James Patterson

To write a suitable chiller-diller mystery short story, one must compact enough information (to get the reader involved), but not too much (to bore) nor too little (to confuse). The writer must start out with a bang, and end, not with a whimper, but with another bang.

On the basis of that, we have in this collection of thirty mysteries a few awfuls, three or four wonderfuls, and mostly so-so's. In the boring category, let's give an D-minus to James Grippando's "Operation Northwoods" --- endless blah-blah: "the U S has controlled this territory since the Spanish American War, and the very existence of a military base there has been a source of frictions in U. S. / Cuba relations since Fidel Castro took's a bifurcated base. The airstrip is on the western or leeward side. The main base is to the east, across the two-and-a-half-mile stretch of water that is Guantanamo Bay." If we want a history lesson on Cuban-American relations, rather than Thriller, we'd probably do Hugh Thomas' Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom from thirty-five years ago. Not so compact, a little less opinionated, and a hell of a lot smarter.

Let's also give a D-minus to Steve Berry and his "Devil's Due" which is little more than a lecture on the malfeasance of greedy Americans: "You're a bright guy. America is spending tens of billions of dollars on the war on terror. More money than anyone can even comprehend. It's like manna, my friend --- straight from heaven..."

"And there are a lot of corporations getting rich."

"Now you're thinking. Have you looked at the stock prices for some of the defense contractors? Through the roof." If we want a political lesson, let us peruse the NYRB or LRB --- anything but a shoot-'em-dead with opinions straight from the morgue.

Contrariwise, there's Christopher Reich's "Assassins," a fine, well-balanced O. Henry shot --- two operatives, obviously in deadly competition with each other, meeting by accident at the same restaurant somewhere in Central Europe, deciding to drop the deadly battle, relax for a single dinner at the Kronenhalle before they set out on their own ways to complete their beastly jobs. A treat for us who have traveled the same path through the same venues of Europe.

The very first story by Lee Child could have come from the golden age of the pulp detective stories of the 30s. "James Penney's New Identity" has the edge of the Depression, only there's a new financial disaster of our age, a personal disaster ... to James. It's known as "downsizing."

Our hero is a man who has worked for seventeen years at a factory in Laney, California. I won't tell you the plot-line, all that flows from his firing, but we would give Child a B+++ for his terseness, and surprise ending.

Our favorite of all thirty stories included here is F. Paul Wilson's "Interlude at Duanes." Seedy characters. Not too much detail, all sketched in like a Matisse mural. The goods and the bads equally unappealing. A stupendous play of action in (of all things) a New York City pharmacy.

Jack is running through the store, trying to evade the meth-heads raiding the cash register working at murdering him so they can take off with the stash.

"He noticed a 'personal' douche-bag box at eye level. Was there a community model? ... Douche bags had hoses, didn't they? He opened up the box. Yep --- round and ribbed. He pulled it out."

    He looped the douche hose twice around Demont's scrawny neck and dragged him back to the ruined ice-cream door. He strung the hose over the top of the metal frame and pulled Demont off his feet.

The rest of the breathless battle employs Sucrets, butane matches, cans of Raid, mouthwash, and bopping the bad guys with "a gallon container of ice cream." It's like a Laurel & Hardy destructo scene, with a douche bag thrown in for good measure.

--- Phyliss Stein
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