Thursday, July 13, 2023

Louise Penny, The Best American Mysteries Stories 2018

Penny, Louise, ed. The Best American Mysteries Stories 2018 (Otto Penzler, series editor). Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

The Best American Mystery Stories 2018 at Goodreads

Overall rating:     6/10

In my attempt at reading more contemporary fiction, I selected this book for mystery (with another "Best of" anthology for contemporary horror, and some modern literature for a novel). So much reading to get through, I had little time for writing. Now that I am the end of that stint, I can write about it all, beginning with my least favourite of the batch.

The selection of stories in The Best American Mysteries Stories 2018 is somewhat varied, though there appears to be a slight shift toward more adventure or thriller stories, where the mystery transforms into a climactic showdown or chase, and where the mystery element feels almost secondary to the action, like a standard Hollywood movie. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but for many of these stories, such as David Edgerley Gates's "Cabin Fever" and David A. Hendrickson's "Death in Serengeti," we know how it is going end, so other elements need to be elevated and the action shortened. Though I understand many readers may prefer the adrenaline brought on by the action, this is not my sub-genre of choice.

Less varied is the gender of the authors. Of the twenty stories in the anthology, a whopping two are written by women. Ten percent. According to the UN, there is a greater representation of women in parliament than there is in this anthology.

(I wonder how much the selections in these best-of books are influenced by the stories' authors, so editors & publishers choose entries not on the individual story merits, but on their author or a combination of the two, to help increase sales. The best stories here are not necessarily by the more recognizable authors. Both women are big names.)

As usual I prefer the stories that are character-based, and the real stand-out for me is T. C. Boyle's "The Designee," which I read as a modern tragedy. Other strong stories are Rob Hart's "Takeout," the excellently titled opening story by Louis Bayard, "Banana Triangle Six," Scott Loring Sanders's "Waiting on Joe," and "All Our Yesterday's" by Andrew Klavan. I also like the the Joyce Carol Oates novelette, though I feel it does not belong in this book. The rest are pretty forgettable.

Banana Triangle Six by Louis Bayard     7/10
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, July/August 2017

Eighty-four year-old Mr. Hank is living out his days at the Morning Has Broken home for the elderly. He is grumpily abandoning his lunch and heading to his room for a nap. His memory seems to be fading, and he barely recognizes the woman, Dr. Landis, who appears unexpectedly in his room to run a few small tests. A touching story, tightly written, and a good one to launch the collection.

Y is for Yangchuan Lizard by Andrew Bourelle     7/10
D is for Dinosaur, edited by Rhonda Parrish, Edmonton: Poise and Pen, 2017

To pay off a debt, a young man sells drugs from a bar for the Chechen mafia. When his friend gets ahold of a rare bag of coke mixed with dinosaur bones, the mafia is prepared to commit murder in order to get their hands on the stash. A pretty good read with some standard twists, elevated by a nice dark undertone of hopelessness.

The Designee by T. C. Boyle     8/10
The Iowa Review, 47:2, Fall 2017

I have yet to read a story by T. C. Boyle (author of "Greasy Lake") that I do not like. In this one, a retired elderly professor is caught in a mail scheme that sees him slowly sending his life savings overseas. A painful read, as we know what is transpiring and must be content to continue amid frustration and outrage. This story's designation here as a mystery is arguable: while it has elements of mystery, so does every short story, yet this one doesn't hinge on any moment of discovery or climax. It is more of a character study and a portrait of a very real scheme that has seen so many retirees taken for so much money. Very well written with a heartbreaking finish.

Smoked by Michael Bracken     6/10
Noir at the Salad Bar, edited by Verena Rose, Harriette Sacker, and Shawn Reilly Simmons, Level Best Books, 2017

In small town Texa,s Beau James is running the Quarryville Smokehouse. When his photo appears in a local paper, he fears he has been outed as he settled in town via the witness protection program. A fairly average story with a noisy climax.

The Wild Side of Life by James Lee Burke     6/10
The Southern Review, Winter 2017

Oil driller has an affair with the wife of Louisiana bigshot who runs the local police. Some familiar events, focus on PTSD following a tragic event many years before, and a rushed and dwindling finish. The title refers to a country song.

Too Much Time by Lee Child     6.5/10
No Middle Name, Delacorte Press, 2017

While walking through a plaza minding his own business, Jack Reacher witnesses the snatch-theft of a handbag and gets involved in the investigation, the cops pulling him in as a key witness. This novella is my first Jack Reacher, and I did enjoy it, though it could have been shorter. I guess it took just too much time reading this...

The Third Panel by Michael Connolly     6/10
Alive in Shape and Color, edited by Lawrence Block, 2017

Police investigate a brutal crime scene at a model home in an abandoned development area seventy miles from Los Angeles that was being used as a meth cookhouse. An FBI agent arrives to determine if it matches other similar crimes attributed to a group calling themselves The Third Panel. Pretty good short story with a minor, semi-expected twist.

Gun Work by John M. Floyd     6/10
Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, edited by Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks, Down & Out Books, 2017

A western tale of mystery. Investigator Will Parker is sent to uncover the truth about a twenty-two year incident involving a retired sheriff and the shooting of a wanted criminal. Average story with an expected finish

Cabin Fever by David Edgerley Gates     6/10
Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2017

Ranger Hector is caught in a storm in the midst of the wild, while a pair of cold-blooded murderers are on the loose after a prison bus turns over. The story shifts between Hector and the two escaped convicts who take him hostage, and the FBI and the ranger's girlfriend medic who try to locate him, while coordinating a wildfire triggered by lightning. This is a common formula and I was not too invested in this one, as we can guess early on how it will turn out.

Small Signs by Charlaine Harris     6/10
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November/December 2017

High school principal and former trainer of government operatives Anne DeWitt is surprised by a visit from former colleagues. It appears money has been laundered from the training camp, and Anne's replacement at the camp is desperate to discover the culprit. This is part of a series of short stories featuring Anne DeWitt with her new identity. This one was alright, but the quick scenes needed to be interspersed with so much background information for those unfamiliar with the series (such as myself), that it only became interesting half-way through.

Takeout by Rob Hart     8/10
Mystery Tribune, Issue No. 2, Summer 2017

To pay off a gambling debt to the Chinese gambling house and restaurant, The Happy Dumpling, Harold makes special takeout deliveries for owner Mr. Mo. He does not, however, deliver food, but rather messages in the form of seemingly random items. Harold wants out, but behind on alimony payments and wanting to get on the good side of his former wife and their six year-old daughter, he has no choice but to continue. Until an option comes to light.

A character driven story that also presents a great situation and environment, this story is a slice of life, a few days amid a hefty sequence of events. Well written and well framed, each moment is both necessary and interesting, and honestly I liked the scenario so much, with its not-too-likable protagonist, I would have read a good deal more. In addition, it has something many of the stories in the anthology do not: a great ending.

Death in the Serengeti by David H. Hendrickson     6/10
Fiction River #24: Pulse Pounders Adrenaline, edited by Kevin J. Anderson, July 2017

Senior Serengeti park ranger Makinda comes across the carcasses of several elephants, their ivory tusks sawed off. Shortly thereafter his jeep explodes, followed by additional explosions in the distance as the vehicles of the other rangers in the district also explode. Makinda becomes aware that he has just evaded being murdered, and that there are dangerous poachers in the vicinity who have likely killed his colleagues, leaving him alone to fight the threat.

The most interesting aspect of the story is the tragic and cold-blooded poaching business, which genuinely enraged me as I was reading. While this made me emotionally invested in the story, this is the kind of adventure story in which I am not normally interested. Also, because I was emotionally invested, I was hoping for a better finishing off of the culprits, something more poetic and long-lasting, whereas they were simply done away with all too quickly.

The story received the 2018 Derringer Award for "Best Long Story" (4,001-8,000 words).

All Our Yesterdays by Andrew Klavan     7/10
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2017

During the First World War, Brooks is injured during a charge from his trench, and is sent to England for a lengthy recuperation period. He finds that everything has changed--not just the world around him, but his own self as well. He experiences blackouts and sudden, strong bouts of fear and anger, often associated with inexplicable rage. He longs for a former time, during the late nineteenth century when times were easier and women, in particular, were purer. He befriends his older doctor with whom he feels the need to reminiscence, yet while Dr. Haven tries to explain that it was not a better time, that there was darkness even then, Brooks's desire to talk about the past does not dampen, and his blackouts, which he keeps a secret, seem to become more severe.

What a long description for this excellent story that had me glued. A great finish as well that links the details nicely.

PX Christmas by Martin Limón     6/10
The Usual Santas: A Collection of Soho Crime Christmas Capers, (no credited editor), Random House, 2017

In the Korean demilitarized zone, a pair of American army officers investigate the abuse of the military PX shop, a shop designed for the military and their spouses where imported items can be purchased at low cost. Some wives abuse the shops by making their purchases and selling them in Seoul for great profit, and one of these is sighted by our officers.

The premise of the story is its strongest aspect, as the plot to re-take the wife and make sure Huk leaves everyone alone is less interesting than the mechanisms of the US military in the DMZ.

Windward by Paul D. Marks     6/10
Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, edited by Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks, Down & Out Books, 2017

Private investigator receives a visit from no-nonsense successful film producer claiming his wife has disappeared and that the police believe she has simply run off. PI investigates, theorizes, things happen and mystery is resolved. Fairly average tale with fairly average PI.

Phantomwise: 1972 by Joyce Carol Oates     7/10
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, September/October 2017

Undergraduate student Alyce is seduced and impregnated by one of her young instructors, who soon thereafter distances himself from her. In the meantime, Alyce befriends visiting professor and successful poet Roland, who hires her to help collect his papers.

While there is a clear element of mystery, and even crime, these are relegated to the backdrop, as the story focuses on Alyce and her complicated relationship with Roland. This is also the most interesting element of the story, so that as a mystery it is weaker than as a character study. I sympathized with both Alyce and Roland, and would even have liked to see their relationship continue to develop. The ending moves away from this and does its own thing.

Rule Number One by Alan Orloff     7/10
Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Harriette Sackler, Verena Rose, editors, Level best Books, 2017

A thief helps his aging, retiring mentor by allowing him to take part in one final heist. And of course, there is much double-crossing. A familiar set-up, and you can figure out the ending at the last leg, but it is nonetheless an enjoyable, well written story.

The Apex Predator by William Dylan Powell     6/10
Switchblade #1, Scotch Rutherford ed., 2017

Professional diver is hired to help police locate sunken cars in an attempt to close unsolved disappearances. When preparing a sunken Camaro and its pair of police corpses for ascent, our diver notices there are hundred dollar bills floating around in the vehicle. Down on his luck, he decides to keep the stash for himself.

Pretty good, but the first half is far more interesting than the second, and I didn't care for for the jokey ending. I really liked the concept of recovering sunken vehicles and would read more on that topic.

Waiting on Joe by Scott Loring Sanders     8/10
Shooting Creek and Other Stories, Down & Out Books, March 2017

Christmas tree plantation worker loves his dog, so much that he whittles wood into little mutt statues. That mutt digs close to the house and comes up with a human foot. This leads to so much, and sets up expectations which it nicely tears down as the narrative progresses. Highly enjoyable, not only in plotting but also in tone. The narrator's voice is a blast and the story ends as well as it begins.

Breadfruit by Brian Silverman     6/10
Mystery Tribune, Fall 2017

Former firefighter and current bar owner in St. Pierre, Len Buonfiglio, finds a pair of local breadfruit on his bar. Shortly thereafter he is visited by a man claiming interest in exporting breadfruit. A great opening wanes as the story gets into its final action sequence, with which I am less interested. However the focus on breadfruit and the conversation between the men, as well as the locale and surrounding characters, all work well.

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