I'm sometimes commitment phobic --- not at all in a relationship sense (my husband's saying, "Uh, that's GOOD!") but when it comes to reading. Occasionally, I just don't feel like investing the energy in a novel. No, I'd rather dally. A short story collection is the perfect solution at these times, much like sampling dim sum rather than sitting down to a seven-course feast. I've been on a short story binge lately, and it's been so delicious that my love affair with short fiction has been rekindled.
A MOMENT ON THE EDGE is a massive (over 500 pages) compilation of luscious tidbits. The editor, much-loved mystery novelist Elizabeth George, starts us out with a fascinating introduction discussing our simultaneous fascination with crime stories and the low value many people place on it. She briefly sums up the history of female mystery writers. About the authors of this anthology, George says: "All of them share in common a desire to explore mankind in a moment on the edge. The edge equates to the crime committed. How the characters deal with the edge is the story."
The collection begins with "A Jury of Her Peers" by Susan Glaspell (1917) and ends with "English Autumn--American Fall" by Minette Walters (2001). The variety of crime stories is immense, including cozies, murder mysteries, suspense tales, horror stories, psychological studies, and more. Reading the older tales and then moving on to the more modern works is a subtle education in how crime stories have changed over the years.
Some of the authors' contributions are completely unlike their novels (for example, Nancy Pickard's dark "Afraid All the Time.") In other cases, characters from an author's novels appear in her short story (such as Sara Paretsky's "The Case of the Pietro Andromache.") I joyfully became reacquainted with authors I've loved (and nearly forgotten) for years, such as Charlotte Armstrong and Shirley Jackson. I also discovered many writers whose novels I will now find and devour, having sampled their wares.
I must admit to sometimes skimming and/or skipping stories in an anthology if they don't catch my interest. However, I was never tempted to skim or skip a word in this fine collection. In such a group of stellar tales, I discovered a few personal standouts:
· A ghost appears in Agnes and Oscar's RV as they winter in Arizona ("Death of a Snowbird" by J. A. Jance), setting the plot spinning and giving me goose bumps.
· A picnicking couple discusses their relationship in "The River Mouth" by Lia Matera. They're approached by someone who puts the STRANGE in the word "stranger" --- and completely creeped me out.
· Joyce Carol Oates's "Murder-Two" is gut-churningly disturbing. My first inclination is to say I hated this piece about a murdered mother, yet I'll never forget the plot or my strong reaction to it.
· "Afraid All the Time" by Nancy Pickard, in which a woman's move to the plains sends her over the edge into depression and fear, impressed me with its darkness and unpredictable twists.
· One man suggests to another that he has the means to murder anyone in Dorothy Sayers's "The Man Who Knew How," a fine exercise in obsession, psychological suspense and blackest irony.
· A dirt-poor woman discovers how to step up to finer living in "A Nice Place to Stay" by Nedra Tyre, a story with sociological implications that ring true today.
A MOMENT ON THE EDGE is an absolute delight. Don't wait for commitment phobia to strike before treating yourself to this excellent collection.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 7, 2011