Showing posts with label 2017. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2017. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Little Big News: The Year's Best

At SleuthSayers today I list the best short mystery stories of the year.  This is my ninth annual list, and the longest ever.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Family Secrets, by Eric Beetner

"Family Secrets," by Eric Beetner, in Switchblade, #3, 2017.

Thuglit  is dead.  Long live Switchblade.  That was m first thought after reading the first few stories in this magazine.  As far as I know the publishing team of Switchblade has no connection to the late lamented Thuglit, but they share a noir sensibility much truer than the fancypants in the Akashic Press noir cities series.  (For the record,  I have been published by Akashic Press, but not by either of these two magazines.)  I wish Switchblade more success in the market than the old one had.

All right.  Here is how Mr. Beetner introduces his story.

"Daddy," I asked.  "Is that blood?"
Mom waved a hand at me, shooing me out of the bathroom as she pulled the door half closed.  I could still see Dad propping himself up on one hand while the rest of him sprawled out on the tile floor. His free hand stayed pressed hard into the deep red slain on his shirt, down near the hip.

The little boy has just discovered that his family has a secret, and that secret is going to change his life forever.  B eetner shows us very grim, adult, business from the boy's point of view.  Well-written.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Spoils, by William Ryan

"The Spoils," by William Ryan, in CWA Anthology of Short Stories: Mystery Tour, edited by Martin Edwards, Orenda Books, 2017.

An old piece of writing advice is that you should not show all your research.  You want it to inform your story without drowning your reader in it.

The same can be true of the fictional background of a story.  The writer may know more than she tells the reader about the characters, the past, etc.  Think of it as the architecture where the story takes place;  it may not get described, but it shapes where the characters can travel.

Ryan's story is intentionally vague on some points, letting the reader fill in the dots.  For example, Amanda works for The Firm, and we don't know exactly what that august company does, except that "I knew enough about The Firm to put Stacy and the other partners in a federal penitentiary for a very long time."

Oh yes, Stacy.  When the story begins Stacy is firing Amanda.  They were rivals, competing for the same chair at The Firm, and Stacy won.  But it is not just a business rivalry.  It becomes clear that Stacy wants to ruin Amanda's life.  Why?  Well, that's vague, too.

And then there's Angela (ugh... why name two important characters Angela and Amanda?).  She is clearly in the Witness Protection Program for reasons that will eventually become clear.

If this all seems terminally vague, all I can say is, it works.  And when Amanda  seeks revenge, there is nothing vague about it.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

Travel is Dangerous, by Ed James

"Travel is Dangerous," by Ed James, in CWA Anthology of Short Stories: Mystery Tour, edited by Martin Edwards, Orenda Books, 2017.

The one thing I don't understand about this story is why Edinburgh detectives would be shipped over to Glasgow in order to investigate a murder.  There's no one closer than an hour away?  Maybe it has something to do with the theme of the book being travel?  All right, moving past that.

Cullen is a DS, detective sergeant in Scotland's capital.  He is reluctantly paired with Bain, who complains that breakfast there is (as Cullen sarcastically summarizes) "nowhere near as good as in Glasgow, home of sectarian violence and divine fry-ups..."

A naked dead man has been found in a garbage bin.  Well, not quite naked.  He is wearing a pink diaper.  The murder involved a gay orgy, which does not sit well with Bain.  I can't find the exact phrase but at one point Cullen interrupts his speech "to prevent a hate crime being committed." 

It's a witty story and various kinds of justice are administered before it ends.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Truth Comes Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind, by Thomas Pluck

“Truth Comes Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind," by Thomas Pluck, in Alive in Shape and Color, edited by Lawrence Block, Pegasus Books, 2017.

This is the second appearance in this blog by my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Thomas Pluck.  And that brings up an interesting point. Most of the stories I have read by him are somewhat raw and visceral. This one is nuanced and sophisticated.  Notice I am not saying that one is better than the other.  Pluck has fit his style to his material, as good writers do.

The narrator is the host of TV shows about archaeology.  He has been invited to a German dig by Emma, a woman he knew in school, who is leading the dig.  But he is not there because of old memories, or his TV show.  He is an expert in the Kurgan civilization, which is known only by the strange burials they left behind.

And there may be Kurgan burials here.  Emma has found some weird stuff, like evidence of cannibalism, and a headless female skeleton in a well.  Very mysterious stuff.

Speaking of mysteries, reasonable people could disagree over whether this is a mystery, i.e., a crime story, or something else.  But if you don't like my decision, start your own damn blog.  And that's about as raw and visceral as I get here.

Monday, January 1, 2018

A Significant Find, by Jeffery Deaver

"A Significant Find," by Jeffery Deaver, Alive in Shape and Color, edited by Lawrence Block, Pegasus Books, 2017.

This is Deaver's third appearance in this column, second one this year.

Each story in the book is inspired by a work of art, which appears in front of it.  In this case it the Cave Paintings of Lascaux, some of the oldest art work in the world.

Sometimes the difference between a good story and a great one is the structure.  I can't imagine this tale working nearly as well without the simple device Deaver uses to introduce it.

It begins with Roger and Della having a crisis of conscience.  They are a married couple, both moderately successful mid-career archaeologists, and they are in France for a conference.

Why the crisis?  Well, let's put it this way.  Suppose Professor A gets a clue to a career-changing discovery but doesn't realize how to use it.  If he tells Professors B and C about it and they are more clever at interpreting the puzzle, are B and C required to share the credit with A?

An ethical dilemma indeed.  And Roger and Della are about to face more dilemmas, but I can't tell you about that without giving away the store.  Or the cave.  Some lovely twists in this one. 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

One at a Time, by Lissa Marie Redmond

"One at a Time," by Lissa Marie Redmond, in Down & Out Magazine, Issue 2.

It's just my luck to get locked in a trunk of a car so old there's no emergency latch.

Some people will whine about anything, won't they?  That opening sentence stole my heart, in part because I know that if I had been writing this story I would have gone for the cliche: I was trapped in the trunk of a car, on my way to certain death, or the like.

Instead our hero is griping about the lack of modern conveniences.  That's just lovely.

Marcus is, as he admits, a screw-up.  In and out of jail.  Now a  bad guy gives him a simple job: pick up this 1969 Ford Fairlane and drive it to a specific spot.  Collect five grand out of the glove compartment and walk away clean.  Easy peasy, no?

Except that on the drive over Marcus hears strange noises from the trunk, like someone trying to get out...

I love stories about a guy who is ashamed of himself for what he sees as weakness, namely having done  the right thing.  

By the way, the publisher sent me this magazine for free.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Burnt Orange, by Shawn Reilly Simmons

"Burnt Orange," by Shawn Reilly Simmons, in Passport to Murder, edited by John McFetridge, Down and Out Books, 2017.

This is Simmons' second appearance in this blog.  "Burnt Orange" is a fresh tale, by which I mean it went in directions I did not expect at all.
Shelby is a teenager with a problem.  She likes to burn things.

Her mother is driving her to a reform school.  Her mother, by the way, is a narcissist and a bit of a fabulist, which is no doubt is connected to the roots of Shelby's problems.  

So I was expecting a story about a troubled kid, and I suppose in a way that's what I got.

But there are worse people out there than Shelby and her mother, and folks with worse problems.  And if Shelby thinks fast enough she may be able to save a few lives.  She may even get to use her, well, special talents to do it.

A clever tale.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Jerusalem Syndrome, by Hilary Davidson

"Jerusalem Syndrome," in Passport to Murder, edited by John McFetridge, Down and Out Books, 2017.

This is Davidson's second appearance in this column.

Usually when I point out that I might not be objective about a story it is because I am friends with the author (like last week).  This week the reason is different: I have visited most of the places she describes.

Suzanne is visiting Israel for the first time.  It would be a great visit except for the people she is traveling with, a group from her church.  Well, not exactly her church.  Husband Bobby made them join it because it is the road to promotion at his company.

And the head of the church, Pastor Ted, is a major jerk.  He's the one who brings up Jerusalem Syndrome -- and let's talk about that for a moment.  It refers to a mental derangement in which the patient, typically an American or European Christian visits the Holy Land and freaks out.  Suddenly they are out on the streets of Jerusalem, wrapped in bed sheets, proclaiming themselves John the Baptist or Mary Magdalene.

I understand why it occurs.  People have heard about these places since they were toddlers and suddenly each one is real.  The road you take to Jericho is the same one in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  It's sort of like visiting the Black Forest and the tour guide casually pointing to a decaying cabin and says "That's where Goldilocks met the Three Bears." Except more so, because this is about your religion.  Some people's heads just explode.

When I read the story I thought it was odd that Pastor Ted describes something much more minor as Jerusalem Syndrome, but it actually makes perfect sense.  He is a control freak and part of that is attacking any sign of rebellion.

And Suzanne is beginning to rebel...  I enjoyed this story a lot.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Black Friday, by R.T. Lawton

"Black Friday," by R.T. Lawton, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November/December 2017.

I knew that if I wrote these reviews long enough I would eventually have to tell you about George F. Will.  That day has come.

In 1980 President Jimmy Carter debated candidate Ronald Reagan.  Among those asked on television to evaluate their performances was conservative pundit George F. Will.  Not surprisingly he praised Reagan's showing.  More surprisingly, it turned out that he had been one of Reagan's debate coaches.  So he was praising his own work without bothering to mention it.

And that's why you have never heard of George F. Will again.

Here's why I bring this up.  R.T. Lawton and I are first readers for each other.  Before I send a story to an editor I ask him to critique it. He does the same with me.

That means I read an earlier version of this story and made some suggestions for improving it, a few of which, I think, the author took.  So you can argue that I have no subjectivity about it now.  All I can say in reply is that the first version I read would also have been the best of the week, before I got my grubby hands on it.

This is part of a series of stories about Yarnell and Beaumont, a sort of low-rent version of Donald Westlake's Dortmunder and Kelp, marginally successfully thieves.  It is the day after Thanksgiving and Yarnell is visiting a pawn shop to retrieve his wife's wedding ring.  Unfortunately there is a robbery going on.

"Not so fast," said the robber.
Yarnell wasn't sure if that meant he was now supposed to move in slow motion or not at all, so to be on the safe side, he quit moving altogether.  In fact, he thought it best under these circumstances to have his brain check to see if his lungs were still pumping air. 

Eventually Beaumont shows up.  He is the smarter half of the team - although that is not a fast track by any means - and finds a hilarious way of settling the issue.

My favorite element of this story is Lebanese George, owner of the pawnshop who remains unflappable.  Another day, another hold-up.  Ho-hum.

This is a treat.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Mechanical Detective, by John Longenbaugh

"The Mechanical Detective," by John Longenbaugh, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, October 2017.

The more observant among you may be wondering why I am reviewing a story in the October issue of Mystery Weekly Magazine when last week I covered a tale from their November issue.  The answer is that I am a wild soul, a born free spirit who scorns chronological order.  Ha ha!

Sorry.  Where was I? Oh, yes.

Another thing I scorn is fan fiction, where a person attempts to add another story to someone else's ouevre, either taking advantage of public domain, or with permission of the heirs, or just hoping that they will never notice or care to sue. Not fond of those stories. But I sometimes enjoy what I call a pastiche in which the writer uses elements of another writers world to create something different.  Heck, I have even indulged in that game myself.

And so has Longenbaugh.  In his world it is 1889, eight years after the Great Detective (unnamed, but you-know-who) has arrived on the scene, and London is stinky with consulting detectives, each with their own gimmick.  Allow me to introduce Ponder Wright, the Mechanical Detective.

Wright is not truly mechanical but rather what we would call a cyborg, having had various parts of his body replaced by machinery after an accident.  This was due to the kindness of his wealthy and influential brother.  "I daresay my soul is my own," he notes, "but far too much of the rest of me is merely leased from Mordecai."

He says this, by the way, to his roommate and biographer, Danvers, who is a "mechanical surgeon,"
fully human, but skilled at repairing delicate bio-gadgets.

In this story Wright has been summoned to examine the case of a professor who has apparently been killed by one of his automatons.  But these robots can only do what they have been programmed to do.  Has the War Department violated treaties by asking the professor to build killing machines?  Or is there another explanation?

One thing that requires an explanation, of course, is how steam-powered London possesses such advanced machinery.  Longenbaugh offers one which requires more suspension of disbelief that Ponder Wright's solution to the mystery, but I enjoyed it all.  This is a fun piece of work.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Last Evil, by David Vardeman

"The Last Evil," by David Vardeman, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, November 2017.

Hooboy.  What to say about this week's entry?  It reminded me of Shirley Jackson, John Collier, maybe some shadowy corners of Flannery O'Connor and even James Thurber.  In other words, we are in the strange part of town.

Our protagonist is Mrs. Box, who believes that suffering is good for the soul.  Hence she wears flannel lined with canvas, because parochial school taught her "the value of chafing."

She also believed in doing "a lot of good in the world. But there  was another tinier but just as important point, and that was to get the leap on people.  In her own life she felt a lack of people leaping out at her.  In the past forty days and forty nights, not one soul, nothing, had given her a good jolt.  Mr. Box certainly had not."

Which is why she keeps a live tarantula in her purse, which she pulls out to shock people.  As a good deed.  Or does she do that? 

One thing she does do is meet a man on a train who has something in his briefcase even more frightening than a live tarantula.  Or does he? 

Enough. Read the thing and find out.  It's worth the trip.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Precision Thinking, by Jim Fusilli

"Precision Thinking," by Jim Fusilli, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November/December 2017.

Last week I wrote about a story that felt like it belonged in Black Mask Magazine.  By coincidence I am now covering a story that appears in the Black Mask department of Ellery Queen.  Go figure.

World War II has just started and the German owner of Delmenhorst Flooring has just died.  The business is in Narrows Gate, a fictional town which strongly resembles Hoboken, NJ.  The Farcolini family decide to take over the flooring  business, replacing the German employees  with "locals, mostly Sicilians and Italians who couldn't spell linoleum on a bet but had a genius for theft."

It's a cliche, I suppose, that gangsters take a successful business and turn it crooked, even though it was making good money on the up and up, because they can't imagine not doing it crooked.  See the fable of the scorpion and the frog.

But in this case there is a low-level mobster who discovers he likes laying linoleum, and he's good at it.  Can he find a way to keep the crooks from ruining a good thing?

Fusilli captures the tough guy tone perfectly, in a fun tale.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

"The Black Hand," by Peter W.J. Hayes

"The Black Hand," by Peter W.J. Hayes, in  Malice Domestic: Murder Most Historical, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly, Simmons.

It seems like every year or so I have to chide some editors who don't know what a noir story is supposed to be.  Today I feel like I have the same problem in reverse. Sort of.

I am not sure of the definition of a "Malice Domestic" story, but I know this one is not what I expected, or what the rest of the anthology (so far) led me to anticipate.  Hayes' story is not cozy.  It would, on the other hand, would feel quite cozy between the pages of Black Mask, circa 1928, which is around the time it is set.

Brothers Jake and David fought over a girl named Bridgid and Jake left Pittsburgh for logging work in the midwest.  David became a very successful mobster, until his body shows up in a river.

The story begins with Jake coming home to try to discover how his brother died and who is responsible.  The first thing he learns is that Bridgid was murdered a few weeks before, and a lot of people think David killed her.  Is there a connection between the deaths?  Can Jake stay alive long enough to find out?

This is an excellent salute to a classic subgenre of pulp fiction.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

PX Christmas, by Martin Limón

"PX Christmas," by Martin Limón, in The Usual Santas,  Soho Crime, 2017.

Martin Limón writes exclusively about Asia and most of his novels and stories are set in South Korea in some vague part of the 1970s.  His heroes, George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, are investigators for the CID of the American Eighth Army.  

This story involves two events that come together.  The Army decides that suicides brought on by holiday depression are bad publicity so the cops are assigned to collect soldiers suspected of being depressed and making sure they are cared for. 

"They'll be locked up," Ernie said.
Riley glared at him.  "Not locked up.  They'll be provided extra care.  And extra training."

And not allowed to leave until after the holidays.

Meanwhile the CID has also been ordered to crack down on the black market.  Specifically Korean wives of GIs using their PX privileges to pick up subsidized goods which they can then sell.  Sueño thinks this campaign has less to do with saving tax dollars and more to do with officers not wanting to see Korean women on the base.

It was my job, and Ernie's to arrest these women for black marketing and thus keep the world safe for Colonels and their wives to be able to buy all the Tang and Spam and Pop Tarts their little hearts desired.

Neither of these cases may sound like they will result in riots, encounters with a man named Mr. Kill, and tying someone to a railroad track, but our heroes have a way of following a trail wherever it leads.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Making It, by Michael Wiley

"Making It," by Michael Wiley, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September-October 2017.

Last week I had the privilege of being on a panel at Bouchercon in Toronto.  One of the questions was: How do you find new authors to read?  I responded that every new short story is an author auditioning to be your latest favorite.  And Michael Wiley certainly did a job here.  I will definitely try one of his books.

Let's see how he starts:

When Skylar Ricks carjacked Gerald Johannson's Ford Taurus on a February morning in Chicago, climbing into the passenger seat at the corner of Granville and Clark, his hand wrapped neatly around a .44 Smith & Wesson, an unlighted Marlboro between his lips, Gerald said, "Oh, now you're in trouble."

Well, that took an unexpected turn, didn't it?  As the story goes on we will learn the reason for Skylar's rash act and a good deal about the personality of Gerald.  He is an older man, missing his late lover, and remarkably imperturbable.  Even when being carjacked.

Gerald has some definite views on life.  Later in the story he offers another character some, well, I won't call it wisdom.  Advice.

"When a man cares enough about you to shoot your boyfriend, you owe him kindness."

Somewhat later Gerald is being pursued on the highway by some bad guys.  He manages to get behind them and, rather than escaping, he decides to chase them.  "To break their spirit."

I don't know what he does to their spirit, but he certainly raises mine considerably.  It seems unlikely that there will be more stories about Gerald but I would certainly like to read one. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

e-Golem, by S.J. Rozan

"e-Golem," by S.J. Rozan, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September-October 2017.

This is the fourth appearance here by my old pal S.J. Rozan, and a doozy of a tale she has chosen to tell.

Judah Loew runs a used bookstore on the Lower East Side in Manhattan.  Most similar stores have been killed by the Internet but Loew's specialties - including Judaica and mythology - have kept him holding on.  Not much longer, alas.

But then a newly arrived book claims to offer a spell for creating a golem , the clay humunculus that a medieval rabbi, also named Judah Loew, built out of dust to save the Jews of Warsaw.  Of course, the results back in the middle ages were disastrous.

Can our modern Loew have better luck?  Can a medieval invention cope with the Internet?  Just remember that bookstore dust is special dust so you can't expect an ordinary golem.  If such a thing exists...

Sunday, October 8, 2017

A Pie to Die For, by Meg Opperman

"A Pie to Die For," by Meg Opperman, in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Issue 1.

I have been asked recently about my policy so it may be time to repeat this.  Most of the publications I review I either purchase or borrow from libraries.  You can send me a free copy of an anthology, collection, or magazine if you want, as long as it is published this year.  I promise to start reading each story.  If it is the best I read that week I will review it here.

First of all, congratulations to Wildside Press for the first issue of their new baby.  Long may Black Cat Mystery Magazine prowl the mean streets.

This is Opperman's second appearance in my column.

It's Thanksgiving and newlywed Annie is supposed to be preparing a feast for her doting husband and his ungrateful mother.  But then she gets a phone call from Benedict, who she hasn't heard from since before the wedding.

Ah, Benedict, who makes her skin flush and her heart race...  He tells her to be at the Palisades apartments in half an hour and she is eager to oblige.

That means she has to find an excuse to slip out. Which turns out to be tougher than you might expect. And...

And I have to stop there.  But, boy, I never guessed what was coming.  Nice light writing, lovely ending.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

Do Not Pass Go, by James Blakey

"Do Not Pass Go," by James Blakey, in Mystery Weekly Magazine, September 2017.

I admit it.  I am a sucker for this sort of thing.  Your mileage may vary.

The narrator has just arrived in a town and quickly discovers that the cops are corrupt, the wealthy run things to suit themselves, and the employers rip off the workers.

Yeah.  Thousands of crime stories start like this.  What makes this one stand out?

Well, he gets a job at the Water Works where people get paid in brightly colored scrip.  He doesn't earn enough to rent one of the identical houses on New York or Kentucky Avenues. He almost gets sent to jail for not paying the poor tax.   There's a casino on Boardwalk and gambling everywhere  in town.  Everybody loves to roll those dice...

And the Parker Brothers run everything.  It's like they've got a -  What's that word again?

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Aramis and the Worm, by Michael Mallory

"Aramis and the Worm," by Michael Mallory, in ALfed Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2017.

My friend Michael Mallory is making his fourth appearance in this space, his second time this year.  Being an actor he often writes about show biz and this is the case today.

Adrian Keel used to star in a lot of Grade-B movies filmed in exotic locations.  Key phrase is "used to."  He is ninety years old, lives in an apartment in London, and has all kinds of medical problems.  He wears adult diapers.

But he is called back to duty once more.  Not because of his acting talents, but because of his other job.  You see, he worked for MI-6, taking parts in terrible movies so he could go to trouble spots and report back.  Now his old boss has set him up in a movie that is filming in Cuba, so he can spot the Russian spy

"The Cold War is coming back, Adrian, and worse than ever."
"You believe Putin to be that dangerous?"
"Vladimir Putin is dead."
Adrian set down his wineglass.  "I've heard nothing of that."
:Nor has anyone else on the outside.  That bald, glowering, bare-chested man you see on the television is not Vladimir Putin., it is a brilliant double."

And then things get complicated.  A wild ride.