Stories I’m Reading

MAX ALLAN COLLINS “A Wreath for Marley.” PI Richard Stone #1. First published in Dante’s Disciples, edited by Peter Crowther & Edward E. Kramer (White Wolf, 1995). Collected in Blue Christmas and Other Holiday Stories (Five Star, hardcover, 2001). Rewritten as “Blue Christmas,” an unpublished and unproduced screenplay.

   “A Wreath for Marley” takes place in Chicago, 1942, at Christmas time, and it doesn’t take long before you, the reader, realize that PI Richard Stone is a louse. He’s bribed his doctor to come up with a note to say he’s 4-F, he buys steak on the black market, and he has been sleeping with the widow of his now deceased former partner, Jacob Marley.

   Marley was shot and killed a full year ago, and to this date, Stone has done nothing about it. I don’t know if you know what’s ahead of him that evening, but if you are already suspecting that this is a mashup of Charles Dickens and The Maltese Falcon, you are one hundred percent correct.

   The ghost that Stone first meets is a gent named John Dillinger, and the one who takes Stone to see his (possible) future looks and sounds very much like the King himself, Elvis Presley. This in spite of the fact that in the real world, the latter is still only seven years old.

   You can get away with a lot of things when you’re writing fantasy, but you can take from me that this is a good one, even if you do know exactly where it is going. In his introduction to hardcover collection of several holiday-based stories he’s written, Max Allan Collins says that while this may not be his best story, it is his favorite one. I can see why.


      The Richard Stone series –

“A Wreath For Marley” (1995, Dante’s Disciples, Blue Christmas)
“A Bird for Becky” (1996, Shades of Noir, Blue Christmas)
“Flowers for Bill O’Reilly” (2001, Flesh and Blood, Blue Christmas)

CAROLINA GARCIA-AGUILERA “The Right Profile.” Short story. Maria Magdalena “Maggie” Morales #1. First published in Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery, edited by Sarah Cortez & Liz Martínez (Arte Público Press, 2009). Probably never reprinted or collected.

   As a Cuban-American private eye based in Miami, Maggie Morales seems to work exclusively for a low level attorney named Bobbie O’Meara. (She tries to get paid in advance but doesn’t always succeed.) In this case, her only appearance on record, her assignment to get the goods on an ex-husband who claims he can’t pay the money he owes to his former wife because he can’t work. He’s a photographer by trade, and in court, he’s an awfully good faker.

   Posing as a client who needs a photo shoot done, Maggie gets the evidence that proves otherwise, with a final shot back at the man in court that he richly deserves. It’s a minor case, but even so, it provides the reader a solid ten minutes of reading fun. The author, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, a PI herself, is better known for the six novels she has written about another Cuban-American private eye by the name of Lupe Solano, also based in Miami.

KIERAN SHEA “The Lifeguard Method.” Charlie Byrne #1. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, August 2009. Probably never collected or reprinted.

   This is both Kieran Shea’s first published story and (of course) the first recorded case of PI Charlie Byrne. Although most of the story takes place in a room at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, Byrne seems to be permanently based in Philadelphia. Most of his work is for hotshot litigator there, having saved his son Andy from drowning while working as a lifeguard at a beach when the boy was only six.

   Andy is now in his early 20s and is foolishly trying to scam his father out of fifty grand by faking his own kidnapping. Byrne is having none of it, but makes the initial mistake of taking everything for granted, a mistake he doesn’t make twice.

   In her introduction to the story, the editor points out that it was difficult to decide whether to put this tale in their Department of First Stories, or in their “Black Mask” section. They chose the latter, and it was a good choice. Without being able to say more, this is one of the most hard-boiled stories I’ve read in a long time.

   It was also stated in the introduction that the author was working on a novel involving Charlie Byrne, but if so, it may have never been completed. There was one more appearance for this otherwise one-shot PI, that being “Shift Work,” which was serialized in three parts in an ezine titled Crime Factory, March, May & July 2010.

LOREN D. ESTLEMAN “Robber’s Roost.” Short story. PI Amos Walker. First published in Mystery, April 1982. Collected in General Murders (Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1988) and Amos Walker: The Complete Story Collection (Gallery Books, hardcover, 2010).

   This was Amos Walker’s first appearance in short story form. While I have both hardcover collections, I read this one in its original magazine form, at the time when, according to the introduction, Estleman had written only two novels about Walker, his long running Detroit-based PI. (I don’t know whether he’s still active. From the information I have, he last appeared in The Lioness Is the Hunter (2017).

   This one’s a good one, based on the crime-ridden history of Michigan’s largest city. He takes a job from a long-retired cop in a nursing home who wants to find out what really happened to his adopted brother when he died some 50 years before. His car apparently fell through the ice while making a bootlegging run while crossing the river into the US from Canada. He’s positive that Eddie was killed by his boss, a former racketeer now also still alive, and he wants Walker to put him in prison.

   There is, of course, more to the story than that, but finding out what really did happen takes all of Walker’s skills as a detective. The story’s breezily told, maybe just a tad too breezily, but only a curmudgeon would cavil at such a small thing as that. Fans of PI stories who haven’t yet caught up with Amos Walker have a real treat coming.

HENRY KUTTNER “Don’t Look Now.” First published in Startling Stories, March 1948. Reprinted many times, including: My Best Science Fiction Story, edited by Oscar J. Friend & Leo Margulies (Merlin Press, hardcover, 1949); The Great Science Fiction Stories: Volume 10, 1948, edited by Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg (DAW, paperback, 1983); and Tales from the Spaceport Bar, edited by George H. Scithers & Darrell Schweitzer (Avon, paperback, 1987). Collected in Two-Handed Engine by Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore (Centipede Press, hardcover, 2005).

   Mos Eisley and the spaceport bar. What a perfect scene. One that thousands of long time science fiction fans had read about and pictured in their minds for years. And there it was, having come to life right before their eyes.

   Bars where spacefarers come to talk, lie and swap yarns. Not all of them human. All kinds and shapes of aliens used Mos Eisley as a stopover point, a place to restock and refuel and catch up on the news. Or in some cases the bar is on Earth, and the conversation is between two men, and the Martians are the beings secretly ruling the world that one of the men is trying to convince the other he can see. Most of the time they are invisible, lurking just out the corner of your eye, but when you can see them, they are easily identified by their third eye. Right in the middle of their foreheads.

   This is a classic story, first published way back in 1948, and if you go looking, over 70 years later, I’m sure you can find a book in print that it’s in, or if not, then in ebook format. In those years after the war, there was a certain uncertainty, if not outright paranoia, about the possibility we were not alone in the universe, that mankind had lost control of things, and in “Don’t Look Now,” Kuttner, in his most humorous mode, capitalizes on it most excellently.

MICHAEL COLLINS “A Death in Monecito.” Short story. PI Dan Fortune. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, April 1995. Collected in Fortune’s World (Crippen & Landru, 2000).

   Montecito is a small but exclusive community area located east of Santa Barbara, a fact which is important in how one-armed PI Dan Fortune approaches this case of murder he’s asked by the victim’s lawyer to look into. The woman’s death is assumed to have been perpetrated by a burglar caught in the act by her, but the arrangement of the furniture seems to Fortune’s client to have been changed. But why? No ordinary burglar would not have done that.

   Posing as a would-be buyer of the house, even before it goes on the market, Fortune does his initial investigation at the scene of the crime itself and by talking to the dead woman’s two daughters, as different from each other as night and day, one a rising Hollywood star, the other the owner of a local boutique. There are other suspects as well, if indeed a burglar was not responsible, and the solution to the cases is a nicely woven combination of clues (minor) and personalities (major).

   In spite of the bright clear skies of sunny California, or perhaps brought out all the more out in contrast, a melancholy mode persists throughout the story, as is the case in many of Fortune’s adventures, and the ending doubly so.

HAYFORD PEIRCE “Fire in the Islands.” Short story. Joe Caneili #2. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, April 1995. Collected in Trouble in Tahiti: P. I. Joe Caneili, Discretion Assuree. (Wildside, paperback, 2000).

   Joe Caneili, a former farmboy from Bookbinder, Kansas, had spent twenty-three years in the French Foreign Legion before retiring and setting up shop in Tahiti as probably that island’s only licensed private investigator. There is not a lot of call for his services in that lightly populated economic and political center of French Polynesia, and in this, his second recorded case, it is personal as much as anything else.

   For when the husband of the house next door burns down the house next door, Caneili’s home next door, which he rents from the couple, go up in flames with it, along with all of his possessions, as sparse as they are. His assignment, find the husband, who has disappeared. His client, the wife. It isn’t much of a case, and the husband, widely known as a practical joker, is not difficult to find. But the story is fun to read, largely because of the light, semi-humorous touch Peirce uses to tell the tale.

   Hayford Peirce, the author, is better known as a SF writer, often using time travel in his work and having, according to one reviewer, a Jack Vance style of writing, which is not a bad style to be using at all. He has also written several stories about extra-sized Commissaire Alexandre Tama, also of Tahiti, whose cases sometimes overlap with Caneili, as it happens here. His adventures have also been collected in paperback form by Wildside Press.

      The Joe Caneili series —

The Stolen Grandfather (ss) Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine July 1985
Fire in the Islands (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine April 1995
The Missing House (nv) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 1995
A Matter of Face (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine February 1998
The Girl in the Picture (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Sep/Oct 1999
Le Père Noël on Christmas Island (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Januay 2012
Crime Wave Batters Tahiti (ss) Trouble in Tahiti (Wildside Press, 2000)
The Lethal Leeteg (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine August 2013

BILL PRONZINI “One Night at Dolores Park.” Short story. Nameless PI. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, April 1995. Collected in Spadework (Crippen & Landru, 1996) and Dago Red: Tales of Dark Suspense (Ramble House, 2015). Reprinted in The Year’s 25 Finest Crime and Mystery Stories: Fifth Annual Edition, edited by the staff of Mystery Scene magazine (Carroll & Graf, 1996) and A Century of Noir: Thirty-two Classic Crime Stories, edited by Mickey Spillane & Max Allan Collins (Berkley, softcover, 2002).

   When this story was written, the section of San Francisco dubbed Dolores Park was falling into urban decay, complete with drug dealers, burglaries and constant intimidation, with people moving out left and right. And in this short tale, that’s where Bill Pronzini’s Nameless PI has quite a night for himself. (Also noted, but only incidentally, one of the characters mistakenly calls him Orenzi.)

   Nameless is there in the first place on a stakeout to serve some papers on a resident who’s a reluctant witness in case handled by the lawyer who hired him, then he himself is a witnesses to a would-be mugging of another resident, a woman who really ought to have known better.

   But do muggers generally have guns? Nameless intervenes and takes the would-be victim safely home, only to find himself in the midst of a marriage that’s falling apart as decisively as the neighborhood in which the couple find themselves living. This is a powerfully done tale of parallel and contrast, and yes, of course, it’s a detective story, too.

TERENCE FAHERTY “The Cardboard Box.” Sherlock Holmes. Short story. Published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January/February, 2019. Currently nominated for the Macavity Award for Best Short Story.

   With all due respect to the author, the editors at EQMM and everyone who voted for this story, you can count this as among the many many stories I haven’t read. I got no further into the story than this passage from the first page. I don’t know about you, but I found the following snippet of dialogue impossibly clumsy and awkward. To me it sounds like nothing Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote. If I’m wrong, feel free to tell me so.

   Suddenly, Holmes’s voice broke into my reverie. “You are quite correct, Watson. It is a preposterous way to settle a dispute.”


   “Forgive me for indulging in my little mind-reading act. I’ve been reading yours like a large-print edition ever since you attracted my attention by discarding your newspaper. Do you recall what caused your train of thought to leave the station?”

   “Huh?” I said again.

   You can read the entire story online. Look for it here. (Follow the link.)

EDWARD D. HOCH “The Problem of the Snowbound Cabin.” Short story. Dr. Sam Hawthorne. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 1987. Collected in Nothing Is Impossible (Crippen & Landru, hardcover/paperback, 2014). Reprinted in Never Shake a Family Tree, edited by Billie Sue Mosiman & Martin H. Greenberg (Rutledge Hill, paperback, 1998), and perhaps elsewhere.

   This is the quintessential story in the small but potent subcategory of locked room mysteries called “murder in a cabin surrounded by snow with no footprints leading in or out.” Although neither of them is interested in skiing, Dr. Sam Hawthorne and his nurse April are taking a platonic vacation together up in Maine in January. And as ever, wherever the good doctor goes, murder seems to follow right along with him.

   What makes this one special is that there is not only one solution to the mystery, nor two, but three. The first one doesn’t count, however, is that it’s the old canard that someone can be stabbed by an icicle, killing him, and having the weapon melt, leaving no clue to be found. Dr. Hawthorne makes quick riddance of this suggestion. The second solution is quite adequate, and I’m sure that several other mystery writers have used variations of it at one time or another.

   It does have the quality of being realistic, though, while the real solution is, shall we say, rather far-fetched – but certainly doable. What you have do when reading any one of Hoch’s miracle mysteries, and they’re short enough that you shouldn’t forget this: almost every element of the story is important. Keep an eye on everyone and everything. Every fact is not to be ignored. More than likely the one you pass over quickly is the one you had to keep your eye on.

   I know. From experience!

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