Friday, April 15, 2005

Home by Eddie Newton

“Home” by Eddie Newton, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May 2005

This story appeared under the Department of First Stories banner. As such it is a pretty good story, though it does have its faults.

Three people, Marion, Mabel, and Dell are holed up inside a house that obviously isn’t theirs. They are hiding in the house, because the radio says that some desperate and dangerous convicts have escaped and are thought to be in their neighborhood. One of the convicts used to live in that very neighborhood. The radio is advising everyone to stay in their houses behind locked doors.

Mable is crying and Dell is impatient. Marion wanders through the house remembering. Everything he looks at brings back impressions and memories. He knows the house and the people who used to live there. Marion also worries about “them” and how the locks on this suburban house wouldn’t keep out anyone determined to get in.

The story goes on in this vein in an almost stream of consciousness river about to overflow its banks. That’s fine technique and can be effective if it’s used in short pieces. Unfortunately the entire story is written this way. Because of that the story is too long. I would have been much more effective if it had been about half the length. That would also give the reader less time to figure out what’s going on before the ending. It didn’t take me long to suss out what was what.

All that said, the story is well written and the ending is effective. As you reach the final paragraphs you can see that there are two ways the story can end. Mr. Newton is able to introduce enough suspense about which way the story will go that the ending has at least a little emotional impact.

In short, a good first effort.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Forget About Me by William Bankier

“Forget About Me” by William Bankier, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May 2005

A cop, Detective Darren Conway, and his friend, Lucy, attend the showing of a Woody Allen movie. The theater is crowded, and by the time the movie is about to start parties are breaking up because most of the seats left open are singles. One of those open seats is next to Conway. A woman comes by and leaves her jacket in the empty seat, then goes to have a word with her friend before the movie starts. She never comes back.

Conway can’t get the woman out of his mind. He and Lucy wait for her to return for her jacket until after all the other patrons have gone. They turn the jacket in to the theater manager, Lyle, and Conway leaves his card.

Later Conway gets a call from a man called Oswald. He tells Conway that Serena is fine. He won’t let Conway talk to her.

Conway goes back to Lyle and gets a description of the man who picked up the jacket. The name Oswald and the fact that he was wearing a college athletic jacket with the number, 86, on it allow him to find out Oswald’s full name and that he lives in Venice. Conway and Lucy go there and sits at an outdoor café watching the people, hoping to seen Oswald. Before long, Lyle and Oswald come up to the table. Oswald offers to go get Serena, who is staying with him just a couple of blocks away. When Oswald returns, a woman wearing the right jacket accompanies him. Oswald maneuvers her so that the sun is behind her. She thanks Conway for returning the jacket and leaves. Conway is sure that she is not the same woman.

When Conway and Lucy get home, there is a message on his answering machine. It is Serena, Conway recognizes her voice, saying that Conway should leave her alone.

A few weeks later Conway catches a homicide at the theater where he met Serena. Lyle, the manager, is dead. Conway finds Oswald’s address in Lyle’s day planner and, with his partner, pays him a visit. They arrive just as Oswald is about to drive off towing a U-Haul trailer. Asked about Serena, Oswald says she is upstairs. Conway goes up to finally meet this woman he has been obsessing about for weeks.

The story is well-written and kept my interest, but there was just something unsatisfying about it. The ending just doesn’t read true. I suppose that there wasn’t enough build-up given to support Conway’s condition at the end.

In short, a workmanlike story that is ultimately unsatisfying.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Walkie-Talkie by Michael Mallory

“Walkie-Talkie” by Michael Mallory, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May 2005

This story had my blood boiling.

Jeff McKee, his wife, Dinah Purdue, and their five-year-old son, Gage are going on a trip. Jeff and Dinah are actors. Jeff is the more famous of the two having played Jack Ryan, the hero of several Tom Clancy novels, in a movie. Dinah’s fame has faded in the last few years since she took time off for being a mother. The disparity in recognition has begun to rankle, not obviously, but Jeff had noticed and increasing number of little things that tell him his wife is not happy. He tries to compensate by disparaging his own achievements, a strategy that doesn’t work as well as it used to.

Dinah has insisted they bring along a couple of Power Ranger walkie-talkies in case they get separated in the airport. She has one and Jeff has the other.

While waiting to board their plane Jeff takes Gage to the bathroom. Gage insists that he doesn’t need to go, but Jeff does. Jeff goes into a stall and tells Gage to stay just outside giving him the walkie-talkie to play with. They talk back and forth for a bit, but then it gets quiet. Jeff becomes concerned and comes out to discover that Gage is nowhere to be found.

Jeff goes to find Dinah hoping that Gage got impatient and returned to his mother. Dinah hasn’t seen him. They try to call him on the walkie-talkie, but at first get no response. Then a few minutes later they hear an adult voice on the radio saying that he has Gage and he wants to see “if the great Jack Ryan can solve the mystery.”

As the story progresses Mr. Mallory shows us that Jeff has a violent temper, one that plays a big part in the ending. He also shows us the progression of events that cause Jeff’s fear for his son’s safety, his guilt and his rage to build to the breaking point. Everything is logical in within character. Mr. Mallory had me identifying so strongly with Jeff that with the penultimate twist I was getting angry myself. I’m a very even-tempered, laid-back sort of fellow. Any writer that can make me angry in sympathy with his character is doing one hell of a job.

In short, one of the best stories Ellery Queen has published in the last year.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

White Tea by G. Miki Hayden

"White Tea" by G. Miki Hayden, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May 2005

This story is about two women in similar circumstances but on opposite sides of the Earth. The time period is apparently the late 1920s or early 1930s. The Communists have not yet taken China, and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter has lost the Sacco and Vanzetti case.

In China a young girl is sold to her uncle to work on his tea plantation. She grows up and becomes the best tea grader her uncle has. Along the way she has fallen in love with another worker on the plantation. Her dreams of marriage to this young man are dashed when her uncle informs her that she is to be married to another older man of his choosing. She is desperate to avoid marrying this man, so she plots to murder her uncle. Knowing that he always chooses the choicest grade of tea for his own use, she poisons a fresh package of tea that she intends to bring to him.

In America there lives another woman, no longer so young. Anne has spent the best part of her life caring for her own uncle who was once an importer. Uncle Wilbur dies suddenly one night, and Anne's life changes forever. As the old man's sole heir, Anne can taste the first hints of the freedom that awaits her. A freedom she's never known.

But then the doctor asks her some strange questions. The police arrive and take away all the food in the house. Anne can't imagine what is going on. Eventually the police arrest Anne for the murder of her uncle.

The lives of these two women intertwine, and Ms. Hayden does an exceptional job of telling their stories. Ms. Hayden illuminates the characters of the women effortlessly. In addition, the "voice" of each of the women is distinct though not obtrusively so. There is a discrete difference in tone between the Chinese setting and the American one, but the transition is not jarring.

In short, another feather in Ms. Hayden's cap.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Cherries of Lucullus by Steven Saylor

“The Cherries of Lucullus” By Steven Saylor, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May 2005

This story takes place in ancient Rome just before Cicero was elected Consul. The main character is Gordianus the Finder. Lucullus, famous general and epicurean, has asked his friend, Cicero, to bring Gordianus to dinner.

Lucullus was, and still is, famous for his elaborate and extravagant dinner parties, thus the origin of the phrase “Lucullan feast”. The dinner to which Gordianus is invited is to be one of the more elaborate ones. The guests are to be Lucullus’s wife, his brother Marcus, Cicero, Gordianus, and the three A’s, Antiocus, the Greek philosopher, Arcesislaus, the sculptor, and Archias, the poet.

Once dinner is over Lucullus takes his guests into his orchard where he has the only cherry trees in Rome. He brought those trees, along with many other exotic plants and flowers, back from his many military campaigns in the far corners of the empire. The cherries are just now ripe, and he invites his guests to help themselves.

While in the orchard, Lucullus tells Gordianus why he was invited. Lucullus believes that an old enemy of his, Varius, is currently masquerading as a slave tending the roses and biding his time before attempting to assassinate him. Lucullus had captured Varius and was bringing him back to Rome by sea for public execution. Varius escaped his chains and went over the side. He hasn’t been seen since. One of Varius’s distinguishing characteristics is the fact that he has only one eye, the left being missing. Motho the gardener has only one eye, only it’s his right eye that is missing. In spite of that fact, and in spite of the fact that Lucullus has had men who knew Varius tell him that Motho is just a slave gardener, Lucullus remains convinced that Motho is Varius. He wants Gordianus to confirm this.

In spite of the fact that I am not drawn to Ancient Rome as a setting for much of anything, I found this story to be engaging. Mr. Saylor is able to make the setting believable, injecting just enough detail about the culture and politics of the time without being obtrusive, a delicate balancing act. The writing is smooth, and he doesn’t try to “Latinize” the dialogue. I found myself genuinely interested in how Gordianus was going to prove or disprove Motho’s identity. The solution is one that I certainly didn’t expect, and one that ties the story back to a problem a segment of our current population has.

In short, an excellent story.