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 Witch (2016 rerelease)

goat

(photo: adapted from stanhua, creative commons license)

In an old-timey flourish, the opening credits for this writer/director Robert Eggers’s unconventional horror film calls it The VVitch (new rerelease trailer), the ancient Latinate “double v.” It’s 1630s New England, and William and his family have been exiled from their Puritan community and must find a new home, alone together in the wilderness. Triggered by some heterodoxy of William’s that he clings to with “prideful conceit,” the expulsion has dangers that are obvious from the strength of the stockade surrounding the sad village buildings, the armed Indians who look on the departing family with curiosity, the gate so firmly barred behind them. From this ominous beginning Eggers builds a horrifying tale.

William (played by Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), their pubescent daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), 12-year-old son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), must create a new farm, and he selects land near a stream and a dense old-growth woods.

Some time passes, and the family has a house and an outbuilding, a chicken house, a stable for the horse, and a small corral for the goats, including a suspect animal named Black Phillip. They also have failing crops and not enough food for the winter. They also have a new baby boy, who disappears while Thomasin is minding him.

All the lengthy prayers and the catechism the family recites (“Canst thou tell me what thy corrupt nature is?” William asks; “My corrupt nature is empty of grace, bent unto sin, only until sin, and that continually,” responds Caleb) are powerless in the face of this calamitous loss. Was it a wolf? Or did a witch emerge from the woods and snatch him?

Some scenes suggest the latter and viewers inclined that way are persuaded the witchery is real. My own view is that these scenes were the imaginings of hearts filled with fears, stomachs empty of food, and minds prey to acute spiritual anxieties. After all, such anxieties contributed to the Salem witch trials some 60 years later. In truth, the family members see the things that most trouble them. As Anthony Lane says in The New Yorker, “The Witch feels at once sticky with tangible detail and numinous with suggestion.” When the closing credits roll, unanswered questions remain.

As for atmospherics, the winter sky is ever thickly clouded. The film’s color palette ranges from gray to dark gray to greige. Brilliant color is saved for the carmine of a cape, and, of course, the blood. The music, by Mark Korven, shrieks in all the right places. These new Americans’ old Yorkshire accents are sometimes hard to understand, but the emotional current is so clear that words are almost unnecessary.

This is not a horror film of the slasher variety or one that lays out clearcut answers. Viewers can come to their own interpretation, and mine does not rely on supernatural forces. Rather than “witches—yes or no?” it is a chilling portrayal of what all can go wrong in a family alone in the wilderness in that very particular culture and era. Though critics like it, audiences expecting a typical horror film apparently are disappointed that it is heavy on thinking and light on exsanguinating—the very things I admired!

I wanted to see this film because recently my genealogical research uncovered that a direct ancestor came from England to Massachusetts—most probably with the same type of religious zeal that took William and his family so far from home—in exactly that time period, 1633. I also learned the dispiriting fact that another ancestor (specifically, Margery Pasque, a first cousin eight times removed) testified in the Salem witch trials against Rebecca Nurse, later executed. I thought The VVitch would give a bit of a sense of what lives were like then, and in that it certainly succeeded.

If YOU see it, I’d be very interested in knowing what you thought of it!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 90%; audiences: 53%, replaced by a “want to see” percentage of 94%.

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**Slade House

haunted house

(photo: Joey Gannon, creative commons license)

By David Mitchell – I’ve read all of David Mitchell’s books except 2015’s The Bone Clocks and enjoyed each of them, so looked forward to reading his latest. It’s the distinctive square book with the yellow die-cut cover through which Slade House’s floorplan shows. While many of these other novels wandered briefly into the supernatural or uncanny, this one is firmly planted there.

According to Dwight Garner in his New York Times review, the book grew out of a short story, published in 140-character tweets. It tells the story of five people who, nine years apart, happen into another dimension where the elaborate mansion Slade House exists and where they encounter a pair of twins, brother and sister, who are, as one would-be victim puts it, “parasitic soul-slayers.” They need to suck the souls of humans in order to preserve their immortality. The first victim we read about has many of the charms of the 13-year-old narrator of Black Swan Green, but don’t get too attached. He’s soon replaced by a vulnerable police detective, not nearly as perceptive as he thinks he is. And so on.

Mitchell is a superb writer and conjures images of Slade House and his all-too-human victims and all-too-inhuman protagonists that are hard to dispel. But, what’s the point? Possibly such stories are just not my cuppa. Certainly, this one didn’t appeal to me, even at the level of simple entertainment. There is no one in the book to relate to or learn from. The brother and sister are too weird (not “fleshed out,” I’d say) and their victims on the scene too briefly. Says Garner, “These characters aren’t alive enough for us to fear for them when they’re in peril.”

Nevertheless, readers who enjoy the paranormal may find themselves agreeing with the Washington Post reviewer who said the book is “devilishly fun” or The Daily Beast, which called it “dark, thrilling, and fun.” While the novel was an easy-to-complete read on a five-hour plane ride, the recurring, but temporary illusion of Slade House itself was perhaps the most stable touchpoint in the whole enterprise.

Maybe I should give Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House a try and see whether I have the same reaction. Other suggestions?

****Wolf Winter

arctic wolf

(photo: myri-_bonnie, Creative Commons license)

By Cecilia Ekbäck, narrated by Alyssa Bresnahan – Swedish-born writer Ekbäck’s debut crime thriller is set in remote north Sweden in 1717. The long darkness of winter is closing in, and the scattered homesteads on Blackåsen Mountain are preparing for what the signs suggest will be a rough time. The Lapps who have come south for the season say it will be a “wolf winter,” which they describe as “the kind of winter that will remind us we are mortal. Mortal and alone.”

Paavo, his wife Maija (MY-ah), and their daughters, 14-year-old Frederika and six-year-old Dorotea, are new arrivals from Finland, and they haven’t spent a winter this far north before. They aren’t sure what to expect, even though they don’t know the mountain’s dark history of evil portents and mysterious disappearances. One thing they do not expect is for Paavo to decide to leave his womenfolk on their own and travel to the coast to try to earn some money. He won’t return before spring. And they definitely don’t expect that Frederika and Dorotea will discover the mutilated corpse of one of their new neighbors, a man named Eriksson, in a glade where they’d intended to pasture their goats.

When Eriksson’s death comes to light, some of the neighbors attribute the savage attack to a bear, others suggest wolf, but Maija who is an earth-woman by training—a midwife and healer—insists the death was caused by a human agent. Almost certainly, a murderer is in their midst.

Yet no one misses Eriksson, a man who made it his business to ferret out and exploit people’s weaknesses. “Sometimes God did take the right people” seems to be the view. In this tiny community in which everyone knows everyone else and, presumably, most of their secrets and hidden grudges, the layers of deception keep being peeled back.

In the region’s central town the immense power of the church resides in the person of the priest, Olaus Arosander. He starts out as Maija’s adversary, skeptical of her belief Eriksson was murdered. While he doesn’t trust her kind of knowledge, he has secrets of his own that put him at odds with his church’s views. Over time, Maija and Arosander both become committed to determining what happened to Eriksson, and whether his death is the end of violence on Blackåsen Mountain or the beginning.

The notion of wolves takes on both a corporeal and metaphoric significance in the story. It becomes clear that predators are ravaging the countryside, preying on the community’s weakest members. Darkness, too, means more than the months’ long absence of sunlight. It also refers to the special knowledge—call it intuition, call it the ability to read signs, call it something more, but don’t dare call it sorcery—that helps Maija sort truth from misdirection. In that place and time, such “special knowledge” was a potentially deadly inheritance, one that Maija received from her dead grandmother and which she fears has been passed on to Frederika, who doesn’t yet understand its power or how to control it.

Wolf Winter works well as an audio book. Bresnahan’s narration is clear, and the characters are easy to distinguish both by the reader’s voice and Ekbäck’s helpful cues regarding the speaker’s identity. This is a perfect listen for the shortest days of the year—preferably in front of a fire, in heavy socks and woolly robe, because the novel’s chills come from both the weather so ably described and the hearts of the characters. Another great contribution to the Nordic noir tradition.

A somewhat longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website here.

Labyrinth of Lies

Alexander Fehling, Labyrinth of LiesGermany’s submission (trailer) for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards puts viewers in a world of anti-Semitism, fear, denial, indifference and callous pragmatism. The movie, screened with subtitles, breathes life into the familiar storyline of a justice-seeking crusader. This one is not entirely alone, but the pervasive forces he’s battling are propagated not just by those in power but by the common folk as well.

Set in Frankfurt in 1958, the movie fictionalizes the effort to conduct the first German prosecutions of former Nazi officials. Many believed the Nuremberg trials conducted by the Allied forces had resolved that matter (or should have). At the same time, it was common knowledge that war criminals were everywhere, carrying on normal lives with impunity. Only after these ground-breaking trials did Germans finally confronted their wartime culpability.

Bringing ex-Nazis to justice required heroic effort. Making that journey in the film is young prosecutor Johann Radmann, played by Alexander Fehling in a widely praised performance. (Radmann is a composite of several real-life prosecutors.) He’s a junior one, handling traffic violations, but he’s ambitious. The screenplay deftly reveals this by showing him articulating the case for sentencing a murderer to the maximum penalty of life imprisonment, then we see he’s standing alone in front of a bathroom mirror.

Into this unfulfilled life comes a revelation from a journalist, Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski). He tells prosecutors a member of the Waffen S.S. stationed at the Auschwitz concentration camp now works as a school teacher, in violation of federal law. Radmann wants the case, but he’s opposed by his boss and colleagues. He’s supported, however, then led by a shrewd, experienced Attorney General, Fritz Bauer, the real-life hero of the story, who has long harbored the ambition of bringing top ex-Nazis to justice. Played by the late Gert Voss, he exudes quiet power.

Labyrinth of Lies

Becht and Fehling in Labyrinth of Lies

Radmann is far less aggressive in his personal life than his professional one, but a convincing romantic involvement with a dressmaker, Marlene Wondrak (Friederike Becht), raises the stakes for him.

We feel the horrors of the camp through the emotions of survivors, primarily artist Simon Kirsch (Johannes Krisch), a friend of Gnielka, who lost his twin daughters to the horrific experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele. But the focus stays on the complicity of those who continue to ignore, deny, or cover up Nazi crimes. It’s not difficult to understand the disconnect between Radmann and the people trying to thwart him. He was too young to appreciate how so many of his countrymen came to be Nazis. If he can’t come to terms with his new knowledge, however, it will destroy him.

Some critics, such as The Boston Globe’s Peter Keough, have found the movie “formulaic and uninspired,” but most have a more positive view, such as that of Kate Taylor in The Globe and Mail of Toronto. She called it “a strong account of a lesser-known episode of post-Holocaust history raised above its obvious cinematic formula by Fehling’s anchoring performance and the film’s wise approach to the survivors’ horrific testimony.”

Rotten Tomatoes ratings are 78% from critics and 83% from viewers.

Guest review by fellow writing group member David Ludlum, a fan of tales of intrigue.

****The Laughing Monsters

Freetown, Africa

Freetown (photo: bobthemagicdragon, creative commons license)

By Denis Johnson The Laughing Monsters (2014) is an antic suspense novel that focuses on two friends—one white, one black—whose wild adventure starts in pre-Ebola Freetown, Sierra Leone, and unravels across Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ghana. Their goal is to make a financial killing doing something—selling government secrets, peddling fake uranium—then retire to a life on the beach.

Roland Nair, the book’s narrator, is a Scandinavian/American/NATO spook and an admitted coward in a land where courage needs to come in more than the liquid form he prefers. His long-time friend, handsome Michael Adriko, a son of Uganda, teeters on the edge of a major breakdown. Adriko’s undeniable courage and latent lethality is a good way to get both men into trouble. And does. But is Nair working with Adriko or against him?

Also along for the ride is Michael’s fifth fiancée, Davidia, daughter of a U.S. military commander running a secret post somewhere in the Congo. Davidia is beautiful—men’s “gazes followed behind her as if she swept them along with her hands,” and both Nair and Adriko want her. She’s patiently trying to make the best of their low-budget accommodations and travel arrangements, but even she reaches her limit and, anyway, her father wants her back.

Johnson, who won the National Book Award for his 2007 novel about Vietnam, Tree of Smoke, effectively evokes the fractured spirit of the place—the do-si-do-ing for advantage of the operatives loosely connected with various spy agencies with whom they negotiate, the tunnel vision of the American military personnel, the sinister and sometimes overtly threatening village residents they encounter when they’re far from transportation and cell phone coverage.

banana leaves

(photo: Sandi Plek, creative commons license)

The author presents his characters with precision and a fine appreciation of absurdity. Here’s how Nair describes one of Michael’s reckless schemes: “As [Michael] expressed these ideas he followed them with his eyes, watching them gallop away to the place where they made sense.”

Johnson is equally good at conveying the sensory-overload of the African environment: not only the mind-baking heat and the mud and the tainted water, but the ramshackle villages and spluttering vehicles, the barmen and the prostitutes. Nair plunges into political incorrectness with an unforgettable description of an African prostitute “wearing a curly blonde wig, like a chocolate-covered Marilyn Monroe.”

I really enjoyed the first 175 pages or so of this 228-page book, though in the final section, the gods of chaos and Really Bad Hangovers hijacked the narrative, and I felt I was losing the thread. On the whole, it is as described by New York Times critic Joy Williams, “cheerfully nihilistic” as it lays bare the “giddy trickle-down of global exploitation and hubris—the farcical exploits of cold dudes in a hard land.”

****The White Van

police, San Francisco, passersby

(photo: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons license)

By Patrick Hoffman — This is a story about what happens when people get in way, way over their heads. At its center is 31-year-old Emily Rosario, a down-on-her-luck San Francisco woman living on society’s sharp edges. “She was pretty, but in a beat-up way. She would have been prettier in a different life.” One with fewer drugs and kinder men.

The story opens with Emily being picked up in a Tenderloin district dive bar. The Russian man who approaches her, doesn’t look dangerous. He has money, he’s clean. And he has crack. With these thin rationalizations, she accompanies him to his hotel near the airport. Soon she’s being fed more drugs than she’s bargained for. Three Russians keep her for a week in a state of semi-stupefaction, then, still foggy, send her into a bank to carry off the pretense of a robbery. Now in possession of a satchel containing $880,000, she stumbles out of the bank, but instead of climbing into the robbers’ waiting white van, she steps back into the bank, nabs the security guard’s gun, and sends him running. Confused, with sirens approaching, the van driver takes off. Emily emerges and runs away. The robbers have lost her and, of infinitely greater concern, the cash.

Meanwhile, Leo Elias and his younger partner Gary Trammell, members of the SFPD’s Gang Task Force cruise the streets. Elias’s recent string of lousy financial decisions is fast catching up with him. This robbery seems to Elias like a crime he might be able to solve. And in solving it, he means to steal the money for himself. Elias draws Trammell in, and as they sink deeper and deeper into a case they have no authority to investigate, Elias acts crazier and crazier. Trammell, unsure what to do, decides to just go along, at least for a while.

Emily can’t quite make up her mind to leave San Francisco, but the Russians and the two increasingly desperate cops are on her trail. A private detective has staked out her crib, and if any of her neighbors even suspect what’s in that bag she never lets out of her sight, her life will be over in a finger-snap.

Saying much more would spoil Patrick Hoffman’s well-planned plot twists, but suffice it to say, they keep coming. He has lived in San Francisco and worked as an investigator, and his knowledge of the city and its geography, his familiarity with police procedures, and—even better—his understanding of police attitudes is totally convincing. Here’s an example: “Delgado [the police union representative] leaned toward Elias and whispered, ‘There were a couple cameras in the alley, but none of them caught the incident. Which is to say, your memory of what happened is the correct version.’” He also understands the psychology of people in trouble. Through his obsessive attention to their state of mind, he puts readers right in both Elias’s and Emily’s heads as the tension and the stakes continue to mount.

This terrific debut novel is a true page-turner. Start reading this book and you won’t want to stop.

A longer version of this review is available on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

****Mr. Mercedes

car, Mercedes

(photo: commons. wikimedia)

By Stephen King. I’d resolved to read some Stephen King this year and picked this one up in the San Diego airport. I see that the Mystery Writers of America have nominated it for the Edgar Award—“Best Novel” category—for 2014. Five more nominees to go.

King fulfills all the standard thriller conventions—ticking clock, protagonist who must act outside the system with aid only from clever, but unofficial sources (in this case a black high school student and a woman with a serious mental disorder), a diabolical threat against a passel of innocents, and an opponent with sufficient intellectual- and fire-power to keep the stakes stoked. With characters from the crime novel version of Central Casting, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the plot–despite its interesting set-up–is more than a wee bit predictable.

It’s an artful page-turner, if you don’t think too hard, and King fans may love it, but it breaks no new ground. (Read about the “King for a Year” project, which so far revisits some of his more innovative works.) And perhaps it’s no surprise then, that Mr. Mercedes will be turned into a television series, with the script to be written by David E. Kelley (Boston Legal and Ally McBeal), and Jack Bender (Lost and Under the Dome) to direct.

The Imitation Game

Alan Turing, codebreaking, Bletchley Park

(photo: wikimedia.org)

Eagerly awaited general release of The Imitation Game (trailer), starring Benedict Cumberbatch in a superb bit of acting, and was not disappointed. The story, hidden for almost 30 years, is by now familiar—Alan Turing, the brilliant but eccentric Oxford student admitted to Bletchley Park’s code-breaking team, figures out how to decrypt messages generated by the Nazis’ super-secret Enigma machine, shortening WWII by two years, and, oh, by the way, inventing computers in the process.

Last month Andrew Hodges, author of the book the movie’s based on, was in town for a talk—a bit dazed about this great success 30 years post-publication—and his insights (summarized here) were, frankly, helpful. He powerfully described the homophobia that pervaded the British intelligence services (and society in general) in the 1950’s that made Turing a target. Also the greater significance of the apples, alluded to only glancingly in the movie and without context. Turing was fascinated with the Snow White story, and saying more drifts into spoiler territory.

I earnestly hope someone said to him what Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) says near the end of this film. Clarke responds to Turing’s lifelong struggle with being different from other boys and men, and says how he “saved millions of lives by never fitting in,” as Tom Long put it in The Detroit News. Or, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine,” says the movie’s tagline.

There’s a little too much standing in front of the marvelous prop constructed for the movie, which the producer says is like the original Turing machine, just not in a box, so you can see the works. The secondary characters are thinly developed and no doubt worthy of greater interest. However, the scenes of Turing as a young boy (Alex Lawther), trying to come to terms with his differentness, are heartbreaking. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audience score 95%.

* The Highway

By C.J. Box – I met this popular and award-winning thriller author at a conference two years ago, and he was so highly praised there, I figured I was missing something by CJ Box, The Highwaynot having read any of his books. I still am. Box, a Wyoming native, sets his books in the West, with his series character, Joe Pickett, a Wyoming game warden. This book (a gift) isn’t part of that series, and it was a real disappointment. The book is told through the eyes of several of the characters, including long-haul trucker Ronald Pergram, who calls himself the Lizard King, for his well developed schemes for trapping, torturing, and murdering “lot lizards,” the prostitutes who prowl the parking areas of the big Interstate truck stops—and any other women he comes across when the need to “go hunting” overtakes him.

Being inside the head of this character and privy to his disturbed (and not very original) thoughts is some especially sordid category of TMI. It’s a relief when Box switches to the point of view of the women in the story. We follow Cassie Dewell, a new Investigator for the Lewis and Clark County (Montana) Sheriff’s Department. Inexperienced and unsure of herself, she ends up alone on the trail of disappeared teen sisters—disappeared, as the reader knows, by Pergram. And parts of the story are told from the perspective of the younger of the sisters, sixteen-year-old Gracie Sullivan. Box handles girl teen-speak rather well, and the girls seem plausible enough, as is Cassie.

The book doesn’t lack for tension. During the early scenes in which Pergram is chasing down the girls’ little red car in his 80,000-pound Peterbilt (teach your daughters to pay attention to the “check engine” light!), I wasn’t sure I could keep reading. A number of Amazon readers’ comments show mine was a common reaction: “I almost took an early exit from ‘The Highway.’” “I hope that ‘The Highway’ was just the result of [Box] taking a wrong turn on a bad day.” “I love the Pickett series, but I just couldn’t stomach this one.” I may have to try again.

The West is a great place to live in, but Ronald Pergram’s head is not.