I cannot think of a more indispensable collection than Otto Penzler’s annual volumes of The Best American Mystery Stories. Each is at once a reflection of the state of the genre, an introduction to new authors, a reminder of established authors, and a letter, if you will, from a home where the door is always open. Since the first volume, which collected the best of 1997’s short mystery fiction, Penzler --- ably assisted by an author who is a household name in the mystery field --- has collected a varied and generous bounty of stories that mark the high water of what has been published.
Penzler, accompanied by Lee Child for the 2010 volume, has once again selected a group of stories culled from a wide and varied field of sources. As he notes in his introduction (worth the price of admission on its own), mystery is a broad genre. Thus THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2010 consists of tales from the usual (and most welcome) suspects: Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Internet upstart Thuglit, original anthologies dedicated to mystery, thriller and suspense stories (BLACK NOIR, THRILLER 2, BOSTON NOIR, THE PROSECUTION RESTS), and such disparate periodicals as Oregon Literary Review and The Gettysburg Review.
If you’re unfamiliar with these collections, the stories are wisely presented in alphabetical order by author so that one may read the selections out of sequence without concern as to whether there was some intent or purpose of the editor in putting one before another. Following the final story, some biographical information for each author is provided, as well as input from the writer as to how his or her contribution came to be. For those who are not fully sated by this embarrassment of riches, a list of additional noteworthy stories is also included. What is presented here will keep the constant reader quite busy. Some themes are recurrent, but are handled in very different ways by respective authors.
So it is that “The Emerald Coast” by R. A. Allen and “Blood and Dirt” by Ryan Zimmerman both deal with personal relationships in which one party tries to tug the other toward the commission of bad acts. That is where the similarities end. Both are numbered among the best of the collection, and each author handles the subject matter quite differently. “The Emerald Coast” concerns two friends, one of whom is struggling to maintain a normal life after a prison stretch, while the other needs his friend to accompany him on a dubious collection job. It ends well for one and badly for the other. “Blood and Dirt,” the darker of the two stories, deals with a conflict between two brothers, one that has simmered for years and that breaks open abruptly during an act of planned camaraderie.
There are also stories that pair up different kinds of sexual exploitation with acts of revenge. “Maynard” by Mary Stewart Atwell is about a mentally and emotionally challenged woman who goes to great lengths to do the right thing, even as she is pursued by two people bent upon doing her and another an unspeakable evil. “Bismarck Rules” by Albert Tucher begins with one of the most interesting premises you will find in this book, concerning a prostitute retained to drive her client to a medical appointment, but who all too quickly decides to provide another service to society at large. And Joseph Wallace‘s “Custom Sets” shows how a young, exploited Russian woman uses a limited but nonetheless refined skill set to see that justice is served to a small but horrid group of individuals spread across the United States.
While each and every inclusion in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2010 is a winner, there are two that I cannot get out of my mind. The first is “A Jury of His Peers” by Jay Brandon. This western thriller is based on the aftermath of a true event: the storming of the El Paso courthouse in 1842 by the Mexican Army in order to kidnap and imprison virtually all of the lawyers in town. Perfect from beginning to end, Brandon leaves no stone unturned in relating this story of friendship and consequence, which is detailed down to the smallest nuance. The second is “Animal Rescue” by Dennis Lehane, a love story of sorts involving a loser who is confronted with hard choices after he rescues an abused and abandoned dog. Virtually anyone who reads this story will find that each and every character, good and bad, puts them in the mind of someone they know. While Lehane is better known for his novels, and deservedly so, “Animal Rescue” stands with his best work, though it is quite different from what he has previously done.
There are more stories --- 20 in all --- but hopefully you get the idea. Every bit the equal of its predecessors, THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2010 is a must-read for this and any year.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 22, 2010