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The Jury Box

 By Jon L. Breen

Our annual short-story round-up begins with two of this magazine’s greatest stalwarts, published by the brief-is-better advocate’s best friend.

Edward D. Hoch: Nothing Is Impossible: Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, Crippen & Landru, $19. Fifteen stories, all from EQMM, range in publication date from 1984 to 1991 and in the life of the small-town impossible-crime solver from 1932 to 1936. Period detail, intriguing situations, and beautifully clued puzzle plots mark this extraordinary series. EQMM editor Janet Hutchings’s introduction celebrates the stories’ historical context. Enough cases remain for two more collections, and all are deserving of such permanence.

Charlotte Armstrong: Night Call and Other Stories of Suspense, edited by Rick Cypert and Kirby McCauley, Crippen & Landru, $30 hardcover, $20 trade paper. While the title story is a good example of the pure suspense Armstrong was famous for, it has elements of detection, as did most of her stories for EQMM. Two of the fifteen here are previously unpublished, including the novella “Man in the Road,” a first-rate example of her mastery of suspense, detection, romance, and characterization. Her son Jerry Lewi provides a concluding essay.

Katherine Hall Page: Small Plates: Short Fiction, William Morrow, $24.99. Nine stories, six about caterer-sleuth Faith Fairchild, are consistently enjoyable but prove the author a novelist at heart. The suspenseful novella “The Two Marys” is the highlight, and two of the shorts, “Across the Pond” with its shock ending and “Sliced” with its leisurely buildup and abrupt conclusion, could be the beginning chapters of book-length mysteries. Fairchild’s happy marriage serves to counterbalance the unhappy or ill-fated couplings in several stories.

Craig Johnson: Wait for Signs: Twelve Longmire Stories, Viking, $22. These involving tales of Northern Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire, most previously published in e-books or limited editions, are stronger on descriptive prose, background, and human interest than mystery or detection but recommended to short-story lovers nonetheless. The horned owl on the attractive jacket enters the action in a way few readers would anticipate.

Christine Matthews: Promises Made and Broken: 13 Stories, Perfect Crime, $12.95. As Ed Gorman’s introduction suggests, Matthews’s finely crafted stories specialize in unexpected turns, exemplified by the opening three about Omaha private eye Robbie Stanton. Five of these thirteen were previously collected in Gentle Insanities (2001). Two of the more recent eight are new to print. One of my favorites, “For Benefit of Mr. Means,” challenges the reader to guess which real 1920s celebrity at a Newport, Rhode Island house party will turn fictional detective. Spoiler warning: The cover illustration and back-cover blurb tell too much.

Ann Margaret Lewis: The Watson Chronicles: A Sherlock Holmes Novel in Stories, Gasogene, $22.95. The subtitle Dorothy L. Sayers gave Busman’s Honeymoon (“a love story with detective interruptions”) could be applied to Dr. Watson’s romance with a much younger opera singer, set in 1902 as the Baker Street master contemplates beekeeping retirement. The mystery plots (dispensed with entirely in the final two stories) are less interesting than the well-realized characters, including a reimagined Mycroft. As in the author’s Murder in the Vatican (2010), there is a strong dose of Roman Catholic theology, but she stops short of the ultimate Sherlockian heresy. 

Robert Lopresti: Shanks on Crime, Village Books, $12, e-book, $2.99. The cases of Leopold Longshanks, mystery writer cum amateur sleuth, eight from AHMM plus four previously unpublished, involve low-key situations, only one with a murder and some with no serious crime at all, but they are rich in humor and human insight, including real detection along with views of a happy marriage and the joys and frustrations of the writing life.

Douglas Lindsay: The Curse of Barney Thomson and Other Stories, Long Midnight e-book, $.99. Scottish barber Barney Thomson, plagued by violent death and serial killers, is one of the most unusual characters in contemporary crime fiction, his cases combining seriocomic fantasy and downbeat reality. These five shorts, never conventional detective stories, are interspersed with cutting-room-floor scenes from the barbershop. The unique and expertly managed exercise in postmodernist genre juggling is not for everybody, but I enjoyed it. A great line in the title story treats language lovers to a correct use of an abused adverb: “Barney had his hands full, but only literally.”

Lon Williams: Mitigating Jeopardy and Confidential Jury (The Frontier Justice Tales of Judge Steele, volumes one and two), Peril Press e-books, $1.99 each. From 1952 through 1955 issues of the pulp magazine Western Action come ten entertaining stories (five in each volume) launching an inventive comic series about Judge Wardlow Steele, a non-lawyer who reluctantly presides as the gold-mining town of Flat Creek tries to replace vigilante justice with law and order. His advisor and mentor Bill Hacker says lawyers are “something that grew up with courts. They’re part of it, like fleas are part of a dog, I reckon.”

Ed Gorman, one of the best short-story writers around, can work in any genre (or out of genre), but Scream Queen and Other Tales of Menace (Perfect Crime, $12.95) emphasizes horror, always achieved from an unconventional angle. Most of the varied selections have previously been collected, but the terrific title story, rich in movie-lover nostalgia, was new to me.

Maxine O’Callaghan’s Bad News and Trouble: The Delilah West Stories
(Brash, $5.99) gathers all seven shorter cases, two previously uncollected, of the pioneering female private eye of Orange County, California. From the same publisher as an e-book single is Dick Lochte’s Rappin’ Dog (Brash, $.99 e-book), a new case for L.A. shamus Leo Bloodworth and his teenage associate Serendipity Dahlquist. The key clue in the case of a menaced rapper is solvable by Internet. Like all titles from this new publisher, both have striking cover art.

If you’ve enjoyed Dave Amaral’s dramatizations of Ed Hoch’s Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories in the EQMM podcast series, you might enjoy the prolific output of radio mysteries from Jim French Productions. The new set of M.J. Elliott’s Hilary Caine Mysteries ($29.95), about a young woman journalist cum detective whose inspiration by the founder of this magazine is freely admitted, has five tongue-in-cheek cases from earlier sets reviewed here previously plus four new ones. Another entertaining series of fairly-clued puzzles, more serious than the Hilary Caines but still full of humor, concerns a young Greek scholar working in 276 B.C. Egypt, Kerides, the Thinker (volume 1, $16.95), who has a caustic but potentially romantic relationship with reluctantly freed former slave Adrea. Writers are Ian McLaughlin and Claire Bartlett. Also recommended: Sable Jak’s treasure-hunting adventure story The Amber Room Hunters ($16.95); the continuing mid-twentieth-century casebook of Seattle private eye Harry Nile, created by Jim French and written of by various hands in various sets; and The Classic Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, adapted by M.J. Elliott, a commendable effort to produce all the original Holmes cases with a single Holmes/Watson pair, John Patrick Lowrie and Lawrence Albert respectively. For details, go to jimfrenchproductions.com.

 © 2015 Steve Steinbock

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