Houghton Mifflin's determination to isolate the best American writing each year has gone beyond the venerable flagship Best American Short Stories, published annually under various imprints and editorships since 1915, to volumes commemorating essays, science and nature, spiritual, sports, and travel writing, comics, even the eclectic catch-all nonrequired reading. From its beginning in 1997, Best American Mystery Stories has had an editor of impeccable qualifications: Otto Penzler, proprietor of New York's Mysterious Bookshop and longtime publisher, commentator, anthologist, and all-around expert on the genre.
For each year's collection, editorial consultant Michele Slung attempts to identify every published short story by an American or Canadian author that qualifies as a mystery under Penzler's very broad definition. Slung culls the obvious losers and passes along what remains to Penzler, who narrows the field to the 50 he deems most worthy. These are submitted, in turn, to an eminent guest editor who selects 20 for the final volume.
The first year's guest editor, Robert B. Parker, was followed by Sue Grafton, Ed McBain, Donald E. Westlake, Lawrence Block, James Ellroy, Michael Connelly, Nelson DeMille, Joyce Carol Oates, Scott Turow, Carl Hiaasen, George Pelecanos, and for this year's volume Jeffery Deaver.
Penzler defines a mystery as "any work in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or the plot." Therein lies a problem. Apart from admitting quite a bit of fiction without any mystery element whatsoever, while excluding the admittedly rare mystery story that does not involve a crime, the definition would take in many, perhaps even most, classic works of literature. Even if you change the umbrella designation to crime story, what keeps this volume from being less a specialized anthology than a road company version of Best American Short Stories?
To the typical reader, the quality and entertainment value of a story are what matter, not whether it fits the artificial parameters of a particular genre. But when an anthology's title represents a popular category, it's fair to consider how well it fulfills its implicit mission. Devotees of the mystery genre expect the same qualities of good prose, involving characters, stimulating ideas, keen observation, and vivid background they would seek in any work of fiction; but they also look for such elements as detection, intricate plot construction, and surprise.
As the years go by, these qualities have become scarcer and scarcer in this annual celebration, whose contents sometimes seem to have been chosen more for literary pretension and snob appeal than for originality and effectiveness as mystery or crime stories. Literary journals contribute more entries than do periodicals specifically devoted to mystery fiction.
The sheer storytelling excellence found in the previous volume from 2008, guest-edited by Pelecanos, disarmed such criticism to a degree. But this year's gathering is much weaker generally, and even more lacking in real mystery. Jeffery Deaver, in bestselling novels and beautifully crafted short stories, specializes in stunt construction, reader misdirection, and jack-in-the-box surprises. Ironically, not a single story in this book reflects those qualities.
Yes, there are some fine stories here. Alafair Burke's "Winning," about a policewoman who is a rape victim and her husband's inability to handle it, is very strong and powerful, as is her father James Lee Burke's "Big Midnight Special," told by a guitar-plucking inmate at a Southern prison camp in 1963 and beautifully written, like all the author's work. David Corbett's "Pretty Little Paradise," concerning a pregnant Las Vegas cocktail waitress turned drug dealer, is a first-rate example of fiction noir. Chuck Hogan's "Two Thousand Volts" effectively describes an execution night through the eyes of a cop, a truck stop diner counterman, a last-meal food gopher, and the condemned prisoner himself.
Clark Howard's "Manila Burning," about the illegal trade in fossil stone, is a downbeat travelogue of Philippine poverty with a somewhat upbeat ending. Joyce Carol Oates, who has done several novels and stories inspired by true crime cases, fictionalizes Andrea Yates's murder of her children in "Dear Husband." Alice Munro's home invasion drama "Free Radicals" is an effective pure suspense story. Others represented by work that is, at the least, interesting include N.J. Ayres, Michael Connelly, Rob Kantner, Robert McClure, Garry Craig Powell, and Vu Tran.
That leaves us with the odder choices for a best-of collection. Tom Bissell's "My Interview with the Avenger" comes from an original anthology with a dubious premise: Literary writers were commissioned to write about superheroes. Bissell carries out the assignment reasonably well, but was it really worth doing? Ron Carlson's "Beanball," an okay story about a baseball scout working in Central America, follows a conventional thriller structure with a bit too much Hemingway in the telling. M.M.M. Hayes's "Meantime, Quentin Ghee," in which a rural Westerner plans to kill (and torture?) an injured biker lest he despoil the environment, struck me as very slight.
Nic Pizzolatto's "Wanted Man" is written well enough, but its general dreariness is unredeemed by character interest. Randy Rohn's "The Man Who Fell in Love With the Stump of a Tree," set in rural Indiana, hasn't much apparent point. Jonathan Tel's wrong-man story, "Bola de la Fortuna," starts as a standard mystery but goes in a different direction, which would be perfectly fine if the result were something as good as the genre conventions being cast aside.
Perhaps the most problematic of all is Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "G-Men," an alternate-history tale in which J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson are both murdered in 1964. Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy appear as characters. Rusch is a good writer, and this is certainly an intriguing idea; but as presented here, with its perfunctory and underdeveloped solution to the whodunit, it's a work in progress, a promising candidate for expansion to novel length but a doubtful choice for a best-of-the-year volume.
Are any of these bad stories? Well, maybe one or two. But the real point is this: It's impossible to imagine there weren't better ones that would render the title of this anthology more accurate.
Jon L. Breen is the author, most recently, of Probable Claus.