The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century
by Tony Hillerman
The Greatest Whodunits
A review by Adrienne Miller
Gist: Just like the title says, more or less. The Best American franchise (we've already got The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Sports Writing) continues onward, and upward.
Upshot: What dark fun! These aren't whodunits of the Mrs. White In the Study With the Cleaver variety, keep in mind. The selections in The Best American Mystery Stories Of the Century are concerned, first and foremost, with psychology. If there's any universal thread here, it's this: the writers are interested in decisions, and the human consequences of those decisions. Other similarity: The stories all end with, as Salieri said in Amadeus, a big bang, a left turn — in other words, a monstrous surprise.
The two greatest practitioners of the detective story — Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler — are here, Chandler with his marvelous detective story "Red Wind," which set a hard-boiled precedent for everything that came after it. The magnificently cruel Patricia Highsmith is represented by her story "The Terrapin," about a mama, a son, and the turtle they eat for dinner. Other standouts: Stephen King's "Quitters, Inc.," Tom Franklin's "Poachers," Flannery O'Connor's "The Comforts of Home," and Willa Cather's "Paul's Case." There are some dogs, too, though — the Steinbeck story "The Murder" is awful, but then again, I've always had it in for Steinbeck, and the Pearl S. Buck story, "Ransom," finishes with one of the very worst lines in history: " 'Course I can,' Bruce said sturdily." The older stories are generally better, richer and more complex, than the newer ones, though maybe I'm just being a nostalgist? The Best American Mystery Stories Of the Century is a mixed bag, perhaps, but a worthy and welcome addition to your library.
Adrienne Miller is Esquire's literary editor.
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