Mystery is the nut of all great fiction, so it seems superfluous and even a bit patronizing to promote a separate category for it. Yet the tag has stuck since the heyday of pulp, and now it seems unshakable.
The stories in this collection would do honor to any anthology of short literature. More than transcending the genre of crime, they blow away its nebulous boundaries. Good writing is good writing, period.
Oh, there’s death in these pages. Death by shotgun, handgun, hammer, candlestick, Barlow knife, bayonet, golf club—even death by garage- door opener. But the stories are far more memorable for the characters than for the crimes.
“A plague set upon the world to cauterize and cleanse it” is our introduction to the menacing, grief-shattered Jeepster in William Gay’s riveting “Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?” The Jeepster is hellbound, of course, which is not an uncommon fate in his neighborhood. There’s nothing common about this story, though, a dark poetic torrent that makes vivid a state of almost unimaginable heartbrokenness.
The ability to deliver such complete and compelling tales in a couple of thousand words is an authentic gift, and the envy of writers who cannot pull it off.
When novelists pace themselves, they set their own clock. Sometimes the goal line is visible; other times it isn’t. However long we take to get there is entirely up to us. Those who pick up our books can see how thick or thin they are, and adjust their expectations accordingly.
But readers of short stories arrive primed for a quick score, preferably in a single sitting. A writer must work essentially in a two-minute drill, trying to move the ball downfield quickly without fumbling. Such disciplined calibrations of plot and compressions of character development are difficult to do well.
In “Rodney Valen’s Second Life,” Kent Meyers’s narrator sets the hook artfully: “Everyone figured Rodney, Shane’s father, would end the Valen line. How the hell Rodney managed to find a wife’s beyond anyone. Blame the freeway.” That funny line leads down a haunted road, though, and the shadows will be familiar to readers of Poe and even Faulkner.
In “Gleason,” by Louise Erdrich, a philandering dreamer named Stregg tries to explain his recent life to his mistress’s brother: “Until I met Jade last year, you understand, I was reasonably happy.Carmen and I had sex for twenty minutes once a week and went to Florida in the winter; we gave dinner parties and stayed at the lake for two weeks every summer. In the summer, we had sex twice a week and I cooked all our meals.” The kidnapping that follows is brilliantly incidental to the fate of that marriage. Think O. Henry channeling John Cheever. While shored by tight structure, a mystery flops if the cast is uninteresting or fails to perform. The writers in this volume demonstrate zero tolerance for boring relationships, boring interludes, or boring endings.
Laura Lippman’s soccer-mom call girl in “One True Love,” Robert Andrews’s homeless hero in “Solomon’s Alley,” Jim Fusilli’s cuckolded Italian waiter in “Chellini’s Solution” — all are splendidly galvanized from beginning to end.
As it does in life, evil abounds here in a variety of presentations. We expect to see it in a psychotic stalker, but not necessarily in a band of Texas volunteers on their way to battle the Mexican army of Santa Anna in 1836. Brent Spencer’s “The True History” is one of the most chilling pieces in this anthology, and there’s virtually nothing for a reader to sort out.
“Let it be said here and now that a Texian has no taste for discipline,” the story begins, and soon it’s as plain as day: something truly ugly is about to happen, and all we can do is be swept along with mounting dread.
No less powerful is Chris Adrian’s “Stab,” in which an autistic boy is first befriended and then recruited by a budding serial killer who moves “as slowly as the moon does across the sky.” The search for a missing child leads to a sack of riled poisonous snakes in “Jakob Loomis,” Jason Ockert’s sinuous account of crossed paths and black luck. And in “The Timing of Unfelt Smiles,” John Dufresne arranges the ultimate counseling session between a family therapist and a fellow who’s just murdered his wife, his kids, and his parents. Obviously there are issues.
Sometimes there is no villain to blame, only fate or frailty — an accident of lust, distraction, or rotten judgment. Peter Blauner’s “Going, Going, Gone” is about a man named Sussman who is separated from his six- year-old son on the subway — a parent’s urban nightmare. Watching the boy’s face in a window of the departing train, Sussman fills with desperation and thinks: II have lost the only thing that matters.
For those who prefer conventional pump fakes and behind-the- back passes, there’s the redoubtable Lawrenccccce Block and his droll, likable hit man, Keller. Having a killer for hire as a recurring protagonist must be challenging at times, but it doesn’t hurt that this one lives in Greenwich Village, loves spicy food, and collects stamps as a hobby.
In “Keller’s Double Dribble,” he is sent to whack somebody in Indianapolis and finds himself killing time at a Pacers game, which for most assassins would be a pleasant diversion. However, basketball depresses Keller, so his attention wanders to other matters, such as why the stranger who hired him would kick in for two $96 seats. As Keller soon discovers, it was not an innocent gratuity.
Back in New York, a squad of detectives employs creative methods of interrogation on a Japanese businessman suspected of tossing a hooker from the window of his hotel room, in Robert Knightly’s “Take the Man’s Pay.” Far away, in western Montana, a man oils his Winchester and prepares to hunt down the three marauding bikers who killed his sorrel mare. The rifle is brand-new, purchased at a Wal-Mart, and does not comfortably fit the hands of the avenging rancher in James Lee Burke’s fine contribution, “A Season of Regret.” In “Meadowlands,” Joyce Carol Oates takes us to a messy afternoon at the Jersey track, where the animals that break down are of the two-legged type. More gambling adventure is at play in “Pin- wheel,” Scott Wolven’s story of an ex-con who takes a job at a private and very illegal Nevada racetrack where each day millions are won and lost. Mostly lost.
To the east, a peripatetic pimp known as Shank and a teenage prostitute called Meg contemplate the roaring enigma of Niagara Falls, in David Means’s “The Spot.” And in St. Louis, where Ridley Pearson sets “Queeny,” a famous author of horror tales is trapped in a real one after his wife vanishes while jogging.
Up in Minnesota, territory long claimed by John Sandford, a golf pro turns up dead and plugged in a sand trap, making for a difficult lie in “Lucy Had a List.” And way down in my own stomping grounds of South Florida, the most reliable freak show in America, a professional poker player gets lucky, laid, and then nearly lit up in “T-Bird,” John Bond’s hot deal on the Miami River.
All these pieces were originally published in story anthologies, distinguished magazines, and literary quarterlies that recognized them as fine fiction, not just fine mysteries. No single ...