30-Second Book Reviews

book gift

photo: pixabay

My book reviews have lagged behind my reading ever since this website was down for a month in September. I’ll never catch up! This week and next you’ll get brief reviews of a few books to inspire your holiday shopping. One good thing about books as gifts—they’re easy to wrap!

P.S. If you click on links here to buy any of these books, as an Amazon affiliate, I receive a penny (or so).

Non-Fiction

Once in a Great City by David Maraniss – For the history-lovers on your list, here’s a fascinating social history of my home town, Detroit, in the pivotal 18 months from fall 1962 to spring 1964, when forces were at work that would shape the city irrevocably. Some were invisible, some were not seen. Pulitzer-Prize-winner Maraniss starts his 2015 book with the conflagration that destroyed the Ford Rotunda—a structure first built for the 1934 Chicago Exposition—where every fall my family and thousands of others went to preview the new Ford models and where every December I sat on Santa’s lap. It was a shocking loss, incomprehensible to me at the time, and a lesson transience. The first of many. His discussions of the auto industry and the stellar success of the Mustang, Detroit’s role in the nascent Civil Rights movement, the rise of Motown, and so much else captures “the precarious balance” of that era, in which the fate of a great American city hung.

The Ford Rotunda

photo: wikimedia

Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life by Sarah Kaminsky – Kaminsky’s daughter has told her father’s story as his first-person account, and it is fascinating (featured on 60 Minutes this past October). An Argentinian Jew in Paris during World War II, a peculiar set of experiences prepared him to help the French Resistance provide identity documents for people on the run from the Nazis. He quickly expanded his skills and, working in secret, prepared forged papers that saved the lives of thousands. After the war, he did similar work for Algerian freedom fighters, then other leftist movements over a thirty-year career. He never took any money for this work, instead supporting himself—hardly making ends meet—through his photography. It’s an nerve-wracking tale, in which every day, every transaction held the risk of betrayal and imprisonment, or worse. If people on your holiday list gravitate to inspirational, heroic stories, Kaminsky’s your man.

Short Crime Stories

Black Cat Mystery Magazine – It’s always exciting to see a new publication, and issue #1 of BCMM suggests this will become a good one. For its debut, the editors played it safe by requesting submissions from some of the country’s leading mystery/crime short story authors. The result is a knockout! I particularly enjoyed the sly humor of many of the authors—including Alan Orloff, Josh Pachter, Meg Opperman, and Barb Goffman, whose story is appropriately titled, “Crazy Cat Lady.”

Just to Watch Them Die – This collection, “inspired by the songs of Johnny Cash,” is grittier than Black Cat, and the connection to the songs is at times somewhat tenuous. Quite a few are set in Cash country, south and west. If you have Cash fans on your list, they’ll appreciate the homage.

Switchblade – This is the collection for anyone on your list who thinks they have it bad. These are stories about people so down on their luck the reader’s situation perceptibly brightens. I couldn’t help but think of Dennis Lehane’s distinction between tragedy and noir. In tragedy, he’s said, the hero falls from a great height (think Macbeth). In noir, he falls from the curb. Lots of curb-falling here. Maybe just the thing for a grousing in-law.

John Abbott’s Kitchen Boy

By Vicki Weisfeld

My name is Aaron Jeffries. I am twelve years old. I want to write what happened to me in the War of Independence, so that other boys will take note.

I am a single orphan since 1775, when my father cut his hand hauling ammunition boxes at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He got poisoned blood and Died. When he went to join up with General Washington, I asked why he did not side with the Tories, so he could stay here in New Jersey with us. He was a powerful admirer of Doctor Franklin and quoted him back to me: “He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.”

I surely do not want to rise up with fleas, but I miss my father and blame the Redcoats for taking him. Our mother was hard put to feed four children, so in the spring of 1776, when I was eight years old, I and my older sister had to quit school and be put out to work, while the babies stayed home.

John Abbott House

John Abbott House; photo: Blake Bolinger, creative commons license

Mother sent me to Mr. John Abbott. He has a fine big house about two miles away, and I could walk home on weekends. So that you will not think I am too much of a Braggart, some of what I tell below I copied from letters Mrs. Abbott wrote my mother. She said I could.

Mr. Abbott was away most days, being active in Politicks. Mrs. Abbott and her sister ran the place and were very regular in their ways. I helped Gus, the hired hand, take care of the chickens and the garden, which I did know how to do. A lot of things I never done before and had to learn about them. They had me polishing the brasses and the silverware and carrying dishes back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen. I was working for Mrs. Abbott only about two weeks when a greasy dish slipped out of my hand and crashed to the floor. That broke one of Mrs. Abbott’s fancy plates!

She gave me a Broom and told me to take the pieces to the cellar and put them in a big pan she used for broken dishes and glassware and the like.

“My mother buries them in the yard,” I said, thinking to give her helpful advice. “Behind the chicken shed.”

“I can’t be planting a new flower bed and be cut to ribbons by a buried piece of crockery,” she said. I understood that. She did not want Poisoned Blood.

I found the pan and set the pieces in it like she said. After that, on hot days, I’d go down to the cellar and study those broken pieces and pretend they were treasure in a treasure chest.

Mrs. Abbott wrote to my Mother about it: “One day this week Aaron dropped a dish that broke, and I know he sorely regretted it. If he mentions it to you, please reassure him that we understand accidents happen. He moped a bit, so I think it troubled him. There’s no need. He’s a very good boy, always helpful and interested in everything that goes on around here.”

Boy in Snow

photo: Chris RubberDragon, creative commons license

That fall we harvested and preserved the farm’s fruits and pickled the vegetables and stocked the root cellar. We had meats in the smokehouse too. Mrs. Abbott sewed me a warm jacket, and her sister knitted me a sweater. Once when it snowed on Saturday, Gus took me home in the wagon. After that, Mrs. Abbott got me some Boots.

Mrs. Abbott likes inishativ. She said she does not want to have to tell me every little thing. If I see something that needs doing, I should just do it. I told Gus she was complaining her kitchen knives were dull, and he said we should get busy and sharpen them.

“You be careful,” she hollered out the door when she saw us with the grindstone. “You can cut yourself to ribbons doing that.” That was true, and I Was careful.

One night in early December, a long while after dark, we had a Visitor. A wagon pulled up out front and we heard a knock. I ran to the door and opened it wide. It was Mr. Samuel Tucker, who is a friend of Mr. Abbott.

I knew him because he came to the house a few days before and brought boxes full of papers. He and Mr. Abbott hid them in the Attic under my bed. Mr. Tucker was the State Treasurer for New Jersey. Mr. Abbott said that meant he was in charge of all the Money for the state. He told me that that money would help us win the War. I brought Mr. Tucker right into the front parlor.

They sent me to bed, and I did not know any more about it until the next day when I was in the cellar fetching a pot of jam and saw a big Barrel that had not been there before.

I asked Mrs. Abbott about the barrel, and she started talking about the Chores I had to do that day, so I knew she did not want to discuss it. I would have to see about it on my own and I did.

Barrels

photo: Pixabay

I went down to the cellar that afternoon and had a peek. A ways down, there was some straw, and I pushed it aside. Underneath were more gold coins than I ever hoped or thought to see and paper money. Later I found out it was more than twenty-five hundred pounds, the whole treasurey of the State of New Jersey! Mr. Tucker had been dessprit to find a good hiding place for it.

As things turned out, it wasn’t such a good place, because a Woman in Trenton knew what he’d done and pretty soon hundreds of Redcoats marched up to Mr. Abbott’s house. He was in Philadelphia.

I was scrubbing the kitchen floor when I heard their racket, and I did not need to think twice to know why they were there. I took a candle down to the cellar, thinking to guard the state treasurey if I had time and could figure out a way.

I heard soldiers stomping overhead, and soon one of them came down to the cellar. He was very tall and had to bend over because of the low sealing.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“The kitchen boy.”

“What are you doing down here?” He pointed his Brown Bess at me, the bayonette close to making a hole in my new winter shirt.

“Fetching a pot of jam,” I said and pointed at the full shelves. “Do you want some?”

“What’s this?” He pointed the bayonette toward Mr. Tucker’s barrel.

“Our broken dishes and glassware.”

“So much?” He looked at me, narrowing his eyes.

I kept quiet.

He lifted the lid of the big barrel with the tip of his bayonette. “I see,” he said.

“Those pieces can cut you to ribbons,” I said and held out a small pot of plum jam. He put it in an inside pocket.

“On your way,” he said.

I took my candle and he followed me up the stairs. Mrs. Abbott and her sister were in the front parlor. When they saw me come up from the cellar with the bayonette of the soldier right behind me, Mrs. Abbott went pale as milk.

This is what she wrote my Mother: “You can believe, my dear Mrs. Jeffries, that my sister and I were absolutely quaking when that Redcoat marched Aaron up the stairs. He did not look injured, nor was he crying, but we had no idea what had gone on down there. I called him to me and the three of us stood together in the parlor speaking nary a word. After a few minutes the soldiers upstairs clomped down with Samuel Tucker’s boxes and carried them out to their wagon. They didn’t know it, but the papers in those boxes will be useless to them!

“‘I hope you are finished,’ I said to the officer in charge. ‘We’ll have ourselves quite a time putting everything back in order.’

“He was not pleased with my tone, but his English manners would not permit him to be rude to a lady, and he swallowed his temper. I counted seven soldiers who had entered my home, and seven who left. Nevertheless, Aaron helped us search the house to be sure. I’ll let him tell you himself about the very good deed he did that day.”

Once the Redcoats were well away and we saw they had not left behind any spize, Mrs. Abbott put her hands on my shoulders and asked, “What happened down in the cellar?”

I showed her how I had dumped the broken dishes on top of New Jersey’s money. It looked like a barrel full of dangerous Sharp Pieces.

“So he left with nothing?”

“I gave him a pot of plum jam.”

She laughed for pretty near five minutes at that and told me how proud of me she was. And that is why I got to go back to School, with Mr. Tucker and Mr. Abbott sharing the cost of my Schooling and me still helping Mrs. Abbott and her sister every Saturday.

Broken crockery

photo: Ann Larie Valentine, creative commons license

#

Note:  The New Jersey state treasury was indeed hidden from the Redcoats under a pile of broken crockery, though not by fictional eight-year-old Aaron Jeffries, at the John Abbott II house. The house is now the home of the Hamilton Township Historical Society and available for tours. One hundred fifty years after this story takes place, Scotsman Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, and a small cut was no longer a potentially deadly hazard.

This short story was published in the July 26, 2017, U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue.

 

 

****DIS MEM BER

teenage girl

photo: Tammy McGary, creative commons license

By Joyce Carol Oates – This collection of mostly longish short stories features Oates’s sly humor and penchant for the off-kilter. There’s something just a little bit obsessive, just a little wrong about many of the stories’ protagonists, until there’s a LOT wrong. Someplace along the line, they take a turn into some very dark places.

The disarticulated title of the story, “DIS MEM BER” anticipates the menace underlying the tale of a pre-teen girl fascinated by her older step-cousin—handsome, mysterious, and just disreputable enough to charm a young girl and enrage her father. The first-person narrator mostly misses the sinister potential in his attentions, but you will not, and you read on with growing unease.

Similarly, in the story “Heartbreak,” a lumpy young teen is jealous of her attractive older sister and her budding relationship with their stepfather’s handsome nephew. It opens as follows: “In the top drawer of my step-dad’s bureau the gun was kept,” signaling that Oates will follow Chekhov’s famous advice: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”

Although these two tales turn out quite differently, they show an affinity for the voice of a young girl troubled by her sexuality and the impact on men that she has, may have, may never have, wants, and fears. Oates mimics the progress and backtracking and stuttering nature of thought with liberal use of interjected italics and parenthetical phrasing: “Even when Rowan was furious with me, and disgusted with me, still he was fond of me. This I know. It is a (secret) memory I cherish.” These devices in places feel excessive, even intrusive. Parentheses within parentheses send you down a rabbit hole.

Young girls are not the only females prey to second thoughts. The eerie story “The Crawl Space” concerns a widow haunted by—and haunting—the home she shared with her husband, now in other hands. Similarly, in “Great Blue Heron,” a new widow is plagued by her husband’s brother, determined to wrest the executorship of his estate—and, undoubtedly, all his assets—from her. What precisely happens in these two stories, as the women’s ghosts and fantasies take hold, is not clear. Their trace of ambiguity leaves you free to interpret. Letting readers “do some of the work themselves” can be a strength of the short story form.

In “The Drowned Girl,” a college student becomes obsessed with the unexplained death of a fellow student. “Like gnats such thoughts pass through my head. Sometimes in my large lecture classes the low persistent buzzing is such that I can barely hear the professor’s voice and I must stare and stare like a lip-reader.” In this, as in all of these stories, Oates deftly creates a specific, concrete setting for her characters. The believability of these environments makes you believe the characters also are plausible until you’ve traveled with them pretty far into the deep weeds of their bizarre perceptions.

The final story, “Welcome to Friendly Skies!” is not a thematic fit with the others, but ends the book on a decidedly humorous note. Passengers on a you-can-anticipate “ill-fated” flight to Amchitka, Alaska, are taken through the standard airplane safety monologue with a great many ominous additions.

Lawrence Block’s recent multi-authored short story collection, In Sunlight or in Shadow, inspired by the realist paintings of Edward Hopper, could not pass up the opportunity to include one of Oates’s lonely—and deliciously skewed—female protagonists.

A Winning Short Story Publishing Strategy

Preparing for a panel on “short stories” for this weekend’s Deadly Ink conference for mystery/crime writers, I studied the stack of five print publications in which my work has appeared this past year. This was in lieu of doing any actual preparation, you might suspect. I realized each of them had a publication lesson for me—and possibly other authors. So here goes:

Don’t Dismiss Limited Circ Outlets

Five of the last six years I’ve had a story in the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction Issue. Yes, it reaches a small audience, but at a max of 2000 words, the time investment in these stories isn’t massive and I keep the rights (more on that later).

The benefits: reminding myself at least someone thinks my work is good enough to invest ink and paper in, the satisfaction of meeting an actual deadline—in creative work you sometimes need an end-point—and, best of all, cultivating a local group of writer friends for support and commiseration. My 2016 story: “What Would Jimmy Stewart Do?

Prepare for Rejection

Are you thrown into a funk that’s hard to crawl out of when a story’s rejected? Take heart from realizing that all short story outlets today receive far more “publishable” material—stories they like—than they have room for. The literary magazine Glimmer Train, which has given several of my non-mystery stories a thumbs-down, publishes about 60 stories a year. The editors receive 32,000 submissions. Those 60 stories may be fantastic, but they simply cannot be the absolute “best” ones.

I expect rejection. And I plan for it. When a story of mine comes back from outlet x, I read it through, fix anything obvious, and right away send it to outlet y, then z. Last year, I sent a rejected story to a new outlet whose editors want to feature female protagonists. They accepted it gladly, and eventually it won a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. You can read that story—“Breadcrumbs”—here.

Timing, Timing, Timing

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is one of the premier, if not the premier outlet for short mystery fiction. I wanted another story of mine in it. So last spring, I wrote a Christmas-themed story, hoping they’d want it for the annual Holiday issue. I sent it in June, to give them plenty of time to think about it. Planning for rejection, even if they turned it down in their usual six to eight weeks (ask me how I know!), I’d have time to submit it elsewhere. They did not, and it appeared in the January-February 2017 “’Tis the Season” issue.

Meet the Requirements

I know writer who become so wrapped up in writing “their” story that they ignore editors’ guidance on theme, length, and so on. Dissect calls for submissions for clues to what they’re looking for. Don’t expect to be the exception, and don’t make it easy for editors to reject your work! I wanted to submit a story to an anthology about police work. I had such a story in mind. A 6,200-word story. The editors’ limit was 5,000. I liked those 1,200 words, but they went the way of the blue pencil (and the story was probably better for it). It was published in April.

Mine Your Backlist

Novelists have a “backlist” of books published in past years. Short story writers do too. When I see an outlet looking for a theme I’ve written on, I check whether the editor will accept reprints. Last October an online magazine republished one of my U.S. 1 stories that had a Halloween theme; I own those rights, remember? In April, a minor edit to a story published in a lit magazine (rights also mine) tailored it for an anthology. Taking advantage of these opportunities puts your work in front of new people and is a refreshing glass of water in the desert of seeming indifference.

four-leaf clover, luck

Dawn Ellner, cc license

Getting a short story published entails more than a small amount of luck, but if you’ve written a great story, you can increase the odds it will reach readers by being strategic about when, where, and how you engage with potential publishers.

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – May/June 2017

Ellery Queen

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Beginning this year, EQMM—a prominent short story publisher with a 75-year history—began publishing six times a year. The issues are longer than the former single-month editions, and the policy was instituted undoubtedly to save mailing costs. I hope this doesn’t mean an eventual reduction in the number of stories EQMM publishes, because outlets for mystery/crime short stories are severely limited.

Judging by the quality of the May-June 2017 issue, there’s no shortage of entertaining content out there. Here are some of the stories I liked best:

  • “Charcoal and Cherry,” by Zoe Z. Dean, in which an amateur sleuth teams up with a retired police detective to unravel a cold-case murder.
  • “Rosalie Marx is Missing,” by Robert S. Levinson. A pair of amateur Las Vegas sleuths find a missing granddaughter. Lively banter.
  • “Find and Replace,” by Marjorie Eccles, an increasingly hilarious (and suspicious) exchange of letters between a homeowner and a newspaper’s gardening expert.
  • “Your Name Will Be Written in Lights,” by Jonathan Moore, author of last year’s excellent The Poison Artist. A show girl puts on the performance of her life.
  • “In the Time of the Voodoo,” by John Lantigua, high-tension effort to protect a Miami immigrant from her past and the Tonton Macoute.
  • “Angel Face,” by M.C. Lee, attention to detail may exonerate a wrongly convicted death row prisoner, in Florida, “a state where the statue of Blind Justice would be better suited standing in front of a Whac-A-Mole machine.”

Libraries and big box bookstores carry EQMM, or subscribe! Available in print and for the Kindle.

Books by some of the authors highlighted above:

Breadcrumbs – By Vicki Weisfeld

farm, snow, winter

(photo: M Pincus, creative commons license)

Why would a city girl like Becky Tailor—that was what she called herself when I met her—give up a life in Washington, D.C., for one here in the sticks? No movies, no museums, and a library the size of a mini-mart? In D.C., she was a teacher at an exclusive private academy. Why would she move to a community whose schools can barely afford textbooks? And take a typing-and-filing job in a three-lawyer office specializing in matrimonial fiascos?

Easy answer: her husband.

How sweet. She gave up everything to be with her man.

Nope. She gave up everything to get away from him.

As a Michigan state trooper, I hear a lot of crazy stories. So the night she came in, I mostly listened.

Becky told me she moved to this flat part of southwest Michigan because it’s so different from life inside the Washington Beltway. On her way out here, she spent one night in a motel where she cut her hair and dyed it black, threw away her contact lenses, and put on a baggy Salvation Army trench coat and cowboy boots that made her look taller. Around town now, she looks like everybody else.

She said her closest family is her mother and younger sister June. She’s almost never in touch with them. She said, “Mom and June understand the only way I can be safe is if no one knows where I am, and they’d rather believe I’m safe than have me calling every week.”

I could see Becky was telling me all this because she was desperate. But did I think she might be a little nutty? You bet.

Here’s what she told me.

Becky met Kevin Arthur in college. Her name was Laura Getz then. Surrounded by his fraternity brothers, Kevin was always laughing and joking. She saw a future full of high spirits and good friends with a man who said he couldn’t live without her. So, in 2011, they graduated from the University of Maryland one week and tied the knot the next.

They were still receiving wedding presents when Becky started to notice little things, rough patches. She tried to explain them away by thinking Kevin was in a bad mood, had a hard day, or drank a couple beers too many. Not until later did she understand they were the early signs of a pattern.

She said, “At first I was flattered this handsome guy wanted to spend so much time with me, but, actually, he wanted me to spend all my time with him, so he did that thing of gradually cutting me off from my friends.” He insisted they move from College Park to the far western edge of Georgetown, telling Becky this was “for his work,” even though it gave him a longer commute—an hour on a good day—from home out to Ft. Meade and the NSA. He told her his work was top secret, high-stress, vital. No details, and it was a trump card he played whenever he wanted to.

According to her, they ate at home every night. “If I suggested we invite someone over, he always had some reason we couldn’t. His job mostly.” So, while Becky’s college friends developed traditions of Friday nights out and Sunday potluck brunches, she and Kevin were never part of that. “Right after dinner, I had to clean up. A dish sitting in the sink or even in the drainer drove him crazy. Everything had to be put away, all the time, like the house was ready for inspection.”

One Saturday when he was heading over to Ft. Meade, she volunteered to drop him off so she could take the car to visit a friend.

“I need the car,” he said.

“But I want to see Megan’s new house.”

“I need the car.”

“She’s my best friend, and we missed her wedding.”

“I said, I need the car.” She said he got flat calm in a way that scared her more than if he was yelling at her.

“OK. Then I’ll take the Metro.”

He slapped her then, and his fraternity ring hit her cheekbone so hard tears came to her eyes, though she was too angry to cry.

After he left she looked in the mirror and realized she couldn’t go. Not looking like that, the side of her face swollen, and a thick red welt on her cheek.

I nodded, dreading to hear what came next.

Before things got too bad, three young teachers at her school sat her down for a heart-to-heart. They wouldn’t listen to her excuses, and they gave her a list of warning signs that would tell her whether she was in danger. Over the next weekend, with that list fresh in her mind, she saw all the signs.

I suggested Becky take a break in her story at this point, and fetched her a cup of coffee from the machine in the lounge. How Michigan State Police coffee manages to be both disgustingly weak and incredibly bitter is one of life’s mysteries. Didn’t matter to Becky. She cradled the hot paper cup as if it might help her hands stop shaking. We drank a lot of coffee that evening, while I got most of the story from her—not in this orderly, sort-of-chronological way, of course.

“After Kevin put me in the hospital the first time,” she said, “I followed the teachers’ advice and packed my ‘emergency bag.’ But he was very contrite, the sex was still good, and I hoped things would get better.”

Oh, here we go, I thought.

A few weeks later, Kevin found that bag. This time he took her to George Washington University Hospital. He said he didn’t like the care she’d gotten at Georgetown, but she knew he was afraid the emergency staff would recognize them. Like before, he said she’d fallen down some stairs.

“The emergency department nurse tried to get me to say what really happened, and so did the doctor. They sent Kevin out and said they’d call the police for me, but I just couldn’t. The doctor looked exasperated and stalked out, though he sent in a woman doctor who held my hand and urged me to trust her. I appreciated what she was trying to do, but I could hear Kevin across the room, complaining they were keeping him away from his wife. He was yelling at the staff, but his words were for me. ‘My wife.’”

Becky went home with him again and started back to work. On her lunch breaks, she had long conversations with her mother and sister using a new phone she’d bought. Paid cash. She went to a women’s shelter for help with paperwork and got a fake i.d. in a new name. She didn’t pack a bag again, but whittled down what she planned to take with her to five things, one of which was the phone.

“About a month after that second hospital visit, I told Kevin I had an awful headache and would have to call in sick. He said he’d stay home with me. He went to the kitchen to fix me some tea, and I made myself throw up in our bed. When he came back, I was crying and covered in vomit, and he decided he needed to go to work after all.

“I watched him drive away, then I cleaned up and put on some old clothes he’d never miss. I  left all my makeup and prescriptions, put a few things in a plastic grocery store bag—no one should see me leaving with a suitcase—walked out of the townhouse and disappeared.”

Because of Kevin’s job she was afraid he could find her if she made the smallest mistake. From my perspective in law enforcement, what I see as time goes on, I figured she was right. Then she asked a question that pierced my cop’s heart and my woman’s heart too:

“Am I safer, day-by-day, or is he one day closer to finding me?”

Here are the mistakes Becky didn’t make. She had a credit card in her new name for identification purposes, but she paid cash for everything. A wallet full of cash, with more from her mother, was another thing she brought with her. The car was the biggest thing. Her sister arranged for her to have an old Toyota that had belonged to her in-laws in Vermont. Becky’s fake i.d. would have been good enough to get her into a bar in College Park, and the notary public who approved the title change didn’t look too close.

Her employers here in town—the lawyers Gardiner, Gardiner, and Lee—helped with the really hard stuff: a new birth certificate so she could get a real Michigan driver’s license and insurance in her new name. Before she left Washington, Becky went back to the hospitals that treated her injuries and got copies of her records and a letter from the doctor who wanted her to call the police. This documentation of abuse was the fourth thing she brought with her.

It took Social Security a couple of weeks, but she got a new number. This is a small town, with a small-town bank. With her new job and the Social, she opened a checking account. She just had to remember to sign her checks “Becky Tailor.”

She stayed away from public places and didn’t eat in restaurants, because people always have their phone cameras out. Those pictures go on Facebook and Tumblr and Instagram. “I wouldn’t put it past Kevin to try to run the NSA’s facial recognition software on some massive basis,” she told me.

She didn’t keep any papers with either name at the Michigan house. Any papers she needed to keep went into a safe deposit box, and her mail went to a post office box. She never did anything personal on the computers at work, and when she needed a computer for herself, she stopped in at the library. Used the library’s shredder, too.

She didn’t pursue any of her former interests. She didn’t join a skating club, contribute to Save the Tigers, subscribe to a knitting magazine, take yoga classes, or buy stuff online.

“He’s probably set up a computer program to look for every scrap of information about people who have my interests. There’s maybe tens of thousands of them. Add in my age, and he could cut that list way down. If he assumed no kids, the number shrinks again. How long I’ve lived somewhere new, another big drop.” I nodded, but this level of data-mining, it’s called, is all theory to me. It works, just don’t ask me how.

Going back to teaching was out of the question. Background checks and Kevin. She described her job as “clerical,” and didn’t mention Gardiner, Gardiner, and Lee. It was no accident she was in this town, working for these lawyers. They’re law-school classmates and friends of a big national expert on spousal abuse, and they consulted with her about Becky’s situation. Finally, I started to feel a little better. I know these lawyers, though the circumstances when I met them were about the worst I’ve experienced as a state cop. I doubt they’ve forgotten. I know I haven’t.

I knew Becky was going somewhere with all this. Something had spooked her, and I let her get to it her way. I knew we were making progress when she said she’d been getting a little stir-crazy a few months back.

And started taking risks, is what I figured.

A new dance school opened up in town that offered a few aerobically oriented evening classes for adults, and she signed up for Spanish dance. “The instructor really worked us, so with the dance and the yoga CD I picked up at a yard sale, I thought I could get back in shape.” She looked in shape to me—if anything, too thin—but that was worry, not fitness.

“When I was a kid, I had a little doll”—she held her hand about ten inches above the table—“who had a green polka-dot flamenco costume—Rosa. Maybe that’s why this class appealed to me.” Rosa was the last thing she took with her, her only personal item. She said Kevin would roll his eyes at the small female army occupying her bookcase. “Their frizzy hair and stained dresses violated his neat-freak standards, so he ignored them. He’d never miss my Rosita.”

My own dusty dolls sit on a cedar chest in my bedroom, so I understood where Becky was coming from. It’s innocence, cherishing it. But that is one piece of personal information I would kill to keep the men around here from knowing.

“After the first few weeks of the dance class I had to give it up. The women would always be pulling out their cell phones to video the teacher doing the steps, and with those mirror-lined walls, there was no way I wouldn’t be in their pictures.

“They said they only shared these videos with each other. OK, so video with my image is texted or emailed to a few Spanish dance students. They think that’s ‘private.’ What if one of their teenage kids finds the video and forwards it to all his friends, or posts it on Instagram or YouTube, saying ‘See what my crazy mom is up to now! Dance fail!!’” Becky said it gave her a bad feeling.

It sure gave me one.

She stopped talking, closed her eyes, and leaned back in her chair, exhausted. Keeping a lid on every single aspect of your life, 24/7, for three years takes a toll. Every time she began to feel safe, she’d see someone who looked like Kevin or a car like his or she’d get a dead-air call at the office and start dodging shadows again.

So that was Becky the night I met her: Monday, February 23. When she got home from work that day she took a look at her long driveway, six inches of new snow on top of ice on top of more ice on top of gravel, and parked down by the mailbox. It had started snowing pretty heavily around noon, and the odds of getting stuck up by the house were just too great.

She slipped and skidded as she walked up the drive. We had a heavy cloud cover and more snow coming, so it was nearly dark even though it wasn’t yet five o’clock. She had her house-key out, ready, when through the door’s half-window she saw all the way into the kitchen. The light over the sink was on. She thought she forgot to turn it off, but she hesitated. That may have saved her. She’d been in a  hurry that morning and left her coffee cup and cereal bowl next to the sink. They were gone.

Her voice trembled. “My heart started pounding, and I didn’t dare take a step. I saw the afghan I’d piled at the end of the sofa last night—neatly folded. It had to be Kevin.”

She didn’t hear any movement inside and hoped he hadn’t heard her come up. The snow muffled her footsteps, but of course she’d left plenty of tracks. She pulled a flyer about a concert at the Methodist Church out of her handbag and stuck it in the door handle. Maybe he’d think some church-lady going door-to-door made those tracks. She took off.

“I drove straight here. I didn’t go to the local police, I figured Kevin could talk his way around them, no problem.”

YBYA. Is that one of those abbreviations the kids use in texts? It ought to be. You bet.

Going back to the house was out of the question. Let me put it this way: She couldn’t have made herself do it, even if I gave her an all-clear. And, if he’d figured out where she lived, he’d know the name she was using and, possibly, where she worked, what kind of car she had, its license plate number. Her car was a problem. I drove it around in back of the post and parked it in our garage.

I called a friend in town who rents out a room or two—nothing as fancy as a B&B. Clare didn’t need much explanation—she caught on right away and said Becky could stay with her as long as she needed to. I dropped her off at the house on Glover Street, and Clare gave her a nice room in back, with a tray of dinner to follow. All good, but even better, Clare can keep a secret. I’m sure there’s stuff from high school that I still don’t know. And never will.

About ten that night I drove out to Becky’s house. Her story pushed all my buttons, and I had to keep telling myself that Becky Tailor was not Amber James.

The house was on an acre lot, heavily wooded in back, and the nearest neighbors were at least a quarter-mile away. The lights were off now and I didn’t see a car. Becky hadn’t noticed any fresh tire tracks, which meant that if Kevin was there, he’d arrived before the new snow started. Then sat in her house, waiting. Well, cleaning up and then waiting.

Did he fall asleep on her bed? Or had she forgotten she’d cleaned up and succumbed to an overdose of paranoia? I could see that happening, too.

I pulled up the drive, three tons of a Ford Utility Interceptor taking care of Becky’s footprints. I made a good job of scuffing my way to the porch too. I shoved the flyer she’d stuck in the door into my pocket—checking that for fingerprints would be too easy, and he’d have plenty of hers for comparison. I rang the bell.

With everything around dead quiet the way it is after a big snow, I heard the doorbell plain. I rang again. No movement inside, so I pulled out my flashlight and walked around back. The snow behind the house wasn’t packed into ice, and right away I saw the tire tracks crossing the yard to behind a big old shed. I would have checked it out, but a curtain moved inside the house, so I walked slowly around to the front again, waving my flashlight. I wanted to be seen, which was easy, with the clouds thinning against the half-moon and my dark uniform against the white snow. We don’t wear Smokey-the-Bear hats like troopers in some states, so I made sure the flashlight picked up the shine of my badge.

At the front door, I rang the bell again and pounded. I called out, “Mildred? You there? It’s Officer Knox. Mildred? I came by to see if your heat’s back on.” I saw a shadow move against the faint light outlining the kitchen window. “Damn electric company.”

The door flew open and a man stood there, a few inches taller than me, but lean. His sandy hair stood up in sleepy tufts, though his light eyes were sharp and ready to eviscerate my flimsy pretense for being there. One look from him, and I understood Becky’s fear.

“What the—?” he said.

“Who are YOU?” I pasted on a smile.

“This is my wife’s house.” Not in the mood for a long conversation.

“Your wife? Who’s that?”

“My wife.”

“What’s your name, sir?”

“I don’t have to tell you anything. There’s no reason for you to be here.”

“Then, what’s your wife’s name?”

He started to close the door.

“Where’s Mildred?” I said loud enough to stop him from swinging the door shut. “This is her house.”

His eyes flickered like he was thinking fast. I felt perspiration prickle under my arms, wondering whether Becky had been right when she said nothing at the house had her name on it. But I kept my impassive cop expression. Even if he knew who paid the rent on this house, I could see I’d planted a sliver of doubt about who really lived there. “Yeah,” he said, deciding to bluff it out. “My wife.”

“Mildred?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, sir, then I’ll have to ask for some identification. Because unless your wife is a 70-year-old, 350-pound black woman, this is not your wife’s house, and you have no reason to be in it. Turn on the lights, and get out your wallet.” Two can play the bluffing game. But if he’d checked out the clothes closet, I’d be busted. “Wallet.”

“In the other room.” He started moving backwards.

“Uh-huh. I’ll go with you to get it.” I pulled open the storm door, but before I could step inside, he slammed the front door shut and threw the deadbolt. I didn’t know whether his wallet was in the other room, but I was pretty damn sure his weapon was.

I was off the porch and running toward the big trees on the driveway side of the house before he could get organized. He might have expected me to return to my vehicle, but I edged around back. The trees were good cover, and so was an old chicken house. I could see his ride now, a dark-colored pick-up, but I needed to be close enough to call in the license plate. Ninety feet of open yard lay between me and it.

Right now, he couldn’t be sure where I was, but he’d spot me easy in an open-field run across that expanse of snow. It was the old dilemma: Do I call for backup and have the guys hassle me for months if it turns out to be a false alarm? Or not? I thought I knew who and what this guy was, but I couldn’t be positive. Yes, he was where he shouldn’t be, and yes, his behavior was evasive, but he hadn’t done anything really wrong. Still, I didn’t want to run across the yard to his truck. It was that bad feeling again. I called.

Meanwhile, I slipped in among the trees and watched. I’m good at waiting. Lots of people aren’t. Kevin wasn’t. He burst out the back door and ran to the woods on the other side of the house just as my ears picked up the faint wail of a siren from the direction of Niles, nearly ten minutes out.

He did just what I’d done, feinting into the trees, making it impossible for me to get off a shot—even if one were justified, which it wasn’t—with maybe twenty big oaks and a bunch of smaller stuff between us. I worked my way over to the chicken house and pulled out my gun. By this time he’d reached the pickup, and as he jumped in and got it started, I stepped out from cover. I aimed for his tires, and my slugs hit something, but didn’t slow him down. The pickup fishtailed across the yard with its lights off, skidded around my vehicle, and hit the road out front. I ran after him, but the house blocked my view, and I didn’t see which way he turned. Sounded like he went right, toward Lake Michigan and I-94. From there, Chicago or Detroit or the Turnpikes.

I couldn’t get the license plate, wasn’t sure which way he went, wasn’t sure who he was. I’d hear about this.

My fellow officers said what-the-hell, they’d been bored that evening, what with the snow keeping all the shit-for-brains people off the roads, so, no, they didn’t really mind being called out on a wild goose chase because I had an attack of nerves. Two cars showed up, so the guys had to outdo each other on what’s even worth getting nervous about. They did agree the guy’s tires had made some impressive ruts. All I could tell them was he drove a Ford F-150. Only about a thousand of them out here.

Once they got tired of rattling my chain and rolled out of there, I called Clare and told her to button up.

“OK, honey. I’ve got it.” She said she’d remind Becky to keep her curtains closed.

Later I found out she sent out Sean, her twelve-year-old, to walk their big dog and scout the neighborhood for cars with out-of-state plates or rentals and especially an F-150 with bullet wounds. Nothing. She sent him out again early the next morning, same result. I swear Becky was safer with two on-the-ball people like Clare and Sean than she would be in our lock-up.

In the morning, I shared all this with my sergeant. He said we could leave Becky’s car in our garage for now and gave me a dispensation from putting in any paperwork “for a few days.” Best we could do.  Paper—or its electronic equivalent—is a trail that could lead straight to Becky.

In the next couple of days, I drove by the house again in my own car, but saw no signs of life, nothing that would justify getting a search warrant. This was one time I actually hoped for more snow. Tracks. Sean picked up a laptop at the lawyers’ office, so Becky could work at Clare’s. They put her on a big database project that didn’t require her to communicate with them at all. No email, god forbid. Phone, either.

Becky needed more clothes, and Clare and Sean wanted to go to her house and pick some up, but I nixed that idea. What if he was around? What if he followed them back to Glover Street? So I drove the Interceptor over and pulled right up to the house. Before going in, I walked all the way around again and saw where we’d chewed up the yard pretty good the other night. No new tire tracks and no new trail of footprints leading to the house. If he was watching it, he’d be somewhere in the woods. The front yard was just lawn and across the road was a big farm field. No place there to hide.

If I felt clever before, standing at the front door and calling out “Mildred?!” I felt foolish this time. But I had to keep up the act. It might give him just a little doubt. “Millie?” Doubt might delay him a couple of seconds. “Mildred?” Seconds I might need. I tried the door. It swung open. I put Becky’s key back in my pocket.

“Hey, Mildred,” I hollered, stepping inside. “You home? Your daughter asked me to pick up some of her clothes. She’s got another court appearance tomorrow. You home?” As I talked, I took in the empty living room and peeked in the kitchen. It didn’t look like anyone had been there, but then Kevin wasn’t the kind to leave a half-eaten grilled cheese on the table.

Down the tight hallway I saw three closed doors: bedroom, bathroom, closet. I slipped my semi-automatic into my perspiring hand. I’ve never gotten used to facing the unknown and hope I never do. I had to rack that slide or my gun would be useless, and the tell-tale sound would warn anyone behind those doors to shoot first. I backstepped into the living room, hooked my foot around the leg of an end table and jerked the table over. The ceramic lamp on it hit the floor and shattered, masking the noise of gun-prep.

“Goddammit!” I hollered, and muttered loudly, “Mildred will be after me to pay for that damn lamp.” I made a brief effort to brush the tinkling pieces together with my foot then entered the hallway again. The doors on the right would be the bathroom and closet. On the left, with windows on the front of the house, the bedroom.

The bedroom seemed the most likely place he’d be, if he was there. And I’d might tip him off by opening those other doors first. Still, I’d feel better knowing he wasn’t coming up behind me. I tried the closet. I waved my flashlight around long enough to know no one was in there. One down.

Next the bathroom. I pushed the door open with my foot. It sighed, but didn’t outright squeak. Open shelves, no closet. No one behind the shower curtain. Two down.

I couldn’t hear anything over the thumping of my heart when I turned the bedroom knob. I kicked the door open all the way so no one could hide behind it and dropped into a low crouch, gun ready. Nobody. I checked that closet. Nope. I got down and looked under the bed. Nope again. Only one odd thing. In the middle of the bed stood a small doll wearing a green polka-dot flamenco dress. Rosa.

The clothes Becky wanted went into two paper grocery bags from under the kitchen sink. I tried to rearrange the hangers so that, if he came back, he might not notice some clothes were missing and realize the kind of help Becky had. Help that suggested she was still in the area. I felt Rosa’s sad little black eyes on me. I put her in a bag too.

I drove the long way back to Clare’s and was further delayed by a disabled car on U.S. 31. I waited with the driver to make sure the tow-truck arrived before she turned into a human popsicle. Anyway, leaving a woman by the side of the road just spooks me. I won’t do it. The two of us sat quietly—people don’t usually engage cops in small talk—with the Interceptor’s heat blasting. Watching trails of snow snake across the highway, I had plenty of time to be sure no one had followed me. I stopped home a minute, then drove over to Clare’s with the clothes.

“Here’s Becky’s stuff.” I handed Clare the bags. We stood in her front hall, surrounded by the wet wool smell of Sean’s hat and scarf, dangling on pegs. “Everything quiet?”

“So far. Sean takes Lucky for a long walk and checks the neighborhood three or four times a day. I’m telling you, that dog will be glad when this is over. And Sean’s also walking over to the Save-A-Lot for groceries. We don’t make a big deal of it, but I don’t want to leave her here alone.”

“You let me know if you need anything.”

“Should I see if someone from the women’s shelter at the Y would come up and talk to her? They might have some advice.”

“You mean from South Bend? I don’t know if they would. Anyway, organized programs keep records. That might be risky.”

Clare picked up her mail from the hall table and sorted it into piles as she spoke. “That’s how Amber’s ex found her, right? Through some document a homeless shelter filed with the state?”

“Yeah. She needed health insurance for the kids. Jason has bad asthma, and Big Jason, being a cop, found someone to get him into the state database. All he needed was Little Jason’s Social Security number to find out exactly where they were.”

Clare pressed her lips together and sighed. “I always liked Amber. Never thought—”

“The irony is, the state agency denied her application. She wasn’t divorced, and the family income was way too high.”

Clare gathered most of the mail and flung it into the wastebasket alongside the hall table. It looked like Becky’s situation was getting to her, too. We’d traveled this road.

I could have said, but didn’t, that I still feel Amber’s death was partly my fault. I knew Jason was losing it. Had lost it. We shared a desk, and I could feel it. As the only female trooper at the post then, I kept my mouth shut about a lot of stuff, but the way he talked about her, I should’ve seen it coming. Now she’s dead, the kids are scattered around in foster care in three counties, and he’s incarcerated. Not a safe place for a former police.

He lured her to a welfare office for a “special eligibility appointment” after hours. He drove there in a van the police had confiscated, pulled her inside it, and killed her. Amber didn’t die easy. That’s something I know all too well because, let’s just say, I picked up the pieces. I’ll never drive by that building again without thinking of her.

Kevin was in another league altogether when it came to tracking skills. With that in mind, I updated my Sergeant, and he gave me two more days. I hoped it was all I’d need.

That night,  a little past one a.m., I heard yard noises, the soft sound of snow crunching. I’d left the light on out by the barn. It reflected off that white snow like a full moon—brighter even—but it had gone out with a pop a few minutes before, and now it was as dark outside as in.

I sat on a kitchen chair in my hallway, where I could see the back door on my left and the front door on my right. I saw him try to peer in the kitchen window. It was too dark inside, and the lace curtains were closed. I’d thought I might have to spend a couple of nights like this, sitting in the chair, my 12-gauge across my knees, waiting. But Kevin—I was sure it was Kevin—was in a hurry.

Just keep on coming.

The storm door in back started to squeal and he immediately stopped moving, then gradually opened it super-slow. Now I edged into the kitchen and flattened myself against the wall facing that door, the light switch poking me between my shoulders.

The back door wasn’t locked—maybe he counted on that, we being country people and all—and he opened it so quietly, I didn’t know he’d done it until a blast of cold air gusted across the room. He eased the storm door closed behind him, and the draft stopped. He moved forward into the kitchen and hesitated, getting his bearings.

My eyes were accustomed to the dark, and I knew what I was looking at. He didn’t. I slid down the wall a couple of inches, then popped up, flipping the light switch with my shoulder. Before I fully registered that he had a gun in his hand, I fired that shotgun and ducked to the side, pumping the gun to load the next shell. For the longest three seconds of my life I expected to feel a hole blown in me somewhere. He did get off a shot, maybe because his finger twitched as he fell, which scared the wits out of me. But his aim was wild, and he made a hole in my ceiling.

When the guys got my call that included the words “shots fired,” they didn’t waste time kidding me about my last call. I hardly took my eyes off Kevin, waiting for them to arrive, but I think he was dead before he hit the floor.

 ♦

The next morning I was still feeling shaky inside. Never shot a man before, much less killed one. Naturally, I was assigned to desk duty, and Clare and one of the Gardiners took Becky to identify Kevin’s body. Clare said she practically had a nervous breakdown, the mixture of relief and regret and everything was so powerful. When they came to pick up Becky’s car, she still looked bad. I reached into my desk drawer and handed her Rosa. “I brought her with your clothes the other day, but she must have fallen out in my car.”

That being her only sentimental possession, she burst into tears again and hugged Rosa  close. For three years that poor little doll had stood in for mother and sister and every friend Becky had. Well, she could go back to them now.

Eventually, she wanted to know how he’d found her. I first-off reassured her that she’d been as careful as she could be. Except about one thing. Even though Becky thought the Spanish dance class was safe, Kevin must have missed Rosa after all. Those class videos the women thought were “private” weren’t. While I waited with Kevin’s body, I dug his phone out of his pocket and scrolled through his apps. I found one for downloading videos and took a look at his files. He had several videos from the dance class, Becky clearly visible until she hurried out of the frame. From there, well, this is a small town.

Postscript: The Powers That Be could understand me defending myself against an armed night-time intruder—thanks, Kev, for bringing that gun. If they were surprised I was so well prepared for it, they didn’t say.

Rosa standing in the middle of Becky’s bed was just too clever. I found the tracking chip in the flounces of her skirt and brought her to my house. Before I gave her back to Becky, I untaped that chip and tossed it into a big pile of slush somewhere along the highway.

When my fellow troopers congratulated me on the outcome of this case, you can bet I didn’t explain anything, since it involved dolls and dancing and high school girlfriends. Let them just think I’m lucky.

♦♦♦

“Breadcrumbs” was published in Issue 3 of the journal Betty Fedora, fall 2016. It won a 2017 Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

Short Mystery Fiction – Ellery Queen Picks

baby sea turtles

photo: Chris Evans, creative commons license

Short stories are a great diversion when you don’t have the time or attention span for a novel. The pacing is different. Every word should count. A paperback or magazine of short stories travels well too. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, now in its 76th year, is one of the best.

The EQMM editors select a wide variety of stories from the broad categories of mystery, crime, and suspense and now publish six times a year. Here are a few from recent issues that I found particularly entertaining.

  • “Frank’s Beach” by Scott Loring Sanders – a bit of sea turtle ecology and a dead body. Sanders’s stories have appeared in Best American Mystery Stories and he has a new collection out last month, Shooting Creek. (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November 2016)
  • “Flowing Waters” by Brendan DuBois – a prolific writer of short stories, this one focused on a woman with PTSD and her formerly abused rescue dog. A classic case of who rescued whom? DuBois latest novel, Storm Cell, was published late last year. (EQMM, January/February 2017)
  • “Oh, Give Me a Home” by Gerald Elias – tracking down a rogue group of survivalists in Utah’s Uintas Mountains. Elias (a former violinist) has a novel, Devil’s Trill. (EQMM March/April 2017)
  • “Ruthless” by Judith Cutler – a Black Widow meets her match. Cutler’s novel Head Start will be out later this year. (EQMM March/April 2017)
  • “The Model Citizen” by William Dylan Powell – love these humorous tales featuring former cop Billy Raskolnikov and his monkey Ringo who live on the boat David’s Fifth Margarita. (EQMM March/April 2017)

If you follow this blog at all, you may recall that my own story, “A Slaying Song Tonight” led off the EQMM holiday issue (January/February 2017), with a tale of how relationships are tested when a Christmas caroling excursion becomes the opportunity for murder.

 

****The Accusation

North Korea, flags

photo: (stephan), creative commons license

By Bandi – Dubbed “the Solzhenitsyn of Pyongyang,” Bandi is the pseudonym of a dissident North Korean author, and these are the first published stories written by a person still living under that repressive regime.

The seven stories in this collection were written between 1989 and 1995, a particularly bleak period at the start of a severe five-year famine, when Great Leader Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and father ruled the country. Like the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram, the stories share commonalities both in the psychological challenges their protagonists face and in the external environment they must negotiate. These common themes create an indelible impression of Bandi’s world.

Paranoia is prominent. A person who deviates from expectations in any way or complains about anything, significant or trivial, risks being observed, reported, and denounced. The actor in the story “On Stage” titles Act One of his satirical—and dangerous—skit: “It Hurts, Hahaha,” and Act Two: “It Tickles, Boohoo!”—to underscore how people must act according to expectations and contrary to their true feelings. This stunt, predictably, ends in disgrace.

Denunciation can lead to banishment from the city to a life of extreme privation in the country, even death. But death does not end a family’s downfall. A father’s error curtails the educational and occupational prospects for his children and grandchildren, as described in the collection’s first story, “Record of a Defection,” in which a family risks everything to try to escape this collective fate.

Winters are bitter, food is never plentiful, and loudspeakers harangue the population. Their constantly blaring messages from the government are full of “alternative facts.”

The stories were translated by Deborah Smith, winner of the Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Bandi’s writing style is markedly different from that of Western fiction, with little description and with character development mainly through action and dialog. This bracing style fits material with so much implicit drama and heartache. (For a more immersive approach, you might read the richly plotted Pulitzer Prize-winning Adam Johnson novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, which also puts North Korea’s absurdities and ironies on full display.)

Do Bandi’s stories give the impression that the North Korean people recognize the peculiar nature of their system and its injustices? Absolutely. And if the people are called upon to fulfill some outrageous government edict, will they break their backs trying to do so? Absolutely.

The story of how the book came to be smuggled out of the country and ultimately found its way into print is an exciting tale in itself, included as an afterword. For that heroic effort alone, the book is worthy of attention. It also can’t hurt to foster greater understanding of the suffering that ensues when totalitarian leadership proceeds to its natural end-state. The North Korea Bandi describes is one Westerners may have difficulty comprehending, yet the fact that in 2017 it exists at all proves it is not impossible.

Glimmer Train Short Stories

tapas, small plates

photo: Ken Hawkins, creative commons license

Catching up with two back issues of Glimmer Train—one of the premiere U.S. venues for short story writers—with thoughts about writers to watch, based on these pages. The winter 2015 issue (#92, 13 stories) and fall 2016 issue (#97, 14 stories) are culled from a vast sea of literary output—some 32,000 stories submitted to the GT editors each year.

Most GT writers appear (from their bios) both youngish and frightfully accomplished. Their work and how the editors’ tastes have reacted over the years suggest an evolution in concepts of narrative and characterization, plot and story. Some stories in these recent issue push the envelope of narrative, depending less on scene and dialog. Others deliver their message in short bursts, perhaps thematically linked but otherwise superficially disconnected from what comes before or after. Some require a bit of figuring out. I like the challenge!

Among the stories I enjoyed most from Issue 92 were:

  • “Language Lessons” by Barbara Ganley, each section of which is a mini-story in itself. Ganley is the founder of Community Expressions, LLC, whose purpose is “to help small communities bring storytelling to civic engagements and change efforts”—an enterprise at least as interesting as her fiction.
  • The multiple point-of-view story “Keller’s Ranch,” by award-winning essayist Ming Holden, which includes the memorable line, “I knew that hope can be as sharp as our teeth.” Not an abstract danger, an incarnate one.

Several stories in Issue 97 deal with death, an ambitious topic for a young author and yet dealt with effectively by A. Campbell (“On Fleck/ Fleck On”), a debut author, Matthew Iribarne (“We Are Heaven”), and Lauren Green (“When We Hear Yellow”): “. . . if the heart were a lighthouse, I wouldn’t be able to count on mine. Mine would send out distress signals only after the shipwreck had taken place.”

I also enjoyed:

  • “Pepper,” dog-park action by Weike Wang, author of the novel Chemistry, forthcoming in May, and
  • “Jumping Doctor He Come in Future” by Karen Malley, a story whose good humor starts with the title. Fires and storms and recalcitrant cats.

Tap a source of fine short stories—find them in the magazine section of your big box book store and on many websites—for “small plates” that satisfy.

Mystery Short Stories: Ellery Queen & Betty Fedora

reading, apple

photo: Greg Myers, creative commons license

The September/October 2016 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is the one picked to be the 75th anniversary issue in the year-long celebration of the publication’s staying power and popularity. The precise date of the first issue in 1941 is unknown, but it was fall, in a rather bleak time in history, with World War II raging and uncertainty everywhere. Three-quarters of a century later, EQMM still challenges and entertains!

Betty Fedora, by contrast, is a new mystery/crime publication, dubbed “kickass women in crime fiction.” Issue 3 arrived recently and contains a story of mine, “Breadcrumbs,” with the kickass woman in question a Michigan state trooper hoping to protect a young woman hiding from her abusive husband. She fears he’s tracked her down.

Here are some of my favorite stories from these two magazines—writers I hope to read more from:

  • reading, beach

    photo: El Coleccionista de Instantes Fotografía & Video, creative commons license

    Linda Barnes’s EQMM story, “The Way They Do It in Boston” has great energy and atmosphere. She’s the author of 17 novels and has collected numerous award nominations.

  • “The Specialty of the House” by Stanley Ellin—his first published story—is reprinted from the 1948 issue of EQMM. Ellin was a novelist whose books were adapted for the screen, big and small. He was foremost a master of the short story, and this is “one of the most famous crime stories ever published.”
  • In this issue, perennial EQMM reader favorite (mine, too!) Dave Zeltserman’s a.i. assistant Archie helps not his detective Julius Katz this time, but Katz’s sister Julia elude a determined assassin.
  • Preston Lang’s Betty Fedora story, “The Sign,” is a tale of double-double-crosses, launched by a decades-old sign in a seedy Manhattan bar that reads “Hardtack Coghlan doesn’t pay for a drink.” Has the real Hardtack finally walked in?
  • Office speculation runs high about the true identity of dishy Rudy in the Louisa Barnes story, “Her Colours.” Rudy, she says, had “a gift for insubstantiality.” While the women fixated on him, was there really a spy in their midst?
  • Colleen Quinn’s story poses Betty Fedora readers an intriguing problem. In “The Game of Six Brothers,” when the groomsmen at a wedding discover one of the bridesmaids is a private investigator, they challenge her to figure out which of them is a murderer. And she can ask each of them only one very important question.

Read and enjoy!