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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Cover Story

Like a clever jigsaw puzzle, Susan Rigetti’s new novel, Cover Story, about a world-class con artist gives you a lot of pieces. It takes a while for them to start fitting together, allowing the picture to emerge, and it doesn’t snap completely into focus until the end.

The story is told mainly through the diary entries of New York University drop-out Lora Ricci as she embarks on one of her life goals—becoming the editor of an important fashion magazine. Her other goal is to be a famous writer, and she plans to work hard at both. She’s taking the first step, having secured a summer internship at the fashionista watering-hole, Elle. Lora’s diary entries are written in the sort of breathless, pep-talky style totally appropriate to who she is, enthusiastic but inexperienced.

The book leads off not with the diary, but with a short memorandum to the file from Agent Jenée Parker in the FBI’s New York field office. It was written in response to a tip from an editor at Elle suggesting that one of the magazine’s employees isn’t who she claims to be. Cat Wolff makes an instant impression on everyone, especially Lora.

Why does someone with Cat’s connections and sophistication—even criminal tendencies—need to cultivate an unsophisticated, if well-meaning, young woman like Lora? There’s no question that Cat has some scheme in mind in which Lora will get the short end of the stick, but what is it? And how badly will she be hurt?

You’re also privy to Cat’s multiple exchanges with credit card companies, banks where she’s seeking loans, and venture capitalists she’s trying to entice to fund a fashion project. Most immediately pesky are the hand-written notes from the Plaza’s front desk—at first nicely, then firmly— requesting payment of her massive bill. You worry that Lora may somehow be stuck with that bill. Cat may look as serene as a duck floating on a pond, but all the while, her feet are paddling furiously out of sight, as the FBI closes in.

It’s certainly something of a relief when Lora finally starts waking up and realizes Cat may not be quite what Lora thinks she is. And that she may not have Lora’s best interests at heart.

This is a quick read and highly entertaining, and I suspect the scope of Cat’s scam will take your breath away. It sure did mine!

California-based author Susan (Fowler) Rigetti was the technology op-ed editor at The New York Times, and worked as a software engineer in Silicon Valley—good background for Cat, who boldly harnesses the deceptive potential of the Internet. She came to whistleblower fame (Person of the Year for TIME and the Financial Times; numerous magazine covers) writing about her experience as a Uber software engineer. The unaddressed sexual harassment, along with management’s chaos-inducing sexism and political oneupsmanship became notorious, leading to serious reexamination of tech industry culture and practices.

The Pine Barrens Stratagem

New Jersey has hosted a run of excellent (and humorous) crime thrillers in the past year. The latest example is Ken Harris’s high-octane thriller, in which investigator Steve Rockfish tackles a series of 1943 crimes in rural southern New Jersey. The healthy young men were going to war, and they left behind quite a few pregnant girlfriends. Unfortunately, many families considered pregnant unmarried daughters an embarrassment, sent them away, kept them out of sight, or cut them off completely. If they and their babies disappeared, that may have seemed like the best outcome. One local police officer, Edward McGee, persisted in investigating these disappearances. When he disappeared too, the questions stopped.

This chilling history lesson is the prologue of The Pine Barrens Stratagem. From that point, the story fast-forwards to 2020. An unlikely crusader for justice—a Los Angeles-based true crime podcaster named Angel Davenport—hears tantalizing threads of this story and decides it could be his ticket to a lucrative, high-profile Netflix television series.

Temperamentally allergic to hard work, not to mention being located 2700 miles from the scene of action and in pandemic lockdown, Davenport hires Baltimore’s Steve Rockfish to pursue the case. It could be murder, it could be child trafficking, it could be both. At least Davenport’s dramatic instincts are correct: it has all the makings of a compelling story.

Rockfish has something of a drinking problem—a trait he shares with the man who hired him—but it turns out he’s a good investigator, and it’s entertaining to see him smoothly work the system, talking his way into places to conduct interviews and making allies as well as enemies as his investigation proceeds. He has a wicked sense of humor (there’s a coarseness in the early part of the book that mostly disappears as the story goes along) and locks onto the politics of the people he meets, using their prejudices against them. They never realize what he’s doing, but I was laughing.

He teams up with Jawnie McGee, great-granddaughter of the long-ago missing and presumed dead policeman, who turns out to be an excellent partner. Naturally, it’s not all smooth sailing for this pair. Lots of people have a stake in keeping the lid on those long ago events—the local cops, the Mafia, the Catholic Church. Will Steve and Jawnie be able to evade them all?

Harris is a retiree from more than three decades as a cybersecurity executive with the FB, and his affection for his home state of New Jersey shines through. An epilogue reveals this is the first of a series. A sequel is expected in July.

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The Thursday Murder Club

What better review for today, right? I highly recommend the audio-version of Richard Osman’s award-nominated debut cozy crime novel, narrated by Leslie Manville. Osman, who’s had a career in television production, has a second book with many of the same characters already available for pre-order.

Four septuagenarians living in the Coopers Chase Retirement Village, located in the Kentish Weald, meet every Thursday to discuss cold murder cases. Their combination of still being sharp as a tack and varied life experience makes for lively, insightful discussions. Elizabeth, the group’s leader, is the veteran of some possibly clandestine career that took her to countries around the world, Joyce was a nurse, Ibrahim a psychiatrist, and Red Ron a notorious union organizer and gadfly.

Their differences in temperament add to the group’s chemistry. While Ibrahim would like to analyze every factor down to its nub, Ron’s instinct is to barge in and clobber somebody. Elizabeth keeps various thoughts to herself, but Joyce writes a diary, and lucky thing too, because in it, she tells us what the group is thinking and, possibly, why. Joyce’s diary is Osman’s clever way to handle backstory and summary without tedious authorial intrusions.

In an early scene, local DC Donna De Freitas visits the group to five her usual spiel on “Practical Tips for Home Security.” She’s barely begun before Elizabeth cuts her off. “Dear, I think we’re all hoping this won’t be a talk about window locks.” Ibrahim adds, “And no ID cards, please; we know about ID cards. ‘Are you really from the gas board, or are you a burglar?’ We’ve got it, I promise.” “And no need to tell us we mustn’t give our PIN to Nigerians over the phone.”

De Freitas regroups and asks what they do want to talk about, and an enjoyable hour-long free-for-all starts. They recognize that the young De Freitas, for all her amiability, is rather underutilized in the local police department. What she’d like to be working on is a nice juicy murder.

Fate conspires to accommodate her. Tony Curran, a man with a gangster past, and the greedy developer, Ian Ventham, intend to build a second phase of Coopers Chase, on more of the former convent land Ventham purchased from the Church, including plans to dig up the nuns’ cemetery. When Tony is stabbed to death in his kitchen, the Thursday Murder Club wants in on the action. Their new friend Donna De Freitas may be the key, if they can only manage to get her on the murder team and convince her to let them help.

Ventham’s helper Bogdan, has hardly started excavating the graves when he discovers a set of human bones, not in a coffin, but on top of one. This looks like trouble, so he reburies them. Now the Club has two mysteries to solve: who killed Tony Curran, and who is the extra body? Though the local police barely tolerate this amateur assistance, in truth, the oldsters run rings around them. Joyce especially has a way of sounding like a batty old lady, chatting about cakes and tea, while maneuvering the detectives into spilling some useful tidbit.

Although the overall mood is lighthearted, there are moments of sadness, as loss is ever-present in a place like Coopers Chase. That doesn’t stop these four memorable characters from living their lives to the fullest. If you’re in a summertime mood for something light and delightful, this book could be it. If you choose the audio version, Leslie Manville’s narration is tops.

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Beyond the Headlines

RG Belsky’s Clare Carlson series may technically fit in the ‘amateur detective’ category, because Clare is a New York City television news director, not a police officer or FBI agent, but her skill at getting to the truth doesn’t take a back seat to anyone’s. There may be delays, detours, and false starts, but she gets there.

In Belsky’s latest book, his fourth in the Clare Carlson series, she’s again not content to assign the big story of the day to her reporters, she’s on the case herself. Clare’s best friend tips her off that mega-celebrity and Vietnamese immigrant Laurie Bateman wants to divorce her wealthy older husband, Charles Hollister. Bateman wants Clare to tell her story on-air.

This is shocking news, because the couple maintains a super-happy public image, but when Clare arrives at the Batemans’ apartment building, the street is filled with police. Hollister is dead, and Bateman is accused of killing him. Clare witnesses her would-be interviewee driven away in a squad car. Still, the murder is breaking news, and she has the story first.

Turns out, quite a few people might have wanted Hollister dead: his son, who believes himself short-changed in his father’s will, disgruntled business people he’s trodden upon, his mistress, her jealous husband. The police and prosecutor are not interested in any of these possibilities. They have the wife in a Riker’s Island cell, and tunnel vision keeps them focused on her. When Clare finally does get to speak with Bateman, the woman maintains her innocence.

When Clare’s interview with Bateman is televised, it opens a floodgate of public support, just as cracks appear in the prosecution’s case. Before long, Bateman is a free woman again and credits Clare with getting her out of jail. It was a big story, rewarding even, but Clare starts to have doubts. Had she just managed to set a murderer free?

The puzzle aspects of this book are nicely intriguing, and Belsky writes with a lot of narrative energy and humor. He also writes with authenticity and conviction on various aspects of the news business and about his Manhattan setting. The new well of experience he draws on for this book is his military experience in Vietnam, before the war began its slow wind-down.

When investigating a crime, Clare leads with her strength, conducting smart interviews. Her news stories are not police procedurals, and there’s not a lot of attention to CSI-type details. However, here, I thought some gaps needed filling. There was such a rush to arrest Laurie, why no gunshot residue test on her and her clothing? When it appears the killer may have had access to the apartment the evening before the body was found, what had the coroner established as time-of-death? Belsky recognizes this hole and patches it with a throwaway statement about the medical examiner’s uncertainty. Not quite good enough. These are investigative touchstones that Clare, with her experience, would presumably be asking about herself.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the central aspects of the story—the motives and behavior of a long list of iffy characters, each of them having their own secrets—Belsky excels.

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Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – May/June 2021

Eighteen stories in this issue, blanketing the gamut of mystery and crime subgenres. Recently I read 75 short stories published last year for the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Awards. Most I hadn’t read previously, but some I recognized immediately as having appeared in EQMM. It’s a testament to the editors of the leading mystery fiction magazines that they select such memorable short fiction!

Among my favorites in this issue:

“The Hidden Places” by Linda Stansberry – A nice barroom tale: “The Open and Shut wasn’t a bar for wine lovers. It was a bar for lawyers who needed to drink.”
“The Case of the Strangled Man” by Steven Torres – A suspect is strangled to death while sitting alone in a police station interview room, and the cops must investigate each other. A detective and the desk sergeant had “gotten to the part of the interview where it was relevant to ask who was the greatest hitter in baseball history.” LOL
“Frank Scarso Finds His Life” by Doug Crandall – A true feel-good story, as is “Birdman” by Alex Knight. Revenge takes many forms.
“The Bunker” by Herbert De Paepe and translated from the Flemish by Josh Pachter. Great evocation of a bizarre workplace!

And, best of all, this issue contains the news that my editor, Barb Goffman, won the EQMM 2020 Readers’ Award for her “Dear Emily Etiquette.” Barb’s “irrepressibly satirical tale about the modern wedding” appeared in last year’s Sept/Oct issue. I certainly enjoyed that story and, clearly, many other readers did too!

Be sure to check out the issue cover, for a challenge along the lines of “what’s wrong with this picture?” I see at least three mysterious and deadly references.

Tips for Screenwriters: Police Procedurals 101

ICYMI this “Shouts and Murmurs” satire by Paul Rudnick in the March 22 (I’m catching up) issue of The New Yorker had me laughing out loud.

Here are a couple of Rudnick’s surefire script ideas.” The main character should be a “troubled male detective whose marriage has crumbled because he works too hard and cares too much”; his ex-wife should be “glimpsed only through a screen door”; if the detective is female, she should have a ponytail (that way she can have long, sexy hair at dinner but keep it from blowing over her partner’s eyes and blinding him as they case the bad guys).

Oh, and be sure to write in a fresh-faced (and fresh-mouthed) tech person who can instantly find any details whatsoever on anyone. For example, Rudnick says, he can instantly tell the detective: “Your suspect dropped out of business school three weeks ago, he’s had contact with three known militia members, and he’s headed east on 168th Street in a stolen van.” Plate number?

Read the whole piece, you’ll get a good laugh. Here on Facebook, the author community airs frequent laments.“Enough with the ‘Girls’ book titles.” Or “Not another flawed police detective hunched over her whiskey!” Or “How many serial killers are there, really. Outside of books and movies, I mean..” We all have our favorite pet peeves in television scripts and topics, the too-tired tropes and cliched plot devices. What sets your teeth on edge?

Angelino Heights

By Adam Bregman – Quirky thrillers that don’t follow typical “hero’s journey” plotting have great appeal. You really don’t know what’s coming next. Adam Bregman’s debut thriller is one of these books, with the quirkiness intensified by a passion for the Los Angeles of decades ago. The story is set in the late 90s, and the protagonists are on the hunt for classic neighborhoods, bars that have lived through innumerable trendiness cycles, and other vestiges of California when it was still a shared national dream, The Golden State.

You’re first introduced to Nathan Lyme, a youngish man who begins the story with a long rant about the infelicitous changes wrought in his city. “It’s not that I’m opposed to change. It’s just that I prefer they don’t change anything, unless it’s somehow for the better.” Before long, you realize Nathan’s fussiness doesn’t apply to his own behavior, as he rifles the coats and handbags of guests at a house party he briefly attends.

Next up is Dalton Everest, a high school teacher, short to Nathan’s tall, who also prowls for vintage watering holes. Sitting next to each other at a bar one night, they strike up a conversation, then an unlikely friendship. Nathan is everything Dalton is not—good looking, charming, a risk-taker, and street-smart. He’s also very private about how he makes a living.

But Nathan, whose life story you eventually learn, is lonely. He wants a partner in his crimes. And he thinks Dalton is reliable and congenial enough to assist him in his long string of car thefts and home robberies.

At first Nathan uses the heavy-drinking, but beautiful French woman Melanee to lure Dalton in, but that approach goes badly awry, and he ends up making his pitch flat-out. To Dalton’s own surprise, he goes along with Nathan’s proposal to team up, getting in deeper and deeper, terrified every step of the way.

Finally, you meet Orlando Talbert, a morose Black LAPD detective concerned about a career advancing at a snail’s pace who would like to have one spectacular score to jump-start the professional recognition he believes is his due. He makes a success of cases he’s assigned by pursuing them relentlessly, and you recognize him as Nathan and Dalton’s potential nemesis.

It’s a fast-paced read, nicely written, with strong dialog. Author Bregman has brought to the page his own enthusiasm for the remaining old, odd bits of the city and his encyclopedic knowledge about its eccentricities—geographical, architectural, and sociological. Reading the book is like a tour with a most interesting and entertaining guide.

New Jersey Noir: Cape May

New Jersey Noir: Cape May is the second of William Baer’s novels about private investigator Jack Colt, set firmly in New Jersey. Jack is a resident of Paterson, noted for its waterfalls that powered local industry (pictured). There, one of his forebears founded the Colt firearms manufacturing company, so naturally, the revolver he carries is a Colt Python. Luckily, he’s pretty good with it too.

A judge from Cape May, New Jersey, at the far southern tip of the state, calls on Jack with an intriguing tale of two mysterious deaths. He’d hired a local Cape May private investigator, Edward Colt—puzzling coincidence there—to look into the murder of his daughter ten years before. Now Eddie Colt has been murdered.

Judge O’Brien had twin daughters, Nikki and Rikki. When Nikki was seventeen, her car was driven into the Atlantic Ocean with her in the trunk. The police long ago exhausted their available suspects, but Eddie Colt wanted to pursue it. In his papers were twenty-five thousand dollars and a note: “Remittance for Jack Colt.” “He wants you to solve the case,” the judge told Jack. “Both cases.”

Jack goes about doing just that, re-interviewing the dead girl’s twin, Rikki, their friends, and trying to get a lead on a college student Nikki met the night she disappeared. The story, as Jack gradually unwraps it, has unexpected twists and is nicely plotted.

Two additional aspects make the novel a true pleasure to read: humor and narrative voice. The banter between Jack and Rikki and between Jack and his elderly receptionist will keep you chuckling. For that matter, all the dialog is strong, reflecting author Baer’s playwriting expertise.

Most of the story is told by Jack himself. You feel as if you’re sitting in the passenger seat of his car, tooling down the Garden State Parkway.

As such conversations go in real life, Jack wanders a bit, taking the opportunity to throw in facts about New Jersey, which he clearly loves, Paterson especially. But Baer has such a light touch, these digressions stay interesting, not pedantic. For example, he points out that Cape May has more Victorian homes than any other city in the United States, except San Francisco.

In addition to the first novel in this series, author Baer has published several books of short stories, plays, and nonfiction works and is an award-winning poet and playwright.

You can be forgiven for assuming the book is part of the Akashic Books short story series set in various cities and, in fact, Akashic published a New Jersey Noir a few years ago. Unlike stories in that volume, many of which unfortunately seemed as if they might have occurred anywhere, Baer’s book is New Jersey all the way. Real New Jerseyans will recognize that last bit as a shout-out to one of our state’s most famous characters.