Book Review: Jewish Noir II

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.

July/August EQMM and AHMM

reading, beach

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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Reading Lessons: Jacked

A crime fiction short story has to accomplish a lot in a compressed space. It of course has to describe the crime involved in enough detail that it makes sense to readers; it has to create believable characters whose fates you care about, at least enough to arouse your curiosity, if not your admiration; and the narrative has to move along briskly—skirting the law isn’t an occupation for laggards. The twenty-one crime stories in the new anthology Jacked, edited by Vern Smith, manage to do all this and then some.

A lot of the stories are pretty dark indeed, and I was interested in how some of the authors managed nevertheless to produce a few laughs. A bit of humor is a welcome addition to what can be a rather bleak assessment of human frailty. Here’s how the stories in this collection manage it.

In several, the situation itself is innately funny. An example is Eric Beetner’s “First Timers,” in which a pair of inexperienced teenagers steal the wrong person’s car. The laughs end before the story does, you’ll find. 

A long story that closes the book is Ricky Sprague’s “The Gryfters.” Again, there’s a wacky premise. The humor arises because all the characters (who are a motley group) play the situation straight, except the narrator Chris. He sees all the weirdness for what it is. His roommate, a young guy on the fringes of criminality, hits upon the bright idea of developing a ride-share service for criminals who need a fast getaway. You know you’re in for an entertaining ride, when, early on, the roommates discuss possible names for the service. Gryft is the apparent choice.

Chris’s hesitant, stumbling conversation shows how swamped he is by fear and doubt. Still, he can’t escape a rapidly deteriorating situation. He’s doomed to be a passenger in the slowest imaginable trip across Los Angeles in a car so ridiculously crowded you’ll envision a circus clown car. What makes the humor work is Chris’s miserable awareness and the cinematic clarity of Sprague’s descriptions. (No surprise then that he has two stories in the 2021 anthology of humorous mysteries, Die Laughing.)

In Jacqueline Seewald’s “Worst Enemy,” the sister of a man accused of murder convinces a private investigator to try to prove her brother’s innocence. P.I. Bob Harris doesn’t want to take the case, because it looks like the brother is the killer—the police have DNA evidence—and he was too drunk to remember anything that might provide an alibi. In fact, he even concedes he might have done it. Despite his original misgivings, Bob digs in, and his unease provides a few unexpected light moments.

Reading a collection like Jacked is a good way to sample different authors’ styles. Editor Vern Smith, himself an author, is an Arthur Ellis Award finalist. The three stories mentioned aside, the collection falls on the dark end of the spectrum, gritty and uncompromising, with a sense that the characters are teetering on the edge of something and may fly off at any moment. Strap on your seatbelt before reading.

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“The Ring of Truth”

My short story protagonist Brianna Yamato—newly minted reporter for The Sweetwater Register, the fictional newspaper of Sweetwater, Texas—is on the story once again. Her latest exploit, “The Ring of Truth” is published in the August 2022 Mystery Magazine. Previously, she solved a four-person homicide and the death by rattlesnake bite of a wind-turbine repairman who had the makings of a potential boyfriend, but . . .

In this story, Brianna is a volunteer with the local community theater group putting on the comedy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. This is a show my family and I have seen on stage a half-dozen times in various-sized productions—from amateur theater to Broadway (Nathan Lane). And the Zero Mostel movie is a perennial favorite when we need a pick-me-up.

Alas, in the Sweetwater production, the high school senior playing the romantic lead dies one night during rehearsal, and Brianna starts to dig into her story.

Because I’ve written four short stories about Brianna (three published), I have to keep in mind certain details about her world. Since I can’t count on my memory, I created a Word document titled “Facts about the Sweetwater Stories,” which lists the stories in chronological order and when they took place. It has bulleted facts about Brianna, not just her physical description but her way of working (“she tends to let interviewees talk” and “she matches their body language and expressions”), that she lives in a house—not an apartment—with her friend Ruth.

Brianna, being Japanese, tiny (and female) has to hold her own in a sea of big and tall Texas men. They’d love to patronize her, if she’d let them. In several of the stories, she gets comments like “you don’t look like a Brianna” and remarks about immigrants. So I established that her family arrived in California, where she was born and raised, in 1880. Similarly, in the current story, she receives an earful from an interviewee, father of the dead girl who wants her to stop her “medding.” Here’s how she sets him straight.

“You people—” He started to walk away.

“We journalists? Or we twenty-somethings?”

He came back and barked in my face. “You Orientals start your wars, let us settle your hash, then leave your crappy countries and move here, to enjoy everything America offers.”

Oh boy. I said, “My granddad and his brothers served in the US Army in World War II. You’ve heard of the Purple Heart battalion? His youngest brother was killed in Korea. And my dad and uncles fought in Vietnam. What was your unit?” I could hear my editor now.

To break off his death-stare, I said, “Kayla’s friends say nice things about her. I just wondered whether you’d noticed any change, anything unusual, before she died.”

“No. You people saw more of her than we did those last weeks.”

“Oh. We thespians.”

I also keep a list of the businesses she visits—the Triple Joe Café next door to the newspaper, the Southside Grill with its homestyle cooking and the names of its friendly servers, the Egg ‘n’ Oink where Brianna likes to track down police chief Hank Childers while he’s having his Sunday brunch.

When I was a kid, I had family who lived in Sweetwater and visited them every year. The picture in my mind of the community is no doubt vastly different from what the town is today. I read the newspaper online when I’m working on a story to bring myself forward a few decades. But the rattlesnakes are the same.

More Short and Sweet: Tips on Effective Prose in Short Stories

Last week Sisters in Crime sponsored another of its “Short and Sweet” webinars about short-story writing. Talented author Art Taylor again hosted, along with award-nominated Ed Aymar, to talk about constructing a text. There’s a great satisfaction in doing it well. As Brendan DuBois said in the current issue of The3rdDegree, there’s a “satisfaction in seeing how an author can tell a gripping story in the confines of a relatively small playground.”

The prose—that is, the words on the page—are not just a delivery vehicle for character and plot, Taylor said. How a story is told is its own experience. If it’s told in a style that makes you think of floating down a lazy river on a summer day with the insects buzzing and the green smells rising, that’s a different experience than a style like a machine gun’s rat-a-tat-tat.

Of course, you can have both. If you lull the reader with a warm, sleepy meandering text until unexpected events cut it off with the rat-a-tat-tat of hard consonants and short sentences, that wakes the reader up. In my writing, I default to long sentences, chains of clauses linked by commas and conjunctions. I have to remind myself not to write a fight scene that way! Make it punchy.

I’m sure I was nodding when Taylor said, “Let the reader do some of the work.” Over-explaining is annoying. Trust that your reader is following along and understands some things without explanation. “She started making dinner, so they would have something to eat that night.” Clearly, everything after the comma should go. If you can envision your readers saying, “I get it, I get it!” then cut.

Short stories, especially, benefit from pruning everything unnecessary. Taylor called this “economy, efficiency, and an unrelenting focus.” Nothing should be in the story that doesn’t serve its purposes. Taking this a step further, he suggested that each line of a story ideally should accomplish several things.

A recent short story described a journalist and his investigations of hazardous jobsites. He takes a woman to dinner and, in the middle of their evening, a terrorist appears and shoots a dozen people. It was like walking into another story. Perhaps the author used the crusading journalist trope to make readers sympathetic to the murdered man, but weren’t there more integrated ways to accomplish this? It’s as if the story wore a plaid skirt, a striped blouse and a polka-dot vest, when what it needed was a dress. Fancy, sure, but One Thing.

I was relieved to hear from Ed Aymar that he writes lots of drafts. Me, too. And he endorsed the idea of reading work out loud, especially dialog. It’s one of the quickest ways to spot where the text isn’t working. Another of his good ideas is to rewrite your text a bit when using it for a reading. The pacing and emphases may need to be adjusted.

Sisters in Crime has archived the video of Taylor and Aymar’s presentation for its members. “Crafting Prose in a Short Story” is full of additional writing tips, too. Join?

Photo: the 3D printed dress at Selfridges Department Store, London, was photographed by Bradley Harper.

The Short of It: Crime Stories

reading

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine both included some stellar stories in their March/April issues. Lots to like in the varied offerings of both publicationss.

Here are some of my favorites from EQMM:

  • Mat Coward’s comic adventure “Morbid Phenomena of the Most Varied Kind” – It’s hard not to like a story that begins “If you were thinking of assassinating a politician, my main advice would be don’t bother—they keep spares.”
  • Lou Manfredo’s “Sundown” is a police procedural (always a favorite subgenre) that fascinated me as reader and writer with its insightful look at how police detectives follow a thread and keep following it, just in case
  • I chuckled at Anna Scotti’s “Schrödinger, Cat” in which a man makes the mistake of taking his girlfriend’s faith in him for granted

And from AHMM:

  • In “Red Flag” by Gregory Fallis deals with the disconnect between knowing a person’s perceived violent tendencies are raising red flags and the system’s inability to do anything about it. Quite cleverly, too
  • You can hear the howling wind and feel the lashing rains in Michael A. Black’s “Waiting for Godot,” when a hurricane provides cover for crime
  • For a little paranormal adventure, there was Merrilee Robson’s delightful “Tired of Bath,” which includes a memorable encounter with the ghost of Jane Austen

Finally, I read Paris Noir: The Suburbs, an anthology of short stories in the Akashic Books Noir Series. I’m pretty open-minded, but did not like this one. Too dreary.

Guns + Tacos at the Midnight Hour

Gosh, I’ve read a lot of good books lately, as well as some notable short story collections!

I received Volumes 5 and 6 of the Guns + Tacos series, edited by Michael Bracken and Trey R. Barker. These were the “subscriber editions,” and each contained three novella-length stories. (some of the editions are sold for parts on Amazon; since they’re short, order the compilations). The stories in Volume 5 were by Dave Zeltserman, Stacy Woodson, and David H. Hendrickson and in Volume 6 by Hugh Lessig, Neil S. Plakcy, and Andrew Welsh-Huggins.

The underlying conceit is that somewhere in Chicago you can find a taco truck after midnight, where, if you order “the special,” you get a handgun with it. Thus the stories have names like “Refried Beans and a Snub-Nosed .44” or “Chimichangas and a couple of Glocks” or “Two Tamales, One Tokarev, and a Lifetime of Broken Promises.” In Volume 6, editor Bracken provides dessert with the three entrees, “Christmas Enchiladas and a Gold-Plated Derringer.”

Of course, if all the folks in these stories know about the taco truck, the cops must too, but set that aside. The stories are highly and consistently entertaining, long enough to develop a strong premise, but not so long as to wear it out.

Midnight Hour, edited by Abby L. Vandiver, is a compilation of twenty remarkable stories by authors of color. In a foreword, Stephen Mack Jones says their writing “without preaching or proselytizing, uncovers and reveals the distortions and delusions, fallacies and myths of an American society that has often pushed such voices to the back of the literary bus.” Or, as it may feel to the authors, under the bus. You don’t have to have a political agenda to enjoy these stories, many of which would stand up against many other recent compilations. There’s a lot of great stuff here, and if The Best American Mystery and Suspense series intends to diversify its selection of authors, I’d say, start right here. Highly recommended.

The Short Story Four-Minute Mile

Sherlock Holmes

Half-finished in a Word file on my computer is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche story, the second one I’ve written. What I hadn’t realized is that my two stories follow a very well-trodden path laid by Arthur Conan Doyle and followed by Holmes acolytes ever since.

In a Sisters in Crime webinar last week with short story dream team Art Taylor and Barb Goffman, Art presented the classic seven-part structure of a Sherlock Holmes story (which he credited to the apparently out-of-print book, Sherlock Holmes for Dummies). Through some process of osmosis, it seems I’d absorbed and followed at least the first few of those parts: Part 1 – cozy domestic scene; Part 2 – Sherlock shows off; Part 3 – the problem is presented. In my first Holmes story, the problem arrived by letter; in the new one, via a distraught Mrs. Hudson. Structural awareness greatly simplifies the writing job and prevents wandering about in rhetorical left field. I know what needs to get done.

In a short story, emphasized Barb, the writer has to focus. As she puts it, “A short story is about one thing,” even if that thing is unclear at the start. If you’d asked me what my story “Burning Bright” in Busted! Arresting Stories from the Beat was about, I would have said, “Two Wisconsin ne’er-do-wells plan to rake in a lot of money by having a tiger fight a bear.” I would have added, “and it’s also about an outraged deputy sheriff trying to stop them while trying to persuade her dad to move into assisted living.”

So, would Barb say “Hey, that’s two things”? Only after I wrote “The End” did I realize the story was only superficially about those two things. What it was really about was respect for autonomy.

Art cited six steps in a typical short story, and they usually, though not necessarily, appear in order: 1- Introduce the character, 2- express their desires, 3- action (what the character does about those desires), 4- factors that impedes obtaining the desires (3 and 4 can repeat several times), 5- the climax, 6- resolution. In the classic analysis of Cinderella (below), action and impediments trade places many times (nothing to wear? fairy godmother).

Art pointed out that the six steps are useful as a tool for planning a story, and for diagnosing why it isn’t working. Barb pulls several of the steps together and recommends starting a story is by asking, “what’s the conflict?”

Lest you think these are recommendations to write to a formula, they are not. The variety and rearrangement of parts is practically infinite. Someone once said to crime writer Donald Westlake that writing genre fiction was easy: All you have to do is follow the formula. And he responded, “I’ll give you a formula for running a four minute-mile. Run each quarter-mile in less than a minute.” (Art’s talk and his slides will be in the members section of the Sisters in Crime website.)

Where Stories Come From: Outside and In

People always ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” which is not a question with a straightforward answer. So many facts, ideas, memories, glimpses, pet peeves, dreams, loves, and outrages weave themselves into a story, the truthful answer would be “everywhere.” For people who aren’t writers and haven’t engaged with the word-collage building that is storywriting, that is not an insightful or satisfactory answer. Certainly, it gives no aid to the questioner whose unspoken follow-up may be “and how can I do it?”

I’ve identified the seeds of two of my recent stories. One was prompted by an external source and the other, by my own experience. Being a great believer in the ability of the unconscious mind to put things together, I confess these are only the influences I’m aware of!

“Saving the Indiana Dae”

Published in issue #10 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, along with works by my friends and writing acquaintances Steve Liskow, Barb Goffman, and Liz Zelvin, with seven others I look forward to meeting. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a Wall Street wheeler-dealer who buys and refurbishes a permanently beached ship in Cape May, N.J., turning it into a quirky vacation cottage. Stunning. But then the trouble starts. Is the ship haunted? Is he losing his grip?

The long-ago origin of this story was a John Gardner writing prompt my writers’ group worked on. It asked us to plot a ghost story with certain elements. We had such fun with this cooperative exercise that we all went home and wrote the story, each one very different, but involving a vacation cottage, Cape May, a crusty 1800s sea captain, and (for two of us, a very fowl-mouthed parrot [sorry about the pun]). The eventual story in BCMM takes off from that early effort, though the hero has considerably more agency, and the existence of the ghost is still in question. I suppose the message is, whatever fires your engine, let it rip!

“A Hungarian Christmas”

If you’re familiar with the hilarious books about Eloise, the six-year-old girl who lived at the Plaza Hotel you may remember how she was always angling to get herself a present. In this story, published in the Mystery Magazine December issue, along with works from several fellow-members of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, the unsuspecting Bert and his fiancée Veronika are anticipating the holidays. She’s helpfully explained to him that, as a Hungarian, she should be given a special present on December 6, Hungarian Christmas. (This is a scam that actually works, don’t ask me how I know.) Maybe it was taking the Zoom class on precious gems last year that inspired it, or the several notable jewel robberies I’d read about recently, but Bert decides his special gift should be something from Tiffany’s. As you can predict, mayhem ensues.

I set the story in northern New Jersey, close to Manhattan, but not in it, so that the scale of the police presence and Bert and Veronika’s living arrangements wouldn’t present word-count busting logistical difficulties. Because I believe most complicated problems/investigations benefit from a team approach, I gave her a loving family—older brothers defending her and Bert’s interests.

To quote a lyric from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by the late Stephen Sondheim, “And a happy ending of course.” Hey, it’s the holidays.

For Your Bookshelf

John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. (I still don’t understand some of this one.)

Best American Mystery & Suspense: 2021 – Part 2

Yesterday’s post delved into the steamy politics surrounding this collection and its new editor’s highly successful efforts to make the selection more representative of the breadth of American crime and mystery writing. Here are some of my favorites from the new collection.

A good example of how criminals paint themselves into tight corners—which once again proves the validity of Murphy’s Law—is E. Gabriel Flores’s story, “Mala Suerte.” In it, Carmelita wonders whether bad luck runs in families. A recounting of her family history suggests it may. But she’s plucky and talks her way into a pretty good job. Now, if only she would leave well enough alone. But she’s one of those people who cannot recognize when she’s about as well off as she has any right to expect, and you know she won’t.

It’s hard to say much about Ravi Howard’s suspense story, “The Good Thief,” without giving away the clever plot twist. A conscientious cook at a small-town luncheonette is asked to prepare a prisoner’s last meal, actually a cake the young man once ate in her establishment. Alone in the kitchen of the prison’s new wing—the biggest kitchen she has ever seen—you are alone with her thoughts, as she talks briefly with the warden and methodically goes about preparing the cake. So little action, so much happening.

Aya de León’s touching “Frederick Douglass Elementary” delves into the crimes a mother will commit in order to get her son into a decent elementary school, when all manner of bureaucracy is set against her. Keisha’s not a serial killer or a bank robber, or someone at the very fringes of society. She’s just a working single mom. Her crimes may seem trivial, but in the lives of her and her son, they are hugely consequential. (You could be forgiven for believing that the real crime is the condition of the schools that tempted her into law-breaking.) Any parent will recognize the stomach-dropping uncertainty that hits Keisha throughout.

In “The Killer,” by Delia C. Pitts, you return to familiar crime-story territory. A mother and small child are on the run from New York to Tampa, with a gangster hot on their heels. The story’s told from the point of view of their driver and bodyguard, who believes every stop along the way risks bringing their pursuer closer and every encounter risks betrayal. They stop at the kind of rural Virginia diner where the manager and cook have never met up with anyone as dangerous as their pursuer, and even that naivete presents a potential risk. First published in the literary magazine, the Chicago Quarterly Review, it’s a nail-biter.

I’d read “One Bullet. One Vote,” by Faye Snowden in the Low Down Dirty Vote collection, liked it then and on repeat. In the mid-1960s, a young Black man from up north has arrived in small-town Louisiana determined to convince his new wife’s relations to register to vote. “What you trying to do? Get us all killed?” His wife’s elderly grandmother is the only one who takes him up on it. Bureaucracy repeatedly thwarts her, but she’s dealt with that before. The author not only created an engaging story of people pushed to extremes, she provides a powerful demonstration of what’s meant by “systemic racism.” Not one, but two true heroes in this one.

Among the other authors included are Jenny Bhatt, Gar Anthony Haywood, Alison Gaylin, and Laura Lippman. If you’re puzzled by the title to the second story in the collection, SWAJ by Christopher Bollen—it’s the logo to the movie ‘Jaws,’ read backward. In some circles, that’s a thing.

On the whole, the selections were excellent, and you may find yourself returning to several of them for the issues and social truths they reveal. In this era of social media bubbles, when we hear mostly from people who share our beliefs and outlooks, seeing the world through the eyes of some of these characters is enormously valuable. If this collection presages what Cha will manage in future editions, they will be well worth looking forward to.

Yesterday: the controversy over editorial direction.