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Preview: Nasty. Brutish. Short.

Nasty. Brutish. Short.



Short reviews of short stories for those with short attention spans



Updated: 2018-04-17T07:56:18.923-05:00

 



"Jack Webb's Star" by Lee Goldberg

2018-04-13T03:21:04.782-05:00

Three Ways to Die, Amazon Createspace, 2010

During a break from traffic school near Jack Webb's Hollywood Walk of Fame star, struggling writer Kevin Dangler mentions his actress wife Carly's infatuation with Webb to a classmate, ex-con Titus Watkins. Titus suggests stealing Webb's star as a bold gesture to Carly. At first, Kevin can't believe they'd get away with it, but Titus, in the construction business, assures him they can. Hoping to save his marriage, Kevin throws in, and things only get wilder from there.

I got to know Lee Goldberg as a fellow fan of Robert B. Parker's Spenser. Lee got his start in television writing with the Spenser: For Hire episode "If You Knew Sammy", in which Spenser is roped into protecting writer Sammy Backlin (Sal Viscuso). "Jack Webb's Star", originally written for Robert J. Randisi's 2007 Hollywood and Crime anthology, similarly starts with the very ordinary and heightens events from there. You may not believe everything Kevin gets away with, but you may find following him enjoyable enough, as I did, that you willingly suspend disbelief.

Lee has had successful runs writing the Diagnosis: Murder and Monk tie-in novels as well as creating the Nicolas Fox/Kate O'Hare series with Janet Evanovich. His latest book is the Amazon.com bestseller True Fiction, about a thriller novelist who finds himself in the middle of a globe-trotting plot when one of his nightmare scenarios really happens.



"Tigers and Flies" by Cath Staincliffe

2018-04-10T23:35:00.983-05:00

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March-April 2018, p. 176-181

Staincliffe gives readers a brief, yet engrossing and suspenseful look at a team of prison medics in China tasked with operating on organ donors on death row.

The suspense is particularly heightened when we learn one of the medics is selling organs on the side. This doctor's situation highlights the cultural differences between East and West. In the West, the doctor would have wealth and status. In China, not so.



"The Reindeer Clue" by Edward D. Hoch

2018-04-02T15:23:29.130-05:00

The Misadventures of Ellery Queen ed. Josh Pachter and Dale C. Andrews, p. 73–77

Two days before Christmas, Ellery Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, are visiting the Children's Zoo when they are asked to help find out who murdered gossip columnist-turned-blackmailer Casey Sturgess, whose body is found in the reindeer pen.

With one woman and two men present as suspects, Ellery identifies the killer from dabs of Sturgess's blood left on a placard containing lines from Clement Clarke Moore's poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas".

Carla Coupe of publisher Wildside Press sent me a review copy of this March 2018 anthology of Queen pastiches and parodies. First published in The National Inquirer in 1975 with Ellery Queen's byline, "The Reindeer Clue" was for years thought to be the last story written by the original authors, a feat I'm not surprised master Ed Hoch pulled off.



"The Public Hero" by Robert S. Levinson

2018-03-15T06:31:08.613-05:00

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2018, p. 168-177

Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Janet Rudolph of Mystery Readers International spread the word that Los Angeles reporter, public relations executive, producer, and crime fiction writer Robert S. Levinson died March 13 from pneumonia.

Having enjoyed Bob's Neil Gulliver & Stevie Marriner novels, I got to know him as a fellow member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, where his stories received three Derringer Award nominations and one win.

His most recent EQMM story follows 1979 Hollywood P.I. Rufus Reed, his quick shooting having foiled a bank robbery. Notoriety gets him hired as security for Sky Diver and the Sky Dwellers. He's with the band when an armed intruder gets to them, charging plagiarism. Though that incident lands Rufus in the hospital, he's approached by a man who offers to make him the subject of a movie.

Like much of Bob's fiction, "The Public Hero" is steeped in Hollywood lore. Its outcome particularly shows that even the savviest person can be taken with such glamorous promise.



"The Lighthouse and the Lamp" by William Dylan Powell

2018-03-13T06:51:28.342-05:00

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2018, p. 31–42

(image)
William Dylan Powell
Unlicensed Corpus Christi, Texas P.I. Billy is intrigued when his elderly friend Clarabelle Mayhew claims to have a true-to-legend, wish-granting magic lamp. Despite Clarabelle's certainty her wishes came true by magic—including $1 million cash on her doorstep—Billy remains skeptical. He talks Clarabelle into letting him observe covertly when she makes her next wish.

Though, as Billy suspects, there's no magic involved, "The Lighthouse and the Lamp" stands out to me because there's no crime, either, but quite a mystery.



"The Avenging Angel" by John Lantigua

2018-03-06T07:01:58.889-06:00

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March-April 2018, p. 91–100

Remembering journalist Lantigua's Willie Cuesta P.I. novels, I'm pleased to see Willie in the pages of EQMM. In this case, he's hired by Carlos Miranda, a former El Salvadoran gang member who has fled to Miami's Little Havana to reform, but who is paranoid the gang has sent an "avenging angel" to kill him.

Finding that Carlos's suspect also claims he only wants to reform, Willie brokers a meeting between them, but remains wary of trusting either, as must readers.



"Victory Garden" by G.M. Malliet

2018-03-04T14:36:57.271-06:00

(image)
G.M. Malliet
photo by Joe Henson
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March-April 2018, p. 69-72

The current issue of EQMM includes a number of very short stories that pack surprising punch.

For much of this one, set in the middle of World War II, protagonist Carol presents herself the type of woman who would never divorce overweight, overbearing Silas, despite years of mistreatment.

Her veil of concern for the societal norms of the time obscures Carol's feelings and plans from other characters and readers alike until the very last word.



"Cleopatran Cocktails" by William Burton McCormick

2018-02-27T02:46:40.016-06:00

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March-April 2018, p. 88-91

In two-and-a-quarter pages of first-person present tense narration, author McCormick gets into the mind of a woman obsessed with world records as she works up the nerve to break a museum display case and steal a pearl necklace worth $30 million.

Her goal, though, isn't to keep the prize but to dissolve the pearls in vinegar and drink them—surpassing Cleopatra VII of Egypt's drinking a single $15 million pearl, which the narrator calls "the world's most expensive breakfast."



"Double Deck the Halls" by Gretchen Archer

2018-04-17T07:55:42.266-05:00

Henery Press, 2017

The annual Bethesda, Maryland convention Malice Domestic has announced its 2017 nominees for the Agatha Awards, honoring traditional mysteries as typified by the works of Agatha Christie, containing no explicit sex, excessive gore, or gratuitous violence. An April 2018 vote of Malice attendees will determine the winners. In the meantime, as part of the announcement, the Best Short Story nominees are freely available online.

Gretchen Archer's nominated story takes place in the world of her Davis Way series. Davis is the lead undercover investigator for a Mississippi resort and casino, but this particular story is told by Davis's grandmother, Dee, who finds herself captured by a Santa's elf who has strapped a bomb to Davis's friend, Bianca.

Archer's previous short stories have gone into the viewpoints of various characters in Davis's circle, and Granny proves quite the character, resourcefully trying to save Bianca while a captive herself.



Bill Crider (1941-2018)

2018-02-13T04:56:21.756-06:00

Our own Bill Crider died yesterday, having battled cancer since July 2016. From his brother, Bob, who's been updating his Facebook friends:

My brother, Bill Crider, passed away this evening at 6:52 PM CST, Monday February 12, 2018. It was a peaceful end to a strong body and intellectual mind. Services pending and will be announced later.


I chatted briefly with Bill at Bouchercon 2017 in Toronto, where he was his usual good-natured self on panels. We met in person at my first Bouchercon, 2008 in Baltimore. Meanwhile, virtually, he always commented on my birthday blog posts. The smallest gestures can be the kindest.

I regret we won't share another con, but his wisdom, wit, and friendship will remain with me and all of us here at Nasty. Brutish. Short.



"The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie's Place" by Debra H. Goldstein

2018-04-17T07:56:18.894-05:00

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May-June 2017

The annual Bethesda, Maryland convention Malice Domestic has announced its 2017 nominees for the Agatha Awards, honoring traditional mysteries as typified by the works of Agatha Christie, containing no explicit sex, excessive gore, or gratuitous violence. An April 2018 vote of Malice attendees will determine the winners. In the meantime, as part of the announcement, the Best Short Story nominees are freely available online.

The narrator of Debra H. Goldstein's nominated story was a nine-year-old boy when his mother found "Mr. Johnnie, [a] bigwig at one of the banks and a friend of most of the city's politicians," stabbed to death in a bedroom she was meant to clean. From the boy's innocent perspective, readers infer where his mother worked and why it burned down, an engaging approach.



"The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn" by Gigi Pandian

2018-04-17T07:56:18.837-05:00

Henery Press, 2017

The annual Bethesda, Maryland convention Malice Domestic has announced its 2017 nominees for the Agatha Awards, honoring traditional mysteries as typified by the works of Agatha Christie, containing no explicit sex, excessive gore, or gratuitous violence. An April 2018 vote of Malice attendees will determine the winners. In the meantime, as part of the announcement, the Best Short Story nominees are freely available online.

Gigi Pandian's nominated story balances homage to Christie, "locked room" tradition, and contemporary sensibilities. Fresh off the events of her fifth series novel, The Ninja's Illusion, treasure-hunting historian Jaya Jones and her friend Tamarind Ortega are snowbound in Denver. They share a taxi with famous—and infamous—thriller author Simon Quinn to the driver's recommended lodgings, the "haunted" Tanglewood Inn.

The owner, Rosalyn, tells of a Mr. Underhill, driven mad by a now-collector's edition of Murder on the Orient Express, still in the inn's library, locked under glass. In the middle of the night, Simon cries out and is found dead in the library. With no outward signs of trauma, he appears to have died in similar fashion to Mr. Underhill. With no outside help available until morning, it's up to Jaya to investigate.



"Whose Wine is It Anyway?" by Barb Goffman

2018-04-17T07:56:18.866-05:00

50 Shades of Cabernet: An Anthology of Wine Mysteries ed. Joe Coccaro, Köehler Books, 2017

The annual Bethesda, Maryland convention Malice Domestic has announced its 2017 nominees for the Agatha Awards, honoring traditional mysteries as typified by the works of Agatha Christie, containing no explicit sex, excessive gore, or gratuitous violence. An April 2018 vote of Malice attendees will determine the winners. In the meantime, as part of the announcement, the Best Short Story nominees are freely available online.

In Barb Goffman's nominated story, Myra, retiring after forty years as a legal secretary, is frustrated training her attractive, flighty replacement Jessica. Myra goes from passive-aggressive to actively aggressive when her friend and boss, Douglas McPherson, asks her to put on her own retirement party, having forgotten himself.

Myra changes a memo she'd been writing to Jessica, deemphasizing a note about Douglas's wine allergy. She assumes Jessica will miss the note and give Douglas a mild breakout. However, Douglas's allergy is more severe and Jessica more competent than they seem.



"A Necessary Ingredient" by Art Taylor

2018-04-17T07:56:18.922-05:00

Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea ed. Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks, Down and Out Books, 2017, p. 208-239

Last week, the annual Bethesda, Maryland convention Malice Domestic announced its 2017 nominees for the Agatha Awards, honoring traditional mysteries as typified by the works of Agatha Christie, containing no explicit sex, excessive gore, or gratuitous violence. An April 2018 vote of Malice attendees will determine the winners. In the meantime, as part of the announcement, the Best Short Story nominees are freely available online.

At the outset of Art Taylor's nominated story, narrator Ambrose Thornton declares he is not a detective. Pressured by his wealthy, locally influential father to do something with his time, he's taken a correspondence course in investigation and set up an office, but the case in this story is his first.

Esmé, owner of a new eponymous restaurant down the street from Thornton's office, hires him on the rumor someone in town is growing tonka beans, aromatic South American beans banned by the FDA for their deleterious effect on the liver. Esmé, however, asserts one would have to consume a preposterous amount to bring on said effect. She wants in on the source to use the beans in her recipes.

I had read a few of Taylor's Del & Louise stories, about a convenience store clerk who runs off with a criminal she senses has nobler ambitions. "A Necessary Ingredient" is told in a similarly pleasant, conversational style so its well-placed plot twists sneak up.



"Child's Play" by Bill Moody

2018-02-04T06:09:55.749-06:00

Murder...and All That Jazz, ed. Robert J. Randisi, Signet, 2004, p. 95–108

From a newspaper article, tenor sax jazz musician Wilson Childs discovers his old friend, pianist Quincy Simmons, missing twenty-five years since skipping bail, has been found living at a homeless shelter. Haunted by the night he and Simmons were pulled over and Quincy took the fall for Childs' weed and his own gun, Childs tracks down the reporter, hoping to reunite with his friend.

Jazz drummer and author Bill Moody died last month, aged 76. This story stands out to me in that it's more hopeful than much of the genre. The initial report of Simmons alive was better news than I expected to get.



"Half-Life" by Kate Ellis

2018-01-31T05:11:32.003-06:00

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2018, p. 95–105

An "incident" at a nuclear power station brings PC George Jenkins to Primrose Cottage to evacuate elderly Rosa Cage. Jenkins has a personal reason to visit, too: the chance to gain insight into his father, who disappeared before George was born.

From Jenkins' viewpoint, we read letters his father wrote his mother while staying at the cottage in 1965, helping to build the power station, and we follow the present questioning of potential witnesses to his father's stay. Ellis also lets us into Rosa Cage's patchy mental state, which effectively deepens the mystery, and a third and final viewpoint, PC Karen Dawson, who arrives to back up Jenkins when Cage proves a challenge.



"Remembering Tally" by John M. Floyd

2018-01-24T10:00:08.765-06:00

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2009, p. 102–109

At what his campaign calls their "blue-collar" office, short and shady gubernatorial frontrunner J. Talmadge "Tally" Byrd takes a phone call that turns out to be a bomb threat. The bomber gives Tally a character-defining choice—tell everyone in the office about the bomb, or save only himself—saying he has three minutes left.

Real politicians are seldom this starkly put to the test, and their bad decisions don't come back to bite them quickly enough for my taste, so I'm grateful all that does happen in this story.

Multiple Derringer Award winner John M. Floyd currently blogs at SleuthSayers.



"Murder on Rue Royal" by Angela Crider Neary

2018-01-20T02:59:07.327-06:00

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2018, p. 67–75

The staff of New Orleans' Cafe Alcide is eager to impress important—and self-important—food critic Niles Breaux and make up for his previous negative review. They do impress Breaux, only to see him gasp to death minutes after complimenting chef-owner Jean-Claude Alcide.

Our own Bill Crider's daughter makes her EQMM debut with a twist on the multi-culprit "perfect" crime. Neary goes into many characters' viewpoints, showing three had grudges against Alcide. NOPD Det. Charles Rousseau arrests these three, citing evidence they conspired to frame Alcide for Breaux's murder, but—I'll just say Rousseau is no Poirot.



"A Poison That Leaves No Trace" by Sue Grafton

2018-01-15T06:03:47.909-06:00

Kinsey and Me: Stories, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2013, p. 127-146

The pioneering and prolific author of the Kinsey Millhone P.I. series died December 28, 2017 aged 77. First appearing in Sisters in Crime 2 (Berkley, 1990), "A Poison That Leaves No Trace" was one of her favorites, reprinted in at least two later anthologies at her request.

After giving the impression she thought Kinsey would be a man and suggesting her fee of $30 an hour is too steep, Shirese "Sis" Dunaway hires Kinsey to investigate her estranged sister Marge's death. Not believing the official finding Marge's death was without foul play heart-related, Sis casts suspicion on Marge's daughter, Justine.

Confirming the official finding with the hall of records and the funeral director, Kinsey then visits Justine on the pretense of owing Marge $600. Justine's eagerness to claim the money makes Kinsey suspect she's lying about something.

When you get to the twist that Sis and Justine both lie to Kinsey, you have to admire how convincing Sis is, her skepticism teasing out Kinsey's desire to prove herself.



"Haven't Seen You Since the Funeral" by Ernest B. and Alice A. Brown

2018-01-11T06:55:49.528-06:00

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, December 2008, p. 25–41

Out jogging, Boston P.I. Valerie Dymond gets a cell phone call from a stranger apparently watching her. Dealing with her fear, Val goes about tracking down the stranger through her open cases and a car she spots.

Created by husband-and-wife team Ernest B. and Alice A Brown, Val is tough enough, but she's introspective enough to explore why this stranger gets to her more than a simple prank caller might.

The mention of a funeral brings to mind "Grave Trouble" from the same issue. While that story quickly sets a humorous tone, the cover story just as quickly sets a chilling one.



"Grave Trouble" by R.T. Lawton

2018-01-08T07:49:30.501-06:00

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, December 2008, p. 60–73

With a nod to Lawrence Block and a dash of Donald E. Westlake, this comedic caper finds claustrophobic, cash-strapped Yarnell going along with his partner Beaumont's plan to rob a jewelry store through the sewer system the night before Halloween. Due to a forgotten tape measure, however, Beaumont misjudges the distance underground, and they wind up tunneling into a funeral home.

Retired federal law enforcement agent Lawton currently blogs at SleuthSayers.



"Dysperception" by Larry Light

2018-01-02T13:45:46.308-06:00

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2018, p. 85–94

I admit up front this story caught my eye for its protagonist, Gerald, father of college-aged daughter, Ashley, to whom he breaks the news her mother, Jenna, wants a divorce. To Ashley's protests, Gerald pleads Jenna's habit of "dysperception," seeing things incorrectly to bad ends.

The coined term fits the story overall in that Gerald—a popular athlete back in school who's taken to living off Jenna's money—has a rather inflated image of himself. That overconfidence compels him to manipulate not only Ashley but also neighbors Tim and Mindy Heston in an elaborate plot to kill Jenna, a plot largely foiled by the same overconfidence.

A well-conceived, well-told EQMM debut for Larry Light.



"Farewell Cruise" by Martin Edwards

2017-12-29T14:02:00.108-06:00

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2018, p. 43–49

This is an atmospheric tale from the viewpoint of a pianist observing three Caribbean cruise guests. Visiting the ship's lounge each night, new divorcée Wanda Thomson appears to be seducing her lawyer, Justin Lemaitre, as Justin's wife Millie looks on, increasingly humiliated.

The pianist comes to sympathize with Millie, and she tells him she's given Justin an ultimatum: her or Wanda. Justin appears to choose Millie, and Wanda appears to commit suicide, but Edwards reminds us throughout that the pianist is not a professional detective and we must keep asking how close his perspective is to the truth.



"Wake Me When It's Over" by Robert Garner McBrearty

2017-12-29T13:00:40.524-06:00

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2018, p. 137–38

Avid fiction readers want to buy into everything writers do in telling stories. The late writer and teacher John C. Gardner described the writer's task as creating a vivid, continuous dream. Revealing sections or whole stories to be dreams, though, can make readers feel cheated, rudely awakened.

In twenty-two paragraphs across two pages, Robert Garner McBrearty uses dreams to present protagonist Samuels' suspicion his wife is having an affair. Along with Samuels, though, we become unable to tell dream from reality, not waking us, but locking us in.



"Stick" by Doug Allyn

2017-12-29T13:01:28.070-06:00

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2018, p. 17–30

Doug Allyn's latest EQMM story turns on deceptive appearances. Elderly "Stick" Shefer fends off assault by a knife-wielding meth addict, but a security camera records the incident, drawing the attention of inquisitive police detective Chantelle Robinson.

Though Shefer has nothing to fear from his encounter with the meth addict, Chantelle's interest relates to the thirty-year-old unsolved homicide of her mother, Rita. At the time, Shefer was romantically involved with Rita's mother, Velvet Dunbar, and Rita's body was found in his car.

Reluctant as he is out of respect for Velvet, Stick's involvement in the story goes well beyond telling Chantelle what he remembers of the night of the murder. The more Stick is drawn in, the more readers are, until a satisfyingly full picture of that night develops.