Thursday, November 7, 2013

Best American Mystery Stories

By Steve Weddle

OK. Let's get this out of the way first.

The first story in the new Best American Mystery Stories first appeared in Needle, a magazine I edit. They also picked two other Needle stories -- one from Jen Conley and another from Timothy Friend -- as notables. And DSD-alum Dave White had one of his stories picked as an honorable, too.

So, if you wanted the full disclosure, there you go.

I've been reading BAMS collections for years. Just off the downtown mall in Charlottlesville, there's a used bookstore called Daedelus with stacks and stacks of books, piled along walls and stairs. At one time they had collections from the HMH Best American series, but then I bought them all.

Lately, I've noticed that readers still find the mystery series amazing, but have two complaints, if any. First, readers complain that the selection is uneven. Some folks find most of the stories wonderful, but are bummed when a handful don't "live up" to the rest. Second, readers complain that the stories in the Best American Mystery Stories aren't mysteries.

When I'm reading a group of stories, whether an author's collection or a themed anthology, I don't want or expect the stories to be even. In an anthology, which is what we're looking at here, you have a couple dozen or so authors at various stages in their writing careers, crafting different types of stories, for hugely different markets. I can tell you without hesitation that Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is highly unlikely to ever publish a story that runs in Needle: A Magazine of Noir. I mean, can you see a story from Thuglit on the cover of Mr. Hitchcock's? It would be like the time we took my drunk Aunt Ida (God rest her soul and that of her beloved iguana) to early dinner at the Sizzler and she punched the manager (clip-on bow tie, sweaty pits) in the throat because the rolls were cold.

I don't expect all the stories to mix. That's part of the fun.

One of the authors has a great deal of experience writing traditional mysteries. Nancy Pickard has won the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, Shamus, and Barry awards. She knows mystery stories. Of course, so do the other authors. But not all of the stories are a Miss Marple mystery, which is something else I dig about this series.

Reviewers, while praising the collection, sometimes lament that the stories are more crime fiction than mystery. Now, this can vary with each year's editor, of course. Lisa Scottoline put together this year's great list, and you can read her thoughts in the essay in the front of the book. I usually skip over these intros, but in the BAMS books, they're on par with the stories themselves.

I don't expect the stories to have Hercule Poirot sitting in a cottage garden while he explains why the colonel's illegitimate nephew (who knew?!?) was the killer.

I like my mysteries a little less traditional and I like my collections a little less flat, I suppose. I generally love the BAMS collections, and really dug this one.

Of course I'm fond of Tom Barlow's "Smothered and Covered," as we chose it to run originally in Needle.

O'Neil De Noux's story, which ends up being about a thing the story wasn't about but was about all along, is a standout.

Stories by Nick Mamatatas, Joyce Carol Oates, and Michael Conley were also favorites, though every damn story in here was a pleasure to read.

Jen Conley's story, "Finn's Missing Sister," was named a notable for the collection, and it would have been cool if that had been included. When I first read it for Needle, it surprised me in many ways -- and I appreciate being surprised in fiction.

I should also mention Dave White's story, which appeared in Thomas Pluck's recent Lost Children anthology. Another good one you should track down.

More about the 2013 BAMS here.

1 comment:

Dana King said...

Unevenness goes with the territory of any anthology, even those where all the stories are written by the same author. It's the nature of anthologies.

I'm somewhat more forgiving with complaints about whether the stories are mysteries, or not. Somewhat. The term has evolved over the years and will, I believe, eventually be eclipsed by "crime fiction" as the more accurate and encompassing term. This has been going on for long enough now I'd hope most readers of the genre would have figured it out.