If there was ever any question regarding Art Taylor’s talent in relation to short crime fiction, The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense will put those to rest immediately. This anthology demonstrates Art Taylor’s mastery of the skills necessary to write stories of various length. With examples ranging from a five-page flash fiction piece to a twenty-nine-page novella-lite entry, and every conceivable length in between – including a short story that ultimately became a chapter in On the Road with Del and Louise, Taylor’s “novel” comprised of only short stories – readers will step away from this collection in awe at the author’s ability to perfectly marry plot, character, theme, and length.
From the earliest published story in the collection, 1995’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” through to the collection’s title story, the most recently published even though it has been in various stages of creation for years, Art Taylor has never shied away from acknowledging the precursors to his career – not simply the vintage crime fiction that inspires and excites him, but also the people who populate his everyday life, both personally and professionally. These are the cornerstones of his oeuvre, hallmarks of which recur repeatedly within this anthology.
Reading the lead story, “The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74,” is like stumbling upon a secret rendezvous at the corner of Nostalgia and Americana. The story finds small-town adolescent Cooper Hobbes spending his summer actively participating in a criminal investigation. Like his hero, Encyclopedia Brown, Cooper gathers his friends and sets out searching for clues to explain the appearance of an increasing quantity of bones as the summer season progresses. By juxtaposing that innocent exploration with the burgeoning maturity inherent in growing-up, Art Taylor binds the two in unique fashion. The story is a reflection piece, with Cooper looking back longing for a simpler time even while knowing that such sentimentality is impossible to maintain when faced with reality.
“Parallel Play,” an Agatha- and Macavity-Award winning story is unquestionably one of Art Taylor’s most terrifying short stories to-date. This haunting plot which follows a mother as she struggles to protect both her child and herself is a straight-up thriller, designed to put the reader ill-at-ease from the start, only to see the tension increase with each subsequent paragraph.
When “English 398: Fiction Workshop” first appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in the summer of 2018, I said that it was the academic short story I didn’t know I wanted, but want it I did indeed. My reverence for this story only grows with each subsequent reading. The fact that it went on to win the Edgar Award for Best Short Story proves that I was not alone in my reaction to this timely tale that perfectly embodies the #metoo era without becoming a cliché.
I have long said that “The Care & Feeding of House Plants” ranks among my favorite short stories of all time, so I was pleased to see it included here – just about at the dead-center of the collection. The short story is the perfect distillation of the complex dance between men and women; where the sexual energy that seems paramount is just a symptom of a truer, deeper connection that needs to be nurtured and respected. (It did not pass my notice that one of the main characters in this story, Felicia, shares a name with a very minor character in “The Boy Detective….” This is almost certainly a coincidence, but in another example of how Art Taylor’s work harkens back to similar themes and motifs, these two Felicias could actually be the same individual at different stages of her life.)
It would be easy to write about every story in this collection. There is not a “throw-away” piece among them. Some like “Rearview Mirror” display Art Taylor’s skill at entering the mind of his female characters. (He is good at the male characters too, but it is rare for a male author to embody and be so respectful of the opposite gender in the way Taylor manages to do.) Meanwhile other stories show his weaving of social issues into the fabric in ways that never seem artificial. And still other works are more plot-based, designed to take the reader on a specific journey, guided by the hand of an author never less than in full control.
Through it all, Art Taylor makes the crafting of a short story seem easy, when in fact we all know it is just the opposite. I use the word “craft” here intentionally, because that is exactly what Mr. Taylor does with each story. Regardless of how long it takes, he crafts and molds every narrative to match the style needed to make the story shine. The fact that this manipulation of form remains almost invisible to the reader only confirms the true talent this author constantly displays. One cannot read the stories in this collection without recognizing them as a testament to Art Taylor’s skill with words, his capacity to create believable characters, his knack for knowing how to plot something that feels both relevant and original, and lastly, his distinct ability to fill every moment – whether light or dark; serious, frivolous, or innocuous – with heart, humanity, and hope.
Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the publisher. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.