Friday, April 22, 2005

What's in a Name by Robert Wm. Wagner

What’s in a Name” by Robert Wm. Wagner, Hardluck Stories, Spring 2005

The story begins with Angela assessing her body and reflecting on her romantic prospects – or lack of them.

Angela is a loan officer in a bank frequented by a man the ladies call Gallahad. Angela lusts after him, but hasn’t the courage to make contact. Today is the day Gallahad comes in to deposit his check. In a conversation with Clara, one of the tellers, Charlie Gallahan reveals that he is attracted to Angela but is reluctant to approach her.

As Gallahan is leaving, two robbers enter the bank and kill the guard. Gallahan pulls a pistol and shoots one of the robbers. Gallahan is a cop, but we aren’t told that. It is a conclusion we draw because of a couple of short phrases buried in the story. A nice touch.

Before Gallahan can shift his aim to the other robber, he pulls out a sawed-off shotgun and shoots Gallahan taking out a good portion of his thigh and nicking the femoral artery.

What Angela does next takes her well beyond the normal role of loan officer.

Mr. Wagner does an outstanding job of writing female characters. Not once did I get kicked out of the story by a false note. Angela is, of course, particularly well drawn, but so was Clara, the teller.

I was also pleased by the way Mr. Wagner built my empathy with Angela so that the end of the story there was an emotional connection.

In short, good storytelling.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Inside Man by Gary Lovisi

The Inside Man” by Gary Lovisi, Hardluck Stories, Spring 2005

Johnny is the inside man for a team of career bank robbers. He gets a job at a bank, works there for a few weeks to learn the routine and the security codes and then his partners rob the bank while he cowers on the floor with the rest of the bank’s staff and customers.

Johnny’s gang of several years standing consists of himself, Jackie/Jack, “as butch a lez as one could get,” and her mountainous and mentally challenged brother, Deke. Left to himself Deke isn’t much of a threat to anyone, but he does what Jackie/Jack tells him without question.

This time Johnny has been working at the bank for a couple of months, longer than his usual tenure. Soon after he joined the bank he began a romantic entanglement with Janet Egan, the branch manager. He learned that the bank was due for a large infusion of cash, a million dollars in small bills. He and Jackie/Jack decided to wait until the cash arrived before pulling the robbery.

Unfortunately during the down time a woman with the improbable name of Flouncy attached herself to Deke. Deke wasn’t the only member of the gang to be attracted to Flouncy. In fact there wasn’t a single member of the team that wasn’t attracted to her. And Flouncy seemed quite happy with the way things were going.

Johnny, however, was not. Just before the day of the robbery, he convinced the rest of the gang to relocate their base of operations without telling Flouncy. She was out of their hair, and the team was working. Or so he thought.

On the day of the robbery, instead of an invasion of two masked and armed robbers, there was an invasion of three masked and armed robbers. Flouncy was back. And things went downhill from there with a couple of twists on the way.

This is a good story with a lot of suspense. Mr. Lovisi builds tension, then relaxes it, then builds it again to a higher peak. There is a series of these peaks and valleys throughout the story. Poor Johnny has more ups and downs than a yo-yo. My only quibble with the story is that I wish I could have felt more empathy for Johnny. That lack of empathy is always a danger when your main character is a bad guy.

In short, mildly disappointing but still an enjoyable story.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

One Step Closer by Iain Rowan

One Step Closer” by Iain Rowan, Hardluck Stories, Spring 2005

A man goes to the bank on a whim. He needs a little walk-around money, and there’s the bank. Might as well pop in.

On a normal day, five, ten minutes and he’s on his way, one more check on the list of Things-To-Do. The thing about extraordinary days is that they are pretty normal until something exceptional pops up and punches you in the gut.

That was Ward’s day. Nip into the bank for a little folding money, then be on his way. Only that day an armed bank robber decides to do the same thing in the same bank at the same time. In an instant the normal becomes the extraordinary.

This isn’t a long story, but Mr. Rowan packs it to overflowing, to mix a metaphor. In the first three paragraphs, the bank robbery is already in progress, almost over in fact. Then a flashback. (To those who think flashbacks are a bad idea poorly executed, see this story and be shamed.) The story then proceeds chronologically. Mr. Rowan builds the suspense as gradually as he can in a story of this length. He increases the stakes with a killing and a near miss, then the characters see the hope that it is within seconds of being over. Suddenly, things really go to hell.

Mr. Rowan uses the device of a panicky woman to ramp up the tension, but he does it well without making her panic the centerpiece of the scene and without making her unsympathetic. A nice balancing act.

Another thing I liked about the story is that Mr. Rowan uses smells to help set the scene. Few authors do that. Smell is a powerful sense that can often evoke more vivid memories than any of the other senses. These memories can bring a reader deeply into the story. I’ve never seen the inside of a British bank, but I know the smell of commercial floor polish.

Near the end of the story, Mr. Rowan repeats the first three paragraphs, but in this position they have an emotional impact that they didn’t have at the beginning. This indicates how well the character of Ward was drawn.

And finally, harking back to my latest rant, Mr. Rowan knows his criminals. “We don’t even exist for him, Ward thought. We aren’t even people. There is nothing in this world but himself.”

In short, read this story.

Hardluck Stories, Spring 2005 Issue

The spring issue of Hardluck Stories has sprung. There are stories by Walker Eugene Dollahan, Robert Wm. Wagner, Gary Lovisi, Barry Baldwin, J. Mark Bertrand, Iain Rowan, Chick Lang, and a reprint by Michael Black. In addition, there is an original noir comic book adapted from one of Dave Zeltserman's stories. There have been a few changes made to the zine, and Pat Lambe does his usual bang-up job with the layout. Stop by and take a look.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Jane Case by Michael Z. Lewin

“The Jane Case” by Michael Z. Lewin, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, May 2005

The story begins with Old Man Lunghi, founder of the Lunghi Detective Agency and head of the family. The Old Man is a little more than semi-retired, his extended family now running the agency. Mama, the Old Man’s wife, decides that he needs something to do, so she gets him to start going to a YMCA gym on a regular basis. One day while at the gym he notices the running style of one of the other male patrons. This guy “dishes,” throws his heels out to the sides, as he runs. While watching this guy a young woman comes up and tells the Old Man about how this guy stole her phone on the street a few days before. When she saw him in the gym and recognized his running style she confronted him. He laughed at her. She went to the police, but they wouldn’t believe that she could identify the thief by his running style.

The Old Man believes her and decides that he will help her. This pleases Mama, though, of course, she doesn’t show it. She begins manipulating the rest of the family into helping the Old Man, but on his terms. She wants him more involved, more interested in life. If the rest of the family takes over the case, the Old Man will just sink back into the lethargy she’s trying to get him out of. So the Old Man handles the case his way, bringing in one of the school-age members of the family to help him.

From a structural standpoint this is a textbook detective story. The Old Man discovers one small piece of information that leads him to another and another until, as Clouseau used to say, the case is solve-ed. It’s the writing that confuses.

Don’t get me wrong. Mr. Lewin is a good writer, but . . . . The story is set in Bath, England, but the writing style is pure American. The Lunghi family is ethnic Italian, but the Old Man and his wife speak with a Yiddish rhythm and language style. This issue of AHMM is called the humor issue, and maybe Mr. Lewin looked at this concatenation of ethnicities as the humorous part of his story. Written straight, set in the U.S., with either a Jewish or Italian extended family, this would have been an engaging, enjoyable story.

In short, a little too much of a mish-mash to be really enjoyable.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Violence, Sex and "Bad" Language

If that title doesn't get this essay bumped up in the search engine rankings, I don't know what will.

I reread Chandler's essay, “The Simple Art of Murder”, again last weekend, and it seems to me that it is just as applicable today as the day he wrote it. For those of you who haven't read it, you are missing something that is arguably the pre-eminent analysis of the "detective" story.

In the essay Chandler laments the state of the detective story feeling that it has, in general, been relegated to the realms of fantasy. Not the fantasy that word currently brings to mind, the magical doings of the sword and sorcery ilk, but fantasy in that characters don't behave as real people would.

I can't help but feel that, in the mainstream of mystery fiction, particularly short mystery fiction, that we are right back in the position Chandler was lamenting. What other conclusion can be drawn when the only two mainstream markets paying pro rates for short mystery fiction state right in their guidelines that stories with overt violence, sex and "bad" language will not be considered?

Crime in general, and murder in particular, is ALWAYS accompanied by violence or the threat of violence. The nanny-staters have tried to tell us that watching violence in the movies and television, reading about violence in literature, playing video games wherein one wins through perpetrating imaginary acts of violence will inevitably result in violence in the real world. Violence does not arise from imagination. Violence arises from unbridled passion, a lack of self-control. But that's a discussion for another time.

Of course the refined and educated do commit crimes, but they are a tiny minority, and the crime is usually a one-off. The people who commit crime as a matter of course are not the refined inhabitants of drawing rooms or private clubs. Unless that club is called the Black Gangster Disciples. These people live in a world permeated by violence and sex. How do you write about them without placing them in that world?

To quote Chandler about Hammett and his characters, “He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.” In these times when even high-school kids use the word “fuck” in every sentence, “bad” language is hard to avoid. How can we write about these people without using their language?

AHMM and EQMM seem to be willing to hamstring the art of writing realistically in order to remain politically correct. As a result, I find more stories that grab me by the throat on the Internet than I do in the pages of the Big Two mentioned above. Unless they let in the occasional realistic crime story, I think they will eventually find themselves left eating the dust of the ezines.

Or am I just miffed because they don’t publish what I like to read and write?