Anthologies are tricky things for editors: to select a story for inclusion is to make oneself a target for readers who wonder hotly why X or Y or Z wasn't
chosen. And to be so brash as to deem an anthology the best anything
of the century practically invites scorn and condemnation. But with The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century
, Tony Hillerman, Edgar-winning author, and Otto Penzler, founder of the Mysterious Press, step boldly to the firing line with a salvo of 55 stories that are so devious and absorbing, challenging and rewarding that most readers will hold their fire.
The collection stretches from O. Henry's 1903 tale of a bank robber who abandons his trade ("A Retrieved Reformation") to Dennis Lehane's unsettling sketch of a post-Gothic southern town and its canine conundrum ("Running Out of Dog," 1999), and brings together authors who at first seem uneasy bedfellows. William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway jostle for space with Donald Westlake and Stephen Greenleaf; Willa Cather and Flannery O'Conner stare combatively at Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton. But as one reads along, these potentially tense alliances relax: the boundaries between "modern" and "classic," "pulp" and "literature" evanesce, leaving instead a shimmering web of serendipitous affiliations: O. Henry and Stephen King nod amiably to one another, united by the skill of their devious narrative twists.
Hillerman and Penzler's selections reflect a century-long shift in mystery fiction from an emphasis on an exterior landscape--replete with the tangible artifacts of who, what, where, when, how, why--to a growing interest in the geography of interiority. This landscape thrives on the amorphousness of its own features. In Tom Franklin's "Poachers," for example, the puzzle hardly matters at all: real people, and their endlessly convoluted relationships, do. Three orphaned brothers who live as predators in the swamps of the Gulf Coast, the old widower who loves them, the sheriff who pities them all--who kills two of the boys and blinds a third? We never really know. In any case, Franklin's infinitely shaded nuances of silence and speech matter far more than the violence of the crime itself.
And for those readers who, when all is read and done, still insist that they could have done a much better job of judging, Penzler's disarming editorial shrug serves to remind that any anthology should be approached with equanimity, a touch of resignation, and not a little humor: "There are no scientific instruments that can tell a reader which of Harlan Ellison's two Edgar-winning short stories is better. It is a coin toss, and it can't be anything else. Let's just live with it." Happily, The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century is an extraordinarily rewarding companion. --Kelly Flynn
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From Publishers Weekly
Hillerman, one of America's most distinguished crime novelists (The First Eagle, The Fallen Man, etc.), and Penzler, Mysterious Bookshops owner and Mysterious Press founder as well as series editor of the publisher's Best American Mystery Stories, have pooled their considerable expertise to pick the 55 tales that make up this hefty compendium. In between O. Henry's "A Retrieved Reformation" (1903) and Dennis Lehane's "Running Out of Dog" (1999), the editors include short gems by classic masters (Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler) and contemporary giants (Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky). Well represented also are authors not usually associated with the field (Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates). In his foreword, Penzler entertainingly describes the formidable and sometimes subjective process of winnowing thousands of possible stories to a manageable number. Hillerman, meanwhile, who made the final selection, comments in his introduction on the genre's evolution from puzzle mystery for an elite readership 100 years ago to something much more substantial and democratic today, taking issue with critics such as Edmund Wilson and Jacques Barzun--who, he says, have failed to appreciate mystery's literary and social worth. Fans are sure to agree with Hillerman. This anthology is a cornerstone volume for any mystery library. (Apr.)
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