Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"Julius Katz", by Dave Zeltserman

Available for download from

Julius Katz is not Nero Wolfe.

Sure, there are similarities. The name, to begin with. The love of fine food. The indolence that means he only works when he has to. And an assistant named Archie, the narrator of the story, who women find utterly charming.

But Katz does not weigh an eighth of a ton; in fact, he keeps himself in excellent shape. He's witty, charming, and irresistible to women. He drinks wine, not beer. He lives in a Boston townhouse, not a New York brownstone, and he ventures out of it frequently. And Archie? He's an artificial intelligence housed in Katz's tie clip.

Likewise, "Julius Katz" is not a Nero Wolfe story, though it obviously draws inspiration from Wolfe, and shares some of the same rhythms. Katz is obliged to take a case from Norma Brewer, a woman in late middle age, and her sister Helen. Their mother is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and their brother Lawrence - her legal guardian - refuses to move her to a nursing home. Norma is afraid that through Lawrence's negligence some harm will come to her mother, especially since Lawrence himself stands to inherit a tidy sum.

So Katz visits their mother, and spends the next few days assiduously avoiding work, despite Archie's protestations. Then they get word of a new development: murder.

"Julius Katz" suffers somewhat from being an "origin" story. We spend almost as much time getting to know Katz as he does investigating the case. And the pacing can best be described as... langourous? Sedate? Fans of Nero Wolfe (as I am) will get the most enjoyment from this story, but anyone who enjoys an old-fashioned tale of pure detection will get their money's worth.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Alphabet Workbook by Mehnaz Turner

The Alphabet Workbook by Mehnaz Turner is only three pages long, but it packs a wallop. It appears in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine's Department of First Stories, but is so amazingly well written and so ultimately devastating that you'd be forgiven for thinking Ms. Turner is an old hand at the mystery story. I'd forgive you.

The story is only three pages long, so there is a sense in which I can't say all that much without revealing more of the plot than is decent. On the other hand, the power of this tale (and it is powerful) is in the telling - even were I to reveal every plot point, I wouldn't be capturing what makes this story so special. Still, as a reviewer, I'll say this much: it concerns the narrator, a transplant to Los Angeles, and her neighbor, Angela. Angela makes the mistake of knocking on the narrator's door to borrow eggs. Anyway, I fear saying more. I'll just mention that though the narrator is a social worker, she has some anti-social tendencies.

I really don't know how else to say things about this marvelous story. If you'd like my copy of EQMM, leave a comment to that effect, and if you're lucky, you get it. Lucky or the only one to leave a comment... I'll check back in a day or two to see who gets the prize (and this one story does qualify the magazine as a prize).

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"Blood and Bone in Bambooland", by Cameron Ashley

From: Plots With Guns, Issue #9, June 2010.

Apparently Cameron Ashley and I have the same since of humor, 'cause I laughed out loud a couple of times while reading "Blood and Bone in Bambooland". If this story were set in the U.S., it would have to be a Southern Gothic, but even with the Down Under milieu, it's still pretty damn Gothic.

And it has the best Anglo-accented monologue since The Limey.

The plot? Mark is boss John G.'s newest flunky. A couple of his other boys killed somebody they really maybe ought not have, but it's done now, and John G. needs somebody to clean up the mess. So Mark is taking a trip out to the country to see the Eggman, who handles that sort of job. Things don't go exactly as planned, though, and Mark gets caught up in a feud between the Eggman and his horticulturist neighbor, a disagreement that ends badly all 'round.

It's the narrative voice that carries the story, though. Mark is the only one who can see how absurd all the clowns around him are, and sometimes it's a struggle not to laugh right in their faces. The reader, however, is free to laugh with abandon. A dark comedy but one I enjoyed.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"Bronx, Summer, 1971", by Steven Torres

From: CrimeSpree #35 (March/April 2010).

Ernesto and Celia Santiago, an elderly Hispanic couple living in a modest third-floor walkup, were brutally murdered on the hottest day of the year. What troubled Detectives Woods and Carver was the absence of a motive. It appeared that someone wanted something and tortured the couple to get it. Then Woods spots a picture that gives them a hint: Ernesto and Celia, their arms around a smiling young man. Ray Cruz, a notorious drug dealer.

Cruz himself shows up soon after, distraught to the point where even the cops know he's not faking. The Santiagos were his godparents. Now Woods and Carver have to work fast, because they're not the only ones after the killers.

I'm breaking one of our rules here ("thou shalt not review other members' stories") because I like this one so much. It's told with great economy, with characters sketched out in just a few strokes, but entirely believable. Steven is really good at using unsympathetic characters, or outright villains, as the protagonists of his stories (see his Viktor Petrenko stories for another example), and I understand that Ray Cruz may return in the future.

Monday, June 21, 2010

"The 45 Steps", by Peter Crowther

From: The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries, ed. Mike Ashley. Carroll & Graf, 2007.

There was only one thing noteworthy about the Regal Hotel in Luddersedge. Not the elegance of its ballroom, which was really rather threadbare; not the quality of it's foie gras, as the cuisine tended towards tradional English; certainly not the long list of distinguished guests who'd stayed there. No, the only reason to remember the Regal was the opulence of the gentlemen's lavatory in the basement.

Arthur Clark's bathroom habits were equally well-known around the village. At ten o'clock every evening he would get up and head to what Max Reger called "the smallest room in the house", whether he were in his own home, or at the Conservative Club's Christmas banquent at the Regal. So regular were his habits, in fact, that they could be used against him, and one of the elegant stalls in the Regal's restroom could in fact become the setting for a locked-room murder.

This rather droll story was original to the book in which it appeared but deserves wider attention. A mixture of dark humor, fair-play detection, and the character of irascable Detective Inspector Malcolm Broadhurst combine to make this a delightful exercise in classic detection.

Monday, June 14, 2010

"How To Jail", by Dennis Tafoya

From: CrimeFactory, Vol. 2 Issue #3 - May 2010.

When Willis' brother Henry got out of jail, he moved into Willis' small Las Vegas apartment. But he's not out yet, not really. He doesn't talk much, and he doesn't do much. Mostly he sits and looks out the window. Sometimes Henry talks about his dad, a drunk and a jailbird, and how everything he told them about jail was wrong

Kelly lives in an apartment down the hall. Her boyfriend smacks her around sometimes. She comes down to Willis' place to see a friendly face and find some peace.

Henry's friend Dontay is getting out of jail. It's up to Henry to take him out, celebrate a bit. Reminisce about old times.

From these elements author Dennis Tafoya spins a tragedy writ small. These are people and situations we've seen before, but Tafoya's characters are closely observed and carefully drawn. "How to Jail" is a quiet story, not much action, but the ending still carries an emotional impact.

NBS Special Report: A Facelift

The updated look of Nasty. Brutish. Short. should be easier to maintain with Blogger's new template designer, just out of draft. I went for a cold look fitting our nasty, brutish title—but also a clean look, keeping all the page elements where they were. Enjoy.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

"Scenarios" by Lawrence Block

From: The Dark End of the Street: New Stories of Sex and Crime by Today's Top Authors, ed. Jonathan Santlofer and S.J. Rozan. Bloomsbury, 2010.

Block's contribution to this anthology of literary and crime fiction authors begins with a sexual predator looking for his next victim at a bar. Just when I began to guess where the story was going, Block broke the "fourth wall", offering three different ways the story could turn out, one of which was "true".

If you don't mind Block breaking the fourth wall, this story is a fine show of the writer's imagination at work and how many different tales can be spun from the same starting point.