Books

'The Best American Mystery Stories 2017' Toys with the Genre

There's a lot packed into a short 350 pages here, so leave your preconceptions of what "mystery" means behind and enjoy.

The Best American Mystery Stories 2017
John Sandford (Ed.), Otto Penzler (Series Ed.)

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Oct 2017

Other

"These stories are remarkably free of bullshit -- although there's always a little, just to grease the wheels." -- John Sandford

John Sandford, in his introduction to the 2017 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories, goes into the scope of the job of compiling such a compendium. It's easy to come to the conclusion that while he certainly made it clear that this was a monumentally huge task, he may have actually underplayed just how much time went into it. On their own, the stories are fascinating, but as a statement of genre -- that is, as a definition of what "mystery" means in the literature of the 21st century -- this collection is utterly remarkable.

There's a readymade plot in mind already when most people hear the term "mystery". On television, that plot is played out week after week in procedural after procedural, each episode a murder followed by 40-odd minutes of wrong turns and red herrings on the way to finding out it was Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick. Absolutely none of the stories in The Best American Mystery Stories 2017 are quite so pat, and it works to the collection's benefit. There is a meta-mystery happening throughout, that of exactly what makes each story a mystery, and that common question turns out to be enough motivation to make one's way through the entirety of the book.

An example: One of the more instantly recognizable contributors to this volume is Joyce Carol Oates, whose contribution is titled "The Woman in the Window". The idea here is an expansion of a painting, Edward Hopper's Eleven A.M., in which a woman is sitting, staring out a window in the nude save for a pair of shoes. It's a topic she's taken on before, as "The Woman in the Window" is an expansion of an article she wrote for The New Yorker in 2012. Frankly, there's no traditional mystery to be found in "The Woman in the Window". In a literal, plot-driven sense, very little happens. It's a story that takes place entirely in the heads of both the "woman" of the title and her philandering suitor. There's plenty of sadness and self-loathing, there are more than enough homicidal thoughts to go around on both sides, but truly, the resolution of the story is such that one could come out of it saying "wait, but nothing happened", and not be entirely wrong.

In Oates' story, the mystery isn't found in the plot; rather, the mystery is that of the central question of the painting itself. Why is the woman nude? Why is she wearing a pair of shoes? And who or what is she looking at or waiting for? Oates' story is a slow unpacking of one possible set of answers to those questions. "The Woman in the Window" may not be the strongest story in the collection in terms of pure prose -- not to mention that it's a crushingly depressing 20-ish pages -- but the question it asks about the genre are perhaps the most interesting to be found.

Elsewhere, Dan Bevacqua's "The Human Variable" pulls a neat storytelling trick in its use of perspective. Like Oates' story, there is no central "incident" in "The Human Variable" that necessarily needs to be solved, but there is a mystery in how its many disparate pieces come together. Those pieces come from smooth transitions that start at an aspiring entrepreneur named Ted, then shift to said entrepreneur's understanding (and somewhat suffering) wife Katie, then to a marijuana dealer named Rome being primed to give said entrepreneur a good-faith loan, and finally back to Ted. By starting and finishing the story with Ted we have little choice but to see him as the protagonist, but by telling the story from two other perspectives -- and not in some hackneyed "here's the same story three different times" way, but with a consistent timeline that's always moving forward -- Bevacqua lets us in to sides and perspectives that allow each character their own motivation toward their own interests. The story is never resolved, per se, and some might argue that it ends just as it's getting good, but as a look at how three very different people can get caught up in the same current, it's fascinating.

It's in the variety of characters, both within stories and across them, that the "American" part of the collection's title comes through. The three characters that the aforementioned "The Human Variable" revolves around are from three very distinct parts of California. Gerri Brightwell's excellent "Williamsville" centers on a classic old-west desert town. New England itself is as much a character in Brendan DuBois' "The Man from Away" as any of the actual people. Peter Straub's harrowing, disturbing "The Process Is a Process All its Own" is a serial killer story whose Milwaukee setting feels artificial in its structure but utterly believable in its details. Almost everything rings true as something that could happen in the America we know, save for the fascinating little story told in Jeffery Deaver's "The Incident of 10 November", a weirdly funny tale of spycraft in post-World-War-II Russia. That said, it does appear, given the samples available here, that the mystery genre is overwhelmingly white; there are very, very few characters of color no matter the setting of the story that make any sort of impact at all.

If there's further criticism to be levied, it's that this edition of The Best American Mystery Stories starts so strong, with story after genre-stretching story, that running into an archetypical hard-boiled cops-'n'-killers mystery story grinds the experience of reading the collection to a halt. "Puncher's Chance" skirts most clichés while leaning into a few, but crucially never actually gets investigators involved. The central mystery of "Williamsville" is not so much how it ends, but how it gets to its end. "Flight" is one of the most intense experiences you could ever imagine happening in a nursing home, forcing the reader to inhabit the mind of someone with full mental but extremely limited physical faculties. By the time you get to "GI Jack", clever conceit or not, hanging with a police force with names like "Mac", "Burke", and "McReary" for 18 pages feels rote and almost disposable. Get past the initial shock that a traditional hard-boiled mystery offers at this point in the collection and you're rewarded with an interesting story with a historical twist, but it almost feels like Sandford should have gotten this one out of the way early.

For the most part, though, The Best American Mystery Stories 2017 is an enjoyable ride. The majority of the stories are quick, enjoyable, and memorable. There's a lot packed into a short 350 pages here, so leave your preconceptions of what "mystery" means at the door, and prepare yourself for twists, turns, and enough surprises to pack a career's worth of novels.

9
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Dancing in the Street: Our 25 Favorite Motown Singles

Detroit's Motown Records will forever be important as both a hit factory and an African American-owned label that achieved massive mainstream success and influence. We select our 25 favorite singles from the "Sound of Young America".

Music

The Durutti Column's 'Vini Reilly' Is the Post-Punk's Band's Definitive Statement

Mancunian guitarist/texturalist Vini Reilly parlayed the momentum from his famous Morrissey collaboration into an essential, definitive statement for the Durutti Column.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

What Will Come? COVID-19 and the Politics of Economic Depression

The financial crash of 2008-2010 reemphasized that traumatic economic shifts drive political change, so what might we imagine — or fear — will emerge from the COVID-19 depression?

Music

Datura4 Take Us Down the "West Coast Highway Cosmic" (premiere)

Australia's Datura4 deliver a highway anthem for a new generation with "West Coast Highway Cosmic". Take a trip without leaving the couch.

Music

Teddy Thompson Sings About Love on 'Heartbreaker Please'

Teddy Thompson's Heartbreaker Please raises one's spirits by accepting the end as a new beginning. He's re-joining the world and out looking for love.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Little Protests Everywhere

Wherever you are, let's invite our neighbors not to look away from police violence against African Americans and others. Let's encourage them not to forget about George Floyd and so many before him.

Music

Carey Mercer's New Band Soft Plastics Score Big with Debut '5 Dreams'

Two years after Frog Eyes dissolved, Carey Mercer is back with a new band, Soft Plastics. 5 Dreams and Mercer's surreal sense of incongruity should be welcomed with open arms and open ears.

Music

Sondre Lerche Rewards 'Patience' with Clever and Sophisticated Indie Pop

Patience joins its predecessors, Please and Pleasure, to form a loose trilogy that stands as the finest work of Sondre Lerche's career.

Film

Ruben Fleischer's 'Venom' Has No Bite

Ruben Fleischer's toothless antihero film, Venom is like a blockbuster from 15 years earlier: one-dimensional, loose plot, inconsistent tone, and packaged in the least-offensive, most mass appeal way possible. Sigh.

Books

Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.

Music

Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.

Film

Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.