Murder Manhattan Style
 by Warren Bull

Ninth Month Publishing
2010
Paperback
First Collection







"From the hilltop I can see rolling green hills and a clear unlimited horizon. The prairie flowers have erupted into crimson, yellow, orange and blue. They sweeten the air. I smell smoke from the fire and the sweat of horses."


Reviewed by Sarah Hilary

A great friend of mine, playwright and Hollywood screenwriter, was fond of giving this advice to aspiring writers: "Keep the mythic distance!" By which it was generally assumed that he meant never allow the viewer or reader to get close enough, to screen or page, to spy processes or flaws which might show up the finished product as anything less than epic.

Warren Bull is happy to show us these processes (and occasionally flaws) between thought and page, first draft and last, unpublished and published prose. At the end of each story in his collection, he footnotes how it came about, or what its fate was at the hands of a precarious small press publishing industry (one story was accepted for an anthology that was subsequently "scrapped due to finances"). I was torn between admiring his candour and wishing he’d not revealed so much of his craft. I wanted to believe in the storyteller’s magic by which he recreates scenes from 1850s mid-America, with its cowboys and Indians, or New York in the 1930s.

There are stories here that transport the reader, perhaps because Bull is a psychologist and effortlessly taps into the minds and voices of his characters. More than one story is written convincingly from the perspective of a young girl. In A Lady of Quality, the heroine is African-American, called from the cotton fields to work as a servant in a white household. Bull writes her voice so authentically that it’s almost a pity there aren’t more stories told by this narrator in the collection.

Diversity is another of his talents. Bull takes us from "Bleeding Kansas" in 1858 to a modern day Manhattan ghetto where justice is dealt out with equal brutality. There are upbeat, funny stories. There are downbeat, noir stories. Don’t be fooled by the shlocky cover (not the first time a short story collection will be ill-served by its publisher’s cover choice, and probably not the last), these stories cover distances and time, and mood, without losing a beat.

One or two stories suffer from odd pacing, ending too abruptly or moving too fast during sections which should unravel more intricately. Locard’s Principle feels as if it’s an exploratory outline for a novel, rather than a short story. But Bull is a master at the opening paragraph; there isn’t one here that doesn’t grab you by the throat. Acknowledging Funeral Games as darker than his average story, Bull fails to point out it’s also one of his very best, opening with a corpse and progressing as smoothly as a Raymond Chandler tale, through a sequence of excellent surprises to a satisfying denouement. Heidegger’s Cat is another example of Bull at his best, its political subtext as interesting as its pin-sharp, real-time action.

While it was interesting, in one sense, to read Bull’s footnotes to the stories, I’d suggest he drops them from any future collection; they seem amateurish, while the stories themselves are anything but. Keep the mythic distance, Warren!



Sarah Hilary won the Sense Creative Award in 2010, and the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize in 2008. Her fiction appears in The Fish Anthology, Smokelong Quarterly, The Best of Every Day Fiction I, II and III, and in the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, MO: Crimes of Practice. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2009, and Highly Commended in the Sean O’Faolain short story competition 2010. Sarah is currently working on a novel. Her agent is Jane Gregory.

Sarah's other Short Reviews: Katherine Mansfield "The Collected Stories"   

Muriel Spark "The Complete Short Stories"   

"I.D. Crimes of Identity" anthology

Susan DiPlacido "American Cool" 

Sophie Hannah "The Fantastic Book of Everybody's Secrets"

Benjamin Percy "Refresh, Refresh"


Chavisa Woods "Love Does Not Make me Gentle or Kind"

Jennifer Pelland "Unwelcome Bodies"

Laura Solomon "Alternative Medicine"

Patricia Highsmith "Nothing that Meets the Eye"

Grace Paley "Collected Stories"

Peter Gordon "Man Receives a Letter"


Patrick Gale "Gentleman's Relish"
                     
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Warren Bull spent his childhood in Rock Island, Illinois, before attending Knox College and the University of North Carolina. He’s been licensed as a psychologist since 1983. Warren is an award-winning author of more than twenty published short stories as well as memoirs, essays and a novel,  Abraham Lincoln for the Defense.

Read an interview with Warren Bull