The Best American Mystery Stories 2018, edited by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler, features 20 previously published tales, including a handful from bestselling mystery novelists: James Lee Burke, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Charlaine Harris, and Joyce Carol Oates. The stories are eclectic, running the gamut from noir to thriller to hardboiled to suspense. Chosen from a wide venue, the tales first appeared in genre and literary magazines, collections, and anthologies from publishers both large and small. A few tales fail to earn the accolades the anthology brings, but the better stories—and most fit this category, including five highlights reviewed here—are as good as anything the genre has to offer.
An example of one of the better tales is James Lee Burke’s “The Wild Side of Life.” A perfectly written hardboiled crime story, it's a throwback to the 1950s paperback era—a scrub falls for the wrong dame, and pays with everything he has—enlivened and made new by Burke’s concise and beautiful prose. It describes an airless Louisiana setting in the Atchafalaya Basin, and possesses a depth of character seldom realized in the short form.
“Too Much Time,” by Lee Child is longer than a short, running more than 40 pages, but its length perfectly matches the tale without a wasted word or tired scene. While in a small Maine town, Jack Reacher helps to apprehend a purse snatcher. When he’s convinced by the police to make an official statement, Reacher finds more trouble than a court-appointed attorney could ever solve and he’s forced to take his welfare into his own hands.
Andrew Klavan’s brilliant and surprising “All Our Yesterdays” is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde murder tale with a World War I soldier at its center. Brooks received a concussive wound on a French battlefield and finds himself recuperating in Gloucestershire’s Gladwell Grange. He suffers from blackouts and lost time, a secret he believes is his own. But when a young woman is brutally murdered, Brooks is the police’s top suspect and, to his own horror, Brooks also suspects himself as the culprit.
“Rule Number One,” by Alan Orloff is a cagey heist tale less about the complexities of a heist and more about trust, or in a thief’s world, playing every angle to make certain you’re not the sucker.
“Phantomwise: 1972,” by Joyce Carol Oates is a 50-page novella imbued with meaning and atmosphere enough for most novels. Chronicling a shy and sensitive young woman’s dark journey from innocence to destruction, its power is in its characters and its painfully real scenes. The seeds of Alyce Urquhart’s destruction are sown when she is seduced by a young professor:
“Not rape. Nothing so physically coercive. Instead he’d made her feel shame, that she had caused him to misunderstand her.”
It’s a misunderstanding that follows young Alyce with the fervency of a stalker, tilting her world away from its sensible center and setting her adrift. “Phantomwise: 1972” is an eye-opening look at the female experience, capturing the abuse many women suffer in our culture—physically, sexually, and emotionally—with an empathy that is as breath-taking as it is heartbreaking. It also reminds me why I would walk 10 miles in the snow to read a handful of Joyce Carol Oates’ brilliant words.