Friday, November 30, 2007

"Johnny Seven" by David Bowker

From: Expletive Deleted. Ed. Jen Jordan. Bleak House Books, 2007.

In this story from a just-released profanity-based anthology, New Jersey eighth-grader Garrett Newton tells of the arrival of a new kid, Johnny Severn, who quickly lands in trouble when he lies about his family being killed in a library bombing. Johnny has some insane-sounding notions about children's rights against adults, but Garrett and his friend KC soon witness Johnny being beaten by his father, and go out of their way to befriend him.

I could summarize the plot further, but the story's strong point is its depiction of the adolescent mindset. Though some of the Americanisms are off, the characters are engaging enough I was drawn into their world.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

"Everybody Loves Somebody" by Sandra Scoppettone

From: A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir. Ed. Megan Abbott. Busted Flush Press, 2007.

Bored teenager Deb runs away from home and gets mixed up with a succession of wrong men—manipulative, abusive, paranoid—fleeing all of them afraid for her life.

One day while attached to a drug-dealing diner owner named Randy, Deb meets Bobby Mazard, hired by Randy as a short-order cook. An affair begins between Deb and Bobby, and it's the best sex Deb has ever had. This, she realizes, is how it's supposed to be. As the story climaxes, Deb and Bobby plan to steal Randy's closely guarded money and start a new life together.

Until the final paragraphs I was asking, "How will Bobby be different from all the other men Deb has known?"

Even if you've guessed the answer, the story is worth reading for its execution.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

NBS Special Report: Spinetingler Awards

Spinetingler Magazine announced its inaugural award nominees, including the following for Best Short Story On The Web:

The Leap by Charles Ardai - Hardluck Stories
Breaking in the New Guy by Stephen Blackmoore - Demolition
Amphetamine Logic by Nathan Cain - Thuglit
The Switch by Lyman Feero - Thuglit
Seven Days of Rain by Chris F. Holm - Demolition
Shared Losses by Gerri Leen - Shred of Evidence
The Living Dead by Amra Pajalic - Spinetingler
Convivum by Kelli Stanley - Hardluck Stories

Good luck to all.

Monday, November 26, 2007

"Red Wind", by Raymond Chandler

From: The Black Lizard Big Book of the Pulps, ed. Otto Penzler. Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 2007.

Philip Marlowe was sitting in a bar across the street from his apartment building, having a beer and listening to the hot Santa Ana wind beating against the windows, when a small snappily-dressed man comes in. "Seen a lady in here, buddy?" asks the man. "Tall, pretty, in a print bolero jacket over a blue crepe silk dress?"

At which point the drunk at the end of the bar rouses himself and plugs the little guy twice through the heart. "So long ,Waldo," he says. Then he's gone.

It's hours before the cops are done with Marlowe. Finally they cut him loose and he heads for home. And when the apartment house elevator reaches his floor, the doors slide open to reveal a beautiful woman in a print bolero jacket over a blue crepe silk dress.

In my opinion, "Red Wind" is the finest of Chandler's short stories, the one most similar to the style he used in his novels. Published only a year before The Big Sleep came out, it has the romanticism, the languid style, the same stock characters, and the same yearning for some sort of honest human contact.

I first read this story when I was only 19, and at the time I didn't understand the ending. Only when I reread it a couple of years later did I fully grasp why Marlowe did what he did. I have to guess that "Red Wind" was influenced by Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness. At the end of that book, the narrator (also named Marlowe) has a choice to make, and like Chandler's Marlowe, he chooses humanity over the truth.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

"Postcards from Another Country" by Zoë Sharp

Published in the U.S. paperback edition of Sharp's novel, First Drop (August 2007), this story has Charlie Fox bodyguarding the spoiled rich Dempsey family a week after an attempt on Mr. Dempsey's life. One of Charlie's protection team alerts her when wild child Amanda Dempsey is caught trying to sneak out of the house.

This could have been just a brisk tale of the haves and have-nots except that Amanda's break for freedom masks a second attempt on her father's life.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

"Wilson's Man" by Doug Levin

From EQMM, January 2008.

Ben is a free-lance graphic designer, hanging out at the monthly meeting of the Ad Federation in hopes of landing some work, when the boorish Sidney Alstead attaches himself to him. Later Sidney rescues Ben from a potentially dangerous situation and assumes that he and Ben are pals.

Ben hates Sidney, and he hates it even more that Sidney seems to be getting jobs while Ben is going nowhere. Worse, Sidney gets jobs with someone to whom Ben introduced him.

You might know where this story is going, but I didn't. It's a very well-told tale of two men, neither of whom is either admirable or likable. Well, you do have to admire how well Ben can adjust to certain situations. A lot of people are going to read this issue of EQMM because of the return of Black Mask, but if you're one of those, don't miss this little gem.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

"The Missing Actor", by Fredric Brown

From: Before She Kills: Fredric Brown in the Detective Pulps, Vol. 2. Dennis MacMillan, 1984.

Floyd Nielson's son is missing. Neilson is a Wisconsin farmer who has decided to sell is place and buy a smaller farm somewhere warm, Florida or California. Before he does, he's come down to Chicago to find out what happened to his son, Albee.

Albee was a clerk in a bookstore, lived in a "padded pad" (no furniture, just cushions and futons), dated a black girl (daring for 1963), and was variously described as a "hipster" or "beatnik". He also liked to gamble a bit, and ended up $800 in the hole to the local bookie. Nielson gave him the money, but instead of paying his debts he dropped out of site. His father think's he's used it as a stake to get out of town, but he'd really like to know for sure.

Fortunately private detectives Ed Hunter and his uncle Ambrose are there to help. Ed, being close to the young man's age and therefore able to move easily among his acquaintances, does most of the legwork. In short order he finds a few things that don't add up.

"The Missing Actor" is sort of a little brother to the Ed and Am Hunter story "Before She Kills", which has been widely anthologized, and both are unusual for Fredric Brown: they play it straight, no carnivals or madhouses, no sense of dread or whimsy. The result, unfortunately, is a little bland, notable mainly for Ed's narrative voice. Not a bad story at all, but not one that stands out compared to his better work.

Monday, November 19, 2007

"On Slay Down", by Michael Gilbert

From: Game Without Rules. Harper & Row, 1967.

"There's a woman. She has to be killed."

Anyone slightly familiar with tallish Mr. Behrens and plumplish Mr. Calder, two retired country gentlemen, would be shocked to hear them discussing the murder of a foreign spy. Their closest associates, however, would know that they had been agents for British intelligence since before the Second World War - more than twenty years.

This particular job falls to Calder. The woman, a typist at the Air Ministry, has acquired some very sensitive documents and has requested an immediate meeting to pass them along. Fortunately this message was intercepted, and Mr. Calder will be keeping the appointment.

The woman appears right on time at a small barn in the remote countryside. Calder is already there, on a small rise above her, armed with a small caliber rifle. He's preparing to complete the assignment when a complication arises - a young Army officer in an adjacent field, out hunting for rabbits. So Calder makes a quick change of plan.

Michael Gilbert's stories about Mr. Behrens and Mr. Calder fall squarely in the old tradition of British spy stories, very reminiscent of the espionage thrillers of Geoffrey Household. There's a certain tidyness to the plots that also shows the influence of Golden Age mystery storytelling. The style is somewhat dated, but these stories are a lot of fun and always come to a satisfying conclusion.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

"Rude Awakening" by Lawrence Block

From: Bronx Noir ed. S.J. Rozan. Akashic Books, 2007.

A young woman wakes up after a night of binge drinking with no idea where she is or how she got there. Slowly her senses, the last of which is sight, help her deduce she is in the Bronx. Finally the man beside her stirs awake, and she goes through the awkward, ominous process of getting to know him again.

As changeable as Block's voice is, it's distinctly New York, and his facility with prose made me want to keep reading about the characters and forget this was a noir story. The twist here might be predictable if not well covered in the uncertainty of a morning after.

Friday, November 16, 2007

"Amphetamine Logic" by Nathan Cain

From: Thuglit 17. July 2007.

The protagonist of this story manufactures and sells speed. Feeling too entrenched, he looks to move his operation and start working for himself again. To make this happen, he sets up two of his clients, each for the other's murder, but there's one person in the mix he doesn't suspect.

Journalist-turned-crime fiction-blogger Cain spins a bleak tale wherein the taint of drugs touches everyone. Even so, his prose and pacing kept me reading until the satisfyingly nasty end.

In August 2007, Cain announced he had sold film rights to "Amphetamine Logic".

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"The Emerson, 1950" by Scott Phillips

From: Murdaland,Issue 2.

Some might find life in small-town Kansas in 1950 dull,but not the narrator of this story. He's a newspaper photographer on the local crime beat, so it's his job to run around town taking pictures of killers and their victims.

He enjoys that job a lot more than his unofficial one: helping out his great aunt Ivy and her husband Pell. When Ivy has to leave town for a funeral, the job of taking care of the elderly, cranky, alchoholic Pell falls to him. And speaking of falls, that's about the first thing Pell does when he's on his own, landing him in the local Veteran's hospital.

Once the nurses get tired of Pell and give him the boot, and Ivy gets home, reuniting the happy family, Ivy discovers that her candlesticks - jealously guarded, and the only thing she owns of any value - have disappeared. At the top of her shrill voice she lets her great nephew and the rest of the block know that she think's it's those rotten neighbors of hers that took it. And things go downhill from there.

It's tough to explain the appeal of this fine story. Like much of Phillips' work, especially his first novel The Ice Harvest, the plot just seems to amble along from scene to scene, not building up much momentum, but by the end you can't stop reading. The Kansas town and its inhabitants are sketched in quickly but vividly, and each vignette has enough packed into it for its own story.

The narrator, like the narrator of Phillips' earlier story "Sockdolager", seems like a nice guy, and has some wit and keen senses of humor and irony, but in some ways he's scarier than the noirest villain. Because when it gets right down to it, he doesn't care what happens.

Friday, November 09, 2007

"Thief" by Christina Chiu

From: Troublemaker and Other Saints by Christina Chiu. Berkley, 2001.

Pulling one last job to buy his girlfriend Laurel an engagement ring, professional thief Seymour breaks into the home of wealthy Hong Kong businessman Philip Sheng. Stirring Sheng and his wife from sleep, he forces Sheng to open his safe and retrieve, among other things, a necklace reportedly worth $2 million. In the course of the job, the scent of Sheng's wife gets to Seymour, staying with him him days afterward.

Meeting his fence, Seymour notices one of the pieces from the safe, a plastic ring resembling one he gave his mother before she disappeared. His fence inspects the necklace and offers $100,000, with another $100,000 to follow on final authentication.

The thought that Sheng's wife could be his mother haunts Seymour until, on the cusp of a new life with Laurel, he learns the necklace was the highest quality fake jade. Worse, Sheng's wife has given the police an excellent description of Seymour. "Got you better than if she'd been your own mother," his fence says,

A sharply detailed, deftly twisted Oedipal tale hitting all the right notes.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Community Property -- Pearce Hansen

"Community Property" is one of the stories from Thuglit #21, and it's by Pearce Hansen, author of Street Raised, a book I liked. The protagonist is a man named Gordon, whose wife is divorcing him and who's just found out that he has maybe four months to live, thanks to a cancer growing in his abdomen.

So what would you do in those circumstances? Gordon gets in his soon-to-be-ex-wife's Mercedes, and then . . . . And then he does what he does. Put yourself in your position and ask yourself if you'd do the same.