Station to Station
"Station to Station" by Ray Banks, Hardluck Stories, Fall, 2004
Noir, great suspense, and a twist (that's an unexpected reversal of expectations, not a woman). Nope, no women in this one other than the odd passerby, but that doesn't hurt the story at all. What we have here is a bored bureaucrat in a dead end job seeking excitement. And boy does he get it.
Mr. Banks does a bang-up job with this one. It reads well in spite of the impenetrable (at least to us on the other side of the Pond) British slang. I thought I was at least moderately able to suss out the meanings of most British slang, but there were some words I didn't have a clue about. But don't let that bother you. It makes the atmosphere of the story so real you can feel the fog. I've found that the best way to handle the slang is just romp right through it. Don't stop to try to figure it out. Mr. Banks is skillful enough that you can tell from context whether the word in question was meant to be naughty or nice, and really, that's all you need to know to enjoy the story.
The suspense and the main character's motivation build nicely throughout especially toward the end. You'll find yourself zipping through that last page. And the ending! I don't know what a cringe combined with a delighted grin looks like but my wife does. She's still watching me out of the corner of her eye.
Read the story.
"No Heroics" by David Cox, Thrilling Detective, Hollidays, 2004
I like Malloy, a no nonsense bruiser with a soft spot -- on his head. I also like Mr. Cox's way with words: "Five foot four with a jutting chin like a jammed drawer." There's a nice scattering of such similes through the story but not enough for it to become grating. With one exception: "Night falls like a sack of nails." Maybe it's just a British thing. That phrase didn't really do it for me.
I also like the fact that there isn't a "he said/she said" dialog attribution in the entire story. I'm going to have to try that some day.
The sound effects were pretty good, too, particularly the Fark of the crows and the answering Fark from the mud.
Calling on the sense of smell is one of the best ways of bringing a reader into the story. Mr. Cox did that very well with the "people-hating, cardigan-wearing, curtain-twitcher". I would have liked to have seen a more evocative description of the smell of the barnyard.
Congratulations, Mr. Cox. I hope to see Malloy again soon.
Two Birds With One Stone
"Two Birds with One Stone" by Jeremiah Healy, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Jan/Feb, 2005
Halleluiah, a new John Francis Cuddy story! It was, as usual, great.
I'm going to have to go study some reviews of books the reviewers were enthusiastic about. I don't quite know what to do now. Maybe Kevin Tipple or KBS can give me some tips.
The things I liked in particular? Mr. Healy wrote a fairly long story (again, I read it in ebook form so I don't know how many pages it was) and used the "he said/she said" dialog attributions so sparingly I didn't even have to take off my socks to count them.
"Since the criminal defense attorney had asked the private investigator to come over, I waited him out." With that one sentence in context we know who is who without long explanations.
The emotional scenes were well done: Mrs. Carson discovering her daughter had been murdered; the final page. I keep trying to do that. Maybe one day I'll succeed.
Read the story. You'll like it.
Simon and Dorothea
"Simon and Dorothea" by Eleanor Boylan, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Jan/Feb, 2005
It's a ghost story. OK. I can live with that, though I like cold-hearted, scary ghosts better than the warm, cuddly version in this story. The major problem I had with this story was that I didn't feel the author tried hard enough to make the stakes for the main character very high. He loses a very good job doing something he likes. His reaction? He decides he'll go to work at a local Waffle House. It'll be better there. He wants to clear the old man, his uncle, of a false accusation made a half-century earlier. He is determined to do it until he gets fired. He gives up, or would have without a deus ex machina. He is a young man in his very late teens or early twenties, but he acts like a 10 year old. "I'm never going back there!" And so on.
There was a lot of room for emotional depth in this story that wasn't taken advantage of. For instance, the old man on his deathbed. His predicament could have been exploited better through spending more time either with him or with the memories of him that the main character had. Compare and contrast what he is now with what he was. He fought through all the slings and arrows except this particular crossbow bolt. Or he didn't. We don't know. In this story the old man seems to me like an excuse to put the main character into contact with the ghost.
I wish this story had been better.
"Red Christmas" by Steve Hockensmith, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Jan/Feb, 2005.
This was a funny story. A little silly, no, strike that, a lot silly, but enjoyable. I especially liked the subdued and understated reactions of Hank and Frank, otherwise known as Ribbons and Bows. In a story so over-the-top, subdued and understated stands out like Darth Vader in a snowfield.
The only thing I would have changed was the heavy dialect of the bad guys. Way overdone, in my opinion. I don't like dialect. I like to indicate foreign accents with speech rhythms rather than trying to transcribe the sound itself. But then in a story like this, overdone is just staying in the groove.
Death at the Theatre
"Death at the Theatre" by Marianne Wilski Strong, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Jan/Feb, 2005
I've read some of Ms. Strong's Kleides stories before and have always enjoyed them. This one, however, I didn't feel was quite up to standard. One thing that put me off was the statement in the opening pages (I read this as an ebook, so I don't know what conventional page this occurred on) that said, "I didn't know then that the festival would incite murder, nor did I know whom it would strike." I hate that! Foreshadowing is a legitimate technique to increase suspense, but that is the clumsiest, most blatant kind of foreshadowing. Any author that employs it should have their knuckles rapped with a ruler. And come on! This is a short story. Why would you need to foreshadow? This is a mystery story, published in a mystery magazine. Of course there is going to be a murder.
Onward. The other issue I have problems with is the so-called investigation. The murder occurs at about the halfway mark. The murderer is revealed around the 90% mark. In between the murder and the "j'accuse" Kleides talks to only one person who could have been the murderer. I'm not saying this person was the murderer, only that he could have been, along with a number of other characters. Kleides says soon after words to the effect, "as soon as I heard this, I knew who the murderer was." The solution depends on information that is not revealed to the reader until after the murderer is unmasked.
Now I am not without sin. I have had two different editors tell me that the solution came too easily. I needed to have my character spend a little more time investigating, go down at least one more blind alley before the climax. I hope I never have another editor tell me that. I feel the story would have been much better had the murder been moved up to the 25% or 30% point in the story allowing more of the characters a chance to lie or tell the truth about their whereabouts. This story feels like Ms. Strong was writing to a length and got too far into it before she realized she was nearing the target word count had to wrap it up quickly.
Ms. Strong did some things really well. Her evocation of the time period was well done with lots of little details without becoming a treatise on "Everyday Life in Athens." I especially liked the way she went about establishing the nastiness of one of the characters. At one point early in the story Kleides describes the man as having an upper lip like a weasel. Later on Kleides as much as calls the man a weasel to his face. A small use of the setup-reveal technique, but a nice one.
All in all, not my favorite story, but I have hopes for the next one Ms. Strong publishes.
I write short fiction and short non-fiction exclusively. I've published about 40 or 50 articles on various subjects and thirteen short stories, mostly in my Jack Brady series. (The most recent one may be found gracing the current issue of Thrilling Detective.)
I got to looking around the blogosphere the other day and discovered an interesting fact: I couldn't find any blogs that examined the short forms of writing exclusively. (I'm not saying there aren't any; I'm just saying I couldn't find any.) There are lots of blogs about writing in general, about mystery writing, science fiction, screen writing, TV writing, and non-fiction. Some of those mention the short forms now and then. Sarah Weinman, for instance, is very good about plugging the new issues of the mystery webzines. But there isn't anything about just the short forms.
So, I decided to do something about this perceived hole. This blog will consist exclusively of my thoughts about and reviews of short mystery fiction, short science fiction, and short non-fiction. I might throw in the occasional rant about incursions against the First Amendment. It just depends on how I feel that day.
So sit back and enjoy. And feel free to comment and tell me I'm out of my freakin' mind. I'm doing this in hopes I'll learn something to help my writing. I'll probably learn something from you.