The Best American Mystery Stories of 2011

“They’ve got you so tight inside you need an enema. No cheating on the wife, no cheating on the taxes, no cheating on the church. And somebody bends the rules a little, your panties get all bunched up.”

A short story collection presents me with a dilemma. Which ones should I mention in the review? I inevitably land on those I liked the best or those that stuck out from the pack for one reason or another. This makes short story collections more difficult to review I think, but at the same time, they can also be infinitely rewarding as for this reader they act as a showcase for new authors. I discovered Jonathan Coe thanks to a short story collection, and so I approach a new collection as a way to collect fresh names.

The Best American Mystery Stories is a series that’s run now for 14 years. The 2011 edition brings Harlan Coben as the guest editor with Otto Penzler (and I’m a fan of Penzler’s for all he’s done for the crime/mystery genre) as series editor. Penzler gives what he states is “fair warning” that a mystery is not necessarily a detective story. Penzler argues:

I regard the detective story as one subgenre of a much bigger genre, which I define as any short work of fiction in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or the plot.

Patricia Highsmith, of course, we think of as a mystery writer, so then the 2011 Best Mystery Collection, is not, and it’s a good thing, all detectives–although some detectives appear as well as a wide range of other characters in these pages. In Audacious by Brock Adams there’s a pickpocket, in Beth Ann Fennelly & Tom Franklin’s What His Hands had Been Waiting For there’s a couple of ranger types in a world I had, at first, some difficulty dating, and there’s a female serial killer in Lawrence Block’s Clean Slate. There are some big names here including a story from Joe Lansdale and a collaboration by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane, a great Mike Hammer short story called A Long Time Dead.

Chewing over the stories, I’ve landed on some favourites which also happen to be by writers I’ve never read before, and Dennis McFadden’s Diamond Alley makes the short list. It’s a story told by a man who reminisces about his past,  and those memories include a young woman named Carol Siebenrock, a beautiful nubile girl who became the sex fantasy of every boy who attended the same high school. The author recalls how groups of boys organised Peeping Tom sessions at her remote country home. While this is all very familiar territory, in McFadden’s hands the story becomes sublime:

The year we were seniors in high school, a girl in our class was murdered, and the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series. Which was the more momentous event? No contest, of course; how could a game,  a boys’ game at that, compete with the death of a classmate, a girl who was our friend? Yet somehow, despite our lip service to the contrary, these two happenings seemed to attain a shameful equality in our minds. And if anything, now that so many years have passed, Mazeroski rounding the bases in jubilation after his homer had vanquished the big,bad Yankees is more vivid in our memories than the image of  Carol Siebenrock, young, beautiful, and naked as seen from the darkness beyond her window.

The narrator describes that senior year in Harts Grove, Pennsylvania–a year of promise & hope , rampant sexual fantasies, and yet also a certain innocence that is smashed by Carol’s disappearance. The story charts the chilling appropriateness of her last comment to her male admirers, loss, collective guilt, and the passage of time. School all too frequently becomes the place where we first experience death of peers, and McFadden’s story captures all the nuances of the narrator’s experience as Carol passes from the real, the desired and the unattainable to the iconic.

Andrew Riconda’s Heart like a Balloon is one of the meanest contract killer short stories I’ve ever read, so it makes the short list for its one track nastiness which still managed to shock and surprise me. The story is told by Brian Rehill, a contractor/fixer of “dirty business” who is meeting with Denny back in New York after an absence of three years:

We’d been friends of sorts until I did a favor for him to keep him out of jail. Subsequently he got leery of our association. Denny could deal with the blood on his hands as long as he didn’t have a daily reminder of it. Shit, it wasn’t all that much blood. And it wasn’t even like someone had been killed. That being said, I certainly didn’t mourn the loss of our friendship. I’d mainlined enough Dr. Phil while unemployed to recognize the toxic people in my life, and when this bastard broke wind, the room smelled of almonds and burned Legos.

After doing a “favour” for Denny, Brian suspects he was subtly blacklisted:

And even though I suspected Denny had quietly put a few bad words in for me here and there, after I did him his little favour, putting the kibosh on jobs I should’ve gotten, including a couple of big sheetrocking contracts that would’ve put me into a whole other tax bracket, I didn’t care now. This pariah’s subsequent relocation westward turned out to be the best move I’d ever made. And L.A., much to the bemusement of my condescending New Yorker mentality, turned out to be paradise–professionally, romantically, and even, god help me, spiritually (I hadn’t done anything I was ashamed of in nearly two years). I was even thinking about buying my first house, although I still needed to somehow come up with a big chunk for a downpayment. Somehow….

Well the “somehow” is handed to Brian when Denny asks him for yet another favour–it’s a long story that begins, classically (and I see Dennis Farina in this role) saying, “there’s this guy…”. This ‘guy’ as it turns out, is Joe, the soon-to-be ex-husband of Denny’s mistress, Sucrete. The schmuck doesn’t get the message that the marriage is over, and loser that he is, he’s bugging Sucrete. Restraining orders haven’t worked, so Denny asks Brian to put a “permanent restraint” on Joe: “whatever you deem … most permanent.”

Anyway, that clip gives a sense of style and voice (both excellent) and the set-up….

Another favourite is a story written by Ed Gorman, Flying Solo, a story about two widowed cancer sufferers in their 60s who meet during chemo sessions. One man is retired cop Ralph and the other is Tom, a retired English teacher. Ralph has terminal prostate cancer and Tom has colon cancer. They begin scheduling chemo on the same days and watch films to pass the time:

The DVD players were small and you could set them up on a wheeled table right in front of your recliner while you were getting the juice . One day I brought season two of the Rockford Files , with James Garner. When I got about two minutes into the episode I heard Ralph sort of snicker.

“What’s so funny?”

“You. I should’ve figured your for a Garner type of guy.”

“What’s wrong with Garner?”

“He’s a wuss. Sort of femmy.”

“James Garner is sort of femmy?”

“Yeah. He’s always whining and bitching. You know, like a woman. I’m more of a Clint Eastwood fan myself.”

Ralph and Tom, in a what-do-we-have-to-lose way, decide to take the law into their own hands and improve the world a little bit with what time they have left. Author Ed Gorman wrote the story as “the result of sitting in chemo rooms for the past nine years dealing with [my] multiple myeloma.” Gorman captures the idea that for those dealing with chronic or terminal illness, sometimes a little empathy, a little recognition of the trials of others, goes a long way.

My copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley and read on the kindle.

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6 Comments

Filed under Collins, Max Allan, Fiction, Gorman Ed, Lansdale Joe R, McFadden Dennis, Riconda Andrew

6 responses to “The Best American Mystery Stories of 2011

  1. Now that’s surprising…. That you liked a story so heavy on cancer treatment.
    I never know how to review a short story collection but think the best way is picking a few favourites, even when the whole collection is dedicated to one author only.
    It’s a great way to discover new authors, I agree.

    • The cancer stuff wasn’t detailed and just provided the setting for the two men to meet. They cope with their treatment and diagnoses by seeing outside themselves, and that’s a positive thing. Plus it was wryly funny.

  2. I find it hard too to review short story collection.
    I thought the same as Caroline when I read your comment on the cancer story.
    Sounds like you had a lot of fun reading this.

  3. That’s just the right sort of book to have on your Kindle isn’t it. Something to dip into between more substantial reads. I have reviewed collections before and like you home in on the ones I enjoyed most. This one will be on my Kindle shortly

  4. Tom: I’ve always bought the Best American Short Stories except for the last few years when I began to give up on the collection, so the Best Mysteries was a bit of an experiment of me hunting for new authors.

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