Monday, December 31, 2018

My Favorite Short Mystery Stories of 2018

Since taking the reins of Mystery Scene Magazine’s “Short & Sweet: Short Stories Considered” column a few years ago my reading of short mystery fiction has increased significantly. During 2018, I read—and this is a less than scientific estimate—somewhere greater than 500 crime and mystery short stories. The stories were published in magazines—Alfred Hitchcock, Ellery Queen, Black Cat, Down & Out—anthologies and collections. The individual stories have a tendency to slip from my awareness shortly after the final words have been read, but there are those stories that stick to me. Often becoming something better and more real in the weeks and months after I’ve read the tale. 
This year, for something a little different, I decided to sit down and compile a list, from memory rather than going back into the books and magazines or the reviews I wrote, of my five favorite mystery short stories. And, no matter how hard I tried, I was unable to settle on less than six stories. So, without further ado, here are my five six favorite short stories (in no particular order) published during 2018*.
“An Elderly Lady Seeks Peace at Christmastime” by Helene Tursten, featuring the homicidal octogenarian Maude, who will do anything for peace and quiet. [An Elderly Lady is Up To No Good, Soho, November 2018] 
“The Little Men” by Megan Abbott, is a Hollywood story with an ironic and very twisted ending. [Bibliomysteries Volume Two, edited by Otto Penzler, Pegasus, August 2018]
“Fair Game” by Max Gersh, is a carnival tale reminding us that the house always wins. [Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, March / April 2018]

“Backfire” by Floyd Mahannah, is a vintage crime novella that is hardboiled, and perfectly plotted. [The Broken Angel / Backfire and Other Stories, by Floyd Mahannah, Stark House, May 2018]
“Phantomwise: 1972” by Joyce Carol Oates, is a long story about sexual harassment and murder. [The Best American Mystery Stories 2018, edited by Louise Penny & Otto Penzler, Mariner, October 2018]
“The Wild Side of Life” by James Lee Burke, is an old school paperback era story about men and women and trouble. [The Best American Mystery Stories 2018, edited by Louise Penny & Otto Penzler, Mariner, October 2018]

*A few of the stories were originally published prior to 2018, but reappeared in author collections or best of the year anthologies.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Thrift Shop Book Covers (Christmas Edition): "A Present for Santa"

A Present for Santa, by James Burke, is a crime novel published in hardcover by St. Martin’s Press in 1986, but the edition that caught my eye is the mass market paperback published by Avon in 1989. The artist: Unknown (to me at least)

The first paragraph:

It was raining hard, but the brunt of the rush hour traffic was off the streets, so the dark coupe was making good time up the Drive. The blond man, driving alone, was handling the car mechanically, his mind far from Chicago’s glistening streets.
James Burke wrote three novels in the mid- and late-1980s; two, including A Present for Santa, featured retired CIA operative Patrick Morley. And, you've probably already guessed, so far as I know, there is no relation between this James Burke and James Lee Burke.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Christmas Stars"

Christmas Stars, edited by David G. Hartwell, is a Christmas-themed anthology published as a paperback original by Tor in 1992, which is the very edition that caught my eye. The cover is Santa Claus perfect with its spacesuit clad St. Nick and reindeer. The artist: Nick Jainschigg

The first sentence from Frederik Pohl’s “Adeste Fideles”:
   A Christmas was only an abstraction on Mars, even for Henry Steegman.
Included in the anthology are 25 stories from Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, Ben Bova, Arthur C. Clarke, Jack McDevitt, Brian W. Aldiss, and many others.

Monday, December 17, 2018


I have a particular fondness for Shadow Games. It is not only a terrific novel, but it was my introduction to the work of Ed Gorman. The year was 2000. I made a habit of studying and writing in a library not far from where I worked as a pizza delivery driver; a job I won’t recommend, but a job that treated me well as I navigated the college scene. My usual table was tucked at the back of the fiction stacks. I sat, my back to the wall, facing a bookshelf packed with the latest genre titles making study nearly impossible since the stories beckoned me. 
There was one title that, day after day, caught my attention. It was a mass market paperback, black background with orange-red print and the large white Leisure Books’ logo—a publisher I miss badly—at the top of its spine. Its title, Shadow Games. When I finally relented and read Shadow Games, sitting right there in the library, its tale of Hollywood ambition, perversion, and lost potential, all told in a darkly humorous tone, made me a lifetime fan of Ed Gorman’s work. 
It is the story of Cobey Daniels, a child television star, musician and, as the novel opens, the playwright and star of his own one man show. The play is autobiographical and humorously recalls Cobey’s life as a fallen Hollywood superstar. A life that has had more than a few public scandals. The most serious involved a sixteen-year-old girl in a Miami, Florida mall causing Cobey’s three-year stay in a Missouri mental hospital. But Cobey is better now, the addictions and mood swings are behind him. Or so Cobey thinks until he awakens in a Chicago apartment, difficulty remembering his name, a headless woman lying in a pool of her own blood on the kitchen floor. 
Shadow Games is a dark ride across American pop culture—hero worship, sex, vanity, dizzying unreality, hypocrisy, cynicism and downright craziness. It is a crime novel at its center, but its view of Hollywood and its fandom illuminates modern culture in a manner both convincing and familiar. It is dark, possibly one of the three or four darkest tales I’ve read, but its humor—
“‘I know a lot of people think I’m a goody-goody because of my role on the show. Well, what’s wrong with being a clean-cut, all-American teenager?’ 
“Cobey Daniels, interviewed in Teen Scene, August, 1984”
“(Reporter)   The police are saying that you pulled a knife on the waitress because she wouldn’t serve you liquor. Any comments?
“(Cobey)   Yeah, just one. Why don’t you go f*ck off, you asshole? 
“Cobey Daniels responding to KABC-TV reporter, May, 1985”
—lifts it from what, in lesser hands, could have been a deeply depressing story to a very readable and damn good novel.
Shadow Games, as it should be, is back in print with a high quality trade paperback from Short, Scary Tales. It has been, from what I can tell, lightly edited by the author and is titled Shadow Games and Other Sinister Stories of Show Business. It includes four of Ed Gorman’s finest short stories, “Scream Queen,” “Riff,” “Such a Good Girl,” and “Pards.” Do yourself a favor and buy it right now.
This review originally went live May 11, 2016. Unfortunately, the Short, Scary Tales edition has left print, but Shadow Games is still available as an ebook.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

"The Santa Claus Murders" by Ed Gorman

A Christmas novella featuring Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain, originally published in Crooks, Crimes and Christmas (Worldwide, 2003) and, as far as I know, currently out-of-print.
Sam McCain’s only reason to attend a high school reunion / Christmas party is a hope there will be attractive, available, attentive former female classmates. The party is at the home of the wildly wealthy Don Lillis, who inherited the house and a steel mill from his father. On his arrival, Sam finds the usual clustering of people. The wealthy and upwardly mobile, the weirdoes, the blue-collar-types, all congregating in their respective groups. Sam has the uncanny ability to move from group to group, but he doesn’t quite belong to any of them. 
The party turns bad when Bob Nugent, the class drunk, is found in the guest room with a knife in his throat. Bob Nugent was the kid everyone expected to succeed. In school, Bob worked hard, was kind, friendly and the teachers loved him. He was, to Sam’s thinking, a brownnose of the first order. But something went wrong for Bob during his college years and he started drinking. The party screeches to a halt when Bob’s body is found and the unlikable and incompetent Sheriff Cliff Sykes, Jr is called to investigate. Cliffie, as he is called behind his back, makes all the wrong assumptions and McCain decides to solve the mystery on his own for two reasons: to make Sykes look the clown, and to make sure the right person is brought to justice.
“The Santa Claus Murders” is Sam McCain at his best. He is young, endowed with the wisdom of a much older man, intelligent and savvy at why people do what they do, and cynical with a perfectly complimented amount of optimism. He is a kid that doesn’t quite fit a category—he grew up in the poor section of town, but he is a college graduate with his own small law practice. He is an ideal Ed Gorman character: intelligent, cynical, tough, realistic, and yet hopeful and wistful at the same time.
The mystery is perfectly executed. The killer is revealed only moments after the reader figures it out. The supporting cast is top-notch. Cliffie Sykes is his usual gruff and annoying self. The Judge is kind and vindictive in a swift, judgmental and condescending manner. And everyone else plays their parts perfectly.