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The Best American Mystery Stories 2007


"We are drawn to so-called mystery stories not only for anticipated thrills and surprises, but for the raw and reportorial light they shine on the human condition, which is mysterious indeed."

Reviewed by Mithran Somasundrum

The Best American Mystery series has been running since 1997, and since 1997 Otto Penzler has been editing it with a dedication bordering on the suicidal. Each year he attempts to read every mystery story published and in 2006, with colleague Michelle Slung, managed a staggering fifteen hundred. From these they produced a top fifty, and from that fifty, guest editor Carl Hiaasen chose the twenty stories in this book. As always, Penzler's definition is broad: "... any short work of fiction in which crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or the plot." The result is a eclectic mix in which stories from literary magazines feature just as often as those from genre anthologies. 

Which isn't to say there isn't much here for pulp fans. John Bond's T-Bird, a tale of an insurance scam complete with femme fatale and Russian gangster, is everything pulp/noir should be. Likewise for Take The Man's Pay (Robert Knightly), which focuses on the mixture of cunning and cheerful brutality used by a group of Manhattan policemen to reach the truth. Also highly recommended is Scott Wolven's Pinwheel, in which a minor-league crook seems to lose everything, and yet retains an obscure sense of honour. Meanwhile, Lawrence Block's Keller's Double Dribble is as smooth and assured as Block's antihero, the stamp-collecting hitman Keller. Other traditional mysteries are Queeny (Ridley Pearson) and Solomon's Alley (Robert Andrews); in the former the narrator might not be entirely reliable, in the lattter, a homeless protagonist observes more than people realise. Also a pulp-type story, but slightly less successful, is Jim Fusilli's Chellini's Solution, in which the means of cuckolded Chellini's revenge arrive a little too easily.

James Lee Burke's A Season of Regret also starts like a tale of revenge: a group of bikers terrorise an old man with a past far more violent than the bikers can imagine. However, this powerful story slides away from Hollywood simplicities to deal with the problem of living wounded. Another story that shifts sideways from traditional mystery is Louise Erdrich's Gleason. The banker Stregg, needing money for his mistress, convinces the woman's brother to kidnap Stregg's wife. The black comedy of the kidnapping, followed by the unforeseen ways it changes everyone's life, made this one of the stand-out stories of the collection. The other stand-out was Jakob Loomis by Jason Ockert: two strangers face each other across a yard, one handcuffed, the other with bloodied shoes, carrying an axe. As they lie to each other about their respective situations, a terrible fate is already approaching. The story fits together like a Greek tragedy and yet manages moments of laugh-out-loud humour. 

Tragedies of a different kind take place in Kent Meyers's Rodney Valen's Second Life, Joyce Carol Oates's Meadowlands and John Defresne's The Timing of Unfelt Smiles. However, despite being well written, the latter two stories had unsatisfying, too-pat endings. 

Meanwhile, at the very edge of what might be termed a mystery, Peter Blauner's Going, Going, Gone describes the nightmare of a father losing his six-year-old son on the New York subway. While a nightmare of a different kind -- crystal meth-fueled grief -- is provided by William Gay in Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You. This story was also chosen by Stephen King for The Best American Short Stories 2007, and for that reason I feel guilty about not liking it more. Although occasionally striking, I found the language too florid and inexact. 

Back in more conventional mystery environs, John Sandford (Lucy Had a List) and Laura Lippman (One True Love) describe female protagonists ferociously determined to win against the odds, while David Means (The Spot) and Chris Adrian (Stab) describe couples -- a pimp and an underage prostitute (Means), two children damaged by loss (Adrian) -- for whom killing needs no cause. 

While this collection contains far more than pulp-style stories, it still claims a territory of its own -- one of violence, secrecy and loss.

Mithran Somasundrum was born in Colombo, grew up in London and currently lives and works in Bangkok. He has published short fiction in Inkwell, Natural Bridge and The Sun among others, and has stories forthcoming in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and The Minnesota Review.

PublisherHoughton Mifflin Company

Publication Date: October 2007

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First anthology? No

Editor Carl Hiaasen (Editor), Otto Penzler (Series Editor)

If you liked this book you might also like.... :

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007, edited by Laura Furman

The Best American Short Stories 2007, edited by Stephen King, series editor Heidi Pitlor

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