The Eyes of Texas ed. Michael Bracken
Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods.
Bracken’s introduction to this intriguing and entertaining collection sets out to dispel any notions readers may have of the Lone Star State being just one kind of place, (your movie/tv inspired notions). Texas isn’t all devious oil barons in shiny glass castles or Rangers and gun toting cowboys on the wide open plains still living the life they did a hundred and fifty years before. Bracken is keen to point out the diversity of people and cultures, sexuality and ethnicity, in modern Texas. That diversity is represented in these stories, the locations are the hugely different too – from the coast to the pan handle, via all manner of urban and rural setting, (plains, woods, desert et al). Without wishing to massage the ego of Texans, (everything is bigger there after all), it’s true this collection is an illustration of the vastness of the state.
So I’m sold on Bracken’s thesis. There are seventeen stories here and they vary dramatically in theme, style and character. This is a well curated anthology that a kind of unity, the order spices up the reading experience, the first story, Chasing the Straight, sets the mood, indicating these stories are going to be original and subversive of tropes and familiar themes. The last story, The Patience of Kane is a perfect ending, it’s got a nice positive but reflective feel to it. These are mostly modern tales that have that local angle or a twist that makes them intriguing. There’s plenty of humour, a few surprises, and a couple of tales with real depth. If they are hardboiled it’s with an edge, this isn’t about mean streets but there are plenty of mean people. There’s also detectives with no experience, others with an axe to grind, the clever mingle with the lucky.
Chasing the Straight – Trey R Barker. It’s 2.30 am when Derrick Kruse chases a burglar into the path of a pizza delivery van. To the driver’s relief the man isn’t dead. Detectives Benzle and Maas organise an ID parade for Derrick, only he isn’t happy with the line-up, he’s wants the men in height order, why? The man was trying to break into Billie Vogan’s house for her abusive husband, scare her some more. Derrick talks to Billie, there’s nothing he hates more than domestic abuse, this is a case he intends to make his own. A tale about listening, rectifying a wrong and seeing people for who they are not what they are.
The Haunted Railcar – William Dylan Powell. Billy is enjoying la dolce vita on a boat in Corpus Christi harbour when trouble arrives in the form of Dell McClendon, dressed as a clown, coming up the gang plank. Billy’s capuchin monkey is a peace loving creature, good with people, bad with clowns. The creature lays into Dell. With Billy apologising Dell explains his amusement park is losing revenue, someone is messing with the place, it’s like they got a ghost sabotaging things and ‘Americans won’t be pushed around by no ghosts.’ Plenty of humour and subversion of tropes here.
The Yellow Rose of Texas – Josh Pachter. In the words of the song: ‘Her eyes are bright as diamonds, They sparkle like the dew’. Only not now, the sparkle’s all gone, the young woman lying face down in the mud by the Brazos river, with a single yellow rose placed on her back, has been strangled. Helmut Erhard found the body, the police chief says it’s Elsie Jordan, new school teacher, a young woman so there are rumours, gossip. Erhard mostly does divorce work so he’s totally unqualified for a murder investigation but he feels obligated having found her. Does Helmut’s investigation reveal his inexperience or innate genius? Can blundering around lead to finding a killer?
Harvey and the Redhead – Debra H Goldstein. The redhead enters the bar and makes straight for Harvey Houston. Olive Twist, yeah, of Twist Realty and Development, wants Harvey to retrieve a painting stolen from her family years before. The theft has come to light again following the devastating storm that just hit. The painting has no worth, just sentimental value, her uncle painted it. Only the family mustn’t appear to be connected to its retrieval. There’s more here than meets the eye as someone is about to underestimate Harvey.
Purple and Blue – Stephen D Rogers. A Boston detective isn’t flavour of the month with his lieutenant or the rest of the homicide squad: ‘Don’t tell anyone I told you this, but how I ended up in Austin? I lost a bet.’ A tale with a twist.
Blackbirds – Graham Powell. Andy Wilkins arrives in Jefferson looking for Jack lynch. The chief doesn’t mind him talking to the locals if he’s polite: ‘Everyone’s sure nice, but you ask questions and suddenly it’s New York City – nobody knows nothin’.’
Patience of Kane – Bev Vincent. A private eye aims to meet his new client at a cafe, she tells him to look for the heavily pregnant woman: ‘The establishment was surprising low on gravid females when I arrived.’ The client wants to know how and why her husband died in a car crash, and, by the way, where was he going when it happened. The ethics of being a detective.
Bearing in mind the stories have modern sensibilities they have the feel of a collection from the heyday of the magazines. The writers are former/current law enforcement, a judge and a lawyer, a psychologist, private eyes and scribes both local and adopted. All the stories are enjoyable, not too heavy, and they feel like they belong together.
Down & Out Books, paperback, ISBN 9781643960401, 2019.
The Eyes of Texas ed. Michael Bracken