Thursday, December 28, 2006

"Risico" by Ian Fleming

Available in For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming, 1960.

It's rumored this 40-page story will provide the inspiration for the next James Bond film starring Daniel Craig. In it, Bond is enlisted in Britain's drug war when M asks him to meet a CIA double-agent named Kristatos. Kristatos tells Bond the man behind the flow of drugs into Britain is an Italian, Enrico Colombo. Further, Kristatos asks Bond to kill Colombo. Bond says he will, if Colombo tries to kill him.

To learn more about Colombo, Bond poses as a thriller writer researching drug-smuggling. As usual, he is distracted by a woman, in this case the blond Viennese Lisl Baum, and captured by the enemy. Surprisingly, Colombo admits he is a smuggler but says Kristatos is the real mastermind, in league with the Russians. The heart of the story is in Bond's decision who to believe.

It takes a while to get comfortable with Fleming in the short form, but if a burst of Bond is what you're looking for, his writing is superior to any posthumous continuation of the character. Here is a Bond who questions the Secret Service's role in the drug war, who prefers efficient operations to "adventurous" ones.

"Sex and Bingo" by Elaine Viets

From: High Stakes: 8 Sure-Bet Stories of Gambling and Crime, ed. Robert J. Randisi. Signet, 2003.

Viets's new series character, Helen Hawthorne, is a fugitive surviving on temp jobs after catching her husband with another woman and taking a crowbar to his skull. In this titillatingly-titled story, Helen is working at a boutique aboard a cruise ship when she suspects the bar manager and bingo caller— a good-ol'-boy named Jimmy—is running a scam. The question is how to prove it.

The story ran almost forty pages, but was plotted well enough to hold my interest. I did mind that it was written in third-person, with too much Helen this and Helen that. I wanted to get to know her better.

Monday, December 25, 2006

"As Dark as Christmas Gets" by Lawrence Block

Available in Enough Rope by Lawrence Block, William Morrow, 2002.

On Christmas Day, New York PIs Chip Harrison and Leo Haig are hired by the owner of a mystery bookshop on West 56th Street to find an unfinished Cornell Woolrich manuscript missing from the owner's personal collection since a party the night before. Nero Wolfe fanatic Haig has Harrison bring seven suspects to the shop, and he proceeds to interview them as a group.

Longtime mystery fans will recognize the shop owner as Otto Penzler. In the voices of his characters, Block pokes fun at Penzler, himself (Block completed Woolrich's Into the Night), and literary pretense in general.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

"Silent Night" by Marcia Muller

Available at

On Christmas Eve, San Francisco PI Sharon McCone searches for her nephew Mike, who ran away from his Pacific Palisades home seemingly because his mother wouldn't give him a moped for Christmas.

As her search moves into the the seedier parts of the city, Sharon fears Mike may have gotten caught up in sex or drugs. She is forced to admit her mental picture of Mike is badly outdated. McCone's background as part of a large family makes her an excellent character through whom readers can feel sisterly concern and the difficult realization that the boy she remembers has grown.

Friday, December 22, 2006

"Here Comes Santa Claus" by Bill Pronzini

From: Spadework by Bill Pronzini, Crippen and Landru, 1996.

The Nameless Detective's girlfriend Kerry drags him into playing Santa Claus for four hours at a gala charity benefit.

The crime portion of the story begins when an ornery nine-year-old named Ronnie punches Nameless in his pillow-padded stomach, then refuses to get off his lap. Nameless threatens to stuff the pillow down Ronnie's throat. Ronnie goes and gets his father, whom Nameless recognizes as a thief he helped send to San Quentin for grand larceny.

Even at his most curmudgeonly, Nameless's narration is appealingly anecdotal, a treat to read.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Eve of RUMOKO by Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny wrote SF, but quite a few of his stories were of the mystery/thriller variety, including "The Eve of RUMOKO." I've read this one a couple of times, first in a collection titled My Name is Legion, and this time in The Mammoth Book of New World Science Fiction: Short Novels of the 1960s. My theory is that you can't go wrong by re-reading any of Zelzany's early work.

This story (or novella) is about an unnamed narrator (he calls himself Albert Schweitzer) who works as a free-lance espionage agent, or something similar. This time he's on a ship with quite a mission: it's going to place atomic charges and create a volcanic island -- living space on an over-crowded planet. His job is to prevent sabotage, which he does, but things don't necessarily work out to his liking. There's betrayal, of course, which is always good in an espionage tale, and the ending's much darker than you might have expected when you started reading.

Zelazny had a way with words. I admire many of his novels and shorter works, and while this may not be the best of them, it's certainly worth checking out.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Garbo's Knees by TERENCE FAHERTY

On my own blog, I have written about Terence Faherty's writing before. Both his short novel In a Teapot and his short stories have really wowed me. This short story does the same.

In this story his detective, Scott Elliott of 1950's Hollywood, tries to figure out who might have stolen some concrete slabs complete with signatures and handprints that Grauman's Chinese Theatre had been storing in a warehouse. One of the slabs belonged to Greta Garbo. Another belonged to someone Scott cared about. Faherty is able to smoothly bring that time and place to life including a trip through the dark side of a city that is usually thought of only in terms of glitz and glamour. Little thought is paid to the stars once they've shined all they're going to shine. Unless you're Scott Elliot.

In any event, Elliott's ability to pay attention to the human side of Hollywood helps him solve this one. Faherty does an excellent job of presenting facets of Hollywood life through a well developed puzzle. Find it in the current issue of EQMM.

"Fugue for Felons" by Donald E. Westlake

From: Thieves' Dozen by Donald E. Westlake, Mysterious Press, 2004.

Westlake prefaces this final entry in his collection of Dortmunder tales by recounting a time circa 1997 when he had to face the possibility of losing rights to the name "Dortmunder" to Hollywood. During this time, he came up with an alias for Dortmunder, "John Rumsey."

Westlake wound up retaining the rights to his character but found he couldn't simply go back what he'd written and replace the "Rumseys" with "Dortmunders." Rumsey and his friend Algy were too different in his mind from Dortmunder and Andy Kelp.

In "Fugue for Felons," Rumsey and three members of his crew separately read the Daily News account of a bank robbery aborted when the robber's car crashed through the bank. Rumsey and the others each decide to drop by the bank and see what might be scavenged.

As usual for Westlake's lighter mood, the story progresses like a well-told anecdote, becoming more hilarious with each obstacle the thieves encounter.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"Dogs" by Loren D. Estleman

From: Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May 1987

Also available in the iBooks reprint of Lady Yesterday, 2002

P.I. Amos Walker travels from Detroit to Iroquois Heights, hired by a blind woman to find her seeing-eye dog. Walker checks with the local newspaper office and is directed to the police reporter, Ed Stillwell, who gives him a lead on illegal dogfights.

The lead proves promising, but Stillwell tries to call Walker off. The next morning Walker hears Stillwell is in the hospital in critical condition. He suspects someone with the local police caught on to his conversation with Stillwell and may be behind the dogfights.

A former newsman, Estleman's prose is pared down and full of forward momentum. Couple this with Amos Walker's low tech lifestyle and it's easy to forget what year it is.

Estleman delivers what matters most in any period, a good story.

Monday, December 11, 2006

"The Last Stanza" by Jeremiah Healy

From: Cuddy Plus One by Jeremiah Healy, Crippen and Landru, 2003.

Healy's novels featuring Boston PI John Francis Cuddy are well regarded for their realism, topicality, and clear prose. His short work shows the same qualities.

In "The Last Stanza," Cuddy is hired by his attorney friend Steve Rothenberg to help the defense of Kirsten Tolst, a militant feminist professor accused in the shooting death of a male colleague, Mitchell Donadio, who recently denied her tenure. At the time of the shooting, Donadio, Tolst, and two other professors were alone in the faculty office building. Tolst claims to have been in the rest room when she heard the fatal shot.

Working from his knowledge of the suspects, the victim's limited mobility, and a copy of The Collected Works of Shakespeare Donadio appeared to be reading, Cuddy comes up with a plausible second suspect:

"But John, what if the jury doesn't appreciate all this?"

I said, "Sounds like your balliwick, Steve," as I stood and laid my bill on the top of his desk.

That's life.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A Murder in Marcus Garvey Park by G. Miki Hayden

This story in the latest Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine is stunning. As always with a Miki Hayden story, the prose is flawless, the characters are rich, and the plot will make you cry. This is another story in a series that I first noticed a few months back on my own blog. I hope to read many more stories in the series soon.

The series protagonist is Miriam, a immigrant from Ghana to New York City's Harlem. Though Miriam has been in the city many years, the way she perceives the city's habits and inhabitants provides a fresh look at a tired setting.

The plot is easily, but badly told - In this story, Miriam and the "second" wife of the family come across a "dump job". Nana, the 2nd wife, hopes Miriam will be able to solve the crime because she knows Miriam is smart and the murdered woman is so "pretty". Back in Ghana, it seems, a murdered woman might be a case the police ignore. Miriam is not about to let something like that happen. Soon enough she'll get to the truth, but will it be one she wants to hear?

The problem with the summary is that it leaves out how every turn in the story leaves some small laceration on Miriam, a character we feel for and with intensely.

The story is probably my favorite in a year of much reading. It is not for those who want to be left unaffected by what they read. It is more for those who want stories that make a lasting impression.

Friday, December 08, 2006

"The Man for the Job" by Gary Phillips

From: Dublin Noir, ed. Ken Bruen, Akashic, 2006

Gary Phillips's entry in this Irish-themed anthology follows Zelmont, onetime Atlanta Falcon washed out of the NFL by drug problems. Now playing American football in Europe, he meets Maura, a willing, well-endowed fan of his career.

Taking Maura back to his hotel room, Zelmont starts to crave crack. Maura sends him to a slum for a fix, and violence ensues.

Phillips does a great job characterizing Zelmont's perception of himself and others. Both are obviously distorted by drugs and fame, yet they seem perfectly natural to Zelmont and believable in his voice. In true noir fashion, even after crashing through this story, he retains the delusion he can pick up the pieces.

Monday, December 04, 2006

"Death and Diamonds" by Susan Dunlap

From: A Woman's Eye, ed. Sara Paretsky, Dell, 1991,

From an anthology of female detective stories, "Death and Diamonds" finds San Diego PI Kiernan O'Shaughnessy waiting to board a Southwest Airlines flight to Phoenix, She strikes up a conversation with the man beside her. He questions her about what it's like to be a PI, and she proceeds to deduce details of his identity, seemingly for fun.

All the while, Kiernan is troubled by the death of a former client, Melissa Jessup, at the hands of a lover who then got away with her diamonds. I guessed early that Kiernan's waiting area companion was Melissa's murderer. I didn't guess how Kiernan would trap him. I enjoyed watching her strategy unfold.

This story is told in third-person, at times giving the narrative an awkward distance. Kiernan is a personable character, and there were several times I wanted the intimacy of "I," and read "Kiernan" instead. Still a nice display of deductive reasoning.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

"Sins of the Father" by Tom Sweeney

From: Fedora: Private Eyes and Tough Guys, ed. Michael Bracken, Wildside Press, 2001.

As its title suggests, this story is about the past echoing into the present. It begins with the protag, an east Texas sheriff, breaking up a dispute between two teenage boys. The sheriff is supposed to be the impartial voice of reason, but one of the boys is his son Harold and the other, Brad, is the son of his old nemesis, Seth.

The sheriff fears Harold will discover how he finally dealt with Seth back in high school, and will give Brad similar treatment. This ten-page story is so well mined with secrets; just when you think Harold's caught on to everything, Sweeney saves one more revelation for the last paragraph.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

"A Fever in the Blood" by Ethan Coen

From Gates of Eden by Ethan Coen, Weisbach Morrow, 1998

This collection from one of the Coen Brothers contains at least three private eye stories, but "A Fever in the Blood" sounded most intriguing from the front flap. The story opens in the middle of a scrum between P.I. Victor Strang and mobster Johnny Marchetta. Marchetta bites off Strang's right ear before Strang wins the fight with a bullet.

Trauma from the incident causes Strang psychosomatic deafness in his left ear. This is followed not by an investigation, but by Strang simply trying to live with his handicap. There is no romance to Coen's violence; there are consequences. Strang faces a cleverly foreshadowed one for shooting Johnny that shades the story decidedly noir.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Sangria by Gary Alexander

This story hit the spot. It involves a beverage critic. Pause there becasue you must ask yourself whether there can be such a thing a person who is sent to bars and restaurants around the world to sample drinks and write about them. Probably. There can't be many of them. In any event, Marshall Bascombe and his wife, Heather are in Spain, drinking when Heather notices a man from her past. This is not a very nice man, and, it turns out, the meeting was no coincidence. What the man did to Heather was something very Enronish, but what will Heather do to him and will Marshall's extensive knowledge of fine wines and liquors be of any help? This is the crux of the story so I can't very well answer these questions for you.

I can, however, say that the story is very well written, the characters of Marshall and Heather become, in a short space, very believeable, very real. I liked them. I commiserated with Heather for what had been done to her. I felt for Marshall because his life with Heather isn't entirely perfect though he'd like it to be.

I also applaud Mr. Alexander for the following facts which add to the story: first, it is in the present tense. This is somewhat unusual, not the easiest thing to keep going, and works perfectly here. It lends the story an air of insistence, I think. On the other hand, I might have just tagged the effect with a big word for no purpose. It works.

Secondly, the author is not afraid to write a story for adults - no sex scenes, sorry, but the vocabulary is a cut above what one often sees. No, you won't need to run for your dictionary, necessarily, but he does use words like "bumptious" and "impervious". This should not scare anyone away from enjoying the story. On the contrary, I mention it because I find the tone, the vocabulary, the syntax of this story a pleasure. Well done.

I should note that the story is to be foundin the current issue of AHMM. It is an issue chok full of good stuff. Go out and get a copy.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Moon Cakes by IJ Parker

There are a few authors whose name on the cover will cause me to buy a copy of either AHMM or EQMM. IJ Parker is one of them. Parker writes the Akitada series set in 10th century Japan. Akitada is a great character (proven by the fact that he's earned Ms. Parker a Shamus) and he draws me back to the series every time. He's so human.

In Moon Cakes, Akitada is called upon to find a stolen letter. Apparently, one of the princes of Japan has written some foolish things which, if revealed, could get his head removed from his shoulders. In any event, the latter was last seen traveling with an elderly man headed for a temple, but both the man and the letter have disappeared. Things get complicated when the gatekeeper at the temple is also missing.

Through it all, we have echoes of Akitada's previous cases (nothing to disturb the uninitiated) as his leg hurts (and it's Winter) and there is the remembrance of his dead young son driving a wedge between him and his wife. Will Akitada get to the bottom of things (and what will that bottom consist of?) will justice be done (because when you're playing with princes having a criminal be above the law is not out of the question) and will Akitada make it home to his family and find the path to happiness?

Well worth the price of the magazine (and it was a double issue). I will be on the lookout for Ms. Parker's latest novel "Black Arrow" out in stores now and sure to impress what with its starred reviews and such.

"The Last Honest Man in Brooklyn" by Michele Martinez

From: Hard Boiled Brooklyn, ed. Reed Farrel Coleman, Bleak House Books, 2006.

On a hot, rainy August night, the heroin dealer/snitch known as Kaboom calls for a meet with Narcotics Det, Jimmy Cepeda. On the phone, Kaboom tells Cepeda a white woman, "white skin, white hair, red some kinda movie star ghost," is cooking meth in a Brooklyn project.

Having received bad tips from Kaboom before, Cepeda hesitates. He flashes back to seeing such a woman a year earlier and agrees to meet Kaboom at Coney Island. Kaboom seems very keen to escape detection, but finally he gives Cepeda a Polaroid of the woman, the name "Crystal," and a bar where he might find her.

This is a clever take on the theme, "Things aren't what they seem." I didn't see the turn coming, and gladly read past it to see how far off my first impressions were.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

"Surrogate" by Robert B. Parker

Available in New Crimes 3, ed. Maxim Jakubowski, Carroll and Graf, 1992.

This 1982 Spenser short is one of Parker's only serious attempts at the form. Brenda Loring, who dated Spenser before he committed to Susan Silverman, visits Spenser's office saying she's been raped by the same intruder twice in two weeks.

Not much mystery here. Brenda suspects from the outset that her impotent ex-husband hired the man to commit rape by proxy. Spenser browbeats Brenda's ex into revealing the man's name. Then Hawk rounds up the man and brings him to Brenda's house for a confrontation.

I didn't quite believe the characters other than Spenser and Hawk. The dialogue between Brenda and her ex seemed pretty tame considering his crime. (She calls him "weird," "a creepy bastard," "sick.") Maybe this was fiery for fiction in 1982.

Parker initially refused Playboy's request for a story, claiming he didn't write short stories. He later relented, producing "Surrogate," and Playboy rejected it for rape content deemed unsuitable for its readership.

Parker says he doesn't have the knack for short stories. While this one isn't essential reading, it offers a glimpse of Spenser and Hawk's darker sides, too long missing from the novels.

Friday, November 17, 2006

"The Living End" by Tod Goldberg

From: Simplify by Tod Goldberg, OV Books, 2005.

The narrator of this story, Teddy, recalls the summer of 1973. He was 13, his 22-year-old brother Kenny returned from Vietnam, and Sarah Collins, the little girl across the street, was kidnapped.

Just before her abduction, Sarah skinned her knee playing hopscotch and Teddy went into his house to get her a Creamsicle. He returned in time to see a car speeding away, a flash of Sarah's face, and is wracked with guilt over what he could've done. Kenny apparently witnessed the abduction itself, unnoticed by Teddy, but he vehemently denies being in any position to help and begins to behave erratically.

While Goldberg's prose is stark and moving throughout this collection, the point-of-view character in each story has a distinct voice. Teddy contrasts Sarah's kidnapping, which seemed to happen in an instant, with Kenny's slipping away over time.

A prize-winning journalist and author of the literary novels Living Dead Girl and Fake Liar Cheat, Tod Goldberg teaches creative writing for the UCLA Extension Writers' Program.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"Six Love" by James W. Hall

From: Murder is My Racquet, ed. Otto Penzler, Mysterious Press, 2005.

In the opening of this story from a tennis-themed anthology, Roger Shelton watches 14-year-old Gigi Janeway through the scope of his deer rifle. Shelton is convinced that "winging" Gigi will improve his daughter Julie's ranking as well as her self-esteem.

Shelton seems to get away with his karmic nudge, until he learns Gigi is his daughter. This is the first of several well-timed shocks.

James W. Hall was one of Dennis Lehane's teachers at Florida International University. Known for the hardboiled Thorn novels, Hall is also a poet. I enjoyed reading this story aloud.

Monday, November 13, 2006

"Beyond the Shadow of a Dream", by Craig Rice

From: Murder, Mystery, and Malone, edited by Jeff Marks.

Since I mentioned Craig Rice in my introduction, I thought I'd review one of her John J. Malone stories.

Psychiatrist Martin A. Martin has worked with Malone on a few cases, but now he needs some advice. It seems that one of his patients dreamed that he murdered an old woman in her sleep. When he woke the next morning, there was a story in the paper about just such a murder. A few days later, it happened again - the patient dreamed of a murder, then woke to found his dream correct in every detail. And now he's dreamed that he's going to murder Dr. Martin himself.

Malone agrees to look into the situation, but spends most of his time looking at Martin's lovely and talented receptionist, Miss Adams. After taking her out to a nice dinner he ended up back at his place, alone, and was headed for bed when the phone rang. It's Martin, and he's got news. Bad news. "He's on his way here, Malone."

This story is typical of Rice's Malone stories: a straight mystery plot, fairly clued for the most part, with a good-sized dollop of humor on top. Rice's humor is fairly middle of the road, without the outrageous appeal of, say, Robert Leslie Bellem, and relies for effect on Malone's special way with booze, women, and cops - that last being Captain von Flanagan, who continually hopes against hope that if he gives Malone enough rope, the dapper lawyer will hang himself.

This story in particular features one clue so glaringly obvious that even I caught it, plus a couple that were more subtle (and escaped my attention), and it adds up to a fun read if you're in the mood for some old-fashioned fun.

Friday, November 10, 2006

"Silver Lining" by Walter Mosley

From: Six Easy Pieces: Easy Rawlins Stories, Washington Square Press, 2003

Rawlins's old friend Jackson Blue appears at Sojourner Truth Junior High asking Easy's help tracking down Misty MacDonald. Misty's sister Jewelle is the girlfriend of Mofass, who manages Easy's apartment buildings in and around Watts. With Mofass dying from emphysema, Jewelle is feuding with the rest of her family for control of Mofass's business. Misty appears to have been caught in the middle.

From the Rawlins books I've read I only knew Jackson and Mofass, but Mosley's sharp description quickly brought me up to speed on the MacDonald family dynamic. Mosley also paces the story well, keeping Easy's familiar caution most of the time, snapping into violence at the right moments.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

"Felonies for which I was Never Apprehended: Chapter Eighty-Four", by Adam Cushman

From: The Mississippi Review Postmodern Pulp issue.

Everything's a matter of life and death when you're a teenager, from your girlfriend shacking up with another guy to your roommate stealing your Gibson Flying V guitar. In "Felonies...", Cushman takes typical teen angst and cranks it up a few notches.

As the story begins, the unnamed college-aged narrator and his best bud Roth are drinking, smoking, and fuming about their girlfriends, who are both down the street in the apartment of a former friend. Roth takes it the hardest and ends up slitting his wrists, but lives to regret it, and to urge his drug-fueled buddy on towards revenge. Which ends up being more pathetic than anything, but hey, it's payback.

Cushman uses a crosscutting narrative style that jumps forward from the present to the future and back into the past, and he has enough talent to make it work. Cushman also excels at quick character sketches - plenty of friends and relatives put in an appearance, usually detailed in only a few lines, and they all seem real.

With "Felonies..." narrative structure the obvious comparison is to Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, but I was reminded of the song "Pepper" by the Butthole Surfers: "They were all in love with dyin', they were doing it in Texas."

Except this time it's in Florida.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Passenger - John C. Boland

This story in the December 2006 issue of AHMM was quite heavy on atmosphere and Herb Moss, the point of view character, was very much a human character. His wife, Paula, was very much rounded as well, but less attention was paid to her. The story concerns a married couple trying to work out kinks in their relationship with a wintertime trip in Upstate New York (a time and place where, I can tell you from personal experience, you're more likely to desire death than in any other setting).

Paula seems to be having an affair and her husband seems to be calmly aware of it. I suppose this is one of the kinks. In any event, the real problems occur when they run off the road and have to leave their car stranded. They hitch a ride with a passing trucker and...well, I can't say too much more really.

There is, I think, a possible problem with the logic of the story's climax, but that might just be me...Still, if you're looking for atmosphere (think bleak midwinter or the winter of our discontent) and a fine prose style, then you've come to the right story.

Dead Man's Road -- Joe R. Lansdale

No, I haven't actually read this story. Joe read it at a session during the World Fantasy Convention, and he says that it will appear in the next issue of Weird Tales, which is supposed to be a special Joe R. Lansdale issue.

What's the story about? It's a weird western about a preacher named Jubal, who without joy serves a vengeful Old Testament God. Jubal, weary from his travels and the recent unpleasantness in Mud Creek, comes upon a broken-down cabin one evening and asks for hospitality. Also sheltering there for the night are a deputy sheriff and his prisoner who are headed for the jail Nacogdoches, where the prisoner has a date with the hangman. The owner of the cabin, Oldtimer, tells them that the shortest way to the town is by Dead Man's Road. It's not the safest way, though, because it's patrolled by an undead former bee-keeper who really doesn't like the living.

Jubal agrees to accompany the deputy and the prisoner because it's his job, although he resents it, to fight evil. And that undead bee-keeper is nothing if not evil. He was evil when he was alive, and death didn't improve him.

The story is weird, wild, vulgar, and hilarious. In other words, a typical Joe R. Lansdale story. Better be on the look-out for the next issue of Weird Tales, since you wouldn't want to miss this one.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

"Snow, Snow, Snow" by John Harvey

From: Greatest Hits: Original Stories of Assassins, Hit Men, and Hired Guns, ed. Robert J. Randisi, Carroll and Graf, 2005

The author of the Charlie Resnick police series spins a cat-and-mouse tale cutting between Malkin—a hit man who targets child killers who've slid by the justice system—and Will Grayson, the cop in his wake. Harvey provides vivid backstory for Malkin's clients and marks, and both assassin and cop are competent enough to leave readers wondering, can Grayson catch Malkin before his next hit?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Words are Cheap - Ken Bruen

I like Bruen as a novelist, but when I started reading this story, I thought this was going to be one of those rare rough patches for him - a story I didn't like. It didn't take him much more than a page to win me over, however. It is hard to say too much about the story without giving away much, it is quite brief and spare. I'll try.

It concerns a man who wants to get an education in order to impress a girl. Being more street thug than intellect, he goes about getting this education in an odd manner and harm comes to people in tweed. And to the thug. And to the girl.

In any event, what made the story enjoyable for me was recognizing it as a very dark brand of black humor. This, from a master of black humor.

The story is another that the people at Murdaland can be proud of.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

"White Mule, Spotted Pig" -- Joe R. Lansdale

Bloodlines: a Horse Racing Anthology is edited by Jason Starr and Maggie Estep. Joe Lansdale doesn't know from horse racing, so naturally he wrote about a mule race.

The story (a novella, actually) opens with the death of Frank's father, who leaves behind a broken-down house and a mule that Frank decides to ride in a big local mule race. Unfortunately for Frank (and the mule), a lightning storm puts an end to that plan. Frank then decides to rent a mule from Old Man Torrence, but that plan ends in disaster as well. So Frank's only remaining option is to catch the legendary and elusive white mule that supposedly lives in the wilderness with a spotted pig, train it (the mule, not the pig), and win the race that way.

I'll leave it to you to find out how things turn out, but I will say that the story is coarse, vulgar, and hilarious, typical Lansdale fare except that it turns out a lot better than many of Joe's stories have been known to do. It's actually sweet and hopeful. That fact alone might turn off some of Lansdale's fans, but that would be a shame. They'd miss out on great exchanges like this one:

"You goat-fucking bastard child, get me out of here."

Leroy's body sagged a little. "I knew that was gonna get around good. Ain't nobody keeps a secret. There was only that one time, too, and them hunters had to come up on me."

Check it out.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

"Maria's Misfortune" - Kaili van Waveren

This may be one of the shortest stories in the debut issue of Murdaland, but if anything it's all the snappier for it. Maria's Misfortune is a classic single-scene short; coke addict goes over to another couple of junkies' house where a second junkie visitor ODs.

A fairly standard setup, but what sets this story apart from a lot of others that have used it is the sense of realism in the relationship between the three main characters. Anyone who's spent any time with addicts should recognise the interplay and the sense that none of these people actually like one another; they're not friends, they're just a circle of other addicts who hang out together because one of them will have a fix they can all share.

When the Maria of the title goes comatose and Maggie, the narrator, is urging them to get her to the ER, the dealer amongst them robs what money he can find on her to pay for the coke she's just ODed on, for instance. And by the time they reach the hospital, it's plain that they care less and less about her, even the reasonably straight Maggie. No friends, just the dope.

Good stuff.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Surviving Spouse - Doug Allyn

This story was published in the October 2006 Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine right alongside my own story, and it makes me proud to have been included in the issue. It concerns a college professor whose life is quickly crumbling in his hands. In order to save the pieces of his life that still remain, he squeezes harder (to continue the metaphor) and turns those bits to dust. The main concern is with the lives of Professor Alex Creighton and his wife, Thelma. Among other things, we learn that their marriage is on the rocks and the good professor has been caught on tape doing things with a co-ed that he shouldn't have been doing. This is no secret. In fact, it's why he's getting fired in the first sentence of the story.

The plot twist concerns a gun and an insurance policy that one of the spouses has on them, but the plot twist is not what interests me most in the story*. What I most enjoyed about the story was the fact that I was completely drawn into the train wreck that the marriage was. Their reasons for falling apart were human ones. Allyn was able, in a short space, to draw characters that seem fully human. They don't just walk and talk as humans do, they love and hate as humans do. I've read several Allyn stories and quite enjoyed them, but this is the one that has had the greatest emotional impact, I think. And that's saying something.

To return to the plot for a moment, I will say that the ending surprised me most. After all, when there's a gun and an insurance policy, the reader is entitled to expect a certain outcome - the actual outcome in the story frustrated those expectations, but surprised and went a long way toward completing the roundness of the two main characters.

All in all, I'm very happy to have read the story and think it worth the price of admission: $3.99.

* See my introduction below.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Little Professor: The Best American Mystery Stories: 2006

The Little Professor: The Best American Mystery Stories: 2006: "The anthologies in The Best American Mystery Stories series rarely showcase 'conventional,' plot-driven mysteries, of whatever variety; instead, as guest editor Scott Turow notes, the spotlight falls on 'crime--its commission, its aftermath, its anxieties, its effect on character' (xiv). One does not, in other words, pick up a book in this series and expect to find the Old Man in the Corner."

I'm probably breaking some kind of rule already, but since I'm lazy, I thought it would be cool to link to The Little Professor's reviews of a whole volume of short stories rather than do a review of my own.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

"The Iberville Mistress" by O'Neil De Noux

From: Flesh and Blood: Guilty as Sin Anthology, Mysterious Press (2003)

Lucien Caye is a post-WWII New Orleans PI created by former NOPD detective De Noux. In "The Iberville Mistress," Caye is hired by the striking Catherine LaVanchy to collect evidence of her husband's affair.

I enjoy many period stories. It's an extra challenge for a writer to re-create a time and place he can't have lived in himself, but we've also had more time to come to terms with the past, allowing the writer to step back and see the larger context more objectively.

Caye's present tense narration made me wary at first, but De Noux's way with words was smooth enough to carry it. Ultimately, I thought the choice of P.O.V. added to the story's suspense and surprise.

"The Iberville Mistress" can also be found in De Noux's collection New Orleans Confidental from PointBlank Press. Those curious about De Noux's writing process may read the transcript of his October 15th chat with members of DetecToday.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Intro #3

I'm Gerald So, Fiction Editor for The Thrilling Detective Web Site, moderator of DetecToday, and fan of verbal economy.

I've been into crime fiction since 1993, getting hooked on Gregory Mcdonald's Fletch and Robert B. Parker's Spenser, but the first writer to show me what words could do was J.D. Salinger. I've also enjoyed the works of Raymond Carver, Grace Paley, Amy Hempel, and William Trevor.

I like that a short story doesn't allow much physical space, yet allows more room for experimentation than a novel. I'm excited to be a part of Nasty. Brutish. Short. because I always need more to read.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"The Multicolored Herring", by Bertil Falk

From: CrimeSpree Magazine #14

"I had a case many years ago, a very strange case. It involved a disabled woman. She wove rag-rugs."

And so begins "The Multicolored Herring" by Bertil Falk. At least, that's the way it should have begun. In fact the story begins with several paragraphs of throat-clearing, giving the background of the elderly narrator and his childhood friend who became a policeman. It's this character, Roland, who relates the story of the rag-rugs. And, being set in Sweden, the story does involve a herring, albeit a metaphorical one.

After this clunky beginning the story rolls along quite nicely. When Roland was still a young detective he handled a missing persons call from a woman whose husband had not been home for over a week. He traveled for business quite a bit, and she knew he was seeing other women as well, but he never stayed away for so long.

The woman herself had lost the use of her legs and had to get around with a wheelchair. Being homebound, she'd made the best of it by setting herself up as a weaver of colorful rag-rugs. Now, I had to guess what rag-rugs are and you probably will, too, but it's fairly clear from the context and doesn't run the story off the rails.

Soon the police find out that the man was active in the drug trade, and they manage to track down one of his mistresses. She'd seen him enter the local train station on the day he disappeared. But did he make it out of town alive?

The story is a bit dry, but in a police procedural a bare recital of the facts isn't fatal, and Falk has come up with an ingenious solution that relies on several factors coming together just so.

The device of a narrator relating a story within a story is an old one, occurring most commonly in stories from the late nineteenth century into the early twentieth. Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, for example, is told in this manner. Here it lends the story a conversational tone that keeps things moving, a bonus since plot is the focus more than character or mood.

The Swedish setting could have been explored a bit more, but it's mostly taken for granted, leading me to believe that Falk himself is Swedish, or is at least familiar with Sweden.

Final verdict: "The Multicolored Herring" is a pleasant diversion as long as you don't ask too much of it.

UPDATE: Five minutes on Google revealed this bio of Falk. Turns out he is in fact Swedish, and has written quite a bit in his native language. "The Multicolored Herring" is his fourth story published in English. Another story, "Blue Night, Blue City", is online at Hardluck Stories.

Another Introduction

This is Graham Powell, and I will also be posting reviews here. I have been a fan of short stories for longer than I care to remember. For years I preferred anthologies to novels, and during my science fiction phase I amassed about 50 of them in 5 years.

For the past ten or twelve years I've been reading mostly crime fiction. I've never been much of a fan of Alfred Hitchcock's or Ellery Queen's magazines. Instead I picked up reprint anthologies with titles like Tough Guys and Dangerous Dames, City Sleuths and Tough Guys, and Hard-Boiled.

So for me, the Internet has been a blessing as most of the zines have tended to be on the darker side. Which is funny because one of my big gripes is that so little crime fiction these days has the light touch of guys like Robert Leslie Bellem and Richard S. Prather. Where are the new comic characters, like John J. Malone or "Bail Bonds" Dodd?

This blog owes a big debt to Bob Tinsley, whose "The Short Of It" was the first site dedicated to reviews of short stories. Thanks, Bob!

If you like the site, don't be shy - let us hear about it. You can reach me day or night at

An Introduction

My name is Steven Torres and I will be one of the regular contributors to this blog. I am a writer of short crime stories (as well as long ones) and have published stories in Crimespree , Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and SHOTS among other places. I am also a reader of crime short stories - I will admit to not reading short stories online much unless I know the author and the story is brought to my attention. When I read crime stories, it is often going to be in print form - Crimespree, AHMM, Ellery Queen or one of the many anthologies that have come out recently like Har-boiled Brooklyn from Bleak House or one of the Noir titles from Akashic. I also just got the first issue of Murdaland and it looks good.

Besides the fact that I prefer my stories in print rather than online, I have other prejudices to confess.

I prefer my stories to be about voice, character, and atmosphere and not so much about the puzzle. Nothing against puzzle stories - some of then are quite inventive and most of them stump me. Many puzzle stories are very fine stories and I enjoy them. However, the ones I enjoy the most will have more than a puzzle...voice, character and atmosphere. Oh, and emotional impact. Whatever else the story may or may not do, it must have some emotional impact if I'm going to think highly of it. This reflects something of the way that I put together my stories as well.

Now for a general statement on the state of crime short fiction today: I think it is thriving. The lament has been that there are no markets. With the rise of several online markets (several of them quite fine) that lament has quieted some (I think). Now the lament is that there are not enough paying markets. Between the anthologies, the sister publications (EQMM and AHMM) and the advent of Murdaland I think that lament must also lose strength soon. Of course, the anthologies may dry up, Murdaland may fold and the hue and cry may rise again, but for now there are plenty of places for a writer to place a short story and there are plenty of places for readers to find quality whether they define it as I do or in terms of puzzles or if they have any other definition.

And quality there is. I've argued elsewhere that there are more great short story writers working in the genre now than in any previous imagined Golden Age of crime short fiction. I'm willing to be challenged on that and willing to concede that I'm wrong, but whoever takes up that task has their work cut out for them. I'll just list a few practioners whose work I actively seek out: Steve Hockensmith, IJ Parker, Martin Limon, John Dirkxx, Doug Allyn, Terence Faherty. With a little time, I can come up with as many more truly great authors of short crime fiction. I'll be talking about them as the weeks go by.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

"Dr. Ralph", by James R. Winter

From: Crime Scene Scotland

Dr. Ralph Culter had stopped off at the local bar for a quick one on the way home to his wife and the little ones when fate intervened in the form of a long, lean brunette named Trina. Now, you or I might be suspicious if an attractive woman suddenly found us irresistible, but Culter is not much for inconvenient questions. "Is it true what they say about you, Dr. Ralph?" asks Trina. If they say he's easy, then yes.

In short order they're having dinner at a discreet restaurant, where Trina reveals that she's always yearned to be a nurse, and Dr. Ralph reveals that he's yearned for her to be his nurse for at least an hour.

Experienced mystery readers will know that Trina isn't acting out of the goodness of her heart. She wants something, that much is clear - to us if not to Dr. Ralph. Winter is able to put a novel twist on this relatively routine plot, then he tops it with another surprise in the penultimate line.

Winter, of course, is best known for his stories featuring private investigator Nick Kepler, so this story is a bit of a change of pace - almost a cozy, certainly something that could be described as "mainstream". What's next, a sale to PLOTS WITH CATS?