Sunday, October 30, 2011

Club Dues, by Peter Morin

"Club Dues," by Peter Morin, in Needle, Fall 2011.

I may have to demand my money back.  Needle calls itself "a magazine of noir," but this story isn't noir; it's hardboiled.   Jack Bludis created the classic distinction: "Hardboiled = tough.  Noir = screwed."

But on the other hand, I like hardboiled better than noir, so I suppose I shouldn't complain.

Ray Hannah is an attorney in Hyannis.  His stockbroker calls to report finding a dead body, specifically a crooked hedge fund manager who is one of his clients.   Somebody beat his head in with an antique golf club.

Motives start piling up as last as lies, which is very quick indeed.  Some of the plot twists are easy to see coming, but one caught me by surprise.  The writing is low-key and precise.  And Morin shows proper respect for Italian cooking.  Buon appetito..

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sweet Croquette, by David Barba

"Sweet Croquette," by David Barba, in Barcelona Noir, Akashic Press, 2011.  

When I found out about the disappearance of Swiss gourmet Pascal Henry, I had no doubt that his body had become part of the larder for the liquid croquettes offered on the degustation menu at El Bulli.

Did that opening sentence get your attention?  It certainly grabbed mine.  I should say that Barba's story of madness, murder and cannibalism is not going to be to everyone's, uh, taste.  But it is fascinating and, as it rolls to a bizarre conclusion, hilarious.

The narrator has a job in his family's butcher shop and a wife who has become obsessed with literature at just the point when her husband has sworn never to read another book.  Not a recipe for marital bliss.  The narrator's ambition is to be a great chef and he becomes obsessed with the workings of the high-tech gourmet restaurants of Barcelona.  As you can tell from the first sentence, he draws a conclusion about their secret ingredient, and decides to experiment on his own... in more senses of that phrase than one.

A wild ride.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Plain Reckless, by Scott Mackay

"Plain Reckless," by Scott Mackay, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, December 2011.

To my mind one of the worst phrases used to advertise a crime story (next to "transcends the genre) is "This time it's personal!"  As Jon L. Breen wrote "I think the necessity for the series detective to suffer enormous physical and/or emotional trauma in every book and to be personally involved in every case is one of the worst trends in contemporary crime fiction, but I’m not typical." 

Maybe you aren't typical, Jon, but you are right, because you agree with me. In fact, in the same e-conversation I wrote "Those books are self-limiting in a way. How many times in a series can the detective be betrayed by his lover, best friend, etc., before the series begins to look a little silly? Only in TV do they get away with that sort of stuff."

But the self-limiting issue doesn't apply to a one-off novel or short story.  Take this story of a cop named Michelle Evans investigating a murder.  "With a twinge of anxiety, I realized I now had a personal connection to the case...It happened from time to time.  And it always made me nervous when it did."

A woman is found shot to death in her house, but clearly she had been killed somewhere else.  Her one year old child had been returned to the home.  And she had volunteered at the church where Detective Evans' lover used to work...

I like the way Mackay uses the personal involvement in the story.  A lot of cops say one of the hardest parts of the job is that they find themselves using their work skills on their friends and families and that is what happens here.  When Evans talks to her sweetheart about the case "I detected regret...  I observed guilt and evasion."  How is she supposed to react?  As cop, or as lover?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Who I Am, by Michael Z. Lewin

"Who I Am," by Michael Z. Lewin, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, December 2011. 
 Mr. Lewin becomes the second author (after James Powell) to appear in this column twice. This story raises the question: how do you make a genre story new and unique?

For instance: Indianapolis private eye Albert Samson gets a client whose house has just been robbed.  A few things of no great value were taken, plus a memento of his father.  Samson investigates and finds the culprit.

Well, okay, but we've all read that one a few thousand times before, haven't we?  What makes this story different from the others?

Just one thing really.  Samson's client, who calls himself Lebron James (but isn't the famous basketball player) claims that his father was a space alien.  Samson doesn't believe it, of course, but he does believe the roll of hundred dollar bills Mr. James pays him with.  This is apparently the first in a series of stories about a rather sympathetic guy who his neighbors call "spaceman" and "the weirdo."  I'm looking forward to more.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Investigation of Boyfriend #17, by Maureen Keenan-Mason

"The Investigation of Boyfriend #17," by Maureen Keenan-Mason, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine,  December 2011.

If you look back at your notes from previous classes you will find that I said the one thing the opening of a story must do is keep the reader reading.   I mentioned that there are lots of other things the opening can and probably should do.  One of them is to tell us what kind of a story we are about to read.  It is easy for the opening to tell us: this is noir, get ready for a cosy, there's going to be spooks here, or whatever.

On the other hand, sometimes it can be fun to have no idea where a story is going.  That's what Keenan-Mason pulls off in this tale.

Lila is a twenty-four-old woman who, after several bad experiences, has started investigating each boyfriend. She has a locked desk where she keeps files on each new swain, checking out their stories to see if they have a wife, criminal background or other no-no in their past.

The tone is light but there is an element of creepiness here (does Lila have a hobby or an obsession?  ToMAYto, ToMAHto) and I could easily the story going into nasty territory with either Lila or a boyfriend getting very wicked.  The fun here is not knowing until near the end which road we will be traveling...