The Best American Mystery Stories 2002by James Ellroy (Editor), Otto Penzler (Editor)
Since its inception in 1915, the Best American series has become the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction. For each volume, a series editor reads pieces from hundreds of periodicals, then selects between fifty and a hundred outstanding works. That selection is pared down to the twenty or so very best pieces by a guest editor
Since its inception in 1915, the Best American series has become the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction. For each volume, a series editor reads pieces from hundreds of periodicals, then selects between fifty and a hundred outstanding works. That selection is pared down to the twenty or so very best pieces by a guest editor who is widely recognized as a leading writer in his or her field. This unique system has helped make the Best American series the most respectedand most popularof its kind.
In his introduction to this year's collection, James Ellroy explores the differences between the novel and the short story. Included here are experts at both forms. Featuring renowned novelists like Stuart Kaminsky, Michael Connelly, Joe Gores, and Robert B. Parker, as well as veterans of this series like Brendan DuBois, Michael Downs, Joyce Carol Oates, and Clark Howard, this edition will delight readers with its wide variety and peerless quality.
A capacious, varied grab-bag to dip into when you feel the urge for trouble.
Read an Excerpt
On a recent trip to one of the South’s literary meccas, Oxford, Mississippi, I had the pleasure of spending a great deal of time with literary folks — authors, booksellers, editors, publishers, professors — who take books and writing very seriously. Included with visits to William Faulkner’s home, the University of Mississippi’s special collections library, Square Books (at which John Grisham happened to be doing a signing), were many hours spent with good wine, cold beer, and conversation.
This wasn’t ordinary conversation, at least not to me. It was among people who love literature as much as I do and who care about it passionately. The talk swung freely: a writer is described as “a little full of himself” but is then quickly conceded to be one of the best writers in the state, a discussion immediately followed by a roundtable argument of which of his books is the best and which is the worst, with more than one drinker — oops, I mean conversationalist — cogently quoting beautiful lines from his work.
The reason this discussion is appropriate (at least I think it is) is that, without exception, those involved in the conversation love mystery fiction. While one argued that Thomas Wolfe is a better writer than either Faulkner or Hemingway (I excused him on the basis of his having consumed nearly a case of Budweiser) and others tussled over whether Cormac McCarthy is as good as or better than Faulkner (remember, this occurred in Faulkner’s longtime home, so he was used as the measuring stick for all American writers, although most of us know that Hemingway was the greatest writer of the twentieth century, closely followed by Raymond Chandler), there was agreement on one point. Mystery and crime fiction ranks with the best literary production of these times, as it has for a long time.
Every person engaged in these nightly confabs was acutely familiar with this series of anthologies from Houghton Mifflin. A few of them had work appear in its pages, and several were disappointed (permit me to state it gently) that theirs hadn’t yet been selected. Not one of them is what would be described as a “mystery writer.” They were writing the best, most powerful, passionate, realistic fiction that they knew how to do. Yet all had written stories or novels in which murders or other criminal acts were committed.
As has been true for the first five volumes in this series, the twenty stories that make up this distinguished collection help broaden the boundaries of mystery fiction, which I define as any work in which a crime or the threat of a crime is central to the theme or the plot of the story. Detective stories are merely one subgenre of this very wide-reaching literary form.
This year’s guest editor reflects that stretching of the borders. James Ellroy, described by Joyce Carol Oates as “our American Dostoevski,” began his career as a writer of traditional mysteries, albeit with a hard edge and an original prose style. His first book, Brown’s Requiem, is a private-eye novel. His second, Clandestine, is a police novel, as are his next several novels. Although the police, and even private eyes, continue to have a place in his work, many layers of politics, jurisprudence, and social history have been added. He has helped blur the lines between mystery fiction and serious fiction — as if they ever needed to be separated in the first place. The suggestion that Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Robert B. Parker weren’t writing social commentary while also writing first-rate mystery fiction means only that the reader missed much of the point.
On a different subject, more or less, a word needs to be said about the possibility of perceived favoritism, or nepotism, or some -ism or another.
In addition to this series for Houghton Mifflin, I also edit other mystery and crime anthologies and have done so for many years. These other books are different in that I commission stories specifically for them. In 2001, those mystery anthologies had specific themes of baseball (Murderers’ Row) and boxing (Murder on the Ropes). It seems to me only natural that I would request stories from authors I admire, which is what I did.
As the end of the year approached, I was looking for the best original mysteries of the year; I could not ignore the books I edited nor the authors who wrote for them. Sure enough, they produced some of the best mystery stories of the year, and several of these stories will be found on these pages, as Ellroy agreed that they were outstanding and deserved to be here.
The danger of having too many stories on a single theme is that a collection can seem to be too heavily weighted with a single type of story. Find three boxing mysteries in one book and you’re going to think there’s an awful lot of boxing around here. The saaaaame would be true if there were great anthologies about perfume or blues or zebras (there are already too damned many about cats, if you ask me).
This is not an apology, mind you, but an explanation. The fact of the matter is that the boxing stories in this book are truly wonderful, and so are the baseball stories. If anything, I may have been a bit tougher on some of the authors who wrote for those anthologies because I was overly aware of their origins. In this year’s anthology — there’s no getting around it — you will get a disparate number of sports stories. However, I believe they are among the most original and memorable stories that have ever appeared in the six years of this series.
One more thing. The only criterion for selecting a story for this book is the excellence of the writing. Last year’s book contained stories by only a handful of authors with whom I was familiar. It’s different this year, as some of fiction’s greatest names appear between these covers. When you read these triumphs of superb prose, you will instantly see that they are here because of how good they are, not because of who wrote them.
Enormous thanks and gratitude go to James Ellroy for taking the time to work so dedicatedly on this volume. His introduction conveys a great deal with the same alliterative and flamboyant flair that distinguishes his other work, most recently The Cold Six Thousand, which appeared on the New York Times bestseller list last year.
And of course, thanks to my colleague, Michele Slung, the world’s best reader, without whom this annual volume would require three years to complete. She culls the mystery fiction from all the magazines and books with original fiction all year long so that I can read the likely suspects and bring the list down to the top fifty, from which the guest editor then selects the final twenty.
Despite reading every general consumer magazine and hundreds of smaller periodicals, as well as books and the electronic publishing sites that offer original fiction, we live in fear that, unlikely as it may be, we’ll miss a worthy story. Therefore, if you are an author, editor, publisher, or someone who cares about one and would like to submit a story, you are encouraged to do so. A tearsheet or the entire publication is fine.
To be eligible, a story must have been written by an American or Canadian and first published in a U.S. or Canadian book or periodical during the calendar year 2002. If it was initially published in electronic format, you must submit a hard copy. The earlier in the year I receive a story, the more I’m inclined to welcome it with a happy heart, since reading more than a hundred stories when the rest of the world is celebrating Christmas and the entire holiday season (as occurred last year) makes me very Scrooge-like.
Please send submissions to Otto Penzler, The Mysterious Bookshop, 129 West 56th Street, New York, New York 10019. Thanks.
Introduction The short story is the novel writ small. It’s reduced for revelation. Its features are epiphany and lives in sharp duress. Miniaturization is difficult. It’s the watchmaker’s trade revised for words.
I prefer the form of the novel. I dig the short story dictum of “every word counts” in concert with the sweep of lives in deep duress. I’ve written twelve novels and an equal number of short stories. The novels required years of work. The short stories required more time per page, more time per sentence, more time per word. An editor friend dragged me into the craft. I’m glad he did.
The short story balances narrative line and characterization and limits the scope of plot. The short story form teaches the novelist to conceive more simply and condense the payoff. The short story form taught me to think more surely and directly. The short story form taught me to assume the reader’s perspective and curtail my reliance on plot. The short story form taught me to gauge thematically and employ brevity to make my characters pop.
My editor friend brought me to the medium kicking and screaming. I owed him favors. My commitment to the short story paid off the debt. The debt proved to be a gift disguised as hard work. The short story is the novelist’s alternative universe. It’s a respite from sustained concentration and a crash course in concentrating that much harder in the moment. It’s a reprieve from the vast borders of scope and a primer on scope contained. It’s the watchmaker’s trade taught to architects and large-scale engineers.
Plot and character must merge and meld quickly. Revelation must grab and hold hard. A world must build from overt phrase and implication. Balance must fall perfectly.
The mystery short story is a craft within a craft. The necessity for plot makes that balance tough. Mystery fiction is crime fiction. Crime fiction is mainstream fiction possessed of superior story-line and equal character- development skill. Casting plot-nets wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiide is relatively easy. Constricting them to short story dimensions makes a novelist hurt. Yeah — but the hurt is so goooooooood.
Concision. Precision. Distill the essence or succumb to your reader’s derision. Sting with story, rap with revelation, plotz with your plots.
You can’t languor with language. You can’t dither in discourse. You can’t indulge idle idylls. You have to see, select, say.
The form liberates as it impinges. Crime and mystery fiction has always celebrated the extraordinary more than the prosaic. Personal honor and corruption. Societies divided. Murder as moral default. The Big Themes of crime and mystery fiction maul mainstream minimalism and minutiae. They enrapture, edify, entertain. They often orbit in orgiastic excess. They muddle as murky melodrama. They occasionally log in as literature — vibrant and vulgarized.
The crime and mystery novel is that extraordinary world captured large. The mystery short story is that world microscopically magnified.
A writer’s skill skirts that orbit of excess. Righteous writers wrangle with murky melodrama and writhe their way out alive. Crime and mystery fiction dissects and extols larger-than-life events. It’s a trap and an option to fly.
Bad crime and mystery novels meander in murk. Their depictions of large events play preposterous and make minimalism look good. Bad mystery short stories are contrivances undermined by their size. They waft wickedly worse as wastes of the watchmaker’s trade.
Yeah — but when they’re good, you get everything.
Bam — deft psychology meets a crystallized time and place. Bam — you’re someplace all new. Pop — there’s the surface of lives in stasis. Pop — they’re not what they seem.
You get a mystery. It may or may not pertain to a crime. You get that time and place laid out in layers. You get suspense and surprise. You watch characters ascend and deep-six. Fear fillets you. Heartbreak and hurt hammer home. The story is short. It may be densely packed for its size. It may hinge on a simple conceit or premise. You’re wrapped up rapidemente.
The good short story is a reader’s sprint and a knocked-back cocktail. It hits strong, it’s over quick, it induces heat and lingers when it’s done. The abbreviated form makes the reader’s role more interactive. There’s a crime to be solved or a mystery plumbed. There’s a revelation within rapid reach. The scant page count itself creates tension. You can read short stories in one sitting. You should read them that way. Whap — you circumnavigate quicksville. You get the big jolt, the instantaneous assimilation. Then it’s yours to savor and mentally mess with over time.
Reading sprints will sap you, drain you, jazz you, move you, scare you. The mystery short story will astound you with its diversity and range. Many fine writers work the watchmaker’s craft in this book. Read, sprint, and fall prey.
Copyright © 2002 by Houghton Mifflin Company Introduction copyright © 2002 by James Ellroy Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Meet the Author
OTTO PENZLER is a renowned mystery editor, publisher, columnist, and owner of New York's The Mysterious Bookshop, the oldest and largest bookstore solely dedicated to mystery fiction. He has edited more than fifty crime-fiction anthologies.
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