As with many readers of genre fiction of my age, I cut my teeth on thrillers and mysteries with short stories, beginning with Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown and The Thinking Machine, and then working my way into the Hardy Boys before making a quantum jump to Mike Hammer and Shell Scott. Short stories in general are beginning to make a comeback, even if the venues for such material remain somewhat scarce.
The International Thriller Writers Organization has been doing something about that, publishing collections of original short thriller and crime fiction on a regular basis. The latest of these, FIRST THRILLS, is a masterpiece, comprised of 25 stories that each possesses some quality for recommendation. Nicely balanced between well-known authors and those who will be soon, it is a smorgasbord for readers who require an introduction to the thriller genre but are unsure where to begin. Those who are familiar with some of the contributors will enjoy encountering them in a somewhat different context --- short fiction --- as well as discovering new authors to place on their “must read” lists.
If there is one pervasive element that runs through FIRST THRILLS, it is the apparent inclination of at least some of the authors to take steps outside of their respective comfort zones. John Lescroart’s “The Gato Conundrum” is an example. Lescroart, best known for his legal thrillers featuring Dismas Hardy and Abe Glitsky, here taps into his inner Robert Ludlum with a haunting tale of espionage that is complete in less than 20 pages. Lee Child’s “The Bodyguard” is not a Jack Reacher story. It’s a very clever piece of work, one involving a personal security job that goes bad and gently tugs your expectations one way until you wind up somewhere that is totally unexpected, yet is quite consistent with what has gone before.
And Karin Slaughter? Incapable of disappointing, she takes us far away from the environs of Georgia in “Cold Cold Heart,” a grim tale of domestic one-upmanship that is played out between a mismatched couple long after their marriage has ended. ’Til death do they part, indeed.
I would be remiss if I did not mention “Last Supper” by Rip Gerber. While Gerber’s work to date would best be classified in the techno-thriller genre, there is nothing at all techno, as that term is commonly used, about his contribution. It is instead a smart tale of revenge with an ending you might see coming but that strikes from an unexpected direction.
As will happen with any set of stories that are almost evenly matched in terms of quality, my personal favorite in FIRST THRILLS keeps changing. A couple of days ago I was reading and re-reading “Scutwork” by C. J. Lyons. Remember what I mentioned earlier about stepping outside of comfort zones? “Scutwork”, as one might expect from Lyons’s previously published novels, is set inside a hospital to a great extent. Don’t expect a medical story, though; this is a crime story that, as with the best of the genre, serves as a cautionary tale as well. Yesterday, my favorite story was “Children’s Day” by Kelli Stanley. Stanley, whose CITY OF DRAGONS is one of this year’s most impressive books, works her magic once again in a prequel to that title. Set in 1939 San Francisco and dealing with a missing child, “Children’s Day” is a somber examination of an ongoing societal problem that continues to fester to this day. And today’s favorite story? That would be “Underbelly” by Grant McKenzie. How can I describe it without giving it all away or making it sound mundane? Well, it’s about a small burglary on a bus that is cut short in an unexpected way. That’s all I’m going to say. I wish my dad was still alive so he could read it. I can’t think of a better recommendation than that.
I’ve had other stories from FIRST THRILLS on that favorite list --- such as “The Thief” by Gregg Hurwitz and “Eddy May” by Theo Gangi --- but I refer back to what I said earlier. Each and all of the stories included in this collection, for one reason or another, is a keeper. Give yourself a halfway-to-Christmas present and start reading.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011