"[Most of] these stories are portraits, in styles ranging from sly to harrowing, of how crimes occurred ... If you like all your characters living at the end of a story, this may not be the book for you." -- from the introduction by Scott Turow
Best-selling author Scott Turow takes the helm for the tenth edition of this annual, featuring twenty-one of the past year's most distinguished tales of mystery, crime, and suspense.
Elmore Leonard tells the tale of a young woman who's fled home with a convicted bank robber. Walter Mosley describes an over-the-hill private detective and his new client, a woman named Karma. C. J. Box explores the fate of two Czech immigrants stranded by the side of the road in Yellowstone Park. Ed McBain begins his story on role-playing with the line "'Why don't we kill somebody?' she suggested." Wendy Hornsby tells of a wild motorcycle chase through the canyons outside Las Vegas. Laura Lippman describes the "Crack Cocaine Diet." And James Lee Burke writes of a young boy who may have been a close friend of Bugsy Siegel.
As Scott Turow notes in his introduction, these stories are "about crime -- its commission, its aftermath, its anxieties, its effect on character." The Best American Mystery Stories 2006 is a powerful collection for all readers who enjoy fiction that deals with the extremes of human passion and its dark consequences.
About 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. He lives in New York.
Date of Birth:April 12, 1949
Place of Birth:Chicago, Illinois
Education:B.A. in English, Amherst College, 1970; M.A., Stanford University, 1974; J.D., Harvard University, 1978
Read an Excerpt
First, a confession. I have little business being the guest editor of this volume. Although I have always read short stories of every kind with appreciation, I seldom write them. My rate of story production can be measured on a geologic scale, about one every decade. Looking at my predecessors in this role, I would describe all of them as distinguished practitioners of the form. Not so here. In other words, the opinions expressed are not seasoned by an insider’s experience. But as is so often true with lawyers, a lack of qualifications will not keep me from speaking.
Let me start, then, by reflecting on the traditional title of this series, Best American Mystery Stories. To be sure, some of the stories that appear here, like Walter Mosley’s “Karma,” are elegant small mysteries, if mystery is taken to have its traditional meaning as a story about the investigation of a puzzling crime. Characteristically, mysteries focus on the detection of the crime’s perpetrator, or more broadly, discovering (or revealing) why that enigmatic crime occurred. Andrew Klavan’s “Her Lord and Master” is a mystery in that second sense.
But many other stories included here never raise those questions. Instead, what the fictions Otto Penzler and I have chosen hold in common is their subject matter. Every one is about crime — its commission, its aftermath, its anxieties, its effect on character. Best American Crime Stories would be equally, if not more, apropos as the title of this book.
In fact, more than any other theme, these stories are portraits, in styles ranging from sly to harrowing, of how crimes occurred — the evolution of circumstances so that bad-acting becomes inevitable. “Vigilance” by Scott Wolven or “Ringing the Changes” by Jeff Somers are only two of many possible examples, both gritty and compelling. In fact, more than half the stories here culminate in the commission of one particular offense. So as not to spoil things, I will not name the crime, but let me say if you like all your characters living at the end of a story, this may not be the book for you. Yet, I would venture that crime is not the only point of intersection between these stories. If you were to compare most of them to those in the companion volume, Best American Short Stories, you might feel, more often than not, that they somehow seem different. Despite what some critics contend, the distinction is not in elegance of execution — many of these stories, such as R. T. Smith’s “Ina Grove,” are technically masterful; nor in the depth of psychological insight — Alan Heathcock’s “Peacekeeper” is a moving revelation of the interdependence of an individual and a community; nor in the uniqueness of voice or vision. There are few American stylists as distinctive as Elmore Leonard, whose usual roadside magic is displayed in “Louly and Pretty Boy Floyd.” The difference is that the majority of these stories proceed on different assumptions about what a short story is supposed to do when compared to what I’d call “mainstream” contemporary stories that might be taught in a literature class.
If we are seeking the literary heritage of the majority of these stories, we must hark back to the nineteenth century and the quintessential form that was perfected by writers like Hawthorne and Poe in the United States and Guy de Maupassant in France (and sublimely mastered by Chekhov). The classic short story arose as a function of rapid increases in literacy and the far broader circulation that resulted from newspapers and magazines that were, in today’s terms, hungry for content. Stories in that era evolved from being anecdotal and diffuse to aiming to create a dominant impression at the end. In pursuit of that goal, they took a conventional form some of us were taught to recognize in grade and high school. They had a beginning, a middle, and an end, meaning they presented a conflict, an exposition, and a resolution. I’ll call them three-act stories for convenience. Mysteries are classic three-act stories, which is why naming these volumes Best American Mystery Stories is actually very fair.
Most of the stories here adhere, at least roughly, to that framework. They are tales in which the reader wants to know about the situation as much as the character, where the traditional question of suspense — “What happens next?” — is foremost. Laura Lippman’s “The Crack Cocaine Diet” or Mike MacLean’s “McHenry’s Gift” are fine examples in which the denouement in both instances startled, and therefore delighted, me. Often, in stories of this species, we care as much about how the problem is worked out as we do the psychology of the main character. Ed McBain’s “Improvisation” is a glimmering case in point, as you’d expect of a story that begins, “‘Why don’t we kill somebody?’ she suggested.” “Edelweiss” by Jane Haddam develops the sammmmme theme and, intriguingly, comes to a kindred resolution. This is not to suggest that psychological insight is incidental or absent in these stories. Instead, the assumption is that the resolution of conflict will provide a final and telling window into character, and therefore that plot and character are functions of one another. “Dust Up” by Wendy Hornsby and William Harrison’s “Texas Heat” employ that strategy to winning effect.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, James Joyce’s Dubliners abandoned the traditional three-act form of short fiction. Joyce’s epochal stories share the narrative approach of modernist poetry, and evolve toward, in Joyce’s chosen term, an “epiphany,” a moment of realization, for the reader first, and quite often, for the character, too. Emily Raboteau’s brief gem, “Smile,” is an exquisite exemplar of that approach. The narration evolves only as far as is necessary to achieve that insight. If you ask about the character’s circumstances — where she lives, what she does everyday — they are often little changed. To the question, “What happened in the story?” the answer might be, at least outwardly, “Not very much.” Karen Bender’s potent and fully realized “Theft” provides a splendid illustration of this.
As should be clear, I am a devotee of stories of both kinds, and therefore we’ve included stories of both schools. Moreover, it is certainly the case that the distinctions I’ve suggested are not hard and fast ones. For several decades now, the somewhat rigorous boundaries that existed forty years ago between high and low culture in American literature have been breaking down. Looking back, it is not unusual for some stories to appear in both the Best Mystery and Best Short Story volumes. Joyce Carol Oates’s “So Help Me God” crosses the borders I’ve declared, which has been typical of her world-revered body of work for decades now. R. T. Smith’s “Ina Grove” is a little bit of everything: it’s a mystery by the definition I’ve included, a searching exploration of individual psychology, and a story with a beginning, middle, and end — several of them in fact. It is also a work of imposing literary art. Indeed, several of these stories are really both fish and fowl. Joyce was determined to wring meaning from the warp and woof of typical daily experience, as opposed to the rare personal cataclysm that crime, for example, represents. Since all of these are crime stories, they are exiles from a pure-blooded Joycean kingdom, but Sue Pike’s “A Temporary Crown” or Emory Holmes’s “A.k.a., Moises Rockafella” are nonetheless moving portrayals of minds in the grip of decline that come to moments of haunting crystallization.
Conventions are just that. They hold no special spell, except that they give readers a better chance to understand. They are boxes into which we conform our expectations in exchange for the opportunity to make out meaning more plainly. I get aggravated only by the assumption that stories of one kind are “better” than another. Although students of the short story have been worshipping at Joyce’s shrine for nearly a century, it is still the three- act story that dominates American narrative. That remains the shape repeated consistently on television and in the movies, as well as in novels, not to mention at the water cooler. When your coworker starts out, “So I met this guy at the health club,” what you want to know is what happened next.
More to the point, whatever convention a story originates from, the ultimate measure of its success will be tied to its originality, whether in language (Raboteux and Smith), conception (like Jeffery Deaver’s dazzlingly clever “Born Bad”), style (Leonard), or character. On the last point, consider the young Czech immigrants in C. J. Box’s “Pirates of Yellowstone,” who are of immediate interest because we have not seen them before. That is the great irony — the ultimate function of convention is to provide readers with a series of conditioned expectations that the best work will in some regard then transcend and defy, leading us to new ground. James Lee Burke’s “Why Bugsy Siegel Was a Friend of Mine” is an ostensible three-act, but it artfully turns in another direction. Each of these stories exhibits some commendably unique attribute that helps to convincingly project us into a coherent imagined world from which we emerge enlightened in some way about our condition as humans.
Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2006 by Scott Turow.
Table of Contents
Foreword • ix Introduction by Scott Turow • xiv
Karen E. Bender Theft • 1
C. J. Box Pirates of Yellowstone • 18
James Lee Burke Why Bugsy Siegel Was a Friend of Mine • 31
Jeffery Deaver Born Bad • 45
Jane Haddam Edelweiss • 63
William Harrison Texas Heat • 81
Alan Heathcock Peacekeeper • 93
Emory Holmes II A.k.a., Moises Rockafella • 112
Wendy Hornsby Dust Up • 129
Andrew Klavan Her Lord and Master • 144
Elmore Leonard Louly and Pretty Boy • 154
Laura Lippman The Crack Cocaine Diet (Or: How to Lose a Lot of Weight and Change Your Life in Just One Weekend) • 169
Ed McBain Improvisation • 180
Mike MacLean McHenry’s Gift • 197
Walter Mosley Karma • 205
Joyce Carol Oates So Help Me God • 240
Sue Pike A Temporary Crown • 266
Emily Raboteau Smile • 278
R. T. Smith Ina Grove • 281
Jeff Somers Ringing the Changes • 309
Scott Wolven Vigilance • 320
Contributors’ Notes • 345 Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2005 • 356
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