When you’re not in the mood to tackle a whole novel, reading a short story or two, or 12, can fill the bill. This new Crimeucopia collection from Murderous Ink Press titled We’ll Be Right Back – After This! is a good one to keep on hand for just those situations. Mostly set in the United States, the tales are wide-ranging and twisty. Several display a good bit of humour, a couple are on the cozy side while some aim for noir. On this downmarket national tour, we start on the West Coast.
Blood on the Stairs by Jim Guigli is about down-at-heel private eye Bart Lasiter of Sacramento, California. A woman dies on the stairway, apparently on her way to his second-floor office. She was fatally stabbed by one of Bart’s promotional pencils, bearing the painfully ironic slogan, ‘I’m ready to help’. The woman was an out-of-towner, attending an annual Crime Happens conference for crime writers and readers. You can tell Guigli has paid his dues at such events by the way he describes the conference goings-on. Posturing, promoting, back-biting – it’s all there. Lasiter and a police detective named McGill, who’s working the case, have an uneasy but bantering relationship and exchange clever lines. The story moves along steadily toward the deadline they face – solving the murder before the conference ends and the participants scatter across the country.
Where, if the other stories in this collection are any indication, more crimes await.
Southern California also weighs in, when a canny dad realises where two nine-year-olds have disappeared to and sets out to rescue them in the story Learning Vocabulary with the Jence Brothers by Bob Ritchie. You reach the middle of the country in Michael Wiley’s All that Glitters, in which a PI discovers that a legendary ruby supposedly stolen from a Chicago museum is the motive for murder. Meanwhile, in A Jewelled Anniversary by Cate Moyle, a cozy mystery set in Nashville, a ruby-coloured drink features in an event planner’s worry about another woman’s disappearance. Her concerns turn out to be valid, but not for the reason she thinks.
Cruel as the Grave by Eve Fisher is a story about relationships – bad ones, of course – set in a remote rural area of South Dakota. The story has so many twists and turns, I didn’t see the end coming at all. Three women are involved, with one, Jackie, the pivot around which the other two revolve. A lawyer and a hedonist, they’re uneasy with each other and for good reason. The hedonist is on the run ever since the recent murder of her lover. South Dakota’s wide-open plains make a bleak winter even bleaker, and Jackie’s house seems the perfect place to hide out. Local South Dakota police are busy muddling up the situation too. What I really liked about Fisher’s story were the unexpected motivations of the characters that made the ending so believable.
Farther south, you’ll find two stories set in New Orleans. The unique charms of the Crescent City affect both of them. Cold Eyes, Cold Blood by Glen Bush involves a hit man and a triple cross, while Deadly Sideshow by JT Seate is a noir pastiche set in 1949. In it, a cop seeks justice – and a juicy mistress – through methods not taught at the Police Academy.
When we hit the east coast, we find a Massachusetts PI helping a wealthy family to find out what happened to a missing brother in Edward Lodi’s Under the Table (I liked the local touches, including the cranberry bogs); and in Syracuse, New York, in 1924, an insurance fraud investigation uncovers the solution to a string of robberies in The Devil’s Accountant by Michele Bazan Reed. In both stories, a cruel sort of justice is achieved.
Three of the stories originated outside the United States. In A Long Dark Road, by Canadian author Joan Hall Hovey, an elderly widow traveling a lonely road at night meets an unexpected fate. Yorkshire author Madeleine McDonald writes about a spurned woman who frames her errant lover for her own death in Watching Over You.
Finally, Memindip Solves a Problem by Jay Andrew Connor takes place in an unnamed African country. Memindip seems to be a ghost returning to avenge a wrongful death. He appears one evening in a jazz club where a beautiful woman sings. The lights go out. A shot. The lights come on, the singer is dead. The atmosphere of the seedy club, the heat of the crowded city, and especially the tenor of Memindip’s conversations with his taxi driver reinforce the story’s foreign locale. Memindip discovers that the singer wasn’t killed by a bullet, but a good-sized pearl. I found this such a riveting image – could it actually work? – that the story will stay with me for a long time. The police commandant makes a half-hearted attempt to pin the crime on Memindip who, after all, is a little odd and has trouble explaining himself, but gets nowhere. Meanwhile, Memindip has his own agenda, pursuing the justice the gods intend. A charming tale.
Altogether, the variety of the plots, the writing styles, the settings and time periods keeps each story in We’ll Be Right Back – After This! feeling fresh and very entertaining.
Also see O, Swear Not by the Moon, a full short story on our site by Jill D Block, daughter of acclaimed short-form writer Lawrence Block.
Murderous Ink Press
CFL Rating: 4 Stars