Saturday, February 26, 2005

Ease of Use and Other Things

this is an audio post - click to play

Coming Soon

Theoretically there's an audioblog out there in the ether somewhere that will eventually post here. I hope it didn't disappear somewhere, there was some really good stuff on it. [Ed. Yeah, right. You just don't want to have to rerecord it.]

Friday, February 25, 2005

Death by Hair Product by Misty Simon

“Death by Hair Product” by Misty Simon, Crimson Dagger, February 2005

This story surprised me, pleasantly. I’ll admit to being a little put off by the title, but I was determined to give the story a fair reading. I’m glad I did.

The main character, Bernie (Bernice?) Styles, works as a “nail technician” in a beauty shop owned by Pam. Pam is late for work, something she never is. She is so late that Bernie decides to call her on the “never call me at this number” cell phone. She hears the cell phone ringing somewhere in the shop. Tracking the sound to a locked closet she opens the door. Pam’s body falls out.

Not long after the police leave, Bernie gets a call from a man named Tony who says he is part owner of the shop. He wants to meet with her. Bernie is very suspicious. Pam was so possessive of the shop that Bernie can’t believe she had a co-owner. She meets with Tony anyway because she needs the job. Tony wants her to continue to run the shop at a substantial increase in salary. Needing the money she agrees.

Increasingly suspicious after discovering that the shop is taking in more money than it should be, Bernie finds papers that Pam had hidden. Included is evidence that Tony was laundering money through the shop and that Pam was working with the IRS. Also included was Pam’s will leaving the shop to Bernie. Now Bernie has to figure out a way to turn Tony over to the Feds without suffering the same fate as her erstwhile boss.

This is a very well written, well-plotted story. Ms. Simon did an exceptional job with Bernie. Here we have another person that has to behave in accordance with their innate character rather than as we would want them to behave. In this case, Bernie has a big mouth, and she knows it. She also knows it is a fault that she should do something about, but she can’t. She is compelled to say things she shouldn’t. I liked Bernie a lot.

In short, well done, Ms. Simon.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Soup Noir by Robin Hathaway

“Soup Noir” by Robin Hathaway, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2005

I can’t for the life of me understand why EQMM published this story. Don’t get me wrong; the writing itself is fine, smooth and easy to read. It’s the plot, if one can call it that. This story is the equivalent of the science fiction story where people land on some benighted planet and, after sufficient travail, most of it contrived, discover that they are on Earth. Science fiction magazines stopped publishing stories like that 30 years ago. In fact they now specifically prohibit that type of story in their guidelines. Would that EQMM had done so.

The story begins with a woman doing her grocery shopping. She is looking for a particular brand of soup (Campbells) which she describes by the colors on the label. Only she discovers that she can’t see any colors. Everything is in black-and-white. Throughout the story we are reminded that she is a fan of the old noir films. She discovers that she isn’t the only one seeing in black-and-white. Everyone else is too, only they don’t think it is strange.

The story progresses, sort of, with no crime and apparently no potential for crime until the final two paragraphs. Whereupon we are given the mystery (?) equivalent to the science fiction stories described above.

I know the author was just having a little fun, but some kinds of fun should be kept private.

In short, EQMM, please revise your guidelines.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Sneeze for Danger by Val McDermid

“Sneeze for Danger” by Val McDermid, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2005

The story opens with a police stakeout of a major drug dealer’s apartment. It seem, this guy, Greg Thomas, knows what the Drug Squad is going to do before they do. The logical conclusion is that the Drug Squad has a mole. So the British equivalent of Internal Affairs, popularly called the Scaffies, is called in.

In addition to listening to what goes on in Thomas’ apartment, they also had video surveillance until Thomas plopped a large vase of lilies down in front of the camera. One early morning during the surveillance, Chrissie and his/her partner, Dennis, see a drunk enter the apartment building. It’s cold outside so he is bundled up and unrecognizable. A little while later there is a prolonged bout of sneezing from Thomas’ apartment. The Scaffies don’t think anything more of it until the next morning when the day team, suspicious that Thomas isn’t up and about, discovers him dead in bed with his throat cut.

This puts Chrissie and his/her partner on the spot. How could they let the man get killed while they were supposed to be watching him? After visiting the apartment the next morning, Chrissie has an idea about how to discover the identity of the killer, who he/she believes is a cop, a cop intimately involved with the investigation. Chrissie makes arrangements for a delivery to be made to the squad room during an upcoming meeting. Chrissie is sure that this delivery will cause the mole to expose himself, which it does, but it’s not who Chrissie expects.

This is a well written, well plotted, easy to read story, which is only to be expected from Val McDermid.

In short, Chrissie is smarter than the average bear.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The Eighth Deadly Sin by Charles Schaeffer

“The Eighth Deadly Sin” by Charles Schaeffer, Crimson Dagger, February 2005

This is a classic detective story in the vein of Ellery Queen featuring Lieutenant Plato Carros. Carros is getting ready to leave on a vacation to Greece when the Director of the local Natural History Museum is killed.

The Director was found dead in his office chair. Blood indicated that he had been stabbed in front of the desk then made his way back to his chair. There was also blood found behind his chair.

The story proceeds in classic fashion with Carros questioning all the suspects and finding out that all of the suspects had stepped in the blood, that there were two different types of blood on the floor, and that one of the suspects had a strong motive of professional jealousy. He also discovers that the stab wound wasn’t fatal. The Director was asphyxiated. Once Carros discovers that, he finds a sofa cushion that has been turned over. The cushion has a small bloodstain on what used to be the upper side.

In typical Ellery Queen style, Carros assembles all of the suspects, seven of them, at the scene of the crime, as he “proves” who did the deed. The fact that the evidence is no more than circumstantial has no bearing as it’s exposure brings the murderer to confess in front of everyone. Whatever happened to “Keep quiet until your lawyer shows up”?

I’m not a fan of this type of story, but Mr. Schaeffer seemed to handle it well. The investigation progressed logically with various clues and red herrings being exposed gradually along the way. One clue establishing the murderer’s presence in the murder room was left fairly, but the clue that clenched the murderer’s identity was not revealed until the final scene. There was no way the reader could have determined the identity of the murderer.

The next to last paragraph of the story should have been left out. It is the one discordant note in an otherwise skillfully written story. It was as if Mr. Schaeffer had gotten to the end of the story and thought “Oh, damn! I forgot about the sofa cushion.” Then he threw in this paragraph with a glaring logical inconsistency. The clue had been explained sufficiently before and didn’t need explaining again.

In short, not bad if you like this sort of thing.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Material Witness by Mark Agee

"Material Witness" by Mark Agee, Shred of Evidence, February 2005

This story takes place a few weeks after 9/11. The main character, Forrest Warner, is an ex-FBI agent who left the Bureau under a cloud and now works for a tabloid-type TV show called Certain Justice.

As the story opens, Warner feels as if he is being watched. Turns out he is correct. He is pulled in by an FBI surveillance team lead by Special Agent Bill Elgin, an old enemy. Warner was pulled in as a material witness on the orders of Assistant Special Agent In Charge Susan Reddington. She is running an operation to capture a man named Tony Abouzeki. Tony is supposed to have connections through his brother, a physician in Lebanon, to Hezboullah. Tony said he would turn himself in but only if Warner was there. While Warner was still with the FBI he had busted Tony for wire fraud, and has had dealings with him while with Certain Justice.

Warner agrees to help, but is still suspicious. The Bureau's Office of Professional Responsibility has been trying to get him on something for years. Also he doesn't trust Elgin or Reddington. He keeps trying to figure out the real reason they came to him and how he can stay out of their clutches.

This is a longish story, and it needs to be with all the crossing and double-crossing and suspicion. Warner's suspicions and the Byzantine plans to bring in Abouzeki keep the suspense high. There's a good shoot-em-up conclusion and a final-act revelation that Warner's been part of an operation that he didn't even know about.

The story is well-written and kept my interest up throughout the long build-up.

In short, I'm keeping an eye out for Mr. Agee's next story.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Family Business by Sybil A. Johnson

“Family Business” by Sybil A. Johnson, Crimson Dagger, February 2005

This is a cozy tale of greed, pride and long-hidden secrets.

The story opens with the aftermath of a fire in retail store in a small town. The owners, a married couple, are on vacation leaving their daughter, Rory (short for Aurora), in charge. Almost immediately we are introduced to a rabid chief of police, Chief Marshall, that is bound and determined to hang a charge of arson on Rory. Rory can’t understand why anyone would think she would burn down her parents’ store. Chet Carlson, a Councilman, comes on-scene and runs interference for Rory.

Rory knows she was adopted but knows nothing about her birth parents. An article about the fire in the paper that almost accuses her of arson talks about another string of arsons when Rory was two. She goes to the library and researches those earlier fires, finding out that her birth parents who died in one of those fires were accused of the arson. The police chief’s wife and toddler daughter were also killed in one of the fires.

The police chief, still foaming at the mouth, arrests Rory. Out on bail, Rory is attacked while cleaning up the store. She marks her attacker, but is knocked unconscious. When she comes to in the midst of another fire, Mad Dog Marshall is there ready to slap the darbies on her again. She has to find a way to clear herself and prove the identity of the real arsonist.

With the exception of the over-the-top reactions of Mad Dog Marshall, the first three-quarters of this story is well written. The last section reads like Ms. Johnson noticed she was reaching the length limit and had to short shrift chains of events that should have been played out at greater length.

Other than that I have two major quibbles with the story. The first is that people in this day and age would believe that a tendency to commit arson would be an inheritable trait. This story takes place in a small town, not a school for the mentally challenged. I grew up in a small town, and even back in the ‘50s and ‘60s no one I knew would have believed that.

The other major quibble is that the final actions of the real arsonist were not adequately set up in the body of the story. There was a hint early on about bad feelings between the villain and Rory’s current family, but that wasn’t enough to make the final scene believable.

In short, quick out of the gate, but faltered in the stretch.