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.

9 comments:

Jan Grape said...

They all sound fascinating and remind me I definately need to get a su s ription to EQMM. I think I might enjoy writing short.stories again. The two I did for ACWLs anthology that I Co-edited MURDER PAST MURDER PRESENT and then the second one, MURDER HERE, MURDER THERE made me realize how much I do enjoy writing short stories. Have to say these you've mentioned all sound entertaining.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Great stories, brilliant reviews, Rob. You start in just the right place, tell just enough, and end at just the right moment.

Terence Faherty said...

Thanks very much for the honor, Rob. I've read and enjoyed several of the other stories on your list, notably Liza Cody's, but I'll look for the others.

By the way, AHMM has accepted the second Margo story, so she and St. Pierre will ride again.

Elizabeth said...

Every one of these stories appeared in a printed magazine or anthology. Coincidence?

Barb Ross said...

Thanks so much for recognizing Diana Dixon Healy's work in Stone Cold, Rob.

My fellow editors and I love it when others enjoy the stories we pick!

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Rob,
I look forward to your "best of" list each year. I always find a story or two that I haven't read and can hunt down.
Thanks for a great list.

Clare2e said...

Terrific list with what seem to be some standouts I missed (but will remedy)-- thanks, Rob!

Twist Phelan said...

I only just learned of this list! Thank you so much for including "Footprints in Water." I've read most of the others; look forward to reading the ones I missed.

Robert Lopresti said...

Twist, glad you liked it. Thanks for the wonderful story.