Since the 2007 volume, I have done an annual review of this distinguished series, always praising the quality of its selections but sometimes questioning how well it lived up to its title. This year’s entry represents an interesting and encouraging change in focus, resulting in greater variety of mood and type and more recognition of the attributes (menace, detection, misdirection, surprise) that make crime fiction a distinctive category.
For years, literary journals have dominated the selections, with mystery magazines taking a back seat. This time, however, genre-specific periodicals account for seven of the 20 selections. Five from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, repre- senting a quarter of the selections and over 40% of the total page count, are joined by one each from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and The Strand. Another seven are from the mainstream journals, the remaining six from original anthologies. There isn’t a pointless or pretentious story to be found. From the 50 candidates identified by series editor Otto Penzler, guest editor Lisa Scottoline has selected one gem after another, arranged alphabetically from Tom Barlow’s deft “Smothered and Covered,” about the restaurant abduction of a 12-year- old, to Maurine Dallas Watkin’s “Bound,” a newly discovered tale by the late author of the original stage play Chicago.
Scottoline spends most of her introduction celebrating two highlights of the col- lection that illustrate the storyteller’s art: Randall Silvis’ novella-length “The Indian” (title refers to a motorcycle), in which three small-town brothers plot ugly revenge on a hated brother-in-law, and Eileen Dreyer’s “The Sailor in the Picture,” an end-of-World-War-II historical inspired by the famous photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square. To put it mildly, both stories take unexpected turns.
In the 2008 volume, guest editor George Pelecanos wrote, “Though there are twists and surprises to be discovered, none of these stories are puzzles, locked-room mysteries, or private detective tales.” While that volume was of high literary quality, the implication that those familiar elements were unnecessary or unwelcome in a volume devoted to mystery stories struck a sour note. Nothing could be rarer in this series than the situation in Bill Pronzini’s “Gunpowder Alley” wherein 1880s San Francisco detectives Carpenter and Quincannon are confronted with a locked-room murder. While that story came from EQQM, always a puzzle-friendly market, another pure detective story about Randall Silvis Eileen Dreyer a historical private eye, Ben Stroud’s “The Don’s Cinnamon,” appeared in the prestigious Antioch Review. The mystery-solving credentials of Burke, a “free man of color” operating in late-19th-century Cuba, are established in a brief opening anecdote about a seemingly impossible poisoning murder. His current assignment, tracing a missing slave, causes him moral qualms. The bizarre solution, though not new, is shocking as ever and serves to drive home the story’s theme.
Other entries demonstrate the variety of crime and mystery fiction. Police procedurals are represented by Michael Connelly’s typically fine Harry Bosch story “A Fine Mist of Blood” and O’Neil De Noux’s “Misprision of Felony,” saluting the New Orleans police and their special problems post-Katrina. David Edgerley Gates’ “The Devil to Pay” is a post-9/11 spy story, a cross-cutting, large-cast thriller in miniature. Clark Howard’s “The Street Ends at the Cemetery,” about a prisoner, his visitor, and multiple plotters after hidden bank loot, would be made-to-order for a 1940s or ’50s film noir. Nick Mamata’s “The Shiny Car in the Night” represents the family gangster saga. Emily St. John Mandel’s “Drifter” could be read as a ghost story.
More highlights: Kevin Leahy’s “Remora, IL,” a powerful and ironic case history of a town devastated by an auto plant closure and seemingly saved by a prison; Nancy Pickard’s “Light Bulb,” in which a 66-year-old woman tries to trace her possible abuser of 58 years before; Micah Nathan’s “Quarry,” a pure suspense story especially excellent on the relationship of two young farm boys who find a wounded man; Joyce Carol Oates’ chilling stalker tale “So Near Any Time Always”; and poet Patricia Smith’s Robert L. Fish Award-winning first story, “When They Are Done with Us,” about a single mother and her abusive son on Staten Island, a powerful story with an interesting counterpoint of lower-level TV talk shows and their bizarre subjects. And I haven’t even mentioned Andre Kocsis’ “Crossing,” the grueling account of a Vietnam-era draft dodger turned mountain guide leading drug smugglers from British Columbia to the US; Dennis McFadden’s “The Ring of Kerry,” the comic tale of an Irish rogue named Lafferty; and Hannah Tinti’s “Bullet Number Two,” a desert noir concerning a Four Corners dust storm, a Navajo motel, and a mystery woman with a baby.
I don’t mean to disparage previous volumes in this series. All have been worthy of a reader’s time. But this one is my favorite.