Barry is usually doing reviews for FFB, but today he takes a break from that to review the new MURDER ON WHEELS anthology. This book is also in my tbr pile which has suddenly gotten bigger in recent days due to a flood of books.
MURDER ON WHEELS (2015) edited by Ramona DeFelice Long
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
A product of the Austin Mystery Writers group, along with two invited guest authors, this is an anthology of, as stated on the cover, “11 tales of crime on the move.”
The collection’s genesis is explained in an introduction by Kaye George, after which its engine starts (or should I say revs?) with “A Nice Set of Wheels,” by Kathy Waller. Young Rosemary, the story’s narrator, having been raised in an agrarian region by her Aunt Violet and over-protective store owner Uncle Harry, sees drifter Campbell Reed as a savior. Reed hopes to find enough work locally to buy a car to take him to California. But when Wanda Patterson is murdered, the question arises as to whether Reed is savior or slayer.
We learn from the narrator of Reavis Z. Wortham’s “Family Business” about the history of generations of Lamar County’s Caissen family and how they went from basic farming to illegally distilling whiskey and later growing marijuana, and how a violent feud developed with their Red River County opposition.
The title of the next story, “Rota Fortunae,” means “wheel of fate.” It’s also the name of the ship bound from England to America that fourteen-year-old Tim has stowed away on. Unfortunately for Tim and the rest of the crew, Captain John Claymore makes Jack London’s Wolf Larsen look like a philanthropist by comparison. The particular wheel in V.P. Chandler’s absorbing story is quite unusual, and I won’t say anything more about it to avoid spoiling the surprise. My only quibbles concern what appears to be inadequate proofreading. We’re told in the opening sentence that Tim’s last name is Brooks, but Tim tells Claymore his surname is Preston. Later on, someone whose English is generally impeccable, relating events that happened in the past, says, “I thought the storm has returned….” Further along in the same paragraph he says “the wheel spinned” instead of spun. (Italics mine.)
Hired by the shapely green-eyed redhead to find her missing sister, Alice Wonderland, Hollywood P.I. Jake Grimm suspects that criminal mastermind Mome Rath has kidnapped her. But his investigation plunges him down a rabbit hole to a world of murder, deceit, and slithy toves. Framed for the murder of Joey Dormouse, can he acquit himself and find innocent, convent-raised Alice, or will Mome Rath outgrabe him? Gale Albright delivers a jabberwock of a hardboiled tale that gyres and gimbles in “Mome Rath, My Sweet.”
What should be a routine run from Knoxville to Washington, DC as “The Wheels On the Bus Go Round and Round” turns into the ride from Hell when one particular passenger’s unjustly rude and insulting behavior toward his fellow riders turns the atmosphere uncomfortable for them and, ultimately, fatal for him. Points she raises in the introduction make it obvious that this story by Kaye George was the impetus for this anthology. My only quibble with it is that the murder is solved a little too quickly and easily.
The Murphy family is less than enchanted that their youngest daughter and sibling, Mary, has married Marco Campisi in Laura Oles’s “Buon Viaggio.” Marco is arrogant and rude toward the Murphys, feigns affection while revealing indifference toward his bride, and apparently intends to blackmail the family into letting him join the “family business” they restrict to blood members only. The Murphys own a successful pub, but also have this other “business” they hold sacred and which, by implication only, is criminal. We’re never told its actual nature. I hate having to cavil, but my inner editor has a problem with awkward and redundant sentences: “The conversation stopped as Marco returned to the kitchen, his plate showing most of the pasta remaining on his plate”; sentences which are missing words: “Kathleen retrieved a beer from inside door of the fridge and handed it to him”; and sentences which are grammatically incorrect: “Taking note of the patrons nearby, he leaned in, closing the space between he and Marco.”
Pork chop-loving Faye Lawton’s retired husband has become obsessed with bicycling, physical fitness, and healthy foods, and Faye gradually convinces herself there’s something sinister behind it all. When she meets one of the members of Fred’s cycling group, a blue-eyed blonde with a deep tan and “a nice tight butt,” and then learns Fred has been looking at condominiums, she decides it’s time for an “Aporkalypse Now” in a darkly comic tale by Gale Albright, making her second appearance in the collection. Have I yet another quibble? Yes, but only a minor one. Does Fred want to sell the house he and Faye have lived in since they were married, as Faye fears, or has he another reason for checking out condos? We aren’t told.
Kaye George makes a second appearance with a story about Prissy and Trey, a couple married for nearly a year who have had to postpone their honeymoon, and Abigail, Trey’s possessive and interfering mother. Their work schedules finally in sync, Prissy and Trey hope to “Have a Nice Trip” to a Virgin Islands belated honeymoon. The only obstacle is the ever-demanding Mother Abigail, who will resort to subterfuge, if necessary, to keep her beloved son close to home. What’s to be done about Mother?
When his friend Lynn Ryan, who oversees the local school bus system, wakens Southlake’s police chief with the news that there’s a “Dead Man on a School Bus,” the former Fort Worth, Texas detective has to investigate the first homicide—and a pretty grisly one—the suburb has seen in ten years. The manner of the victim’s death is identical to one he’d seen two years earlier. When Lynn describes someone who has been seen around the parking lot for the past few days, the chief has a lead he wishes he didn’t have in a potent tale from Earl Staggs which is less whodunit than whydunit.
She used to be “Hell on Wheels,” but when Bonnie Lu Urquhart begins to show signs of dementia, some of which could land her in prison, her daughter Marva Lu calls a conference with her brothers Frank and Lonnie and sister Bonita, and suggests that it’s time to “put Mama out of her misery.” They balk at the idea until she reminds them of the money they’ll inherit while sparing Mama the indignities of full-blown dementia and, possibly, incarceration for the remainder of her life. She devises a scheme that involves the local magistrate, Judge Vardaman, who has always been sweet on Mama. Does everything proceed as planned in the entertaining black comedy Kathy Waller provides in her second appearance? Do I really have to ask savvy readers of crime fiction that question?
The anthology concludes with “Red’s White F-150 Blues” by Scott Montgomery, in which narrator Red Clark is asked by an old friend of dubious character, one Billy Ray Bryant, if he’ll garage as a favor Billy Ray’s F-150 truck for a couple of weeks. Knowing his wife Britney will disapprove, Red nevertheless agrees. Britney’s disapproval intensifies until she and Red see a news story which suggests that Billy Ray was involved in a bank robbery and murder and that they’re harboring a getaway vehicle. Then Britney has an idea of her own which propels Red into the presence of Tinker, who strongly identifies with Conan the Barbarian. Have fun reading this one, but with the caveat that it contains raunchy language which might offend some readers.
Although a few stories display, to my mind, a kind of hastiness, a rush to finish them prematurely when further development might have been in order, overall—my quibbles notwithstanding— the collection is a diverting read.
E-book provided by the publisher in return for my objective review.
© 2015 Barry Ergang