The annual anthology of original stories presented by Mystery Writers of America has quietly but steadily become a reliable “go-to” work for me as a representation of the best and the brightest of one of fiction’s most popular genres. The stories are solicited around a central theme, with some authors invited to submit and others selected by the “many are called, and few are chosen” method of solicitation. This year’s collection, titled THE MYSTERY BOX and lovingly and carefully selected by Brad Meltzer, demonstrates why this series has become so popular both within and outside the community of mystery aficionados.
As one might guess from the title, each story deals in some manner or form with a box. It may contain a puzzle answer, a treasure, something macabre, or something else; that’s part of the entertainment of taking the ribbon off of each and all of these 21 stories, some of which are by authors you no doubt know, and others by names that might be new to you but with whom you will want to become acquainted. Another draw to this series in general and to THE MYSTERY BOX in particular is that it gives each author the opportunity to move around a bit outside of the comfort zone, so to speak, that each normally inhabits.
"[E]very story you'll find when you open THE MYSTERY BOX is a winner. Kudos to Brad Meltzer for bringing his 'A' game to the task of editing this collection, and to each and all of the contributors who so obviously did the same when writing these stories."
Take “Double Jeopardy” by Steve Berry. Berry is well known for his globe-trotting doorstop books, paced at one (or more) thrill per page. “Double Jeopardy” is but a few pages long and set entirely in one room. And yes, there is a box featured at the heart of the tale; even though it doesn’t figure into the plot until near the conclusion, its presence ultimately reverberates throughout. Similarly, Joseph Finder is well known for his highly regarded financial thrillers; boardrooms and power plays do not even remotely enter into “Heirloom,” most of which takes place during a dinner party involving next-door neighbors. You might think you know where this is going; you would be wrong. I will be reminded of “Heirloom” every time I see a “For Sale” sign in front of a house.
Some authors stay closer to their regular subject matter, but still offer variations on a theme. James O. Born’s story, “The Boca Box,” is fun, a bit dark and very innovative. Set in his native South Florida (where Born, an FDLE agent, recently made nationwide headlines by singlehandedly foiling a multi-million-dollar extortion plot), “The Boca Box” features an old-before-his-time cop who is willing to do anything and lose almost everything to foil a scam weight loss program that has a mysterious box as its centerpiece. At the heart of the story, however, is a question: what if it’s not a scam at all?
As mentioned earlier, one can also make new friends in THE MYSTERY BOX. I will confess that I had been relatively unfamiliar with Tony Broadbent before reading his excellent “The Remaining Unknowns.” I will be sure to rectify that oversight. The story involves the member of a bomb squad who is called to a particularly difficult job. As he thinks about how to save the citizens of New York, he recollects about his past and his family, even as his own life hangs in the balance. The result is an edge-of-the-seat read with a ticking clock that drowns out all else. Similarly, I have never read any of Mary Anne Kelly’s acclaimed Claire Breslinsky novels, but her “Angelina,” about a grandmotherly neighbor who keeps to herself for unknown reasons, will keep you wondering and guessing from first paragraph to last.
Do I have to pick a favorite here? It's tough to do, with stories from Jan Burke, R.L. Stine and Karin Slaughter included in the mix. If I really had to, the story that would get my nod would be “Mokume Gane” by Tom Rob Smith. It is as different from Smith’s classic Soviet historical thrillers as could be. Set in modern Japan, a truly self-made man who has accomplished everything he wanted to do embarks on a plan to obtain the one thing that has eluded him: love. “Mokume Gane” has the distinction of having the most unique setting of any story I have read in recent memory. Save it for last.
That being said, every story you'll find when you open THE MYSTERY BOX is a winner. Kudos to Brad Meltzer for bringing his “A” game to the task of editing this collection, and to each and all of the contributors who so obviously did the same when writing these stories.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 3, 2013