Falling behind in reading my Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines, I dashed ahead with the EQMMNovember/December issue when it arrived. Both magazines always have a smorgasbord of mystery subgenres and crime stories, in such diversity it’s hard to compare one story to another. My two personal favorites from this current issue were “A Small Mercy” by Alice Hatcher and “Kit’s Pad” by David Krugler.
Hatcher’s clever story successfully lulled me along with domestic difficulties and relationship challenges to the point where I didn’t see the big surprise coming. It takes a confident writer to trust that readers will buy into the misdirection so solidly that the tables can be turned on them!
This list of tips on writing clever plot twists starts with having authors put themselves in readers’ shoes. It suggests that as a story progresses, authors should develop a list of possible directions a reader might guess the story is headed in. Then “discard every one of them as a potential plot twist”! If the author can readily think where the story is likely to be going, chances are readers can too. That’s why Hatcher’s distraction—making me think the protagonist was solving one problem, when actually he was solving another one—worked so well.
So pleased to learn she’s a fellow University of Michigan alumna! You may know her from the award-nominated novel The Wonder That Was Ours (2018) or her numerous short stories.
In David Krugler’s “Kit’s Pad,” Kit, a homeless man, or the politically correct “unhoused,” which he scoffs at, takes the unhousing dilemma into his own hands. He finds an empty house for sale that’s not properly secured and camps out in luxury. But this pad turns out to be Grand Central Station for late-night visitors sneaking in and looking for . . . something.
The story has a very satisfying ending that gets him out of the “brutal wind scuffing off Lake Michigan” (there it is again, my home state). It’s what experts call a “resolved ending,” and it’s also a happy one. And it’s happy because Krugler has made his protagonist clever and likeable throughout. If a less appealing character ended up in the position Kit does, I as a reader wouldn’t be satisfied at all!
Krugler is a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, and has written two WWII spy thrillers: The Dead Don’t Bleedand Rip the Angels from Heaven. His short story “Every Fire Wants to Kill” was published in the August 2023 issue of Mystery Magazine, in which a different empty house opportunity is seized.
Lois Wehre and her tuxedo cat Frankie lived in Grovers’ Mill, New Jersey, where Orson Welles set his Halloween radio broadcast about Martians landing, and where, to this day, Halloween is a big deal. Her house is Ground Zero for tourists, thanks to local teens who once attached a lighted “flying saucer” to her garage roof. Lois grew up in Missouri. Her father was a mean drunk who lorded it over Lois and her weak-willed mother, and worse. They made Lois’s life miserable. When the house burned down one night as her mother and father slept, Lois took her inheritance and moved across country. Some adult children just shouldn’t live with their parents.
* * *
The wind-whipped whiff of smoke in the air, the flame-colored leaves, the shrieks of the children. Lois forgot to smile at the diminutive superheroes and frothy pink princesses who greedily plunged their hands deep into the candy bowl. “One piece,” she said, unheeded.
The night thickened, and the older kids would start arriving soon. They’d gather outside, trapping her in the house. Not this year. She turned off the lights and, clad head-to-toe in black, a dark scarf hooding her face, slipped out the back door. When she stood motionless at the inky corner of the hedge, she could watch over her house, invisible.
Soon a clutch of twelve-year-old boys walked up to the front porch and pounded on the door.
“That old bitch,” one said in a voice that hadn’t changed yet.
They slipped around the side of the house. Giggling and mock-shoving, they gathered in a tight circle, blocking the wind. A match flared, and the tip of a cigarette glowed as a boy sucked on it, then passed it to his friend. The match, dropped absent-mindedly, fell in an arcing pinpoint of yellow light.
“You sure she’s not home?”
“Danny, she’s not. Dare you to go inside.”
“Chicken.” The boy giggled and took a drag on the joint.
“I will if you will,” another said.
As the jostling boys sneaked into the back yard, a cache of dry leaves hidden under the rhododendrons began to flame.
“Wait,” Lois called, her warning carried away by a gust. She shot out of her hiding place as flames touched the base of the wooden porch. “Frankie!” she shrieked and ran toward the house.
Two older teenagers, football players by the intimidating heft of them, stepped in front of her. They were dressed all in black, too. She hadn’t seen them. The taller one wore sunglasses that made his eyes as fathomless as those of the pseudo-aliens decorating her neighbors’ lawns.
“Where you going?” he asked.
“The house is on fire! My cat!”
“What’s your hurry? It’s just a few dead leaves.”
She tried to dodge around them, but with one side-step they easily blocked someone her size. She shoved. They stood immobile, menacing.
“Please let me by. I have to—hurry!—” Her heart pounded. They didn’t understand how fast fire could move. One end of the porch was burning, and before long, the flames would reach the front door.
“Cats have nine lives.” The shorter teen snickered.
Lois tried again to shove her way between them, but they stood solidly shoulder-to-shoulder, teasing her. “Let me by!” She panted her words. “My neighbors will have seen the fire by now. You’d better get out of here.”
“Plenty of time. Hear anything?” the tall one asked. The other shook his head and grinned.
And, indeed, it was eerily quiet, except for the crackling flames. The rose trellis at the end of the porch sparkled with raining cinders. Shrieks of hilarity came from inside the darkened house.
“Those boys, they have to get out!” She gestured violently. “They’ll die in there.”
The teenagers glanced over their shoulders. “Hey, assholes!” the tall one yelled. “Get out of there. What’re you doing?”
The only answer was more high-pitched laughter.
“I think your little brother’s with them,” the other said. They turned and in long strides reached the porch, the flames licking toward them. They shoved open the front door. “You kids get the hell out. The house is on fire, you morons. Danny, if you’re in there, I’m going to—”
Lois ducked past them, but the tall one grabbed her arm. A column holding up one end of the porch roof collapsed, and the corner of the roof followed in sagging slow motion. Inside, the kids screamed and raced past her, nearly knocking her down. The teenager let go of her arm.
“Danny? Danny! Where is he?” he yelled at the boys.
The children glanced at each other. “He was with us a minute ago.”
“In the kitchen,” said another.
“No, he wasn’t!”
Lois ran to the back of the house and almost tripped on a still form. She turned on the overhead light. The boy was unconscious beneath an open cabinet door. “Must of cracked his head,” she muttered. She picked him up—heavy for her—and called, “Frankie! Frankie!”
A child where he wasn’t supposed to be, just like her daughter Kaye, where she wasn’t supposed to be, the night of that other fire. Kaye had a sleepover, but the girls quarreled after dinner, and Kaye came home while Lois was in the back yard, putting out water for the chickens. She never knew Kaye was there until the firemen carried out the third body.
Danny’s weight caused her to stagger a little. Frankie dashed between her legs, nearly tripping her as she reached the open back door. Being allowed outside at night was a rare treat, and Frankie wouldn’t miss this chance. He flew off the steps.
The teenagers arrived at the bottom of the stoop just as she did, and she handed them Danny like a gift. Then they heard the sirens.
Ghostly apparitions, the bloodier and unDisneyfied fairy tales, the scary stories told around a campfire. They all become more spine-tingling as darkness closes in on the days of autumn.
At some time in the next three weeks, if you want to prep for Halloween by more than filling a plastic pumpkin with candy for the kids, here’s a trio of horror short stories designed to shiver your timbers and get you in the mood.
“The October Game” by Ray Bradbury (1948) – A sadistic spouse, a pitch-black basement, a game that just might go awry, Bradbury partners with your imagination to ramp up the chills. Hear it here on the Classic Ghost Stories Podcast, which offers many more.
“Berenice” by Edgar Allan Poe (1835) – Less well known than “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” or “The Pit and the Pendulum”—all of which are heart-skippingly scary—this one appeals to me because I’ve used it to create two of my own short stories. You can read Poe’s original here. He describes an increasingly unhinged young man who marries his cousin. He obsesses on her teeth. And when she dies, he pulls them out. I’ll let you discover the rest for yourself. My 21st century version, published in Quoth the Raven, is about a meth addict (the bad teeth) obsessed with her twin brother and his girlfriend who has perfect dentition. It doesn’t end happily. My other story based on “Berenice” ends much more happily and appears in a 2021 collection titled Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Edgar Allan Poe. Holmes and Watson to the rescue!
“The Landlady” by Roald Dahl (1959) also invokes the virtue of beautiful teeth. A young man needing a cheap place to stay makes a bad choice. A master class in devious foreshadowing. You know you’re in for it when the first paragraph ends, “But the air was deadly cold and the wind was like a flat blade of ice on his cheeks.” Read it here.
When you’re not in the mood to tackle a whole novel, reading a short story or two, or twelve, can fill the bill. This collection from Murderous Ink Press titled We’ll Be Right Back—After This! is a good one to keep on hand for just those situations. The mostly U.S. tales are geographically wide-ranging and twisty. Several display a good bit of humor, a couple are on the cozy side while some aim for noir, and the range is suggested by the three selected for longer treatment below. We start our underbelly tour on the U.S. west coast.
“Blood on the Stairs” by Jim Guigli features his character, Sacramento, California’s down-at-heels private eye Bart Lasiter. A woman dies on the stairway of his office building, apparently on her way to see him. She was fatally stabbed by one of Bart’s own promotional pencils, bearing the painfully ironic slogan, “I’m ready to help.” The Chicago woman was attending an annual Crime Happens conference. You can tell Guigli has paid his dues at such events by the way he describes the posturing, self-promotion, back-biting—it’s all there. The story moves along steadily toward the deadline the Lasiter and the cops face—solving the case before the conference ends and the participants scatter across the country. Where, if the other stories in this collection are any indication, more crimes await.
“Cruel as the Grave” by Eve Fisher is a story about relationships—bad ones, of course, set in a remote area of South Dakota. The story has so many twists and turns, I didn’t see the end coming at all. Jackie is the pivot around which two other women revolve: one a lawyer, the other a hedonist. They’re uneasy with each other and for good reason. What I really liked about Fisher’s story were the unexpected motivations of the characters that made the ending so believable.
Three of the stories originated outside the United States. In “A Long Dark Road,” by Canadian author Joan Hall Hovey, an elderly widow traveling a lonely road at night meets an unexpected fate. Yorkshire author Madeleine McDonald writes about a spurned woman who frames her errant lover for her own death in “Watching Over You.”
Finally, “Memindip Solves a Problem” by Jay Andrew Connor takes place in an unnamed African country. Memindip is a ghost (?) who avenges wrongful deaths. One evening, he returns to life in a jazz nightclub where a beautiful woman sings. The lights go out. A shot. The lights come on, the singer is dead. The atmosphere of the seedy club, the heat of the crowded city, and especially the tenor of Memindip’s conversations with his taxi driver reinforce the story’s foreign locale. Memindip discovers that the singer wasn’t killed by a bullet, but a good-sized pearl. Such a riveting image! Altogether, a charming tale.
As always, the Jan-Feb issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is packed with good reading. Here are some of the standout stories for me:
“The Killing of Henry Davenport” by John Shen Yen Nee and S.J. Rozan – Admittedly, this story, set in London in 1924, was bound to be a hit with me, as it involves both Sherlock Holmes and my favorite detective, Dee Goong An (hearkening back to a real-life personage from the Tang Dynasty). Holmes, Watson, Dee, and the narrator, Lao She (another real-life character), set out to solve an English murder in which a Chinese man stands accused. The story is a foretaste of a new project Rozan is working on that fans (me!) eagerly await.
“The Soiled Dove of Shallow Hollow” by Sean McCluskey – It’s always fun to see a nicely crafted story in the mag’s Department of First Stories. A hint of more good stuff to come. And I’m easily seduced by a con job where the question of who’s being conned is up for grabs. Nice!
“The Bowser Boys Are Back in Town” by Hal Charles – You can expect some humor in a story that begins, “Like a loud rooster, the bomb in Beverly Dezarn Memorial Park awoke the entire town of Woodhole . . .” The bad-luck Bowser duo is on what turns out to be an all-too-brief (for them) return home from jail, but it looks like they’re headed back to the slammer.
“Can the Cat Catch the Rat” by Steve Hockensmith – This is another in his entertaining series about Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer, tyro detectives in an Old West where the frequent shenanigans offers steady employment. The surprise in this episode is that Old Red has finally agreed to let Big Red teach him to read. However, identifying the counterfeit coins someone’s producing requires nothing more than a healthy set of teeth.
The familiar traveler’s dilemma—what books to pack?—was easily solved for a recent trip to New Orleans. I had already set aside two ideal reads: my friend Tracie Provost’s New Orleans-based Under the Harvest Moon (book two in her under the moon series) and a collection of short stories about the Crescent City published by Akashic. As it turned out, both were entertaining late-evening companions.
Tracie Provost’s books are packed with paranormal events, with vampires and werewolves and mages. Not at all the kind of book I usually read, so kind of thrilling as a result. Provost is so skilled at creating a consistent world for her unusual characters, with their unusual talents, that I’m never caught up short, thinking “Wait a minute . . .” Her heroine is Juliette de Grammont, a healer and a magic-using vampire, who had been staked for centuries and only recently revived. Still a young beautiful woman, Juliette’s occasionally dated ideas and struggles with technology amuse her millennial assistant, Jaime.
When the story begins, a New Orleans police detective who understands Juliette’s special powers calls her in to analyze a crime scene where a vampire and his girlfriend are both dead in a ritual killing. What has taken place, who is doing it, and why become more mysterious and more important as the number of killings increase.
There’s intrigue among the various covens in the city. Juliette’s coven has been reduced to her and Jaime, as its other members recently staged an unsuccessful coup against the City’s Grandmaster. A few from her coven were killed, but most are still out there . . . somewhere . . . As the risks mount and the evil motivation behind the killings gradually emerges, Juliette and her lover Josh must look for help from unusual sources—including the pack of werewolves living outside the city—for protection and help.
Provost makes the interactions among the characters quite real, almost ordinary—well, almost. She makes them eminently practical. For example, there’s someone they can call who comes with an after-crime clean-up team (he used to work for Al Capone) in order to hide various crimes. In fact, there’s a whole group of mages whose job it is to keep the paranormal world secret—the Gatekeepers. Even select members of the NOPD are in on it.
When you finish Under the Harvest Moon, you can be sure there’s a Book 3 on the way, and will await it eagerly! (You may want to use one of my affiliate links to find it on Amazon, as several books have this title.)
This collection, edited by Julie Smith, is a bit different than the usual Akashic collection, in that the 18 stories are not all contemporary. In fact, the earliest is from 1843. They include entries from revered authors like O.Henry, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams, as well as modern masters like James Lee Burke and Ace Atkins.
Overall, they provide a rich portrait of the city, its contrasts and its corruptions, its amusements and its shenanigans, as seen through these different eyes, with their very different, if precise ways of seeing. Quite a nice collection!
If you asked, I’d say I don’t write horror, but two of my published short stories do include a ghost—maybe. The closest I’ve come to horror is a story Kings River Life published for Halloween 2021. (You can read it here.) “A Question of Identity” is a much-reworked and rethought tale originally written in response to a request for stories about masks. Because our home is full of masks, this was a theme I could resonate with!
In it, two preadolescent girls, neighbors and best friends, each receive a box with a Halloween costume in it—a fox for one and a tiger for the other. Where did they come from? No one knows. Few questions are asked. The moms are just grateful that’s one shopping errand they can cross off their very long lists.
When the girls put on the costumes, the unexpected happens, which is why it evolved into a story that’s much more about identity than Halloween. When they exchange costumes, their parents don’t recognize them, and even after Halloween is over and each girl has her own costume again, their effects linger. You may conclude that those new identities have a dark side.
It isn’t a mystery story leading to a solution, so you never know where the costumes came from, and that uncertainty contributes to the spookiness. As Charles Baxter says in his wonderful book, The Art of Subtext, “the half-visible and the unspoken—all those subtextual matters—are evoked when the action and dialogue of the scene angle downward, when by their multiplicity they imply as much as they show. A slippery surface causes you to skid into the subtext.”
The September/October issues of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazineand Ellery Queen Mystery Magazineare, as always, filled with super collections of crime fiction of across the wide playing field of crime fiction. It’s always hard to pick stories to highlight—I could almost tape up the tables of contents and throw darts—but here are a few, limiting myself to three each. First from AHMM:
“My Two-Legs” by Melissa Yi – this charming story is about a clever dog who helps solve the crime when his “two-legs” (a young man named Sunil) goes missing. I found the way Yi translates doggie behavior into the narrative of the story simply brilliant.
“When the Dams Break” by James A. Hearn, set in hill country, Texas, shows that even the cleverest Lone Star politician will eventually have to confront his past.
“Peril in Pasadena” by Edith Maxwell is a fem-fest, with two women PIs, a female scientist victim, and a demonstration of the perils of treating a cleaning woman like she’s invisible. All in the context of the leadup to the Rose Parade.
Ellery Queen also offers up a nice diversity, including:
“The Wraith of Bunker Hill” by Paul D. Marks—probably his last published story before his untimely death, it combines Hollywood lore with an intriguing con game involving present-day murders and the Black Dahlia legend.
“The Light on the Lagoon: by Canadian author Elizabeth Elwood—it’s never too soon to start teaching the younger generation about the Hitchcock canon.
“The Kindness of Strangers” by Twist Phelan—the author perfectly captures the self-absorption and insecurities of adolescent girls that would allow this calamity to unfold—and lives up to her own name here.
Just in time for the High Holidays, comes Jewish Noir II, edited by Kenneth Wishnia and Chantelle Aimée Osman. In his lively introduction, noted crime writer Lawrence Block says you can sum up every Jewish holiday in three sentences: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!” While great food is an essential part of Jewish holiday celebrations, Block points out that the first two sentence are even more tied to the Jewish experience and, as he says, make the combination of Jews and noir almost inevitable. And timely, I’d add, given current trends.
This collection of twenty-three short stories, many of which were written by prize-winning authors, are clustered in six themes: legacies, scattered and dispersed (stories from the diaspora); you shame us in front of the world (embarrassment and dishonor); the God of mercy; the God of vengeance; and American Splendor (stories that could only happen in the United States). Editors Wishnia and Osman point to a subtext of many of the stories: fear amidst the stresses of modern life. Fear of the past, fear of loss, fear of anti-Semitism, fear of violence. Fear that is another signpost on the road to noir. Even with that common thread, the stories themselves are wildly diverse, and readers will find many that appeal, regardless of stylistic preferences. This review tackles only three of them, from across the themes mentioned.
“Taking Names,” the opening story by Steven Wishnia, sits perfectly in the sweet spot between past and present. It begins with the commemoration of a notorious tragedy, the 1911 fire at New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. In that calamity, scores of young women jumped nine stories to their deaths, rather than be burned alive. Because of the business owners’ negligence, 146 people—mainly Italian and Jewish immigrants—died. The issue of worker safety is brought up to the present day by reporter Charlie Purpelburg, who’s covering union efforts to increase worker safety in the construction industry. Once again, risky conditions affect the most vulnerable employees—undocumented workers, this time around. They’re not only caught in the political machinations of Jewish developers skirting safety regulations, their wages are being stolen. Enter the social media trolls. Where does all this racial hostility end? No place good.
Craig Faustus Buck’s “The Shabbes Goy” is another tale of exploitation, this time of an elderly woman by her ultra-religious husband, who fills their apartment with gloom and domination. How three members of the younger generation ally to thwart him is quite satisfying. Funny and horrifying, all at once.
“What was I thinking?” is the first line of “The Nazi in the Basement” by Rita Lakin. An elderly Jewish woman living in California returns to New York for a funeral and decides to do the unfathomable. She visits her old neighborhood in the Bronx for the first time in decades. When she lived there, the residents were mostly Jews, Irish, and Italians, and now, before she can park the rental car, she encounters teenagers from Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, and Bangladesh. They wheedle most of her life story out of her. But she doesn’t tell them the ending, the tragic events that produced in her “the scars masquerading as memories.”
Many of the remaining stories address the issues of younger generations of Jews and people living in other countries. Still, it is today’s elderly, grandchildren of the immigrants from the last century who have witnessed the massive social changes of upward mobility, and who, at this point, may be most caught between past and present.
Is it summer and the competition of outdoor activities that cause attention spans to dwindle and make a good collection of short stories extra appealing? Truthfully, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine are never out of season. Here are some highlights from their summer issues.
In EQMM: “Serving Process” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch – anyone who’d save a litter of wet, half-starved and mewling kittens is a hero in my book “The Secret Sharer” by W. Edward Blain – very clever and satisfying tale, and a nice example of how fiction can reflect the realities of covid yet not be about covid “Powerball” by Jack Bunker – Yes, playing the lottery is a mug’s game, yet some people are just better players than others. In light of last week’s $1.337 billion Mega Millions jackpot IRL, this story should have a big audience! “Storm Warning” by Dana Haynes is another table-turning tale that makes you feel that, sometimes, bad deeds work out exactly right!
And in AHMM: “Death Will Take the High Line by Elizabeth Zelvin – Points to her for tackling a story that plunges right into gender identity issues without becoming polemical. “The Conversation Killer” by Al Tucher – in lushly described Hawa`i, a rookie female police officer makes a big mistake. “The Man Who Went Down Under” by Alexis Stefanovich-Thomson won the 15th annual Black Orchid Novella Award contest. The search for a missing diamond involves quite a few characters, notably, a young P.I.’s interfering and none-too-impressed mother.
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