This annual compilation is too consistent in pure quality for serious complaint, but to get my usual gripe out of the way first, the current volume represents a reversion (after last year’s refreshingly mystery-centric program) to a collection dominated by mainstream short stories with high literary aspirations and some connection to a crime.
Do I regret having read them? Not for a second. Would I like more of the distinctive elements (detection, surprise, reader misdirection) that characterize the mystery genre? Absolutely. There’s nothing wrong with drawing on the literary journals (ten of this year’s 20 entries) or The New Yorker (two more), but were there really only six from genre-specific periodicals, and one from a genre-specific original anthology worthy of selection?
As usual, the stories are arranged alphabetically by author, and this year the practice provides a fine curtain-raiser, for me the strongest tale in the book. Megan Abbott’s “My Heart Is Either Broken,” inspired by a notorious Florida case, concerns the abduction of an infant, its effect on the relationship of the parents, and the tabloid media’s suspicions of the partying mother. The case is solved, but the final scene is more chilling than the crime itself.
Roxane Gay’s deeply disturbing and believable “I Will Follow You,” in its combination of literary quality and appropriateness to a crime/mystery collection ranks second only to the Abbott story, with which it shares the subject of child abduction, though from an entirely different angle. We meet the victims in adulthood, two sisters who have always been inseparable, then learn of their horrible six weeks at ages ten and 11 with the evil Mr. Peter.
Sibling relationships are central to two other stories. Arguably outside the crime fiction genre, though it certainly presents a mystery, is Patricia Engel’s sensitively written “Aida,” in which one of twin teenage daughters disappears. It’s interesting as a study of twinship, but no solution is provided. Jodi Angel’s “Snuff” believably depicts the relationship of a teenage brother and sister in the 1970s, but despite the use of a snuff movie as a framing device, it isn’t really a crime story, and certainly not a mystery.
Some of the better entries in the book present a commendable variety of settings and approaches. Daniel Alarcón’s “Collectors” shows us inmates in a Latin American prison performing the work of a dissident playwright. James Lee Burke, as usual, provides one beautiful sentence after another in “Going Across Jordan,” an engrossing account of labor organizers among migrant workers in the 1930s. Ernest Finney’s “The Wrecker,” about a tow truck driver in Sacramento, California, has a solid fiction noir plot with just enough ambiguity in the ending. In Michelle Butler Hallett’s “Bush-Hammer Finish,” based on an actual Canadian murder case, literati clash in St. Johns, Newfoundland. Charlaine Harris’ “Small Kingdoms,” a sure-fire grabber of the what’s-going-on-here variety, begins with a high school principal killing her attacker and calmly going on to work. David H. Ingram’s “The Covering Storm,” a murder plot against the effective backdrop of the 1900 Galveston disaster, has a good surprise twist. Ed Kurtz’s suburban noir “A Good Marriage” goes from humorous, everyday start to shocking conclusion. Scott Loring Sanders’ “Pleasant Grove,” set in the Virginia mountain country, takes a dysfunctional family saga in unexpected directions.
Only three of the stories have (at least apparently) a detective-story structure. Jim Allyn’s “Princess Anne” is the best of them, and includes some subtly clever reader manipulation. A Michigan family makes a shrine of a dog’s grave on the grounds of their new home, and the previous owner turns up to reclaim the remains. But why the interest of the state police? Some suspicious readers may anticipate a particular twist ending—but are we right? Nancy Pauline Simpson’s “Festered Wounds,” set in the early 20th-century South, introduces a likable Holmes-Watson team, a young county nurse and an admiring deputy sheriff, but the actual mystery plot is disappointingly thin. Laura van den Berg’s “Antarctica,” about a young Massachusetts academic investigating the death of her brother in an explosion at an Antarctic research station, acts like a detective story for most of its length but, in withholding a real solution, turns out an anti-detective story.
Some literary heavyweights make an appearance. The title of Russell Banks’ “Former Marine” refers to an elderly hospitalized bank robber visited by his three sons, all in law enforcement. The shock ending is well handled, though the reason for one action by the sons may strain credibility. It’s hard to imagine why Joseph Heller’s lynch-mob story “Almost Like Christmas” was not published in his lifetime. Annie Proulx’s murder story “Rough Deeds,” set in early 1900s Canada, is a chapter from a novel-in-progress, and probably it will be a fine historical saga.
The two remaining stories struck me as some combination of overwritten, pretentious, and uninspired. But 90 percent is an A grade in most classrooms.