First, a confession. I have little business being the guest editor of this volume. Although I have always read short stories of every kind with appreciation, I seldom write them. My rate of story production can be measured on a geologic scale, about one every decade. Looking at my predecessors in this role, I would describe all of them as distinguished practitioners of the form. Not so here. In other words, the opinions expressed are not seasoned by an insider’s experience. But as is so often true with lawyers, a lack of qualifications will not keep me from speaking.
Let me start, then, by reflecting on the traditional title of this series, Best American Mystery Stories. To be sure, some of the stories that appear here, like Walter Mosley’s “Karma,” are elegant small mysteries, if mystery is taken to have its traditional meaning as a story about the investigation of a puzzling crime. Characteristically, mysteries focus on the detection of the crime’s perpetrator, or more broadly, discovering (or revealing) why that enigmatic crime occurred. Andrew Klavan’s “Her Lord and Master” is a mystery in that second sense.
But many other stories included here never raise those questions. Instead, what the fictions Otto Penzler and I have chosen hold in common is their subject matter. Every one is about crime — its commission, its aftermath, its anxieties, its effect on character. Best American Crime Stories would be equally, if not more, apropos as the title of this book.
In fact, more than any other theme, these stories are portraits, in styles ranging from sly to harrowing, of how crimes occurred — the evolution of circumstances so that bad-acting becomes inevitable. “Vigilance” by Scott Wolven or “Ringing the Changes” by Jeff Somers are only two of many possible examples, both gritty and compelling. In fact, more than half the stories here culminate in the commission of one particular offense. So as not to spoil things, I will not name the crime, but let me say if you like all your characters living at the end of a story, this may not be the book for you. Yet, I would venture that crime is not the only point of intersection between these stories. If you were to compare most of them to those in the companion volume, Best American Short Stories, you might feel, more often than not, that they somehow seem different. Despite what some critics contend, the distinction is not in elegance of execution — many of these stories, such as R. T. Smith’s “Ina Grove,” are technically masterful; nor in the depth of psychological insight — Alan Heathcock’s “Peacekeeper” is a moving revelation of the interdependence of an individual and a community; nor in the uniqueness of voice or vision. There are few American stylists as distinctive as Elmore Leonard, whose usual roadside magic is displayed in “Louly and Pretty Boy Floyd.” The difference is that the majority of these stories proceed on different assumptions about what a short story is supposed to do when compared to what I’d call “mainstream” contemporary stories that might be taught in a literature class.
If we are seeking the literary heritage of the majority of these stories, we must hark back to the nineteenth century and the quintessential form that was perfected by writers like Hawthorne and Poe in the United States and Guy de Maupassant in France (and sublimely mastered by Chekhov). The classic short story arose as a function of rapid increases in literacy and the far broader circulation that resulted from newspapers and magazines that were, in today’s terms, hungry for content. Stories in that era evolved from being anecdotal and diffuse to aiming to create a dominant impression at the end. In pursuit of that goal, they took a conventional form some of us were taught to recognize in grade and high school. They had a beginning, a middle, and an end, meaning they presented a conflict, an exposition, and a resolution. I’ll call them three-act stories for convenience. Mysteries are classic three-act stories, which is why naming these volumes Best American Mystery Stories is actually very fair.
Most of the stories here adhere, at least roughly, to that framework. They are tales in which the reader wants to know about the situation as much as the character, where the traditional question of suspense — “What happens next?” — is foremost. Laura Lippman’s “The Crack Cocaine Diet” or Mike MacLean’s “McHenry’s Gift” are fine examples in which the denouement in both instances startled, and therefore delighted, me. Often, in stories of this species, we care as much about how the problem is worked out as we do the psychology of the main character. Ed McBain’s “Improvisation” is a glimmering case in point, as you’d expect of a story that begins, “‘Why don’t we kill somebody?’ she suggested.” “Edelweiss” by Jane Haddam develops the sammmmme theme and, intriguingly, comes to a kindred resolution. This is not to suggest that psychological insight is incidental or absent in these stories. Instead, the assumption is that the resolution of conflict will provide a final and telling window into character, and therefore that plot and character are functions of one another. “Dust Up” by Wendy Hornsby and William Harrison’s “Texas Heat” employ that strategy to winning effect.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, James Joyce’s Dubliners abandoned the traditional three-act form of short fiction. Joyce’s epochal stories share the narrative approach of modernist poetry, and evolve toward, in Joyce’s chosen term, an “epiphany,” a moment of realization, for the reader first, and quite often, for the character, too. Emily Raboteau’s brief gem, “Smile,” is an exquisite exemplar of that approach. The narration evolves only as far as is necessary to achieve that insight. If you ask about the character’s circumstances — where she lives, what she does everyday — they are often little changed. To the question, “What happened in the story?” the answer might be, at least outwardly, “Not very much.” Karen Bender’s potent and fully realized “Theft” provides a splendid illustration of this.
As should be clear, I am a devotee of stories of both kinds, and therefore we’ve included stories of both schools. Moreover, it is certainly the case that the distinctions I’ve suggested are not hard and fast ones. For several decades now, the somewhat rigorous boundaries that existed forty years ago between high and low culture in American literature have been breaking down. Looking back, it is not unusual for some stories to appear in both the Best Mystery and Best Short Story volumes. Joyce Carol Oates’s “So Help Me God” crosses the borders I’ve declared, which has been typical of her world-revered body of work for decades now. R. T. Smith’s “Ina Grove” is a little bit of everything: it’s a mystery by the definition I’ve included, a searching exploration of individual psychology, and a story with a beginning, middle, and end — several of them in fact. It is also a work of imposing literary art. Indeed, several of these stories are really both fish and fowl. Joyce was determined to wring meaning from the warp and woof of typical daily experience, as opposed to the rare personal cataclysm that crime, for example, represents. Since all of these are crime stories, they are exiles...