EQMM/AHMM – Sept-Oct 2022

Reading

The September/October issues of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine are, 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.

Suspect by Scott Turow

When you crack open a new legal thriller by Scott Turow, you know you’ll be in good hands. In the veteran author’s latest novel, Suspect, the hands he puts you in are those of narrator Clarice ‘Pinky’ Granum, a 33-year-old private investigator working for downmarket lawyer Rik Dudek. Pinky has acquired a bit of a reputation as a screw-up, not solely because she is one. Maybe it’s the trail of failed romantic relationships, male and female. Maybe it’s the outrageous ink. Maybe it’s the nail in her nose. Yet she’s earnest in her work supporting Rik, and it’s those very quirks and that sincere dedication that make her a character you want to root for.

This is the 12th book in Turow’s long-running series based in fictional Kindle County, Illinois, reportedly based on Cook County, which is mostly taken up by Chicago. Lucia Gomez is the police chief of the town of Highland Isle and a long-time friend of Rik’s. She asks him to represent her as she fights accusations that she demanded sexual favors from three officers when they were up for promotion. The three-person Police and Fire Commission has scheduled a hearing. It’s always satisfying when a fictional attorney nails an opposing witness to the courtroom wall, trapped in their own lies, as Rik handily does with two of the accusers.

They’re retired now and working for local property magnate Moritz Vojczek, AKA The Ritz, another former cop. When he worked in narcotics, he not only stole cash and dealt drugs, but used them too. When Gomez became chief, she canned him. Now she figures the plot to get her fired is his revenge. You can’t help but worry that his combination of money, connections, street smarts, and viciousness will be more than a match for Rik and Pinky.

The third accuser is a little more difficult to dismiss. At the hearing, he comes up with a photograph of the chief and him in a shockingly compromising position. It’s a picture that will most probably lead to Lucy’s firing, regardless of the commission’s finding. You’ll probably find the chief likeable, but you may start to doubt her. It seems she isn’t telling everything and it’s nerve-wracking to think she’s leading her legal team into serious trouble. When her accuser turns up dead, with Lucy the person most motivated to silence him, Rik and Pinky’s simple sextortion case spins out of control.

Pinky’s out-of-the-office life is going in a couple of interesting directions. She has a new neighbor who’s suspiciously quiet. Using her skills with the PIBOT (Private Investigator Bag Of Tricks), she starts tailing and tracking his middle-of-the-night spying on a nearby technology center. What’s he looking at? Or for? Fans of techno-thrillers will enjoy the deets about surveillance gear and ways to thwart it.

The strategy sessions between Rik, Pinky, and law enforcement are like watching a hard-fought game of chess. They can put all their pieces in the best positions possible, but the Ritz’s next move may be out of their control.

Suspect has a fast-moving story, and much of the enjoyment of it lies in the well-developed character of Pinky. She’s fearless, and you never quite know what she’ll do next. A master plotter like Turow, of course, knows just how to parcel out the clues and the questions to maintain a high level of tension, and Pinky is one of those indelible characters you won’t soon forget.

Tried the New Shepherd.com Reviews?

Shepherd.com is a book review site that wants to make the search for a new book part of the fun. One of their ways is asking authors to recommend five books that fit a theme. The themes can be broad or incredibly niche. As an example, you might want to check out “the best mouthwatering reads for foodies” (I know I do!) or “the best books about historic Coney Island.” Hmmm. There could be a possible duplication there, if there’s a book about Nathan’s Famous.

The theme I picked is one of my favorites: “ordinary people in extraordinary situations.” Shepherd gives me the chance to explain why I picked it and to describe my own recent book, Architect of Courage. If you’ve read it, you’ll know it’s definitely built on that theme.

Here are five terrific thrillers that also show the kind of unexpected trouble people fall into and how they fight their way out of it!

  • The World at Night by Alan Furst – Reading Furst’s books was what made me think about how much this theme resonates with me. His thrillers are set in the months leading up to World War II, and his characters are trying for “business as usual.” Not a chance.
  • Disappeared by Bonnar Spring – In this new thriller, two American and two Moroccan women are trying to escape the country. For the Americans, all the social rules are upended. Not only are the authorities no help, they’re actually pursuing the women too.
  • Cover Story by Susan Rigetti – This is a jigsaw puzzle of a thriller, and I’ll bet you’ll be surprised when that last piece clicks into place. I was! The main character is a naïve young college dropout who wants to succeed in fashion publishing. You’d just like to shake her and wake her up.
  • Razorblade Tears by SA Cosby – A Black landscaper and white alcoholic ne’er-do-well find themselves an uneasy team when their gay sons are murdered. The police are getting nowhere in finding the killers, so the dads have to try. Awesome in audio.
  • Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips – A mom and her son have to hide in the zoo after hours, in the dark, because a pair of killers is stalking the grounds. Keeping a four-year-old quiet for hours challenges every maternal instinct this remarkable woman has!

You can read more about my five picks here or search for recommendations around your own favorite theme on the Shepherd website.

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.

Book Review: Death and the Conjuror

Fans of locked-room mysteries should love debut author Tom Mead’s historical mystery, Death and the Conjuror. In 1936 London, elderly showman and conjuror Joseph Spector is called on to aid Scotland Yard detective George Flint, who hopes Spector’s skills at misdirection can lead him to figure out what really happened in a strange case that involves not one, but two locked-room murders.

German immigrant (sometimes referred to as a psychologist and sometimes as a psychiatrist) Dr. Anselm Rees has recently relocated to London, along with his daughter, Dr. Lidia Rees.(Mead wisely set the story a few years before the gathering war clouds would have further complicated the story.) The elder Dr. Rees has gradually acquired three patients—musician Floyd Stenhouse, actor Della Cookson, and author Claude Weaver.

Lidia and her playboy boyfriend Marcus Bowman arrive home late one night and learn Dr. Rees’s throat has been slit. For one reason and another, all three patients become suspects, along with an unidentified evening caller, daughter Lidia (who stands to inherit), and her boyfriend (who needs the money). The door to the office was locked that evening, as were the French windows, with their keys on the inside.

On the evening of another unproductive day of investigation, Flint receives an urgent call from the musician Stenhouse, who believes he’s being followed. Flint and his sergeant hear a shot, and fruitlessly chase a shadowy figure. Upon returning to the apartment building, they discover the second locked-room puzzle: the elevator operator is dead inside his small cage.

Although Spector provides occasional interesting disquisitions about the creation of illusions, his potential seemed not fully exploited. Stories about illusionists and (real-life) magicians usually include some spectacular demonstrations. In this story, inexorable logic wins out. Because the setup of the two murders was so complicated, many pages are required to explain them, as various theories are posed and discarded.

You may have the sense—despite the automobiles, hairstyles, and a few other signals—that this story could just have easily taken place fifty years earlier, given the dialog, the background narration, and many of the characters’ attitudes. It has a definite old-fashioned feel, which, on one hand, is part of its charm, and on the other, may distance you from engaging with the characters.

It is a locked-room puzzle in that fine tradition, with a surfeit of clues, red herrings, and suspicions. The clever and complicated plots the unknown antagonist concocts will likely keep you guessing all the way through.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight

If you enjoyed Riku Onda’s previous mystery translated into English, The Aosawa Murders, you’ll find many of the same attributes in her new psychological thriller, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight. It offers that same dreamy feeling and a quality of uncertainty about the characters’ perceptions. It’s almost as if the story were told by those very fish, trying to make sense of the light and dark around them through a veil of water.

The short chapters of this new book are related alternately by Chiaki (Aki) and Chihiro (Hiro), who met in the tennis club at college and were immediately attracted to each other. Paired up to play doubles, it seemed like they had played together their whole lives. When their parents learn about their friendship, they reveal that the young people are, in fact, brother and sister, twins separated when their mother could no longer take care of them both and gave daughter Aki up for adoption. Since age three, they were raised as only children.

To recapture the lost years of siblinghood, Aki and Hiro decide to share a flat in Tokyo and are very happy for a time. The relationship falls apart after a mountain hike when their guide is killed in a fall, and they are each wracked by suspicion that the other somehow engineered the tragedy. The novel takes place on their last night together.

Every chapter peels away another layer, as each of them is intent on extracting a confession about the guide’s death from the other. It turns out that the guide is connected to the twins in a way that might provide a motive for murder, but did it? Author Onda spreads out the revelations, and in large part, they’re the siblings’ differing impressions of the tragedy.

Unexpected fragments of memory find their places in the puzzle of their lives, as the deepening mystery flashes, twists, and turns much like the eponymous fish that Aki at one point describes.

The translation by Alison Watts effectively conveys this sense of gradual discovery—about the guide, about the siblings’ relationship, about their un-twin-like misinterpretation of the other’s state of mind, about the past, and, perhaps even about their futures. Onda has a lovely, slow-moving and relatively unadorned style of writing. But beneath the placid surface is a tidal wave of emotion. She minimizes physical description in lieu of emotional nuance, resulting in a complex and memorable story.  

Onda is a well-known Japanese novelist, whose works have won numerous top awards and been adapted for both film and television there. The Aosawa Murders was the first to be translated into English. It won a Best Novel award from the Mystery Writers of Japan and was selected as a 2020 Notable Book by The New York Times.

See You Next Tuesday

In See You Next Tuesday, former US FBI agent Ken Harris has brought back his entertaining private investigator Steve Rockfish and his young assistant—now partner—Jawnie McGee. This is the second of a series, following his debut with The Pine Barrens Stratagem earlier this year. In this novel, Jawnie has passed her PI exam, and the two of them have established a bare-bones office in Linthicum Heights, Maryland, just south of Baltimore.

When this fast-moving story begins, the duo is faced with three separate quandaries. Most puzzling is the yellow Nissan Xterra parked across the street with a woman in it who appears to be spying on their office. Most annoying is their new client, the wealthy Claudia Coyne, who’s convinced her husband Roan is stepping out on her and insists they find out who the floozy is. And, most alarming, Rockfish’s father Mack is rushed to the hospital with a possible heart attack.

With his father in the hospital, Rockfish bequeaths the Coyne case to Jawnie and spends time with his father, whose heart is fine, but he’s stressed out, having lost $17,000 in a phony investment scheme.

Jawnie begins following Roan Coyne on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the nights he regularly arrives home late. At first, his actions seem completely above-board, even admirable. On Tuesday evenings, he buys dozens of McDonald’s meals and distributes them to the homeless; on Thursdays, he staffs a soup kitchen. Following these charitable endeavours, he attends meetings in the basement of Allison’s Adult Super Store. When Jawnie peeks in a window, the gathering looks to her like some kind of self-help or religious session. She suspects something shady.

Jawnie trips over a woman camped out in the alley behind the adult store. Some cash waved around convinces the woman—Lynn—to attend the next meeting. One thing they figure out quickly is the several plays on the phrase “See You Next Tuesday,” a bit of risqué wordplay.

Rockfish is determined to get his father’s money back and follows a sketchy clue to the scammers base of operations. When he and Jawnie both turn up in the parking lot behind Allison’s Adult Super Store, they realize they’re working on different dimensions of the same case.

As in the earlier book, Rockfish and Jawnie’s relationship is a work-in-progress. He admires her skills with the computer and with people, and she admires his ability to keep going, in the face of seemingly impossible odds. I like watching them work.

Lynn definitely adds to the team’s strengths and Rockfish’s long-time friend Raffi, who’s also brought on board, will always be a wild card. Destroy and repair describes Rockfish’s relationship with the authorities, and he’s constantly skating somewhere out there on the thin ice. The humorous elements and overall entertainment value of this sequel suggests author Harris has found a winning formula for his cast of interesting characters, and we can look forward to more.

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 Ride-Along

Frank Zafiro and Colin Conway, two former officers of the Spokane, Washington, Police Department, have collaborated on the important novel, The Ride-Along. One day, at the beginning of his ten-hour overnight shift, experienced officer Lee Salter is asked to have a civilian ride in the patrol car with him. This is not an unusual request in many police departments where ride-alongs are considered part of community relations. In this case, the person who’ll accompany him is a member of a vocal citizens’ Policy Reform Initiative named Melody Weaver. Salter expects a difficult few hours, and so does she.

The authors deserve considerable credit for trying to set aside their biases and present both sides of the police-citizen disconnect. Both parties make their arguments, though the authors’ thumbs seem on the police side of the scale. Weaver is querulous and argumentative, not appearing to want explanations, but rather to criticize. At least at first. Exposure to situations police officers face routinely does get through to her to some extent.

Salter acknowledges missteps by the authorities, particularly in the case of George Floyd’s death. But for the most part, he dismisses the research she cites and she doesn’t come up with specifics, making almost an “everybody knows . . . .” kind of argument. Under pressure, they both tend to retreat to established positions, which not only keeps the dialog from moving forward, but also effectively illustrates how far apart their positions are. Salter’s fallback is “you weren’t there.” That’s an inarguable position.

While the story wasn’t satisfactory in a conventional sense, in that there was no great epiphany by either of them during the ride, it is brilliant in showing how much more dialog is needed to bridge the gap. The book, with its biases (the authors make the point that we all have them), like the ride-along itself, is only a first step. But someone has to take it, and Zafiro and Conway have made a worthy effort. I hope it achieves a wide readership among thoughtful people.

Earlier this week, I wrote about Unexpected Synchronicities. Here’s another one. Recently, I watched the highly regarded 2019 documentary The Human Factor, by Israeli film director Dror Moreh. It chronicles the negotiations undertaken in the Clinton Administration to bring peace to the Middle East. Through photos and video coverage you see the main players—President Clinton; Israeli presidents Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak; Palestine Liberation Army chairman Yasser Arafat; and younger versions of six chief US negotiators: Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Gamal Helal, Aaron David Miller, Daniel Kurtzer, and Robert Malley, who gave interviewers unprecedented access for this film.

Like in The Ride-Along, you see two intractable sides, locked in a mutually damaging struggle, in which no resolution seems forthcoming. The two sides’ frames of reference barely overlap. At one point, one of the American negotiators comments that the whole idea of peace meant something different to the Israelis than to Arafat. Then, strategic slips in the last round of negotiations set the stage for 25 additional years of conflict. What had been moving in the right direction slid back into chaos. We need to learn from that on the home front.

Film reviewer Matt Fagerhorn says The Human Factor shows “how much we have to lose when we give into the easy temptation of demonizing those who think differently.” It’s a judgment that applies equally to the conflicts in The Ride-Along.

Further reading and viewing:

Shots Fired: The Misunderstandings, Misconceptions, and Myths about Police Shootings by Joseph K. Loughlin and Kate Clark Flora.

Dror Mohreh’s riveting documentary, The Gatekeepers, consisting of interviews with past heads of Israel’s internal Security service, Shin Bet, about the consequences of failure to find peace.