Saturday, March 19, 2005

Mr. Gray's Folly by John Connolly

“Mr. Gray’s Folly” by John Connolly, Dangerous Women Edited by Otto Penzler, Mysterious Press, Trade Paperback, $13.95

This story takes place in England. At least I think it’s England. An apparently well-to-do man and his wife, Edgar and Eleanor Merriman, have purchased an estate, Norton Hall, in the countryside. It’s a beautiful place, late Eighteenth Century construction, sculptured gardens and fifty acres of land. Unfortunately there is a structure on the grounds, a folly (I assume that to be something along the lines of a gazebo), which is horrendously ugly. It also produces a feeling of unease in those who linger in its vicinity. A previous owner, Mr. J. F. Gray, had it constructed as a memorial to his wife.

Norton Hall has an unsavory history. The prior owner, Mr. Ellis, committed suicide after his wife disappeared. Speculation abounds about where Mrs. Ellis went, if, indeed, she went anywhere.

Almost from the first day, Eleanor Merriman has wanted the folly demolished. Edgar is inclined to agree, but just can’t seem to bring himself to have it done. One day while sitting in the folly Edgar sees a man come out of the woods. He stands a distance away and speaks. Edgar can’t hear him, but he knows what he is saying: “Let the folly be.”

Meanwhile Edgar notices a change in Eleanor. She seems to be losing weight to the point of gauntness.

Later Edgar finds a handwritten journal in the library, “A Middle-Eastern Journey by J. F. Gray.” In it Gray tells of a trip to Syria during which he found and stole a reliquary containing the bones of Lilith, Adam’s first wife. Lilith was reputed to be a demon, the symbol of the male fear of ultimate female power. The journal goes on to tell about his wife’s decline in health and the reliquary’s role in her ultimate demise. Eleanor is showing the same symptoms as Mrs. Gray.

Mr. Connolly has given his inclination toward the supernatural full rein with this story. It’s a bit formulaic. In fact I could see this story as part of the H. P. Lovecraft canon. But it is well written and kept my interest.

In short, a fun story.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Her Lord and Master by Andrew Klavan

“Her Lord and Master” by Andrew Klavan, Dangerous Women Edited by Otto Penzler, Mysterious Press, Trade Paperback, $13.95

The friend of a man who gets involved with a dangerous woman tells this story. Jim starts seeing Susan, a little inter-office romance. Susan likes it rough and that disturbs Jim a little. He talks to his friend who tells him to relax and enjoy. He’s getting a rare treat.

As Jim and Susan become more intimate, more comfortable with each other, Susan asks him to get rougher, spanking her with a wooden spoon, and worse. Susan always scripts their encounters. Jim keeps his friend up to date on their love life.

Then one day Susan kills Jim with a kitchen knife. Since Susan’s body is pretty well covered in bruises of various types and ages, the police and the public begin to make Jim out as the bad guy. Jim’s friend doesn’t like that and makes an appointment to talk to the police about what Jim told him. But before he can do that, he gets a visit from Susan. She’s smart; she’s seductive; she’s manipulative. Will he actually go to the police?

That’s pretty much the plot. Not much there, but the attraction of this story lies more in the telling than in what is told. This is the first time I’ve read anything by Klavan. I really like the conversational tone he used and the way he toys with the language.

In short, this won’t be the last thing by Andrew Klavan I read.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

What She Offered by Thomas H. Cook

“What She Offered” by Thomas H. Cook, Dangerous Women Edited by Otto Penzler, Mysterious Press, Trade Paperback, $13.95

The main character in this offering is a moderately successful writer of noir fiction. The story opens with him living his normal life, confusing that with the lives his characters live. He mopes through the New York bar scene sure that he knows things that the people around him, loving, fighting, working through their lives, don’t.

He tells this story to a friend of his, how he met a dangerous woman. This woman came into the bar he frequents dressed elegantly all in black unrelieved except for a simple string of pearls. He notices her, and she him. She sends him a note: “I know what you know about life.”

This starts a short exchange of note-writing that ends with them talking. She knows who he is, has read his books. She wants to commit suicide, thinks it is the only thing to do for people that feel as she does, and as she believes he does. But she doesn’t want to do it alone. She wants him to fall in love with her. There isn’t time to do it the old-fashioned way, so she wants to skip the courtship and start with a roll in the hay. He is intrigued, so he goes home with her.

There he learns about her husband, as plain as she is beautiful. He has been dead three years, and was the love of her life. He suffered greatly from cancer, so greatly that ultimately she euthanized him with a pillow. Now it’s time to end her suffering.

They have sex, and she goes to get the pills. They continue to talk, and she tells him a truth that changes his whole view of his life, what he thought he knew better than everyone else in the world.

The story is well worth reading in spite of one quibble I have. When they arrive at her apartment, they have a drink then get undressed and get into bed. Remember, this is a very beautiful woman. They get into bed, naked, and lie there talking for a while before they begin doing what they got in bed to do. I’m sorry, but, speaking as a guy, there would have been no talking before the sex. Think about it. Here is a guy that has been lured to a beautiful stranger’s apartment for the express purpose of having sex and, incidentally, committing suicide, though he really doesn’t believe that part. He’s been drinking all evening, though not heavily, he had another drink at her apartment, and they have just undressed in front of each other and climbed into bed. There would have been NO TALKING!

In short, in spite of that one quibble, a good story.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Shred Of Evidence Readers' Choice Award

The 2004 Readers' Choice Award have been announced by Megan Powell over at Shred Of Evidence. This award means a lot because it is the readers that make the choice.

1st Place (tie): "Game On" by Iain Rowan
1st Place (tie): "Officer Down" by Stephen D. Rogers
3rd Place (tie): "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Murder" by Tim Wohlforth
3rd Place (tie): "A Little Trouble" by Gerald So
3rd Place (tie): "Seductive Barry" by Ray Banks

Congratulations to all the winners. And congratulations to Megan Powell for having one of the best ezines on the web.

Rendezvous by Nelson DeMille

“Rendezvous” by Nelson DeMille, Dangerous Women Edited by Otto Penzler, Mysterious Press, Trade Paperback, $13.95

I’ve always enjoyed Nelson DeMille’s books, so I couldn’t wait to read this story. According to Penzler this is his first short story in 25 years.

The place is Vietnam, not long before we pulled out. The main character is an American infantry lieutenant on the last mission of his tour leading a ten-man Lurp (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol). These guys spend two weeks out in Indian Country sneaky-footing it around counting enemy noses, hopefully without being seen or heard.

About ten days into the mission they come across an area that had been hit by a napalm strike. The place is littered with incinerated vehicles and crispy critters, human remains. They are supposed to count the vehicles and bodies. The problem is, the napalm strike destroyed all the cover; they are exposed. Suddenly both radiomen go down, without a sound. Sniper! Snipers are particularly nasty, because you never know where they are or who’s going to be the next target.

Both radios are destroyed. One round each took out the radios and severed the spines of the men carrying them. The lieutenant is puzzled because snipers usually like to take out the leadership first. Snipers also like to play mind games with their targets.

Now the patrol has no way to contact their command, so the lieutenant decides to make for one of the pickup points, Rendezvous Alpha, prearranged for just such an eventuality. Alpha is three days away from their present position. Along the way the sniper keeps knocking off two men at a time. The lieutenant gets a glimpse of this sniper on two occasions. It’s a young woman.

She keeps whittling away at the team until there is just the lieutenant and a sergeant left as they approach Rendezvous Alpha. The lieutenant thinks she is going to let one of them live to go back and tell the story. More mind games. But he doesn’t know which one. Then the choppers show up. It looks like they might both get out after all. Or not.

For a man that hasn’t written a short story in 25 years, DeMille does a terrific job. Characterization and description are bang on. The two scenes where the lieutenant is able to see the sniper are not to be missed.

In short, exciting.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The P&G Ivory Cut-Whiskey Massacree by Craig Holden

“The P&G Ivory Cut-Whiskey Massacree” By Craig Holden, Murder and All That Jazz, Robert J. Randisi, ed., Signet Books, $6.99, Mass Market Paperback.

In his introduction Randisi mentions that this story was cut from a novel called the Jazz Bird and was based on actual events in 1927 Cincinnati. That’s unfortunate.

The story is about a gang war between a bunch run by a man named Remus (We never get to know his first name. Probably have to read the book.), and another gang led by Fat Wrassman over a bootlegging operation. The Wrassman gang tries to wipe out the Remus operation one night, but gets surprised and shot up pretty bad.

Remus’ lieutenant, Jew John Marcus, starts trying to find out what’s going on by torturing the guy that was supposed to be on guard when the Wrassman bunch attacked. The story is that Al Capone is trying to muscle his way into the Cincinnati bootlegging scene by tying up with Wrassman. Remus takes this as a personal insult and tells Jew John to put a stop to it. On a lucky drive through the city, Jew John sees a car full of Wrassman men and follows it to a speakeasy where they’ve been laying low.

All he’s got on him is a .32 pocket pistol, so he goes to a hardware store and buys a deer rifle. He returns to the speak and shoots the place up killing five men. When asked how he intends to get rid of the bodies, Marcus comes up with an inventive way.

Earlier I said it was unfortunate that the story was based on true events and taken from a novel. By that I meant that we get very little background and no character development. That’s always a danger when you take a story from a chapter of a novel or base a story on historical events. In this case Mr. Holden did both. Because he took the viewpoint of Jew John Marcus, a participant, the story is moderately more interesting than reading a historical account. But not much.

In short, maybe the book is better.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Why Read Short Stories?

First there is the obvious. They are short. They don’t take a lot of time to read, and, for me, they are perfect for work breaks and lunch.

Most of us, when we read fiction, read to be entertained. We want something that will take us away from the daily grind, something different. But, to be honest, for me entertainment is only part of it. The bigger part, I think, is getting to feel something.

The majority of what I read, even the stories that I enjoy, is not memorable. These are the stories by the good journeyman writers, the people that have command of the English language and the structure of the short story. I enjoy those stories; they entertain me. But they don’t stay with me more than a few days.

It’s the stories that stay with me that keep me reading short fiction. Some stories evoke a sense of “how’d they do that?” Candace Wiggins’ “
Nice Tie” and Ray Banks’ “Seductive Barry” will stay with me for a long time.

Other stories evoke strong emotion. Write a story that makes me laugh, cry, or share the anger of a character, and those will become part of my life. Steve Hockensmith’s “Red Christmas” made me laugh out loud. I’ll remember that as I will the two elves, Hank and Frank, AKA Ribbons and Bows. Dave White’s “
God’s Dice” brought tears to my eyes (for the right reasons). Those are the stories that stay with me.

In every case it’s the characters that make stories memorable to me. You can’t make people feel emotion unless you can make them care about your characters.

Of course novelists can do the same thing. The difference, I think, is that in a novel the sheer weight of everything else that has to happen to fill out 80,000 to 120,000 words dilutes the impact of the emotional moments. In a short story you don’t have all that chaff. The emotion takes center stage.

You have to read a lot to come across these gems. But, in the end, it’s worth it.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties. Please Stand By.

I hate Windows 98SE!

Unfortunately my primary computer is a Toshiba laptop with 192 MB RAM, a 6-gig hard drive, running (wait for it!) Windows 98SE. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get The Blue Screen of Death and have to restart, often two or three times. It has become one of those things I live with – like chronic pain.

Yesterday I did a stupid thing. I downloaded one of those updates MS is always telling you is essential to the security and well-being of your computer and, thus, your life. After installing it I shut the computer down to have breakfast. When I got back to it an hour or so later, it wouldn’t start. It would do one of three things: give me The Blue Screen of Death; give me an attractive blank screen that faded from almost black in the upper right corner to a light gray in the lower left corner; or give me my normal desktop only in a two-by-two tiled array with a strip of rainbow colors between the upper row and the lower row. In each case I had to turn the computer off.

I had no clue as to what was going on. (Yeah, yeah. I know. I was having one of my dense days.) I have been expecting this computer to crash beyond resurrection for some time now, so I figured this was it. Then I discovered I could start it in Safe Mode. Cool! I could plug in my thumb drive, download all my newest files, reformat the hard drive and reinstall Windows.

Those of you more familiar with the inner workings of Windows than I might have already known that while operating in Safe Mode the USB ports do not work. Thus I could not, in one easy, quick operation, dump my files to the thumb drive.

Fine.

My computer doesn’t have a CD writer, so I’ll zip my files to the floppy. Thirty-some-odd floppies later, I’m as done as I have the patience to be. Now I slip my Windows 98SE CD into the computer preparatory to reformatting the hard drive. Guess what? In Safe Mode the CD drive doesn’t work either!

Now what?

Nursing a hypertensive headache I decide to make some popcorn and watch “Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon” with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. This is part of a 10-movie set that I got at Best Buy for about fourteen bucks. Well worth the money.

I suppose watching The Great Detective at work influenced me. When I returned to the computer, I remembered the old saw, “When your computer doesn’t work after installing new software, the most common cause is the new software.” Blinding insight! All I had to do was uninstall those nasty Windows updates. But how?

I knew it couldn’t be as simple as going into Control Panel and clicking on Add/Remove Software, but what the hell. I gave it a try. Lo and behold, there they were! Those insidious updates were listed plain as could be in the software roster. Quick as a bunny I uninstalled those suckers and rebooted. On the second reboot I knew things were back to normal. On the third reboot everything came up and worked. Hallelujah!

At that point I wanted nothing more to do with computers for the rest of the day.

I hate Windows 98SE.