Hardbroiled, edited by Michael Bracken
Review by James R. Winter

Hardboiled. Food. What's that make? Hardbroiled. OK, the cute play on words aside, this is a fitting title for a violent book about food. Everything from fasting at Ramadan to roadkill surprise is sampled here. There's even a food-obsessed serial killer in the book, although he's not a cannibal. Oh, yeah, almost forgot -- there IS a case of cannibalism in the book, too, but that's also not by a cannibal.

Michael Bracken, who brought you the acclaimed anthology Fedora: Private Eyes and Tough Guys brings forth what could be dubbed "Fedora II: Private Eyes on Lunchbreak." Every short in this collection deals with food or drink in some form or another. Food is the setting, the bait, the murder weapon, in one case the corpse. Food is even a symbol in a couple of cases.

Bracken has put together a good variety this time out. The collection starts off strong with Tom Sweeney's "Ramadan," the tale of a Boston PI stumbling into family secrets. This one comes with a twist. The central character is an Egyptian-American, who, like so many people, has fallen away from his faith. The Muslim practice of fasting during the month of Ramadan serves as a backdrop to the story. What's so intriguing about the story is the central character of Zakaria himself, a man caught between two worlds, asking himself the same questions everyone asks from time to time.

In "Tough Guy," Stephen Rogers, serves up a surprise twist in the kidnapping of a restaurant owner's son. Apparently, Rogers' lawyer-turned-PI has a reason to take such things personally. And isn't Rogers the hardest working man in crime fiction today? Does a month go by that he's not in at least two zines' latest issues? Here, he not only gives us "Tough Guy," but kicks off the book with a poem, "Cheatin' Heart."

Bracken has found even darker fare in the nourish "Gourmet Takeout" by Art Montague, where culinary artwork holds the key to a seemingly random killing. Equally dark is the mob-flavored "There's Something About Julie" by Dorothy Rellas, where a PI-turned-bartender finds his illicit lover dead at the restaurant where they work. Both turn in quick, hard-hitting shorts here. Perhaps the darkest and most noirish of the collection is "One Lousy Piece of Toast" by Dan Sontup. Bracken's criteria called for PI stories dealing with food. Sontup simply mentions that one character is a PI before diving headfirst into a story about a bad marriage, second chances, and why only professionals should fix household appliances. That is, unless you want something to happen.

In the same vein is Tim Wohlforth's "Lobster Bisque." More a character study than a mystery, it doesn't really surprise at the end. Still a good read, though, and Wohlforth is always worth the time. If anything, the best part of the story is the creative use of soup as a murder weapon.

But if food goes with murder, then most certainly so does sex, as in "Munchies" by Jack Bludis and "Mimosa" by Carol Kilgore. "Munchies" has less to do with food than it does with sexual experimentation in the early seventies, and one wonders if Bludis isn't more than a tad influenced of late by George Pelecanos. "Mimosa" features one of the sexiest women I've read in a short in a long, long time, and it's not hard to see how she entrances Kilgore's central character.

The collection is rounded out by solid offerings from Kenneth Thorton Samuels, Nick Andreychuck, and Robert Lopresti . Bracken's even found a light comedy in Linda Summers Posey's "Who Put the Armadillo in the Avacado Dip?" Don't ask. You have to read it for yourself.

The collection ends with a short novella, "Ice Princess" by D. Jeanette McSherry, that covers one of my least favorite subjects for hardboiled/noir: the serial killer. Still, this tale is pulled off nicely, pitting an unusual PI named Prussia Ice against a serial killer who's sufficiently arrogant and cocky, with the requisite penchant for brutal, macabre slayings. It's one of the few stories where the central character uses herself as bait. It's also sufficiently complex with enough twists to warrant its length.

Hardbroiled is short, less than 240 pages of actual fiction, but it's a great ride. These are the new school writers, some new names, some familiar. Definitely worth the read.

Edited by Michael Bracken
Wildside Press, 2003
248 pages
Buy this book

Review submitted by James R. Winter, March 2003. Thanks, Jim.

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