TOP OF THE POPS
by Rob Lopresti
For the second year in a row I am providing you lucky people with a list of the best short mysteries of the last 12-months, as determined by me using the highly objective, scientifically accurate, ILTB System.1
Before we get into the details let me point out there is an important bit of news at the very end of this piece. So if you decide to skim, don’ t miss that part.
I am delighted to report that 2010 was 21% better than 2009, as proven by the fact that 17 stories made my list, as opposed to 14 last time. Two authors repeated their triumphs: Loren D. Estleman and James Powell. Two stories were written by German authors. Seven tales came from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and four from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Two stories came from The Dark Side of the Street, an anthology edited by Jonathan Santlofer and S.J. Rozan. Two came from Akashic’ s Noir series, and two from Otto Penzler’ s spy extravaganza Agents of Deception..
And here are the categories of the stories, based on their main characters
- Criminal 5
Amateur detective 2
Private eye 1
With no further ado, here are the winners in alphabetical order:
Benton, Caroline. “A Small Technical Problem.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. May. Two TV writers argue about the plausibility of a plot device and decide to test it out. Unfortunately this requires burying someone alive… You are pretty sure that things are going to go pear-shaped, but you don’ t know to who, why, or how. And speaking of the “how,” well, if you’ re claustrophobic, just skip this one.
Block, Lawrence. “Who Knows Where It Goes.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The Grand Master offers a fiendish story of a hit man following a perfectly reasonable bit of management advice. Clever and chilling.
Child, Lee. “Section 7 (a) (Operational).” Agents of Treachery. I didn’ t think this story would make the best-of list, but I couldn’ t get it out of my head. The narrator, a shrewd and thoughtful man, is recruiting a group of operatives for a secret mission in Iran. A tricky story that deserves a reread.
Connelly, Michael. “The Perfect Triangle.” The Dark End of the Street. A stripper goes swimming and gets arrested for indecent exposure. I know; it sounds like a set-up for a joke. This story made the list partly because of the cleverness of the legal twist, but mostly because of two supposedly-opposing attorneys working together to hammer a piece of law into a rough semblance of justice.
Estleman, Loren D. “Death Without Parole.” Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. October. I like Estleman’ s stories of the Four Horsemen, AKA the Detroit Vice Squad during World War II. The Commissioner would like to fire them, but that would make them eligible for the draft, and the Horsemen are determined to stay in Motor City. In this episode they have to babysit a cop-killer who has been released on a technicality. The plot and background are terrific but best is the wonderfully snappy dialog, like this discussion between Judge Springer and Lieutenant Zagreb, the head of the squad.
“It was a stay of deportation, not a release. Can’ t you read?”
“If I knew there was a literacy test I’ d’ ve joined the Merchant Marine.”
“Don’ t give up the dream,” Springer said.
Gore, Stephen. “Three Strikes.” Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. November. When is murder a lesser crime than burglary and arson? When a convict and his lawyer roll the dice in a risky legal strategy. Because their scheme depends on a certain election going their way the judge dryly refers to the attorney’ s “co-counsel Mr. Gallup, Mr. Harris, Mr. Pew, and Ms. L.A. Times..”
Herron, Mick. “Mirror Images.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. June, I have to get around to reading some of Herron’ s novels. He writes about a pair of P.I.’ s in Oxford. Zoe Boehm is smart, cynical, and a computer whiz. Her husband Joe Silvermann is older. plodding, and empathetic. She’ s the brains, but he’ s the soul. In this story Joe tries to help a man who has become convinced there is something wrong about one of the his many murder victims. Murder victims? Well, it’ s complicated. And very funny.
Itell, Jennifer. “Inevitable.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. November. There is a broad term, experimental fiction, to describe any tale that strays too far from standard narrative style. If you go far enough in that direction you have what I say is not a story but an exercise. But Itell, to my mind, hits the mark precisely in this meditation on the ancient question of the perfect ending: how do you make the climax seem both surprising and inevitable? Her main character is a ghost writer who specializes in finishing books for struggling writers. When she meets a mysterious woman who seems fascinated with the writer’ s young child everything seems a little too perfect. Isn’ t it, well, inevitable that something goes wrong?
Law, Janice. “Madame Selina.” Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. June. This is not the best plot I read in 2010, but what a wonderful setting. At the end of the Civil War a boy gets hired out of an orphanage to be a spiritualist’ s assistant. Together they solve the whereabouts of a wealthy woman’ s missing soldier husband. I hope Law brings them back for an encore.
Lawton, John. “East of Suez, West of Charing Cross Road” Agents of Treachery. A funny and sadly plausible story of cold war craziness. Captain George Horsfield has a depressing dead end job in the British military, shipping pots and pans to army bases. His life gets interesting (and terrifying) when the Russians mistake him for a colonel with the same name who ships nuclear weapons. My favorite line is about the aftermath of the famous Profumo sex scandal: “Lord Denning had published his report entitled unambiguously ‘ Lord Denning’ s Report.’ ” Ah, those wacky Brits.
Lippman, Laura. “Tricks.” The Dark End of the Street. In lovely New Orleans a scoundrel prepares to marry his thirteenth wife. Obviously this is going to be a biter-bit story, but the details of the trap are clever and nicely set up..
Maddox, Lawrence. “Old, Cold Hand.” Orange County Noir. Maybe it’ s because of my job, but I’ m a sucker for stories about the seamy side of academia. It doesn’ t get much seamier than this one. Josh is a professor who spent years creating a documentary film about prisoners who survived decades in a maximum security pen. He’ s going to need everything he learned from the felons when his department chair blackmails him into helping to burgle the apartment of the chair’ s teenage lover. Wonderful use of language: “Nothing makes one feel more like a man than buying one’ s wife a nice house. Except banging twins in said house when wifey goes to spa.”
Merchant, Judith. “Monopoly.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. March/April. A one night stand with the wrong person can be a deadly mistake, as this German author demonstrates. Some stories need to be told in straight-line fashion. But this tale, with it’ s flashbacks and alcoholic blur, takes a series of clever detours.
Motz, Jutta. “The Clearing.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. August. Not quite a mystery. Not quite a crime story. Damned well done, whatever it is. An elderly man sees the authorities disinterring a skeleton at the German-Swiss border. In a series of flashbacks we learn about the event that changed his life..
Powell, James. “The Black Whatever.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. January. This story might be happier in a fantasy magazine. There’ s crime in it, but is it a crime story? Hmm…. But have you ever heard yourself complaining that the Christmas season starts earlier every year? Turns out it’ s part of a conspiracy, and you ain’ t seen nothing yet.
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. “The Case of the Vanishing Boy.” Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Rusch is one of the best authors of mystery shorts working today. This story manages to be a pastiche of any number of mystery traditions while being, at the same time, wholly original. Two heroes, known only by their nicknames, meet for what we can hope is the first of many adventures. Spade is a grossly overweight computer millionaire who uses his skills to manage the finances for science fiction conventions. Palladin is a beautiful young woman who takes a two-fisted approach to convention security. Can this relationship go anywhere? I want to read more and find out.
Yi, Melissa. “Indian Time.” Indian Country Noir. A Mohawk man gets out of jail and hopes to bond with his two young sons, but the white mother of his dead girlfriend doesn’ t want her grandsons polluted by native culture. The story is well-written but I kept wondering when and how the crime would show up. When it did, it caught me by surprise, even though – and this is what I love – I used the same gimmick in one of my stories.
A glutton for punishment
Apparently being part of two blogs is not enough for me, because I just started a new one. The mission of Little Big Crimes is a simple one: review the best mystery story I read each week. Drop by and maybe you’ ll see a preview of next year’s best-of list.