If you have ever enjoyed mysteries at any point in your life, you should be reading the annual compilation known as The Best American Mystery Stories. The series, now in its 15th year, is edited by the venerable Otto Penzler and a rotating author of renown --- 2011’s volume has Harlan Coben at the helm --- and functions as a state-of-the-union collage, if you will, of what is arguably fiction’s most varied and respected genre.
The value of this collection is that there is something appealing for virtually everyone within, from the most casual of fans to the most serious aficionado. At the same time, one is almost certain to encounter something new and unexpected. While the stories are related to mystery, crime, thriller, or even romantic suspense fiction, the sources for such tales range from one-shot, hardcover anthologies to mystery periodicals and small press magazines. As a result, there most likely is something in this volume you have not read, but would want to.
"THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011 would be worth buying at twice the price in any format."
The selection process for these books is subjective. It has to be. I'm sure Coben and Penzler have their own favorites among those selected, although determining which would be difficult, given that the stories are arranged in alphabetical order by author. That being said, even the most discerning reader can find something in each story to recommend the volume. Still, favorites will emerge. I have a bunch of them.
“The Stars Are Falling” by Joe R. Lansdale concerns the return of a man believed to be dead from The Great War, an event that takes his wife and son unaware. It is obvious to the reader early on that there have been changes in the soldier’s absence; the question is whether the man himself realizes the extent and degree to which the changes have occurred. This is certainly one of Lansdale’s darker tales of recent note.
“What His Hands Had Been Waiting For” by Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin is equally as grim, albeit with a hint of redemption included as a dim light. Set against the backdrop of a historical disaster, it concerns a series of hard choices made by desperate people with the life of an innocent at risk. It is one of those stories that is darkly and beautifully told, yet remains disturbing long after the last paragraph is read.
But perhaps my favorite stories are those dealing with ordinary people who do small yet extraordinary things. Richard Lange’s “Baby Killer” concerns a hard-working, middle-aged widow --- one of the working poor who is often invisible --- who is confronted with a tough choice, one in which the right thing to do is not an easy one, but who will feel the effects of her decision in her home, whether she acts or not.
S.J. Rozan’s “Chin Yong-Yun Takes a Case” is somewhat light and predictable, but it is so well-written and told that it has to be included among any list of the best of the best. It features an amateur detective --- fans of Rozan’s Lydia Chin series will enjoy her star turn here --- who becomes involved in a situation concerning a missing child and bothersome grandmother. It sounds like a cozy, but it’s not. Or maybe it is. What is indisputable, though, is that it is beautifully framed and told.
Of all of them, however, my absolute favorite is “Flying Solo” by Ed Gorman, a dependable wordsmith who is incapable of writing badly. My main reason for picking this tale of wrongs made right is that I am a sucker for stories about old guys at the end of their road who can still kick posterior (and worse) and take names.
You will have different favorites. You might include a couple of those that I have listed, or “Sometimes a Hyena” by Loren D. Estleman, Lawrence Block’s “Clean Slate” (you can’t have a best of anything in a mystery anthology without a Lawrence Block story), or “A Long Time Dead” by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins. And of course, there is “The End of the String,” Charles McCarry’s wonderful old school espionage tale. And more. How can I not list Harry Hunsicker’s “West of Nowhere”? I loved that story. You simply cannot go wrong with it.
With author biography and comments, and a list of other distinguished stories, THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011 would be worth buying at twice the price in any format.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 3, 2011