Saturday, January 15, 2005

Good News for Short Fiction

I noticed on Clint Gaige's blog that his best selling book for 2004 was Chesapeake Crimes, an anthology of crime stories. For those of you who don't know, Clint is chief cook and bottle washer at Quiet Storm Publishing. He is also planning to issue (soon?) an audio book of Babs Lakey's anthology, DIME.

In addition to that (Clint seems to be a very innovative publisher) he is issuing
disks that contain ebook editions in two formats, a video file relating to the book, and MP3 files of the authors reading excerpts from the book and author interviews. I ordered one on the spot (extremely reasonable, $9.94, including S&H).

Go over and take a look. Independant publishers, like independent booksellers, need our support. Especially one as innovative as Quiet Storm seems to be.

Father Diodorus

"Father Diodorus" by Charlie Stella, Mississippi Review, January 2005

This is a tale of betrayal and murder. It is also disturbing, risky, sure to piss off a lot of people and be banned from every library in the Bible Belt. For those reasons alone, you should read this story.

I'm not going to say much about the characters or the plot. You should experience this story without preconceived notions about the subject matter. I will say that Mr. Stella's skill makes the story easy to read from a technical standpoint if not from an emotional one.

Mr. Stella handles the two flashbacks in the story well. Flashbacks are problematic in longer works. In short stories they are even more so. They tend to be excuses for authors to fill space rather than serve the story. The two flashbacks in "Father Diodorus" both serve to elucidate points in the story that would have had to be handled with exposition otherwise.

The main character's actions at the end bothered me a little, from a logical standpoint. At first I thought it odd that a character who had been so careful all his life could suddenly at the end be so careless as to leave damning evidence behind. On rereading a second time I noticed that the character believed his current life to be essentially over. The betrayal had been set in motion and could not be stopped. The good father had been well established as a control freak, and stated that he wanted to be in control of how his life ends. This bit of informations is given to us in two sentences just before the final scene, making the ending consistent with character. Personally I wish this had been made a bit more apparent. In a story so emotionally charged short indications like that are often missed.

In short, a unsettling story skillfully written.

Friday, January 14, 2005

A Death in Ueno

"A Death in Ueno" by Mike Wiecek, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 2005

This one is a little different: a Japanese PI - in Japan. I'm a sucker for PI stories (that's why I write 'em), and this is a pretty good one.

The PI's name is Sakonju. Hattori, a fisherman by trade, hires him to find a killer. During a 10-day stretch while Hattori was out fishing his older brother was murdered, beaten to death with a brick. The police aren't interested in finding the killer because Hattori's brother was homeless. Hattori hires Sakonju because he feels guilty that he didn't do more to support his brother. He finally wants to do the right thing.

The only clues they have are the mention of a name, Jinguji, and the fact that a year ago Hattori's brother had been picked up in Ueno, an area with a high homeless population. Sakonju goes to Ueno and begins asking questions. Each answer leads him to another question and another answer. A clue is left early on that, in combination with some information Sakonju receives toward the end of the story, leads to the killer.

My one quibble regards this clue. It seemed to me a little incongruous, and thus obvious, when it arose, but I discounted that as being a part of a culture I know little about. That may have been something that Mr. Wiecek was counting on. I would have liked the clue to have been a little more subtle.

Which leads me to setting. It wasn't so foreign that I couldn't identify (the familiar PI tropes helped with that), but you know you're not in Kansas anymore. The foreignness was brought out more by the little things such as vending-machine saki and low doorways.

In short, an enjoyable trip.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

A Murder in the Family

"A Murder in the Family" by Carol Cail, Shred of Evidence, November 2004

Families. Whatta ya gonna do? Like a mother's love families in general can make or break a person, though in the mystery genre you find more of the latter than the former.

In this story a college psychology class provides the background against which a young man, Brian, with a troubled past - and present - examines his life. I liked the way Ms. Cail used the class and other conversations with the professor to stimulate and break up the main character's ruminations.

The story starts off with the professor asking the class if it is easier to commit murder a second time. Ms. Cail throws in a bit of foreshadowing at the end of this scene that isn't heavy-handed and works well to keep the interest level up.

The next scene takes us home with Brian to meet his mother. I like the way Ms. Cail leads us to figure out for ourselves that Mom lives at the bottom of a bottle. Brian has to care for her as though she were an invalid. He has no help from his siblings who all escaped leaving him holding the bag, so to speak.

In the following scene we find out about the murder of his father, an inveterate drinker and spouse abuser, who was murdered in his own house after breaking Brian's mother's arm and beating her senseless. The police have no evidence proving who the murderer was, but they charge Mom anyway. Charges are dropped because of lack of evidence.

Other sessions in class and with the professor lead Brian deeper into the past and deeper into his frustration with his current life, babysitting Mom.

In the last two paragraphs Ms. Cail brings the story full circle and answers the question about whether murder is easier the second time around with a nice little twist.

In short, very well written with the clues nicely distributed and not on blatant display.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Christmas Even

"Christmas Even" by Michael Connelly, Murder and All That Jazz, Robert J. Randisi, ed., Signet Books.

Detective Harry Bosch solves two mysteries in this story of frustration, loss, and debts repaid. That's a lot to get into one short story, but Mr. Connelly achieves it with seemingly effortless ease.

This story first appeared on Mr. Connelly's website, which is where I first read it. It was then revised and appeared in Playboy, but this is the first time the original version has appeared in print.

Harry and his buddy, Edgar, are called to a pawnshop on Christmas Eve where they find the dead body of a burglar. The shop, owned by a recent Russian immigrant, had been hit three times previously, all likely by the same guy. This time he died in the act, and Harry thinks it was no accident.

The burglary dick on the scene, Braxton, identifies the body as a long-time burglar named Monty Kelman. Harry and Braxton go to Kelman's apartment where Harry finds a saxophone that once belonged to a jazzman named Quentin McKenzie, aka Sugar Ray McK. Harry, a tunnel rat in the Vietnam War, saw Sugar Ray perform on a hospital ship off Danang. Thus begins Harry's second investigation, finding Sugar Ray McK and returning his ax.

The final scene makes the whole story for me. This scene overflows with emotion. Some short story writers think it takes too much time to set up an emotional scene, but Mr. Connelly does it in the bare minimum of space. Of course he sets up Harry's part earlier, but only uses a couple of paragraphs. And the way Sugar Ray reacts to the return of his saxophone is brilliant. One paragraph, 51 words. That's all it took. Outstanding.

In short, a wonderful story.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Windows to the Soul

"Windows to the Soul" by Beverle Graves Myers, Shred of Evidence, November 2004

Ah, a mother's love is a delicate balancing act, a determining factor in both the kindest and most empathetic of us and also the cruelest among us. Though I suspect the main character of this story doesn't think of himself as the least bit cruel.

This story follows a man with a thing about eyes and spirituality. He tries a number of churches of different denominations, all in search of the eyes that will bring him a certain peace.

And then there's dear, old Mom. He tries to be a dutiful son, certainly more so than the rest of his siblings, but Mother keeps getting in the way of him fulfilling his life. What's a son to do? What's a mother to do?

This is a well-written story, easy to read, and it kept my interest even though the main character's ultimate actions, in fact all of the criminous actions, are deliberately vague. The change in situation in the last section of the story is signaled by a change in point of view. Nicely done and a poke in the eye to all those pedants in our educational system who insist that switching viewpoints in a short story is fatal, simply not done, old boy.

My one quibble is that I think the final section of the story was too long. I would have preferred a snappier, or at least shorter ending. It could have given the story a bit more punch.

In short, Ms. Myers has produced a nicely nasty tale of mothers and sons.

Monday, January 10, 2005

The Shoeshine Man's Regrets

"The Shoeshine Man's Regrets" by Laura Lippman, Murder and All That Jazz, Robert J. Randisi, ed., Signet Books.

Tess Monaghan rides again, short story style. I'm a big fan of Ms. Lippman's work, and I'm always pleased when a BNA (that's Big Name Author) exercises a series character in the short form. This story does not disappoint.

The story starts off with Tess and her friend Whitney Talbot being "congenially catty" about the sartorial skills of their fellow restaurant patrons while waiting in the valet parking line after a good meal. Into this congenial atmosphere comes an old shoeshine man and a rich troll. The shoeshine man points out the troll's messy shoes and things go downhill from there. The troll and the shoeshine man get into a donnybrook, and naturally Tess wades into the middle of it.

Cops are called, but everyone is about to be let off with a warning when the shoeshine man's name comes up on a 39-year-old murder warrant. He is arrested and immediately confesses to the crime. The detective assigned the case, Tess' friend Detective Martin Tull, doesn't feel right about it. He doesn't think the old man did the deed, but he can't pursue that line of investigation. So Tull convinces Tess to do it.

Tess goes to talk to the only people left alive that were involved in the original case, the shoeshine man's sister and the shoeshine man himself. The talk with the sister and knowledge of the murder weapon allow Tess to solve the case, but after nearly 40 years, it's hard to get people to listen.

I enjoyed the story but have two minor quibbles: one, the rather strong implication that shining shoes is a demeaning occupation because it puts one man standing above another man. Absolute nonsense! A street shoeshine man performs a legitimate service, and there ain't no other way to do it. Might as well say it's demeaning to sit in the lower rows of a movie theater because other people are sitting above you. But that's a personal issue, and such an attitude is in line with Tess' character.

The other quibble is one I get slapped with every so often. I suspect that if I had written this story, some editor (you know who you are) would have told me that my detective solved the case too easily. But then, I'm not Laura Lippman.

In short, an enjoyable read. It's nice to see Tess in the shorter form.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Pulp Galore!

Run, do not walk to The Mississippi Review site. Their current issue has 18 stories in the "High Pulp" vein by some of the best writers writing today. You'll be seeing these stories reviewed here starting sometime this week.

Geoffrey Says

"Geoffrey Says" by Aliya Whiteley, Shred of Evidence, November 2004

This seems to be the issue for stories that stretch back to mother. In this one mother and son also come into conflict with dire consequences, but that is the only similarity.
Geoffrey is born in the young boy's mind as the font of all wisdom filtered through his mother. Eventually Geoffrey takes the form of an emerald green penguin with anthropomorphic tendencies. Why emerald green and why a penguin, I don't know, but it works. Soon enough Geoffrey begins to speak directly to the main character and contradicts the advice of Mother. From then on, things go downhill for the promising young man, though he doesn't think so.

Ms. Whiteley draws the main character skillfully and increases his delusional life throughout the story. This makes his final escalation believable.

The end of the story holds a couple of surprises. You see Mom had a secret, a secret that she managed to conceal from her son throughout his life. The ending is pretty twisty.

In short, I enjoyed the story, and I expect you will too.

[Couldn't get on Shred this morning to get the direct link to the story.]