Thursday, July 30, 2009

On a Raven's Wing

One of several anthologies that's out this year in honor of the Poe bicentennial, this is from the Mystery Writers of America, and is edited by Stuart Kaminsky. Obviously, the focus is on mystery, and sometimes it's quite imaginative.

Each story wraps itself around Poe in some way or another...either about Poe in some way, or a variation on one of his stories, or simply borrowing heavily from Poe's content and putting an original spin on it.

So for the usual rundown...

"Israfel" by Doug Allyn gives us a Poe-themed rock group, with a lead guitarist who's quickly burning out, and a narrator who's not about to let things go down the tubes. It has a nifty ending that packs a punch.

Michael A. Black's "The Golden Bug" is an interesting cross-pollination of Poe's "The Gold Bug" with Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS, set on a Pacific island during WWII. Maybe not the greatest story, but a well-done concept.

Jon L. Breen's "William Allan Wilson" is interesting; a tale of a Poe bicentennial collection, with a cipher embedded in a story that's a clue to a real murder (that is, real in the context of the story). Rather beguiling, but in the end rather unmemorable.

"The Tell-Tale Purr" by Mary Higgins Clark is more humor than anything else, a tale of an attempted murder that not only goes wrong, but ends up turning situations around in the most bizarre way. I have to say, it functions better as a short story than some other shorts that MHC has written; she's really improved her grasp of the form.

"Nevermore" by Thomas H. Cook gives us a tale of family secrets unburied, as a dying man seeks to communicate a guilty secret to his estranged adult son, with struggles between loyalty and anger, faith and reason, running throughout.

"Emily's Time" by Dorothy Salisbury Davis, is at first unsatisfying, but after a second read, it's a few steps short of being brilliant. It's great from a literary standpoint, as well as a mystery standpoint, and (I hate to say it) almost too good for this collection, where the emphasis is on solid genre work. A variation on Poe's "The Black Cat," it deals with loneliness and guilt, but with wonderfully rendered emotions and settings.

Brendan DuBois's "The Cask of Castle Island" isn't bad, basically a retelling of "The Cask of Amontillado" in modern-day Boston, although it could be faulted for being a bit too faithful to its source. "Bells" by James W. Hall expounds on the poem with a tale of a man plotting against his wife with the titular objects, only to have his plan unravel. Not bad, not great.

"In My Ancestor's Image" is part of Jeremiah Healey's Rory Calhoun series. Calhoun, a private eye, is hired to locate a stolen Edgar award by a putative descendant of Poe. Not bad, if a bit self-referential about the Mystery Writers of America.

"The Poe Collector" by the late Edward D. Hoch is great fun, a delicious tale of con and detection. "A Nomad of the Night" by Rupert Holmes (as in Broadway's "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" and "Curtains," yes, that Rupert Holmes) effectively evokes the atmosphere of low-budget filmmaking in the 60s. And I love that title.

My favorite story of the bunch was editor Stuart Kaminsky's contribution, "Rattle, Rattle, Rattle," a full-blown gothic horror tale that expands on Poe's "Berenice." Very good fun.

Paul Levine's "Development Hell" is something I've seen before, a comedy about Hollywood and deals with the devil. Didn't thrill me much. Peter Lovesey's "The Deadliest Tale of All" isn't much of a mystery, but a decent dissection of Poe's character and a posthumous kick in the teeth to Rufus Griswold.

John Lutz's "Poe, Poe, Poe" was my least favorite; it actually read like a transcribed one-act play by a first-time playwright. It's overpopulated with characters who all have overly cute variations on names of Poe characters, all gathered in a tavern. Not worth it.

"The Tell-Tale Pacemaker" by P. J. Parrish, is another modernized retelling, in this case "The Tell-Tale Heart" transported to a modern retirement community.

"Seeing the Moon" by S. J. Rozan is my second-favorite of the book. It's got appealing and well-etched characters (Asian-American art experts) and a great tale of con and counter-con, as victims of an art scam seek to recoup their losses with a return scam, involving a Poe artifact. It makes me want to seek out more of Rozan's work.

Daniel Stashower's "Challenger" was a nostalgic variation on "Annabel Lee," only with ugly real-world twists. Another bit of nostalgia, "Poe, Jo, and I" by Don Winslow, is well-written enough but simply not a mystery. It's simply a narrator's tribute to a teacher Who Really Cared and Connected With Him and all that.

Finally, Angela Zeman's "Rue Morgue Noir" is an amusing fantasia on what it would be like for Poe if he were trying to make it as a writer today. It's not pretty.

Overall, even though some stories weren't anything great, the stories in this collection are mostly solid genre work, and worth a look. It's a good sampling of some of the talent in the mystery world today. Check it out if you like a good mystery short story.

More coming up...

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