Ben Boulden

Best American Mystery & Suspense 2023

Best American Mystery and Suspense, 2023
edited by Lisa Unger and Steph Cha
Mariner, $18.99

The Best American Mystery and Suspense, 2023, edited by Lisa Unger and Steph Cha, is (as usual) a quality affair. This year’s anthology, like all of those with Steph Cha as the senior editor, does a fine job of mingling well-known genre writers—such as S. A. Cosby, Jess Walter, and Walter Mosley—with the unexpected, Sylvia Moreno-Garcia, and, even better, a bunch of lesser-known but no-less-talented writers.

Leigh Newman’s “Valley of the Moon” is a slow-burning and absorbing tale about two sisters from a broken family. Set in Anchorage, Alaska, it draws a dark and chilling reminder that we are, at least sometimes, prisoners to our shared past.

“Not Exit,” by Walter Mosley, is a hard-as-nails, noirish thriller about a slow-witted savant, Tom Exit, with an uncanny talent for remembering everything he is told. After Tom is sent to Rikers Island for interfering with a police investigation he is victimized by both guards and his fellow inmates. But Mosley adds a surprise that elevates “Not Exit” from its bleak reality and into something exceptional.

Sylvia Moreno-Garcia’s “The Land of Milk and Honey” is an atmospheric and richly detailed Mexican gothic with undertones of horror and a deliciously devious denouement. Set in a crumbling mansion in an unnamed city and told with a lyrical, almost poetic quality: “There lived an old man and six women, just them and no one else.” When a young man comes to reside in the house, he brings life to one of the women…but to write more would spoil the fun.

“33 Clues into the Disappearance of My Sister,” by the incomparable Joyce Carol Oates, is a brilliant novella about the rivalry between two sisters. The narrator is unreliable, the Upstate New York setting is bleak— almost gothic—and the emotional impact of loneliness and sorrow is melancholy and sharp. The best part, the story went somewhere this reader never saw coming.

Anthony Neil Smith’s marvelously titled, “The Ticks Will Eat You Whole,” is a playful and clever tale about a husband learning something dark and surprising about his wife’s past, while hiking through the woods to disperse the ashes of his father-in-law. “Love Interest,” by Jess Walter, is an entrancing journey into what-may-have-been for a retired film star from the 1960s and 1970s. A private eye story, of sorts, “Love Interest” crosses the threshold between reality and our willful illusions about film and its stars. It is a near perfect story in every sense.

The Best American Mystery and Suspense, 2023, includes other fine tales by Joseph S. Walker, Jacqueline Freimor, James A. Hearn, Jervey Tervalon, and others.

Ben Boulden is the author of Western novels Blaze! Red Rock Rampage and  Blaze! Spanish Gold, as well as the novella Merrick. He writes the column “Short & Sweet: Short Stories Considered” for Mystery Scene Magazine and has written more than 300 reviews, articles, and essays. He blogs haphazardly at Gravetapping and is married with a daughter, a dog, a one-eyed cat, and a fish named Drink-Drink.