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Meditations on Murder (November/December 2018)

In our third annual Case File essay, Joseph Goodrich considers the music that puts him in the mood to murder—if only on the page. Meanwhile, in our November/December issue, a dozen thoughtful short story writers offer their own engaging meditations on a range of nefarious deeds.

An oft told ghost story that no longer scare the kids still may have its uses, as Max Gersh demonstrates in “The Week Before November.” Sharon Hunt’s “The Keepers of All Sins” considers a history of death by water for the men of a wealthy family. A young couple’s canoe trip reveals the horrifying truth of their relationship in our cover story, “Leah,” by Julie Tollefson. Multiple story lines converge (literally) on a snowy day in Robert Lopresti’s “A Bad Day of Algebra Tests.” A kid escapes one bad scene only to encounter more trouble in a lonely diner in Michael Bracken’s dark tale, “Going-Away Money.” The late Albert Ashforth’s retired spy Alex Klear is once again pressed into service, this time to check on an American operative in “Death of an Oligarch.” And R. T. Lawton’s Holiday Burglars have a new scheme in “Vet’s Day.”

A flashy young mogul has a tale of losing it all—Miami style—which he tells to Elaine Viets’s P.I. pair in “Mistress of the Mickey Finn.” Mitch Alderman’s central Florida P.I. Bubba Simms brings his considerable weight to bear as he tracks down the people responsible for vandalizing a women’s health clinic in “Fear of the Secular.” Across the globe in Beijing, Martin Limón’s Korean American P.I. Il Yong lands in a Beijing jail for a crime he didn’t commit, but his ticket out comes at a heavy price in “Bite of the Dragon.” The evidence wasn’t adding up in S. L. Franklin’s “Manitoba Postmortem,” so the Carr family detectives cross the border into Canada to get the real story. Susan Thibadeau’s amateur detectives, Pittsburgh attorney Harry Whiteside and his under-employed actor/cousin Jake, find their beloved housekeeper under suspicion of murder when she inherits a bookstore, and a feisty cat.

Plus brain-teaser puzzles, book reviews, and a new Mysterious Photograph contest await inside. You can also check out our blog Trace-Evidence.net for some story-behind-the-story insights. And if you’re in the mood for further reflection, you can use our annual index in this issue as a guide to all of our authors’ criminal creations. As we bring 2018 to a close, we can all reflect on what a great year it’s been for crime fiction, and for the magazines that publish the genre’s best short stories.

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Plots, Schemes, Entrapments (May/June 2018)

Killers and thieves in our midst try to stay undetected, whether clinging to shadows or hiding in plain sight. The tales in this issue feature intrepid, if sometimes accidental, sleuths who uncover what’s hidden and unmask the villains in surprising and entertaining ways.

Emily Devenport’s heroine Katie Thomas runs out of her condo in her pajamas because she knows a serial killer is stalking her, but her explanation to the police for how she knows beggars belief in “10,432 Serial Killers (in Hell)”. The late B. K. Stevens was a master craftsman of short fiction; in her story “One-Day Pass,” a ghost has one shot to reveal the truth and set things straight. Artist Tamar Gillespie brings her powers of keen observation to the painting of a portrait of three spoiled Pomeranians, which happen to belong to celebrity psychiatrists specializing in the criminal mind, in John C. Boland’s “The Three Dog Problem.” A laid-off copyeditor continues to review her former employer’s website, where she discovers some devastating information hidden in the errors in “Bothering with the Details” by Dayle A. Dermatis. Leslie Budewitz brings us a tale of Stagecoach Mary, the observant and crafty servant to the Ursaline sisters in the Montana Territory in “All God’s Sparrows.”

A ho-hum date at a corny mystery dinner gets interesting when one of the guests disappears in Tara Laskowski’s “The Case of the Vanishing Professor.” At another tense dinner, Deborah Lacy’s protagonist’s thoughts turn to “Taking Care.” Steve Liskow goes deep into the workings of a pickle packaging plant with “The Girl in the Red Bandana.” The death of a feline at the Temple of Bast in ancient Alexandria is a bad omen for Magistrate Ovid, who must solve the mystery before his friend, the inventor Heron, is put to death in “The Worth of Felines” by Thomas K. Carpenter. The provenance of a portrait of Saint Hedwig is at the heart of a puzzle that faces Abbot Joseph and Brother Leo in Marianne Wilski Strong’s new story, “The Abbot and the Garnets.” The heroine of Jane K. Cleland’s “I am a Proud American” discovers a mystery in the identity of her father. And John H. Dirckx returns with another solid procedural set at a perennial summer ritual in “Blowout at the Carnival.” Meanwhile, find out how crime lurks in the everyday aisles of the grocery store, in Neil Schofield’s “Shopping for Fun and Profit.”

In addition to Robert C. Hahn’s book reviews in our Booked & Printed column, and Dying Words, a challenging acrostic by Arlene Fisher, this issue’s features include the debut of a new puzzle, Mixed-Up Sleuths, anagram fun for mystery mavens from Mark Lagasse. We also bring you a special Mystery Classic: Shelly Dickson Carr introduces a short story by her mother Julia McNiven, “Death at Devil’s Hole,” originally published in 1974.

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“The Vegas Way” by Shauna Washington

Author and fashion consultant Shauna Washington’s first short-story case for Las Vegas stylist-sleuth Stacey Deshay appeared in the May 2012 issue of AHMM. Here she talks about the series’ Las Vegas setting and her story “Knockoffs,” from the current issue.

Well, I’d like to start on how I fell in the love with Las Vegas. It’s my hometown and over the decades it has changed both architecturally and culture-wise. It has many different monikers like Sin City, The Wedding Capital of the World, Adult Disneyland, City of Lights, but the name I recently heard on a returning flight home might be best: “Lost Wages.”

I like to think of Vegas as a glittery playground. There’s something for everyone, although everything isn’t for everybody. As a kid I loved the bright neon signs and lights. I didn’t frequent the casinos back then, and later found my way in the hospitality industry doing internships in everything from room reservations to cocktail service. I really loved the guest services. However, my first love is retail shopping.

I’m a fashionista. I’ve since become a personal shopper and styling consultant, working with all sorts of people: some famous and some not so famous locals, visitors, and Vegas socialites. Hence my amateur sleuth, Stacey Deshay, is too. Naturally, my stories are set in Las Vegas, but I try not to put them on the famous Las Vegas Strip. Like I said, Vegas is more than just that. There are some very cool places in the valley that I wanted write about. For instance, my first short story, “Fashioned for Murder,” was set in a gated bedroom community. Bad things can happen anywhere. Some of my other settings have been places I’ve visited such as McCarran Airport, the Neon Museum, and the skeletons of the Moulin Rouge nightclub, where Blacks performed in the segregated 1960s. Not all the places in my stories exist, though.

For “Knockoffs,” my short story in the March/April issue of AHMM, I created a fictional hotel on the Strip. I like to think of my stories as fashion mysteries, but there’s a mystery/detective element to them, too. You see, my grandfather was one of the first Black police officers in Las Vegas, and he rose to the rank of detective, so solving crimes in Vegas is sort of a family tradition.

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“One Last Job” by Michael Bracken

Fiction and nonfiction author Michael Bracken is the recipient of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2016 Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement in crime fiction. He has also twice won the Derringer Award for short fiction. Here he talks about writing his story “The Mourning Man” from the current issue of AHMM.

Stories about a seasoned criminal’s “One Last Job”—a familiar trope in mystery fiction—often involve protagonists who desire retirement from their criminous careers. On occasion, “One Last Job” stories involve retired criminals roped back in through no desire of their own, and that is the structural framework for “The Mourning Man” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2018).

But that isn’t the story I planned to write. I planned to write a love story.

I have known several men of a certain age who find themselves lost after the death of their spouse. They haven’t shopped, cooked, cleaned, or done laundry in so many years that basic self-care eludes them. When I wrote the opening scene of “The Mourning Man,” I had all those men in mind, but I also remembered how I felt twenty-four years ago when my wife passed away after a protracted battle with cervical cancer and I found myself without sufficient savings to pay for her funeral.

I was lucky. Family stepped in. But what if Johnny Devlin—a cab driver who just lost the love of his life, the woman who convinced him to abandon crime when he was young and who kept him on the straight and narrow during the decades since—borrowed funeral money from a loan shark?

The question remained unanswered and the rough draft of my opening scene remained untouched until I read “Chronic Insecurity,” an article by William Wheeler in the July/August 2014 Playboy about the legal marijuana shops in Denver and the problems marijuana dispensers everywhere have banking their money. Wheeler quoted the owner of one dispensary who referred to a two-block stretch of Broadway in Denver that houses a dozen marijuana dispensaries as “Retard Row.” I thought those shops were ripe for robbery, and so does the loan shark who provides the money to bury Devlin’s wife.

Devlin finds himself torn between his debt, the promises he made to his dead wife, and the needs of his living friends and relatives. In the end, even though I used the tropes of the “One Last Job” story, I think I did write a love story because the decisions Devlin makes demonstrate his love for his wife, his friends, and his family.

 

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On “The Chinese Dog Mystery” by James Lincoln Warren

James Lincoln Warren is a Black Orchid Novella Award winner and prolific author of series as well as standalone short stories. Here, he talks about his story “The Chinese Dog Mystery” from the current issue of AHMM.

In the cover comments I submitted with “The Chinese Dog Mystery” to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, I described the story as a love letter to P.G. Wodehouse, the inimitable creator of that dimwitted but kind-hearted scion of the British gentry, Bertie Wooster, and his towering genius of a valet, the formidable Jeeves, for both of whom time all but stopped in the 1920s, even if it was the 30s or the 40s or the 50s.

Wodehouse is one of those rare authors who makes me laugh out loud when I read silently along. He’s one of my literary heroes.

I have always wanted to follow in his footsteps, as we all want to do with our heroes, and so to do my own take on the Wooster/Jeeves paradigm. But there was, I thought, an insurmountable barrier to doing so: If a writer is truly inimitable, then by definition he is utterly impossible to imitate, let alone duplicate. Especially regarding style, that most defining characteristic of a great writer, and as almost all of the Jeeves catalogue is written in the first person from Bertie’s point of view, that style is inextricably Bertie’s, which is to say Wodehouse’s, very own.

But faint heart never won fair whatever.

The challenge was to find a suitable replacement voice to put in the mouth of my Bertie analog, E. Cowes Crambury, a.k.a. “Bennie”—to find a voice that would convey Bennie’s amusing idiocy without merely parroting Bertie’s, with his signature What-ho!s and I-mean-to-say-what?s and the like, which add so much to Wodehouse’s gentle humor.

How to proceed? And then, as through a glass darkly, I recognized that I had a slight, albeit very slight, advantage.

You see, Bertie, like Wodehouse, was an Englishman—but Bennie, like me, is thoroughly American.

Q: What do American twits sound like?

A: A lot like English twits, I suppose, twittishness being no respecter of national origins—but not in English English, as in, “Hail, Good Fellow; Well Met!” Rather, it ought to be in American English, as in, “Howdy, Pardner; Happy to Meetcha!”

A character’s voice comes from two sources: the character’s personality and his formative environment. In Bertie’s case, he’s a young English gentleman of independent means who’s at one with a Roaring 20s background. Where might I find something analogous on this side of the pond? I suppose it was an inspiration, because it came to me immediately without me even thinking about it.

I decided to make Bennie a young American trust fund baby of not-entirely savory antecedents, and with a Golden Age of Hollywood background—movie stars being the closest thing the U.S. has to an aristocracy.

Instead of using Bertie’s most whimsical jazz age expressions and English slang, I had Bennie talk mostly in an American vernacular, and threw in a bunch of 1940s American pop culture references that would be wholly out of place in London, but perfect for L.A.

And remaining true to my quest, I made sure that Bertie and Bennie are enough alike so that the Wodehouse touch is clearly detectible, especially as I included the required Wodehousean ingredients, including a Jeeves-type servant savant (a chauffeur, though, not a valet—this is Hollywood, remember) and a sensible, talented, pretty girl to keep Bennie completely confused.

And when it all came together, I knew I had it. It ain’t as fine as Wodehouse, of course it isn’t, it never could be. But my love for him is there, and that’s why I wrote it.

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In Extremis

Mystery stories are often driven by people in dire straits—such as an accountant standing on a skyscraper ledge, waving a pistol. That’s the crisis facing Loren D. Estleman’s resourceful Four Horsemen police squad in “Tin Cop.” Meanwhile, broken ex-Wall Streeter Pit Geller finds himself holed up in Las Vegas with a family torn apart by a dead guy in John Gregory Betancourt’s “Pit and the Princess.” Jay Carey imagines policing a future Sarasota, Florida ravaged by global warming, destructive storms, and crumbling infrastructure in “We Are Not Insured Against Murder.” A literary publisher finds himself at the end of a rope—specifically, a noose—in John C. Boland’s “The Man Who Stole Trocchi.” A curious “curator” roaming Europe is unaware of the wolves at his heels in Stephen Ross’s “Gallery of the Dead.” And B. K. Stevens closes out her long-running series featuring Lieutenant Walt Johnson and Sergeant Gordon Bolt this month in “True Enough: Bolt’s Last Case.” To mark this transition, watch this blog space for the author’s reflections on her decision to say goodbye to one series and start another.

Plus we bring you a bit of espionage when radio producer Margo Banning visits a munitions factory in “Margo and the Locked Room” by Terence Faherty. John H. Dirckx, well known to AHMM readers for his Cyrus Auburn procedurals, translates and introduces this month’s Mystery Classic, “Justice by the Book” by Pedro de Alarcón. Finally, Robert C. Hahn introduces us to a new crop of bibliomysteries in his Booked & Printed column.

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