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?