Sunday, March 26, 2017

Underground Above Ground, by Robert Tippee,

"Underground Above Ground," by Robert Tippee, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2017.

So, when do you know you are reading a terrific story?

Sometimes there's a knock-em-dead opening paragraph and you spend the rest of the story thinking: Don't blow this.

Sometimes a story starts slow and builds and builds.

And some stories take your breath away with a great twist ending.

But maybe the rarest is the story that catches you later, because you can't stop thinking about it.  You read it again, not because you want to figure out how a trick ending worked, but because you want to savor the nuances, admire the architecture.

In other words: I had to sit with this one for a while, as the saying goes.

The nameless narrator is a young man who has mastered the art of disappearing.  He dresses in black, with a stocking cap that hides his face.  And as the story begins, it is after ten PM and he is sitting in the darkness near a city tennis court, watching a young man and his beautiful girlfriend as they volley the ball, flirt, and discuss Facebook.

Facebook.  They ought to call it "Gutspill."  I don't do Facebook.  Somebody like me can't.  But why would anybody?

This is a guy with nobody to "friend" on Facebook anyway.  It's clear that there are bad things in our narrator's past, although it is not clear at first whether they were done to him, by him, or both.

And then the story takes several unexpected twists, which is all I can say.  Except this: I loved it.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Renters, by Tim L. Williams

"Renters," by Tim L. Williams, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2017.

It's rural Kentucky in the mid-eighties, a hard time in a hard place.  Davy is fifteen years old.  His father, a Vietnam vet, lost his job years ago and now puts food on the table hunting and fishing.  Dad has what we might call anger issues.  When his wife said something he didn't like he: "grabbed her by her hair, dragged her to the back door, and threw her into the yard.  'Come back in when you find a cure for stupid.'"

The fourth character in this situation is the family's landlord, Ben Daniels, the richest man in the county.  Daniels wants to bring rich tourists to hunt on his land, which means he has to stop Davy's dad from hunting there for the pot.  Oh, did I mention that Davy's mother is young and beautiful and when she is around the good-looking landlord has "busy eyes?"

So we have all the makings of a tragedy here.  The only question is who is going to end up doing what to whom.  And there Williams offers us some surprises, which is what I liked best about this well-written story.

  "There are some things that need killing..."


Monday, March 13, 2017

Gold Digger, by Reavis Z. Wortham

"Gold Digger," by Reavis Z. Wortham, in Bound by Mystery, edited by Diane D. DiBiase, Poisoned Pen Press, 2017.

Most of this story takes place in May 1934, on the night Bonnie and Clyde died, although that has nothing to do with the story.  (Well, now that I think of it, it might explain a bit of one character's motivation.  Subtle, that.)  It's rural Texas and our narrator is a ten year old boy at a barn dance, with no less than Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys performing. He witnesses a murder, a pointless killing involving that ancient cause of trouble, an older husband a younger wife.

Then we jump to the same guy in World War II, and then many years later to his old age.  And only at that point does he, and do we, figure out exactly what was going on back in 1934.  I didn't see the twist coming at all. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Farmer and His Wife, by Earl Staggs

“The Farmer and His Wife,” by Earl Staggs,  Mystery Weekly Magazine, March 2017.

Ever notice that private eye fiction is full of missing daughters?  Ross Macdonald did.  One of his books begins: "It was a wandering daughter job."

 Earl Staggs seems to have noticed, too, but he does a neat role reversal.  His P.I. is hired to find a missing son.  Oh, by the way, here is Staggs' opening sentence:


"She had me from the first teardrop."

Aw, the big sentimental lug.

"She" is the mother. Her son disappeared while working on a farm to earn college money.   And we won't go any farther, although, naturally, the hero does.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Mad Still, by Andrew Davie

"Mad Still," by Andrew Davie, in Mystery Weekly, February 2017.

If you took a Bob Dylan song full of surreal imagery, say "Desolation Row" or "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues," and turned it into a crime story the result might be a bit like "Mad Still."

The anonymous narrator is a retired boxer (mostly a sparring partner).  He is newly arrived in New Orleans and he is meeting with the Clown.

The Clown is the leader of a group of street performers and they are having a problem with a human statue, the one nicknamed Mad Still because he can stand unmoving all day, hogging one of the best places to attract crowds.  "He doesn't even take tips."  The Clown and his associates want him moved by any means necessary.

But it turns out there is a rival group of performers that want Mad Still to stay where he is.  They are the ACTors, movie star look-alikes who earn their daily bread posing for photos with tourists. There leader is Clint Eastwood, more or less.  Both groups want our boxer hero to enforce their will.

Violence happens.  Someone is kidnapped.  Golems are invoked.  Then things turn weird.

What I am saying is, if you want a straight road to a logical conclusion you shouldn't be on Highway 61 in the first place.

I enjoyed this story a lot.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The House on Maple Street, by Janice Law

"The House on Maple Street," by Janice Law, in Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, edited by Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks, Down & Out Books, 2017.

This is the fourth time my friend and fellow SleuthSayer has made it into this column.

Raymond Wilde is a private eye in a small town in Connecticut where high school football is a big thing.  His client is Harold Bain, a wealthy and abrasive man, who wants Ray to prove that the school quarterback is a ringer, not really living in the town.  He says that he's concerned about the taxpayers being ripped off, but he really wants to get the outsider out of the way so his own son can move up to quarterback.

Ray investigates but quickly gets distracted by another house on the same block where mysterious goings-on are, uh, going on.  Some of them involve Harold Bain, Jr.

What I liked best about this story is the ending, in which several characters show unexpected sides of their personalities.  You might even call it a happy ending.

 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Mr. Private Eye Behind the Motel with a .38, by Michael Bracken

"Mr. Private Eye Behind the Motel with a .38," by Michael Bracken, in Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, edited by Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks, Down & Out Books, 2017.

What a long story title.  This, by the way, is Bracken's third appearance in this column. It takes place in Waco, Texas, where Blake is a former cop (he arrested the son of the wrong millionaire) turned private eye.  Mrs. Watkins hired him to get proof that her fat rich husband is cheating on her.  She might want more from Blake than just that.

And so might Ashley, a wealthy blond he meets in downtown,  near the food trucks.  For one thing, she would like to accompany him on a case... We will leave it there, I think.  It's a good story.

But let's talk about the art of building an anthology.  There is a story earlier in this book that, shall we say, runs from Point A to Point B, with B being the revelation of a particular plot device.

Bracken's story includes the same device, but it runs past it to Point C.  (Which does not automatically make it a better story, by the way.)

If the editors had put Bracken's story earlier on than the other tale would be a disappointment.  But by running it first the alert reader says "Ah, I see where Bracken is going" - and is pleasantly surprised when he goes past it.  So, good job, editors.





Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Hawaii Murder Case, by Terence Faherty

"The Hawaii Murder Case," by Terence Faherty, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2017.

This is  the seventh appearance here by fellow SleuthSayer, Terence Faherty.  He remains the World Champeen in my blog.

Let's talk about pastiches.  Again.  It seems like there is something in the air, or the zeitgeist that is pulling htem at a high rate and high quality.

Last week it was Jonathan Turner's mash-up of characters created by Steve Hockensmith and Arthur Conan Doyle. Faherty himself has written clever send-ups of Doyle's work.  And Evan Lewis dazzled us with a reboot of Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op stories.

But today's story more closely resembles another series of Mr. Lewis: those about state legislator David Crockett who is the unfortunate bearer of the consciousness of his ancestor Davy Crockett.

Mr. Faherty introduces us to Kelly and David, a married couple who visit Hawaii.  David has some annoying habits, wanting to tell his wife everything he knows, especially about whatever book he is reading.  (Why no, I am nothing like that myself. Just ask my wife.  Or better yet, don't.)

But David is reading one of S.S. Van Dine's novels about that most irritating of Golden Age amateur sleuth's, Philo Vance.  (Ogden Nash wrote that he needed a kick in the pance.)  And when David suffers a concussion he becomes convinced that he is the great and annoying detective.  Bad for his wife, but good for justice since a mysterious death has just occurred...

Very funny and clever.




Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Case of the Disapppearing Passenger, by Jonathan Turner,

"The Case of the Disapppearing Passenger," by Jonathan Turner, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2017.

Boy.  Where to start with this one?

I am on the  record as not being a fan of fan fiction, where people just write yet another story about Sherlock Holmes, or another novel about the characters of a dead author.

I feel differently about pastiches, where someone rethinks a familiar character or plot and does something different with it.  (Hey, I've done that myself.)

And this one falls in between the stools, you might say.  Jonathan Turner has used (with permission) Steve Hockensmith's characters Old Red and Big Red Amlingmeyer, and combined them with Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.

If you aren't familiar with the Amlingmeyer brothers, they are cowboys around the turn of the century.  Old Red is illiterate but is a huge fan of Holmes and wants to be a detective, and he's good at it.  Big Red is the narrator, as witty as his brother is grumpy.  They have appeared in several short stories and five novels. (And I have illustrated one above, rather than using the cover of the same EQMM two weeks in a row.)

This story takes place not long after the most recent (but I hope not last) novel in the series.  The first half is a letter from Big Red to Holmes explaining a case the brothers encountered in New York, which ends with the villain escaping on a ship to London (as Old Red deduces).  The second half consists of Holmes and Watson figuring out which passenger is the bad guy.

If I were Hockensmith I'd be surprised and maybe a little nervous about the uncanny way Turner captures the voices of my characters - better than he did Conan Doyle's, I think.  Here is an example.  (Gus is another name for Old Red.  His brother is talking to King Brady.)

"Enjoying things ain't what you'd call Gus's strong suit," I told him.  "You may be the King of the New York dicks, but he's the Ace of Curmudgeons."
"That makes you the Jack of Asses," Gus retorted. 

A lot of fun. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Little Big News: Agatha Nominations

The Agatha Award nominations have been announced.  Winners will be crowned at Malice Domestic in the spring.  Congrats to all!

Best Short Story
"Double Jinx: A Bellissimo Casino Crime Caper Short Story" by Gretchen Archer (Henery Press)
"The Best-Laid Plans" by Barb Goffman in Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional (Wildside Press)
"The Mayor and the Midwife" by Edith Maxwell in Blood on the Bayou: Bouchercon Anthology 2016 (Down & Out Books)
"The Last Blue Glass" by B.K. Stevens in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine
"Parallel Play" by Art Taylor in Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning (Wildside Press)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Slay Belles, by Marilyn Todd

"Slay Belles," by Marilyn Todd, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Ever drive past a small store with some strange specialty and wonder: "How do they stay in business?"

Marilyn Todd has a helpful suggestion: Maybe they are money launderers!  Get a place with a lot of customers (even if they are tourists who don't actually buy much), and a cash-heavy inventory, and the taxman won't suspect a thing.

Or such was the discovery of sisters Hannah and Lynn who have deep roots in British organized crime.  Their year-round-Christmas store, The North Pole, is doing just fine, cleaning up dirty money from various family businesses.

But the sisters have a special sideline.  The store has Santa's Mailbox where kids can ask the fat man for help.  And while Hannah and Lynn can't promise the latest video game or a pony, if the request is desperate they may be able to offer a special solution...

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Little Big New: The best stories of 2016, says Edgar

The MWA has just announced the nominees for the Edgar Awards.  Chngrats to all.  Here are the short story finalists:

"Oxford Girl" – Mississippi Noirby Megan Abbott (Akashic Books)
"A Paler Shade of Death" – St. Louis Noir by Laura Benedict (Akashic Books)
"Autumn at the Automat" – In Sunlight or in Shadow by Lawrence Block (Pegasus Books)
"The Music Room" – In Sunlight or in Shadow  by Stephen King (Pegasus Books)
"The Crawl Space" – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazineby Joyce Carol Oates (Dell Magazines)


And the Robert L. Fish Award winner for best first story:

"The Truth of the Moment" – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
by E. Gabriel Flores (Dell Magazines)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Little Big News: The Best stories of 2016, says me.

Over at SleuthSayers I list the 13 best mystery stories of the year, culled from this page, of course.  Two are from the book at right.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Motive, Opportunity, Means, by Mark Bastable

"Motive, Opportunity, Means," by Mark Bastable, in The Thrill List, edited by Catherine Lea, Brakelight Press, 2016.

Congressman John Fuller left his wife for his secretary.  Said wife did not take it well.  Now she has plotted an elaborate revenge, and Fuller's future depends on the shrewdness and determination of an overworked cop named Pinski who just wants to spend some time with own wife. 

If this description sounds a little sparse, you are right.  I don't want to give away any of the secrets of this marvelous, convoluted plot.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Formula, by Jerry Kennealy

"The Formula, by Jerry Kennealy, in 44 Caliber Funk, edited by Gary Phillips and Robert J. Randisi, Moonstone Press, 2016.

There are some good stories in this book but I have to say: the manuscript should have danced the Hustle one more time with a copy editor.  Spellchecker doesn't catch missing words or spot  when characters  names suddenly change.

Moving on to Kennealy's story: It's 1970.  Private eye Johnny O'Rorke has been hired to find an actress.  Susan Jeffers vanished with a few scenes left to film in a Western which is already snake-bit, seeing how the first star killed himself.

The movie producer is philosophical, which is not the same as being resigned:

"It usded to be so simple.  We had a formula: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back."
He brought his hands together ina loud snap.  "Now its boy screws girl, girl gets gangbanged by thugs, boy kills thugs, girl decides to become a lesbian."

Which is not exactly what has happened to the actress.  But her fate is a long way from formulaic.