A few years ago, I read a Mystery Writers of America short story compilation named Face Off, which featured short stories where two different authors’ series detectives / protagonists teamed up to solve a given crime, with each of the authors writing part of the respective story. I thought that was an interesting (and surprisingly successful) venture, not least because it required the contributing authors to have a very firm grip on the writing styles of their respective writing partners and the character details of their protagonists — and by and large the contributors to that volume acquitted themselves vastly better than the members of the famous Detection Club, who had tried something similar in a 1933 round robin called Ask a Policeman.
Odd Partners is, in a sense, the inverse approach to this sort of scenario, in that it features stories by a single writer, but where two seemingly ill-matched, antagonistic, or otherwise just “odd” partners (not all of them human or even corporeal) team up to either solve a crime or, more often than not, simply overcome a dangerous situation. It is, at the same time, also more typical of my overall reading experience with such anthologies, in that it features a number of stories that will remain with me for a long time and others that I can barely remember even now that I’m finally sitting down to write a review. By and large it seemed to be a case of a more or less steady downward slide the further I progressed in the book as a whole, but with a somewhat wobbly upward curve towards the end.
In the order of the stories’ inclusion in the anthology:
- Volume editor Anne Perry’s opening story, Reconciliation, is definitely one of the book’s biggest highlights; a deeply atmospheric and heart-stoppingly suspenseful tale of two WWI soldiers — one British, one German — working together to save a young comrade-in-arms of the Brit from (almost) certain death in the tunnels below the front line trenches. Perry can be excessively long-winded in her novels; maybe she should write more short fiction, because it seems to have a highly salutary effect on her writing.
- The second story, William Kent Krueger’s The Nature of the Beast, has a human amateur fisherman unwittingly working with a wolf that he had saved from starvation some time earlier to preserve a pristine piece of wilderness. The story’s ending is somewhat predictable, but the atmosphere and the friendship between the man and the wolf are drawn beautifully and with loving detail.
- Joe R. Lansdale’s Sad Onions is an entry from his Hap and Leonard series; the “odd partners” are the two protagonists themselves, of course, who on their way home from a fishing trip stop for a woman flagging them down because her husband has been killed (in a road accident, she says) — only to very soon regret having listened to their better instincts.
- Jacqueline Winspear’s The Wagatha Labsy Secret Dogtective Alliance is a bit too contrived to be entirely successful, but hey, no story featuring a pack of canine detectives can be entirely bad, can it?
- Shelley Costa’s Glock, Paper, Scissors is a rather well-crafted example of the dictum that revenge is a dish best served cold — here, as applied to the unusual WWII friendship between a Paris street urchin and the daughter of a Jewish family, and its coda several decades later on a nightly New York City street.
- Charles Todd’s Blood Money features the mother and son (Caroline and Charles Todd) writing team’s series protagonist Inspector Rutledge, who ever since WWI has been haunted by the ghost of a fellow soldier whose death is weighing on his conscience. Here, Rutledge is called upon to solve a murder rooted in the moral ambiguities of the “Great War” as well (I preferred Anne Perry’s foray into the WWI setting, though).
- Lou Kemp’s The Violins Played Before Junshan was one of the stories that did absolutely nothing for me, which was due to the writing itself as much as to the fact that it’s an odd and, I thought, fairly pointless combination of historical and speculative fiction with save-the-world overtones.
- Lisa Morton’s Whatever Happened to Lorna Winters?, by contrast, was one of the real stand-out stories from the middle of the book, sending a film restorer on the track of a minor Hollywood starlet who had vanished decades earlier — courtesy of a snippet of film that chance has blown into his hands.
- Claire Ortalda’s Oglethorpe’s Camera is, in a sense, the feline counterpart to Winspear’s dog detective story; except that we’re dealing with a single cat here, who moreover, while providing a vital clue, never so much sets out to detect anything himself but is trailed by his (up to that point) TSTL owner. By and large, an example of mystery chick lit that I could easily have done without.
- Robert Dugoni’s The Last Game also didn’t do a whole lot for me; it concerns a baseball-loving traveling salesman who suddenly finds himself without his passport and without a ticket on a plane trip to an unknown destination that he doesn’t remember having booked in the first place. Well, I detest amnesia stories (and stories riding on the amnesia trope for other purposes), and in this case the solution was telegraphed early on, so scratch this one, too …
- Adele Polomski’s NO. 11 SQUATTER by contrast is, to the extent you can use complex diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia credibly within the confines of a mystery short story, a fairly successful exercise in doing just that, where an elderly forgetful lady is compelled to work with her nurse / companion in facing up to a dangerous criminal, while at the same time wresting some freedom and self-respect back from her concerned but overbearing daughter.
- Mark Thielman’s A Cold Spell is a piece of historical fiction writing set in the midst of winter in a Puritan New England community: I didn’t find it entirely convincing — linguistically contrived, only partially well-researched as to historical detail, and with a rather rushed and questionable solution.
- Georgia Jeffries’s What would Nora Do? is another example of thriller meets chick lit meets slapstick comedy, centering on a psychotic episode experienced by a woman convicted of having killed her philandering husband and recently released from prison. “Nora” is Ms. Ephron, incidentally, and I am not entirely sure if she were still alive she’d have appreciated the compliment (neither of the story as such nor of the attempt to emulate her style of writing).
- Amanda Witt’s Hector’s Bees suffers from way too much narrative stuffing and too little focus, though I did like the idea of a recently-widowed woman de facto “teaming up” with her husband’s beloved bees to unmask his murderer; and I also really loved the Southwestern (Sangre de Cristo Mountains) setting.
- William Frank’s Georgia in the Wind, likewise set in the Southwest (yey!), marked the beginning of the upwards-curve towards the end of the anthology more pronouncedly than the preceding story; it concerns a private investigator specializing in stolen art who is compelled to work with an art thief to find a murderer and recover, in the process, a stolen painting by Santa Fé artist Georgia O’Keeffe.
- Ace Atkins’s From Four Till Late has Atkins’s series protagonist Nick Travers trawling the streets of the Big Easy together with a wealthy middle-aged Mississippi socialite in search of her teenage daughter. In the best of Atkins’s style, big on New Orleans atmosphere, gutter cynicism, and snappy dialogue (and snappy writing, generally). I rather liked it.
- Allison Brennan’s Bite Out of Crime tries to pack a few things too many into the confines of a short story (it also has somewhat moralizing overtones and a laughably unbelievable ending), but its central character, a teenage jewel thief who, after rescuing a neighbor’s dog, is caught up in the investigation of that neighbor’s murder, is likeable enough.
- Stephen Ross’s Songbird Blues was the final story that did absolutely nothing for me; it’s more horror / psychopathic thriller than mystery or crime story, and to even mention who the “odd partners” are would constitute a major spoiler (so I won’t) — let’s just say that if you’re into jazz and blues music and if graphic violence and a sinister atmosphere don’t turn you off, this might be your kind of thing. It manifestly wasn’t mine.
- Fortunately, the book ended with another absolute highlight, Jeffery Deaver’s Security, which concerns the security detail to be provided to a controversial, populist Presidential candidate obviously modelled on Donald Trump — and true to Deaver’s best work, it has more than a few twists, turns and surprises to offer, including (again) as to the identity of the “odd partners” themselves.
Georgia O’Keefe: Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock-Hills (Ram’s Head and White Hollyhock, New Mexico), 1935; Brooklyn Museum, 1992.11.28_PS11