by James Lincoln Warren
Not for the first time, we Criminal Briefers have a hat trick on our hands: no fewer than three of us have stories in the current issues of magazines (four if you count John and Woman’s World and his ongoing book tour for his collection, Clockwork—and can Deborah be far behind?). But what we have here is what I might call the Three L’s, by which I refer not to a Chinese pidgin take on the educational basics, but actually to Law, Lopresti, and Lundin.
The Gentle Reader is probably already aware that Leigh Lundin has a short story in the current Ellery Queen and Rob Lopresti and Janice Law both have stories in this month’s Alfred Hitchcock, but in preparation for this column, I have been strangely mute where I normally would be full of ebullient praise for my cohorts. That’s because I wanted to take some time and give the G. R. more information about these stories than a mere friendly pat on the back to their gifted authors. The averred purpose of this website, after all, is to promote crime fiction short stories in general and the works of our contributors in particular, especially since none of them gets paid for sharing his or her insights here. There’s got to be a payoff somewhere, and by payoff, I mean check.
So I am pulling on the old Steve Steinbock mask over my Adonis-like countenance this week and acting as critic. This is not something I usually do, since it is my inflexible policy never to be critical of the works of living authors in any public forum, especially since I selfishly don’t want any of them to be critical of my work in public, either. In this case, however, the issue arises not. For behold, I’m going to write about wonderful things.
“English” by Leigh Lundin
Of all of us here at CB, Leigh has the fewest credits as an author of mystery fiction, but the few stories he has had published have all been at the highest end of the mystery genre market. This is always an indication of quality.
Only four stories, so far. But all four have a couple things in common. First, there’s Leigh’s irrepressible penchant for word play. But more importantly, there’s a thematic consistency.
What theme is that, the G. R. may innocently inquire? Well, I’ve noticed that Leigh doesn’t write so much about crime as he writes about injustice.
“English” amply illustrates the point. It begins with a flat exemplification of ethnic prejudice.
“English,” the junior assistant snarled at the hapless customer. “Speak American.”
The hapless customer in this case is a character named Salem. He is described through dialogue as being dark-skinned, maybe a Mexican or Portuguese or Eskimo or Turkish. Now those of you attuned to Biblical verse like me may wonder at the name Leigh chose for this character—it’s a Semitic name, a Latinization of the Hebrew shalom, hence the Arabic “salaam” and the Arabic male name “Selim” or “Salim”: “Peace”. Peaceful, perhaps, by literal definition, but to any American, the name immediately and inevitably evokes the Massachusetts town infamous for its 17th century witch trials, representing a virtual epitome of the destructive power of ignorance and prejudice. In the Bible, it’s the original name of another town that later became known under a longer name, viz., Jerusalem, the holy city of three religions. (“Jeru-salem” is thought by some scholars to mean “place of peace”.) In Genesis, Salem is the meeting place of the patriarch Abram (later Abraham) and the High Priest Melchizidek after the rescue of Abram’s kidnapped family from the Sodomites. The character of Melchizidek plays an important role in both Jewish and Christian theology, where he represents the divine nature of righteousness.
I don’t know if Leigh intended this connection or not, but given the multiple meanings of Leigh’s title, it is fitting either way.
Too much depth to attribute to a story ostensibly about bowling, you might think. But of course, Leigh’s story isn’t really about bowling at all, it’s about a rescue, also in more than one sense—but to say more about the plot would be a spoiler. Suffice to say that the ethnic injustice with which the tale commences is roundly (excuse the pun) defeated by righteousness, and peace is restored. I might just add that this story doesn’t so much end with a twist as with a spin.
“Why” by Robert Lopresti
Rob once told me that the impetus for writing his stories frequently manifests itself as an image in his mind, either real or imagined, sans any context—the story gets written to provide the image with one. The last couple of images I remember in his work were a street percussionist and a dwarf attacking a giant, whence flowed uncommon tales. (Janice also recently wrote about this not uncommon phenom of an image driving plot among us scribblers; something, alas, that happens very rarely to me.) There are no particularly unusual images in this intense little opus, but the off-beat approach that characterizes Rob’s work is in full evidence. The image is one that is familiar to anybody who watches the evening news. But there’s an exchange in the story that utterly drips with Rob’s special patented brand of irony:
Stevens raised his hands helplessly. “For Pete’s sake, why?”
Poley shook his head. “Motive,” he said, “is overrated.”
There’s a school of mystery fiction, often called “Contemporary British” after its best-known practitioners P. D. James and Ruth Rendell, which concerns itself more with the aftermath of a criminal act than with its resolution; in other words, the story has much more to do with how the crime changes all the lives around it than it has to do with how the crime is solved. In a fabulous twist on this idea, Rob has produced a story that is just the opposite: it shows how a heinous crime may change nothing at all, but may instead serve to reinforce the status quo of our own self-centered perceptions. The answer may be that there is no answer at all.
This is unusually nihilistic, especially for Rob, who is a gentle soul, but the story has Rob’s fingerprints and DNA and retinal scans all over it. First off, there’s Rob’s unmistakable narrative voice, objective and straightforward, leading the reader blithely right into a sucker punch. But primarily there is starkly in evidence what I regard as Rob’s favorite theme: Things are never what they seem.
“Enemies” by Janice Law
There is a persistent myth that the hallowed halls of academe are detached from the “real world”, that they float in celestial suspension like Valhalla over the trials and tribulations of the suffering masses below. Of course this is nonsense. Universities are a fundamental part of modern life, and are as rampant with politics, petty jealousies, and cutthroat competition as any advertising agency or real estate office. Just ask our pal Hamilton Waymire, who is a professor in a world-class university here in SoCal.
Above I wrote about the meaning of a character’s name, and here Janice has had a little fun along the same lines. At the heart of this sinister little story is an intense rivalry between two professors of literature, Wallace L. Ivery and Peter Havermeyer Turkott III. Another name for the academic world familiar to us all is “the Ivory Tower”, with its strong connotations of separation from the hardships of everyday existence, a Panglossian intellectual insulation. Here we have the Ivery Tower, as it were, and it would be difficult to conceive of a man more buttoned-down—his specialty is the Victorians—and egocentrically isolated than Wallace. He’s so well adapted to the conventions of University custom that he has the ecological niche of a koala. His rival Turkott is every thing that he is not, and is equally representative of that breed of radical professors that regularly pop up on cable news, the kind who regard teaching as a species of baroque intellectual theatre, and for whom wreaking havoc among the staid and conventional is a form of performance art. There’s a name for guys like him, very frequently applied specifically to newfangled professors, derived from the 1908 revolt against Ottoman rule in Turkey led by Mestafa Kemal Ataturk. He’s a Young Turk. Delicious.
Wit has many forms, but it’s at its best when it evidences a peculiar slyness, and that’s what makes “Enemies” memorable. Janice is always adept at describing undercurrents, especially those rip tides that pull you under, and there’s a scene in this story that takes this idea quite literally. The action takes place over winter, a season of death and stillness, and this is also not an accident, metaphorically describing not only the crime, but its motivation as well.
What really makes this story work, though, is the tone of the narrative. Thinking of Turkott, Ivery turns to his own expertise, at once displaying both erudition and ignorance:
How did he hate Turkott? Let us count the ways.
He dressed like a stevedore, for one. Not that Wallace had ever seen a stevedore up close . . .
The devil may be in the details, but a tale is really in the telling, as most professors of literature would likely agree. And nobody tells them better.
So that’s it for now. If you don’t subscribe to Queen or Hitch, you should, for there are many other treasures than these to be found between their covers. If you can’t subscribe, then run out to the local newsstand and demand copies of both.
Mystery short stories. That’s what I’m talking about.