Earlier this year, BOLO Books hosted the cover reveal for The Beat of Black Wings: Crime fiction inspired by the songs of Joni Mitchell, so it was clear that a review was forthcoming.

Like the songs that provide the titles and serve as their inspiration, each of the short stories in this anthology is profoundly unique but also echo the common core of empathy and humanity found in Joni Mitchell’s oeuvre.

Each reader will find their own favorites in this collection, and believe me, there is not a bad story in the whole lot. Here is just a little more about the stories that worked their magic on me, with a hope that you will be intrigued enough to seek out this excellent anthology.

Both Art Taylor and Tara Laskowski are multi-award-winning crime fiction authors, so the first-ever short story collaboration for this husband and wife duo is a hot commodity…and “Both Sides Now” is a perfect source of inspiration. Here, Tara and Art document a marriage in crisis. In alternating communication between a husband in prison for embezzlement and his wife holding down the fort on the outside, this epistolary story slowly reveals how surface image can often obscure the true reality hidden within. In a unusual twist, this writing couple leaves it up to the reader to puzzle out the truth behind the tale.

The reunion of Father John Athy and singer-songwriter Caty Lovell serves as the focus of David Dean’s “The Priest.” Having not seen each other since they were eleven-years-old, these two have a mutual love and a shared trauma to reconcile. Readers can feel the invisible bond between these two characters from the very moment their eyes meet across the crowded German bar and as their history is slowly revealed, the paths not taken play out in the minds of those consuming the story – as well as for the two characters in the story.

Kathryn O’Sullivan tackles “Big Yellow Taxi” by telling the story of two rival professors in the music department at Three Village University. The tension between colleagues allows O’Sullivan to explore the conflict between past and present, traditional and modern, and the natural and artificial – all things that Joni Mitchell’s song also highlights. Not only does O’Sullivan include elements from the song into her story, she also manages to get the song itself in there, leaving readers singing along.

In “River,” Stacy Woodson mines the same elegiac tone as found in Joni Mitchell’s source material. Her tale of service members who pay the ultimate price for their country and the citizens who refuse to acknowledge their sacrifice is emotionally heart-breaking right up through the satisfyingly wicked ending. Woodson knows how to bring empathy to her stories and this one is a prime example.

In an unexpected turn, Donna Andrews transforms “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” into a paranormal crime story that could easily be the launch of a new series for her. Andrews creates Charlie – a narrator whose gender is never revealed – who is an outcast possessing a secret weapon that informs her of the presence of a supernatural serial killer preying on the most vulnerable in our society. In this brief story, there is a depth to the world-building that leaves so much room for further exploration that readers can’t help but hope Donna Andrews has plans to explore this further.

The titular “Blue Motel Room” in Edith Maxwell’s story starts out as Robin Rousseau’s headquarters for her latest thievery escapade, but an unexpected discovery finds her doing amateur detective work from the location before nightfall. Unsure what she has stumbled upon, Robin falls deeper and deeper into dangerous territory – transitioning from petty crime to something much worse. Despite being an anti-heroine, readers will feel a bond with Robin and enjoy following her journey. Maxwell ends the story with a subtle “Easter Egg” that loyal fans of the author will surely notice immediately. 

“Talk to Me” is the only other co-written story in this collection. This time it comes from Emily Hockaday and Jackie Sherbow. In it, Lucas and Jenna are dealing with a marriage in meltdown, hoping that couples therapy will be the answer. But for that to work, both parties must be willing to communicate and share their secrets. Only sometimes, it might be better not to know. These two authors make their work seamless in this perverse tale that keeps readers wondering what will happen next.

In The Silky Veils of Ardor,” Greg Herren tackles the tricky clashing of naiveté, reality, and deception as it relates to first love. As Lany Taylor enters the hotel setting for her high school reunion, readers immediately sense that misgiving – rather than nostalgia – permeate her thoughts regarding attendance. As each page in this story is turned, Herren reveals new details about her past, repeatedly changing the course of the story, defying reader expectations. This is a prime example of how to use perfectly-timed revelations to manipulate and keep readers on their toes, right up until that final shocking secret.

Barb Goffman’s “Man to Man” tells the story of a marriage in both emotional and financial turmoil. As she documents the decline over the course of a year, Goffman draws readers into her story with her unique ability to write a story that seems simple on the surface but containing so much depth beneath the surface. Readers are likely to anticipate an ending from page one, however this author never goes the cliché and expected route, so chances are the conclusion will still surprise.

Editor of this collection, Josh Pachter, takes on the anthology’s titular story, “The Beat of Black Wings.” In this story Pachter tells tale of the twisted lineage of Audrey Monaghan, who longed to go to Woodstock but ended up, at sixty-four years old, on the Today show. There is a melancholia throughout this story, multiple moments where everything could have changed…but didn’t. It is a short, steady walk to the inevitable end that leaves readers emotionally spent, witness to a string of tragedies, helpless to intervene.

In Michael Bracken’s story of the same name, Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac serves as a metaphor for inheritance from parent to child. By day, Ray’s Dad teach Algebra, but by night he uses his mathematical skills to gamble on sporting events, allowing him to better his family’s standing in the community. But when things go wrong, as they always do, it falls to the next generation – Ray and his childhood sweetheart – to put things right. But will a split-second decision derail their lives or place them on a path to a better future?

Former supermodel Eden Rose seeks revenge in “Sex Kills,” Alan Orloff’s contribution to this anthology. The story reads as pure noir with desire serving as the over-riding theme – both desire for Eden and her desire for retribution. Orloff keeps the seductive and titillating tone at the forefront as readers race towards the unexpected, yet inevitable conclusion.

In Sherry Harris’ “Last Chance Lost” Lily is hopeful when Stew Davis strolls into the Last Chance Saloon. Her isolated town doesn’t see many strangers, especially those who are this handsome, but the more she learns of Stew, the more she realizes that all men are alike. Harris cleverly allows readers to get inside Lily’s head without ever explicitly revealing her plans.

There you have a run-down of thirteen stories, half of those in this collection. There is still so much left for you to discover.

BUY LINKS: The Beat of Black Wings edited by Josh Pachter