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.