Stories I’m Reading


CLARK HOWARD “Blues in the Kabul Night.” Novelette. First published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine September/October 2007. Not known to have been reprinted or collected anywhere.

   Over the course of his writing career, Clark Howard may have written over 200 short stories, not all of them criminous in nature, plus a couple dozen crime novels and collections. This does not include an unspecified number of works of true crime the editor of EQMM mentions in her introduction to this tale.

   Howard hardly ever used a character more than once, and “Blues in the Kabul Night” is no exception. When mercenary for hire Morgan Tenny smuggles himself into war-ravaged Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, it is for a specific reason. His twin brother is in a high security prison there and scheduled for execution soon, unless Morgan can do something about it.

   Which he thinks he can. Not only does he have a plan, but he also has a local contact. And even more, he has a million dollars in cash to help pave the way. Complicating matters, though, since of course plans like this never run smoothly, is a news reporter, a local Afghani girl who has ambitions of her own: to be the next Christiane Amanpour, and when she gets wind of Morgan’s plans, she doesn’t let go.

   Not only does Clark Howard notch up the suspense extremely well — this is essentially a heist novel in miniature — but the sights of sounds (and smells) of Kabul today (or to be precise, twelve years ago, but have things changed all that much?) are vividly brought to life. A polished gem of a story, and very very well done.

EDWARD M. LERNER “Time Out.” Novella. First published in Analog SF, January-February 2013. Collected in revised and retitled form as the title story of A Time Foreclosed (FoxAcre Press, trade paperback, June 2013). Included in The Time Travel Megapack: 26 Modern and Classic Science Fiction Stories, edited by John Gregory Betancourt (Wildside Press, ebook, 2013).

   As it so happens, I might not have posted this review here if not for one fact, and I couldn’t help but tell you about it. This is the first story I’ve read on my new Kindle. Well, it’s not exactly new, being as it is a hand-me-up from my daughter who’s gotten herself a newer, more up to date model. We had some problems getting it registered to me, but once logged in, I’ve managed to get around well enough to chalk up a Number One.

   And the only thing better than a locked room mystery would have been a time-travel science fiction story, which obviously this is, and it’s a good one. When an out-of-work bank official, now an ex-convict due to one flaw — being too trusting — gets a job as a handyman to a not quite a mad scientist (he himself says he’s only peeved), he has no idea what it is that he’s getting into.

   As our hero gains more and more of his new boss’s confidence, he’s allowed to know more or more about what he’s helping to build. Two guesses, and the second one doesn’t count. In some detail, small incremental steps at a time, they’re building a means to change the world for the better.

   If, of course, they don’t wipe out their world’s entire timeline in the process. The time paradoxes they encounter had my head spinning, such as getting the money to finance their project by being sent financial tips from the future. Until, that is, some of tips turn out to be wrong.

   You can tell that Lerner really had to work hard to make sure this story as coherent as it is, and I still don’t think he did. On the other had, nobody could. The whole tale is impossible to have happened. Unless, of course, it already has. Who would know?

BILL PRONZINI & MICHAEL J. KURLAND “Vanishing Act.” Short story. Christopher Steele #2. First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, January 1976. Collected in Stacked Deck (Pulphouse Publishing: Author’s Choice Monthly #2, paperback, November 1991). Reprinted in Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries, edited by Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh, & Martin Harry Greenberg (Walker & Co. hardcover, 1982).

   Christopher Steele is a working magician who solved one earlier case “Quicker Than the Eye,” a novelette which appeared a few months earlier, also in AHMM, but back in the September 1975 issue. In his preface to Stacked Deck, Pronzini calls both stories “impossible crimes,” which is quite correct, a small genre of detective stories that easily include every true locked room mystery as an even smaller subset.

   In “Vanishing Act,” a magician performing on stage before Steele is schedules to appear is killed in full view of a large audience including a cadre of freshly minted police cadets. The assailant then dashes off stage into a corridor leading nowhere, but in spite of all efforts, no trace of him can be found.

   The telling of an impossible crime mystery is very much like the creation of a magic trick. The fun in each case is in watching and reading them, but magicians have a huge advantage. They can keep their secrets. Detective story writers can’t. To their credit, Pronzini and Kurland make the solution as interesting as the rest of the story.

   Christopher Steele was intended to be a series character, but as Pronzini also tells us, for some reason it never happened. As far as I’m concerned, that’s really too bad. This one was a joy to read.

MICHAEL Z. LEWIN “Good Intentions.” Short story. Albert Samson & “Wolfgang Mozart” #2. First published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November 2012. Collected in Alien Quartet: Albert Samson Stories (iUniverse, paperback, November 2018).

   Albert Samson’s client in this one isn’t really a client, not a paying one, anyway. During Samson’s previous encounter with his, the Shamus award-winning novelette, “Who I Am,” the man called himself LeBron James. In this one, he’s “Wolfgang Mozart,” and who know who he’ll want to be known as in the next two. (See below for a complete list.)

   To tell you the truth, I did not know that author Michael Z. Lewin was still writing about Samson’s adventures. The last Samson novel I read was Called by a Panther, which came out in 1991. I now see that there was another one titled Eye Opener, which was published in 2004, some thirteen years later. I missed that one altogether.

   In any case, when “Wolfgang” comes staggering to Samson’s office door, he collapses on the floor. He has been stabbed four times. By four different knives. In the hospital, though, he does not want the police involved. And for good reason. He’s a kind gentle man who can’t say no, and he’s been operating a batter women’s shelter, unlicensed and totally illegally.

   He also believes — a minor quirk — that his father was an extraterrestrial.

   The Samson books have always been a joy to read, but this one, at least, is laugh out loud funny to read, with the zippiest banter/dialogue I’ve read in a long time. And somewhere along the way, Samson has gained a daughter, and she’s a cop on the Indianapolis police force. I don’t remember her from before, but maybe. Quoting from page 109, after he explains to Nurse Matty who she is:

    “And she’s your daughter?” Matty tilted her head. “Her mother must be very beautiful.”

   I think I enjoyed this story more than any other so far this year. It’s a good detective tale, too.

    —

      The Albert Samson & “Wolfgang Mozart” series —

“Who I Am.” EQMM, December 2011. Shamus Award for best PI Story of 2011
“Good Intentions” EQMM, November 2012.
“Extra Fries.” EQMM, May 2013. Shamus nominee.
“A Question of Fathers.” May 2014.

  POUL ANDERSON “Gibraltar Falls.” Short story. Time Patrol series, First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1975. Collected in The Guardians of Time (Tor/Pinnacle, paperback, October 1981) and The Dark Between the Stars (Berkley, paperback, December 1981, among others. Reprinted in As Time Goes By, edited by Hank Davis (Baen, trade paperback, February 2015).

   It is the latter anthology, the one edited by Hank Davis, that I’ve just dipped into, with “Gibraltar Falls” being the very first story. The theme connecting all of the tales chosen for inclusion is that of time travel, perhaps my favorite type of science fiction story, combined with romance — romance that is thwarted by chance, perhaps — two lovers separated by time, or death, or even the wrong thing said at the wrong time, but what if one could only go back and make things right? Change the course of history, if only on a very small and almost insignificance scale in the overall scheme of things.

   Such is everyone’s fantasy, looking back at their lives. What might have been, if only …

   Such is the case in “Gibraltar Falls.” Having gone back in time to the end of the Miocene Era to witness the Mediterranean basin being filled by a enormous waterfall flowing from the Atlantic through the Straits of Gibraltar, two members of he Time Patrol meet disaster. She’s pulled in. He, having never told her how much he is in love with her, is unable to save her.

   Can he go back in time, in spite of rules and regulations preventing him, and save her? [WARNING: PLOT ALERT] It turns out that the answer is yes, and while I think it’s a bit a cheat (no further details), this is a fine story, a small personal tale told against the backdrop of the early days of Earth’s history, in Poul Anderson’s usual larger than life style.

PAUL HALTER “The Yellow Room.” Short story. Dr. Alan Twist. Published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July/August 017. Translated from the French by John Pugmire. Collected in The Helm of Hades, paperback, October 2919.

   Paul Halter, as some of you may know, is the present day master of the so-called “locked room” or impossible mystery, Falling closely in the footsteps of John Dickson Carr, Halter has written numerous such mysteries, both as full-length novels and in the short form.

   Since his native language is French, he’s so far reached only a niche market here in the US, but fans of “impossible crimes” are always on the lookout for the next one of his tales to be published here. It’s a small niche, but Halter is filling it well.

   Dr. Alan Twist is probably his best known character, a renown British criminologist whom the police of several countries call upon when they’re stumped by cases that seem to have no solutions. “The Yellow Room” takes place in 1938 near Verdun, France. A man has been stabbed to death by a ceremonial dagger in a small cottage surrounded by several inches of snow in which no footprints can be seen. The local commissionaire of police needs help.

   The solution, which I obviously will not divulge here, is both exceedingly clever and yet very simple, once explained. It is the atmosphere of such a story, written and set up in meticulous detail, that makes the crime seem so impossible.

   Halter may be skimpy on bringing his characters to life, but he has other ends in mind. It’s both the the mystery and the challenge to the reader that he hopes to create, which once again is what he does here, just another notch in his belt. Nicely done.

  HUGH B. CAVE “The Late Mr. Smythe.” Short story. Peter Kane #1. First published in Dime Detective Magazine, August 1, 1934. Collected in Bottled in Blonde (Fedogan & Bremer, hardcover, 2000) and The Complete Cases of Peter Kane (Altus Press, 2018; introduction by Bob Byrne).

   Private eyes in detective fiction are as often as not hard drinkers, and some of them are awfully good at it. But few of them are as good at it as was Peter Kane. There isn’t a single minute in “The Late Mr. Smythe” in which he isn’t totally sozzled. I can’t believe that anyone could go through life the same way he does, in three stages: drunk, drunker, and completely plastered.

   A former member of the Boston police department, Kane nominally now works for the Beacon Detective Agency, but in “The Late Mr. Smythe,” he takes the death of a friend of his still on the force personally, and he works full time on this one on his own to bring the killer(s) to justice.

   The first death is that of a blackmailer named Smiley Smythe, and when a cop named Hoban tries to bring his suspected killer in, a hoodlum named Joe DiVina, both men are killed by a torrent of machine gun fire from a car that comes speeding by.

   Besides Kane, who spends a lot of time at a bar run by a fellow named Limpy, the other recurring characters are Moe Finch, the hapless chief of police, who continually begs for Kane’s assistance; and Kane’s nemesis still on the force, Lt. Moroni. It is always Kane’s pleasure to not only solve the case at hand, but to show up Moroni as well, and in the most dramatic way he can.

   Hugh B. Cave is best known for his tales of horror and weird menace, but in this, the first of Peter Kane’s cases on record, he shows he could write very very good detective stories too. Surprisingly good, given Peter Kane’s way with either a glass or the bottle.

      The Peter Kane series —

The Late Mr. Smythe. Dime Detective Magazine Aug 1 1934
Hell on Hume Street. Dime Detective Magazine Nov 1 1934
Bottled in Blonde. Dime Detective Magazine Jan 1 1935
The Man Who Looked Sick. Dime Detective Magazine Apr 1 1935
The Screaming Phantom . Dime Detective Magazine May 1 1935
The Brand of Kane. Dime Detective Magazine Jun 15 1935
Ding Dong Belle. Dime Detective Magazine Aug 1941
The Dead Don’t Swim. Dime Detective Magazine Nov 1941
No Place to Hide. Dime Detective Magazine Feb 1942

THEODORE STURGEON “The Ultimate Egoist.” Short story. First published in Unknown, February 1941. Collected in Without Sorcery (Prime Press, hardcover, 1949) and The Golden Helix (Dell, paperback, 1980; Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1989), among others. Reprinted in Human?, edited by Judith Merrill (Lion #205, paperback, 1954).

   I suppose everyone, at one time or another, has had the following fantasy: that the world you see, and the objects in it, could disappear if you simply decided that they no longer existed. That the facade of life revolves around you and you only. You don’t even have to admit it. I know you have.

   And such is the basis of this early story by master SF author Theodore Sturgeon. I think his work in the short story form was almost uniformly superb; in fact I think most of his readers would agree that his short fiction was a step above the relatively few novels he wrote in his lifetime (1918-1985). The only question is, from this basic premise, where does he go from here? The answer, the only way it could.

   I think this story is a small gem, not a perfect one — later in his writing career, Sturgeon would have polished it up to even better effect — but even as is, it’s clever, alive, and a lot of fun to read. What more could you ask from a short tale that’s not far from everyone’s dreams?

ROBIN HATHAWAY “Does Thee Murder?” Short story. Dr. Andrew Fenimore. Short story. Published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March/April 2013.

   Of the four Dr. Fenimore detective stories that are so indicated in the online Crime Fiction Index, this is number four. Between 1998 and 2006 author Robin Hathaway also wrote five full-length novels with Dr. Fenimore, none of which I’ve read.

   This may have been a serious error on my part. I thought they were cozies, but on the basis of this particular story, at least, Dr. Fenimore is actually a very good amateur detective, and the mystery he tackles in “Does Thee Kill?” is a serious one.

   In this tale an elderly woman, a devout Quaker, is attacked and killed while taking a walk near her isolated old mansion of a home, which has become isolated in a small neighborhood of Philadelphia that has been going downhill for several years. The police think it’s nothing more than a random mugging, but Dr. Fenimore wonders about it and decides to make some inquiries. If the police are wrong, he’d like to do something about it.

   Besides following his investigation closely, the story includes a intimate description of what a Quaker funeral is like. Set in austere surroundings, the people congregated together there sit in silence until someone feels the urge to stand up and say something heartfelt about the deceased.

   All of the characters are real people, and Fenimore’s detective work is solidly done. Of special note, the ending is most satisfactory. Other authors may have taken another page or so to include a complete explanation. It pleases me to say that Robin Hathaway did not believe she needed to, and she was right.

JOHN C. BOLAND “Marley’s Ghost.” Short story. Charles Marley #1. Published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, January/February 2005. Not yet reprinted or collected.

   For someone who qualifies, I believe, as a Little Known Writer, John C. Boland certainly has been a very prolific one. He has, first of all, several dozen short stories in AHMM as well as EQMM, not only under his own name but also as by Max Gersh and James L. Ross. This plus more than a dozen full-length novels, beginning in 1991, some of them once again as by James L. Ross. (I do not know if he is related the thriller writer John Boland, who wote several dozen novels back between 1955 and 1970.)

   As for Charles Marley, who adventure “Marley’s Ghost” is his first recorded adventure, he is a retired CIA agent who seemingly can’t stay away from people he knows from his past. This includes Oleg Ossovsky, his counterpart in espionage back in the days of the old Soviet Union. The latter is now in New York and working on his memoirs, although Marley assumes he very well may have other irons in his fire.

   What’s really on Oleg’s mind now, however, is a fellow named Vlad Davidovich, whom he keeps bumping into, and whom Marley also remembers as a Russian pianist he was trying at one time to help defect. That the task did not work out was due to Oleg’s intervention, let us say.

   The tale that follows is a tough, complicated one, filled with the moody atmosphere of the Cold War, even at this late date. Besides the fact that he comes out on top in this debut story, sort of, we don’t learn a lot about Marley himself — he’s still somewhat of an enigma — but perhaps that changes over the course of the next eight stories, so far. Summing things up, though, a complete collection is in order, that’s what I say.


       The Charles Marley series —

Marley’s Ghost (ss) Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine Jan/Feb 2005
Marley’s Package (ss) Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine Mar 2007
Marley’s Woman (ss) Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine Sep 2007
Marley’s Havana (ss) Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine Mar 2011
Marley’s Revolution (ss) Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine Jun 2011 [2012 Edgar Nominee]
Marley’s Rescue (ss) Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine Jul/Aug 2012
Marley’s Winter (ss) Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine Nov 2012
Marley’s Lover (ss) Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine Apr 2015
Marley’s Mistress (ss) Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine Jul/Aug 2019

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