OFF THE RECORD, Edited by Luca Veste (2011, Guilty Conscience)
38 stories were selected for this anthology to promote literacy (Why not 33 and a 1/3? But I digress….). The only stipulation was that each story, from some of the best new crime writers, had to be based around a classic song title. What results is a razor sharp collection of tales from both sides of the Big Pond. Most of these can be read in one sitting, excellent for those of us with not enough time on our hands.
Neil White begins with “Stairway to Heaven”, about the fate of a prisoner doing time for murder one. He dreams of the ultimate escape, but his sins may not take him in the direction desired. Depressing story, but with a fitting conclusion.
“Respect” by Col Bury takes place in contemporary England. A gang of street toughs are waiting for their order in a take-out place. But another patron is waiting for his too. They think he’s weak. They are about to find out just how wrong they are. Reads like a superhero “origin”.
“God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” by Steve Mosby is creepy. It’s told from the point-of-view of a man who saw the sea take someone dear to him. He’s never left the coast and spends his days searching for the bodies of drowning victims. In the end, we’re never quite sure if the sea itself is the killer.
Les Edgerton contributes with “Small Change”. Two men sit at a bar and talk. One is a former convict, the other a writer. The convict tells the story of a punk who tried to shoot him. In the end we learn why a 0.38 works different than a 0.22.
“I Wanna Be Your Dog” happens to be my favorite song by Iggy and The Stooges. It’s also the title of a story contribution by Heath Lowrance. This one starts out about a young punk scowling over the funeral of his father. It quickly turns into a story about the upbringing of a serial killer.
A J Hayes offers “Light My Fire”. An artist who has committed murder finally confronts his pursuer and has the chance to explain himself. He manages to come to terms with what he has done and the punishment for it fits the crime.
“Redemption Song” by Sean Patrick Readon is the tale of six Irish kids who turn into gangsters in Boston. But the particulars of their growing up involves a death. A death which will soon be revenged in a gruesome manner.
“Down In the Tube Station at Midnight” by Ian Ayris goes back to the UK. It’s a short segment in the life of a hit man who hates his job. He’s got another assignment and regrets what he has to do. But it pays well. Plus, he has a family to support.
Nick Triplow’s “A New England” is another story from the other side of the lake. A riot squad is going into action against a potential outbreak of political violence. They’ve trained hard, but anything can and will happen. It feels like a slide picture dropped from a history book.
“Shelia Take a Bow” by Charlie Wade is easy the creepiest story in the collection. A small businessman has to get rid of his buxom secretary because his wife has taken a dislike to her. The wife also has a wicked swing with a golf club. And this is just the beginning.
Ian Rowan’s ‘Purple Haze” has two university students slumming through a housing project looking for some good drugs. But they walk into a deal gone bad. What results is the biggest rush of their lives.
My favorite story in the collection is “Free Bird” by Thomas Pluck. A Vietnam veteran and his son share a bonding experience around the father’s Trans Am. Whereas most of these stories have bad ends, this one actually surprised me with an uplifting conclusion.
“Venus in Furs” by Matthew C. Funk manages to get in the spirit of the original Velvet Underground song. A crook finds himself in a codependent relationship with a femme fatale. She wants him to make the ultimate sacrifice for her. Will he do it?
“Dock of the Bay” by R. Thomas Brown manages to be topical and grim at the same time. A banker is on his way down. He’s caught his wife with another man, but comes up with a sinister plan for revenge.
“Shadowboxer” by Chris Rhatigan left me a little confused. It’s a stream-of-consciousness story told from the view of a man on the run. Or is it? He’s racing past lone towns and isolated farms in the American mid-west. I think.
“Roll Me Away” by Patti Abbot concerns a motorcycle racer and his lust for glory. He achieves transcendence in the end, but not the kind I’d like.
Chad Rohrbacher’s “I Wanna Be Sedated” begins with a man observing his own funeral. He then goes on to watch his son grow up and make some of his same mistakes. But his grandson may turn out better. A nice, but bitter story from inside the head of a dying man. I think.
“Back in Black- A Hiram Van Story” by Court Merrigan begins with the protagonist telling two russian girls: ‘If you want to live, listen to me.’ The girls have rolled a Russian mobster and they’re on the run. The teller may be too late to save them.
“Life on Mars?” by Paul Brazill reads like an unpublised section of A Clockwork Orange. Two English punks survive their regin of terror on the local community with one in jail and the other going off to college and becoming respectable. But the jailbird eventually gets out and tracks down his old companion.
“Superstition” by Nick Boldock is the only story in this collection with a supernatural twist. A gambler discovers the cat hanging around his house can bring him good luck. But sometimes good luck streaks come to an end.
“Bye Bye Baby” by Victoria Watson is a little hard to write about. A mother refuses to come to grips with a tragedy and more depressing scenes occur. Not for new parents with anxiety.
“Blood on the Dance Floor” is the offering from Benoit Lelievre. I enjoyed his selection in the last Beat to a Pulp anthology, so I was looking forward to his contribution in this one. He doesn’t disappoint. Two smooth dancers at a club challenge each other to a competition for the hottest girl. But be careful for what you wish for because you just might get it.
“American Pie” by Ron Earl Phillips goes in a different direction than I had expected. Tons of ink have been written about the classic Don McLean song (somebody even spent two years putting together a series of tapes on it). Phillips uses it as a tale of baseball and broken dreams. There is a ray of light at the end.
“Detroit Rock City” by Chris La Tray would make a good opening to a drive-in movie. Two Bonnie and Clyde wannabees attempt to rob an Indian casino with unexpected results.
Nigel Bird’s “Super Trouper” has a war vet buying a pair of shoes. This allows him to tell an interesting story of what happened in Afghanistan. You can’t be too careful.
“So Low, So High” is from Pete Sortwell. A man argues with his doctor about the medication he’s taking. It’s either the start or conclusion of something horrible.
“Behind Blue Eyes” by Julie Morrigan is a good adaptation on the old Who song. I always thought the original was about a gunfighter in the wild west. Her take involves a British gangster and the underling who tried to rip him off. Sometimes hard decisions have to be made.
“Paranoid” by David Barber. It’s a good interpretation of Black Sabbath. Now we know what drove the man in the song insane.
“Nights in White Satin” by McDroll isn’t exactly what I thought the Moody Blues song was about, but it works just the same. A woman suffering from mental issues comes to a bad conclusion.
“Be my Baby- Killing for Company” by Cath Bore is a police procedural story about a crime scene investigator looking into a murdered youth. Plus points for an original ending I didn’t expect.
“California Dreamin'” by Eric Beetner is a tale of love and revenge which fits the landscape to perfection. The ending is a little unresolved, but it works just the same.
Told mostly in the form of a conversation “A Day in the Life- How Many Holes” by Steve Weddle concerns a man taking a lady friend to see her dying mother. We do learn a lot about both of them on the trip.
“The Karma Police” by Darren Sant is a variation on “The Most Dangerous Game” . In the future, contestants fight for survival and the game is televised.
Simon Logan’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is an industrial fiction story set in the near future. A graffiti artist is paid by a corporate sponsor to paint one more slogan. But he has a unique interpretation to the job.
“Comfortably Numb” by editor Luca Veste is about a British bag snatcher, or a “grab and run” artist. He’s been snatching women’s purses for years, but his biggest target just might lead to a final downfall.
“Death or Glory” by Nick Quantrill is another painful tale. A man decided to keep his band together over the years and work a crap job on the side. Fame eludes him while his wife’s career takes off. Anyone whoever lived for music can identify with this one.
“Two Little Boys” by Helen FitzGerald strays into Margaret St. Clair territory with a story about two gay men and a psychotic relationship councilor. Black humor at it’s finest.
Finally, Ray Banks gives us his take on The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”. This is a familiar story of a love relationship gone sour. The woman strives onward while the husband turns into a useless pile. The ending comes with rivers of blood.
This is another excellent collection of short crime fiction by an assortment of current writers. It’s of uniform high quality. I was glad to see some authors I’m already familiar with standing next to ones I’ve just discovered. There’s a lot to look forward to from all of them.