Hard-hitting yet big-hearted, this new series of crime fiction kicks off with a collection of hardboiled tales of corruption, adultery, payback, intrigue and outrage. Some short story collections are themed around a time of year or special event. CSM takes a different approach with a guest editor, a notable writer from the criminal (fiction…) community, for each edition. This means that each issue will have a different flavour, reflecting the editor’s individual predilections.
This issue’s editor is Eric Beetner who is big on contemporary neo-noir, on cynical protagonists and gritty, witty, bitter-sweet storylines. He’s the master of the triple-switch plot-twist so it’s no surprise that his own story – which kicks off this compilation – is simply stuffed full of surprises. What starts as a straightforward tale of domestic infidelity rapidly escalates into a stickily viscous mess with all the casualties you might expect (and some you definitely won’t). Beetner’s skill is in enhancing the action with the moral ambiguity of his characters; delicately demonstrating how easily some humans can shed their skins when it suits them.
The other seven stories are, in the main, similarly sophisticated. You can read them as uncompromising accounts of justified revenge and betrayal, or see past the blood-spatter, baseball bats and bullets to the subtle subtext. Art Taylor does this brilliantly in ‘Restoration’ where he neatly skewers the fear-mongering tactics of insurance industry without so much as bruising a knuckle. He brings genuine menace to an average suburban family without the need for overt blunt force trauma.
The action is similarly cerebral in the entertaining On Tilt by James Queally, where a game of Texas Hold ’Em is played for the highest stakes. Things turn a little lighter in ‘Tuning The Old Joanna’ by Tess Makovesky (who knew that a sash window could be utilised as an offensive weapon?), while The Line by CJ Edwards is a stylish interpretation of undercover policing, a la The Wire.
Some of these stories are outright violent, explicit both in word and deed, but there was only one instance which felt as if the brutality of the characters was the core of the story. The majority manage to cram complex sub-plots concerning redemption, betrayal and human dignity into their scant number of pages. None are very long, and none out-stay their welcome.
An interview with Beetner rounds out the anthology and makes for fascinating reading if you’ve not encountered his writing before. He also recommends a dozen current authors who write hardboiled noir, perfect suggestions for your TBR stack. Similarly, I was introduced to several new-to-me authors who appear in this issue of CSM so it’s doubly good value: entertaining in its own right and a nifty way to find new writers.
Inevitably, you’re not going to like every single story in an anthology and a couple in here didn’t ring my bell with any great clarity. From that perspective, I would’ve preferred there to be a couple more stories – maybe ten, or even a dozen – because it did feel as if the fun ended just as I was getting into the swing of things.
Due to be published quarterly, CSM is available in print and digital versions. I grabbed the first issue on kindle where it’s presented like any short story anthology ebook; the actual ‘magazine’ may be more like a… magazine, who knows? It costs more than three times the price of the ebook, so I’ll probably stick with the digital edition in future. It was well-prepared and edited to a high standard, with only a couple of tiny typos sneaking past the proof-reader (and, to be fair, I’ve recently seen many ebooks from Big Five publishers with many more mistakes in them).
I’ll definitely be coming back to CSM for second helpings when Issue Two is released…