Cape Ann Beacon, December 15, 2010
By Rae Francoeur
Last year it looked like the Level Best Books’ mystery story anthology, published in the fall by three noted Boston-area mystery writers, had run its course. The editors — Susan Oleksiw, Kate Flora and Ruth M. McCarty — announced that the seventh anthology was to be their last. This fine collection of mystery stories written by New England-based writers would be sorely missed had not a new group of editors stepped in and produced No. 8.
Susan Oleksiw may not be editing the series at this point, but she still submits and publishes her mystery fiction. Her story, “The Recumbent Cow,” is, as the title suggests, wonderfully amusing. A cow settles down in the middle of an Indian village’s one good road and doesn’t budge for days. Eventually it’s decided a temple must be built on this auspicious spot. An engagement, planned for many years, is broken. Best friends feud. And the curious, ever-vigilant Anita Ray, one of Oleksiw’s signature characters, decides to look into these unusual events. Of course there’s foul play.
The New England chapter of Mystery Writers of America started The Al Blanchard Short Story Prize Contest in honor of the beloved mystery writer Al Blanchard. Level Best publishes the winning story in its annual collection. This year’s winner, “The Bank Job” by Bev Vincent, is another of the collection’s standouts. Frankie, a ne’er-do-well who has real problems staying out of trouble, finds he must pay back an outstanding debt with staggering interest post haste. He and his kindly buddies come up with a scheme. These are good guys who’d rather sit around, drink and play pool than rob banks. Readers are seduced by their camaraderie and the hilarity that ensues. Frankie is alive on the page — rare for short mystery stories where so much plot work needs to be done in less than 5,000 words, in this case. Frankie is the master of witty observation. More of this man, please. It’s the first piece in the book and a must-read.
Another notable story in the collection is editor Mark Ammons’ “Duck Sandwich.” What drives someone to murder? In this case, it’s years of a husband’s drivel punctuated with maddening regularity by one absurd sentence: “I have to see a man about a duck sandwich.” Enough, already.
In “Wall to Wall” by Maine author John R. Clark, someone steals a family’s stone wall — something we’ve read about in rural New England. In “Madame Blavatsky Takes a Lover,” a smart but nosy grad student suspects murder and can’t control her curiosity. And in Ipswich author Edith Maxwell’s especially timely and very enjoyable piece, “Reduction in Force,” getting laid off is not necessarily the passive experience one imagines.
What the best of the stories in this particular collection have in common is a likable, amusing narrator with an eye for the absurdities and the chutzpah to either investigate illegal acts or to commit them — when the situation warrants.
Rae Francoeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or her book, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” available online or in bookstores.