The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

May 23, 2010

NICE GIRL DOES NOIR I/II by Libby Fischer Hellmann

When I received two volumes of short stories by Libby Fischer Hellmann to preview, I was not unaware of her writing credentials. I even have her novel, Easy Innocence, in my TBR stacks, and I had read Jen Forbus's interview with her. I lacked firsthand knowledge of her work though.

If you're like me in that regard, NICE GIRL DOES NOIR Volumes I and II, are a great place to get acquainted with Hellmann's talent. Volume I is an especially good choice for those readers wanting to break into Hellmann's two series of novels, featuring police detective Georgia Davis and video producer Ellie Foreman, as four of the five stories involve one or both of those characters. Those four stories are traditional detective stories.

In Common Scents, Davis sniffs out a killer whose MO is distinctive but easily hidden. Ellie Foreman takes center stage in The Last Radical, as the author expands on the old Satchel Paige axiom: Don't ever look back, something might be gaining on you. In A Winter's Tale, Ellie lends support to a widowed neighbor and finds herself fitting together a picture puzzle of greed in suburbia. And in The Murder of Katie Boyle, the author brings her two series' protagonists together for the first time, as Ellie discovers a murder and Davis investigates. And isn't it interesting that the two characters don't immediately become bosom buddies?

 The fifth story -- or the first one, I should say, as it appears first in the book -- is The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared, which has the deserved distinction of having won the 1999 Bouchercon Short Story Contest. In this story, the author steps back to 1938, and delivers a different kind of coming of age tale as two young students witness the doomed romance between a stage actress and a numbers runner. Hellmann does a stellar job of creating a time and place where these characters live, so memorable and vivid one can watch them mentally on screen in black and white as Benny Goodman's clarinet provides the soundtrack to heartache, and as Hitler is beginning to rattle sabers in the background.

Volume II of NICE GIRL DOES NOIR is made up of nine stories broken into two sections: 'Chicago, Then and Now,' and 'Other Places, Other Times.' And it is in this collection, along with The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared, that the reader really begins to fully appreciate Hellmann's talent. Freed from the necessity of framing the story to fit the demands of the traditional mystery, she brings forth those shades of gray that paint true noir. With the Foreman/Davis stories, the author's particular 'crime in suburbia' niche is good reading, but when Hellmann explores the less sunlit areas of Chicago and times gone by, her canvas becomes not only more universal but has greater depth and emotional value. Aspiring short-story writers would do well to pay attention to how Hellmann creates both story and character arcs within the small framework.

In Dumber Than Dirt, Hellmann relates the story of a young man, not too bright but who epitomizes the old saw that it is better to be lucky than good. My particular favorite in this volume is The Whole World Is Watching, about a young Chicago police officer on duty during the civil unrest in that city during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In both of these stories the characters are engrossing and the arcs are perfect without being predictable.

And guess what? Both volumes are available now as e-books at Smashwords and amazon. Yes, it's true that I usually won't provide links to amazon, but as far as I'm aware Smashwords and amazon are the only places a reader will find these works (for now anyway), so because these stories are worth your while, I'll make a rare exception:


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