Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Stoning Before Breakfast, by Azardokht Bahrami

"A Stoning Before Breakfast," by Azardokht Bahrami, in Tehran Noir, edited by Salar Abdoh, Akashic Books, 2014.

If I were picking the best story titles of 2014, a big chunk would come of this book.  "Fear is the Best Keeper of Secrets."  "A Woman's Geography is Sacred."  "The Shelf Life of Revenge."  "The Whitest Set of Teeth in Tehran."

And today's entry. 

The narrator is a prostitute.  Her friend Elika is being stoned to death for adultery - although the actual reasons are more complicated than that.  While this story makes no reference to the obvious Christian analog - "let he who is without sin..." - Elika's customers are in the crowd, very reluctant to participate.

This is not a standard crime story, more a slice-of-death piece, but powerfully written.

One of the women asks out loud why they haven't covered her face.  she insists that this is the law.  It's as if she's some kind of Minister of Stoning.

Kati insisted there was not a man on earth who would stay faithful for long.  Except maybe the prophet Adam, and that was only because in his particular sad case there wasn't a second option.

This boy's a natural.  They should bring him to every stoning within driving distance.

Another fine story in the collection is "Not Every Bullet is Meant for a King," (another great title) by Hossein Arkenar, a sort of textual Pulp Fiction about people who get involved in a bank robbery.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Wehrkraftzersetzung, by Stephen D. Rogers

"Wehrkraftzersetzung," by Stephen D. Rogers, in Rogue Wave,: Best New England Crime Stories 2015,  edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, and Leslie Wheeler, Level Best Books, 2014.

We must begin with my annual complaint about the titles of the books in this series.  Since the book is published in 2014, clearly these aren't the anything stories of 2015.  And since they are published here for the first time, who the heck has decided they are the best of the year?

Having gotten that out of the way, let's discuss Mr. Rogers contribution.  This is a traditional detective story, in the sense that a murder is committed and solved, and I don't remember the last time one of those made my best-of list.  Not because I have a prejudice against them (as I admitted last week concerning fan fiction) but because they are a small percentage of the field these days.

One problem with the traditional formula in short story form is that it can fall into the category of eeny meeny murder mo,  in which the killer was either A, B, or C and you have no particular reason to care which of them did it because the characters are not much more than letters of the alphabet.

There is some of that in this story, but it is so unusual in its setting that Rogers easily overcomes that limit.  The story takes place on the Russian front during World War II.  Steiner, the narrator, is a German soldier.  In the middle of a very bad situation one of four new replacement soldiers has been killed - not by the enemy but by one of his comrades.  Steiner has apparently acquired a reputation for investigation and his commander orders him to figure out whodunit.  The search is short and cleverly done.  The conclusion is a logical extension of what happens in war.  A good, tough, story.
Best New England Crime Stories,” edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross, Leslie Wheeler. Level Best Books, 2014, - See more at:
Best New England Crime Stories,” edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross, Leslie Wheeler. Level Best Books, 2014, - See more at:
Best New England Crime Stories,” edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross, Leslie Wheeler. Level Best Books, 2014, - See more at:
edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross, Leslie Wheeler. Level Best Books, 2014, - See more at:
edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross, Leslie Wheeler. Level Best Books, 2014, - See more at:

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dr. Watson's Casebook, by Alan Grant

"Dr. Watson's Casebook," by Alan Grant, in In The Company of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Laurie R. King, and Leslie Klinger, Pegasus Crime, 2014.

I admit to a prejudice against fan fiction, the attempt to add a new work to some other author's corpus.  To make my best list such a story would pretty much have to be better than the original.

Pastiches, on the other hand, are a different animal. 

While there are different interpretations of the word, I define a pastiche as a work that uses a previous author's work but doesn't attempt to reproduce it.  A reboot, in other words.  Television's Sherlock and Elementary both qualify, but you don't have to switch to modern times to qualify.  My friend James Lincoln Warren's "Shikari," which imagines Dr. Watson as an agent of British Intelligence, is a perfect example.

This book contains examples of both categories, plus some modern stories with more or less reference to Doyle's character. 

My favorite is solidly in the pastiche camp, with tongue firmly in cheek.  Quite simply, Alan Grant has retold The Hound of the Baskervilles as it might have appeared through social media.

Dr. John Watson has shared a link to the London Meteorological Serivce - Likelihood of Severe Fog: 90%.
* The Hound likes this.
* Sherlock Holmes does not like this.

Very silly.  Very enjoyable.

My other favorite in this book was "By Any Other Name," by Michael Dirda, a clever example of the "Great Game," scholarship that assumes Holmes was real.  But, alas, it is not a crime story, so it does not qulaify here.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Swirl, by Siljie Bekeng

"Swirl," by Siljie Bekeng, in Tel Aviv Noir, edited by Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron, Akashic Press, 2014.

Hmm.  You need to sue a spoiler warning if you reveal the plot, but do you need one if you reveal there is no plot? 

This story is so light on the plot side that it could pass for mainstream, but there is crime in it, and excellent writing, which is how it happened to end up being my best-of-the-week. 

When I read a story on my tablet I mark interesting passages that I might want to quote on this page.  In this story I marked seven which is a record, I think.  But we will get to that.

The narrator describes herself as an expat.  Her husband is an executive of an international corporation and they live on Rothschild Boulevard in downtown Tel Aviv.  She is isolated in many ways, including having no knowledge of Hebrew.  But worse, there are protests going on in the city and the corporation keeps urging employees to avoid a certain area -- the place where she lives. 

But that's not the scary part.  When she does go out she sometimes comes back to find evidence that someone has been in the apartment.  Apparently Shin Bet, the Israeli security service, has a habit of leaving these little reminders for expats: we are watching you.  But our narrator suspects that this is more personal, that the watcher has taken a particular interest in her.

If this were a straight crime story you know how it would go, but as I said already, it isn't.  And the ending, well, it descends into mainstream coyness, but the rest is very good. And here are a few of those lines I highlighted:

Those single socks that never return from the washing machine?  Shin Bet has a storage room full of socks lifted from diplomats, lobbyists, and international aid workers.  On casual Fridays the Shin Bet people wear the mismatched socks themselves, for fun.

There is something embarrassing about listening in to someone else's social protest, like getting stuck at the table during someone else's family argument.

We are the kind of people they send in helicopters for.