Saturday, December 18, 2004

Hardluck Writer

Dave Zeltzerman, editor of Hardluck Stories, has just started his own blog at A Hardluck Writer. Dave's got one novel out and a couple of others nearly there. He promises to catalog the slings and arrows he's about to face and let us know what it's like to make the transition from No-Name to Big-Name. (Dave didn't say that, but I have no doubt he'll succeed.) I think any struggling writer will be well compensated by spending some time with Dave. I know I'll be a regular visitor.

Ice Storm

"Ice Storm" by Helen Tucker, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January 2005

This story follows a petty criminal as he tries to take advantage of what he sees as the opportunity of a lifetime.

Ms. Tucker is a competent writer. There were no speed bumps to throw me out of the story. The plot builds logically and naturally.

The main character, Brody, is a small-time booster of merchandise who can't understand why his wife, mistress and the friend who offers him shelter from the ice storm object to the way he makes his living. Ms. Tucker illuminates his character gradually as the story progresses, which leads to one of the problems I have with the story.

I don't feel that enough time was spent illustrating his tiny intellect to make the first big mistake completely believable. Don't misunderstand, it's clear from the beginning that this is not a mental giant we are reading about, but he seems to be fairly clever and competent at what he does. Too clever, I think to make the mistake that first gets him into trouble.

The story is of a type that Ms. Tucker made too readily identifiable. As soon as Brody revealed his plan, I knew how the story was going to end. I didn't know the details, but I recognized the type of story, and I was correct in predicting the ultimate outcome.

In short, it's a nice little story, well written, but it was just a little too predicable for me.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Starch

"Starch" by Mary Anna Evans & Lillian Sellers, Plots With Guns, Nov/Dec 2004

The main character of this story has all the poise and unflappability of Lee Childs' Reacher. The main character in this first-person narrative is an operating room nurse in the mid-1950s.

The discovery of the murdered doctor's body is handled so matter-of-factly that I had to stop and go back to make sure of what I read. It was terrific. The authors had me so involved in the description of just another day in the OR with the routine and the gossip that I almost missed the discovery of the body. It was completely consistent with the character of the narrator. She's discussing the personalities of doctors in general and surgeons in particular, then, oh, by the way in the middle of this emergency operation to save a pregnant woman and her baby, she finds "Dr. Wilkinson dead in the supply closet - actually he was dead all over the supply closet . . ." Nice.

So while the operation continues (it is, after all, an emergency operation with the lives of the mother and unborn child at stake) she debates whether to tell the other members of the surgical team about the body and speculates on the identity of the murderer. The authors play fair with us here. There are clues to the murderer's identity, skillfully concealed, before the revelation. There's even a nice bit of action as our heroine subdues the culprit.

And just so we aren't left thinking this heroic nurse is an unfeeling automaton, the authors end the story with a glimpse of her humanity - delivered completely in keeping with her character, something that would be difficult for me to do, but they handled it well.

In short, a terrific story.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Dark Eyes

"Dark Eyes" by R.T. Lawton, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Jan/Feb 2005

Full Disclosure: Not only is R.T. Lawton a friend of mine, he is my critique partner. In fact I critiqued this story before he submitted it to Linda Landrigan's tender mercies. So you probably already know that I like the story, but I'm going to tell you a little more about it anyway.

The main character is an Armenian trader plying his trade along the Terek River in the Caucasus during the Nineteenth Century. On one side of the river are the Cossacks and their Russian allies, on the other side are the Chechens. The Armenian trades with both sides and tries to maintain good relations with everyone.

Besides being a trader, the Armenian has the reputation of being a sharp amateur detective. On this occasion a Russian army officer, who with his men is being quartered in a Cossack village, hires the Armenian to find the officer's stolen horse. Although they are allies the Cossacks do not like the Russians much.

The Armenian has a problem. Either a Cossack or a Chechen undoubtedly stole the horse. To turn one of either tribe over to the Russian would not help his trading opportunities, and if he doesn't find the horse, the Russian will be very unhappy with him. So what can a poor trader do to protect his business?

R.T. has done his research on the historical background of this story and draws a vivid portrait of the time and the political tensions in the region without being heavy handed.

This is a pure detection type of story. The Armenian notices things others don't and uses those observations to solve the crimes people burden him with. I like this kind of story and wish I could write them, but my mind just doesn't seem to work that way.

In short, this is a story well worth your time to read.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Sprinkle on a Memory

"Sprinkle on a Memory" by Dean Wesley Smith, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January 2005

This ain't your daddy's serial killer story. There's even a Thurber touch, without the humor. Plenty of irony, though.

I liked the first two lines of the story.

Red sugar sprinkles on white cookie icing.

Blood drops on a snow-drift.

Mr. Smith has a nice touch with evocative description. His descriptions of the killings leave a vivid image in the mind.

This killer has a family that knows nothing about his "hobby". He sits in his kitchen with his family decorating Christmas cookies, thinking about the things he's done and the things he wishes he'd done.

This isn't a very long story. The way Mr. Smith wrote it, it doesn't need to be. It's chock full of emotion, happiness and despair, hope and hopelessness. He even makes you feel sorry for the killer.

It's a good story well written.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Game On

"Game On" by Iain Rowan, Shred of Evidence, November 2004

This is an interesting, if rather disturbing, trip into the mind of what used to be called a sociopath. I say "used to be" because I understand that the powers-that-be in the psychology/psychotherapy field have decided that there is no such thing as a sociopath. But what the chrome-domes decide to call something doesn't change what it is. And the main character of this story is a real nutter no matter the official designation.

Mr. Rowan takes us on a guided tour of the inner workings of a monster, someone who has no respect for the agreed upon conventions we call society. The attention to detail here is absolutely amazing. Nothing is too small or insignificant to escape the notice of this fiend.

The thing that absolutely blew me away was the self-centeredness and narcissism of the character. In virtually every paragraph there is some reference, either directly or indirectly, to his superiority and contempt for everyone and everything else. There was, "people like me who would soar above the rest," "a sweating pig of a security guard," "rather ordinary food," and on and on. Everything connected to him was superior. Everyone else, everything they chose or said or did, was contemptible. All in all, an utterly believable characterization.

I was surprised at how easily this read. I would have expected something this self-absorbed to be boring, but I found myself fascinated by this guy's view of the world.

But you want to know the truly disturbing part? After reading the narrative, you have to ask yourself how did Mr. Rowan know all of this well enough to write so convincingly? [Insert tongue firmly into cheek.] Write what you know, right? If I ever meet Mr. Rowan, I think I'll walk very softly and make awfully sure he knows how much I liked this story.

A Good Shooting

"A Good Shooting" by O'Neil De Noux, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Jan/Feb 2005

A cop investigates an officer-involved shooting that resulted in the death of a criminal who had been caught coming out of an armed robbery. It looks like a good shooting, but why didn't the criminal shoot at the cop?

This story was a bit of a disappointment. As a general rule I enjoy Mr. De Noux's writing. He has a nice rhythm to most of his stories that makes them easy to read.

This one, however, seems a bit choppy and had several things that threw me out of the story. The first thing that hit me in the eye was the identification of the main character: ". . . John Raven Beau, the half-Sioux, half-Cajun cop . . ." Why does this matter? I may be picking a really tiny nit here, but why do series characters have to have some "unique" characteristic like hyphenated ethnicity or an "encyclopedic knowledge" of something like rock music or jazz or Sherlockiana? Why can't the character just be some common schlub with a consuming curiosity?

OK. Deep breath. In. Out. Good. Rant over. Or at least suspended.

The next speed bump occurred after our hero, Detective Beau, had been talking to the wife of the dead criminal, a nice, respectable lady, while taking her home. All of a sudden Mr. De Noux says, "It was then Beau identified her accent. He knew she wasn't from New Orleans the first time she spoke. She sounded Midwestern." The way he says it makes the fact that she has an accent sound important.

He's been talking to her for quite some time, and he has never, until this moment, mentioned an accent. Why is this important? Besides, saying that she sounds Midwestern is a long way from identifying her accent, if indeed she has one, and if indeed it is important. Which it isn't. Again, maybe a nit, but it did throw me out of the story.

When Detective Beau finds out why the criminal's gun didn't fire (pretty clever, BTW), he immediately knows who fixed it and how. He confronts this person with what he knows. Then Mr. De Noux steps in with "Beau felt the Plains warrior rising inside . . ." Seems inappropriate - and melodramatic. The prevailing opinion around the station house is that whoever fixed the gun deserves a medal. Why is Beau getting pissed? At least I think that's what the phrase was intended to convey. And why say it that way? Was he afraid that we had forgotten that the guy was half Indian? In the third paragraph after that one, Mr. De Noux says, "The war drums echoed in some racial memory in the back of Beau's mind . . ." Again, why is Beau angry? And why put it this way? I felt like I was reading a Penny Dreadful. There hasn't been any kind of elucidation of Beau's character that would make this reaction believable.

As for the Cajun side of Beau's ancestry, that was handled much more smoothly with a couple of quotes from Papa Beau. Much less chewing of the scenery.

I don't know if this is the first time Mr. De Noux has used Detective Beau. I hope so. It'll give him some time to smooth out the rough spots. All in all, it's a good, clever story with a few faults that just happened to push my buttons.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Night Never Forgets

"The Night Never Forgets" by Adam McFarlane, SDO Detective, October 31, 2004

An abandoned child, now an adult with a child of her own, hires a PI to track down an absentee ex-con father. Standard fare for a PI, but one rife with possibilities that can make every story different and fresh.

When the PI, one Mr. Foster (his first name is never revealed in the story, in fact, you know his last name only indirectly) has his first meeting with his client, Cora Kilroy, at her home. He walks in the door, and she starts telling him her problem without any introductions, who-are-you, etc. The guy could have been the Fuller Brush man.

Farther on, Cora makes reference to the fact that there are no mirrors in the apartment. The stated reason: she's too ashamed to look at herself. Unfortunately there's not enough precedent to make this believable. Why bring it up in the first place? This is endemic throughout the story. This tale should be frothing with emotion, and I can see where Mr. McFarlane is trying. But it's just not coming through.

Searching for news stories about the crime that got Cora's father sent to prison, Foster finds the name of the victim, Lucia Bjornsdottir. Then he searches the victim's name and comes up with her present place of employment. OK, fair enough. Then a few paragraphs later he reveals that the victim is one of his best friends! This is a major structural error that could have been easily fixed with a little rearranging.

The conversation Foster has with Lucia simply is not believable as a conversation between people that have known each other long enough to have become good friends. It's the old exposition trap: people telling each other things they ought to already know.

There is a subplot here about Foster's own father that the author uses to try to link Foster emotionally to Cora. I think it's too heavy handed to be effective.

Mr. McFarlane indulges in a little simile-play that has no purpose other than showing off. "My cold - like a mucous octopus resting on my breastbone, groping my lungs - didn't help either." This occurs halfway through the story and is the first, and only, mention that he has a cold. A mucous octopus?? Please, if you want to do this, spend more time with Chandler: “Her eyes bounced around the room like two mice in a box.” A mucous octopus versus two mice in a box. Do you see the difference?

The author also has a fondness for autonomous inanimate objects. "My phone dialed Leslee Madarin." "Her line immediately picked up." The desire to find new ways to say the same old things is laudable, however the application of common sense should govern.

This is a potentially good story that would have profited from another couple of rounds of editing before it left the author's computer. I would suggest trying to find a critique partner that has a little more experience.

The concept here is good, but I'm afraid the execution is lacking. Though I don't think it's anything that can't be fixed by practice. Throughout the story I had the feeling of driving down a country road that had just been gouged into the dirt, full of bumps and potholes, waiting for the finishing grader.

Mr. McFarlane shows promise. I'll be interested in seeing what he comes up with next.