Note: A few years ago I wrote a series of reviews for The Fix Short Fiction Review. Unfortunately, I recently learned from Jason Sanford that The Fix can no longer be found online so I’m reprinting the reviews here.
Genre: Flash Fiction, Collection, Noir, Mystery, Humor
Paperback: 134 pages
Publisher: Sam’s Dot Publishing
Publication Date: 2008
Author Website: Dreams and Nightmares
For those in the know, flash fiction is one of the most innovative and creative writing forms in existence today. Work like that found on Flash Fiction Online and in 365Tomorrows entertains and intrigues in so few words.
So it was with pleasure that I read Nursery Rhyme Noir: The Hasp Deadbolt Files by David C. Kopaska-Merkel. Published by small press Sam’s Dot Publishing, this little book brings together twenty-six flash fiction tales of Hasp Deadbolt, P.I.
But that isn’t the best part.
No, the subject matter is what makes these particular stories such a joy to read. Each and every tale is based on a Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme. You know, Humpty Dumpty and all that? The kind of stuff your mother used to read to you, or that was part of your schoolyard play? Yea, those nursery rhymes.
But you wouldn’t want to read these stories to your kids. Like those who have come before, such as Mike Resnick’s John Justin Mallory or Glen Cook’s Garett, P.I., Deadbolt is a hardboiled detective caught in a fairytale world.
Definitely a Sam Spade archetype, Deadbolt is not a deep or thoroughly well-rounded character, but he doesn’t need to be. The format, for one, makes that tough and two, his archetype already has enough built-in characterization. Though characterization is not the strong suit of these tales, it can be said that the twisting of the standard tales’ characters is rather clever. For instance, Miss Muffet (who sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey) is not the sweetness and light character Mother Goose makes her seem to be (“Arachnophobia”). Nor are Jack and Jill quite the cute little hand-holding friends you might have at first thought (“The Hilltop Caper”). Lucy Locket becomes quite the trollop in “The Pornographic Pocket” and the Easter Bunny probably doesn’t quite cut the figure you imagined when collecting Easter Eggs each spring (“R.I.P. Easter Bun”). None of these have the type of motivations or desires that you imagined when reading favorite nursery rhymes. No, these characters have very adult motivations, feelings, desires and actions. It is clever of Kopaska-Merkel to write stories based on silly little nursery rhymes whose characters are so completely the opposite of what a reader might expect.
That being said, there is a bit of repetition in these tales. Writing with so few words (flash fiction is usually 500 to 1,000 words) it is very hard for any writer to keep from repeating themselves, especially when the basic plot must be the same. Each story is a noir mystery in which Hasp finds the answer to it by hook or crook. Noir means that every story is told from Hasp’s point of view, and is full of asides to the reader, as if he was speaking directly to you, and usually there is some unexpected twist the reader thought Hasp would have revealed, though he didn’t. After all, people who hire P.I.’s often have a reason not to go to the police. Deadbolt goes and finds the reality behind the words of his clients (very much like Resnick’s Mallory). But what you will find is that these stories repeat themselves in structure, style, content and mood. That repetition can be wearing, and I do not recommend reading the book all in one sitting, which would be easy to do. Rather, read these stories when on the go, while sitting in the doctor’s office, or on an e-reader when you have a moment to spare. I highly recommend the idea of the latter. (This book is one of the few I think would be enhanced by being in an e-reader, most books do not give me that impression.)
The stories are interconnected, sometimes one or another getting a mention in a later story, so they should be read in the order presented, else some of the later tales will make less sense.
Also, due to the brevity, the story will skip portions of the plot that could be significant, such as how Hasp draws his conclusions. And these mysteries are not of a type where the clues are given to you to solve. The expectation is that you will enjoy the twisting of the nursery rhymes, not necessarily the “mystery” of it. Readers will also enjoy the wordplay of Kopaska-Merkel. He has a flair for punnery, as evidenced best by this line from “The Killer Clock”:
“…and finally the Humpty Dumpty murder, which involved people in high places, Even the King had egg all over his face before that one was cleaned up. After that, I didn’t feel like a hard-boiled detective anymore, I felt scrambled. I needed a break.”
Absolutely, knee-slapping funny! If puns are not your thing, you probably groaned at the above quote, but I laughed out loud after reading it.
Ultimately, I recommend reading Nursery Rhyme Noir: The Hasp Deadbolt Files for its clever wordplay and its twists on much beloved nursery rhymes. Though simple in style, content, and length, these tales are delightful.