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.