"Jazz Canary" by Les Roberts, Murder and All That Jazz, Robert J. Randisi, ed., Signet Books, $6.99, Mass Market Paperback.
Milan Jacovich returns. Though you wouldn't know it from the first five pages of the story.
Milan has always been a jazz fan. Some years before the time of this story he met a jazz singer named Kate O'Dwyer. He started out as a fan and became a friend, often going sailing with her on her sailboat, Jazz Canary. Their relationship was purely platonic. During this time, she divorced her controlling husband, Charlie, but kept him on as her manager. Eventually she fired him from that position, too. It took a little encouragement from Milan before he moved on.
Kate moved on to the big time leaving Cleveland for New York. Now she has come back on tour to her hometown. While she was gone, she had a daughter, now five years old. Milan finds out where she is staying and calls her up to congratulate her on her success. She asks him to come see her at the hotel.
Kate has a problem: Charlie is back trying to weasel his way into her life. She wants nothing to do with him and would like Milan to act as bodyguard while she is in town. Of course he agrees. Nothing much happens until the day of the first concert. During the technical rehearsal Kate tells Milan she won't need him until after the concert, so he goes back to his office.
When Milan meets Kate again in her dressing room after the concert who should be there with her but ex-husband, Charlie, seemingly back in the catbird seat. Kate has signed him on as her manager again and agreed to remarry him.
Milan knows something is wrong, and he's determined to find out what it is.
Even though I enjoyed this story, I had two problems with it. The first I mentioned above. We don't know for sure that this story features Milan Jacovich until the fifth page. That kind of thing is a danger with a series character. The author gets so comfortable with the character that he just expects the audience to know who he's talking about without naming names. I, myself, have been dinged on that point several times.
My second quibble involves the resolution of the story. After his interview with Kate and Charlie after the concert, Milan knows something is wrong. In a denouement interview with a cop, he explains how he knew, something he saw that was not revealed at the time to the reader. I think this clue should have been revealed at the time Milan noticed it. Since it wasn't I give Mr. Roberts one demerit for not playing fair.
In short, in spite of my quibbles, it's a very good story.
Give Me Your Heart
"Give Me Your Heart" by Joyce Carol Oates, Dangerous Women Edited by Otto Penzler, Mysterious Press, Trade Paperback, $13.95
This story takes the form of a letter, a letter from a woman scorned. This woman has a lot of patience and a long memory, twenty-three years, nine months, and eleven days long to be exact.
The recipient of the letter had an affair with this woman when she was a 19 year-old innocent. After dumping her, his path diverged from hers, but now they've come together again.
In the letter the scorned woman reveals that she knows a lot about this man's current life. The tone is decidedly threatening, but as she points out herself there is nothing actionable in it. If he takes it to the police they will simply tell him that they can't do anything about it, never mind that this woman is obviously watching him.
The good part of this story is how Ms. Oates makes the letter so threatening yet so innocuous at the same time. If I ever need to write a threatening letter to someone, I'm going to use this story as a guide.
The bad parts of this story are the fact that it is twice as long as it should be and that there is no resolution. In spite of Ms. Oates' unquestioned skill as a writer, this story just goes on and on and on and on. Even Shakespeare was boring sometimes.
Unfortunately the story just kind of fizzles out, though given the form I don't know how it could have been different. Not every story has to have all the loose threads tied up, but I prefer those that have a firm resolution. You may travel a different path.
In short, disappointing.
New Issue of Hardluck Stories
The new issue of Hardluck Stories is now live. There's all manner of cool stuff there, both fiction and nonfiction. There is also (ahem) my recording of "Grasshopper", a Hardluck "Classic" (thanks a LOT, Dave!). Go check it out.
"Club Dead" by Rhys Bowen, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 2005.
Jorge is a waiter in an exclusive resort on the Mexican coast. A poor man with a family, he must subject himself each day to the indignities heaped upon him by ill-mannered ricos. One in particular has lately aroused his wrath, a rude woman with a propensity for stuffing too much body into too little swimming attire.
Every day Jorge works surrounded by wealth and an abundance of food, much of which gets thrown away. Each night he returns home to his poor house where his two sons subsist on a diet of tortillas and beans. One night he can stand it no more. He takes an almost untouched chicken that had been discarded and hides it in his clothes. On the walk from the clubhouse to the compound gate (it's a long way) he loses his nerve. Sometimes the guards search the employees as they leave. Stealing food means instant dismissal. He decides the risk isn't worth the gain and throws the chicken into the lagoon.
As soon as the chicken hits the water a huge crocodile lunges out of the water and swallows the chicken. Jorge is shocked. He thought all the crocs had been cleared out during the resort's construction. This incident gives him an idea about how he can exact his revenge without anything tracing back to him. He puts the plan into action, and everything progresses as expected. Until the final scene.
The story is well written and easy to read. Ms. Bowen made the setting feel authentic and the main character sympathetic. My only quibble is that I think the ending is too abrupt. I feel it could have been milked a little more, just a couple of sentences, to give it more impact.
In short, an enjoyable read.
My Throw Down Piece
"My Throw Down Piece" by Patrick J. Lambe, Mississippi Review, January 2005
This is a story of unrequited love, a dirty cop, murder and, perhaps, a little bit of redemption. Mr. Lambe's story would have fit perfectly into Penzler's Dangerous Women anthology.
There is a woman, of course, a damaged woman, the most dangerous kind. Kelly collects men like a longhaired dog collects burrs. One of the men she has collected, Mike, is an innocent. He is in love and believes she is good at heart.
Another man she has collected, Tolland, is a dirty cop with sidelines in armed robbery and murder. He knows precisely what Kelly is: someone to enjoy for a while but not to be kept around. A throw down piece.
Tolland is sleeping with Kelly. Mike isn't, never has, never will.
The problems begin when Mike takes Tolland's throw down piece -- the kind that goes BANG. Tolland doesn't know what Mike's going to do with it. Is he going to try to kill Kelly, Tolland or someone else entirely? Normally he wouldn't care. The gun is unregistered and untraceable. Well, almost untraceable. It seems that Tolland's captain can connect that gun to him. Unfortunately Tolland had used that particular gun to whack an armored car guard that recognized him as one of the men who robbed his shipment.
Tolland would normally have gotten rid of the incriminating weapon, but his suspension came before he could dump it. And Tolland really needs a gun. If Mike uses it to kill someone, it will be connected to the murder of the armored car guard. The captain might then see it and remember where he saw it last. Tolland has to find Mike and the gun before Mike does something stupid.
Mr. Lambe did a fine job making Tolland real. Well-drawn characters have flaws. Tolland's flaw is that he cares enough about his fellow man to want to protect someone he sees as an innocent. Otherwise he'd be a perfect bad guy.
In short, I liked it.
"Cielo Azul" by Michael Connelly, Dangerous Women Edited by Otto Penzler, Mysterious Press, Trade Paperback, $13.95
This story features Detective Harry Bosch and Special Agent Terry McCaleb together again for the first time. Let me explain that. In the book, A Darkness More Than Night, McCaleb and Bosch talk about a case they worked together several years before. A case that haunted both of them. As a gift to the people on his mailing list Mr. Connelly wrote this story explaining the case and chronicling the first time Bosch and McCaleb met.
Harry and his partner, Frankie Sheehan, are called out on a dead body discovery. The victim, a teenage girl, has been found nude in a display position partway down a steep hillside off Mulholland Drive. Harry feels an immediate bond with her. "A woman with no name left dead on the hillside. A woman no one had come forward to claim. A woman no one cared about. The dangerous kind. In my secret heart I cared and I had claimed her."
The scene is practically sterile, and they can't identify the girl. The only clues they have are the fact that her body was washed in an industrial strength cleaner and a partial license plate number embossed into the skin on her hip. They get a listing of all California plates with that partial number, over a thousand. They narrow the list down to 36 men with criminal records. To narrow the list further Harry takes the list to Special Agent Terry McCaleb, the resident profiler in the L.A. FBI office. Between them, they narrow the list to two suspects. They catch the guy, but are they in time to prevent another murder?
The story runs on two time tracks: the present, when the man convicted of the crime is about to be executed, and the past, the time the case occurred. Mr. Connelly handles the transitions (10, but who's counting) well. I never got lost.
They never identified the girl, a fact that has haunted Harry for all those years. Because he didn't know her name, he called her Cielo Azul. In the present Harry tries to get the killer to tell him the name of the Little Girl Lost. Harry and, it turns out, Terry both think it is important.
The story printed in this volume is a little different than the original with some additions emphasizing the "dangerous women" part that, in this case, has an unconventional meaning. Actually I think this version is a little better. I felt that the revised story brought out Harry's emotional connection to the victim more strongly.
In short, a terrific story.
"The Bog" By Loren D. Estleman, Wild Crimes Edited by Dana Stabenow, Signet Books, $6.99, Mass Market Paperback
The main character of this standalone story believes firmly in the old adage that revenge is a dish best served cold. He is, from all indications, a fairly successful writer of mysteries, one of those guys who can't stop talking about the ideas they have. That very characteristic has brought him to murder.
He spoke about one of his pet ideas in the presence of a hack writer named Hufnagle who then took the idea and wrote a book based on it. The book had a brief run then vanished into obscurity. The narrator (yes, it's first person, that POV that serious writers never use) now considers the idea to be ruined and unusable. He decides to kill the cockroach, Hufnagle.
But, being a mystery writer and familiar with the ways of cops and criminals, he knows that he has to be clever and careful about the means and method. So he bides his time for five years, in the meantime befriending the rat, Hufnagle, and including him in his inner circle of friends.
Finally he determines that the time is right. He invites the parasite, Hufnagle, to his house in the country and kills him with strychnine disguised as cocaine. Now comes the cleverest part of the plan: disposing of the body. And it is clever, very likely clever enough to make this the perfect crime. Given the title of the story I don't feel like I'm giving anything away by telling you it involves an ancient bog. The particular use of that bog is the clever part, so I won't give that away. Unfortunately for our narrator there seems to be no such thing as an original idea.
My only quibble is that the final scene, the one that delivers the twist, felt contrived. I believe that the scene would have been better had it occurred 24 hours (story time) later than it did, becoming a confrontation rather than a conversation. Read the story, you'll know what I mean.
In short, I liked it.
"The Agreement" by J. A. Kornrath, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 2005
J. A. Kornrath is the author of the Lieutenant Jack Daniels series (this story, a novella, and the novel, Whiskey Sour, with a second, Bloody Mary, in the works), but this tale doesn't star the lovely Lt. Daniels.
This story features degenerate gamblers and mobsters. The degenerate gambler, Hutson by name, in the way of all such people, doesn't know when to quit. The next turn of the card will fix everything, though it never does. True to form, Hutson loses the hand to the mobster, Little Louie, and can't pay up. Little Louie always makes an agreement with the people he gambles with: pay up within one hour or get hurt in proportion to the amount of money you owe. Hutson now owes Little Louie $30,000. How much hurt is that going to be?
Hutson, so afraid of the consequences, throws up on the card table when he loses the hand. He calls everyone he can think of to get the money. No one will help him, not even his mother. He begs Little Louie to let him do something, anything, that will allow him to avoid being beaten by Louie's two thugs. After a moment's thought, Louie proposes a new agreement that Hutson embraces, however reluctantly.
Kornrath does a bang up job of making the reader feel the fear and pain poor Hutson endures. It is excruciating, even sickening. So much so I skimmed the descriptions the first time through. I had to make myself go back and reread the last few pages of the story to get the full impact. I'm actually rather surprised that AHMM published this story in spite of the violence. It certainly is worth publishing.
In short, an ugly, nasty, horrible story. I mean that in the best way possible. Go read it.