Sunday Shorts: Three From IF THIS GOES ON

Sunday Shorts is a series where I blog about short fiction – from flash to novellas. For the time being, I’m sticking to prose, although it’s been suggested I could expand this feature to include single episodes of anthology television series like The Twilight Zone or individual stories/issues of anthology comics (like the 1970s DC horror or war anthology titles). So anything is possible. But for now, the focus is on short stories.

 

Today I’d like to talk about three very different stories from the Parvus Press anthology If This Goes On: The Science Fiction Future of Today’s Politics, edited by Cat Rambo. I intend to read this whole anthology eventually, but figured I’d take a random sampling just to get me started.

“Green Glass: A Love Story” by E. Lily Yu. This one starts out as a classic SF love story: a man literally sends a probe to the moon to get a birthday/engagement present for his fiancée. But Yu does remarkable things with the story progression from there, revealing both the past and present (and a glimpse at the future) of the theoretically-happy couple. Yu gives us a future where the world has been largely despoiled and the working class are increasingly sicker because of it while the rich just get richer and healthier; everything this couple does to prepare for their wedding is expensive and wasteful just to make an impression. But there’s also the undercurrent that some things may never change: in an age of pre-nups that even designate how many children a couple will have, the woman still gets taken advantage of, gaslit and blindsided. I started out thinking the main characters were a bit unlikeable, grew to despise them for their excesses, and then actually felt a little sorry for the main female character by the story’s end. I think Yu manages to show us that while short fiction usually focuses on one aspect of a dystopian (or utopian, or whatever) society, the reality is that no facet of a society exists on its own and ignoring the bigger picture for the details that benefit you the most will almost always backfire.

“The Last Adventure of Jack Laff: The Dayveil Gambit” transcribed by Steven Barnes. It’s no secret that I love noir in all its forms – hard crime to SF. So it was probably a guarantee I’d love this story by one of the pioneers of Afrofuturism. The voice of the narrator/title character is gruff, macho, take-no-prisoners, and yet Barnes also imbues him with more honor and a bit less misogyny than the classic 40s-50s originals of this type. Still, a trope of noir is that the hero gets suckered, at least for a little while, by a beautiful client while ignoring his faithful and loving secretary … and Barnes leans into the trope with skill and subtlety, subverting it by staying true to it almost all the way through the story. All the classic types are here: the femme fatale, the hard-pressed secretary, the questionable businessman, and the links to an earlier case that turn out to be more important than the narrator at first realizes. Culturally, Barnes shows us a future where movements like #MeToo result in every business and personal interaction being filmed by bodycams and the footage securely stored in case of future litigation. The story takes several twists that I don’t want to spoil here.

 

“The Harvest King (Will Surely Come) by Nisi Shawl. One of the many things that impresses me about Nisi Shawl is her world-building when it comes to alternate (her novel Everfair) or future histories, and the voices she uses to reveal that world-building to the reader. Here, we get the religio-fascist future of a portion of the former United States called “Heartland” shown to us through two very different, equally sycophantic voices. The first voice is that of an American “king,” who has inherited his place from his the previous ruler (who ruled for twenty-one years), and who is now making plans to pass that throne on to the husband of his daughter (whose name happens to be Tiffany) … because in this future even the hereditary throne can’t possibly go to a woman. I’m not sure just how far in the future this part of the story is set. At first, I thought it was very near-future (a daughter/granddaughter named Tiffany), but the other voice Shawl uses – the pages of a Bible section called “Letters to the Oligarchs” makes me think that our present is a dim memory to the “king” who is about to leave his throne. The characters, all unlikeable, refer to slaves and “mud people,” and to ritual sacrifice of living “effigies” to appease the earth and guarantee a good harvest. Shawl wonderfully co-mingles pagan rituals (writ large via monster trucks and harvesters) with the racial purity ethics of a subset of our current population to posit a future where America has turned from democracy to theocracy.

Sunday Shorts: Snyder, Gardiner and Hearn

Sunday Shorts is a series where I blog about short fiction – from flash to novellas. For the time being, I’m sticking to prose, although it’s been suggested I could expand this feature to include single episodes of anthology television series like The Twilight Zone or individual stories/issues of anthology comics (like the 1970s DC horror or war anthology titles). So anything is possible. But for now, the focus is on short stories.

 

Every now and then, these posts end up being a mish-mash of recent reads that have no obvious connection. This is one of those posts.

“The Good Girl” by Lucy V. Snyder (from her collection Soft Apocalypses but also June’s selection on the author’s Patreon). This is not the first time I’ve read “The Good Girl,” and it probably won’t be the last. But I have to say that between readings, I’d sort of forgotten just how wonderfully sly Snyder is at easing the supernatural aspect into a story whose premise is already horrific: a young woman having to return home to the father who abused her and the mother who let it happen, for one last chance at a goodbye to a sister she’d abandoned to her fate. There are so many directions the story could go on that description alone, and Snyder keeps you guessing as to exactly which direction she’s leading you in. The narrator struggles with her own guilt and her own justifications on the drive to the family homestead; the characterization is deep and nuanced, the narrator unsure of whether she qualifies as the “good girl” of the title either now or in the past. There’s also a delightful secondary character who provides a little light humor in an otherwise dark story, because we all need a good chuckle before the final scare.

“Freak Corner” by John Rolfe Gardiner (from One Story #254, June 20 2019). Abuse, or at least neglect, of a different kind confronts the narrator of this story. It is 1953, and while the narrator’s small town neighborhood is in an uproar about how Alfie Kipps is now Margaret Kipps, the narrator has a more immediate concern: his deaf sister’s education. The story shines a light on just how recently American Sign Language was considered a fake language, a cheat for deaf people to avoid learning to speak properly, at the same time that transgender issues were just starting to come to the public conscious thanks to Christine Jorgensen. It also shines a light on how far we have, and haven’t come: ASL is a recognized language after a long-fought battle; transgender people are still ridiculed, shamed, and threatened just for existing. Gardiner’s story is less about trans-acceptance than it is about ASL-acceptance, but the narrator’s sister, Gayle, is bolstered by the support of this other social outcast even while her brother falters between supporting her and toeing the parentally-set line of “speak, don’t sign.” There’s also an undercurrent of “false nostalgia,” the narrator saying, without saying, that “the good old days” weren’t so good for a lot of people.

 

The Story of O-Tei by Lafcadio Hearn (from Oriental Ghost Stories, Wordsworth Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural edition). I’ve been trying (with varying success) to read at least one short story by an author on their birthday, mixing authors I’ve long loved with those I’ve never read. This is the first Lafcadio Hearn story I think I’ve ever read, despite owning both the Wordsworth Edition paperback collection sampling stories from Hearn’s several books as well as the hardcover compendium the Library of America recently issued. I maybe should have chosen a longer story to sample, but even this short simple tale I think captures Hearn’s tone. In “The Story of O-Tei,” the titular woman is betrothed to a man she really wants to marry but she falls ill before the wedding can be performed. She promises him that if he waits, she’ll return to him. He asks for a sign, and she says it’s not in her power to give, but he’ll know her. In the hands of a more modern author, the misfortunes that befall the man when he marries another woman under family pressure would probably be the focal point of the story; Hearn glosses over them except to show that they are not really road-blocks to the fated reunion. Is that reunion happy or horrific? I won’t spoil that for the potential reader. But I loved the way Hearn tells the story: not full of the heavy detail of his Victorian peers, but full of heart and acceptance that the supernatural is part of life.

Sunday Shorts: ALEXANDER'S BRIDGE

Sunday Shorts is a series where I blog about short fiction – from flash to novellas. For the time being, I’m sticking to prose, although it’s been suggested I could expand this feature to include single episodes of anthology television series like The Twilight Zone or individual stories/issues of anthology comics (like the 1970s DC horror or war anthology titles). So anything is possible. But for now, the focus is on short stories.

 

This month I read what I think is my first Willa Cather work. If we read anything by her in high school or college, I don’t remember it. I know, I know. As an English Lit major, how have I never read O Pioneers! Or My Antonia? I need to rectify that one of these days.

In the meantime, one of this month’s arrivals from the Melville House Art of the Novella series is Cather’s novella Alexander’s Bridge. The book is a strong character study. Bridge architect Alexander, his wife Winifred, his ex-girlfriend and eventual mistress Hilda Burgoyne are all well-drawn and multi-dimensional, their friend Professor Wilson perhaps a bit less so. They are all recognizable as people we might know, although I can’t say any of them are particularly likeable; I never felt like I could be friends with any of them in real life, or anything more than an acquaintance. This is not necessarily a bad thing; characters who are not completely likeable can be more interesting to read about. It’s not that any of them are despicable or evil. They’re ordinary people going about their lives, making the good, bad, and questionable decisions we all make.

The plot is a pretty straight-forward depiction of the development of an affair. Although we’re never explicitly shown it, Alexander seems to have been a bit of a wild child in his youth, but eventually he met Winifred, and as he settled into happy married life, his professional career also took off. A trip to London re-introduces him to an ex-girlfriend turned noted young actress. As they become reacquainted, their passion re-ignites. Over multiple trips between the US and London, Alexander vacillates between commitment to one woman and the other, each representing some part of his personality … parts he cannot easily assimilate. Keeping secrets from his wife, trying to distance himself from Hilda -- Alexander’s slowly deteriorating security in his own self-image ends up reflected in the slow crumbling of his professional career as more and more of his projects, including a major one in Canada, hit snag after snag. It’s all neatly balanced, and the end is, if not predictable at least not completely unexpected. The question for the reader ultimately becomes: which will destroy Alexander first? Will it be the revelation of / the guilt of his affair? Or will it be the collapse of his grand bridge project?

One part of the story that I’m not sure completely worked for me was the Professor. He comes to visit Alexander and Winifred at several key moments, including the very start of the book. Cather makes much of how taken with Winifred the Professor is, how much he enjoys spending time with her – but this narrative thread never plays out into anything that affects the story as a whole. Winifred seems flattered by the Professor’s attentions, the attraction mutual, but nothing is ever explicitly stated or acted upon. It felt as if it went nowhere for all the emphasis placed on it in the early pages. I’d have liked to have seen the attraction addressed, even if it was a simple “Winifred was flattered, but loved her husband too much” type of statement.

I have to say that I enjoyed the character work enough to be glad I read the novella, even though I don’t feel like it was anything cutting edge in terms of story.

Sunday Shorts: Three from Analog

Sunday Shorts is a series where I blog about short fiction – from flash to novellas. For the time being, I’m sticking to prose, although it’s been suggested I could expand this feature to include single episodes of anthology television series like The Twilight Zone or individual stories/issues of anthology comics (like the 1970s DC horror or war anthology titles). So anything is possible. But for now, the focus is on short stories.

 

This week, let’s take a look at three very different stories, by three very talented writers, from the May/June 2019 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact:

 

1.       “On Stony Ground,” by Cynthia Ward. Although the tone and narrator’s voice are completely different, Ward’s newest bit of alternate history somehow put me in mind of one of my favorite alternate history mosaic novels, Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eterna. In Ward’s tale, the civil engineer responsible for completing a major rail line has her day of glory overshadowed by a Nazoraian prophetai’s arrival. We as readers only hear a little of what the teacher speaks, but it’s enough to know who he is, what he has to say, and how his lessons are powerful to rich and poor alike, no matter the timeline in which they are taught. I found the story enhanced by the author’s use of as much Latin as possible, even for names and titles that we’re more accustomed to hearing in Romanticized or Anglo form; it would be easier to use the more familiar forms but that would take away from the sense that this is a world similar to but removed from our own. The narrator, Berenike, is a strong Aithiopian princess-turned-engineer with very clear opinions about how the world should be that the author plays against a real-world political-religious situation of the time. The author subtly shows that her alternate Roman empire is quite diverse not only in terms of who can rise to power but what’s socially acceptable (Berenike comments that her cousin Iakobos is chatting up one of her “better looking officers,” clearly a male … so it would see homosexuality is not taboo in this world, for instance.) I’m not sure if Ward has told other stories in this alternate history – but I’d enjoy seeing them.

2.       “Repairs at the Beijing West Space Elevator,” by Alex Shvartsman. This is a nice piece of science fiction that focuses on infrastructure, customer service, the blame-game and crowd control. Phrased like that, it doesn’t sound like compelling stuff, but Shvartsman pulls it all together through the eyes of an exploration fleet engineer tasked with finding the cause of a power-fluctuation problem at the busiest space elevator on Earth – during one of the busiest holidays of the year. The tale is briskly told, the problem and solution uncovered fairly quickly with no distracting complicating drama. This gives the author space to concentrate on the “fish out of water” aspect of the main character, who is so accustomed to fleet life that the teeming masses of humanity on the space elevator terminal gives him anxiety and a bit of claustrophobia. Combining a character who has a common (but not often written about in sf) anxiety with a set of behind-the-scenes problems that are not usually the focus of sf novels is a great way to get the reader to care about both, especially in a story that is not any longer than it needs to be.

3.       “Painting the Massive Planet, by Marissa Lingen. Lingen’s nameless narrator looks at various artistic movements’ attempts to truly capture the majesty and life of the planet Jupiter and how they all somehow fall short. Or do they? Is art meant to exist in a vacuum or interact with its surroundings?  At first blush, the story seems to be about the effect of science on the arts (and possibly by implication vice-versa), but I think it’s more about the effect of art, and artists, on each other: how we build off of each other, are inspired by each other, and how each of our chosen genres/styles/takes on a topic helps build a more complete picture of the whole. (Note: I am always impressed by anyone who can not only write flash- or drabble-length fiction, but even more so when they can pack so much to think about in such a small space and still tell a compelling character and plot driven story. Kudos, Marissa!)

Sunday Shorts: Three Holmes Tales

Sunday Shorts is a series where I blog about short fiction – from flash to novellas. For the time being, I’m sticking to prose, although it’s been suggested I could expand this feature to include single episodes of anthology television series like The Twilight Zone or individual stories/issues of anthology comics (like the 1970s DC horror or war anthology titles). So anything is possible. But for now, the focus is on short stories.

 

Since my most recent book review was about the first adventures of a Holmes pastiche/stand-in named Solar Pons, and since I’ve been trying to make my way through accumulated magazine back-issues to clear them out of my apartment, I thought I’d make three Holmes tales by authors other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the subject of today’s Sunday Shorts.

Even before most of the Holmes canon entered Public Domain, authors have published further adventures of the Great Detective and his friends. Some had authorization from the Conan Doyle Estate and some didn’t. For many years now, the revived Strand Magazine has published Holmes tales by other authors. As with novels and short story collections written about Holmes, the stories in the Strand come with various levels of quality, creativity, and respect for the canon. These are three I particularly liked; two of them are even connected to stories written by Conan Doyle himself, and all three are narrated by someone other than Doctor Watson (two by Holmes himself, a rarity in the original canon).

 

1.       NOTES UPON THE DIADEM CLUB AFFAIR by Lyndsay Faye, from the October 2015 issue of The Strand.  I don’t think I’ve failed to enjoy a Holmes tale penned by Lyndsay Faye (I also keep meaning to read her non-Holmes novels but just haven’t gotten there yet). This one was no exception. It’s a bit light on showing Holmes’ actual deductive abilities, being a more playful tale. Holmes narrates his own meeting with a society fop named Lord Chesley Templeton, who invites him to be a special guest at a meeting of a very special private club. Holmes declines, not wanting to be anyone’s pet monkey, until a letter from Brother Mycroft changes his mind. Holmes and Watson learn more about Templeton, stop a crime, and Watson encounters a Baroness with an interest in writing. Holmes’ disdain for Templeton’s easily-seen-through disguise at the first meeting is set against his own dramatic way of getting Watson to accompany him, just one of several character-driven moments that made me smile. (Fellow fans of Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton Family may find humorous Watson’s implication that the Baroness who cameos ends up basing her most famous character on someone from this tale; I wrote it off as Watson purposefully misguiding readers.)

2.       AN ACTUAL TREASURE by David Marcum, from the October 2017 issue of The Strand. Marcum’s tale is also narrated by Holmes via his own journal entries, and also ties back to a very important case in the Holmes canon, the one in which Holmes and Watson first met Mary Morstan (later the First Mrs. Watson). Marcum brings Inspectors Jones and LeStrade into the story as well as the Baker Street Irregulars (and one in particular named Levi), and while the story is again sort of light on Holmes’ deductive abilities, it provides a very satisfactory follow-up to what happened to the jewels that went missing at the end of that earlier case. Marcum also showcases aspects of Holmes’ personality other chroniclers sometimes overlook or ignore: his patience and paternal feeling towards children, his respect for Mrs. Hudson, the fact that although Holmes always claims not to theorize before all the facts are in he actually does it quite often in the original canon (near the end of this tale, Holmes comments “I had formed seven theories about what might have occurred, and while this wasn’t the most probable of them, it was my favorite.”). There’s even a winking mention of Praed Street, although this is many years before Solar Pons and Doctor Parker will take up residence on that thoroughfare.

3.       LADY HILDA REVEALED by Bonnie MacBird, from the October 2018 issue of the Strand. This is a different king of Holmes pastiche, told in the form of a letter from a society lady to Doctor Watson. Also her husband has long since passed away, “Lady Hilda Trelawny Hope” maintains the fictitious identity Watson gave her when he published Holmes’ “Adventure of the Second Stain,” but strives to correct the good doctor on a number of points regarding how she was portrayed. This could easily have been a poke at officious society types, but instead MacBird gives us an intimate portrait of a woman who could, under other circumstances, have been just as strong a foil for Holmes as Irene Adler, Mary Morstan, or Violet Hunter. It’s a wonderful character piece that expands on the original story without ever making Holmes or Watson look bad.

SUNDAY SHORTS: Abyss & Apex 70

Sunday Shorts is a series where I blog about short fiction – from flash to novellas. For the time being, I’m sticking to prose, although it’s been suggested I could expand this feature to include single episodes of anthology television series like The Twilight Zone or individual stories/issues of anthology comics (like the 1970s DC horror or war anthology titles). So anything is possible. But for now, the focus is on short stories.

I received a review copy of this spring’s issue of Abyss and Apex magazine and here, finally, are some brief thoughts on the stories contained therein:

 

1. EXHIBIT K by Nadia Afifi. A woman wakes up and finds that she’s not only famous for what she did during wartime but also that she’s become an interactive museum exhibit opposite her most hated enemy. I won’t give away the how of the situation (I really hate spoiling short story twists), but I can say it’s not your standard “person from the past adjusts to an unexpected future” story. The author stays firmly in the viewpoint of the main character, Selma Carmichael, allowing the reader to experience this strange new world alongside her – which means any answers Selma doesn’t get (about how the world got the way it is) the reader doesn’t get either. And while in other stories that might bother me, it doesn’t here because of how much else is going on: the reveals about Selma and her enemy’s pasts, the reveal of what the museum curators are really up to – it’s all very well done and very well paced, with tons of concrete physical and sensory details to help the reader feel connected to the world and to Selma.

2. THE BIRDS THAT FLEW IN WARTIME by Tamoha Sengupta. The second story in the issue is far more ephemeral that the first; alternating points of view and style. Some sections are very middle-Eastern fable-like in tone, while others are more modern in voice. The full story comes together in bits and pieces, and there’s a lot for the reader to speculate about. There are some poetic, beautiful turns-of-phrase throughout.

3. A MISSED DIVERSION by R.S. Alexander.  The third story in the issue veers away from hard SF and ephemeral fantasy into the realm of sf-crime. The setting is clearly the near future, but the story is centered on a man in hiding trying to solve the mystery of a friend’s death – by blackmailing the person he thinks committed the crime. It’s a bit of a crime thriller, a bit of a corporate espionage thriller – and a very, very insular story told mostly through transmitted dialogue between our main character and his target. It felt like it would be equally at home in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine or Asimov’s.

4. ARS POETICA by David F. Shultz.  This was my favorite story in the issue. Sort-of near-future, not-quite post-apocalyptic setting in which the people with the best chance of saving the human race from falling to robot infiltrators are … writers. Well, poets, specifically. It seems the one aspect of humanity the robots (called bugs for the way they attach to and take over humans) can’t quite imitate is the writing of poetry. So communities survive or fall based on their ability to sniff out who is really writing poetry and who is plagiarizing. Scenes discussing the nature of creativity (nature vs. nurture) alternate with serious dissections of the taking in of refugees who may or may not be what they seem, all mixed with several high-energy, high-body-count, very bloody human vs. robot encounters that felt original in the way they were executed. All the stories in the issue are enjoyable, but this one especially kept me thinking long after I was done reading it.

5. SIBLING SQUABBLES by Gregg Chamberlain. This is a very funny bit of flash fiction about a father trying to explain to a daughter why using magic on her magic-less sibling is not acceptable. It’s classic parent-sibling head-butting, enhanced by sharp dialogue and winking references to a variety of television and literary wizards and witches (I think I got all of them, but I’m not sure), and even a kind of nod (I think) to a Disney live-action classic film from the 60s. I smiled all the way through this one.

6. THE GIFTED SOMMELLIER by Grayson Bray Morris.  The fiction portion of the issue ends with a heart-breaking bit of flash fiction about a wine sommelier with a very specific job to do. I hate to say too much, but the lush detail in such a short piece really sets the mood excellently, and the end brought a tear to my eye.

Issue #70 of Abyss & Apex also has a poetry section – but as I’m not an avid poetry reader, I don’t feel qualified to review or discuss the seven poems or the artwork that accompanies them.

SUNDAY SHORTS: Seanan McGuire Destroys Air Travel

The “Sunday Shorts” feature is dedicated to reviewing short stories and novellas, two forms I absolutely love.

My full-time job requires me to travel fairly frequently (anywhere from one to three weeks, depending on the month) and much of that travel is by air across the continental United States. I’m pretty comfortable with the process at this point (airport security and airplane seating being what they are), although I find that I’m likely to get motion sick if I try to read or watch anything during takeoff, landing or even slight turbulence. I’ve been in one (admittedly minor) emergency landing and experienced plenty of rough air and less-than-pleasant customer service on the ground. But I’m not afraid of any aspect of flying.

Even so, two recent short stories by Seanan McGuire, both posted on her Patreon, made me squirm uncomfortably. “Carry On” was first published last year (and is reprinted in this month’s Nightmare magazine) while “Emergency Landing” is this month’s Patreon story. Each turns a different aspect of air travel in an opportunity for emotional/psychological horror.

In our present day, airlines are charging more and more for “incidentals” (in-flight snacks and entertainment, extra leg-room, checked and carry-on luggage). “Carry On” is a brutal look at a possible future where the price of fuel justifies airlines charging passengers not just for the combined weight of their carry-on luggage, but also for the weight of the passenger and their clothing. Step on a scale with your bags, and be judged before entering security. Mary, the focal-point character, has saved for ages to be able to fly cross-country to see her sister and meet her new niece; but getting past the weigh-in without having to pay, in money and embarrassment, is not easy. McGuire really captures the indignities heaped, even now, upon travelers who are overweight. The tension of the wait, the bad weigh-in, the events that follow, the recognizable emotions Mary feels at the end, are all so real. Mary feels isolated even in a large terminal with hundreds of other people experience the same trauma she is. This is the second time I’ve read the story, and it once again made me cry for the main character.

“Emergency Landing” takes place almost entirely on a plane already in the air. The narrator describes her dash to make her connecting flight out of Atlanta, her initial impressions of her seat-mates, and then the plane takes off – just before the narrator sees missiles streak towards the airport they’ve just departed. The rest of the story is a tense game of “how much do we tell the passengers about what’s happening on the ground” and “what do we do about landing since our fuel can’t last forever.” The emotional stakes are just as high as in “Carry On,” but from a different direction. While Mary feels invisible among her fellow travelers, Caitlin feels too seen because of what they think she knows. The story moves fast as Caitlin’s fellow passengers move from anguish to fear to false bravado and Caitlin must decide whether sharing her knowledge will make things better or worse. It’s not often I describe stories or books as leaving me breathless, but this one did.  I also think that had this appeared in an anthology (it would have been perfect for Stephen King and Bev Vincent’s recent Flight or Fright), it would appear under Seanan’s Mira Grant name, given that the main character is an epidemiologist.

SUNDAY SHORTS: A Time to Scatter Stones

The “Sunday Shorts” feature is dedicated to reviewing short stories and novellas, two forms I absolutely love.

time to scatter stones cover.jpg

 

 

TITLE: A Time to Scatter Stones (A Matthew Scudder novella)

AUTHOR: Lawrence Block

153 pages, Subterranean Press, ISBN 971596068933 (Hardcover)

Disclaimer: Although I bought the Subterranean Press edition, the author also sent me a free e-ARC in exchange for a fair review.

 

DESCRIPTION: (from the cover flap): More than 40 years after his debut and nearly a decade since his last appearance, one of the most renowned characters in all of crime fiction is back on the case in this new novella by Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Lawrence Block.  Well past retirement age and feeling his years – but still staying sober one day at a time – Matthew Scudder learns that alcoholics aren’t the only ones who count the days since their last slip. Matt’s longtime partner, Elaine, tells him of a group of former sex workers who do something similar, helping each other stay out of the life. Burt when one young woman describes an abusive client who’s refusing to let her quit, Elaine encourages her to get help of a different sort. The sort only Scudder can deliver.

 

MY RATING: 4 stars out of 5

 

MY THOUGHTS: It is not usually a good idea to too closely conflate a series character with the author who created them. But I’m going to do it: Lawrence Block and Matthew Scudder are both, in my opinion, living proof that getting old doesn’t necessarily have to suck. Block’s regular Facebook posts and newsletters about jaunts around his beloved New York City and new international publishing endeavors give me hope that maybe I’ll be as physically mobile and mentally sharp at that age. And based on this novella, his possibly most-famous character, Matthew Scudder, has aged just as well alongside him.

Scudder is Block’s only series character to age in real-time, since debuting in The Sins of the Fathers in 1976. He’s grown older, he’s grown wiser … and he’s grown more sedate. He’s happily ensconced (and at this point, probably common-law-married) to his longtime companion Elaine in a nice NYC apartment. They have dinner visits with friends, take slow walks around the neighborhood, enjoy local restaurants, don’t grudge each other time apart pursing their own hobbies and twelve-step-group participation, and banter like an old married couple. Oh, do they banter. One of the things I love about Block’s writing is his ear for conversational dialogue that sounds authentic without being quite as awkward as real life, including the tangents we all go off on where we kind of lose track of what our original point was. Only Block’s characters’ conversational tangents are almost always more pertinent to the plot than they at first seem.

The plot is as straight-forward as it sounds: happily retired PI comes out of mothballs to help a friend of his friend. The difficulty comes in how little the endangered woman knows about the man stalking her; Scudder’s rusty (by his own admission), not sure that his investigative skills are still up to the task of finding a man whose name he doesn’t know and face he’s never seen. Of course, he’s back to Classic Scudder by the end of the book, because how could it be otherwise and have the story feel satisfactory – but he’s also feeling the physical toll in a way we haven’t seen him feel it before. Getting older doesn’t have to suck, but it’s still not easy to accept that we can’t do all the things we used to do with the same ease.

I would say the book is only half about this latest case, and half about how easily we lose track of people as we get older. There’s a very nostalgia-heavy tone to this novella; conversationally, Scudder and Elaine bring up just about every major supporting character in the 40-ish year history of the 18-book series. Some of those characters actually appear in the flesh, but most are mentioned in passing. I enjoyed the tone of these reminiscences because it mirrored conversations I’m having even now, in my early 50s, with the people who have been in my life since elementary school about the people who haven’t stayed in our lives.  But don’t let this scare you out of picking the book up: I haven’t read most of the Scudder books (when it comes to Block’s series output, I’m more of a Bernie Rhondenbarr man than a Scudder or Keller man), and I never felt like these conversations about old friends threw me out of the story. Rather, they made me interested in reading the rest of the series to find out more about the characters I didn’t already know.

The hardcover edition from Subterranean Press might be close to sold out at this writing, but Block has self-published it in ebook, audio, and paperback formats.