Saturday, December 27, 2014

Short Story Saturday: Phelan's First Case

As I have had reason to mention several times in the last three or four years, I'm a big fan of the Akashic Books series of "noir" short story collections.  Each of the collections is set in a major city or regional area, and the fourteen or fifteen short stories in each book reflect that unifying regional flavor.  Several of the collections are set in Texas cities, but the first one of the Texas books I've been able to get my hands on covers the state as a whole and is entitled Lone Star Noir.

The first story in the book, "Phelan's First Case," by Lisa Sandlin, is set in 1973 Beaumont.  Beaumont is a Texas Gulf Coast city located about twenty-five miles west of the Louisiana border.  Having grown up in a little town adjacent to Beaumont (going to Beaumont was like going to the big city for us), I can vouch for the authenticity of Sandlin's references to local landmarks, schools, streets, neighborhoods and the like, and was not surprised to learn that the author herself is a Beaumont native.  But this being a "noirish" story, the atmosphere described by Sandlin is more akin to the 1940s than to the 1970s.  And that's what makes these stories fun.

Tom Phelan, recent loser of a finger to an oil rig accident, has taken his settlement money and opened a private investigation service.  Now he needs a client or two - and a secretary to watch the front door.  The secretary problem takes care of itself when an old high school buddy of Phelan's convinces him to give  a woman fresh out of a Texas prison a chance at the job.  

Lisa Sandlin
And then before he knows it, Phelan's newspaper ad produces his first two clients.  One Beaumont woman wants Phelan to find her missing teenaged son; another, hoping for a big pay day, wants her wealthy husband followed.  Keeping his priorities straight, the investigator begins tracking the boy through his high school friends...and stumbles into a crime no detective should have to face as his Case Number 1.  

"Phelan's First Case," I have to say is long on atmosphere (the author does noir very well) but a bit short on plot credibility.  The best noir pieces manage to keep a sense of reality and threat about them; this story never achieves either of those feelings.  Perhaps the story is more tongue-in-cheek than I give it credit for, but as I read it, it is a bit of a disappointing kick-off for Lone Star Noir.

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