Showing posts with label best. Show all posts
Showing posts with label best. Show all posts

18 January 2017

The very best stories of 2016

by Robert Lopresti

I hope you have all donned your tuxes and/or gowns, because I am about to announce the best short mystery stories of the year.  Prepare to watch the winners sashaying down the red carpet and smirking at the paparazzi.

This is the eighth year I have conducted this ceremony.  I regret to say 2016 was not as good as 2015 (insert political joke here), since the number of stories dropped from 14 to 13.

Seven authors were men, six female.  The big winner was Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine with four stories.  Ellery Queen scored three and Crime Plus Music, an anthology from Three Rooms Press nabbed two. Five stories are historic fiction.  Three are (loosely speaking) comic.

The biggest surprise may be that there were  no repeat offenders: none of these authors had made my best-of lists before.  One SleuthSayer is included, as is one first story.

Addendum: I should have mentioned that slightly longer reviews of these stories can be found at my weekly review site, Little Big Crimes.

Okay.  Start the show!


Barnes, Linda. "The Way They Do It In Boston,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2016.

Veteran Drew wants to be a cop in Boston but it's hard to make the resident-for-a-year requirement when you are living in your car with your only friend, a beat-up ex-army dog.

So she's working night security on a tow service parking lot, down by the river.  One night a crate of assault weapons washes up on the shore.  Something bad is going on.  Does it involve the lot?  Can she survive long enough to find out?

Bastable, Mark.  "Motive, Opportunity, Means,"  in The Thrill List, edited by Catherine Lea, Brakelight Press, 2016.

Congressman John Fuller left his wife for his secretary.  Said wife did not take it well.  Now she has plotted an elaborate revenge, and Fuller's future depends on the shrewdness and determination of an overworked cop named Pinski who just wants to spend some time with own wife. 

If this description sounds a little sparse, you are right.  I don't want to give away any of the secrets of this marvelous, convoluted plot.

Bracken, Michael.  "Chase Your Dreams,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, June 2016.

Picture a small town in Texas, one so set in its ways that the whites and blacks still use seperate cemeteries.  Cody is a gay man, deep in the closet.  His secret lover, Chase, on the other hand, was "leading one-man Gay Pride parades." When Chase disappears, Cody has to decide what is more important: finding out the truth, or staying safe?

Buck, Craig Faustus.  "Blank Shot," in Black Coffee, edited by Andrew MacRae, Dark House Books, 2016.

1960, East Berlin.  Our protagonist has been shot in the head, a grazing blow that erased most of his memory.  The cops want to know what happened and the deadly secret police, the Stasi, are lurking on the sidelines, up to God knows what. Will our hero figure out who he is before the shooter realizes he is still alive and tries again? 

Cajoleas, Jimmy.  "The Lord of Madison County," in Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin, Akashic Press, 2016.


Teenage Douglas  has come up with the perfect place to sell drugs: his church's youth group.  Pastor Jerry loves his enthusiasm and has no clue about what's going on... or what Douglas is doing with his young daughter. What I love about this story is that is is full of classic noir characters, but they don't all follow the noir rules, and their choices may surprise you.  Very nice piece of work.


McCormick, William Buron.  "Voices in the Cistern,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, August 2016.

This is McCormick's  second story about Quintus the Clever, a thief in the early days of the Roman empire.  And Quintus is having a bad day.

It isn't enough that he is in a city under siege by the Roman's deadly Scythian enemies.  No, he also has to deal with Vibius, a large, nasty, unscrupulous rogue.  The brute has decided Quintus is the perfect co-conspirator to help him with a dangerous scheme.  The last person involved was actually killed by, uh, Vibius.  What could go wrong?

McDermid, Val.  "The Long Black Veil,"  in Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli, Three Rooms Press, 2016.

Jess lives with relatives because, a decade ago when she was four years old, her mother murdered her father.  That's the official story, but it turns out the truth is a lot more complicated.  "There are worse things to be in small-town America than the daughter of a murderess," says her caretaker.  "So I hold my tongue and settle for silence."
Moran, Terrie Farley.  "Inquiry and Assistance,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2016.

A nice story in the P.I. vein by my friend Terrie Farley Moran. New York City, the Great Depression.  Tommy Flood, unemployed bookkeeper is looking desperately for work, and surviving through family ties.

And speaking of family, he gets an invitation from Van Helden, the wealthy man who employs his cousin Kathleen.  He has a dangerously wild daughter, and Van Helden has decided the solution is to find an attractive but tame gentleman to escort her safely to the risky sorts of establishments she enjoys. Tommy meets the daughter by pretending to be a private eye.  And guess what?  Turns out he's good at it... 

Rogers, Cheryl.  "The Ballad of Maggie Carson,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,  May 2016.  

A real sui generis tale.   Maggie Carson, newly unmarried senior citizen, is racing through the Australian Never-Never with a lifeless body in her car.  A retired police officer is on her trail.  And why, in such circumstances, is she so cheerful?

Rogow, Roberta. "The Perfesser and the Kid," in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, issue 19, 2016.

At Nikola Tesla's funeral an aging politician decides to entertain the gathered reporters with the true story of the great inventor's first day in America. We know that Tesla was robbed on the ship and stepped onto dry land with four cents in his pocket.   The official version says that he then met a man on the street with a broken machine and fixed it on the spot, thereby earning his first dollar on these shores. But our politician's version involves  a pool hall, a gang of street toughs, and Tammany Hall.


 Smith, Mark Haskell. “1968 Pelham Blue SG Jr.”  in Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli, Three Rooms Press, 2016.

When was the last time you read a story written in first person plural?  The narrator is we, the collective voice of an over-the-hill rock band. After a gig the band's equipment (including the titular guitar) is stolen but "we couldn't call the police because one of us was supposed to be home with an ankle monitor strapped to our leg."  Hilarious.

Stevens, B.K. "The Last Blue Glass," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, April 2016.

My fellow SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens has come up with a nice one. Cathy and Frank buy the titular set of six blue glasses as they are preparing for their first dinner party.  They are a bit fragile and expensive but Frank loves them and Cathy tends to go along with what he wants, which turns out to be a piece of the problem in their marriage, a marriage we see falling to pieces like, well, a set of blue glasses.

Thielman, Mark. "A Meter of Murder," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2016.

In his first published story (!) Mark Thielman makes 1661 London come to life.  King Charles II had just taken the throne and anyone who had been on the Roundhead side in the Civil War, or sided with Cromwell after, had to keep one eye over his shoulder, expecting arrest or worse.

One of those was the blind poet John Milton, not yet the creator of Paradise Lost.  The narrator of the novella is Milton's younger friend, Andrew Marvell, who was both a member of Parliament and a poet. When a royalist member of Parliament is killed in circumstances that suggest a possible political motive big trouble is afoot, unless Milton can get to the bottom of it.

20 January 2016

Nothin' But The Best


by Robert Lopresti

As part of my tireless effort to make the world a better place I am once again listing all the best short mysteries of the year, thereby saving all the other award judges from a lot of tedious reading.  (Well, they could add these to their assigned list. I wouldn't mind.)

I recommend that all those judges take the time they save and do something good for society.  I would help, but I have to start reading next year's stories.

This is the seventh time I have made an annual list.  By coincidence, there were 14 stories on last year's list, and the same number this time.

The big winner this year was Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, with four stories.  Tied with two each are Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Strand Magazine, Thuglit, and the Jewish Noir anthology.

Nine stories are by men; five by women.  (That's one more female winner than last year.)  Four are historical, four are funny, two are parody/pastiches.

Okay.  Drum roll, please...

Camilleri, Andrea.  "Neck and Neck,"  in The Strand Magazine," October 2015-January 2016.

Montalbano,  Camilleri's series character, is appointed Chief Inspector in a village in Sicily, and discovers that a Mafia family feud is well under well.  A member of the Cuffaros is snuffed out with an old-fashioned shotgun, and then one of the Sinagras dies the same way.

But then something highly irregular happens.  Two members of the same family are killed in a row.  How unseemly!  And Montalbano spots a way into the maze of silence...

Faherty, Terence.  "The Man With The Twisted Lip," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, February 2015.

My former co-blogger Terence Faherty is making his third appearance on my annual best of list.  Only three other  authors have scored that many times.

Faherty claims to have discovered Dr. John Watson's notebooks, containing the rough drafts of Sherlock Holmes adventures, before they were "cleaned up for publication."  This is the fourth in his series.

Both versions begin with a woman calling at the home of Watson and his wife, desperate because her husband has disappeared.  In Doyle's version the man is a drug addict and has vanished into an opium den.  In Faherty's tale the same man is a serial philanderer and is apparently staying in a hotel of bad repute. 

"My husband returns!" Rita exclaimed.
"Not a moment too soon," Holmes said.
"You don't understand.  He's insanely jealous.  And violent.  If he finds me in here--"
Holmes sprang up.  "Watson, I bow to your experience.  Under the bed?"

Gould, Heywood.  "Everything is Bashert," in Jewish Noir, edited by Kenneth Wishnia, PM Press, 2015.
I have a story in this book.  Heywood Gould's tale is about Franny and Larson, two petty lowlifes who like to spend their days at Aquaduct. And it is at that race track one day that they run into a hasidic gentleman they call the rabbi (he isn't).  The rabbi has a Bible-based system for betting on the horses, a sure thing of course, and yet somehow he is short of money.  Go figure.  Our heroes lend him some cash and, well, a wild ride commences that involves among other things, breaking into a morgue, and ends with a sort of spiritual enlightment.  A treat from start to finish.

Hockey, Matthew J.  "Canary,"  in Thuglit, 18, 2015.

Booster is a fireman with a chemistry degree, which earns him the dubious privilege of being the first into a meth lab gone deadly.  He's the one who enters in full HAZMAT gear and has to determine if all the idiots inside were killed by the poisonous brew they created or whether there might be survivors. And this time he finds  a bag stuffed with four hundred grand.  Obviously he ought to leave it where it lies, but who will know if he doesn't?  And so he takes one step off the straight-and-narrow...


Kareska, Lane.  "Big Hard Squall,"  in Thuglit, issue 17, 2015.

Abby has been brutally attacked and locked in the trunk of her car, which is now headed for parts unknown.  We stay in Abby's head as she runs through her life and concludes that there is no one who would want to do this to her.  Therefore the target must be her daughter Margaret, a prosecuting attorney.  Either someone wants to punish Margaret or else put a squeeze on her, and Abby is the pawn in jeopardy.  But when the trunk lid opens Abby and us - are in for surprises.


Lewis, Evan.  "The Continental Opposite,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May 2015.

What chutzpah.  Lewis has revived Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op.

This story takes place in the fifties, decades after the Op's last appearance.  The main character is a young detective named Peter Collins (he notes bitterly that his father deliberately gave him a name that is gangland slang for "nobody").  Peter works for the Portland, Oregon branch of a national detective agency and when he accuses his boss of corruption the company sends in a retired op who used to work for the San Francisco branch ("sometime in the forties Continental had put him out to pasture, and he'd spent the years since killing a vegetable garden, sneering at golf courses, and not catching fish.").  This guy strongly resembles Hammett's hero, much older and, if possible, more cynical. A brilliant story.

Liss, David.  "Jewish Easter,"  in Jewish Noir, edited by Kenneth Wishnia, PM Press, 2015.

Al's family moved from Long Island to Jacksonville, Florida, when he was in third grade, because of his stepfather's import business.  Now he is thirteen and has begun to figure out exactly what is being imported.

But that's not his immediate problem.  There are a couple of anti-Semetic rednecks in his class and when they hear about Passover (which the sensitive teacher helpfully describes as "Jewish Easter,") they decide to invite themselves forcefully to the seder.  Let all who are hungry come and eat, right?

What I loved about the story is not the suspense but the surprising choices the characters make (especially the grandmother).  It kept me guessing right up to the last paragraph.

Maron, Margaret.  "We On The Train!"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May 2015.  

Greg McInnis is a DEA agent who prefers to travel by train.  On a trip up the east coast he is amused by a young African-American woman who is gleefully phoning everyone she knows to tell them that she is going to visit New York with an older man she says is her Uncle Leon.

Sounds innocent enough, but this is a crime story, so something else must be going on here.  Will our hero figure it out in time?  He only has four pages...

Newman, Kim.  "Red Jacks Wild,"  in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 17, 2015.

John Carmody is a psychologist in New York in 1951.  He also happens to be Jack the Ripper.

Wait a minute, you say.  He'd have to be a hundred years old.

Well, he is.  But he looks the same age he did in the 1880s when he started making human sacrifices to the evil goddess Hecate.  Which he still does, every three years.

But not prostitutes every time.  He alters his "disposables,"  choosing victims from a  group no one will care about.  Which makes him a weathervane pointing at whoever is on the bottom of the social pile.  This story is all about America's twisted psyche, and I loved it.


Opperman, Meg.  "The Discovery,"  in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 18, 2015.

While studying at a university in her native Venezuela Celeste meets and marries Robert  and moves to Washington, D.C.  Robert is  a classic abusive, controlling, husband.  Celeste's every move is watched, her phone calls monitored.  When her bus home is late she is beaten.

 Reaching into a hand-carved box, I sort through the gold jewelry and select Robert's latest apology.

But what makes this story more than just a tale of domestic misery is that each scene is prefaced with a quotation from Christopher Columbus's letters or logbooks, describing his encounters with the natives of the new world.  It is no accident that Celeste and Robert get married on Columbus Day.

Palumbo, Dennis.  "A Theory of Murder,"  in And All Our Yesterdays, edited by Andrew MacRae, Darkhouse Books, 2015.

The publisher sent me this book for free.

It's Bern, Switzerland, 1904.  Hector, a clerk in the patent office, is suspected of a series of grisly murders.  Luckily a friend of his, also a patent clerk, is looking into the crimes.  And Albert Einstein is a pretty bright guy...  Wish I'd thought of that.

Ross, Gary Earl.  "Good Neighbors,"  in Buffalo Noir, edited by Ed Park and Brigid Hughes, Akashic Press, 2015.

Lou and Athena have retired after running their Greek restaurant for decades.  Lou's hobby is antiques.  He doesn't collect them, he just wants to buy low and sell high.  But then he discovers that his elderly neighbor Helen has a house full of the things.  And Helen has no relatives, no favorite charities, no one to leave her precious belongings to. So Lou and Athena set out to become really good neighbors and wait for Helen to pass away.

But then the Washingtons  move in on the other side, and it turns out that they are good neighbors too. This story is well-written, beautifully structured, and  one of those rare pieces I reread as soon as I finished it.

Rozan, S.J. "Chin Yong-Yun Meets A Ghost,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March-April 2015.

This is my buddy S.J. Rozan's second story told by the  formidable mother of her series detective Lydia Chin.  When Mrs. Chin  gets a phone call from Gerald Yu she is annoyed  for three reasons.  First, Yu is a gambler and not very bright.  Second, he wants to involve daughter Lydia in his troubles.  And third, he happens to be dead.

"It's about my death, but it's not vengeance I'm after.  Also, it's not really about my death, because I'm not dead."
"Who told you that?  They're lying."




Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. "Christmas Eve at the Exit,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January 2015.

This is Ms. Rusch's second appearance on my annual best list.

It is Christmas eve and Rachel and her little girl are on the run.  Many pages will pass before we find out from who, and about the shadowy support system that is helping them.

Rachel is terrified, not sure who to trust, and desperately trying to keep up an appearance of normality for her daughter who, heartbreakingly, seems mostly concerned about Santa Claus. This story will appear in holiday-themed anthologies for years to come.

21 January 2015

All the best from me to you

by Robert Lopresti

Now comes that joyous season again when I reveal the best stories of the year as chosen by me.  This is only a slightly smaller jury than the one that which decides the Golden Globe Awards, by the way.

2014 marks sixth year at the task, and I am sorry to say that for the second year in a row my total of favorites dropped by one, this time to fourteen.  Either you writers are slipping or I am getting increasingly curmudgeonly in my old age.  I suspect the latter.

But let's talk about more cheerful numbers.  Ellery Queen is the bigger winner this time with six stories.  Alfred Hitchcock had three.  No other institution scored more than once, unless you count SleuthSayers: three of the fourteen are by current or former members of our little clan.  That's either blatant nepotism or a sign of our high quality.  Again, I suspect the latter.

Ten authors were male, four female.  One winner is a first story.

Two stories are funny.  Four are historical.  I tried categorizing by main character and gave up; too many of these people are bad guys and victims.

The lucky winners may collect their trophies in the green room.
 
Carr, Dara.  "When I'm Famous,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 2014. 

The best first story I have read in some time. Williamsburg, Brooklyn, among the hipsters. Our narrator, Mindy, tells us she is a visual person. She has a "make-believe boyfriend," Marcus, who phones her late at night for "booty calls" and she always goes over.

One might diagnose low self-esteem. Here's another example. When Mindy spots a beautiful woman at a party, a "wallpaper artist," she writes:

...Brooklyn royalty and she knows it, the men twitching like they've been tased, the female viewers emitting a soft electric hum, brains working hard, calculating the age they were when they could have last worn shorts that length in public, let alone to a party; beaches don't count. Age seven would be my answer.

Dean, David.  "Murder Town,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, February 2014.

My fellow SleuthSayer David Dean makes his thrid appearance on this list, with a fine story in the "Most Dangerous Game" variety.   Terry Holliday is in a Mexican prison for crimes he committed, and some he didn't.  His is not what you would call a model prisoner either.

"'Of course, you realize that should you choose to stay with us here, you will surely die," the commandante offered smoothly.  He didn't appear to be particularly troubled by the possibility.

Holliday is presented with a chance to get away from the guards and fellow prisoners who want him dead.  It seems a group of wealthy philanthropists are running a parole program for certain prisoners.  Ah, but we already know that there is a catch.  The program sends him to Murder Town.


Giolito, Malin Persson.  "Day and Night My Keeper Be,"  in A Darker Shade of Sweden, edited by John-Henri Holmberg, Grove-Atlantic, 2014.  

 After a long December day, single mother Petra is at the end of her rope, so she decides to take her children to the Christmas market.  And - boom - her four-year-old daughter disappears. 

She presses a few buttons, shakes it, but it's pointless.  Her daughter is gone and the phone won't ring and fear has to duck because now terror runs up her back, with sharp talons and pointed teeth.

This story takes unusual twists and ends with a set of plaintive questions. Well worth reading.        
    


Guillebeau, Michael.  "Male Leary Comes Home," in The Anthology of Cozy Noir, edited by Andrew MacRae, Dark House Books, 2014.

I have a story of my own in this anthology.

The Leary guy in the title was baptized Robert T.  His birth certificate calls him Male.  His friends call him Mister. 

Under any name, he was in the Navy during the War and then joined the merchant marine.  When the story opens he's back from sea and learns that his girlfriend's father is having trouble with a gang boss.   Leary and a friendly bar owner get involved and - something violent and nasty happens.


Helms, Richard.  "Busting Red Heads,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,  March/April 2014.

Tommy Crane fought in World War I, joined the Boston Police, and then figured he could make more money by joining a detective agency.  But like a lot of "detectives" in the twenties his job wasn't to solve crimes; it was to bash Bolsheviks, being defined as anyone who wanted to form or join a union.  This is a part of the private dick business I don't remember anyone writing about before.

In Kentucky they get to work beating up strikers but things go bad when they attack the union office.  The wrong people die and there's a mystery to solve.   Good story.

Law, Janice.  "The Raider,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 2014.

Like David Dean, my fellow SleuthSayer Janice Law is making this list for the third time.

The story is set during the Bleeding Kansas period, a few years before the Civil War, when people were in brutal combat over whether that territory would be a free or slave state.

They were burned out on the spring of '56 in a raid that left nothing but the walls of the soddy and a few chickens that flew down out of the oak trees and pecked through the debris.  His father sat by the ruins of the new barn with his head in his hands and his face the color of ashes....


Page, Anita.  "Their Little Secret," in  Murder New York Style: Family Secrets, edited by Anita Page, Glenmere Press, 2014.

Anita Page is the editor of this book and she sent me a free copy.  It was created by the New York/Tri State Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

This is a story of a fifteen-year-old child in a dysfunctional family. Cassie, expert reader of moods and body language, figured [her parents] were minutes away from the Sunday  night fight.  

What makes this a winner for me is one sentence on the last page.  Not a twist ending, but  a neat sting that gives us a new persective on what has gone on before.

"Splitting Adams," by Percy Spurlark Parker, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2014.

Parker is making his second appearance on my best list.

Terry Adams is a very unhappy man.  He's not good with women and he blames it on his big brother Jerry.  Jerry is slick and smooth and always moves in on Terry when he is trying to get started with a new lady. 

It has just happened again and Terry, well, Terry is about to lose it.  A clever piece of flash fiction.

Pronzini, Bill.  "Hooch,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 2014.

Thugs smuggling booze in from Canada during Prohibition.  Two of them are hardened criminals; the third one, Bennie, is a bright-eyed youngster who got everything he knows about crime from places like Black Mask Magazine.  In fact, he tells his colleagues cheerfully, he's writing a novel about the rum-running business.  All fictionalized of course..  Nothing for them to worry about...  The ending is perfect.

Rouleau, Bryan Paul.  "The Ice Cream Snatcher," in Thuglit, issue 13, 2014.

Sunrise thinks he's doomed, predestined to crime.  Someone once told him you never recover from bad things that happened to you before you turn three, and really bad stuff happened to him at that age.  That, he figures, is why he keeps ending up in jail.

On this particular occasion he had his friend Pedro steal a Maserati.  They get away clean but don't notice that there's somebody in the back seat.

A three-year-old boy.

What I love about this story is that Sunrise interprets what happens so differently than the reader is likely to.  An existentialist fable, because if there is doom here, it is in his own attitude.

Sareini, Ali. F.  "A Message In The Breath Of Allah," in Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2014.

The author was recently released from prison.  His character, also named Ali,  has been praying to Allah for decades to be released from prison.  A weaker spirit might feel a twinge of doubt after all that time, but Ali concludes that his prayers are simply  the wrong media to get his message across.

He decides he needs to send a messenger directly to Allah.  Fortunately, he is working as a helper in the part of the prison full of elderly and ill inmates. "I reverently called the unit 'the messengers' home.'" So all he has to do is explain clearly the plea he wants delivered and then immediately send the astonished courier off to the afterlife.  Creepy, and much to ponder here.

Schofield, Neil.  "It'll Cost You,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2014.
Former SleuthSayer Neil Schofield has provided a  clever story. Georgie Hopcraft cheerfully telling us that he is in prison and his cellmate is "another murderer," which is a little misleading because Georgie has been convicted of a murder he did not commit.

HIs wife framed him and he was convicted.  And yet, Georgie remains cheerful. Apparently he knows something that we and his ex-wife don't...




Tobin, Brian.  "An Open-and Shut Case,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2014.

Sheriff Maloney is looking at the corpse of Curtis Frye, dead in the doorway of his own house.  Frye was bad news, a meth-head who killed a woman for thirty bucks.  He was tried for the crime three times but most of the evidence had been kicked out on a technicality, resulting in three hung juries.

After getting the investigation started, Mahoney gets in his car and makes a phone call: "You owe me, Roy.  This is me calling in my chit.  Tonight, you cannot kill yourself."

 A dazzling story, right down to the last paragraph.

Wallace, Joseph.  "Jaguar,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2014.

Ana is a tour guide in Belize.  She meets a wealthy American tourist who may be able to get her out  of a bad home situation.  But there is more going on than appears at first.  And the very clever structure - alternating between her last day in Central America and her first day in New York - scrambles cause and efffect very nicely and lets Wallace hide some secrets  until he is ready to reveal them.

29 January 2014

Wishing you the best

by Robert Lopresti

Move aside, Oscar!  Fie on thee, Edgar!  Make room for the real awards. For the fifth year I am listing the best detective short stories of the year as determined by yours truly.

FIfteen stories made the list this time, one fewer than last year.  I am astonished to report that there was a three-way tie between Hitchcock, Queen, and The Strand, with four stories each.  The other three came from anthologies from three different publishers.  

Three of the stories are historical.  Three are humorous.  One is a first story.  By main character we have:

Detective 6
Criminal 5
Victim 1
Other 3

And here are the lucky winners.  They can pick up their gift bags in the green room.

"I Am Not Fluffy," by Liza Cody, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, December 2013.

I worked as a hostess and greeter at a bar-restaurant six nights a week for five years while Harvey qualified to be a tax lawyer.  And for two nights a week Harvey was going round to Alicia's flat to bounce her bones.  "You were never there," he complained.  "What was I supposed to do all by myself every night?"

What indeed.  Insult to injury: Alicia was an old friend of hers.  And now that Harvey is making a bundle he wants a no-fault divorce and a big white wedding to his new love.

Our narrator goes for textbook passive-aggressive tactics: refusing to sign the divorce papers.   And she begins writing her polite protests against the world around her in chalk on the sidewalk, signing them Fluffy.

Is this a story about a nervous breakdown?  A split personality?  Or is our heroine learning to not be Fluffy anymore, to be a person who can take care of herself?

"The Sequel," by Jeffrey Deaver, in The Strand Magazine, November-February 2012-2013.


Frederick Lowell is an elderly literary agent and one day he gets a letter that hints that one of his deceased clients wrote a sequel to his classic novel.  Lowell travels around the country in pursuit of it and - well, a lot of things happen.  In fact, it almost feels like Deaver made a list of every way this story could work out and then rang  the changes, covering every possibility.

In the first half of the story he gives us a classic quest structure but when that ends we get a mystery, one with several red herring solutions, clever reversals and unexpected twists.

"Margo and the Silver Cane," by Terence Faherty, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February  2013.

My fellow SleuthSayer, Terence Faherty, is the only author making a second appearance on my list this year.   

In the days before Pearl Harbor Margo Banning is an ambitious career woman, working as associate producer on a Sunday radio show.  One of the stars is Philip St,  Pierre, a self-proclaimed "radio detective."  And in this week's show he announces that next week he will be revealing the identity of a top German spy.  What follows is a lot of fun and amusingly written.  Take this conversation regarding one of the other performers on the radio show.

"You are not a radio detective?"
"That question takes us into the realm of philosophy.  Or do I mean psychology?  Are we who we decide to be or who the world tells us to be?  For example, I work with a woman who has forced her will upon the world.  She's become a former Broadway star despite the inconvenience of never having been a current one."
"Mamie Gallagher," Edelweiss said a little wistfully.  "She has a very attractive voice.  I imagine her blonde."
"So does she."


"Restraint" by Alison Gaylin, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2013.

When the woman who killed Kevin Murphy's daughter walked into Cumberland Farms to pay for her gas, the first thing Kevin noticed about her was the way she crumpled her money.

Got your attention?  I thought it would.  And the ending is no slouch either.  But in between you will slowly learn about what happened to Murphy's daughter -- none of the obvious things that might pop into your head  -- and about the revenge Murphy plans.  Again, that is a long way from obvious.  It is not bloody or particularly violent, but it will shock you.


"The Confidante," by Diana Dixon Healy, in Best New England Crime Stories 2014: Stone Cold, edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross, and Leslie Wheeler, Level Best Books, 2013.


Peggy is a mousy young woman who works for a presidential campaign. She is flattered when the more vibrant worker Kim takes an interest in her.  They start meeting regularly and Kim begins to tell her secrets, secrets that could change political history...

Some lovely twists in this one.

"The Murderer At The Cabin," by Robert Holt, in All Hallow's Evil, edited by Sarah E. Glenn, Mystery and Horror, LLC.


 Lexington is a very bad fella.   He's a serial killer with a complicated system of picking his victims and a suitably insane motive.  As the story starts he is looking for a new person to focus his attention on.  And he finds one in a cabin in the woods where a dozen wealthy people are holding a meeting.  So he takes his hatchet and prepares to single out his first victim.

And here's the twist.  The people in the cabin have paid big money for a high-grade murder theatre experience, complete with elaborate props and make-up.  So when Lexington starts his work they think it's part of the show.  But Lexington doesn't know about the mystery theatre aspect and he is as baffled by his victims as they are by him...


"A People Person," by Michael Koryta, in The Strand Magazine, November-February
2012-2013.

Koryta has given us a lovely little character study about Thor, who has been the hit man for two decades for Belov, who is the head of organized crime in Cleveland.  These two have been through tough times on two continents and, in a business that doesn't  support long-lasting relationships, they seem inseparable.

 The English word for the way Thor felt about killing was "desensitized," but he did not know that it was a proper fit.  Maybe he was overly sensitized.  Maybe he understood it more than most.  Maybe the poeple who had not killed or could not imagine being killed were the desensitized breed.

What could come between Thor and his boss?  Could there, to his own amazement, be a line he could not cross?

"Not A Penny More," by Jon Land, in The Strand Magazine, February-May 2013.

Walter Schnitzel is a loser and a loner.  He is a middle-aged accountant, watching younger men get promoted over his head.

But his life makes a sudden lurch when he takes an old clunker of a used Buick for a week-long test drive.  All of a sudden Walter gets lucky - in more senses than one.  His whole self-image changes as well.

So, is the car magic?  Is it all coincidence?  And, oh yeah, why is this story in a magazine full of crime stories?

"The Queen of Yongju-gol," by Martin  Limón, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,
November 2013.


Martin's fiction is always  set in South Korea.  In this tale  the hero is Roh Yonk-bok, one of the wealthiest men in the country.

But he didn't start out that way.  He was able to get an education only through  money sent back home from his big sister who was working as a bar girl in Yongju-gol, a community that served American G.I.'s, where Koreans were forbidden as customers.  One day his sister disappeared and now, years later, Roh is determined to find out what happened to her.

It is a dark tale, full of betrayal and hard-learned cynicism.

"Canyou trust these people, sir?"
Roh turned to look at his bodyguard.  He was a faithful man -- in fact chosen for that quality -- and competent at his job, but he had little imagination.
"They want money, don't they?" Roh replied.
"Yes, sir."
"Then I have trust.  Not for them but for their greed."

"Othello Revised," by Denise Middlebrooks, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, December 2013.

This is Middlebrooks' first story, a promising start.

The narrator has just written a mystery novel and his wife recommends he takes it to a professional editor.  The editor turns out to be an interesting person, a real estate agent who reinvented herself in the recession, and she has some fascinating suggestions about the book.  Or what she thinks is the book.

And there we have to stop.  Go read the story.  You deserve a treat.




"Dress Blues," by Chris Muessig, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2013.


Sergeant Nolan, a Marine sergeant, finds himself facing multiple crises.  His wife has left him.  He has to decide whether to re-enlist for another six-year hitch.  And his boss goes off on extended duty, leaving him as the only Corps member to look after a private who has been arrested for murder.  Worse, that private is a Black man and this story takes place in a time and place where that can be a dangerous place to be -- especially if you are accused of killing a white man.

A fascinating tale, and one that told me a lot I didn't know about its time period.

"Footprints in Water," by Twist Phelan, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2013.


Henri Karubje is a detective in the NYPD and he is called out to help investigate the missing daughter of  a Congolese family.  The relationships between the people, and with their medicine man, neighbors, and priest, are complicated to say the least.

Tangling the matter further is that Karubje is not their as investigator, but as translator.  The lead detective is a newly promoted woman he has worked with when she was on patrol.  The cliche here would be to have them in territorial conflict but Phelan chooses instead to have the new detective looking for more help while Karubje insists on making/letting her run the show. 

Karubje is haunted by his childhood in the genocidal conflict of Rwanda and he makes good use of his memories of that horror to sort out the motives and inconsistencies of the characters.

"A Game Played," by Jonathan Rabb, in The Strand Magazine, June-September 2013.



George Philby is a member of Britain's diplomatic core, stationed in Washington.  He is a quiet, self-effacing man, and his great burden is his name.  Kim Philby was the most famous British traitor in a century, so he is somewhat in the position of a man named Benedict Arnold joining the U.S. Army.  "It made them all think too much, a sudden hesitation in the voice."

And in D.C. it leads to an odd friendship with Jack Crane, an American oil man.  Crane brings Philby out of his shell a bit and the relationship leads to -- well, that would be telling.  But one question this story asks is: Does your name determine your destiny?

I liked this low-key tale better the day after I read it.  Then I read it a second time and liked it more.


"The Samsa File," by Jim Weikart, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2013.

Havel, a police detective in present-day Prague is assigned to investigate the apparent murder by poisoning of a young man named Gregor Samsa.  Except - surprise! - Gregor had somehow transformed into a giant cockroach.

This is sort of reverse steampunk, transforming a Victorian plot -- Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, of course -- into the modern era, and a modern genre, the police procedural.  Weikart even offers something that Kafka had no interest in, an explanation for Samsa's transformation. 

"The Hotel des Mutilées," by Jim Williams, in Knife Edge Anthology, Marble City Publishing, 2013.

It's Paris between the wars and our narrator says he is a guy who fixes situations, no details given.  In a bar he meets an American named Scotty, who says he is a writer.  Scotty asks him to talk about the most fascinating person he ever met.  So the fixer talks about a guy he met in World War I.

This is one of the stories where the joy comes in figuring out what's going on.  For me, the enlightment came in three distinct bursts, about three different characters.