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
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
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
Edited by Michael Bracken
Wildside Press, 2003
Review submitted by
James R. Winter,
March 2003. Thanks, Jim.
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