Malice Aforethought

  • By Art Taylor
  • April 10, 2017

(Correction: What five thought)


Later this month, one of the nation’s best-loved mystery gatherings, Malice Domestic, will take place in Bethesda, Maryland — April 28-30 at the Hyatt Regency (overlapping with the Independent’s own Washington Writers Conference in College Park, unfortunately, but the resolute writer should attend both).

Among this year’s headliners at Malice Domestic are Lifetime Achievement honoree Charlaine Harris, whose Sookie Stackhouse books were the basis of the True Blood series; guest of honor Elaine Viets, author of the Dead-End Job series; Poirot Award winner Martin Edwards, author of the landmark history The Golden Age of Murder in addition to his own novels; and Toastmaster Marcia Talley, author of the Hannah Ives series.

Another highlight of Malice is the annual presentation of the Agatha Awards, and I’m pleased to join four other writers — one of whom, Edith Maxwell, is a finalist for the Agatha for Best Historical Novel, as well — among the finalists for this year’s award for Best Short Story.

In advance of the big awards banquet, I invited all the finalists in this category to introduce their nominated short stories (each available for free by clicking on the story’s title) and to suggest an additional story — a recent favorite — for readers here to seek out, with bonus points for any resonance or connections with their own works. Here’s what they had to offer.

Gretchen Archer, “Double Jinx: A Bellissimo Casino Crime Caper Short Story” (Henery Press)

“Double Jinx,” a Halloween-themed short story introducing July Jackson to my Davis Way Crime Caper mystery series, is the first and only short story I’ve written. I wouldn’t have written “Jinx” at all had an author friend not called and asked if I’d like to contribute to her Halloween anthology. Contractual this and that, I couldn’t join the anthology, but loved writing the shortie! I so enjoyed writing in a different voice, and equally fun, writing around a holiday theme, something I’ve always wanted to do. “Jinx” went on to join my Henery Press series as a stand-alone.

Gearing up to write my short story, I read and loved Nelson DeMille’s “The Book Case,” and Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg’s “Pros and Cons.” The best short stories I’ve read since then are here, written by my fellow Agatha Award nominees. Great work, Art, B.K., Edith, and Barb!  

Barb Goffman, “The Best-Laid Plans” in Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional (Wildside Press)

Cozy-mystery author Eloise is eagerly awaiting the Malice convention, where she’ll be honored for her lifetime achievement. Her mood sours when Kimberly — who’ll be Malice’s guest of honor — puts Eloise down through backhanded compliments in a big magazine. Eloise decides to get revenge against her former friend, and she hatches a plan for some fun at the convention. Nothing fatal. Just painful. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans.

Readers who enjoy Eloise’s story will also like Pat Dennis’ “Puck” (Mood Change and Other Stories). Narcissistic Edith Mae can’t stand her neighbors or her husband or anyone, really. And she hates when her neighbor Puck comes by, selling plastic crap to raise money so neighborhood kids can play hockey. But when Puck says she’s raised $1,500, Edith Mae perks up, hatching a plan to steal the cash. Of course, things never go as planned, do they?

Edith Maxwell, “The Mayor and the Midwife” in Blood on the Bayou: Bouchercon Anthology 2016 (Down & Out Books)

In “The Mayor and the Midwife,” the real 1888 mayor of New Orleans comes to Amesbury, Massachusetts, to visit his daughter. She’s being cared for by Quaker midwife Rose Carroll. When the mayor’s son-in-law turns up dead, the daughter goes into labor, and her cousin is accused of the murder. Rose not only catches the baby, but figures out how to catch the killer, too. The story features the same protagonist and historical setting as my 2017 Agatha-nominated novel, Delivering the Truth.

I’d like to recommend Liz Milliron’s short story, “Three River Voodoo.” It was also published in Blood on the Bayou, and, like my story, involves New Orleans culture, but is set elsewhere. The story’s narrator uses her Cajun upbringing to wish a rival ill — until it all goes wrong. I love the change in the narrator’s adherence to her long-held beliefs — and the twist at the end.

B.K. Stevens, “The Last Blue Glass” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine also a finalist for this year’s Derringer Award for Best Novelette

In “The Last Blue Glass,” a young widow thinks back on her marriage as she prepares dinner for four guests. Cathy holds one of those guests responsible for her husband’s death, and she has a plan to extract the only justice she can manage. In one sense, the story’s a whodunit, challenging readers to watch for clues and decide which guest is the target of Cathy’s revenge. It’s also a portrait of a marriage that goes tragically wrong — partly because of a trusted person’s betrayal, partly because the couple’s relationship is subtly but deeply flawed.

When I looked for a story “connected” to mine, I thought of Robert Lopresti’s “Nakhshon,” published in Jewish Noir. In both stories, someone others see as helpless gets caught up in a wrenching situation and decides to strike back. The situations and the decisions are very different, but both characters face tough, potentially deadly dilemmas.

Art Taylor, “Parallel Play” in Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning (Wildside Press) — also a finalist for this year’s Thriller Award for Best Short Story

In “Parallel Play,” Maggie, a young woman at her son’s weekly playgroup session, watches a fierce storm brewing beyond the rec center’s windows — and realizes she’s forgotten her umbrella. No worries, though — the father of another toddler has an umbrella large enough to escort her and her son to their car. But as Maggie learns too quickly, even the smallest kindness often comes at a steep cost.

Speaking of children: I’ll recommend Laura Benedict’s “The Peter Rabbit Killers” from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, recently named a finalist for the Thriller Award (Laura’s up for an Edgar this year, too). It’s a haunting tale of a 7-year-old girl, her distant mother, and the troubling neighbor children whose friendship leads to friction, anxiety, and worse. The story brims with unease, and the ending proves subtle, provocative, powerful — undoubtedly unnerving readers long past the final lines.    

Congrats to all the finalists for this year’s Agatha Award. I’m looking forward to seeing many old friends and making many new ones at Malice later this month.

Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He’s an associate professor in the English Department at George Mason University.

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