Saturday, September 17, 2016

"A Perfectly Ordinary Case of Blackmail", by A.A. Milne

A.A. Milne is, of course, best known as the creator of Winnie the Pooh and the other inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood, but he dabbled in mystery fiction from time to time. His novel The Red House Mystery is well-written, thought the plot is somewhat pedestrian. (Alexander Woollcott famously called it one the of the three best mysteries of all time, which suggests to me that Woollcott only read three mysteries.)

As "A Perfectly Ordinary Case of Blackmail" opens, Sir Vernon Filmer, a politician of long service and some repute, as well as a rather superior manner, arrives at the office of his very proper solicitor, Cedric Watherston. Filmer has a problem - as the title of the story indicates, he's being blackmailed. Watherston, quite naturally, wants to know none of the particulars. He does know a man who specializes in such cases, another solicitor whose morals are rather more flexible than Watherston's own.

(Watherston would normally never have associated with such an individual, but he'd been very useful when they were both prisoners of the Kaiser in 1917.)

Scroope was, in fact, a very useful indivdual, and soon he had the story out of Sir Vernon. Many years before, before the Great War even, a man had mistaken Sir Vernon for his wife's lover and viciously attacked him. Sir Vernon fought back and had killed the man, after which he and the man's body were discovered by Sir Vernon's friend. It looked damning. The fight had been brutal, and the wounds inflicted on the dead man could easily have been interpreted as deliberate murder.

Being a professional in such matters, Scroope cheerfully begins making his preparations, and with the clever way he works it, the guilty party - or parties - are guaranteed to get what they deserve.

This was a delightful comic story. Milne sketches the characters quickly but clearly, and his light touch lends an air of humor to the whole enterprise. The ending may not be strictly legal, but Scroope (and the reader) will no doubt find it just and proper.

I read this story in Masterpieces of Mystery: The Golden Age, Part 1, edited by Ellery Queen. I've read a couple of other volumes in the series (out of 20), and I'm working my way through The Golden Age, Part 2 right now. They're all excellent, and generally can be found at reasonable prices.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Bill Crider Update

Last week, along with the mystery community, we learned our fellow blogger Bill Crider was diagnosed with an aggressive form of carcinoma. Next week, Bill will try to get into M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

Bill's few, occasional reviews here are a small sample of what a great fan and supporter of short stories he is. The mystery genre and the short form are lucky to have him, and he will continue to inspire as much as his work does.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

"Death of a Feminist" by Sarah Weinman

From Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, June 2016

This short story showed up in my current Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and I admit I read it first because I've met Sarah at Bouchercons, other conventions, book launches, etc. Not to mention her huge internet presence. I suspect she's reviewed one of my books, and I don't doubt "mildly entertaining" was in there somewhere (possibly after "could have been..."). But enough about me...

The story features a main character who is very much connected to all things internet. And that character's mother. A mother who, it appears, is in a wheelchair and never leaves the building. If there's any legwork to do, the narrator does it. So, echoes of Nero Wolfe, no?

In this case, a famous feminist is being cyber-stalked. Vicious and anonymous attacks via the internet, texts, etc. This is a part I would have liked to hear more of - it seems to me that the cyber-bully is a new and improved bully: you don't have to be on the same continent to drive someone insane with threats, slanders, etc. The schoolyard bully at least risks getting punched in the nose (though their calculations about who to pick on help them avoid this outcome), and they risked being ostracized if the bullying backfired in any way.

Still, the relationship between the narrator and her boss, Ms. Gallant, is the main draw here. That and, when you get to the end, (which I don't intend to spoil) the, possibly, psychopathic reasons for the "death of a feminist". And how much her death was motivated (if that's the right word - don't want to blame the victim at all) by her attempt to live her life and to change and grow as a person.

Anyway, go read it, then we'll talk... Then I'm sure Ms. Weinman will have another story to talk about featuring the lead characters - they deserve a series, I think...

Monday, October 26, 2015

NBS Special Report: Flash and Bang: A Short Mystery Fiction Society Anthology

Cover ©2015 Untreed Reads Publishing
Cover design by Ginny Glass
The Short Mystery Fiction Society formed in 1996 to promote mystery & crime short fiction. Graham, Bill, Steven, and I are members.

On October 8, Untreed Reads published the Society's first member anthology, Flash and Bang, in paperback and ebook.

SMFS member and Untreed Reads editor-in-chief Jay Hartman called for unpublished mystery, suspense, or thriller stories containing either a "flash" or a "bang".

Limiting submissions to one flash (300–1,000 words) and one short (1,500–3,000 words) per member, Jay received more than 300.

His selection of 19 stories ranges from historical to contemporary, cozy to hardboiled, amateur and animal sleuth to police and private detective:

  • "The Conflagration at the Nameless Cotton Gin" by Bobbi A. Chukran
  • "The Perfect Crime" by Herschel Cozine
  • "Don't Let the Cop into the House" by O'Neil De Noux
  • "Fireworks" by P.A. De Voe
  • "Rosie's Choice" by John M. Floyd
  • "The Wrong Girl" by Barb Goffman
  • "Murder on Elm Street" by Su Kopil
  • "Silent Measures" by B.V. Lawson
  • "Don't Be Cruel" by JoAnne Lucas
  • "A Simple Job" by Andrew MacRae
  • "Arthur" by Sandra Murphy
  • "Thor's Breath" by Suzanne Berube Rorhus
  • "Beautiful Killer" by Judy Penz Sheluk
  • "A Day Like No Other" by Walter A.P. Soethoudt (translated by Willem Verhulst)
  • "The Raymond Chandler Con" by Earl Staggs
  • "The Bag Lady" by Laurie Stevens
  • "Fractured Memories" by Julie Tollefson
  • "The Fruit of Thy Loins" by Albert Tucher
  • "Sierra Noir" by Tim Wohlforth

Through October 31, Flash and Bang is part of Untreed Reads 30% Off sale on mystery and horror titles.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

"The Napoli Express", by Randall Garrett

The Napoli Express makes the run from Paris to Naples only twice a week. In the first-class cabin there are eight cabins, with room for sixteen passengers total, though on this run one of the cabins has only a single occupant. Two of the passengers on board for this trip are Lord Darcy, chief criminal investigator for the Duke of Normandy, and his assistant, master sorcerer Sean O Lochlainn, both with suitable aliases.

As the train makes its way down through Lyon to Marseille on the Mediterranean coast, and then along the coast to the duchies of Italy. Very late during the second night of the journey, Sean and Darcy hear the other occupants trooping along the corridor, one at a time, to the compartment containing only a single traveler, a man named John Peabody.

In the morning, Peabody is found dead, bludgeoned to death. A dozen blows to the head; a dozen visitors in the night. Coincidence?

Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy stories are set in an alternate history where English King Richard II did not die of a crossbow wound, but lived to found a Plantagenet dynasty that survived to modern times, and in which magic has been codified and is used in place of science in our own. Despite this, they are fair-play detective stories in which a rational solution can always be found - no magic required.

Garrett was also fond of seeking inspiration from the classics of the mystery genre. The most famous instance was his novel Too Many Magicians, in which a main character resembled Nero Wolfe and has a smart-aleck assistant named Bontriomphe ("good win"). The title of that one is quite similar those of Rex Stout's novels Too Many Cooks, Too Many Women, and Too Many Men.

In this case, of course, he's taking on Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. His solution is ingenious, and he even slips in some subtle criticism of the original.

You really can't go wrong with the Lord Darcy tales, which are available in a collection simply called Lord Darcy, which is out of print but easily found.

Friday, July 31, 2015

"Shambleau" by C.L. Moore

Available in Northwest of Earth, Paizo Publishing, 2007

I became interested in C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith stories upon learning Smith was an inspiration for Star Wars' Han Solo. The first and most famous Smith story, "Shambleau", was also Moore's first professional sale (Weird Tales, November 1933). It establishes Smith as a tough-minded man visiting a colony on Mars for shady business the details of which are left cryptic. Spotting a young woman being chased by a mob, Smith manages to save her and avoid bloodshed simply by saying she is his, a twist that strikes even Smith as odd.

Letting the woman stay with him, Smith realizes she is not quite human, but cannot say definitively what she is. After a day out on business, Smith returns to his lodgings and acts on his attraction to his guest and her palpable willingness to have him. Before things go too far, Smith finds himself suddenly revolted. This, however, is not enough to save him a perilous second encounter with her.

I found Moore's style evocative yet easily readable, particularly in its depiction of Smith's conflicting attraction and horror at what he discovers the woman to be.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

"Heat Death" by Bill Cameron

On Twitter, Bill Cameron offered copies of the July/August 2015 AHMM, featuring this Skin Kadash story, and I was lucky enough to get one. Kadash is a cop in Cameron's loose series of novels, but "Heat Death" serves to introduce him to new readers while on a road trip to Canada with his only friend, Tommy, in the summer of 1971.

Expecting to be drafted into the U.S. Army, Tommy's motivation for the trip is to rendezvous with a woman he's fallen for, named Instance. Skin goes along to keep Tommy out of trouble, and only narrowly does so. As he sketches a younger Kadash, Cameron evokes the freedom of a road trip and the tension of the times equally well.