“A great friend of mine, playwright and Hollywood screenwriter, was fond of giving this advice to aspiring writers: “Keep the mythic distance!” By which it was generally assumed that he meant never allow the viewer or reader to get close enough, to screen or page, to spy processes or flaws which might show up the finished product as anything less than epic.
Warren Bull is happy to show us these processes (and occasionally flaws) between thought and page, first draft and last, unpublished and published prose. At the end of each story in his collection, he footnotes how it came about, or what its fate was at the hands of a precarious small press publishing industry (one story was accepted for an anthology that was subsequently “scrapped due to finances”). I was torn between admiring his candour and wishing he’d not revealed so much of his craft. I wanted to believe in the storyteller’s magic by which he recreates scenes from 1850s mid-America, with its cowboys and Indians, or New York in the 1930s.
There are stories here that transport the reader, perhaps because Bull is a psychologist and effortlessly taps into the minds and voices of his characters. More than one story is written convincingly from the perspective of a young girl. In A Lady of Quality, the heroine is African-American, called from the cotton fields to work as a servant in a white household. Bull writes her voice so authentically that it’s almost a pity there aren’t more stories told by this narrator in the collection.
Diversity is another of his talents. Bull takes us from “Bleeding Kansas” in 1858 to a modern day Manhattan ghetto where justice is dealt out with equal brutality. There are upbeat, funny stories. There are downbeat, noir stories. Don’t be fooled by the shlocky cover (not the first time a short story collection will be ill-served by its publisher’s cover choice, and probably not the last), these stories cover distances and time, and mood, without losing a beat.
One or two stories suffer from odd pacing, ending too abruptly or moving too fast during sections which should unravel more intricately. Locard’s Principle feels as if it’s an exploratory outline for a novel, rather than a short story. But Bull is a master at the opening paragraph; there isn’t one here that doesn’t grab you by the throat. Acknowledging Funeral Games as darker than his average story, Bull fails to point out it’s also one of his very best, opening with a corpse and progressing as smoothly as a Raymond Chandler tale, through a sequence of excellent surprises to a satisfying denouement. Heidegger’s Cat is another example of Bull at his best, its political subtext as interesting as its pin-sharp, real-time action.
While it was interesting, in one sense, to read Bull’s footnotes to the stories, I’d suggest he drops them from any future collection; they seem amateurish, while the stories themselves are anything but. Keep the mythic distance, Warren!”
-Susan Hilary, Author and
Winner of the Sense Creative Award in 2010, and the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize in 2008
“If you’ve been following my blog, you know I’ve always written about novels before now.
But when I read Warren Bull’s short story collection, MURDER MANHATTAN STYLE, not long ago, I saw the chance to study how a writer develops his fiction skills over time without my having to read a bunch of books. Besides that, the fifteen stories present a tasty sampling of mystery genres.
The collection starts with “Beecher’s Bibles,” “Kansas Justice,” and “Butterfly Milkweed.” All three unfold in first person point of view, but from the perspective of a different member of the same family, the Millers, who lived near Manhattan, Kansas, not long before the Civil War. The first generates considerable suspense when two thugs capture Joshua, the narrator, only twelve, and his stepsister Amy and lie in wait for Joshua’s father. The kids trick the thugs and all ends well. The second is narrated by Amy. These two stories are straight-forward narratives, plot-oriented, and rest firmly on facts as we expect from historical mysteries.
But the third made me sit up and pay attention from the start with the narrator, Mr. Miller, caught in a deadly trap. It hooked me so well that I happily followed the narrator back in time in a well-executed flashback to discover how he hoodwinked the bank robbers who tried to kill him. At the end, the narrator returns us to the present scene and thus completes the frame in this skillfully structured story.
The next three stories, all set in Manhattan, New York, in 1938, are written in the spirit of Damon Runyon. “One Sweet Scam,” “Java Judy,” and “A Detective’s Romance” are very short and very tight. You can see Warren having fun practicing the set-up and pay-off in just a few words. But he’s also playing with voice and getting better at characterizing through it. Here’s a quick quotation from near the start of “Java Judy.” “A doll walks in who looks familiar. I puzzle my noodle until the penny drops.” Isn’t that fun? Plus, the voice clearly evokes the time, place, and Damon Runyon.
The next story, “A Detective’s Romance,” is the only one of the entire collection presented in third person, well chosen because this point of view gives the reader distance from the protagonist and gets the reader involved in figuring the mystery out.
Next we come to “The Wrong Man,” the first in a series of noir detective stories, set in 1947/48. Here Warren shows many of the skills he’s gained. This story has a frame around the main story in the past. It’s short. It’s tight. It’s got a surprise ending, neatly presented.
And the narrative voice rings true. Just look at the first sentence of the story. “The bulls shoved me through the precinct doors and double-timed me down the hall into the interrogation room.” “Bulls” is the right word for cops at this time. The verbs “shoved” and “double-timed” move us right into the story and down that hall so fast we can practically feel it. Also the dialogue in some of the early stories seems stiff, but here it’s snappy. For instance, one of the bulls calls the narrator a runt and another observes that if the narrator “sang,” that is, confessed, he’d sound “like one of the Andrews sisters.”
The next story, “Funeral Games,” another example of noir, is among other things a meditation on war and mortality. The narrator, the title, and the story itself all contribute to the theme of honoring those who’ve served their country.
I’ll leave the rest of the stories for you to discover on your own, except for the last one, “A Lady of Quality,” winner of the Best Short Story of 2006 from the Missouri Authors Guild. Quite rightly, too, as this is a beautifully written story. Like most of the stories in MURDER MANHATTAN STYLE, it’s written in first person and the narrator reaches out and grabs us with her first words: “Listen here.” She commands our attention from the start and holds it in this compelling, yet subtle story of suspense.
As defined by Carolyn Wheat in HOW TO WRITE KILLER FICTION, suspense revolves around a crime that unfolds before our eyes instead of a crime already committed at the start, like more traditional detective fiction. Will the narrator Lizzie, a young black woman in the 1960’s, escape from the velvet-gloved hand of steel of Mrs. Edwards, the white gentlewoman, who’s very aware of her position in the society of a southern town? Will Lizzie even see the trap in time?
Read “A Lady of Quality” and find out. I will tell you, in closing, that this last story shows a clear shift from plot-driven fiction in the earlier stories to character-driven fiction and Warren wrote it with an impeccable grasp of history, great sensitivity to the diction of the narrator, and powerful insight into, as William Faulkner said in his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
– Juliet Kincaid, Book reviewer and blogger