other for decades.

Bill dies of a heart attack. leaving behind his much-younger trophy wife Dierdre and resentful college-age son Peyton.  This is not a happy home.

Viv, their neighbor, also a widow, loves the whole family.  The conflict she sees across the cul-de-sac makes her very uncomfortable. Then she discovers something that makes her suspicious and even more uncomfortable. 

The suspense builds nicely as Viv tries to figure out what she can and should do.

Sunday, June 4, 2023

A Flash of Headlights, by Ken Linn

"A Flash of Headlights," by Ken Linn, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2023.

This one is right in my wheelhouse, as they say.   I am drawn to stories about people who screw up and then seek redemption, successfully or not.  

Brody does yard maintenance.  A year earlier he was charged with a DUI.  He has been sober ever since, just barely.

But that's not the issue for which he seeks redemption.

He makes a casual spur-of-the-moment decision to do what he considers a friendly gesture.  This leads to a tragedy - a tragedy which affects people he cares about.  

Many years ago I wrote here: "There is a streak of puritanism running through some noir literature.  Take one step off the straight-and-narrow and you are inevitably doomed.  Things keep getting worse and every attempt you make to correct your path only drags you inexorably toward the pit."

This story doesn't have the feel of noir, but it does have that sense. Every move Brody can make feels like it will make his situation worse.

If there is a moral in this fine story it is this: To achieve your goal you first need to figure out what your goal really is.  

Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Incurious Man, by Terence Faherty

"The Incurious Man," by Terence Faherty, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2023.

This is the tenth appearance in this column by Faherty, which ties him at the tippy-top with Mark Thielman.  Mark is a fellow SleuthSayer while Faherty is a SleuthSayer alum.

I think it was Michael Mallory who predicted that most crime fiction in the future would  be set in the days before smart phones and the Internet made certain kinds of research (and calls for help) inconveniently convenient.  This story is an example.  It is set in the 1990s and if it were written about the world of today it would have to be quite different.

Owen Keane is a private detective and he is starting a job at a law firm.  Well, not much of a job.  He has been hired on a temporary basis mostly to provide company for a friend who has reluctantly taken over the family business.

But on his first day, taking the train from New Jersey to New York City, he encounters something very strange.  Every day for a week a woman near Rahway has held up a sign for people on the train to see.  The signs seem ominous, if not threatening, and refer to Giovanni and Elvira, whoever they are.

Everyone on the train is fascinated by the signs except one man who ignores them.  And that attitude fascinates Keane, and makes him suspicious, because he is a curious man.  His lawyer friend says: "It might be dangerous for you  two to come together.  Like matter meeting antimatter.  There could be an explosion."

Of course Keane ignores his advice and discovers a particularly cruel  scheme.  Terrific story.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

We Are The Stonewall Girls, by Joseph S. Walker

 "We Are The Stonewall Girls," by Joseph S. Walker, in More Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties,, edited by Michael Bracken, Down and Out Books, 2023.

This is the eighth appearance in this space by Joseph S. Walker, which puts him near the top of the heap.

Narrator Neil Fell is a gay private eye in New York City in June 1969.  That plus the title should tell you what the story is going to be about.

A wealthy man named Grierson comes to Fell with a problem.  He is not gay but he has made friends with some of the young men in Christopher Park, the ones who call themselves queens.  Now one of them, Alice, has disappeared and Grierson is worried about him. He has approached police and other private eyes but they assume he is interested for sexual reasons and are anything but helpful.

Fell takes on the case and, as you can imagine, winds up involved in the Stonewall Riots.  I thought I knew that subject fairly well but I learned a lot of details.  

The case is interesting as well, and the solution is satisfactory.    

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Murder Mnemonic, by Loretta Sue Ross

 "Murder Mnemonic," by Loretta Sue Ross, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2023.

A very silly story, but satisfying.  (Hey, what's that but about?  Let's say and satisfying.)

Here's the start:

Gilbert DuPont fell off a cliff and landed someplace really weird.

In fact Gilbert has been murdered and now he is being reincarnated.  He remembers his past life - parts of it anyway.

By the time he turned three he was talking in complete sentences, though he still lacked the fine control to properly pronounce R and L. So when he told his mother about being "Gibbewt" and being "moodood" he did it in a matter-of-fact little high-pitched voice with an adorable lisp. 

How does a family adjust to having a reincarnated murder victim in the nursery?  And what happens when he believes he sees the people who killed him?

A very clever story right up to the satisfying last paragraph.

Monday, May 8, 2023

One Night in 1965, by Stacy Woodson


"One Night in 1965," by Stacy Woodson, in More Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties,, edited by Michael Bracken, Down and Out Books, 2023.

This is the second appearance by Woodson in my column. 

The night in question is August 26, the last opportunity for young men to avoid the draft by getting married.

Jack Taylor is a private eye in Las Vegas.  He is also a Korean War veteran who doesn't appreciate men who are trying to dodge Vietnam.

He is hired by a U.S. senator from Nevada whose son has gone missing.  The senator fears that he is about to make a hasty marriage to avoid induction into the army which is scheduled for the next day.  The truth turns out to be more complicated.

One problem with writing historical fiction  - especially when history is recent enough for readers to remember the time - is the danger of anachronisms.  Did anyone refer to men's abdomens as six-packs in 1965?  And definitely nobody was using the term Ms.

But that's nitpicking. This is an interesting story that takes a different approach to the private eye story.