Sunday, July 31, 2016

Voices in the Cistern, by William Burton McCormick

"Voices in the Cistern," by William Burton McCormick in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, August 2016.

This is McCormick's  second story about Quintus the Clever, a thief in the early days of the Roman empire.  And Quintus is having a bad day.

It isn't enough that he is in a city under seige by the Roman's deadly Scythian enemies.  No, he also has to deal with Vibius, a large, nasty, unscrupulous rogue.  The brute has decided Quintus is the perfect co-conspirator to help him with a dangerous scheme.  The last person involved was actually killed by, uh, Vibius.  So, what could go wrong?

At one point they pass through a house whose residents had been killed, supposedly in a Scythian attack.

"Since when do the Scythians use short swords, Vibius?"
"Since I sold them short swords," he grunts.

So things are pretty bad for Quintus.  But don't worry; they will get worse.  And then Quintus has to make a decision and either choice will break his tiny, larcenous heart...

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Meter of Murder, by Mark Thielman

"A Meter of Murder," by Mark Thielman, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2016.

In his first published story (!) Mark Thielman seems to have played midwife to the love child of Rex Stout and Lillian de la Torre. Or maybe I have just been infected with his characters' love of metaphor.

"A Meter of Murder" is this year's winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award, which is co-sponsored by AHMM and the Wolfe Pack, dedicated fans of Rex Stout.  Often but not always the winner follows the formula of Stout's Nero Wolfe stories: a genius detective who seldom goes anywhere, and a narrator who does the footwork.  So it is in Thielman's story.

But this novella is also part of a subgenre which, as far as I know was invented by Lillian de la Torre.  I assume she was reading Arthur Conan Doyle one day and noticed that Holmes referred to Watson as "my Boswell."  And she thought: If Watson is Boswell why can't Boswell be Watson?  And so she created the Samuel Johnson: Detector series, the first mystery stories to make use of a real person as the fictional hero.

And now, at last,  we can get to Thielman's story.

London in 1661 was a very dangerous place.  King Charles II had just taken the throne and anyone who had been on the Roundhead side in the Civil War, or worked with Cromwell after, had to keep one eye over his shoulder, expecting arrest or worse.

One of those was the blind poet John Milton, not yet the creator of Paradise Lost.  The narrator of the novella is Milton's younger friend, Andrew Marvell, who was both a member of Parliament and a poet.

At the beginning of what turns out to be a very long day Marvell comes to tell his friend that a royalist member of the House of Commons has been killed in circumstances that suggest a possible political motive.  If someone doesn't find out whodunit, then the people of their party may be chosen as the killer.

And so Milton gets on the case, sending Marvell out to investigate and bring back suspects.  Thielman clearly knows his Restoration London and his Rex Stout.  I enjoyed this novella a lot.

One line made me laugh out loud.  Milton to a suspect: "Sir, don't be pugnacious.  Spare us your vehemence."

Doesn't that sound exactly like Nero Wolfe?

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Shortcut to Gringo Hill, by James Nolan

"Shortcut to Gringo Hill," by James Nolan, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2016.

Lot of good stories in this issue but so far the laurel wreath goes to this somewhat bizarre story by James Nolan.

The narrator is a recovering alcoholic who gets a call from Grasshopper, for whom he has been acting as AA sponsor.  Grasshopper has been diagnosed with stage-three liver cancer and has decided to drink himself to death in Mexico.

Off he goes to the sunny southland but the big C is not what takes him away.  Instead his head has found on the short cut between the local village and the suburb for American ex-pats.  His body never turns up.  So our hero heads down there to recover the head and try to find out what happened.

Did I say bizarre?  He meets an ex-stripper, a couple of midgets, a crooked cop, a grouchy dentist - and all in a town where "the funeral home is the only place open all night."

Very compelling story with well-drawn characters.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Gathering of Great Detectives, by Shawn Reilly Simmons

"A Gathering of Great Detectives," by Shawn Reilly Simmons in Malice Domestic: Murder Most Conventional, edited by Verena Rose, Barb Goffman, and Rita Owen, Wildside Press, 2016.

All the stories in this book take place at conventions, conferences, club meetings, or the like and part of the fun is seeing how the authurs use that.  Simmons features, largely enough, a mystery weekend.

The twist is that all the guests - and hosts - come dressed as great fictional detectives, and are penalized if they dare to speak out of character. Now Inspector Bucket (from Dickens' Bleak House)
has tumbled down a flight of stairs and two genuine cops are trying to figure it out how it happened.

Their big problem is that the suspects and witnesses think they are part of the act and start ringing penalty bells if they try to speak as if this was a real-life event.  Funny, and bizarre.

I may be prejudiced in favor of this story because it reminds me (in a non-plagiarizing way) of my story "Shanks Gets Killed," which also involves a murder weekend and a Maltese Falcon-related prize.  But in any case, Simmons has given us a fun read.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Flight, by Trina Corey

"Flight," by Trina Corey, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, in July 2016.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a story featuring amnesia and said that what matters is not that a device has been used before, but what you do with it this time.  This week the device is paralysis

Rachel is in a nursing home.  She can only move a few facial muscles and, on a good day, twitch the fingers of one hand.

At night, some creepy man has been coming into her dark room to cheerfully tell her about his career as a serial killer and his plans to kill another of the residents.  Is he a resident, a staffer, or someone else?  She can't see him.  But clearly he is getting pleasure from telling his plans to a person who can't tell anyone.

Can Rachel find a way to tell someone what is happening?  Will anyone believe her?  A very suspenseful story.