Art Taylor is a short story machine, except “machine” sounds much too mechanical for a guy whose writing so fluidly adapts to whatever creative idea comes into his head.
Take “Mrs. Marple and the Hit & Run,” for instance, the lead story in The Adventure of the Castle Thief—And Other Expeditions and Indiscretions (Taylor’s latest collection).
Well, first I am going to 100 percent guarantee you have never read a story like it. Second, it takes cojones to give your main character the name Virginia Marple in some sort of warped homage to Dame Agatha and then unspool seven nifty pages that suggest the mystery short story form is ever-malleable.
“Mrs. Marple and the Hit & Run” is a story in pieces. Picture a jigsaw puzzle, maybe, after you’ve put the edges together. Taylor gives us a sense that we are starting to read a straightforward short story. In fact, it starts with that business with the Marple name. It’s as if Taylor is saying, “I’ll play with the toys I want to.”
Our main character, Virginia, realizes that she should not have lashed out at her three bridge-club friends for comparing her to the “spinster detective” that is her namesake. That’s in part because, as the story starts, Virginia Marple finds herself “dressed head to toe in black, her frail joints aching as she squatted in the shadows of first one oak tree and then the next, her knobby fingers pressed against their hides.”
Taylor has us in the palm of his hand. And then the story morphs into a series of bullet points as our non-Marple Marple starts thinking through the case of a hit-and-run. Basically, the “action” of the story is our heroine stalking a house while thinking about all the clues in the hit-and-run while comparing and contrasting her own thoughts and actions to that of Miss Marple while thinking through everything she witnessed in the accident along with all the subsequent realizations and associated commentary. Phew. The story is one part pastiche, one part Picasso cubism. When was the last time you started reading a short story that morphed into a PowerPoint?
We go from the brisk opener to a 52-page adventure in the title story, about a group of creative writing students on a trip to an Irish castle. First, a scarf goes missing. And then other objects. And soon there is full on investigation into the series of unfortunate disappearances, mostly minor items at first. Professor Erwin Conroy and one of students are soon leading the charge on an investigation in a warm-hearted story with a rich cast of students in traditional, gentle whodunit.
Love Me or Leave Me: A Fugue in G-Minor takes us back to Taylor’s inventive side. The story has four sections. Given it’s Taylor, that word ‘fugue’ should scare you. You know he’s going to play. Each section has a different point of view. And each section includes a different style of storytelling. The last section is entirely text messages. The story chases itself around, new voices building from what appears to be a modest opening, that of our guy Garrett trying to identify a strange noise in his house during the “woozy awakening” of the early dawn hours. Garrett is in a relationship with Tess, who doesn’t hear what Garrett hears. Which of course might have a load of implications for the whole relationship, giving Garrett pause when he thinks about how others view them.
“Garrett could see what they might look like from the side, from a distance—the happy couple at breakfast, chatting start of the day, him leaning forward, her leaning back. But seeing them like that, they seemed like strangers to him—the way you get so used to someone that you don’t notice them really, or yourself either. The same way you say a familiar word over and over until suddenly it’s just sound—and a sound you don’t recognize. Or stare at something ordinary until your focus blurs. And those things didn’t seem true anymore.”
“Locked Out” feels like a story that could happen to anyone, one of the most moments when you could lean in and help. Interfere. Interrupt. Or walk on by. “Locked Out,” briskly told, teeters on darkness.
“Blue Plate Special” delves into the supernatural with a detective called to investigate extra-long visits to the men’s room in an unnamed hotel in an unnamed city. As both hotel manager cautions our detective, it’s not what you think. In fact, there’s something peculiar in the fixtures above the sinks.
“Looking up, I saw now that the mirror above it had begun to fog a little, like someone was breathing on it or like the bathroom itself had suddenly heated up, a burst of humidity from a hot faucet maybe except that the faucet wasn’t on. I stood up to wipe it clean and saw then that it wasn’t fog but frost really, icy tendrils of it thickening at the edge of the glass.”
Taylor’s chosen title for this story isn’t bad, but probably because “Through The Looking Glass,” might have been too on the nose.
Watch the unstable Shayla evaluate the state of her relationships in “All Tomorrow’s Parties” or go with Cheryl and her unnamed boyfriend in “The White Rose of Memphis” as they not only stay in a hotel where a creepy murder occurred way back when, they also partake in a reenactment that includes both funny and worrisome moments before heading off, as good stories are wont to do, in a fine twist.
Taylor knows how to set a hook and reel you in. Here’s hoping the idea machine keeps on running for a long, long time.
Previously reviewed: The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74