Sunday, May 8, 2011

Crimes by Moonlight – Mysteries from the Dark Side

Book:   Crimes by Moonlight - 4 out of 5
Editor:   Charlaine Harris
Narrators:   Natalie Ross - 4 out of 5
Jeff Cummings - 3 out of 5
Length:   13:00, available here

FTC Disclosure:  Brilliance Audio has graciously provided me with an audio version of this book for reviewing purposes.  Aside from this courtesy copy, I have received no payment, services or other reimbursement in exchange for this review.


1. Dahlia UndergroundCharlaine Harris
This book takes place in Sookiverse, somewhere during or right after the 7th Southern Vampire Mystery series book, All Together Dead. If you’re not familiar with the books or True Blood, this is a parallel universe where after the Japanese develop synthetic blood, vampires come out of the coffins and integrate into human society. Dahlia Lynley-Chivers, a several-hundred-year-old vampire who is famous for breaking the arm of a newswoman who refused to stop asking her questions, finds herself stuck in a hole with a dead vampire and a dead human after the conservative, anti-vampire hate group, Fellowship of the Sun, bombed her hotel during a vampire convention in Rhodes, Illinois. About 300 vampires are dead. Cedric, sheriff of Rhodes, sends Taffy and Dahlia to infiltrate the Fellowship and bring the culprits to justice.

It’s a fun story, but there’s not much conflict and little tension. This is clearly something for the avid fans of the series, but if you’re not familiar, you’re not going to truly enjoy the story.

2. HixtonWilliam Kent Krueger
People all over the county visit the ornery old Albert Goreman’s pig farm. Sure he’s old and mean, and he sits on his porch with a shotgun threatening the customers, but everyone knows that Mr. Goreman has the most delicious hams around, home-made from the pigs he pens. Martin Deangelo traveled from Hixton to visit Albert Goreman for a different reason. He is there investigate the disappearance of five Hixton teenage boys from back when he was young. Martin Deangelo tells Goreman, who was the investigator back than, that he is a reporter, that he wishes to learn the truth. This short story brings back the old adage: be careful what you wish for.

This short story is a very fun listen. It has a feel of a familiar urban legend or maybe just a story you probably already read in a newspaper a long time ago. The mystery is well foreshadowed and expected, but the ending is not. It has a unexpected karmic twist to it.

3. Small ChangeMargaret Maron
A 13-year-old girl whose dad owns an antique story tries to solve a mystery after a number of small items of little value begin disappearing. With her unique gift of shape-shifting into inanimate objects, Laurel transforms into a cheap statute of a goddess in order spy on the pilferer and to catch him or her in the act. Unfortunately, she's the one who gets caught. Next thing she knows, she finds her inanimate self kidnapped, stolen, and driven away in the trunk of the shoplifter’s car.

A surprising story. It’s cute, mysterious, and it’s nice to see a shape shifter who isn’t a werewolf or something similar to it. There’s almost a coming-of-age feel to it, and a pseudo-happy ending.

4. The TrespassersBrendan DuBois
The Logan House, located in the small New England town of Salem Falls, has an interesting history. The new owners purchased the it with dreams of renovating to place into a Victorian bed and breakfast. They even hired a lawyer to make their case before the zoning board. As a publicity stunt, they invited two teenagers to do a paranormal investigation. When one of the investigators drops dead, apparently from a fall, they find themselves with more of a problem than they can handle.

This is another urban legend type short story, like “Hixton.” This one is told from the point of view of the town’s sheriff, which gives it an unexpected twist toward the end. However, it does start off a bit slow though. It’s worth a listen, but not particularly great.

5. MadeedaHarley Jane Kozak
A pregnant woman, her husband, and their 2-year-old twins sold their small Pennsylvania home and moved across the country so that her husband could work his dream job for a major corporation. The dream job turns into a nightmare when her husband accidentally discovers that the company is involved in a white-collar crime cover-up. In their old, fixer-upper home, Jane’s twins start seeing a ghost - Madeeda, a purple witch. The disturbances keep coming. The twins start repeating a series of strange numbers “twelve-e-twenty-one-e.” Jane makes her bed, but a few hours later, it looks like someone had slept there. Jane sees cracks in the window that disappear the next day. The family pet throwing up because the twins insist that Madeeda made the dog sick. The pregnant Jane starts to unexpectedly hemorrhage, which sends her to the hospital after her husband confesses that his company is engaging in crime but that he doesn’t know what to do about it.

There's not enough that can be said about this short story.  I am not surprised that “Madeeda” has been nominated for an International Thriller Writer award. This short story basically has it all. It has a wonderfully creepy tone, and it has a moral theme. You empathize with the narrator, but you also understand what her husband is going through. You even come to feel for Madeeda.

6. House of Horrors - S. W. Hubbard
John and Miriam Harrigan and their two sons, the older Gordon and the younger Christopher, are an average family. Or rather, they were, until they took in Grace, a quiet and precocious 9-year old with a muddled past. The family decides to celebrate the addition of Grace to the family with their first official outing to Seaside Heights at the Jersey Shore. On the family's way into the House of Horrors attraction, a high-school-aged jerk makes fun of Grace's new family. Mysteriously, that jerk disappears inside the fun house. The police get involved. Miriam is sure that Grace is simply a strange little girl because of her past experiences with her disappearing parents, her disappearing uncle, and her abandonment by her other family to the foster system. John starts to suspect Grace has something to do with all the mysterious disappearances. John starts to think the little girl may be more than he bargained for.

This is probably one of my favorite stories in this collection. “House of Horrors” is strangely cerebral in that you really understand where John is coming from, how he’s feeling, and why he’s afraid of the little girl. Moreover, there is no overt supernatural element in this short story. It’s merely a question of belief. Miriam believes it’s all imagination while John believes it’s all real. What makes this story one of my favorites is without a doubt the ending. It’s not climactic, but it’s very satisfying.

7. Sift, Almost Invisible, Through - Jeffrey Somers
Marx is a jaded reporter on the paranormal, so he gets to hear all sorts of strange stories. However, he doesn't know what to make of the one he just received. A man comes to him for help. He brings him photos of himself taken through the years. In different locations and at different times. At his home and in foreign countries. In each photo, there appears to be a man staring at the camera. In the oldest photos, the man is so far away, he's part of the scenery. However, with each more recent photo, the man is getting closer and closer. Marx's new informant swears that not only does he not know the identity of this man, but that, in fact, this man is the man who wasn't there. He was never in the places were the photo was taken. He only exists in those photographs.

This is an interesting story because of the twist in the middle of it, but I found it a bit too The Ring at the end, which if you've ever seen the movie, you'll know is not morally satisfying. It has a nice urban legend feel to it and it's a good listen, but the strange mystery is never really solved so the story didn’t gel with me.

8. The Bedroom Door - Elaine Viets
Francine was never as pretty as her business partner Angela, who has friends with benefits and still maintains a strict professional life. She was never as pretty as her 15-year old daughter. In high school, Francine was a nerd. But she's a happy woman, with a loving husband, a great interior design career, a daughter who will one day surely outgrow her teenage angst. All this changes when Francine's grandmother tells her she saw Angela in her bedroom doorway. You see, Francine’s grandmother has a strange gift, or rather a strange curse. When she sees a person in her bedroom door, that person will is sure to die in three days. And Francine’s grandmother also has a feeling that Angela's death will involve Francine, and a crime of some sort.

Maybe I’m too jaded, but I saw the surprise twist in the end coming pretty early on in this story and it ruined it for me. Also, whenever you have a story where the hero is told in the beginning what will happen to them in the end, and they still step into that scenario, the story may lack credibility it isn’t properly steered. This hero should have, due to circumstances, really, truly, had no choice but to act the way her grandmother had predicted.  However, even in the emotionally charged way that this story was written toward the end, I felt that our hero should have (and more importantly could have) acted differently.

9. The Conqueror Worm - Barbara D'Amato
Neil is a careful man with a guilty conscience. This conscience starts sending Neil emails. Emails from Burko, his friend who had died. Emails that call him by a nickname only he and Burko knew.  Emails that details a night of horror that only he and Burko could remember. Emails that accuse him of being the cause of Burko's death.  Emails that disappear after reading, that don't show up in photos, that no one else can see.

This story definitely has an urban legend feel, which usually makes me enjoy it, but this short story missed the spot for me. There was something that felt kind of O.C.D. about the characters. I didn’t connect with Neil enough to care about him. I cared more about his girlfriend, which made the ending fun and definitely made me smile, but she’s not the main character, so the majority of the story was very Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart.”

10. In Memory of the Sibylline - Lou Kemp
This tale is the beginning of one of the most well-known ghost stories to date. It takes place when most of the Third World was part of some larger European-based empires, back when Britannia ruled the waives. A doctor, his pregnant wife, and his young daughter Felicity find themselves on board with an unscrupulous captain who has dealings with pirates and a mysterious, magical prisoner who is to be kept away from all other persons.The prisoner tells us he has been imprisoned because he practices witchcraft.  We soon learn that he is no prisoner at all, but that all others are really his prisoner.

I loved this story. It’s recognizable, especially now with the popular Pirate of the Caribbean. Parts of the story still remain a mystery, as the short story seems to start at the end.  Perhaps I didn’t pay close enough attention, but I’m not sure exactly what happens at the end either to Felicity or to the doctor. There is entirely too much left to speculation about where the story, or the ship, really goes. Still, I enjoyed the listen.

11. The Bloodflower - Martin Meyers
Hope was ugly, fat, limp hair, bad skin, and had a terrible job in the mail room of the cable station. Then she met Pandora, her landlady, who gave Hope an amulet in honor of the goddess Hecate. Now, Hope is beautiful, sexy, with a great job as a cable producer. She is everything she ever wanted to be, but at what cost?

I did not enjoy this story. I think the author was going for a moral, but I cannot figure out what it was since every character is despicable. Perhaps the point is that beauty is skin deep, but when Hope was ugly, she didn’t seem much better a human being. Her love interest, Rusty, is also morally bankrupt. He best friend is awful.  Her bosses, her coworkers, all terrible human beings.  It just seems like this story is filled to the brim with outwardly beautiful, internally awful humans who end up in a hell of their own making, but deserve each other and deserve to be there.

12. The AwarenessTerrie Farley Moran
A banshee who has followed the O’Connor clan in America has spent her life properly mourning the line and their descendents with the banshee cry to mark each of their deaths. But when the banshee gets the awareness of Casey Rinegold's death, something is different. It isn’t just a death, but likely a murder. And the banshee feel that the proper send off is not to merely wail but to solve the crime and bring the murderer to justice.

This story is a typical mystery with some fun references to Irish lore. Personally, I always roll my eyes when at the end the culprit spills all of her or her plans and reasons for killing and how it was done. It just seems too easy. But overall, a surprisingly fun listen,

13. TadesvilleJack Fredrickson
Jim Crack (as in Jimmy crack corn) returned from the war to Michigan in 1954. He, the banjo man, and his veteran buddies, who play the jug and the washboard, travel town to town, playing grassroots favorites and then “browsing” or rather stealing and pilfering the town before high-tailing to the next one. Then they come upon Tadesville, a seemingly abandoned village that no one's heard of. When no one comes out to hear them play and sing, the boys go browsing. Jim Crack refuses. He is starting to worry about his choices in life, about his moral standing. Instead of stealing gasoline in random garages as he's instructed to do, he walks down the road and finds a woman in the woods of Tadesville. She's beautiful.  She asks him if he’s “greedy."  The beautiful woman him a cheap-looking ring and tells him they'll wait and see.

This was a strangely depressing story. It reminds me of something that happened to a bunch of Odysseus’s men in the Odyssey. Rolling with that theme, the whole grassroots hoedown band reminds me of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? I honestly didn’t expect it to be depressing. It was a good listen, but the ending threw me through a loop.

14. LimboSteve Brewer
A hired thug wakes up in the morgue, light streaming out of bullet hole in his head. He has no memory of what happened, how he got there, and who tried to kill him. But has some memory of some of the bad guys he's had dealings with.  The thug binds up his head, steals the clothes off the morgue attendant he scared to death by rising, and is out to find out who killed him and to make that person pay.

I didn’t particularly like this story. The characters is typical as are the twists. What I did like in this short story was the sense of karma and the idea of killing someone you hate twice.

15. The InsiderMike Wiecek
Earnest Appleworth comes to a private security man, one who specializes in ghosts and used to work for the Lehman Brothers, with a very strange problem. Earnest is making too much money. A ghost of a horribly massacred man in tattered businessware is giving Earnest tips on the stock market. The ghost is always right. So is it a crime for Earnest to accept these tips? Is it a case of insider trading? That depends on who this ghost was in real life. Earnest would like the security man to find out.

This story was saved by the twist ending. The ghost’s motivations in making Earnest rich don’t particularly jive with me. I didn’t really care one way or the other who killed the ghost. What hits the spot is the answer to the real question: how does this ghost know which stocks to bid on? Surely ghosts can’t go forward in time, so how can our nameless ghost always be right on which stocks will make money? The answer is a bit like peeking under a magician's sleeve.  It will make you smile.

16. Swing ShiftDana Cameron
It’s war-time America, maybe 1940s, and Jake is asked by his friend, Harry, an FBI man, to fly to Boston to investigate how government secrets are being leaked out of a research facility in Cambridge. Jake plays the part of a janitor and easily discovers that one of the research workers is unwittingly leaking information to her boyfriend. But the case is just too easy. Why couldn’t Harry figure it out himself?

This story had a nice war-time feel to it that will appeal to those who enjoy a good historical story. As a mystery, it’s okay. As a paranormal mystery, I thought it was a bit overdone. There were a lot of gratuitous supernaturals in such a short story to make sense. It was almost like the Justice League of vampires, shapeshifters, etc.

17. Riding HighCarolyn Hart
Bailey Ruth is a ghost – er, “emissary” - who works for the Department of Good Intentions. Her job is to assist those in trouble. Bailey Ruth isn’t that great at sticking to all the rules though and is on probation when she finishes her last mission.  She followed the rules this time, but has to wait for the Express to take her to heaven, and that means hovering over a country club for a few hours. Getting restless, Bailey Ruth notices a woman who seems to be a victim of domestic violence, and simply has to intervene, rules be damned – er, darned.

This story is just plain cute. There is a twist in the middle that I didn’t see coming, but from that point on, cute is the word to describe it.

18. Grave Matter Max Allan Collins & Mickey Spillane
In the early 1950s, Mike Hammer (the hero of the 1947 “I, the Jury” comic) is a big-shot detective from New York City.  He comes to the sorry little hamlet of Hopeful to investigate the death of his friend, Bill Reynolds. Bill was a football hero, a war hero, and ended up a disabled veteran working in Hopeful as a handyman. Then, Bill’s body was found in the park, and the police assumed Bill was hit by a car. Hammer finds out that Bill had worked for the gorgeous, secretive Dr. Victory Riddle. Hammer finds out that Dr. Riddle’s last handyman was also an amputee like Bill. And who also died mysteriously.

The story is very, unsurprisingly, comic-book like. Mike Hammer is your average trench-coat-wearing, big-talking, New York City investigator in a small town. Victory Riddle is your average mad-scientist with a killer body and maybe a killer mind. There are very few surprises, and I’m still not sure there was anything supernatural in this short story.

19. Death of a VampireParnell Hall

“How do you kill a vampire? Silver bullets?”
“That’s werewolves.”
“That’s French bread.”
A private investigator is hired by a Columbia student, a goth chick who wants the private investigator to find out if her boyfriend is truly a vampire. The girl’s father is also very curious about the young man, whom he hates. But our investigator can’t seem to pin the so-called vampire down. He talks to him, but can’t get a straight answer. The next thing he knows, the vampire's dead and so is the answer to his identity.

Like with “Grave Matter,” and “House of Horrors,” I’m not sure there’s anything supernatural in this short story, but I suppose that’s the point. It’s cheeky, but the story has the same problem I’ve seen in a few other stories like "Bloodflower": I don’t sympathize with any of the characters. The goth chick/client is too annoying and childish. The perhaps-vampire boyfriend is too philosophical and evasive. Our investigator and his friend are too callous and self-interested. I understand the dilemma, but I'm not engaged enough to care about these people.

20. Taking the Long ViewToni L. P. Kelner
Marc, a freshly turned vampire, goes to a gala with his maker and lover Stella. The party is thrown by Ramon, the joker of the vampire community, for Velmous, Stella and Ramon’s maker. The party turns into a murder mystery after a beautiful human concubine, Rinette, is suspected of having killed her vampire employer Jeff. Marc, a contract attorney, is certain that Rinette – however greedy and dumb – is innocent. He takes on her case to keep her from being sentenced as a slave to Jeff’s maker.

I liked this story. I didn’t see the ending coming, and even though the main characters are all of the fanged variety, the story illustrates all the same human flaws that undeath can’t seem to cure like lust, greed, betrayal, love, pride and financial dependence. It’s a regular dinner-theater murder mystery with a little Perry Mason thrown in.

On Narration:
This short story compilation was narrated by Natalie Ross and Jeff Cummings.  I am familiar with Natalie Ross's narrations through her reading of Karen Marie Moning's Dreamfever and Shawdowfever, reviewed here, with Phil Gigante.  Therefore, I expected that like. with Phil Gigante, Natalie Ross and Jeff Cummings would duly read the stories, each adding the vocals for female or male voices respectively.  I was a bit let down when I realized that Natalie Ross read half the stories and Jeff Cummings read the rest without any collaboration.  For me, this hurt Jeff Cummings's readings more than Natalie Ross's, because I always find men mimicking female voices a bit comical.  I enjoyed most of Natalie Ross's readings in that her voice has a soft lilt that complemented some stories, like "Riding High" and "Small Change."  That same voice unfortunately emphasized the things I didn't like in other stories, like the rather naive and slightly petty tone of "Bedroom Door." Jeff Cummings has a great voice for film-noir type stories like "Grave Matter," where his reading of the small-town police chief actually gives the man's voices a "blubbering" edge.  However, Jeff Cumming's voice is just too cheerful for most of these stories.  I think his reading was what threw me most in "Tadesville," which I expected from his fun and happy tone to have not be as depressing as the story turned out.  But then again, that cheerful tone also threw me in "the Trespasser," which added to the twist in the story.