On a recent trip to one of the South’s literary meccas, Oxford, Mississippi, I had the pleasure of spending a great deal of time with literary folks — authors, booksellers, editors, publishers, professors — who take books and writing very seriously. Included with visits to William Faulkner’s home, the University of Mississippi’s special collections library, Square Books (at which John Grisham happened to be doing a signing), were many hours spent with good wine, cold beer, and conversation.
This wasn’t ordinary conversation, at least not to me. It was among people who love literature as much as I do and who care about it passionately. The talk swung freely: a writer is described as “a little full of himself” but is then quickly conceded to be one of the best writers in the state, a discussion immediately followed by a roundtable argument of which of his books is the best and which is the worst, with more than one drinker — oops, I mean conversationalist — cogently quoting beautiful lines from his work.
The reason this discussion is appropriate (at least I think it is) is that, without exception, those involved in the conversation love mystery fiction. While one argued that Thomas Wolfe is a better writer than either Faulkner or Hemingway (I excused him on the basis of his having consumed nearly a case of Budweiser) and others tussled over whether Cormac McCarthy is as good as or better than Faulkner (remember, this occurred in Faulkner’s longtime home, so he was used as the measuring stick for all American writers, although most of us know that Hemingway was the greatest writer of the twentieth century, closely followed by Raymond Chandler), there was agreement on one point. Mystery and crime fiction ranks with the best literary production of these times, as it has for a long time.
Every person engaged in these nightly confabs was acutely familiar with this series of anthologies from Houghton Mifflin. A few of them had work appear in its pages, and several were disappointed (permit me to state it gently) that theirs hadn’t yet been selected. Not one of them is what would be described as a “mystery writer.” They were writing the best, most powerful, passionate, realistic fiction that they knew how to do. Yet all had written stories or novels in which murders or other criminal acts were committed.
As has been true for the first five volumes in this series, the twenty stories that make up this distinguished collection help broaden the boundaries of mystery fiction, which I define as any work in which a crime or the threat of a crime is central to the theme or the plot of the story. Detective stories are merely one subgenre of this very wide-reaching literary form.
This year’s guest editor reflects that stretching of the borders. James Ellroy, described by Joyce Carol Oates as “our American Dostoevski,” began his career as a writer of traditional mysteries, albeit with a hard edge and an original prose style. His first book, Brown’s Requiem, is a private-eye novel. His second, Clandestine, is a police novel, as are his next several novels. Although the police, and even private eyes, continue to have a place in his work, many layers of politics, jurisprudence, and social history have been added. He has helped blur the lines between mystery fiction and serious fiction — as if they ever needed to be separated in the first place. The suggestion that Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Robert B. Parker weren’t writing social commentary while also writing first-rate mystery fiction means only that the reader missed much of the point.
On a different subject, more or less, a word needs to be said about the possibility of perceived favoritism, or nepotism, or some -ism or another.
In addition to this series for Houghton Mifflin, I also edit other mystery and crime anthologies and have done so for many years. These other books are different in that I commission stories specifically for them. In 2001, those mystery anthologies had specific themes of baseball (Murderers’ Row) and boxing (Murder on the Ropes). It seems to me only natural that I would request stories from authors I admire, which is what I did.
As the end of the year approached, I was looking for the best original mysteries of the year; I could not ignore the books I edited nor the authors who wrote for them. Sure enough, they produced some of the best mystery stories of the year, and several of these stories will be found on these pages, as Ellroy agreed that they were outstanding and deserved to be here.
The danger of having too many stories on a single theme is that a collection can seem to be too heavily weighted with a single type of story. Find three boxing mysteries in one book and you’re going to think there’s an awful lot of boxing around here. The saaaaame would be true if there were great anthologies about perfume or blues or zebras (there are already too damned many about cats, if you ask me).
This is not an apology, mind you, but an explanation. The fact of the matter is that the boxing stories in this book are truly wonderful, and so are the baseball stories. If anything, I may have been a bit tougher on some of the authors who wrote for those anthologies because I was overly aware of their origins. In this year’s anthology — there’s no getting around it — you will get a disparate number of sports stories. However, I believe they are among the most original and memorable stories that have ever appeared in the six years of this series.
One more thing. The only criterion for selecting a story for this book is the excellence of the writing. Last year’s book contained stories by only a handful of authors with whom I was familiar. It’s different this year, as some of fiction’s greatest names appear between these covers. When you read these triumphs of superb prose, you will instantly see that they are here because of how good they are, not because of who wrote them.
Enormous thanks and gratitude go to James Ellroy for taking the time to work so dedicatedly on this volume. His introduction conveys a great deal with the same alliterative and flamboyant flair that distinguishes his other work, most recently The Cold Six Thousand, which appeared on the New York Times bestseller list last year.
And of course, thanks to my colleague, Michele Slung, the world’s best reader, without whom this annual volume would require three years to complete. She culls the mystery fiction from all the magazines and books with original fiction all year long so that I can read the likely suspects and bring the list down to the top fifty, from which the guest editor then selects the final twenty.
Despite reading every general consumer magazine and hundreds of smaller periodicals, as well as books and the electronic publishing sites that offer original fiction, we live in fear that, unlikely as it may be, we’ll miss a worthy story. Therefore, if you are an author, editor, publisher, or someone who cares about one and would like to submit a story, you are encouraged to do so. A tearsheet or the entire publication is fine.
To be eligible, a story must have been written by an American or Canadian and first published in a U.S. or Canadian book or periodical during the calendar year 2002. If it was initially published in electronic format, you must submit a hard copy. The earlier in the year I receive a story, the more I’m inclined to welcome it with a happy heart, since reading more than a hundred stories when the rest of the world is celebrating Christmas and the e...