on December 10, 2002
Although I'm a fan of true crime, most of the genre doesn't meet my standards. Too often I find that it focuses on the criminal and the macabre, gruesome, or sensational aspect of whatever story is being told and appeals to a certain prurience which I find distasteful. Often, the victims are forgotten or neglected in favor of the criminal, whose story may be more interesting or titillating. This remarkable collection, however, includes only well-told stories from respectable publications. Most of the 17 stories are riveting and will linger with you long after you've finished the book. These are true human interest stories which never ignore the real tragedies involved. Kudos to the editors for managing to find such quality stories. I can't wait for the next edition!
This is quite a good anthology, although the selections are heavily tilted toward New York publications. The New Yorker and New York Times magazines are certainly not the only venues for crime reporters, though you might think so if you relied only on the editor's choices.
The best part of the book is James Ellroy's contributed essay "Choirboys" in which he recounts his misspent youth before finally being motivated to writing by the publication of Wambaugh's novels. Ellroy's power as a writer is fully on display in this intensely personal tale.
Of the 15 stories, I would judge only one as weak. The selection covers crime, not just those with gore. There's the story of a burglar who stole nothing but sterling silver. Another accompanies a businessman who is about to start a five year prison sentence for financial misdeeds that cost investors about a billion dollars. The decades old murder of a Peace Corps volunteer is given attention as the author tracks down a woman's killer who literally got away with murder thanks to political maneuvering by the State Department and Peace Corps.
Overall it's a solid anthology and choosing James Ellroy to write the introduction and finagling his own contribution was genius. My only reservation, as noted, is that the editors seem to have chosen only from publications mostly on the east coast where the view of things can be skewed.
on February 16, 2006
Crime writers are thankful that Otto Penzler and Thomas H. Cook have found a new home for The Best American Crime Writing 2005. This anthology, previously published by the Vintage label of Random House, has just jumped ship to the Harper Perennial label of Harper Collins. The collection, priced at $10.17, gathers sixteen primo stories that were carefully selected by two authentic crime aficionados. The yarns reprinted here were initially published in oddball places ranging from big city newspapers, to little magazines, to men's magazines, or regional magazines in-between, all of which saw print in the calendar year 2004. I add this series anthology to my mounting book collection every year. Big-name writers like James Ellroy happen to appear in this issue, but I do prefer the tales by the "lesser known writers."
Readers will enjoy the introduction by James Ellroy, ditto his bonus contribution. The original essay Choirboys, featured here, reading like a beat poem about the author's misspent youth -- details his criminal fascinations -- and it's a fine tribute to his most valued teacher; the legendary crime writer Joseph Wambaugh. It isn't hard imagining Ellroy being arrested for disorderly conduct, guzzling booze, reading in libraries, shoplifting crime books, snarfing dope, sneaking into movies, sparring with cops and stealing food, after reading this. But that's ignoring his good qualities. You'll probably recognize Ellroy's name from a quartet of books he's written about L.A. -- The Big Nowhere, The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz -- one of which became an Oscar winning movie starring Kim Basinger, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Kevin Spacey.
I'm ambivalent about the potency of this anthology, so here are some suggestions. For continuity, Mr. Penzler, go back to the glossy covers and don't use black on the spine either as it shows wear too easily. Keep the contributor notes in the back, Mr. Cook, since they deserve their own section. List the article source on the Contents page, so I can jump immediately to a preferred story. Also, consider that your series (much like Best American Short Stories) might benefit from having a rotating Guest Editor each year; it'll keep that whiff of stagnation at bay. If a Guest Editor sounds unappealing, set up a three person Prize Jury instead. Lastly, what stories were short-listed? Were there 50 Distinguished Crime Stories from 2005 that you had to cut? Were there 100?
My favorite article was "The Virus Underground," a story by Clive Thompson that first appeared in the New York Times Magazine. Running only 21 pages in length, this story about teens in the virus writing community is a cerebral examination of a subculture that is greatly misunderstood. What motivates these malicious coders? The author does an excellent job of picking at, and pulling on the nuances of, his cyber investigation, revealing the psychological multi-threading that perks beneath all hacking. Threats to national security? Pragmatic geniuses? Both? Since writing about technology and unintended consequences (in plain English) isn't easy, Thompson proves to be skilled. His long paragraph documenting consultant Paula Scalingi and "Purple Crescent" (an exercise modeling a terrorist attack that floods New Orleans, causing national confusion) proved eerily prophetic just one year later!
Editorially, Cook and Penzler didn't do "as good a job" as in previous years. I'm not sure if this is due to the change in publishers, or if this is just the expected outcome when the page count has been significantly reduced. Overall, The Best American Crime Writing 2005 seemed bland in spots, lacking a range of subject matter exhibited in previous editions. I hope the Editors take my suggestions for improvement to heart. If you make this purchase, you should pick up last years version of Best American Crime Writing: 2004 Edition for direct comparison. The magazines I've linked to below are the source publications for these reprinted stories. Nominate articles for possible inclusion by sending your submissions to Otto Penzler, c/o The Mysterious Bookshop, 129 West 56th Street, New York, NY 10019.
The Best American Crime Writing 2005,
The Girls Next Door
The Ones That Got Away
The Family Man
The Virus Underground
Punch Drunk Love
The Terror Web
Anatomy Of A Foiled Plot
To Catch An Oligarch
A Long Way Down
The Silver Thief
Stalking Her Killer
The Self-Destruction Of An M.D.
If You Like 'The Best American Crime Writing 2005,' You Might Enjoy:
Boston Globe Magazine
New York Magazine
New York Times Magazine
San Francisco Magazine
The New Yorker
Visit the Publisher's Website:
Pros: "The Family Man," "The Ones That Got Away," "The Virus Underground."
Cons: Contributor info lacks separate section. Cover finish is matte. Sources unlisted on contents page.
The Bottom Line: New York publications are overrepresented. 2005 edition is 150 pages thinner than previous year.
There are several very good articles in this edition of "The Best American Crime Writing." I especially liked "The Self-Destruction of an M.D." and "Stalking Her Killer." But the main reason for me to buy this book is editor James Ellroy's heartfelt, masterful tribute to pioneering crime novelist Joseph Wambaugh in the never-before-published essay "Choirboys." Ellroy once again tells the sordid story of his early life and hard times as a street person. Only this time he recounts his reading at the time of Wambaugh's revelatory early novels, interspersed with tales from Wambaugh's police and writing careers. (Which have obviously been gleaned from conversations with Wambaugh.) Ellroy credits Wambaugh with literally saving his life and providing the spiritual resources for him to overcome his demons and make a successful life for himself. This is an excellent telling of what an author can mean to a reader and how important, even vital, literature is to our survival. They should use "Choirboys" to teach young students of literature why it really matters.