The american mystery short story, it is my pleasant duty to report, is in very good shape.
Were you to skip this introduction and go directly to the stories themselves, you’d discover as much on your own. And, I must say, every impulse but that of ego leads me to urge you to do just that. The stories, to be sure, are why we’re all here.
They are the best of this year’s crop, and the crop itself was a bountiful one. And they were written, each and every one of them, for love -- love of the ideas that propel them, love of the characters that inhabit them, love of the pure task of dreaming imaginary worlds and putting well-chosen words on paper (or the screen, or what you will).
This introduction, on the other hand, was written for money. It’s part of my job as guest editor, which consists primarily of reading the year’s fifty best stories as selected by Otto Penzler with the assistance of Michele Slung and choosing twenty of that number for this volume. Having performed that happy task, I’m further required to string together a hundred sentences with the aim of producing something that will serve to introduce twenty fine stories, which, truth to tell, need no introduction. My words, however, will help to justify the presence of my name on the book’s cover, and will also help me earn my fee.
Should I apologize for my mercenary motive? I think not. I am guided, after all, by Samuel Johnson’s immortal words: “No man but a blockhead wrote but for money.” * Would the good Dr. Johnson’s words echo so resoundingly in my soul, I have often wondered, had he picked some other word? A dimwit, say, or a palpable ass, or a clod or a clown or a numbskull? “No man but a witling, sir, wrote but for money.” It has, I submit, every bit as good a ring to it, and it leaves my own innocent surname well out of it.
Ah, well. It has always seemed to me that the precise meaning of Johnson’s utterance is subject to interpretation. Perhaps he is saying that the person who writes in the happy anticipation of anything beyond financial reward is playing the fool. If you expect to make a name for yourself, or achieve literary immortality, or change the world, or pile up brownie points in heaven, then surely you’re a blockhead -- because money’s all you can truly hope to gain for your efforts.
Because, certainly, Johnson himself was nowhere near as mercenary as the quoted sentence makes him appear. He wrote for money, unquestionably, and he might well have stopped writing had they stopped paying him, but he wrote also with the clear intent of adding to the world’s store of knowledge and enhancing English literature. Indeed, his dictum works every bit as well, and sounds just as likely to have been uttered by him, if we take it and turn it on its head, to wit: “No man but a blockhead wrote solely for money.” And who can argue with that? There are easier ways to make a living -- almost all of them, come to think of it -- and few less likely ways to amass a fortune.
Back to our twenty superb stories, and the twenty blockheads who’ve written them. Where, you may ask, do I get off calling them that? How can I be so sure money was not what got them written?
Simple: There’s no economic incentive these days to write short stories.
Without getting trapped in history, let me just state briefly that it was not ever thus. In the 1920s, top slick magazines paid top writers as much as $5,000 for a short story. (That’s the equivalent of what in today’s purchasing power? $100,000? More?) In the ’30s and ’40s, the pulp magazines assured any genuinely competent writer of a market for all the short fiction he could turn out -- at a low word rate, to be sure, but enough to constitute a living wage.
No more. It may be technically possible to make a living writing short fiction, but I know of only one person who does so, year in and year out. (That’s the extraordinary Edward D. Hoch, whose remarkably fertile imagination has proven to be a limitless font of short story ideas.) Short stories, for most of us, are hard to write and hard to sell, and the ones that sell don’t pay much.
So why write them?
Some of us don’t. When I began writing professionally, shortly after the invention of movable type, most aspiring mystery writers broke in by publishing short stories in magazines. Within a decade most of those magazines had vanished, and often enough a writer’s first novel was that writer’s first published work. Nowadays it’s increasingly common for writers who have achieved some recognition for their novels to be invited to contribute short stories to original anthologies, and frequently this has induced them to write short fiction for the first time.
I myself began as a writer of short stories. The young writer I was could not possibly have sat down and written a novel right off the bat. I had to write and publish a couple dozen short stories before I was ready to attempt something longer.
As soon as I could, I began writing novels, and it is the novel that has kept bread on my table over the years. But I never stopped writing short stories, and hope to go on as long as I have breath and brain cells available for the task.
Because it’s satisfying. Because the short story, for all the hard work involved, is as close as this trade comes to instant gratification. Any novel I’ve written has had stretches in it not unlike trench warfare. Short stories, sometimes written at a single sitting, rarely taking more than a week overall, are less of a drain and more of a kick.
Because it’s liberating. I can turn my hand to themes and backgrounds and types of characters in a short story with which I would not feel comfortable spending an entire novel. I can take chances, knowing that failure means I’ve wasted days, not months or years.
Because it’s fun.
I suspect the authors of these twenty stories found the business of writing them to be satisfying, liberating, and fun. I certainly had fun reading them, and I trust you will as well.
I think you will be struck, as I was, by the richness of these stories, and by the extraordinary variety -- of theme, of mood, of style -- to be found here. The only commonality, really, aside from their excellence, is that all of these stories are crime stories -- which is to say that a crime or the threat of a crime is a central element in each of them.
The variety this affords is boundless. At the same time, however, I submit that crime is a defining element in a way that various topical themes are not. People have put together anthologies in which all of the stories are about dogs, say, or take place on shipboard, or involve children, and this sort of theme can make for a successful collection, but the common feature does not define the stories. Crime is somehow more generic -- which, I suppose, helps explain why the mystery is very much a literary genre, and an enduring one.
It is, as you’ll see, one with a very broad canopy, a house with many mansions.
You may also be struck by the number of unfamiliar names in this volume’s table of contents. Two thirds of the writers whose stories I’ve selected are men and women whose names and work are new to me.
And this suggests to me that the short story -- the mystery short story -- is still the door through which many new writers emerge.
I think that’s a good thing. The whole mystery genre, we shouldn’t forget, originated in the short story. That, after all, is what Poe wrote.
And here are twenty hug...