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

02 February 2022

All the Best to You


Personal request: If you cite this list (and I would be happy if you do) please refer to it as "Robert Lopresti’s ‘Best of the Year’ list at SleuthSayers,” not as the SleuthSayers' 'Best of the Year' list.  It's just me bloviating here, not the whole gang.  Thanks.

It is time for the thirteenth annual list of the year's best mystery stories as determined by yours truly.  It goes without saying that the verdicts are subjective, personal, and entirely correct. 

Sixteen stories made the list, one fewer than last year.  Ten stories were by men, six by women.  The big winner was Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine with five stories.  Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine had four.  Two more came from the Mystery Writers of America anthology.

Four of the stories were by my fellow SleuthSayers, a talented bunch.  With no further ado, here is the hit parade:

Allyn, Doug. "Hit and Run," in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December 2021.

This is Allyn's third appearance in my best-of list.

Imagine you are stuck in traffic on your way to an important, even life-and-death meeting. Now imagine you get rear-ended by a woman who is not paying attention. But the frosting on the cake is that the accident makes your trunk fly open, revealing the bag of cocaine you are bringing to the meeting.  Many twists and turns...


Aymar, E.A. "The Search for Eric Garcia,"  in Midnight Hour, a Chilling Anthology of Crime Fiction From 20 Authors of Color, edited by Abby L. Vandiver, Crooked Lane Books, 2021

The protagonist's life is going down the tubes.  His daughter died in an accident that he feels responsible for, although the authorities disagreed.  His wife is living with Eric Garcia, who owns the store where our hero works.  Eric is everything he is not: a confident, successful man.  And our protagonist feels that the world isn't big enough to hold both of them. This is a very clever story, one where the telling is  essential to the plot. 


Benn, James R., "Glass,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2021.

A superconducting super-collider goes boom and a piece of 21st-century technology is blasted back through time to 1965 where it is discovered by hapless recently-fired salesman Guy Tupper.  Guy brings it to his cousin Jerry who runs a repair shop.  Together they figure out just enough to get the device working, and then...  One plot twist made me gasp out loud. 

 

 Cummins, Robert.  "The Phone Message," in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March/April 2021.  

This is the author's first story.  The beginning may remind you of Columbo.  In the first scene Carole Donaldson calmly kills her husband.  Later, and just as calmly, she tells the police officer leading the investigation that she had tons of motive.  But she also seems to have an unbreakable alibi...

Fisher, Eve.  "The Sweet Life,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2021.

Eve Fisher is, of course, my fellow SleuthSayer.

Carrie is a teenager who has had a rotten life.  She considers her time with Ethan to have been a highlight because, while he made her sell drugs, he didn't force her into prostitution. 

When that arrangement collapses she lucks into a gig with an agency that cleans houses.  She likes the work, even though some of the customers are a little weird.  But then someone from her previous life threatens to ruin everything.


Goffman, Barb, "A Family Matter," Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, January/February 2021. 

Barb is another fellow SleuthSayer.

It is 1962 and Doris lives in a very nice suburb called The Glen.  Most of her friends are married to men who work for the big pharmaceutical corporation in town.  The neighborhood has standards.  

And the new neighbors do not meet them.   They raise chickens and hang laundry in their yard.  Doris is determined that these offensive violations of community norms will not be permitted.  But when she realizes a very different norm is being broken she has to determine what really matters in the neighborhood.

Harrington, Karen. "Boo Radley College Prep," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2021. 

Tony is fifteen years old, short on luck and, he will tell you, short on brains.  A hurricane has forced him and his mother to move in with the brother of his deceased father, and it isn't a happy or healthy home. 

Right down the block, however, is what his uncle calls "the Boo Radley house," a spooky-looking joint whose owner never appears in public.  Curiosity - and the hopes of earning chore money - causes Tony to visit.  He meets a grouchy old man with a lot of brains and good reasons to hide.  Can these desperate souls help each other?

Haynes, Dana. "The Waiting Game," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2021.

This is my first encounter with Fiero and Finnigan who run  St. Nicholas  Salvage & Wrecking, which is actually a bounty hunter firm that chases international bad guys.  Finnigan has been kidnapped by very nasty Russians who want Fiero to revert to her old occupation of assassin. A cunning plan, but neither of the partners intend to play by the rules. I was reminded of that classic TV show The Avengers.


Helms, Richard, "Capes and Masks," Mystery Weekly Magazine, June 2021.

This is Helms's second appearance in my annual best-of-list.  

"You know the story. Stolen by aliens who crashed my fourth birthday party.  Returned when I was seventeen, but I was somehow... different than when I left.  Well, duh,  I was thirteen years older, had all this weird hair growing where it never had, and my voice sounded like I was shaving a cat with a cheese greater."

If that sounds a bit... hardboiled... for a superhero story it is no accident.  He is Captain Courageous but his cover identity is Eddie Shane, private eye.  He mostly deals with divorce work but when a caped dude named Sunburst is found mysteriously dead, this is no job for a superhero.  We need a gumshoe to save the day.  

Jacobs, Tilia Klebenov , "Perfect Strangers,", in When A Stranger Comes To Town, edited by Michael Koryta, Hanover Square Press, 2021.

Gershom is finishing his second prison term for armed robbery when his cellmate Dougal points out the new gold mine: marijuana dispensaries.  Cash-rich and security-poor, they are a robber's dream.  So when he gets out Gershom begins to plan an elaborate robbery, because he does not intend to go down a third time:  "If this went sideways, they'd lock me up and melt down the warden." 


Lansdale, Joe R. "The Skull Collector," in Collectibles, edited by Lawrence Block, LB Productions, 2021.

He was a tough old guy, Ruby said.  Big, could crack walnuts with harsh language, chase a squirrel up a tree with bad breath. She had to use an axe handle to sort the guy out a little.  It wasn't too bad.  He was able to leave on his own, though not without a certain amount of pain and difficulty...  

That tells you a lot about Ruby, sure, but we also find out a lot about the narrator, especially that "It wasn't too bad." What does she consider a real problem?  How about having to steal a skull from a cemetery?


Light, Larry. "The Trouble with Rebecca,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November/December 2021.

Max is a "tech geek," working for a company that does hush-hush security stuff.  Because he hates the social side of work he invents Rebecca, a non-existent wife.  This imaginary person is his excuse to avoid after-work events and the like.  

Works great until he falls in love with a co-worker.  How do you rid yourself of a wife who does not actually exist? 


Thielman, Mark. "Catch and Release," in The Fish That Got Away, edited by Linda M. Rodriquez, Wildside Press, 2021.

This is the  third appearance in this column by my fellow SleuthSayer.

I let a murderer go today. That's how the tale begins. You might feel that the prosecutor is being a little hard on himself, because he did try his best to get Thomas Edmonds convicted.  (Didn't he?)

He walks you through the trial, through every maddening moment that caused his case to slip away.  And through it all Edmonds sits there, as cool as a bystander at a church picnic.  No wonder the narrator is so upset.  But then unexpected things happen...


Walker, Joseph S.  "Crown Jewel," in Moonlight and Misadventure, edited by Judy Penz Sheluk, Superior Shores Press, 2021. 

The publisher sent me a copy of this book.

Keenan Beech is a compulsive collector of vinyl, and his golden fleece is The Beatles, better known as the White Album.  The first few million copies have a number stamped on the cover and collectors like Keenan keep buying, buying, buying them, trying to get closer to the elusive lower numbers. 

But his big problem is his identical twin Xavier.  Keenan is a hard working guy; Xavier is an unsuccessful scoundrel.  And when a record store offers Keenan a rare copy of the White Album for a mere five grand Xavier somehow gets his hands on it first by, duh, pretending to be Keenan.


Witt, Amanda, "Relative Stranger,"  in When A Stranger Comes To Town, edited by Michael Koryta, Hanover Square Press, 2021.

Glory Crockett lives on a farm and one day a stranger knocks on the door.  What's disturbing is that he resembles her husband, Owen.  Turns out his name is also Owen Crockett.  He's the bad-news cousin who has spent most of his life in prison, "a one-man crime spree."  Now here he is, with a glib charm that rings completely false.  And somewhere outside  is Glory's husband and four young sons...

Zelvin, Elizabeth.  "Who Stole the Afikomen?" in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March/April 2021.

My fellow SleuthSayer has written a hilarious story.  Andy is a Catholic and he is about to meet his new fiance's extended family at their Passover dinner - his first experience at a seder.

Uncle Manny kept saying, "Focus, people, focus.  We've got a goal here."
"To get the Jews out of Egypt?" I whispered.
"To get past the rabbis to the gefilte fish," Sharon whispered back.
"Is that the Promised Land?"
"The pot roast is the Promised Land."


20 January 2021

2020 Was A Big Improvement


Note: I reivsed this column on February 27th, because I needed to add the story by Thomas Perry, which appeared in a magazine with a 2020 date which I didn't receive until last week. 

I had better explain that title before you send for the nice folks with the strait jackets.  2020 was better than 2019 only in the sense that more stories made my Year's Best list.  Last year, my eleventh, 12 stories made the list.  This year it's 17, a 41% increase.  Am I just feeling generous as the world dips into chaos?  Who knows?

For the second year in a row the big winner was Akashic Press, with three stories.  They send me their anthologies for free, by the way.  Following with two were Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, LB Productions, Mystery Writers of American, and Superior Shores Press.

That last one requires a bit of explanation.  Publisher Judy Penz Sheluk asked if I would read an advance copy of Heartbreaks and Half-Truths and give it a blurb if I thought it worthy.  I did so and was happy to write said blurb but, since I read the stories long before the book came out, I didn't feel I could list one as my Story of the Week.  Therefore this is the first time since I started reviewing at Little Big Crimes that tales make the year's best list without appearing there first.


Eleven stories are by men; six by women.  Five are humorous; four are historical; and two have fantasy elements.  

Ready?  Let's go.

Barlow, Tom, "Honor Guard,"  in Columbus Noir, edited by Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Akashic Press, 2020.

The narrator is the only child of Tommy, a former navy man turned plumber. The old man's dementia is turning him violent, profane, and racist  On Veterans Day there is a violent confrontation with tragic consequences.  Some stunning surprises follow.

Cody, Liza, "My People,"  in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December 2020.

This is Cody's second appearance on my list.

Shareen Manasseh is  a Jewish woman whose family came to Britain from India.  She joined the police force and, without much training, was assigned to infiltrate the climate change activists - she calls them rebels.  Her work her rethinking her allegiance.  Did she become a cop to get "black-and-white certainty" or because it was better "to be with the bullies than against them?"

Dixon, Buzz.  "Tongor of the Elephants." Heartbreaks and Half-Truths, edited by Judy Penz Sheluk, Superior Shores Press, 2020.

Here, lemme show you something you've never seen before.  The nameless narrator has film of an actor called "J. Cecil Revell, the Million Dollar Profile," being smashed to death by a grumpy elephant while filming a very bad serial.  It's a charming tale of villainy, revenge, and, of course, elephants.


Foster, Luke, "Seat 9B,"  in Mystery Weekly Magazine, June 2020.

The narrator  is an investigative journalist, covering true crime for TV news shows.  On a flight from Los Angeles he suddenly realizes that the man he is sitting next to is the unknown serial killer the country's cops have been looking for.  And since he has "the world's worst poker face," the killer immediately knows he knows...

Goldberg, Tod, "Goon #4," in The Darkling Halls of Ivy, edited by Lawrence Block, LB Productions, 2020.

Goon #4 (his mama named him Blake) is an ex-military thug, now specializing in high-risk assignments.  Having made enough money to retire he decides to go to college and winds up, more or less by accident, in a class on radio performing.  He has some abilities there, it turns out, but more important is the attitude he brings from his previous profession.


Grafton, Sue, "If You Want Something Done Right...," in Deadly Anniversaries, edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, Hanover Square Press, 2020.

Lucy Burgess has reason to think her hubby is planning to get rid of her.  So she plans a preemptive strike, so to speak.  A lucky mistake puts her in touch with a hit man, and this fellow's way with words is a good deal of the charm of the story.

"Keeping my remarks entirely famatory, every matrimonial association is defeasible, am I right?  ...So what I hear you saying is that you and him are engaged in a parcenary relationship of which you'd like to see his participation shifted to the terminus."


Guthrie, C.C., "Cahoots,"  in Cozy Villages of Death, edited by Lyn Worthen, Camden Park Press, 2020.

Alan Peterson is a banker, and son of the wealthiest man in a small East Texas town.  The story opens with him running into Beulah's diner in a panic because his beautiful wife TeriLyn has disappeared.  

But things don't seem to add up.  She's only been gone a few hours.  And isn't Alan supposed to be out of town?  And why is he claiming she has been having mental problems?

Henderson, J.A. "The God Complex," Heartbreaks and Half-Truths, edited by Judy Penz Sheluk, Superior Shores Press, 2020.

Turns out you can't time travel exactly, but you can view time.  The problem is you tend to see what you expect to see.  And quantum physics is right: observation  changes the thing observed.  That means the ideal observer of the past is someone with no emotions. What's the other term for someone with no emotions?  Oh yeah: sociopath...


Hunt, Alaric, "Borrowed Brains,"  in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May/June 2020.

Daniel McLaren, an aging West Virginian rumrunner, is happy working as a messenger in New York City, but when he gets beaten and robbed of a half-million dollar package the cops decide that the ex-convict is obviously guilty - or at least convenient to blame.

Fortunately McLaren has a buddy in the city, a fellow native of the Mountain State named Clayton Guthrie.  And Guthrie is a private eye.  Together they start to unravel a complicated fraud scheme that is going badly wrong, with possibly deadly consequences.


McCormick, William Burton.  "Night Train to Berlin,"   Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2020. 

This is McCormick's third appearance here.  It is 1939 and Stalin and Hitler are playing footsie.  As part of their nice-making the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are exchanging prisoners.

Moller is a German-born Communist.  He has lived in the USSR since its origin but is now  being shipped back to his homeland in exchange for some unfortunate Russian the NKVD wants to get their hands on.  He knows that the vehicle he is about to board "might as well be my funeral train."  But there are plots within plots  and an unlikely ally might  help him out.


Moore, Warren, "Alt-AC,"  in The Darkling Halls of Ivy, edited by Lawrence Block, LB Productions, 2020.

This is the second appearance here by Warren Moore.  It ranges between the amusing and startling.

Roger  possesses a newly minted PhD. in medieval English.  He is desperate for work in a crowded  market but he has a plan to avoid teaching at "the Swamp County School of Mortuary Science and Transmission Repair,"

Oltvanji, Oto, "Underneath it all Runs the River of Sadness,"  in Belgrade Noir, edited by  Milorad Ivanovic, Akashic Press, 2020.

Ranko and Kozma are neighbors and old friends.  Kozma is the troublemaker.  As a cop he did little but paperwork and now, in retirement, he is desperate to actually solve a crime for once.  His attempts to find villainy where there may be none has gotten him into hot water with the police and the neighborhood.

But now, just maybe, he could be onto something.  There's a man on the fourth floor who keeps bringing young women to his apartment.  Nothing wrong with that, except they never come out...

Perry, Thomas,  "Katerina Goes to Studio City," in The Strand Magazine, LXII, 2020.

Katerina is a teenager leading a miserable life in Moscow with no hint of a better future.  Then her best friend escapes to the United States and Katerina, a very resourceful girl, arranges to go as well.

Naive as she is, she does not realize why a Russian oligarch ("He's like a king,") would be willing to help a beautiful young girl come to California.  He sends a different man  to her apartment every night and Katerina develops a wide assortment of tricks and games to keep them out of her bed.  Does this begin to sound familiar?  Are you perhaps humming a few bars of Scheherazade?  


Read, Cornelia, "The Cask of Los Alamos," in Santa Fe Noir, edited by Ariel Gore, Akashic Press, 2020.

The thousand injuries of Richard Feynman I had borne as best I could. But when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.

It is World War II.  The Manhattan Project is toiling away in New Mexico and Thurston has taken a deep grudge against his fellow physicist.  Read draws details from Feynman's real life into the fictional  plot which is, of course, modeled on Poe's.  

Rozan, S.J., "Chin Yong-Yun Sets The Date,"  in Deadly Anniversaries, edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, Hanover Square Press, 2020.

This is the third appearance here by my friend S.J. Rozan and the second by the formidable Chin Yong-Yun, mother of  Rozan's private eye Lydia Chin, and quite a character herself.  She notices that Chu Cai, the son of a friend, seems unhappy, even though he has just gotten engaged.  She cleverly arranges for him to come to her apartment to tell his problem to Lydia -- who, alas, is not there.  Perhaps, Mrs. Chin says, she can do the groundwork, although she is not quite sure what ground has to do with the detection business...


Simon, Clea, "No Body,"  in Shattering Glass, edited by Heather Graham, Nasty Women Press, 2020. 

Before she even spoke she knew her body was gone. It had been a struggle, losing it. 

At first I thought the protagonist was a ghost, but no, she is a person in trauma experiencing, as some people do in such a situation, the sensation of being outside her own body. In fact, she was drugged and is being raped.  This story is so much about style that I was not expecting the very clever ending.                                                          

Wishnia, Kenneth.  "Bride of Torches,"  in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery magazine, March/April 2020.

My friend Ken Wishnia has  retold a story from the Book of Judges.  He does a lovely job of showing the Hebrews at war with an enemy who has superior technology. Ya'el  commits the crime (?) which is the centerpiece of our story.  The main thing Wishnia adds to the Bible tale is giving her a motive.  In fact, he offers two, one of which feels very modern without being anachronistic.

30 January 2019

Besty McBestface 2018


I was somewhat surprised to discover that this is my tenth annual list of the best short mysteries of the year, as determined by me.   I will have to do something to celebrate that  in a month or two.  I should remind you that these reviews are taken from the longer weekly summaries I do at Little Big Crimes.

This year was 16% worse than last, insert political joke here, based on my best-of list dropping from 18 to 15.  Writers, was it you or was it me?   Speaking of writers, eleven were men, five women.  (One story had two authors.)  Two authors were British, one Canadian.

The big winner this year was Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, with four stories.  Three other sources supplied two each: Akashic Press's Noir Cities series, Mystery Weekly Magazine, and the anthology Deadlines: A Tribute to William E. Wallace.

Three stories are historical, two are funny, and one has fantasy elements.   Six have surprise endings.  Remarkably, five of the authors are making repeat appearances.  All right, let's dig down into the data.

Brookmyre, Chris, "The Last Siege of Bothwell Castle,"  in Bloody Scotland, edited by James Crawford, Pegasus, 2018.

There's a historical reenactment going on at Bothwell Castle in Scotland and the place is crowded with tourists.  Some very bad people take advantage of the confusion, and soon they are taking hostages and making demands.

The cops arrive but the hostages's best chance for rescue might be Sanny and Sid, two young sneak thieves who were scooped up with the tourists.

Brosky, Ken. "The Cold Hunt," Mystery Weekly Magazine, August 2018.

Roxy is a young American biologist, studying tigers in Siberia.  She and her mentor, Dr. Siddig, have been called to investigation what appears to be a killing by a big cat.  The evidence of footprints and corpse show that the tiger had a big meal of the flesh of a local man.  But the evidence does not prove that the man was alive when the tiger arrived.

The villagers are ready to hunt and kill the beast.  Can the scientists prove it is innocent of the killing - if indeed it is?

Day, Russell, "The Icing on the Cake," in Noirville, Fahrenheit Press, 2018.  

Gareth is a gofer for Mr. Driscoll, a British crime boss.  Today his mission is to drive a Jaguar dow to a prison where the car's owner, Harry the Spider Linton, is being released after seven years for robbing a post office.  It turns out that Harry thinks he owes his incarceration to the stupidity of Mr. Driscoll.

Harry's rage is so feverish that it seems like the trip may end prematurely.  Gareth might be in danger.  What will happen if/when Harry arrives at his old mate's mansion, and encounters the man he sees as the cause of his lost years?


Greenaway, R.M. "The Threshold,"  in Vancouver Noir, edited by Sam Wiebe, Akashic Press, 2018.

The publisher gave me a free copy of this book.  

Blaine is a photographer.  Perhaps a bit obsessive about it.  And one morning, just at sunrise, he's out snapping pictures at the Vancouver waterfront and he find a very fresh corpse.  Of course he knows he should call 911, but the lighting is perfect for capturing the corpse, and how long will that last?  Surely it won't hurt if he just changes lenses and takes a couple of artful frames...

And then the body twitches, and things get complicated.



Hallman, Tom, Jr. "Kindness,"  in Mystery Weekly Magazine, April 2018.

Phil's family moved to an inner city neighborhood that is gentrifying.  Great house, nice neighbors.  But then the old man across the street dies and his house is inherited by a jerk who parties all night The jerk is a huge guy who "reminded me of one of those men featured on cable shows taking viewers inside America's roughest prisons."

When this guy takes an unhealthy interest in Phil's teenage daughter things seem really desperate.  But  then Phil meets Deke, a member of a criminal motorcycle gang, and helps him with a problem...  Twice I thought I knew where this story was headed. Twice I was wrong.

Lang, Preston, "Top Ten Vacation Selfies of Youtube Stars," in Deadlines: A Tribute to William E. Wallace, edited by Chris Rhatigan and Ron Earl Phillips,  Shotgun Honey, 2018.

Michael Roth used to be a reporter.  Or maybe we should say he is currently a reporter without a job, struggling to survive as a freelancer, writing Internet clickbait. (See the title of this story.)

He gets a call from somebody named Brack who used to be a hitman.  Would he like to meet and talk about Brack's illustrious career?   He would.  But Brack, as it turns out,  has another, more dangerous offer to make...


Law, Janice, "The Crucial Game,"  in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, January-February 2018.

This is the fourth appearance on my annual best-of list by my  friend and fellow SleuthSayer.  No one else has made it to the top of the heap more than three times, so far. 

Since his wife died Frank has been lonely and somewhat obsessed with hockey.  Walking through Manhattan he sees a "little makeshift stand offering sports CDs and DVDS..."  The merchant is "thin, almost gaunt, and very dark so that his large eyes gleamed above the bold cheekbones and the wide, and to Frank's mind, somewhat predatory nose."  Sounds a bit spooky?  How about when he calls out: "I have what you need"? 


Neville, Stuart, "Faith," in Blood Work: Remembering Gary Shulze: Once Upon A Crime, edited by Rick Ollerman, Down and Out Books, 2018.

The day I lost my belief was the same day Mrs. Garrick asked me to help kill her husband.

The narrator is an Irish clergyman, five years a widower. Mrs. Garrick's husband was brutally maimed in a terrorist attack.  Our protagonist tries to comfort her and one thing leads to another.

Classic noir, right?  But Neville has a surprise or two up his sleeve.

Page, Anita,  "Isaac's Daughters," in Malice Domestic Presents: Murder Most Geographical, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons, Wildside Press, 2018.

This is Anita Page's second appearance on the winner's list.

The narrator is an old woman, relating  how she came to America from Russia at the age of fourteen in 1911.  The reason for the voyage is that her mother has just received a message that "your Isaac has taken up with a whore from Galicia."

They start out on the difficult voyage, and things happen. The family is divided between the father and narrator who you might describe as new-world rationalists, and the mother and sister who are subject to old-world superstitions, believing in demons and lucky charms.  Which side, if either, will win? 

Perks, Micah, "Treasure island,"  in Santa Cruz Noir, edited by Susie Bright, Akashic Press, 2018.

The publisher gave me a free copy of this book.  

Mr. Nowicki is, he tells us, "a seventy-two-two-year-old retired middle school assistant principal who has lived in Grant Park for forty years."  He is furious about what is happening in his neighborhood so he has gone to a website called Good Neighbor!(tm) to report what he sees.

And he has strong opinions about that.  For example he has a problem with his neighbor who is (the internal quotation marks are his): "a 'writer' who 'works' from home.  ('Writer' always takes morning tea on his porch in his pajamas and at five p.m., takes cocktail on porch, still in his pajamas.  You've probably seen him on your way to and from actual work.)"

Pronzini, Bill and Barry N. Malzberg, "Night Walker," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March-April 2018.

This is Pronzini's second appearance on my annual Best-of bash.

Henry Boyd's life changed forever when a moment of his own carelessness destroyed his family.  He hoped to be sent to prison but the courts thought otherwise.  He can't face the thought of suicide so now he walks through the night, hoping some criminal will do to him what he lacks the courage to do to himself.  But something else happens.

Richardson, Travis, "Plan Z," in Deadlines: A Tribute to William E. Wallace, edited by Chris Rhatigan and Ron Earl Phillips, Shotgun Honey, 2018.

This is a simple story of three guys who "decide to up their game from B&E and liquor stores."  We don't learn much about them except what positions they played in Little League.

So, not a lot of character development.  What the story has is a wonderful way of unwrapping the adventures of our luckless trio.  Plan A is to rob a check-cashing joint.  They throw that over for Plan B which is to rob an armored car that Uncle Arnie drives.  But Arnie gets fired which leads to Plan C.  When Arnie shows up drunk we move on to Plan D...


Rusch, Kristine Kathryn, "The Wedding Ring,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2018.

Rusch is making her third appearance in Best-of Land.

Serena is a classics professor and after a bad breakup she goes to Las Vegas for what she calls her Liberation Vacation.  There she meets the man of her dreams.  Shortly after that they are married.  Shortly after that he disappears, taking her cash, self-confidence, and much more.  One cop says about the crooks: "They're not in it for the money.  They're in it to destroy their marks."

Serena replies.  "They didn't destroy me...  I'm right here. And I'm going to destroy them right back."


Rutter, Eric, "Hateful in the Eyes of God,"  Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2018.


This is Rutter's second appearance in my best-of lists.

It is London in the 1830s.  John Alcorn is a freelance reporter, a "penny-a-liner."  His specialty is the criminal courts because, then as now, scandal is always popular.  He is in the gallery when Charles Stanbridge is brought into the courtroom.  This fine, outstanding married gentleman has been accused of indecent assault, which is a reduced version of the charge of "the infamous crime,"  alias, homosexuality.  That greater offense could get a man sentenced to exile or even death.

Alcorn offers to sell his story on the case to the defendant rather that to the press, a form of extortion which was perfectly legal.  But when Stanbridge apparently kills himself the reporter feels guilt and tries to learn more about the case.  And so he, and we, find out a good deal about the secret life of what we would call gay men, but what in this era were called sods or Mary Anns.


Thielman, Mark, "The Black Drop of Venus," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2018.

This is Thielman's second appearance here, both for historical mysteries that won the Black Orchid Novella Award.

It is 1769, deep in the South Pacific.  Our narrator is Joseph Banks, chief naturalist on the HMS Endeavour, which has been sent on a scientific investigation to observe the Transit of Venus.  When one of Banks's assistants is found with his throat cut just as they arrive at Tahiti, Banks is ordered to investigate the crime by none other than Captain James Cook.  He is handicapped by his lack of knowledge of navy ways and nautical  vocabulary, but he brings back the facts which allow Cook to cleverly determine the identity of the murderer.

31 January 2018

The Biggest of the Best


by Robert Lopresti

Once again awards time has come around, and I am prepared to list the best short mystery stories of the year. This is my ninth annual wingding and either I am going soft or 2017 was a particularly good year for the field. You will find 18 stories listed below, up five from last year, and one ahead of my previous record. What can I say? May be this was just a year that needed distractions.

The big winners were Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, tied with five stories each. Akashic Press and Mystery Weekly Magazine each scored two.

Four of the authors were women; fifteen were men. Four authors are appearing for the second time on this august list. Two completed the hat trick. More remarkably, one author scored two on the list this year. The only other time that happened it was achieved by Brendan Dubois in 2012.

Six of the stories are funny (says me); four have fantasy elements. Only one is a historical. I think one could be described as fair play.

Enough chatter, let's go down to the red carpet.

Blakey, James. "Do Not Pass Go," in Mystery Weekly Magazine, September 2017.

The narrator has just arrived in a town and quickly discovers that the cops are corrupt, the wealthy run things to suit themselves, and the employers rip off the workers. Just like thousands of other crime stories.

But he gets a job at the Water Works where people get paid in brightly colored scrip. He doesn't earn enough to rent one of the identical houses on New York or Kentucky Avenues. He almost gets sent to jail for not paying the poor tax. And the Parker Brothers run everything. It's like they've got a – What's that word again?

Cohen, Jeff. "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Girl!" in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2017.

Elliot runs a movie theatre that shows nothing but comedies, most of them old. That may explain why Sharon, a doctor, divorced him years ago. Harder to explain is that she's about to have Elliot's baby. Like today.

Elliot rushes her to the hospital and promptly bumbles into a supply closet where a man in scrubs seems to be in the act of killing a woman in scrubs with a knife. Awkward. Cohen writes funny.

Coward, Mat. "What Could Possibly Go Boing?" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2017.

Meet the staff of Fake Dog Dirt Etc, a rather low-end novelty shop. One of them just killed their boss, almost accidentally.

They hope to keep the dump open for a few more paychecks, if they can hide the body. And find the boss's hidden money. And avoid the cops. Did I mention the blackmailer?

Deaver, Jeffery. "Hard to Get," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2017.

Deaver is making his second appearance in my annual best of list. And by the way, something very unusual happened here: the Edgar judges and I agree on this one. It is a very surprising thing when one of my favorites gets nominated.

Lessing is an analyst for the CIA; a desk jockey. When an agent dies while preparing for a vital mission, Lessing is the only person with the knowledge to fill the gap.

So all of a sudden he is in a small town in Poland trying to attract the attention of the deputy to the Russian spymaster who is running a ring of seditionists in the United States. But he has to attract the man subtly. If he is too obvious they will know it's a trap. Play hard to get, he is told...

Deaver, Jeffery. "A Significant Find," in Alive in Shape and Color, edited by Lawrence Block, Pegasus Books, 2017.

And here is Deaver again, with his second appearance in my Best of 2017. Greedy, greedy.

Roger and Della are having a crisis of conscience. They are a married couple, both moderately successful mid-career archaeologists, and they are in France for a conference. Why the crisis? Well, let's put it this way. Suppose Professor A gets a clue to a career-changing discovery but doesn't realize how to use it. If he tells Professors B and C about it and they are more clever at interpreting the puzzle, are B and C required to share the credit with A? An ethical dilemma indeed. Worse dilemmas will follow.

Gates, David Edgerley. "Cabin Fever," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2017.

This is the third appearance in this space by my fellow SleuthSayer David Edgerly Gates.

Montana deputy Hector Moody.is having a bad day. His truck breaks down in the mountains miles from anywhere. No phone reception. A thunderstorm approaching fast. And oh yes, unknown to him, two prisoners have escaped from prison and they have already killed to stay free...

Harlow, Jennifer. "The Bubble," in Atlanta Noir, edited by Tayari Jones, Akashic Press, 2017.

Maddie, a teenager in Peachtree City, is sick to death of her privileged life among snobs, absentee parents, and the self-medicated. She decides to commit murder, just for excitement and power, and, let's face it, because she is evil.

Her reluctant partner in crime is Emma, who is not as smart, not as pretty, and desperately in love with Maddie. Is Maddie willing to use her sexuality to manipulate Emma into crime? Oh, yes.

Hayes, Peter W.J."The Black Hand," in Malice Domestic: Murder Most Historical, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly, Simmons.
Brothers Jake and David fought over a girl named Bridgid and Jake left Pittsburgh for logging work in the midwest. David became a very successful mobster, until his body shows up in a river.

The story begins with Jake coming home to try to discover how his brother died and who is responsible. The first thing he learns is that Bridgid was murdered a few weeks before, and a lot of people think David killed her.

Is there a connection between the deaths? Can Jake stay alive long enough to find out?

Knopf, Chris. "Crossing Harry," in New Haven Noir, edited by Amy Bloom, Akashic Press, 2017.

Our nameless protagonist is a homeless person. One day he encounters a very strange man at Union Station whom no one notices except the homeless man and Harry. No one can see Harry except our narrator, because he's from another dimension. But Harry isn't the problem. It's the elegantly dressed man with a canvas bag full of–

Lawton, R.T. "Black Friday," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November/December 2017.

This is the second appearance here by R.T. Lawton. My fellow SleuthSayer sent me this story for a critique before sending it to AHMM. I assure you the first version I read would have made this list, even if I never got my grubby hands on it.

Luckless burglar (and series character) Yarnell visits a pawn shop on the day after Thanksgiving to retrieve his wife's pawned wedding ring. Unfortunately there is a robbery going on, with a very nervous thief holding a gun. Eventually Yarnell's crafty partner Beaumont shows up, and finds a hilarious way of settling the issue.

Petrin, Jas. R. "Money Maker," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2017.

Petrin's protagonist is an aging loanshark in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In this story Skig has done an unnamed favor for a couple of Maine crooks and they send him the agreed upon fee. Unfortunately, half of it turns out to be counterfeit so Skig sets out to figure out who along the line of shipment shorted him. Bad things happen: Under the chairs a sight the media might describe as "distressing to some viewers."

Rozan, S. J. "e-Golem," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September-October 2017.


This is the second appearance here by my old pal S.J. Rozan. Judah Loew runs a used bookstore on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Most similar stores have been killed by the Internet but Loew's specialties - including Judaica and mythology - have kept him holding on. Not much longer, alas.

But then a newly arrived book claims to offer a spell for creating a golem , the clay humunculus that a medieval rabbi, also named Judah Loew, built out of dust to save the Jews of Warsaw. Ah, but the dust in a bookstore is special dust...

Slaughter, Karin and Michael Koryta, "Short Story," in Matchup, edited by Lee Child, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

This is Koryta's second apearance on my best of the year list.

It's 1993 and Jeffrey Tolliver, is a young Birmingham cop. He is in a small town in Georgia on a long weekend that has gone terribly wrong. Before the tale has gotten fairly started he finds himself standing in a hotel parking lot in front of a busload of missionaries and…
"Holy crap,mister. You're in your underwear."
"Running shorts," he said, resisting the urge to cover himself. "Training for a marathon."
"With just one shoe?"
"Half marathon."
Tippee, Robert, "Underground Above Ground," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2017.

The nameless narrator is a young man who has mastered the art of disappearing. He dresses in black, with a stocking cap that hides his face. And as the story begins, it is after ten PM and he is sitting in the darkness near a city tennis court, watching a young man and his beautiful girlfriend as they volley, flirt, and discuss Facebook.

It's clear that there are bad things in our narrator's past, although it is not clear at first whether they were done to him, by him, or both. The last paragraph just slayed me.

Todd, Marilyn. "Slay Belles," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. January/ February 2017.

Sisters Hannah and Lynn have deep roots in British organized crime. They also have a year-round-Christmas store, The North Pole, which cleans up dirty money from various family businesses. But the sisters have a special sideline. The store has Santa's Mailbox where kids can ask the fat man for help. And while Hannah and Lynn can't promise the latest video game or a pony, if the request is desperate they may offer a special solution…

Vardeman, David. "The Last Evil," in Mystery Weekly Magazine, November 2017.

Mrs. Box believes that suffering is good for the soul. She also believes in doing "a lot of good in the world. But there was another tinier but just as important point, and that was to get the leap on people. In her own life she felt a lack of people leaping out at her. In the past forty days and forty nights, not one soul, nothing, had given her a good jolt. Mr. Box certainly had not."

Which is why she keeps a live tarantula in her purse, and pulls it out to shock people. As a good deed.

Wiley, Michael, "Making It," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September-October 2017.

When Skylar Ricks carjacked Gerald Johannson's Ford Taurus on a February morning in Chicago, climbing into the passenger seat at the corner of Granville and Clark, his hand wrapped neatly around a .44 Smith & Wesson, an unlighted Marlboro between his lips, Gerald said, "Oh, now you're in trouble."

Well, that took an unexpected turn, didn't it? As the story goes on we will learn the reason for Skylar's rash act and a good deal about the personality of Gerald. He is an older man, missing his late lover, and remarkably imperturbable. Even when being carjacked.