Friday, April 08, 2005

Everybody's Girl by Robert Barnard

“Everybody’s Girl” by Robert Barnard, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May 2005

Everyone has always loved Ruth Lowton, or so it seems.

Ruth is away at her first year in college, and her parents are worried. Her letters indicate that she is unhappy, not fitting in at college. The latest letter even hints at suicide. Her father drives to Leeds, where she attends college, while her mother stays at home in case she calls.

Meanwhile we meet the couple across the street, two people in an unhappy marriage of long standing. They too love Ruthie, each in their own way.

We also meet Ruthie’s high school history teacher, whom Ruthie tended to dominate. And there is a boy at school, a melancholy sort. Ruthie seemed quite attached to him. He certainly thought the world of her. There is also the guy across the hall at her flat who didn’t like her at all.

When her father reaches Leeds and begins looking for her, the police are fishing her body out of a river. Her father witnesses this and is devastated, thinking she has committed suicide as she hinted at in her letter. The police, on the other hand, know it to be murder. The back of her head is caved in.

As the police investigate, talking to more and more people who knew Ruthie, a very different personality from the loving, caring Ruthie comes out. Ruthie was a master manipulator, had been from an early age. Only those people she manipulated couldn’t see it. But there was one person among her intimates that knew about her manipulation and could stand it no longer. Mr. Barnard does an excellent job drawing her character through the recollections of the people who knew her.

This story is a textbook police procedural. We follow the detectives assigned to the case as they question people and put together a picture of Ruthie and her life. There isn’t a lot of emotional content in the story. You don’t spend enough time with any of the characters to become attached to them, but that is pretty typical of this type of story. The process is the star.

In short, a good story.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Shooting Big Ed by Loren D. Estleman

“Shooting Big Ed” by Loren D. Estleman, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May 2005

This is another installment in the Valentino series. Valentino is Estleman’s “Film Detective.” The main character works as a film preservationist for UCLA and lives in a Golden Age movie theater where he makes the projection booth his bedroom.

Valentino is summoned to East L.A. to the home of Ignacio Bozal. Bozal made a fortune as a hotelier on the Mexican Riviera. When he retired he bought a block of houses in East L.A., built a wall around it, and moved his entire extended family into it. He has an extensive film collection and credits his facility with English to ‘30s gangster films. Now at 94, Bozal wants to donate another film to UCLA for preservation.

Bozal shows Valentino a film called “Big Ed”. The film, never seen outside the studio, was made in 1931 and starred a first-timer called Van Oliver. His portrayal of a Capone-like gangster was called brilliant by the few who had seen the film. Oliver, a one-time gangster himself, disappeared after the film was finished. Speculation at the time, fueled by his background, had him sleeping with the fishes.

Because of Oliver’s disappearance, and the rumors attached to it, the studio never released the film, nearing driving Warner Brothers into bankruptcy. The Hayes Commission, run by the religious right, was about to ban gangster movies of the type exemplified by “Scarface” and “Public Enemy,” so with no star to have interviewed, a sordid background, and the shadow of the Hayes Commission looming, Warner Brothers put the film on the shelf.

Valentino discovers that the film is everything rumors have said and more, a brilliant acting job by Oliver. The UCLA PR flack wants Valentino to find out more about the backstory of the movie, so he starts researching. He finds one cast member still alive, Roy Fitzhugh, a character actor who worked well into the ‘50s. Fitzhugh is a victim of Alzheimer’s, but Valentino goes to see him anyway hoping to get the real story of Oliver’s disappearance. And he does.

I like the Valentino series almost as much as I like Estleman’s Amos Walker stories even though Valentino isn’t, by any means, hardboiled. Estleman still works his magic. Reflecting on the contrasts of the two series as I was reading this story I discovered that I identified with Valentino just as much as I identify with Walker, even though the Valentino stories are written in third person. I was a little surprised by that.

In short, a terrific story.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Cancer Cowboy Rides by John Connolly

“The Cancer Cowboy Rides” by John Connolly, Nocturnes - A Collection of Short Stories, Atria Books, Trade Paperback, $12.95

This novella is straight horror, mostly consisting of a subtle duel between the Easton, New Hampshire, chief of police, Jim Lopez and Buddy Carson.

Buddy woke up in the Nevada desert one day without any knowledge of who he was or how he got there. He did know that he was sick, badly ill. But not from dehydration and exposure. There was something inside him that made him cough up black blood. Soon he discovers, very graphically, that if he touches someone else they get sick and die quickly. Meanwhile his pain and sickness are alleviated.

Buddy travels around feeding the malevolent black worm inside him by infecting others. Until he hits Easton, he has never infected more than a couple of people in any one place, fearing discovery. Easton is a small town about to have a community gathering that will have most of the people in town in one place at one time. Buddy believes that if he can infect the whole town, his illness will go away for an extended period of time allowing him to take some time off and rest. Infecting people is hard work.

Chief Lopez notices Buddy early on and instinctively dislikes him. After Buddy leers at the Chief’s girlfriend, Lopez tells him to leave town. The rest of the story is a race to see who will triumph. How many people will Buddy kill, and can the chief stop him before Buddy gets the whole town?

This is a very graphic and disturbing story. Who among us doesn’t fear cancer? We call it “The Big C” in order to avoid naming it and thus take away some of it’s power. Mr. Connolly takes this very real fear and takes it to an extreme.

Along the way Mr. Connolly draws some very real characters. All of the major characters and even some of the minor ones feel real. At times he can even make you feel just the tiniest wave of sympathy for Buddy. After all he didn’t ask for this role in life.

The plot line is logical (at least as logical as a horror story can be), and he ratchets the suspense up throughout the story to an action-filled climax.

In short, if this story doesn’t creep you out, you’re not human.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Reflecting Eye by John Connolly

“The Reflecting Eye: A Charlie Parker Novella” by John Connolly, Nocturnes – A Collection of Short Stories, Atria Books, Trade Paperback, $12.95

Charlie Parker returns. This story takes place somewhat later than the last novel I read. Rachel, Charlie’s new love, is near giving birth to their first child. This impending event combined with the always-present feeling of loss for Charlie’s first wife and daughter permeate the entire story.

It begins in 1977 with the arrival in a small Maine town of John Grady. Grady buys a house and begins renovating it. The people of the town, at first welcoming, soon begin to avoid the house and Grady. The renovations are odd, mirrors on every wall, and the homemade paste Grady uses to put up the new wallpaper has a peculiar, and unpleasant, stench.

Soon children, little girls, begin to disappear. Ultimately these disappearances lead back to Grady. When the police break into his basement where he has just murdered another girl, Grady commits suicide.

Now, years later, the current owner of the Grady house, the father of the last girl to be killed, comes to Charlie with the suspicion that the killings might be about to begin again. Frank Matheson bought the house and locked it up with steel mesh gates across the windows and doors. He wanted it to continue to stand as a reminder of the terrible things that happened there so that those things might not happen again. The house has always attracted the ghoulish and disturbed, but now, on the steps of the house, he has found an envelope containing a photograph of a little girl. He wants to protect the girl, but has no way to know who she is. He has gone to the police, but they aren’t being proactive enough for him.

Charlie agrees to watch the house and try to find out who left the photo. During his investigations he runs across the Collector, a man who insists that he is owed a debt by John Grady and wants one of the mirrors from the house as payment. This is a very disturbing and dangerous man. There is also Ray Czabo, another collector that tries to obtain artifacts from the scenes of terrible tragedy to sell to others of his ilk. Charlie also comes afoul of an aging mob boss and his son. The son is now consorting with Ray Czabo’s wife.

Charlie’s friends Angel and Louis also make an appearance, but they are little more than set dressing in this story.

All of Connolly’s Charlie Parker stories have an element of the supernatural in them, and this one is no exception. Connolly handles the woo-woo factor well, making you feel that there is some basis in reality. This is a very creepy story.

In short, a fine addition to the annals of Charlie Parker.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Kaddish by Reed Farrel Coleman

Kaddish” by Reed Farrel Coleman, King of the Kill, Bleak House Books

How do you review a story like this? It’s a short-short, flash fiction I guess. I can’t say much about the events of the story without giving the whole thing away. I’ve never much cared for flash fiction. The stories are too short, and most of the ones I’ve read depend on some type of “trick”.

“Kaddish”, however, isn’t one of those. If I had to categorize it, I’d say it was a character study with a twist. I say that because Mr. Coleman spends as much time delineating the main character as I suspect he would have in a more conventional short story. And he does it well. The conversation between the main character and Starker Mench in the second half of the story reveals almost as much about the main character as the first half does.

By the way, until I started reviewing stories I never thought much about the main character not being named. Often enough it didn’t really matter, and sometimes it added a sense of mystery to the story. But as a reviewer it’s a real pain in the ass! I’m always referring to “The Main Character.” How awkward is that? How do you make that read smoothly? I can’t even call them ‘Nameless’ for fear of confusing them with Bill Pronzini’s PI. Oh, well. The reviewer’s lot is a hard one. Rant over.

The ending is a little bit open-ended for my taste. Not in the ultimate outcome for the two characters, but in the relationship between them. I would have preferred just a bit more information.

In short, in spite of its length, I liked it.