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Posts Tagged ‘short stories’

SLEEP NO MORE by P. D. James: Book Review

Three and a half years after P. D. James’ death her estate has given her readers six short stories to delight us.  Sleep No More, these previously unpublished “murderous tales” as the jacket cover calls them, are quite different from the late author’s novels, but they are as engaging and engrossing as any of them.

Several of the stories are set in the Golden Age of mysteries, the decades starting in the 1920s and ending in the 1940s, when Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, and G. K. Chesterton wrote their most famous books.  Baroness James of Holland Park, to give P. D. James the title bestowed on her in 1991, didn’t start writing until after the Golden Age had passed, but two of the stories have dates that put them in the decades when the so-called classic mysteries were being written, and the four others in this collection are non-specific enough to have been set in that era as well.

Baroness James’ wry sense of humor is evident in “The Murder of Santa Claus,” a story told in the first person by a “workmanlike” writer of detective stories.  Charles Mickeldore knows he’s not a first-class author like, in his words, “Dick Francis…not even a P. D. James.”  His amateur detective, the Honorable Martin Carstairs, is considered by some critics to be a “pallid copy” of Lord Peter Wimsey, but Mickeldore is successful enough to support himself as a writer.  “The Murder of Santa Claus” takes place in a 17th-century manor house in 1939, with the required assortment of eccentric guests.  There’s a housekeeper, the very strange uncle of the narrator, an air force pilot, a sexy actress, and the elderly couple who used to own the house.  It’s the perfect Golden Age setting.

“Mr. Millcroft’s Birthday” is a tale of two warring generations that pits an elderly man’s wishes against those of his son and daughter.  His children are certain they know what housing is best for him; the fact that the housing they choose is gloomy and not at all what he wants doesn’t bother them as it’s substantially less expensive than his choice.  Matters come to a head as the three celebrate his birthday with a picnic lunch, at which surprise after surprise is revealed.

All six narratives are written in the elegant style for which Ms. James was famous.  Whether told in the first person or in the third, the  storyline captures the reader immediately.  Sleep No More is an unexpected and totally welcome treat, as enjoyable as the author’s famous Adam Dalgliesh novels.

You can read more about the late P. D. James at my Past Masters and Mistresses section.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


THE MYSTERY BOX edited by Brad Meltzer: Book Review

I’m usually not a huge fan of short series, generally finding them less satisfying than novels.    The exception to this is the Sherlock Holmes canon of stories, which I think are greatly superior to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s full-length books.  So I picked up The Mystery Box not expecting to be overwhelmed by the contents.  But I was wrong, very wrong.

Several of the authors were familiar to me (Jan Burke, Laura Lippman, Joseph Finder), while others were  new to me (C. E. Lawrence, Mary Anne Kelly).  But each story was a gem, perfectly written and totally satisfying.

The unifying theme of the collection is given away in the title–no mystery there.  Every story had to contain a mystery box.  What the box contained was obviously up to each author.

I’ll start with Jan Buke’s “The Amiable Miss Edith Montague,” the first story in the collection.  The narrator’s great-aunt, Miss Edith Montague, has been murdered.  Very wealthy and popular with all the people in the town, she raised the narrator after the death of his parents.  She was so generous with her time and money that no one seems to have benefited by her death…except for the person whose secret lay in the box and who killed to protect it.

Then there’s “Heirloom” by Joseph Finder.  An ordinary middle-aged couple is invited to the home of their new neighbors, a young and wealthy couple who bought the house next door to them on Nantucket.  No sooner does the older couple arrive for a barbecue than the husband starts inserting sly remarks into the conversation about the many problems the house has and why it took so long for it to be sold.  And no, the heirloom in the title refers not to jewels or valuable manuscripts but to tomatoes!  You’ll have to read the story to find out why.

The final story of the twenty-one is probably the funniest short story I’ve ever read.  “Remmy Rothstein Toes the Line (annotated)” by Karin Slaughter is so clever, so unexpected, so wild…I’m stumped for how to describe it.  I’ll simply say that it’s a story about an adjudicator for a records-setting book trying to re-establish herself as reliable after an episode she refers to only as “the domino debacle.”

Remmy Rothstein is attempting to set a new world record for the Longest Tongue in the World (man)–I kid you not.  The story’s characters include Mindy Patel, the adjudicator; Remmy Rothstein, aka the Cajun Jew, trying to get into the world book of records; his one-legged albino African-American half-brother, Buell Rabinowitz; and their incredibly foul-mouthed mother, Rebekkah.  Oh yes, and the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, is a “character” essential to the story.  And about the mystery box in this story?  Read it and cringe.

I’ve described only three stories in The Mystery Box, leaving you to discover the other eighteen on your own.  Brad Meltzer did a fabulous job in bringing this group of authors together for our reading pleasure.  In addition to enjoying the contents of this collection, an added plus is discovering new authors to add to our reading lists.  I know I’ve added to mine.

You can read more about Brad Meltzer at this web page.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.








HIT ME by Lawrence Block: Book Review

It can’t be easy to make a hired killer, an assassin, a sympathetic character to the reader.  But Lawrence Block has been doing it for more than twenty years.

Hit Me is a collection of several short stories following Keller, now known as Nicholas Edwards.  He and his wife Julia have relocated from New York to New Orleans with their toddler daughter Jenny, and Keller thought he was out of the killing business permanently.

In the first story he gets a call from Dot, the woman who gives Keller his assignments, asking about his interest in going to Dallas to eliminate a man.  Dot, like Keller, thought she had retired from the business, but when she reentered it she phoned Keller to find out if he too has had a change of heart.  It seems he has, as his formerly flourishing rehab business in the Crescent City has slowed considerably due to the economic downturn.  In addition, Keller has been planning on traveling to Dallas to attend a stamp collecting auction.  When Dot hears this she calls the coincidence “the hand of Providence.”  Well, I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.

Hit Me takes Keller all over, from New Orleans to Dallas to New York City to an ocean liner in the Caribbean to Denver to Cheyenne and finally Buffalo.  It seems that the business of killing people is as remunerative as always, especially for a man who knows his work.

Of course, Keller’s victims are always unpleasant people, although it may be a stretch to say that they all need to be killed.  But a man has to do what a man has to do, doesn’t he?

In the third story in the book, “Keller at Sea,” Keller’s wife Julia becomes an accomplice in her husband’s line of work.  She has obviously suspected something about what he does when he’s away from home, and now it has become clear to her.  But as she tells him, “I know what you do, and I don’t entirely know how I feel about it, but I don’t seem to mind.  I honestly don’t.”  Keller obviously picked the right woman to marry.  And help him she does.

Lawrence Block is an incredibly prolific author.  Although he has written only four previous novels featuring Keller, he is the author of eighteen Matt Scudder novels, ten Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries, eight Evan Tanner books, four featuring Chip Harrison, plus stand-alone novels, short stories, books for writers, and a memoir.  And that’s not the complete list of his works.

I read in a recent article that Mr. Block is contemplating retiring from the writing profession.  Let’s hope he, like his protagonist Keller, has a change of heart.

Spending the day with a hit man may seem like a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure it is.  Lawrence Block’s writing grabs you and doesn’t let you go.  You certainly wouldn’t want to meet Keller on a professional basis, but in a book he’s fascinating.

You can find out more about him at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at this web site.