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: The Devil You Know

The Devil You Know
The Devil You Know by Mike Carey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mike Carey’s The Devil You Know will feel familiar to fans of The Dresden Files but works with a subtler magical system and is more focused on the detective work. Felix “Fix” Castor is a necromancer in modern London who works as an independent exorcist. He starts, in a typical fashion, as a sullen loner who is not exactly honorable, but lives by a personal code. His talent with ghosts is to enchant them with music, preferably from his tin whistle which he carries as his only weapon. He plays a song which describes the spirit in detail. The song reflects the emotional truth of the ghost and its binding to the Earth. He envelops and intertwines with the spirit until they become one with the song, and when he stops the ghost is gone. This is the conflict in Fix, his focus is fine-tuned to the specifics. This is how an exorcist becomes a detective, by describing the ghost he becomes intimately aware of the spirit, including how this person came to die and the nature of its haunting; he is decidedly not focusing on his role in the transaction and the bigger picture. Fix is an atheist and believes in the aspects of the supernatural that he has experienced. There are ghosts which can be bound and unbound from this plane, but he does not investigate the larger magical framework. If there are ghosts, is there a soul? There are demons, is there a god – a devil? When he banishes them, where do they go – Is there a heaven or hell? I think these questions are probably the overall arc of the series, but at this point Felix Castor will not see the forest for the trees.

In tone the language is sharp and witty. Mike Carey is very aware of the expectations of the reader and toys with them – commenting on obvious jokes, acknowledging cultural references. But where the tone is light, the subject is quite dark. I can read about all forms of paranormal violence without effect but I am sensitive to human cruelty, and most of the violence is all too human and involves human trafficking and torture. I’m sure this is a conversation more fit for a therapist’s couch, but if a demon had been responsible for the same acts I probably wouldn’t have batted an eye. I am a big fan of detective stories and the case is thoughtfully laid out with many of the clues and loose threads woven throughout so that a careful reader can actively engage in the mystery. That aspect, along with the voice of the protagonist, definitely have be on board for a second book in the series, but the nature of the human crimes might be too much for me if the investigations don’t take a turn toward the larger supernatural questions this story raised.

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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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Review: Aloha from Hell

Aloha from Hell
Aloha from Hell by Richard Kadrey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Absurd but fun, Kadrey must be an interesting guy to have drinks with. I enjoy these books, but mostly because of attitude and audacity than for great writing or character development. The universe of Sandman Slim is a unique and creative take on the mythologies we know and have grown up with. I enjoy the world building here as he reveals the framework of reality and politics of the greater realms. Plot-wise it feels like we are hanging on by our fingernails, and it feels like Richard Kadrey is white knuckled right beside us. It is hard to blame him for all the deus ex machina when gods are literally active participants in the plot lines. There are other head scratching moments, such as when Sandman Slim is separated into his mortal and angel selves, the mortal version manifests a gladius in front of the legions of hell. But, this isn’t the type of series that you chart and map, and debate minutia. It is meant to be a fun ride, and in that regard it succeeds.

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Review: Skin Game

Skin Game
Skin Game by Jim Butcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Harry’s character arc is one of the most impressive feats in genre fiction. It is why I adore this series, and Skin Game is no exception. Harry continues to develop as a man, father, friend, mentor, leader, and protector. He continues to learn from his mistakes, learns to trust others, begins to allow others into his life and become vulnerable to them. Jim Butcher does a superb job reweaving aspects of previous stories into the narrative, enriching the fabric. The majority of this story is a caper which is seemingly divorced from the primary foreboding conflict in the series, but does serve to complete Harry’s return to Chicago, friends and family and to acknowledge and nudge the story back toward the conflict revealed in Cold Days. Butcher gives each character a moment to shine, to reveal themselves and the growth they have experienced since we last saw them. No one is static in this universe, and that is unique and rewarding.

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