Thursday, May 05, 2005

Blood Ties by Tim Wohlforth

Blood Ties” by Tim Wohlforth, Mysterical-e, March 2005

Ah, motherhood! Loving, nurturing, caring mother. A perfect story to read just before Mother’s Day. Or it would be if the mother involved had any of the characteristics listed above.

Our Hero (hereinafter designated OH), an unnamed PI, goes into his favorite watering hole and is told his mother is waiting for him. Not the mother who raised, loved and nurtured him since he was three years old. His birth mother.

OH is not anxious to renew a relationship after forty years of no contact, but he can’t resist, first the urgings of a good friend, then his own curiosity. She proves her identity with her hospital admittance form and his birth certificate. Then she tells her tale of woe.

Mom’s been busy lately. She went to work as a bookkeeper for a Cuban patriot in Miami collecting money for the next Bay of Pigs, some 10 million dollars in an offshore account. Suddenly her boss is gone, the office cleaned out, all the money withdrawn from the account. Next a couple of goons show up accusing her of stealing that money from the Cuban people. She takes it on the lam, driving all the way across the country to Oakland in her yellow BMW to see her son, the PI. She wants him to protect her.

He’s not anxious to take on the job. Why should he? Was she interested in protecting him when he was a child? He asks her why she gave him up for adoption. She responds with frustration and anger and stabs herself in the hand with a pair of nail scissors. Not the most stable of personalities. OH tries to follow her, but she gets away.

As he goes home to the marina where he lives on his boat, OH is accosted by two gorillas – or is it guerrillas? Mom’s erstwhile boss and his brother. They want to know where the money is. It seems Mom told them that OH, her son, has it. Whatta gal!

In order to impress him with the seriousness of their query, the two hardmen dump OH into the Bay and won’t let him out until he comes clean – or dies. The water is very cold, and OH is somewhat the worse for alcoholic wear. He could easily die from hypothermia. What happens next could prove the dominant strength of maternal love or self-preservation.

In spite of my light-toned review, this story is anything but light. Mr. Wohlforth does a good job of showing the confusion and frustration of a man abandoned by his birth mother. Why did she do it? Does he hate her as much as he thinks he does? Was he unworthy in some way? Was he unlovable? Did he force her away? OH is filled with warring emotions, curiosity versus rage. What is the true worth of Blood Ties?

In short, I enjoyed it, and the final twist makes the perfect cherry on top.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Lady Chesterliegh and the King of Swords by Susan Brassfield Cogan

Lady Chesterleigh and the King of Swords” by Susan Brassfield Cogan, Mysterical-e, March 2005

This story takes place in 1935 San Francisco. Lacy Chesterleigh is kidnapped by a couple of toughs and taken to see a local crime lord called the King of Swords. He is called that due to his propensity for using a sword to relieve his enemies of their heads.

Lady Chesterleigh is not a hothouse flower. She is tough, hardy and not easily intimidated. She has worked closely with the police in the past.

The King of Swords wants Lady Chesterleigh to use her influence with one Inspector Monahan to get his son released from custody. In a raid the night before the police found the King’s son unconscious with his pockets full of opium. He has her write a note to Monahan on pain of beheading. Once she has finished, the King sends one of his henchmen to deliver the note to Monahan.

Now that he has seen to the release of his son, he thinks, he turns his mind to finding the identity of the person or persons who framed his son. He does this by consulting an old crone who reads the Tarot cards. Apparently this isn’t the first time he has utilized her services.

The crone reads the cards and implicates two young men who are part of a triumvirate of friends. The King interprets this to mean his son’s two constant companions.

Lady Chesterliegh has some knowledge of Tarot, enough to see that the old crone is telling a story of her own making and not reading the cards she lays down. Questioning her about the cards, she leads into a question about the crone’s children. It seems she had a grandson that was murdered. She says that his murderer is in prison and will not long survive.

Along with the questions about the cards this tale of woe leads the King to conclude that his son’s betrayer stands before him. Can Lady Chesterleigh save the crone and herself as well?

I enjoyed this story more than I thought I would. It isn’t quite a cozy (there is some graphic violence), but it isn’t hardboiled either. I liked the main character and wouldn’t mind reading more of her adventures.

The tone of the story, the voice, is very much like what you would expect for the time period, and therein lie my two quibbles. One was the use of the phrase “good buddies”. That seemed anachronistic for 1935. Maybe it was just my exposure to the CB culture, but probably not.

The other was the reaction of one of the characters to being shot in the arm. I can’t go into much detail without giving away the ending, but that reaction may have been consistent with a Golden Age story, however in this day and age it just won’t fly. It put a bad ending on a good story. If Ms. Cogan insists on depicting violence, she must become familiar with the effects of violence.

In short, closer attention to detail might make Lady Chesterliegh one of my more favored characters.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Dress Blues by Michael A. Black

Dress Blues” by Michael A. Black, Hardluck Stories, Spring 2005

PI Ron Shade is looking for a runaway boy. The boy, Manuel, had a behavior problem, he was getting into trouble and trying to get into a local gang, the Spanish Tigers. His mother, with the help of a family friend, got him enrolled in the Woodsen Academy, a military school. Manuel had disappeared from the school.

The people at the school were unhelpful, but sent him to Dr. Odin, a psychologist who counsels the school’s more problematic students. Odin also used the “didn’t have time to get to know him” excuse, suggesting that Manuel had gone back to the gang. Ron learns that Manuel’s street name is El Mariposito, Little Butterfly, because of his affinity for Filipino butterfly knives. (BTW, Dave, you got the spelling right on the third try!)

Ron tries to talk to his friend, George, at the police department but is brushed off because of the murder of a big-shot named Horkin. Later, with the heat off because of the kiddie porn they found in Horkin’s safety deposit box, George offers to help Ron talk to some Spanish Tigers. They don’t know where he is. George sends him to a priest who helps kids in trouble. That also turns out to be a dead end.

Ron goes back to see George who had promised to check Manuel’s juvenile file. When he arrives George is going through Rolodex cards from the murdered big-shot pervert’s office. One of the cards attracts Ron’s attention, Dr. Herman P. Odin. When Ron finds out that Horkin was knifed, he goes back to see Odin.

I enjoy Mr. Black’s Ron Shade stories, and this one is no exception. Shade is well drawn, and I like the fact that he can take care of himself. PIs like John Lutz’s Nudger make me nuts. Becoming a professional snooper, at least in fiction, almost guarantees that sooner or later someone is going to take violent exception to your actions. Anyone that doesn’t realize this and take appropriate steps is less than bright.

I also liked the way Mr. Black led Shade to build his case step by step, many of them false, letting us feel his frustration build, then blowing off a little steam with the hulk at the halfway house. That relief then let him build suspense more effectively to the end.

In short, good, solid PI fare.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Death of an Aztec Princess by Martin Limon

“Death of an Aztec Princess” by Martin Limon, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, June 2005

A young woman, a high-school senior, is missing. Her mother calls Gonzo Gonzales, a private eye in East L.A. Gonzo is the mother’s cousin, but the girl is like a daughter to him. The girl, Juanita, is pretty and smart. She’s a member of a folk-dance troupe and a Chicano activist. She’s late coming home from a rehearsal, and her mother is worried.

Gonzo finds her by following the police presence in El Cinco de Mayo Park, a place that is a haven for drug dealers. Now Gonzo is no longer looking for her, he’s looking for her murderer.

Gonzo searches Juanita’s room and finds about $500 in small bills along with a small notebook with cryptic entries of initials and dollar amounts. Juanita’s mother tells him that Juanita has been dating a drug dealer.

The police arrest Henry Carranza, an ex-boyfriend and leader of Los Diablitos, an East L.A. gang, on the testimony of a witness. The witness, Chuy the Squirrel, is a hanger-on, not a gang member but someone the gangs find useful to run errands.

Gonzo suspects that Henry is telling the truth when he says he didn’t kill Juanita. Gonzo finds Chuy and questions him. But Chuy is afraid of something. Gonzo gets knocked out and wakes up the center of attention for a number of the vatos of Los Diablitos. They tell him to meet Chuy alone and unarmed in the park and warn him to stay away from El Cinco after that. Then they make sure Gonzo knows they are serious.

During the meeting Chuy is killed by an unknown shooter who then chases Gonzo through the sewer system. Gonzo gets away.

While having breakfast the next morning, Gonzo figures out what the notebook and money mean. They are contributions to Juanita’s dance troupe from local businesses. This discovery leads him to Juanita’s murderer.

This story is well-written and well plotted with a big twist at the end. The atmosphere of East L.A. is so vivid that you can smell the albondigas cooking. This isn’t just a mystery story, this is Chicano literature. Mr. Limon immerses the reader so thoroughly in the East L.A. culture that returning to my gringo world on finishing the story was something of a shock.

In short, read this story.