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Bound by Mystery: Celebrating 20 Years of Poisoned Pen Press (2017)

de Priscilla Royal, Diane D. DiBiase (Editor)

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In celebration of their 20th anniversary, Poisoned Pen Press commissioned original short stories from thirty-five of its authors, past and present.

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In 2017, Poisoned Pen Press, a small mystery publisher out of Scottsdale, Arizona, celebrated its 20th anniversary and decided that the best way to celebrate is to get some of their authors to contribute a story for an anthology. 35 of them ended up in the anthology, with 34 stories (one was co-written). For readers of the press, the anthology will be a nice way to revisit old favorites; for new readers, it will be a way to get introduced to the type of stories they publish. Everyone wins. Of course, history being cruel, the independent Poisoned Pen Press did not make it much longer after that celebration - Sourcebooks acquired them in 2018 and Poisoned Pen Press became their mystery imprint (and if you are thinking - well, at least it was not one of the big ones, Penguin Random House acquired 45% of Sourcebooks in 2019 so even though Sourcebooks are still standing as independent, they are almost in one of the big ones). I don't know if the acquisition was already planned for when the anthology was published, there is nothing in the editor's foreword that hinted at it. But be that as it may, the anthology got published and I found it one day while looking at the library stacks.

As most anthologies, some of the stories worked for me and some failed. I've only heard of a few of the authors who contributed (but I plan to check the novels of most of them) and I had read only a couple of them before. I've known of the publisher for awhile (especially since i moved to Arizona and they are practically in my back yard) but never actively pursued their books. That may be about to change after this anthology.

The stories are short (only one crosses the 20 pages marker and not by much) and a few are under 10 pages. Each of them starts with a note by the author - either telling the reader how they became a Poisoned Pen Press author or waxing lyrically about the press. It i a celebration of an anniversary after all. Some of them were more interesting to read than others; if you read too many of them in a row, they start getting repetitive - but then that's expected - there aren't that many way for that story to unfold. And while the introductions were similar, the stories were anything but. Some of them are part of the series that the authors are publishing with the Press, some are independent ones (and some of the ones I did not think are series ones may as well be - I had not read most of these series).

Gold Digger by Reavis Z. Wortham - in 1934, a boy sees a man killed for talking to another man's wife. He grows up (by way of the Pacific Theater of WWII) and when he is back home and some more years pass, he finally figures out why that man died. A sweet story of a regular Joe investigating without even trying to.

Gone Phishing by Tim Maleeny - when a small time swindler gets pressed by the gangs, he decides to use the internet to get back at them. The result surprises everyone, including our swindler. Not an uncommon premise lately but the author makes it work here beautifully and the end of the story made me laugh. Unintended consequences indeed.

Bomb Booth by Charlotte Hinger - kids can be dangerous - especially when they are cute and you are trying to become their step-father and have a secret. Using the wanna-be step dad as the narrator makes the story better.

Be My Friend by Donis Casey - a psychological tale of a man who is convinced that his neighbor is almost stalking him. It verges on creepy in places.

Telling Tales by Ann Parker - based on a real legend from 1879 (it is unclear if is a real story or if a different story kinda changed into that), we have a sheriff trying to find out how the stage gets hit every time it carries money - the days are a secret, only a few trusted people know about the timing and yet, the bandits somehow always know. As it turns out, the explanation was in front of his eyes but it took a tragedy to see it. One of my favorite stories in the anthology.

Lure for Murder by Mark de Castrique, part of the Sam Blackman series - a man is found dead in the river and the investigation hinges on specialist knowledge. Moral of the story: if you plan on killing someone, don't use their hobby as part of it if you do not understand it.

Quito by J. M. Donellan - a man's head is frozen in a cryogenic facility after his death so that he can be revived one day when medicine evolves enough for that. His daughter is not very happy about that for various reasons and decides to do something about it.

Nantucket Plunder by Steven Axelrod - part of the Henry Kennis series. A painter is accused of a set of burglaries (apparently not for the first time). Proving who is responsible requires some creative thinking.

Sunday Drive by James Sallis - one of the authors I had heard of before (but never read). Unfortunately it was also one of the stories that felt flat - I am not sure what the point of it was. It was well written but it is more of a vignette - maybe it makes more sense if you had read some of his novels.

Paternoster Pea by Priscilla Royal, part of Medieval Mysteries - Prioress Eleanor is asked to discover the truth about a maiden's pregnancy, without any bloodshed. Being the wise woman she apparently is, she devises a way.

Olive Growers by Jeffrey Siger - the story is set in Greece just like his Inspector Kaldis series but does not seem to be part of the series. The last independent olive press owner in the valley does not like it when a consortium tries to squeeze everyone and ends up harming a young woman who is trying to help the growers. Of course, his past helps him -- he had not always been an olive grower.

Her Mama's Pearls by Vicki Delany is a ghost story that takes awhile to actually present itself as one. If one pays attention, it becomes clear long before the end of the short tale though.

Chaos Points by Meg Dobson (aka M. Dobson), part of the Kami Files series. The only YA tale in the anthology has a team of teenagers trying to trap a man who preys on young women. The story was a bit too short for its own good.

Two Bits, Four Bits, Six Bits... by Frederick Ramsay - two boys find a gun and a dead man turns out to have been killed with it. I found this one to be one of the better mysteries in the book - while there was an inkling of what was going on, the narrator and the way the story was told worked nicely.

Dodo by Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel - another supernatural tale (or is it?) sees a man coming back to the town he was born in - and ending up seeing his brother die under interesting circumstances. He is convinced the death was supernatural, the town has its own explanation which is anything but.

Corazonada by Warren C. Easley - a gun, a woman and a murder. What better way to start a story. Add a set-up and a police force ready to go for the obvious and things get complicated before the truth emerges.

Time's Revenge by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer, part of the John the Eunuch Mysteries | Death in Byzantium series. When relying on a clock for an alibi, it may be a good idea to consider the murdered man's hobby.

Taking the Waters by Kerry Greenwood, a Phryne Fisher story (and this is the only series I had read anything from in the anthology). The longest tale in the book (not by much though), Miss Fisher is called to solve the mystery of a missing girl who disappeared close to a sanatorium for men who suffer from shell-shock after the war.

Reading by the Polish Author by Vasudev Murthy is a meta tale about conventions, authors, book sales and what's not presented in the style of Wodehouse. It works... kinda. Not awful but closer to a parody of the style than a homage I think.

Wild by Name, Wild by Nature by Jane Finnis - part of the Aurelia Marcella series, set on Roman Britannia. A gladiator and his manager stop by the inn before a big battle and things don't go as smoothly as expected. I am not sure if the whole series is told in that manner (telling a tale from years ago) or if it is just this story but it worked here - both because it allowed the ending to happen and because it is the kind of story that requires later knowledge to tell properly.

Customer by Laurie R. King - the other author I am familiar with as a name (but never read) gives us a meta story where the wife of a certain detective stops by a certain Scottsdale bookstore. It is a cute little story albeit only adjacent to the genre. But then it fits the anthology. I am surprised they did not close the volume with it.

Reciprocity by Catherine A. Winn - if you are going to cheat, don't let your wife find out. Or pick your lover better. The story is short enough for the surprise ending to work - even if it is a somewhat common scenario in stories and novels lately.

Price of Belief by Dennis Palumbo, part of Daniel Rinaldi Mysteries series. When a man is accused of a crime, he is ready to kill himself - and a psychologist risks his life in the belief that the man is innocent and is unable to kill another human being. I loved the ending of the story - not because of how the crime is solved of how the psychologist reacts to the whole ordeal.

Stranding by Sulari Gentill - a young couple find some coats on the beach in Sidney and decides to investigate (after all she works or a newspaper, even if they are trying to keep her to the society pages now that men are back from the war) - and gets in trouble when the coats are tied to Jewish refugees from WWII.

Mabel, Still Gathering Wisdom by Carolyn Wall is one of the few stories I really did not get the point of. It follows the life of a woman, Mabel Arizona, who seems to talk to the spirits, finds herself a man (despite being too old according to the tribe) and then lives, with the spirits helping (and her ingenuity assisting when they don't). I really have no idea what the point was or what this story is doing in the book. At least it was short.

Game, Set, Match by Zoe Burke starts with a kidnapped woman and ends up with a couple of dead men. I enjoyed the way the story developed and how the truth of what was really going on did not come out until the end.

Hort-Head Homicide by Anne Littlewood (credited elsewhere as Ann Littlewood - not sure if this book or earlier credits were wrong or if the name changed...), part of the Zoo Mysteries series (or adjacent to it) has the narrator, a specialist in animals, do a favor to her injured mother and drive her to a gardener convention. Before long there is a dead man and it does not help that he is a man everyone hates. It takes a gardener to actually solve the mystery. I enjoyed the story but I suspect it will work even better for avid gardeners.

Cry of the Loon by Janet Hubbard is a short tale about friendship and just how much you can push your friends before you end up in trouble.

Judge Jillian by David Moss deals with a celebrity judge with a show who manages to solve a murder while judging a pair of men on another matter. Not bad although the style was a bit too hip in places (but then so is the setting so it fits).

Clear Knights by J. C. Lane (who based on the introduction appears to be Judy Clemens) gives us a company of teenagers who drive people who get a bit over the limit home in their own cars (so they don't need to then remember where the car may be). When one of their potential clients ends up dead, it takes awhile to sort out what happened.

Disguise by David P. Wagner takes place in the Vatican and in Rome where a man is trying to get to the bottom of a secret in the Holy City. It is a very short tale and it works because it is short. Saying anything more will spoil it.

Sage Advice by Kelly Garrett - a woman, a co-owner of a coffee-cart in Portland, ends up trying to find a man while dressed in a wedding dress (it's a long story) and after being roped into it by her sister with a lie. As it turns out, the man has a good reason not to want to be found by the people looking for him. It was a quirky tale with a quirky narrator that was actually enjoyable.

Girls with Tools by Triss Stein - during the War (WWII), girls ended up working everywhere - including at the ship yard. So did men with not exactly good intentions and not just about the girls. Interesting take on the stories of spies in vital industries during the war (well, he may even have succeeded if he had not decided to go after a girl...)

Fox in the Hand by Tina Whittle - a Wiccan is asked for an opinion about a dagger found at a crime scene and that ends up being a bit more complicated than expected.

A few concluding notes:
- There are some reviews online that point out that at least some of the stories are actually parts of novels. As is often the case, it is not clear if the story or the novel came first and it is to be expected in an anthology like that. It may be obvious if one reads the series but all the stories had a beginning and an end and work on their own - and that is the best one can ask for sometimes. I can see some of the author getting the ideas and even the stories and folding them into a later novel though - and I, for one, find that an acceptable thing - why lose a good tale if most of the readers will only read the novels?
- While the stories may be uneven, the overall anthology was enjoyable. Not great, not perfect but if you like the genre, there are worse ways to spend a few days and much worse way to find new authors
- The only bad news is that now my TBR pile of new series is much much bigger than when I started reading this book... ( )
  AnnieMod | Mar 24, 2023 |
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In celebration of their 20th anniversary, Poisoned Pen Press commissioned original short stories from thirty-five of its authors, past and present.

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