Reviewing last year's volume in this well-established series, I praised the general quality but groused about the lack of variety and the failure to include even one real detective story. Guest editor George Pelecanos' introduction to this year's collection lets the reader know to expect more of the same: "...[T]here is no obvious direct line from the grandfathers and fathers of crime fiction to the stories in this collection... Though there are twists and surprises to be discovered, none of these stories are puzzles, locked-room mysteries, or private detective tales." Again literary magazines are a more frequent source of stories than genre publications--Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine are represented by one story each, Antioch Review by two, and the plethora of noir-themed anthologies by a scattering throughout. The title Best Mainstream Short Stories that Happen to Concern a Crime might be more precise. Definitional quibbles aside, however, this is a superb collection without a single misfire among its 20 entries. It is both quite a bit stronger and more varied than last year's volume.
James Lee Burke's curtain raiser "Mist," about alcoholic Louisiana war widow Lisa and her 12-step sponsor Tookie, is a beautifully executed short story, marked by the author's magnificent lyrical prose and fueled by anger over the twin horrors of Katrina and Iraq. Is it a detective story? No. Not even the reader-as-detective has a chance at anticipating its secrets. Is it a mystery? Arguably, yes, and the eternal mystery of character--what made Lisa the person she is?--is answered by two surprising revelations. But is it a crime story? Mainly in a political sense.
In the stories that follow, the crimes are more traditional, the treatment anything but. While the mood is almost unrelentingly grim and downbeat, the variety of background and approaches is considerable. The prize of the collection is Kyle Minor's structural experiment "A Day Meant to Do Less," in which an embarrassed pastor takes on the task of bathing his disabled mother, told first from his viewpoint, then (after some back story) from hers. The result is extraordinarily affecting and, in a unique way, terrifying. Another successful use of an unusual structure is Scott Phillips' "The Emerson 1950," a series of vignettes about a newspaper crime photographer at mid-20th century. It provides a rare example of a modular procedural in short story form, with various crimes described but not necessarily solved, occasional touches of mystery and detection, and a darkly comic wind-up.
Others of special merit are Holly Goddard Jones' "Proof of God," a collegiate gay coming-of-age murder story that reminded me of some of Vin Packer's 1950s novels; Alice Munro's "Child's Play," an incisive character study in which a horrific incident at a Canadian summer camp is recalled in adulthood by the anthropologist narrator; and Elizabeth Strout's "A Different Road," exploring the effect (not what you might expect) on an older couple of their experience in a hospital bathroom hostage situation.
Though detection is mostly absent, tricky crime story plotting is not. Chuck Hogan's "One Good One" is a fresh take on the classic situation of the thug protective of his mother, with a nicely managed surprise twist. (Novelist Hogan credits the late Edward D. Hoch with inspiring him to write short stories.) Michael Connelly's accident reconstruction procedural "Mulholland Drive" is a devious variation on a crime-fiction classic--to say which one would reveal too much. Rupert Holmes' clever "The Monks of the Abbey Victoria," with a 1950s TV network background and a lighter, more humorous touch than most of its companions, reminded me at times of Billy Wilder's film The Apartment and some of the stories of Stanley Ellin.
It's only fair to point out that there is one genuine whodunit in the book, starring one actual series detective, and an amateur at that. In Jas. R. Petrin's "Car Trouble," elderly moneylender Leo Skorzeny, a great character, solves the murder of a car dealer. For espionage buffs, there's Peter LaSalle's strongly political "Tunis and Time," a post-9/11 spy story cum Tunisian travelogue centered on an FBI man with a cover as professor of French literature.
Oddest of the lot may be Hugh Sheehy's "The Invisibles," a psychological suspense story bordering on horror, with suggestions of the supernatural. It includes a great piece of cop dialogue: "People break laws all the time. Sometimes I think we have so many just so I can arrest someone if I know I need to."
Other contributors include two series perennials, Joyce Carol Oates and Scott Wolven; well-known crime novelists Robert Ferrigno and Edgar-winner S. J. Rozan; plus Thisbe Nissen, Nathan Oates, Stephen Rhodes, and Melissa VanBeck. All are to be congratulated, along with editors Penzler and Pelecanos and first-line reader Michele Slung, on being part of a great short story anthology regardless of title or genre.