By Jonathan Woods
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
review of Jan Burke's short story collection Apprehended, I remarked that the mystery/ suspense short story is a critically endangered species. Not soon after I wrote that, I received a index from someone that listed all the markets for mystery short fiction. Most of them were internet or very indie magazines, but the case was made. There is still a demand for mystery short fiction. Then a friend clued me to to Jeff Strand's darkly funny Stalking You Now to which I gave a nice review to. As if I wasn't chastised enough, New Pulp Press, a small but hearty bastion of literary crime noir books, sent me a copy of Phone Call from Hell and Other Tales of the Damned by Jonathon Woods. OK, I get the message. Mystery and crime short fiction is doing fine...but you have to know where to look.
If you are looking for short thrillers, you can't do better than Jonathan Woods' new collection of literary crime noir. It isn't really mystery. I don't think there is a real whodunnit in the stack of 17 short stories. But these are rough and gritty pieces of crime noir that equal anything coming from Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, or any other major writer in the genre. Woods even gives the contemporary crime noir writers like Joe R. Lansdale and Charlie Huston a run for their money although his style is a little more hard-nosed and more retro partly because he seems to like settings and exotic eras like corrupt tropical countries and sleazy LA underbelly environments. I noticed that the author christens his works as "Southern Noir" on his website but I didn't see anything exclusively southern about them although there is definitely a strong sense of influence from writers like Flannery O'Connor and David Grubb. The stories are the kind that will have readers swooning over Chandleresque lines like "A wave of lust oozed over me like the melted cheese from a perfect enchilada," or"She was as drinkable as a Black Russian on a slow night."While many of his stories have little twists at the end they are usually the kind of intelligently subtle kind that makes the reader thinks, "I better read that again". And others are more like character studies that examine a certain type of loser mindset. I say 'Loser" not because these people are unlikeable although they often are . It just that they are people who you wouldn't want to be or, at the very least, wouldn't want to be in their shoes.
It would be impossible to cover all 17 tales so here's a few that will give a inkling of the range and quality in this collection. The opening tale, "The Handgun's Story" is a short and sweet perspective of murder by the gun's perspective. It's a clever answer to "Guns don't kill people, People kill people". Perhaps those people had a little help, don' t you think? "Writer's Block" is one of those character studies involving Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene dealing with the title problem. As far as pure reading enjoyment, this is one of my favorite. "The Old Man" is also a favorite mainly for the buildup and unexpected ending. "The Other" features escape and a manhunt that not only go beyond expectation but is maybe the best story of a superlative bunch. For some reason that I am not sure why, but "The Other Suitcase" reminds me of John Huston's film Beat the Devil, perhaps because they both seem like parodies of The Maltese Falcon. Finally the title story and "Hearing Voices" are especially interesting because they straddle the line between an implausible reality and madness, letting the reader to decide.
It's safe to say that Jonathon Woods doesn't take it easy on his readers. He expect them to work at reading these slightly crazy and dark suspense tales and he doesn't expect them to come out indifferent and detached to what they read. That is a major strength. These are the type of crime noir tales that will be read for decades and they will make sure there are readers still around for this seedy but insightful form of entertainment. OK, I relent. Suspense and mystery short fiction is alive and well as long as we have writers like Jonathan Woods stirring the pot.