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Books

'The Best American Mystery Stories 2014' Delivers a Short Sharp Stab Into Many Different Lives

These stories pulsate with the everyday wrongs and trivial annoyances and tragedies with which each and every one of us is only too familiar.


The Best American Mystery Stories

Publisher: Mariner
Length:
Editor: Laura Lippman
Release date: 2014-10
Amazon

As a Scot abroad (well, in England at least), this reviewer could relate very well to the feelings of alienation and sheer aloneness, which seems to be shared with many of the characters here. While the common association of the word 'mystery' is that of crime, the real mystery here is, what is to become of these people? How did they get to be in this state? What forces (seemingly) beyond their control have propelled them into these particular worlds?

While age, experience and background and social standing may appear to separate many of the authors present here (and their attendant characters), what ties them together is grace.

Grace is, perhaps, an odd word to use in a review of a book of mystery stories, but it is evident in every story. From long, languid paragraphs of description to short and snappy exchanges of dialogue (both internal and with other characters), each story is swept along with the power and assurance of writers working at the very peak of their powers. Not a word, nor a syllable, is ever out of place; everything is there for a reason and every piece creates a mood or a feeling which lingers in the mind long afterwards, like the aftertaste of a fine coffee.

In many ways, this is a very '40s-era, nourish collection. Yes, the settings and the time frames may be given as modern-day America (and we roam here from State to State, from landscape to landscape, from mindset to mindset of each age range, social class and ethnic background present in the modern-day United States). However, each blue sky is tinged with a few clouds which, if not completely black, are at least a very dark shade of grey and carry with them (and the mood of each character) a hint of foreboding which creeps into and knots our stomachs and keeps us turning the pages.

"Her airy voice rushing through the mosaic of dried leaves on the wilting grass, shaking the naked branches overhead...," Patricial Engel's writes in "Aida", "Anybody else would have called it the wind, but me, I knew it was something else."

We can feel and taste the pervading air of sadness which slowly envelops these characters and their lives. We hear their hopes and aspirations, we sense their anticipation and we worry with them for wrong decisions made and despair endured. In short, we see them as real people whom we recognise, know and can empathise with (even though, given some of their deeds and circumstances, we may well not want to!). Some of these stories are what might, in days gone by, have been termed as "shilling shockers": you pays your money and you gets your fix. For example:

One evening not long after, he came home and there was a note under the door. It read: 'My heart is either broken or I haven't paid the bill Thx, Lorie, #1-A' ...He held up his pipe wrench. 'You're just in time,' she said, pointing to the radiator... No one ever thinks anything will ever happen to their baby girl." -- from "My Heart Is Either Broken", by Megan Abbott

Mixed in amongst those which have speed and punch, however, is a seam of life and characters laced with anecdote and memory, which allows them to burn slowly onto your brain where they come alive and really make you think about them. They provide a long aftershock, as opposed to a quick fix, in other words. My only regret is that as short stories, they end so quickly.

This is because each writer here has recognised and employed the truest strengths of any good short story: brevity and tightness. As Raymond Chandler once put it, get in and get out quickly. And thankfully also, there are no guys with guns bursting into rooms here. "My sister decided we had to go see her estranged husband in Reno. When she told me, I was in a mood. I said, 'What does that have to do with me?'" (From "I Will Follow You", by Roxanne Gay)

What there is, however, is a central theme of mystery, whether or not an actual crime is committed. The mystery in the case of each character being, How did my life come to turn out this way? What choices have I made that caused me to come down this path? What can I do about it now? And most of all, What did I do to deserve this? We follow as they try to unwind the mangled coil which their lives and circumstances have seemingly become. For these, despite the settings in which they may be painted, are scenes and situations in which we are all sure to have found ourselves.

Naturally, a mix of noir and melodrama hangs over the collection as a whole. You know, just because these are mystery stories, that something seriously bad is going to happen to someone at some point, but what keeps you reading on is to find out who, when and, most importantly, why?

"This woman is dressed mostly in white. Blonde, probably in her late twenties, shapely. Stunning... I look what I am: a forty three year old tow truck owner and operator... I went through the windshield of a Camaro when I was a kid and the scars criss-cross both sides of my face... Even in my driver's photo, I don't look normal." (from "The Wrecker", by Ernest Finney)

This is what all good mystery stories should do. As Ian Rankin (the creator of Inspector Rebus and a fine short story writer) once said, there is nor room for fat in a short story. Each writer here has taken this truly to heart, every word serving as a propulsive engine and every sentence a slave to the cause of moving the plot along. They each create their own little worlds within just a few short and simple paragraphs. These are all full of personality and character.

These stories pulsate with the everyday wrongs and trivial annoyances and tragedies with which each and every one of us is only too familiar. The great skill of each author here is in the way that they have chosen to amplify such things, to show how quickly triviality can turn to tragedy and the consequences that this brings.

There is not a dud to be found in the pack. Each tale is full of venom, invective, action, consequence and deliciously bleak black humour. Each story fits in perfectly with the others, giving a beautiful ebb and flow to the set as a whole.

7

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