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As editor and introducer of The Best American Mystery Stories 2004, I bid you welcome.
You needn’t read any further, but may now go directly to the stories.
Still here? Well, then, I won’t take much of your time.
In the beginning was Otto Penzler, a legend in the ﬁeld of mystery publishing, and a very persuasive gentleman. When Mr.
Penzler asked me to be the editor of this anthology, I explained that I wasn’t qualiﬁed to take on the task. He agreed, but in turn explained to me that his ﬁrst and second choices had dropped out at the last minute, and I apparently owed him a favor.
Like many of my generation, I grew up on mystery short stories, devouring anthologies and collections as well as mystery magazines.
My favorite mystery stories, and probably everyone’s favorites, were Edgar Allan Poe, and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries.
The short story is a deceptively simple format, and the mystery shorts seem even simpler, until you try to write one.
Two of the ﬁrst things I ever had published were mystery stories: one titled “Life or Breath,” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine; the other called “The Mystery at Thorn Mansion,” in the now-defunct Mystery Monthly.
I also have a ﬁle of rejection letters and enough unpublished short stories to kindle wet logs.
It became obvious to me that short stories are not easy to write just because they are short. Which takes me back to my high school days, when I was a sprinter on the track team. Anyone can run a hundred-yard dash, but the difference between doing it in 11 seconds or 10.2 seconds is the difference between last place and ﬁrst place.
Obviously, when it came to writing, I wasn’t a sprinter, so I tried out for the long-distance team and became a novelist, which I found to be a lot easier.
The moral, if there is a moral, is that the short story, like the short race, needs to be close to perfect; there is no recovery from a bad start, no time to get a second wind, and no forgiveness for even one misstep.
And so, I am honored to have been chosen to pick the top twenty stories for this anthology, and to join a long and illustrious list of past editors whom I will mention here in the hope that future editors will mention me: Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton, Ed McBain, Donald E. Westlake, Lawrence Block, James Ellroy, and Michael Connelly.
Those authors are themselves the best of the best, but I’m sure that they, like me, have trouble judging the works of others.
I am currently one of four judges for the Book-of-the-Month Club, along with Annie Proulx, Bill Bryson, and Anna Quindlen, and I can tell you that most authors would rather not be judges of other authors — I’d rather be a wine judge, or (ecstasy!) a beauty pageant judge.
So, when Otto Penzler asked me to pick the best twenty mystery stories from more than ﬁfty entries, I was not being coy or humble when I said I was not qualiﬁed; I am actually qualiﬁed, I just don’t like to read with the knowledge that I’ve got to winnow and toss.
Newsday once asked me — and Susan Isaacs and Roger Rosenblatt — to judge essays and ﬁction pieces sent in by hundreds of readers on the topic of Long Island history. We had to pick one nonﬁction and one ﬁction piece, and I can tell you, these were among the worst pieces of writing any of us had ever read. Thankfully, there were two or three pieces in each category that were good, so picking the winners was not that difﬁcult.
But here we have a different situation; without exception all ﬁfty mystery stories that I read were very good to excellent, and the difference in quality was like the difference between the 11-second hundred-yard dash — very impressive — and the 10.2-second hundred- yard dash — exceptional.
I had great fun reading, but not so much fun picking. In fact, it was agonizing, and I suggested to Otto Penzler a bigger, fatter book of, say, ﬁfty of the Best American Mystery Stories.
“Not possible,” he said. “It would look like your last bloated novel.”
So, I went back to the stories, this time using a single criterion: Did I really want to reread this story?
Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are probably the only things I’ve read six, eight, or ten times each. I can pick up a collection of Sherlock Holmes anytime, anyplace, open at random, and enjoy the story as much as or even more than when I ﬁrst read it.
So, for better or worse, without too much further agonizing, I have picked what I hope you agree are the Best American Mystery Stories for the 2004 edition.
AAnd try to pick the best ﬁve.
Nelson De Mille
Copyright © 2004 by Houghton Mifflin. Introduction copyright © 2004 by Nelson De Mille. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
|Bet on red||1|
|All through the house||110|
|Where beautiful ladies dance for you||151|
|How Wendy Tudhope was saved from sure and certain death||172|
|Smash and grab||226|
|Bank of America||238|
|The incident of the impecunious chevalier||300|
|Doll : a romance of the Mississippi||322|
|The swag from Doc Hawthorne's||341|
|Best man wins||362|
|Something about Teddy||374|