Review: The Case of the Stalking Shadow

Weird Detectives: Recent InvestigationsThe Case of the Stalking Shadow by Joe R. Lansdale

My Rating 3 of 5 stars

Writers of paranormal fiction have a tendency to distance the narrator from the story going all the way back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In Joe R. Lansdale’s short story our narrator recounts a tale he heard long ago from Detective Dana Roberts telling of her very first case spanning twenty years of her life and already a distant memory at its telling – a memory, of a story, of a memory, of a memory. It’s a convenient device to introduce a pre-packaged story without establishing context but lessens the drama. We know she will be fine, and most likely her cousin will be fine, because she is sharing this anecdote at a club in front of strangers.

The mystery itself recalls native folklore, and the dangers that lay in the ancient forests of the American deep south. Dana Roberts, as a young girl, spent her summers on her aunt’s homestead. She and her cousins would play games in the house and on the grounds, but she encountered something unnerving in those woods as a child which plagued her into adulthood. She and her closest cousin, the only one who shares her dread, return to investigate the woods to confront or dispel shadowy figure which haunts them still.

This story works best in the woods. Both through the encounter as a child and again as an adult, Lansdale is able to let the dread creep in. The quite anticipation and breathless flights feel authentic and familiar. The action works pretty well too, but there is a gimmick to the confrontation which simultaneously is too convenient but also not exploited to its fullest once introduced. I don’t think the layers and frames to the story are necessary. One concept underlined several times in the primary frame is that Detective Dana Roberts does not believe in magic or superstition, instead looking for scientific explanations. I think this could have been explored further or reinforced in the investigation. It is an intruiging inclusion to have the detective not only a skeptic, but a scientific meta-physician, only to leave that avenue unexplored.

The Case of the Stalking Shadow is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran.

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Review: The Necromancer’s Apprentice

Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations
The Necromancer’s Apprentice by Lillian Stewart Carl

My Rating 2 of 5 stars

Court rumors name Lord Robert Dudley as Queen Elizabeth I’s choice for husband and King Regent of England; the only obstacle is that Lord Dudley is already married. When the Lady Dudley falls to her death, assistant magician and alchemist Dr. Erasmus Pilbeam and his apprentice Martin Molesworth take the case to determine if the death was an accident, or if a plot, by whom. The investigation essentially boils down to Pilbeam spouting a continual stream of insults towards his feckless assistant Molesworth, raising the spirit of Lady Dudley and asking her what happened. When they uncover that a plot did in fact exist all investigation then stops. Without further evidence they conjecture possible motives without questioning the actual minions who facilitated the crime, pin it to an adversary, and call the case closed. With the lack of actual detective work and Pilbeam’s unlikeable nature (and increasingly absurd insults) I can’t find much to recommend.

The Necromancer’s Apprentice is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran.

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Review: Cryptic Coloration

Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations
Cryptic Coloration by Elizabeth Bear

My Rating 2 of 5 stars

We are introduced to Junior Professor Matthew Szczegielniak through the observations of three of his freshman, female students as he is playing a pick-up basketball game in New York City. He is covered in tattoos and piercings with a short blond ponytail and sculpted physique. The hastily sketched girls are entranced by his mysterious beauty and set aside all scholastic ambition to tail him and learn the secrets of his extra-curricular life. When he bolts from his office hours and directly towards a scene of an apparent suicide we discover he has some magical ability and is potentially a regional warden of New York in a group called the Prometheans and has allies within the police force. I often enjoy being thrown into a story in medias res, but eventually I have an expectation that answers are coming. Through all the colorful language and descriptive physicality I never got a sense who these people were, how the world worked or a functional understanding of the magical system employed. I am new to Elizabeth Bear’s work, but her name has been on my “to read” list for some time. Perhaps these characters and settings are part of a larger narrative from her full length novels, but here I never found my footing or a reason to care for the characters. The magical menace was revealed to be the exact creature Matthew anticipated upon his initial analysis of the crime scene. Despite this we never get a full picture why it could only be this creature and only get scraps of physical description, origin and capabilities as the conclusion is in sight. We either were with Matthew who felt no need to speak about his knowledge aloud or with his stumbling students would were too removed from the scene to ask necessary questions to educate the reader. Ultimately this was very frustrating because it seems clear that Elizabeth Bear knows the world and creatures but never gave us a view point to understand it.

Cryptic Coloration is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran.

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Review: The Case of Death and Honey

Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations
The Case of Death and Honey by Neil Gaiman

My Rating 5 of 5 stars

I love Sherlock Holmes and after so many books, movies and television series it is a special treat to read a unique Sherlock Holmes story which adds to the cannon in so many brilliant ways. The marvelous Neil Gaiman provides us with a rare first person point of view, albeit in the form of a letter to John Watson, from the pen of a retired, aging Sherlock Holmes as he visits his brother’s death bed. With all of the bickering and condensation between the brothers over their long history it is heartbreaking to see Sherlock’s acknowledgement of Mycroft’s greatness and the tremendous weight of his loss. (Pun intended) Mycroft’s passing ignites a passion in Holmes to answer one of the greatest mysteries of mankind. I will not flirt with spoilers or the nature of the investigation, which Neil Gaiman so expertly weaves through the alternating point of view of an elderly Chinese beekeeper and Holmes’ journal entries. At a scant 13 pages, The Case of Death and Honey is exquisitely sharp of focus and is a worthy chapter in the history of the world’s greatest detective.

The Case of Death and Honey is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran.

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Review: Love Hurts

Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations
Love Hurts by Jim Butcher

My Rating 5 of 5 stars

Jim Butcher is one of my favorite authors and his character Harry Dresden is one of the truly great characters in genre fiction. Due to my familiarity it is difficult to objectively review this short story. At just 22 pages Jim is able to artfully introduce Harry Desden, Consulting Wizard Detective, and Sargent Karrin Murphy, Chicago Special Investigations officer. As their investigation begins Harry reaches out to all of his usual contacts and haunts. In so doing Jim Butcher is able to provide a network of characters, places and methods. Although this is written following the 14th book in the Dresden Files, Butcher can effortlessly acclimate the reader to his world and characters. Through Harry and Karrin’s interactions we see their comfort, respect and affection. This is a sweet story with a self-contained mystery which provides a little tease to the longtime fans who may have wished to see the pair in the more intimate light that this road trip story provides. This is a fun story for new and longtime fans alike.

Love Hurts is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran, and is also collected in Jim Butcher’s Side Jobs.

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Review: The Adakian Eagle

Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations
The Adakian Eagle by Bradley Denton

My Rating 3 of 5 stars

Set in the Aleutian Islands during World War II, Bradley Denton brings an unique setting and mysticism to his paranormal detective short story The Adakian Eagle. Our protagonist is a private in the army, stationed on Adak island which is home to both army and navy outposts. He is ordered by his lieutenant colonel to investigate an unsettling scene, high on the mountain, which appears to indicate animal sacrifice and potentially more disturbing crimes. The resulting investigation involves political intrigue, native mysticism, and tests the private’s commitment to truth and duty. The writing does not flow naturally and perhaps is trying to imitate the terse cadence of noir detective stories, but initially reduced my enjoyment. I think the choice of location and timing was an inspired decision which setup a lot of thoughtful tension and intersecting motives. The twists and turns of the investigation seemed logical and earned, and ultimately delivered a nice complex back story, character development and resolution.

The Adakian Eagle is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran.

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Review: The Nightside, Needless to Say

Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations
The Nightside, Needless to Say by Simon R. Green

My Rating 1 of 5 stars

The Nightside, Needless to Say starts with a promising setting and a perfect setup for a mystery. In an alternate London (where it is always 3am and the streets are wet with rain); Private Detective Larry Oblivion wakes in a seedy hotel room, recently deceased, with no recollection of the past three days.  What should then burst off the page as a noir thriller with the detective investigating his own murder, instead stumbles through cliches, awkward exposition and tone deaf dialogue.

     Max ignored her, his gaze fixed on me.”Provide me with one good reason why I shouldn’t have you both killed for this impertinence?”
     “How About: You already killed me? Or haven’t you noticed that I only breathe when I talk?”
     Max studied me thoughtfully. “Yes. You are dead. You have no aura. I wish I could claim credit, but alas, it seems someone else has beaten me to it. And besides, if I wanted you dead, you’d be dead and gone, not hanging around to trouble me.”
     “He’s right,” I said to Maggie. “Max is famous for never leaving loose ends.”

The Nightside, Needless to Say is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran.

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Review: The Key

Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations
The Key by Ilsa J. Bick

My Rating 3 of 5 stars

The Key breaks many conventions of the Urban Fantasy genre. Paranormal detective is certainly the most successful subgenre , but typically it is the detective who embodies the supernatural element. In Ilsa Bick’s short story, Detective Saunders is just a good cop and a detective with an open mind. In another deviation, rather than vampires, werewolves and wizards, Bick pulls from the Judaic tradition for her mysticism. The result is a grounded crime story with a fresh feel and ancient pedigree.

The Key is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran.

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