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The Best American Mystery Stories 2007 Paperback – October 10, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The 11th volume in this consistently high-quality series features such household names as Joyce Carol Oates and Lawrence Block, but for the most part it's the lesser lights who shine brightest with superb short crime stories that evoke human passions and bring characters to life with a few well-chosen phrases or images. As series editor Otto Penzler again cautions in his foreword, few of the stories revolve on whodunit, the why having become more important in contemporary crime fiction. One of the best of the 20 selections is Chris Adrian's Stab, a chilling tale of childish cruelty, as witnessed by an autistic child. Block himself weighs in with the masterful Keller's Double Dribble, a story of double crosses, white-collar crime and basketball. Another standout is Brent Spencer's The True History, a gripping account of brutality and revenge set during the Texas War of Independence. Cozy and Agatha Christie fans won't find much to suit their particular tastes, but lovers of good writing should be delighted. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"A standout collection." (Kirkus Reviews ) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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In order of their appearance, these are the stories—
—1. "Stab" by Chris Adrian (first published in ZEOTROPE: ALL-STORY, Summer 2006);
—2. "Solomon's Alley" by Robert Andrews (first published in the anthology D.C. NOIR, 2006);
—3. "Going, Going, Gone" by Peter Blauner (from the anthology HARD BOILED BROOKLYN, 2006); a non-criminous, non-mystery story of an inept father vs. the New York City subway system.
—4. "Keller's Double Dribble" by Lawrence Block (from the anthology MURDER AT THE FOUL LINE, 2006); likable hitman Keller vs. doublecrossing employers.
—5. "T-Bird" by John Bond (from the anthology MIAMI NOIR, 2006); poker players attempt to defraud an insurance company.
—6. "A Season of Regret" by James Lee Burke (SHENANDOAH, 56/3, 2006); a retired college professor vs. a vicious gang of bikers.
—7. "The Timing of Unfelt Smiles" by John Dufresne (MIAMI NOIR, 2006); a profiler vs. a psychotic who has slain his whole family.
—8. "Gleason" by Louise Erdrich (from THE NEW YORKER, Mar. 20, 2006); a banker with a plan to provide money to his pregnant mistress.
—9. "Chellini's Solution" by Jim Fusilli (from the anthology DEATH DO US PART, 2006); an Italian-American vs. the German-American man his wife is having an affair with.
—10. "Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?" by William Gay (from TIN HOUSE, Winter 2006); the gradual disclosure of the sad fate of Aimee, the beloved of grief-stricken Leonard (aka The Jeepster).
—11. "Take the Man's Pay" by Robert Knightly (from the anthology MANHATTAN NOIR, 2006); 2 New York City cops vs. a Japanese murder suspect.
—12. "One True Love" by Laura Lippman (DEATH DO US PART, 2006); a soccer-mom prostitute vs. a blackmailer.
—13. "The Spot" by David Means (THE NEW YORKER, Aug. 21, 20006); varied scenes of water and death from the Great Lakes to Niagara Falls.
—14 "Rodney Valen's Second Life" by Kent Meyers (THE GEORGIA REVIEW, Fall/Winter 2006); a small-town sheriff tries to solve a complex murder-suicide.
—15. "Meadowlands" by Joyce Carol Oates (the anthology MURDER AT THE RACETRACK, 2006); a day at a racetrack has an unforeseen outcome for a young woman.
—16. "Jakob Loomis" by Jason Ockert (THE OXFORD AMERICAN, Spring 2006); 3 young men, for 3 different reasons simultaneously undergo remarkably similar experiences.
—17. "Queeny" by Ridley Pearson (from DEATH DO US PART, 2006); a crime writer is put on trial after his wife vanishes while jogging.
—18. "Lucy Had a List" by John Sandford (pen name of John Camp; from the anthology MURDER IN THE ROUGH, 2006); a young female golfer with a long, diverse list of things to accomplish.
—19. "The True History" by Brent Spencer (from PRAIRIE SCHOONER, Summer 2006); a first-person observer's account of Sam Houston's Army of the Republic's looting and raping during its "liberation" of Laredo, Texas, from Mexicans.
—20. "Pinwheel" by Scott Wolven (from MURDER AT THE RACETRACK, 2006); a small-time crook and his brother vs. police and the Japanese mob.
Many of these stories contain improbable events and implausible coincidences, often padded with irrelevant passages and often highly embellished with would-be poetic styles. In my judgment, the 6 best stories in this anthology are those by Block, Burke, Lippman, Meyers, Oates, and Sandford (Camp), which I gave letter grades to, ranging from "A-" to "B+". Block's Keller stories are among my favorites, and "Keller's Double Dribble" is one of his best. Alone in this volume, Sandford's piece comes the closest to being a Fair-Play Puzzle story, and readers who are paying careful attention should be able to solve its murder mystery about 5 pages before its ending.
The 6 weakest stories in my view are those by Blauner, Bond, Erdrich, Gay, Ockert, and Wolven. Blauner's, as I mention above, has nothing to do with mysteries or crime stories. Bond's story is a flawed first-person tale in which the narrator unaccountably is "confessing" the sordid details of serious crimes he has committed and for which he and some some of his friends could be imprisoned. Ockert's work is a rather lame Pattern story, which aims at a semi-comic convergence of 3 men's fates ... and deliberately leaves readers hanging as far as the title character is concerned. And Gay's, Erdrich's, and Wolven's stories all seemed too tepid, too uneventful, too dull to me to merit the word "Best" in any sense. Further, Gay's story, with its dozens of contrived similes, reads like a terrible parody OF A PARODY of the late Ross Macdonald's style. These 6 stories received letter grades ranging between "D-" and "C". (The remaining 8 stories in this anthology, as anyone can deduce, received letter grades ranging between "C+" and "B".)
In his Foreword to this volume, Otto Penzler, this series' editor, discusses the selection process. He says that from a field of more than 1,500 stories he and his assistant Michele Slung chose the "best" 50 stories, which they handed over to Carl Hiaasen, who was then responsible for making the final selection of the "best" 20 stories. I am very skeptical about the judgments involved. If readers will glance over the sources of stories (provided above by me), it is evident that a very high percentage of stories come from the anthologies of only 5 editors: 3 of the stories are from DEATH DO US PART, edited by Harlan Corben; 3 more are from the "Noir Cities" anthologies (D.C. NOIR, edited by George Pelecanos; MANHATTAN NOIR, edited by Lawrence Block; and MIAMI NOIR, edited by Les Standiford); and finally 4 more are from MURDER AT THE RACETRACK, MURDER AT THE FOUL LINE, and MURDER IN THE ROUGH, all 3 anthologies edited by Otto Penzler himself. It appears to me that perhaps the 50 sub-finalists were not necessarily the 50 best mysteries, especially since not even one story from either ELLERY QUEEN'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE or ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE—obvious sources of excellent mysteries—seems to have made the final cut.
Confirming this, in its final 3 pages this anthology contains a list titled "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2006"—actually 32 stories instead of just 30, for a grand total of 52 rather than only 50. Penzler's MURDER IN THE ROUGH is the source of 4 of these, his MURDER ON THE FOUL LINE, the source for one more; the "Noir Cities" anthologies are sources for 5 more; DEATH DO US PART is the source for 3 more; HARD BOILED BROOKLYN, 2006, edited by Reed Farrel Coleman, is also the source for 3 more; and no stories from either EQMM or AHMM appear on this appended list.
Finally, this book also contains a short rah-rah-rah Introduction by editor Carl Hiaasen and 11 pages of "Contributors' Notes" where the 20 authors comment on their own stories. I found those Notes interesting and occasionally useful in understanding facets of some stories.
When I averaged the 20 grades I'd given the stories in this collection, the resulting final grade was only a "B-".
POSTSCRIPT: After I wrote this review I took an old Ellery Queen anthology from my bookshelf at random (ELLERY QUEEN'S GIANTS OF MYSTERY, 1976), opened it at random, and read (for the first time) Robert L. Fish's "In a Country Churchyard" (EQMM, Aug. 1970); this story, which I awarded a "B+" grade to, is a cleverly plotted Premise work (WHAT IF a Victorian killer's total misjudgments of others' thoughts about him ironically cause his downfall?), told in a concise and stylistically appropriate manner. Half a dozen stories of THIS caliber would greatly have improved Hiaasen's/Penzler's anthology for me and for thousands of other readers!
Be prepared for some relative crudeness in language and crime and not much lightweight content where the story is really about the mystery. Not here.
Here are my favorites:
Keller's Double Dribble: masterful story of a hit man, with a creative twist.
T-Bird: poker-playing babe hatches a scam.
One True Love: prostitute / soccer mom deals with an untimely threat.
Stab: unusual mass murder up the food chain as told by the survivor of a pair of separated twins.
Solomon's Alley: sometimes the inner voice demands action.
Pinwheel and Meadowlands: two completely different stories that include horse racing. One is from the perspective of a cool dude who is part of some illegal activity and the other is from a nervous woman clueless about what will happen.
Queeny: quick, crisp story about danger while jogging.
Lucy Had a List: nothing will stop Lucy from achieving her goal to be a professional golfer.
That's nine of the 20. Some of the remainder fall into a pretty decent second tier, and a couple I didn't like seemed rather pointless or uninteresting, never clicking into gear. Some that didn't make my list were probably very well written, and I could understand their selection. "The True History" about the conflict between Texas and Mexico in the 1800s comes to mind. I simply didn't care for it. Sorry.