Sunday, February 25, 2007

"Partners" by Michael Bracken

First appeared in Hardboiled Winter/Spring 1988, ed. Gary Lovisi.

Also available in Tequila Sunrise by Michael Bracken. Wildside Press, 2000.

Leaving his girlfriend's house to get back to work on a case, St. Louis P.I. Nathaniel Rose starts his car, and it explodes.

From a hospital bed, Rose tries to piece together who had motive to kill him, what he was working on that might have triggered the attempt on his life. He asks his partner Stu to reach out to their informant Mannie, but Mannie's disappeared.

Weeks later, back on his feet, Rose looks for Mannie to no avail. He returns to the office and reviews old cases, but no connection comes to mind. In the middle of the night, the killer breaks in on Rose and his girlfriend.

The title of this story seems a giveaway, but it isn't. Bracken cleverly keeps things in doubt and gives "partners" a double meaning in the end. A prolific fiction and nonfiction writer as well as the editor of several anthologies, Bracken's prose is straightforward and sharp. Like Rob Kantner's Ben Perkins, Rose is a richer character for the life he seems to lead between stories.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Not Your Everyday Poison by John H. Dirckx

Okay, one of the stranger last names in the mystery world, but one of my favorite short story writers. Not Your Everyday Poison in the current Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, is another fine story about Detective Cyrus Auburn, though I do have a quibble about it as I'll explain.

First, the story starts at a seedy flea market, introducing us, off-stage, to a character who soon winds up dead, but was it natural causes or murder? An antique table that was supposed to be delivered to one of the flea market vendors plays a role as does a bottle of wine locked inside it since the death of it last owner seventeen years earlier. Was that person, the table owner, also murdered though his death was ruled of natural causes? Cyrus Auburn is not the type of detective to give up on a case just because it's shrouded in antiquity and the potential victim was cremated. Instead, he tracks faint leads, does his library research, visits the hall of records, talks to potential witnesses and weighs all the evidence. in short, he does everything to make you hope you get a detective like this working your case when you get murdered...

Like all his stories, Dirckx deploys crisp prose and a sense of humor and draws Auburn as a sympathetic and intelligent detective. All of the short stories in the series are a pleasures. One hopes that Dirckx will one day be able to quit his day job* to write an Auburn novel.

The quibble with this story is that there is one essential clue to figuring out the case that is withheld until the end. It's not held back long - Auburn learns about it on one page and reveals it a page or two later, but still, it bothered me a little. Not sure if that could have been fixed without making the story substantially longer. Otherwise, this story is definitely a winner.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

"Snow Birds" by Stuart M. Kaminsky

From: Private Eyes, ed. Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins. Signet, 1998.

In the three years since he moved from Chicago to Sarasota, 41-year-old widower P.I. Calvin Fonesca's biggest case involved catching a couple of teenagers trying to break in to the Dairy Queen near his rundown office. That is until Ames Delaware offers him $20,000 to find Amos Sprague, Delaware's former business partner who withdrew $200,000 from their joint account and left Jackson Hole for Sarasota. The flinty Delaware, who reminds Fonesca of George C. Scott, proclaims that he will kill Sprague if he doesn't return the money. Largely because he needs money, Fonesca agrees to find Sprague.

Returning to his office, Fonesca walks in on Sprague, who offers him $21,000 to tell Delaware he's dead. Sprague claims Delaware's father stole money from his father, so this makes them even. When Fonesca refuses to lie to Delaware, Sprague proposes a late night meeting, hinting his intention to kill Delaware.

I connected with Fonesca's voice right away, an unambitious man just trying to get by, who according to Delaware and Sprague, resembles either Ned Beatty or Tom Bosley. Delaware hires him because his listing is the smallest in the book. In about 20 pages, Kaminsky made Fonesca feel like an old friend. My only quibble with this story was the similar sound of the names "Ames" and "Amos".

I was glad to see "Snow Birds" lead to novels about the same P.I. in which his name changes to Lew (Vengeance, Retribution, Midnight Pass, etc.).

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Dishes by Stringfellow Forbes

The most recent copy of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (April 2007) has a very short story that is only marginally concerned with a crime, but it absolutely deserves mention here. Dishes is only about five pages long, and it is by an author I've never heard of (not a knock, just a fact) but the writing, at the sentence level and overall, is so fine, I needed to comment on it. The writing in AHMM is often very good at the sentence level, but this story by Forbes kind of requires that you read the lines out loud, it is that good. It's like reading poetry at times. I'll give a short sample:

"When you are a child, the watershed times are stronger. You have spent all your few years learning how things are supposed to be and when those certainties, so dearly settled, all change, the adjustment is hard."

These are the opening lines, and I hope you can see the elegance of the phrasing. Aside from the phrasing, there is also the assessment of childhood experience that you might not fulyl expect from a crime short story. Kind of reminds me of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

In any event, the story concerns a move by a family from North to South in the 1950s and the difficulties in adjusting, especially for the children and mother of the family. The main trouble stems from the fact that the family is used to a more stable lifestyle than any of the neighbors seems to be able to live. This causes frictions which won't be solved except by recourse to a set of fine china dishes - you'll have to read the story to figure out how this happens.

Seek this story out. It's in bookstores now and it is certainly short enough to read while standing at the magazine rack though it is also worth the price of admission.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Dave Stevens, I Presume? by Dave Zeltserman

Andy Lenscher has a problem - he looks and sounds just like Dave Stevens who he doesn't know from Adam, and Dave is not a nice guy. He apparently loves 'em, and leaves 'em in just about every city Andy, as a traveling salesman, has to work in. This leads to Andy getting slaps in the face and drinks thrown at him. Then he meets the most beautiful girl of them all and she also believes him to be Dave Stevens, but no slap, no drink in the face, just a look of fear. What gives is the rest of the story.

Andy is drawn to her, (perhaps because of her looks, perhaps because she didn't immediately try to hurt him) but he's also drawn to figuring out what that look of fear was about. A drive to the library and a trip to Topeka brings him more information, but maybe not enough wisdom to keep him from trouble. He meets with this woman later that night, and in a way I can't reveal, Dave Stevens helps Andy - for the first time - to get out of a spot of mess.

This story is suspenseful, the prose is crisp, and Andy quickly becomes a sympathetic character. After all, those of us who have been haunted by evil dopplegangers, love to see them overcome.

You can find this story in the March issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and it is worth the cover price.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

"The Night I Died" by Mickey Spillane

From: Private Eyes ed. Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins. Signet, 1998.

This Mike Hammer story opens with Hammer having tracked down femme fatale Helen Venn:

"Hello, Helen."

A long pause. "Hello, Mike. Do I get it here?"

"That's right. Here, Helen. Just like I said it would be. The next time I ever saw you, wherever it was...and now it's here."

The story flashes back to Hammer's meeting Helen, who had been linked to Marty Wellman, a man with ties to the Syndicate, rumored to have $2 million stashed away. Helen had feared for her life ever since Marty turned up dead. Hammer looked into who killed Marty in an attempt to take the heat off Helen, and discovered she had been manipulating men to ascend the Syndicate ranks herself. She originally escaped Hammer by shooting him and leaving him for dead.

I've owned this anthology for close to ten years, and I remember liking this story when I first read it. Upon refreshing my memory, however, I found it filled with cliched tough-guy talk including needless posturing before shootouts. Spillane also switches between an awkward second-person voice ("The only sound you hear is the shot.") and classic first person, making it a harder read.

Confused as to when the story takes place, I skimmed through Max Allan Collins's introduction and learned that this was a previously unpublished story from 1953. It was originally conceived as a radio play, and Spillane allowed it to be set in short-story form for this anthology.

There are several better stories in Private Eyes, and I may review them in the future. "The Night I Died" remains interesting because it seems the hard-bitten Hammer really did fall in love with Helen.

Friday, February 09, 2007

"Blondes, Blondes, Blondes!" by Jack Bludis

"It wasn't much, but it was better than a bottle across the face."

But a bottle across the face is what sometimes private eye Ken Sligo gets as "Blondes, Blondes, Blondes!" opens. With demand nonexistent for his sleuthing skills, he's taken a job as a doorman on Baltimore's Block, a seedy row of nightclubs and strip joints.

That's when his old pal Tommy Phelps shows up. Tommy stole Ken's girl Ginger when Ken shipped out for WWII. Now Tommy thinks that Ken has turned the tables, and recruits an emtpy beer to get even.

Ken manages to talk some sense into him before any real harm is done and ends up agreeing to find out where Ginger is. With Tommy unable to find work due to his war wounds she had taken a job as a bar girl at The Alley, still on the Block but on an even dingier side street.

Complicating the situation is the arrival of a rich Cuban and his entourage, their yacht docked in Baltimore's harbor. The new arrivals seem intent on taking in the local sights and have enough pull to get into the Block's segregated nightclubs. They have plenty of money and influence - what are they using it for?

The second Ken Sligo story from Jack Bludis (after 2001's "New Kid on the Block") doesn't have the same narrative drive that marks much of Bludis' work. The plot seems unfocused; it's hard to get a sense of where the story is going. In his story notes, Bludis reveals that this story started life as a novel, and the cast of characters might be better served at a higher word count.

Still, it's a Jack Bludis story, so it's well written, with good period detail and local color. Though this is not my favorite Bludis, if you've liked his other work you'll like this one, too.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

"Caravan to Tarim" by David Goodis

Originally published in Colliers, 1943

Available in: Black Friday & Selected Stories by David Goodis, ed. and intro. Adrian Wootton. Serpent's Tail, 2006.

Kelney is an American trader in Arabia. When Bedouins attack his caravan, many of his men are killed. Kelney tries to shoot himself, in fact, but the chamber of his pistol comes up empty.

In the hands of the Bedouins, who are hated and feared by his Arabian boss Mezar and his English colleage Tiggs, Kelney laments the role he played in his own predicament, including secretly loading his men's rifles with blanks. He hates himself for being a coward, all while knowing he would make any deal to stay one step ahead.

Kelney's saving grace is that he values one life the same as another, no matter race or tribe. He agrees to obtain treasure and supplies for the Bedouins, and they send him back to Mezar with a mute for a guide.

Goodis's characterizations are succinct and sharp, but the highlight is Kelney's struggle against himself. Which of his instincts will win, and what repercussions will follow?

Sunday, February 04, 2007

"The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker" by Dorothy L. Sayers

From: Lord Peter Views the Body by Dorothy L. Sayers, 1928. Harper/Perennial, 1993.

The wife of a diamond merchant asks Lord Peter's help a scant nine hours before her husband's ship is scheduled to dock. An old acquaintance of hers, Paul Melville, with whom she had a regrettable affair, has stolen her diamond necklace and a portrait proving their affair. She would like Lord Peter to retrieve both before her husband can find out.

Lord Peter proceeds to engage Melville in a game of poker. In the sight of two others, he catches Melville cheating and threatens to ruin his reputation unless he hands over the necklace and portrait.

This is my first Lord Peter read. I don't know if I'd pick up one of the novels, but I'm intrigued enough by Wimsey to read more stories.

Friday, February 02, 2007

"The House in Turk Street" by Dashiell Hammett

Available in The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett, 1923, 1974. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992.

Canvassing Turk Street in pursuit of a man, the Op is invited into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Quarre. His interview of the elderly Quarres is interrupted by a man with a gun, certain the Op has come after him. A third of the story takes place with the Op bound and gagged hearing the aftermath of a plot to steal $100,000 in bonds—apparently hatched by his original assailant, called Hook, "a flame-haired she-devil" named Elvira, and "an Anglocized Oriental" named Tai.

Hook is eager to kill the Op, but mastermind Tai doesn't want the mess it would entail. The Op overhears a side plot by Hook and Elvira to run out on Tai, and he soon realizes Elvira is playing Hook and Tai against each other to keep the bonds for herself.

The Op takes his first chance to play on the thieves' mistrust, feeding Tai a plausible story to turn him against Hook and Elvira. "The House in Turk Street" illustrates what can happen—the dramatic potential present—when characters including the Op jump to conclusions.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Nasty. Beta. Short.

Graham upgraded NBS to the New Blogger this morning and asked me to oversee the layout changes. The biggest change is you can now sort our posts by reviewer's name, author's name, publication, and recurring character. Leave us a comment and let us know what you think.