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by Michael Bracken, ed.
Down & Out Books, October 2019
364 pages
ISBN: 1643960407

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Michael Bracken's anthologies tend to include stories that go on to win awards, proving he's got a sharp eye for a well-told tale. His latest anthology, THE EYES OF TEXAS: PRIVATE EYES FROM THE PANHANDLE TO THE PINEY WOODS, lives up to Bracken's reputation. Almost every author included has already penned award-winners, and all are accomplished short-story writers.

As indicated by the title, the main element holding this collection together is that all the stories are set in Texas, and those settings do stretch across the state, although the eastern half gets more play than the west, particularly in and around Houston, with several stories set during and after Hurricane Harvey, including "Lucy's Tree" by Sandra Murphy, a thoughtful, deeply-felt story that ends with a particularly satisfying comeuppance. But Texas itself isn't the only thing these stories have in common.

Most of the stories are well plotted, although some are a bit weaker and more contrived than others, but all give a realistic, unblinking view of modern-day Texas—sometimes to an unsettling extent, taking on not only domestic violence but issues of racial tension and flat-out racism, sometimes in eye-opening situations as with the white and Vietnamese shrimpers in Chuck Brownman's "Unwritten Rules."

All of the stories give a strong sense of both character and place in a compact, highly polished form. All of the detectives tend to be tough and independent, and most are loners or close to it. And it is the detectives themselves who are the driving forces of the stories. Both they and their clients represent the best and the worst of a state that tends to be easily stereotyped, but the characters, while sharing many similarities, prove there's greater diversity in Texas than one might suspect. As with the settings that vary from small town to big city, the detectives represent a range of Texans, including one on the Autism spectrum, others in a wheelchair or missing a leg, lesbians, straight women, and a mixed-race man, in addition to retired white male cops.

While some aspects of these stories defy conventions, they are also filled with exactly what you would anticipate in murder mysteries set in Texas. There are plenty of good ol' boy networks, greasy spoon diners, pick-up trucks, chicken fried steaks, and drug cartels. But there are surprises, too, not just in the solutions to the crimes but in the detectives themselves as they grapple with personal problems that go beyond hard drinking and fast women (although both of those do make an appearance). In "Blackbirds" by Graham Powell, detective Andy Wilkins makes a startlingly hard but ultimately right decision, while James A. Hearn's "Trip Among the Bluebonnets" takes a lighter approach but still has detective Trip come to terms with his own past as well as solve a crime and strike up a little romance. Benjamin Kane in Bev Vincent's "The Patience of Kane" doesn't have to deal much with his own struggles, but he, too, upends tough-guy private eye expectations as he uncovers a terrible truth and chooses compassion over his fee.

Bottom line, almost all of these detectives are interesting enough that they could carry a novel series, but their strong personalities and crime-solving expertise have been distilled into seventeen fast-paced tales that leave a lasting impression.

§ Meredith Frazier, a writer with a background in English literature, lives in Dallas, Texas

Reviewed by Meredith Frazier, August 2019

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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