04 January 2012

Nothing but the best


by Robert Lopresti

Happy new year to you and yours and the bicycle you rode in on.  It is that time again.  For the third year running I am going to list the best mystery stories of the year, as defined by one simple rule: I liked them the most.

I regret to say 2011 was 8.5% worse than 2010, as proven by the fact that I only put 15 stories on the list this year, as opposed to 17 last.  When I started reviewing my favorite story of the week at Little Big Crimes I suspected it would make me pickier about which stories made the end-of-the year list, and it turns out I was right.

Go to the stats

But enough idle chatter.  What do the numbers tell us?

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine was the big winner this year, with one-third of the stories.  Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and the Akashic Press Noir City series were tied with three each.  Two more appeared in other anthologies, and for the first time I included stories on my list from e-zines.  That means that two of the best stories of the year were published for free and aren't elligible for most awards.  Amazing.  Oh, another interesting point: two of the winners are first stories by their authors.

In terms of (very loose) categories, we have:
criminal viewpoint 4
private eye 3
victim viewpoint 2
amateur detective 1
legal 1
police 1
other 3

Four of the stories were comic.  Two were historic.  Two were about people with brain damage (and some were about people whose brains don't work that well...)  All were terrific.

But before I launch into them, feel free to tell me in the comments what YOU thought were the best stories of the year.  Even if, God forbid, you disagree with me.

And here are the winners

Allington, Maynard.  "The Appointment."  Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  June 2011.

As I write up my best-of-the-week favorite I keep a file of the ones that qualified for the best-of-the-year list.  This one wasn't on it.  But today when I went back through the whole year's file I went, "Oh yeah, that one..."  Which is a good sign, isn't it?

Since Afghanistan, I think a lot about death, as if I were being billed for a broken appointment.
If I wrote that nugget of a sentence I would have probably started the story with it. Allington puts it at the end of a long opening paragraph. But it sets the tone, doesn't it?

Danny Malone got back from the war with brain damage that effects his memory and temper. Now he is wandering through Death Valley because someone has been sending him photographs of the park and he thinks, vaguely, that he is supposed to meet someone there.

And meet someone he does. The man wears a hooded parka - in the desert heat - and appears to have suffered severe burn damage.

"Don't you remember me? We met once in Afghanistan. I got to know some of the men in your platoon. I knew your best friend, Robinson. He spoke highly of you."

"Robbie's dead."

"So I heard..."


So who is the mysterious hooded figure? What does he have in mind for Danny? And, more importantly, is the explanation of what happens criminal, psychological, or even supernatural?

The answers come at the end of this elegant, finely detailed story. Allington is a former military man and he writes well about the troubled veteran.

Armstrong, Jason. "Man Changes Mind," in Thrillers, Killers, 'n Chillers. January 4, 2011.

I'm trying to decide whether or not I want to be a serial killer.

I mean, I'll probably just finish up with school and get a good job in management but it just seems like I should be doing something bigger with my life. But I think every young man has this conversation with himself at some point. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather be a superhero. I've had that dream since I was five but there's no such thing as superheroes.

That's the start of this wonderfully quirky tale by Jason Armstrong, which I understand is his first published story. The publisher, Thrillers, Killers, 'n Chillers, described it as flash fiction, and that astonished me because I thought it was longer than that. (When I say a story seemed longer than it was I don't usually intend it as a compliment, because I like short fiction, but in this case I mean the story packs a lot into a small space.)

Which is not to say a lot happens. As the title implies, it is just a meditation inside the character's brain. But the story manages to be authentically funny and creepy at the same time, a good trick, and leave you wondering: is this guy just a not-bright doofus thinking idle thoughts, or exactly the kind of person who goes off the deep end one day?  Definitely worth a read.

Brackmann, Lisa.  "Don't Feed The Bums," in San Diego Noir, Akashic Press, 2011.


Kari has a problem.  Her life is divided into Before and After and what came between those two was a car accident that changed her life, destroyed parts of her memory, and altered her personality.  She's adjusting to her new self, taking care of animals as wounded as she is, and sleeping with two men, one from each half of her life. But eventually Kari discovers that someone is plotting against her, and, as the narrator says "She wasn't what she used to be, but she wasn't stupid."

This is Brackmann's first published story, after one novel.  Once the twists start coming she  keeps them pounding up the beach at you, right to the last perfect sentence, which made me laugh out loud.

Catalona, Karen.  "The Sadowsky Manifesto."  in Mystery Writers of America Presents The Rich and the Dead.  Grand Central Publishing.  2011.

Max Bergen runs a not-too-successful literary agency. One day a pot of gold rolls in over the transom. More literally it is a manuscript from the serial-killer-du-jour, who had just killed himself. The FBI and publishers are clamoring for the book and Bergen stands to make a fortune on commissions.

Of course, there has to be a problem, right? Sadowsky's book is not an angry political rant. It's a science fiction novel, and it's so bad that after fifty pages readers will be rooting for the giant robots to kill the hero. The book is a disaster and there is no ethical way for an agent to make money off it.

But, hey, Bergen is a literary agent. Who said anything about ethics?  I have never heard of Karen Catalona before, but I hope to run into her again.

Crouch, Blake.  “The Pain of Others,” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.  March 2011.

Letty Dobish, five weeks out of Fluvanna Correctional Center on a nine-month bit for felony theft, straightened the red wig over her short brown hair, adjusted the oversize Jimmy Choo sunglasses she’d lifted out of a locker two days ago at the Asheville Racquet and Fitness Club, and handed a twenty-spot to the cabbie.
 
 “Want change, miss?” he asked.
 
 “On a nine seventy-five fare?  What does your heart tell you?”
 
Great language, great concept.  Letty is a woman of convictions, more judicial than ethical, and during the commission of a crime she overhears a murder plot.  It turns out she does care about something besides money.  The results are surprising and darker than I would have guessed (see title).
 
Crowther, Brad.  “Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows,” in  Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.  July/August 2011.

This is the winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award, co-sponsored by AHMM and the Wolfe Pack.  The guidelines for this contest specifically say that "We're not looking for anything derivative of the Nero Wolfe character, milieu, etc," but a soft pastiche of Rex Stout is precisely what they got.  And a good one, too. 

Edna Dugué is a  wealthy private eye in Charleston, South Carolina.   She is also an attorney, and teaches at a college.  “I never pretended that my intentions are honorable,” she tells one visitor, but clearly they are.  Her assistant and the narrator of the story is Jerrelle Vesey, an African-American part-time college student.  When Edna was a public defender she had helped him when he was sent to prison for badly beating two white men who killed his brother.

As the story opens a city councilman arrives to tell Edna that his wife has threatened to kill him.  Not surprisingly he ends up dead and the widow becomes Edna’s client.  What follows is classic Stout territory with Archie – Sorry! Jerrelle – going out to interview half a dozen suspects and bringing the results back to Edna, who figures out whodunit.

Two things make the story a treat.  First is Jerrelle's dialog.  Here he is chatting with the councilman: "I don't hold any grudges.  As a matter of fact, I almost voted for you in the last election.  In the end though I threw my support behind  our neighbor's pet rat, Lester."  I like this guy.   Second, are the set of supporting characters.  For example, Edna's police nemesis is a woman, a friend of Jerrelle's family.  

She was the one who arrested him after his crime, and the one who drove him home after he was pardoned.  And we still haven't met Edna's grandfather who lives in the attic.  

These are interesting people in a world that feels fully developed and three dimensional.  Rex Stout would be proud.   

 Faherty, Terence.  "A Bullet From Yesterday,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. January 2011.

A veteran walks into a Hollywood detective agency in the 1950s and says the gun he brought home from World War II as a souvenir may have killed ten million people - it could be the gun that killed the Archduke and started the Great War.  This story has just about everything I want in a private eye tale - humor, action, plot, and compassion for the way people screw up their lives.  Plus historical detail.
 
Gates, David Edgerley.  "Slip Knot," by David Edgerley Gates, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  November 2011.
 
Mickey Counihan is not a detective, but he is trying to solve a crime. Mickey is a fixer for the Hannah family, an Irish mob in New York in the 1950s. He usually seems less like a main character than the typical hero of a detective story. More like an observer or not-so-innocent bystander. Because his main job is to watch out for the Hannah family's interests, which may call for him to watch what's going on but not necessarily step in. As someone tells him in this story "You don't have a dog in this fight."  Before the tale is over, he very much does.
 
The story is about a pool match, or really about the betting that goes on before and during the match. No one, including Mickey, can figure out who is manipulating the odds, and to what end. Before it gets straightened out a bunch of people will be dead.
 
Gates writes convincingly of dangerous men who expect trouble and know how to greet it. But the main reason the story made this list is the sheer casualness of the last paragraph, that treats a stunning detail as less important than a pool shot.
 
Kaaberbøl, Lene and Agnete Friis   “When The Time Came,” in Copenhagen Noir. Edited by Bo Tao Michaelis.  Akashic Press.  Copenhagen sunset by fifteeniguana
 
The building looked like every other place out here.  Glass and steel.  He’d never understood who would want to live in such a place…. The other brand-new glass palaces were lit up as if an energy crisis had never existed, but there was no life behind the windows.  Maybe nobody wanted to live this way after all…
 
 Chaltu is a very pregnant African woman, desperate to make it over the bridge to Sweden where she can seek asylum and be reunited with her lover.  Unfortunately contractions begin too soon and she is left in an unfinished building in Ørestad.  As it happens three Iranian men have chosen the same night to loot fixtures from the empty apartments.  On discovering 

Chaltu one of them calls the “okay secret doctor,” actually Red Cross nurse Nina Borg, the authors’ series character.
 
 By the time Nina arrives the situations has gotten worse , in the form of a murder.  (This deserted building seems busier than Tivoli Gardens.)  She has to do some fast thinking to get out of the mess.
 

This doesn’t feel like a crime story, in spite of the fact that just about everyone in it is at least technically a criminal.  They are breaking the law, but are they evil?
 
The fact of childbirth has a powerful sway over the characters actions and as long as Nina is managing the labor she can direct the men, but once the baby is born, “Nina’s reign had ended.”   Powerful stuff.

By the way, I took the photo above from our vacation apartment in Ørestad, which is just as grim a neighborhood as the authors describe it... 

Mallory, Michael.  "The Real Celebrities," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  July/August 2011.
 
Michael and I were buddies when we appeared in Margo Power's Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine back in the nineties.  I seem to recall him mostly writing Sherlock Homes pastiches and nonfiction about Hollywood.  Now he has done a mash-up of sorts: fiction about Hollywood.

Since Marilyn Monroe hardly ever gave me the time of day, her sidling up to me meant that she wanted something. As a rule, Marilyn remained within her own little world, acting as though the rest of us didn't exist...
 
Okay, he's got my attention.  Is this a historic tale about the real Marilyn?  A fantasy?  Is the narrator insane?

None of the above.  The characters are impersonators who pose for tips outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre.   The narrator dresses as Wolverine and is known as Hugh Jackman.

I love stories that open the doors and let us take a peek into one of the many worlds that float around us.  Listen to "Jackman" explaining the service he and his friends provide:
 
For tourists, those of us on the boulevard are the REAL celebrities, the ones you can speak to and pose for pictures with. Those other ones, the figures you see on movie and television screens, they're nothing but illusions.
 
When one of them is murdered our hero feels obliged to try to figure out what happened.  The plot probably won't puzzle you, but the writing contains just the bitter sarcasm you expect from a tale of glitter-land's underclass.
 
"I'm an asshole' [he] said, by way of greeting.
 
"You're in the right town for it."

Mosley, Walter.  "The Trial,"  in Freedom: Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by Amnesty International. 2011.

Interesting idea. Each story in this book is tied to one of the articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Some articles inspired several stories.)  They aren't all about crime, of course, but Walter Mosley's piece is inspired by Article 7: Equality Before The Law. This is not something his characters feel they have been getting much of. They are African-Americans, residents in a housing complex where drug dealers can get an easy pass from the bribe-taking cops, but more "serious" crimes are punished without much consideration of the issues that caused them.

In this case a drug dealer has been murdered and various community members - his lover, his sometime assistant, the oldest resident, a successful businessman, etc. - have gathered to decide the fate of the confessed murderer.

As the story goes on it goes through fascinating shifts - Was Wilfred the killer justified? Does this group of neighbors have the right to rule on him? Do the courts?  Mosley writes with the easy conversational style of a great mystery writer, but he is discussing deep, deep issues here.   

Parker, Percy Spurlark.  “Sweet Thing Going,”  in  Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.  April 2011.

 The thing about Biter Bit stories is that you can usually see them coming.  Percy Spurlark Parker’s story is about a cop named Rycann who is as dirty as they come, squeezing the petty crooks on his beat for money and sex.  You know he’s going to get his comeuppance, so the question is: how will it happen?

This is where the question of story length comes in.  When I turned to the last page I could see that it was the last page and as I read down I was thinking : there’s no way he can pull off a surprising and satisfying ending in the space that’s left.  Obviously I was wrong or it wouldn't be on this list.

Powell, James.  “The Teapot Mountie Ball,” in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  March/April 2011. 
 
I am a fan and friend of Jim Powell so I say this with respect and affection: The man is as loony as a Canadian dollar coin.  The average Powell story in a fully realized plot stuffed with wild free associations wrapped around a bizarre central idea that, if they had occurred to most writers, would cause them to swear off late-night enchiladas.

 This particular specimen is part of a series about Acting Sergeant Maynard Bullock of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  But the central concept is this: in order to avoid infiltrators Canadian organized crime has banned members who meet the height and weight qualifications for Mounties.  To foil this strategy the RCMP hires a special squad of undercover agents known as the Teapot Mounties (because they are short and stout, naturally).  The one time these diminutive lawmen can wear their red uniforms is the night of their annual ball.  This year, the regularly sized Sergeant Bullock is present, running the soda stand.  Naturally he stumbles into a fiendish plot…

 So that is the main story line.  Here are some random examples of the free associations that grow up around it:       
* There was a Mountie named “Gimpy” Flanagan who had “sworn never to pull his revolver without drawing blood, an oath that cost him several toes.”       
*Scandanavians underestimate Canadians seeing them as “a frivolous southern people much like the Italians…”       
* The Canadians have sworn to defend the U.S. from an overland attack by Russia, because they knew “that if Mexico ever tried to invade Canada by land, the United States would do the same.”

Mad as a March Hare and twice as fun.
 
Pluck, Thomas.  The Uncleared,   at A Twist of Noir, Friday September 16, 2011.


R. Thomas Brown pointed this one out.

I have a rule about flash fiction (usually defined as under 1000 words). I think it only works if the story needs to be that short. Either it is a simple anecdote (like a joke, a setup and a punchline) or something so unique that it only makes sense as a very short piece (see Jason Armstrong's above).

But Mr. Pluck has made me break my rule. I can easily see this story as the outline for one of those looong broody tales that EQMM loves so much. Instead he fit it on a postcard, and did it with no sense of cramming or shorthand. Quite remarkable.

Here, in brief, is the brief story. When the narrator is in college his parents decide to sell their house. His mother, a brand-new real estate agent, attempts to do so and is found murdered in it.

We learn what happened to the family afterwards, and then there is a twist that is staggering and yet neatly foreshadowed. It all works perfectly and even though it could be told at five times the length, it isn't missing a single necessary detail.  And my, the last sentence...

Santlofer, Jonathan.  "Lola,"  in New Jersey Noir.  Akashic Press, 2011

I didn't think this story was going to make my favorite list.  It felt like a pretty ordinary piece at first.  But stories, like people for that matter, can surprise you.

The narrator is a would-be portrait artist who makes his living preparing stretchers for more successful painters.  One day riding the PATH trains back to Hoboken he becomes attracted to a young woman.  Pretty soon he is obsessed with her, and this is obviously not the first time he has gone down this path.  I was pretty sure I knew where this journey was headed.

Well.  Can't say much more without giving away the store.  Let's just say Santlofer has some surprises in store for his characters, and for us.

A perfect ending is one that leaves the reader saying: "I never saw that coming, but it is the only way the story could have ended."  "Lola" has a perfect ending.

4 comments:

Brad Crowther said...

Wow, what an honor! I couldn't be more flattered and appreciative. Thanks much, Rob. 24 degrees in Charleston, SC this morning - pretty cold for here - but making your list has fired me up.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Rob, Karen is a marvelous young writer. I met her @ Bcon SF and am happy to call her friend. I shall send her right over, I'm sure she'll be thrilled to have made your list. Heck, I'm thrilled for her!

Jennifer said...

awesome

Jennifer said...

hmmmmmmmmmm