Rock and a Hard Place magazine issue 1

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Rock and a Hard Place

Edited by Jay Butkowski, Jonathan Elliott, and Roger Nokes — The launch of a new magazine for short crime fiction is something to celebrate. A number of popular crime magazines have gone under in recent years, but hope springs eternal and the three editors behind Rock and a Hard Place are hoping their formula is one that will stick.

Issue one contains 16 short stories, two flash entries, a poem, essay and photo essay all on the theme of desperation in our current moment. All is not OK according to the editors, who believe that these tales of people in desperate situations are compassionate and real. In the last several years, quite a few other crime magazine editors – especially in the United States – have also made the choice to go dark, to focus on people at the bottom of the social heap. The editors of Rock and a Hard Place did because, they say, “…staring at the darkness we can see something that might resemble truth.”

If you’re not a fan of cosy mysteries with their sometimes too-easily-arrived-at resolutions, then this premise may hold appeal. At the same time, it can be more interesting to see how people behave when they have real choices and make them, good or bad. Characters too benighted to see or act on what’s in front of them are pretty much a downer, for my taste.

Here are some of the stories in this inaugural issue that I particularly enjoyed, starting with SJ Rozan’s funny ‘Sister of Mercy,’ about a nun with an unusual and peculiarly useful calling. Kathleen Kilpatrick’s ‘Ghost Tribe’ about albino children in Tanzania raised interesting questions about identity and fitting in, especially in traditional societies. If you have doubts about the likely effectiveness of Donald Trump’s Mexican wall, read Alex Skopic’s ‘Los Renacidos’ for yet another demonstration of the old adage, where there’s a will, there’s a way. The title, which I believe means something like ‘the reborn’ suggests how deeply some people want to come to the United States and why they will do almost anything to achieve that goal, wall or no wall.

In ‘Chlorine,’ Al Tucher’s recurring character, the prostitute Diana, unexpected encounters an employer from her high school days who wants her to go back in time. Several memorable characters in SA Cosby’s ‘The Anchors That Tie Us Down’ encounter a bit of that compassion the magazine’s editors are aiming for. You’ll chuckle over the reversal of fortune faced by a pair of young grifters in Allan Leverone’s ‘A Town Full of Losers.’ Finally, Jacqueline Seewald’s ‘Against the Odds’ pits a gambler against his compulsions. He thinks, ‘It was like looking into an open grave and knowing it waited for you.’ Choices.

Not all of the stories appealed to me, and I abandoned one or two partway through. But that’s OK. The appetite for darkness isn’t the same for everyone or the same on every day. Rock and a Hard Place is a notable first effort for a publication worth watching.

The authors in this issue of the magazine have roots in Argentina, Scotland, Canada, and the US. They’ve been published in numerous print and online venues, and several are award-winners.

Other short story collections we’ve admired lately include The Best American Mystery Stories 2018, guest edited by Louise Penny, and a strong entry in Akashic Books’ place-based noir series, Milwaukee Noir, edited by Tim Hennessey.

Rock and a Hard Place

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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