Each year in this stimulating series, Otto Penzler’s introduction notes that “many people regard a ‘mystery’ as a detective story,” which he believes is actually “one subgenre of a much bigger genre, which [he] define[s] as any short work of fiction in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or the plot.” This is something of a straw man, since no one seriously confines the mystery (or more accurately crime story) to pure detection. The argument some of us have with the annual selection is that it is too often overbalanced toward mainstream literary pretentions and away from the features that make the mystery a unique genre. This year’s first selection (by alphabetical accident) provides a striking illustration: Brock Adams’ “Audacious,” from the Sewanee Review, is a very good short story, but it is not a mystery even by Penzler’s elastic definition. True, one of the main characters is a pickpocket, but her crimes or potential crimes are not really central to the plot or theme.
The rest of the stories at least meet the lenient criteria, and as always, there are some gems among them, highlighted by three extraordinary pieces of writing drawn from original anthologies: David Corbett and Luis Alberto Urrea’s “Who Stole My Monkey?” from Lone Star Noir (Akashic), about the theft of a band bus containing a Cajun musician’s prized accordion and the challenge to write a song for a Mexican patron’s ugly girlfriend, written in eloquent, colorful prose, with genuine elements of crime/mystery/detective fiction; Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Stars are Falling,” from Stories (Morrow), a beautifully written and heartbreaking variation on the old story of the returning soldier (from World War I in this case) whose wife believed him to be dead and found another love; and Charles McCarry’s spy-novel-in-miniature “The End of the String,” from Agents of Treachery (Vintage/Black Lizard), about a plot to overthrow the president-for-life of an African republic, believably drawing on the author’s own experiences as an American agent in the 1950s.
Other notable stories combine solid plotting with writing chops that would grace any genre magazine or literary journal: Brendan DuBois’ “Ride-Along,” about a journalist out for a night with a veteran cop, a gem of mystery craftsmanship; Loren D. Estleman’s “Sometimes a Hyena,” in which one of the greatest fictional private eyes, Detroit’s Amos Walker, looks into a possible accidental police shooting; Ed Gorman’s “Flying Solo,” a unique and unforgettable tale of cancer-patient vigilantes; Richard Lange’s “Baby Killer,” in which a deeply sympathetic East Los Angeles grandmother, who already has enough problems, witnesses the killing of a child by a gang member; and Andrew Riconda’s darkly satirical (and maybe sneakily religious?) variation on the old one-last-job ploy in “Heart Like a Balloon,” which the author appropriately recommends to the shade of Charles Willeford.
With competition this strong, the rest pale a bit by comparison, but most of the others have their points of interest. Chris F. Holm, a specialist in the offbeat, introduces an unconventional hired assassin in “The Hitter.” S.J. Rozan’s “Chin Yong-Yun Takes a Case” is told by the traditional Chinese mother of her series private eye Lydia Chin. “A Long Time Dead,” like all of Max Allan Collins’ posthumous collaborations with Mickey Spillane, an improvement on the original, will delight those who share Penzler’s exalted view of Mike Hammer’s creator. Lawrence Block’s “Clean Slate,” the case history of a female serial killer, has his usual smooth readability though it’s not one of his best. Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin’s “What His Hands Had Been Waiting For” uses its background of the 1927 Mississippi River flood effectively, but the situation of two otherwise-occupied guys finding an inconvenient baby is overly familiar. James Grady’s “Destiny City,” about an anti-terrorist double agent in Washington, DC, has a good central situation but clunky development that suggests action-movie treatment more than short story. Harry Hunsicker’s “West of Nowhere” is a pretty good crook story, though I can’t believe it was the best of the year from the criminally under-utilized Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Dennis McFadden’s “Diamond Alley,” about the murder of a small-town Pennsylvania high school girl in the year of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ dramatic World Series win, begins well with its evocation of the joys of baseball and early-1960s adolescent life but fizzles as a whodunit. Still McFadden wins the prize for canny self-promotion in his author note, luring the reader to Hart’s Grove (Colgate University Press), the collection in which the tale first appeared, for the real solution.
My fellow statistical buffs will want to know the points of origin. Five of the twenty stories come from literary journals, including Adams’ ringer and three by Eric Barnes, Ernest J. Finney, and Christopher Merkner that missed the mark for me. Four were drawn from mystery genre magazines, three from single-author collections, and eight from original anthologies, which provided the most as well as the three best. On balance, this is a worthwhile collection but not as strong as the 2010 volume, edited by Lee Child, or the 2008 volume, edited by George Pelecanos.