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The Best American Mystery Stories 2005 (Best American Mystery Stories)by Joyce Carol Oates and Otto Penzler
Crimes can occur without mystery. Mysteries can occur without crime. Violent and irrevocable actions can destroy lives but bring other lives together in unforeseeable, unimaginable ways.
In 1917, in the grim waterfront section called Black Rock, in Buffalo, New York, a forty-three-year-old Hungarian immigrant was murdered in a barroom fight, beaten to death with a poker. A few years later, in a rural community north of Buffalo, another recent immigrant to America, a German Jew, attacked his wife with a hammer and committed suicide with a double- barreled shotgun. Both deaths were alcohol-related. Both deaths were senseless.” The men who came to such violent ends, my mothers father and my fathers grandfather, never knew each other, yet their deaths precipitated events that brought their survivors together and would continue to have an influence, haunting and obsessive, into the twenty-first century. Families disrupted by violent deaths are never quite healed” though they struggle to regroup and redefine themselves in ways that might be called heroic.
Its an irony that I owe my life literally to those violent deaths of nearly a century ago, since they set in motion a sequence of events that resulted in my birth, but I dont think its an irony that, as a writer, I am drawn to such material. There is no art in violence, only crude, cruel, raw, and irremediable harm, but there can be art in the strategies by which violence is endured, transcended, and transformed by survivors. Where there is no meaning, both death and life can seem pointless, but where meaning can be discovered, perhaps even violence can be redeemed, to a degree.
I grew up in a rural household in the Snowbelt of upstate New York in a household of family mysteries that were never acknowledged in my presence, and very likely never acknowledged even by the adults who safeguarded them. My fathers mother, whose deranged father had blown himself away virtually in front of her, had changed her surname to a seemingly gentile name, renounced her ethnic/religious background, never acknowledged her roots even to her son, and lived among us like one without a personal, let alone a tragic, history. In this she was quintessentially American” — self-inventing, self-defining. Her life, like the early lives of my parents, seems in retrospect to have sprung from a noir America thats the underside of the American dream, memorialized in folk ballads and blues and in the work of such disparate writers as Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. It was as if, as a child, I inhabited a brightly lighted space — a family household of unusual closeness and protectiveness — surrounded by a penumbra of darkness in which malevolent shapes dwelled.
The earliest books to cast a spell on me were Lewis Carrolls Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass, nightmare adventures in the guise of a childhood classic, and Edgar Allan Poes Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. Both Carroll and Poe create surreal worlds that seem unnervingly real, like images in a distorting mirror, and both explore mysteries without providing solutions. Why does the Red Queen scream, at the mildest provocation, Off with his head!”? Why are hapless creatures in Wonderland and the Looking-Glass world always changing shape? Why does the narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart” kill an old man who hasnt harmed him, and in such a bizarre manner? (Crushed and smothered beneath a heavy bed.) Why does the narrator of The Black Cat” put out the eye of his pet cat and strangle his wife? Motiveless malignity! Individuals act out of impulse, as if to assure that irrevocable: the violent act and its consequences.
Because I grew up in an atmosphere of withheld information — a way of defining mystery” — I can appreciate the powerful attraction of mystery as art: its the formal, mediated, frequently ingenious and riveting simulacrum of the unexplained in our lives, the haphazard, hurtful, confusing, tragic. A crime or mystery novel is the elaboration of a riddle to which the answer is invariably less gripping than the riddle; a crime or mystery story is likely to be a single, abbreviated segment of the riddle, reduced to a few characters and a few dramatic scenes. Its a truism that mystery readers are likely to be addicts of the genre, no sooner finishing one mystery novel than taking up another, and then another, for the riddle is, while solved,” never explained. But its perhaps less generally known that writers in the genre are likely to be addicts as well, obsessively compelled to pursue the riddle, the withheld informationn, the mystery” shimmering always out of reach — in this way transforming the merely violent and chaotic into art to be shared with ottttthers in a communal enterprise.
Of contemporary mystery/crime writers, no one is more obviously haunted by a violent family past than James Ellroy (see the memoir My Dark Places), which accounts for the writers compulsion to revisit, in a sense, the scene of the original crime (the unsolved murder of his mother) though it cant account, of course, for the writers remarkable and audacious talent. In an earlier generation, Ross Macdonald is the preeminent example of the mystery/detective novelist whose carefully plotted narratives move both backward and forward, illuminating past, usually family, secrets as a way of solving a case in the present. Michael Connellys isolato L.A. homicide detective Harry Bosch, as the son of a murdered woman, is temperamentally drawn to cold-case files, as are the haunted characters of Dennis Lehanes most celebrated novel Mystic River and the narrator of his brilliantly realized short story Until Gwen,” included in this volume. Walter Mosleys Easy Rawlins is a private eye” in a racially turbulent, fastidiously depicted Los Angeles milieu of past decades in which the personal intersects, often violently, with the political. In this volume Louise Erdrichs beautifully composed Disaster Stamps of Pluto” is, in its most distilled form, a whodunit” of uncommon delicacy and art, set in a nearly extinct North Dakota town in which the past exerts a far more powerful gravitational pull than the present. Edward P. Joness Old Boys, Old Girls” is the life story of a man so marginalized and detached from his feelings that he seems to inhabit his life like a ghost, or a prisoner. (See Joness remarkable story collection Lost in the City for further portrayals of young lions” like Caesar Matthews.) In the unexpectedly ironic The Last Man I Killed,” David Rachel explores a Nazi past as it impinges on a banal and utterly ordinary academic career in a midwestern state university.
While mystery novels are readily available to the public in bookstores and libraries, mystery stories are relatively hidden from view. Only a very few magazines regularly publish them — Ellery Queens Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcocks Mystery Magazine come most immediately to mind; the majority of mystery stories are scattered among dozens of magazines and literary reviews with limited circulations. The inestimable value of The Best American Mystery Stories series is that the anthologies bring together a selection of stories in a single volume, with an appendix listing additional distinguished titles. While guest editors for the series appear for one year only, the series editor, Otto Penzler, remains a stable and galvanizing presence; any mystery volume with Penzlers name on it is likely to be very good indeed, as well as a responsible and generous representation of the current mystery scene.
Though the twenty stories in this selection are all mysteries,” the resemblances among them end just about there. Not one seems to me formulaic in the stereotypical way often charged against mystery fiction by people like the critic Edmund Wilson (see Wilsons famously peevish diatribe of 1945, Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?,” an attack on the overplotted, psychologically superficial English-cozy whodunits by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, et al.). Not one evokes violence gratuitously, in the way of contemporary crime/action movies and video games. Not one is, in fact, driven by plot at the expense of probability and plausibility. These are all stories in which something happens, usually irrevocably, but they are not stories in which what happens” is primarily the point. As in Kent Nelsons collectively narrated Public Trouble,” which traces the history of an adolescent boy who has committed acts of extreme violence, Oz Spiess uncomfortably intimate The Love of a Strong Man,” which tells us how it probably feels to be the publicly identified wife of a notorious serial rapist, and Tim McLoughlins excursion into an ironic sort of nostalgia, When All This Was Bay Ridge,” its the effect of violence upon others that is the point. As McLoughlins stunned narrator is asked: Who owns memory?” The expediency of ethics among professionals — in this case, police officers — that so shocks McLoughlins protagonist is the revelation of Lou Manfredos Case Closed” with its street wisdom: There is no right. There is no wrong . . . There just is.” Its usually claimed that short stories are distilled, sleeker, and faster-moving forms of fiction than novels, but in fact, all that one can safely say about most stories is that they are shorter than most novels. Page for page, paragraph for paragraph, sentence for sentence, some of the stories in this volume move far more deliberately, if not more poetically, than many novels: David Meanss elliptical Sault Ste. Marie” is aptly titled, for its setting is its most powerfully evoked character; Daniel Orozcos stylishly narrated Officers Weep” is a jigsaw puzzle of a story, requiring the kind of attentive reading usually associated with poetry (or postmodernist fiction); StuartM. Kaminskys The Shooting of John RoyWorth” is a fabulist tall tale that switches protagonists when we least expect it; John Sayless teasingly oblique and cinematic Cruisers” tempts us to read too quickly, and forces us to reread; Scott Turows Loyalty” is almost entirely narrated, a tour de force of suspense that uncoils with the dramatic kick of one of Turows long, densely populated, Chicago-set novels. So far removed from its initial violent act (which occurred forty years before) is Laura Lippmans The Shoeshine Mans Regrets” that the story is resolved as a study of character, tenderly and shrewdly reconstructed. Joseph Raiches One Mississippi” is similarly a reconstruction of violence after the fact, entirely absorbed in the mind of a man who has survived his wife, with no present-action drama: somewhere between story and elegy, convincing as a testament of our gun-ridden TV- tabloid culture. Daniel Handlers Delmonico” is an artful variation on the locked-room mystery” that pays homage to Hollywood noir. Sam Shaws Reconstruction” and Richard Burgins The Identity Club” are sui generis, feats of voice, tone, perspective, and tantalizing irresolution that argue (as Edmund Wilson could not have foreseen) for the elasticity of borders between literary” and mystery” stories.
Another debatable claim is that the short story is likely to be more self-consciously crafted and shaped” than the novel. Yet at least two of the most memorable stories in this volume — Edward Joness Old Boys, Old Girls” and Scott Wolvens Barracuda” — defy expectations at virtually every turn, as willfully shapeless as life. Old Boys, Old Girls” meanders like a river over a period of many years, following a vague and haphazard chronological movement; Wolvens much shorter story cuts from scene to scene with the nervous energy of a hand-held camera. Equally memorable stories by Wolven have appeared in the last several volumes of The Best American Mystery Stories, each an exploration of violence among men who have become marginalized, and thus as dangerous as rogue elephants, in an economically ravaged society that places little value on traditional masculinity. For Wolvens men — loggers, tree poachers, corrupt cops — the impulse to do terrible damage to one another is as natural as watching pit bulls tear one another to pieces for sport.
George V. Higgins (19391999) was a unique talent. His most acclaimed novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) has become an American crime classic. As guest editor of this anthology Im grateful to have the opportunity to reprint what will probably be the last of Higginss stories to appear in this series. One might debate whether Jack Duggans Law” is a story or a novella, but one cant debate the verve, wit, authenticity, and wisdom of the world it memorializes: a Boston demimonde of harassed, overworked, yet quixotically zealous defense attorneys and ADAs. Higginss ear for the rough poetry of vernacular speech has never been sharper than in this posthumously published story from a collection titled The Easiest Thing in the World.
As a concluding note, I should add that reading stories for this volume was a pleasure and that decisions were not easy to make. Both Otto and I read and reread. (Ive read Jack Duggans Law” at least three times. It keeps getting better.) Each of us had the idea, I think, of wearing the other down by stubbornly clinging to favored titles. In some cases this worked, in others not. Where we couldnt finally agree, we decided to include the story in question. Our principal disagreement was over George V. Higgins: Otto preferred the even longer The Easiest Thing in the World” to Jack Duggans Law.” In this instance, Otto graciously deferred to me, but readers may want to decide their own preferences.
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2005 by Joyce Carol Oates. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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