‘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

“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.

RATING 9 / 10