The Best American Mystery Stories 2000

Editor: Donald Westlake, Otto Penzler
Year: 2000
Genre: Mystery

It seems they don't make mystery stories like they used to.

In the introduction to this collection, Otto Penzler defines mysteries as "any story in which a crime or the threat of a crime is central to the theme or plot," which traditionally (to me, at least) always meant detective fiction. Out of the twenty stories in this book, though, only two or three could be described that way (and then only loosely; for example, "Annie's Dream" by Bentley Dadmun follows a senior citizen as he tries to answer some old questions for the owner of his retirement community). There are two private eyes for hire, two legal dramas, one quasi-police procedural, and zero Miss Marples assembling all the suspects in the drawing room for a decisive confrontation.

Instead, the collection features disturbing, morally ambiguous stories that offer a view inside the mind of a killer. Favorite formulas include the good person who is forced by circumstance to do evil deeds ("Running Out of Dog" by Dennis Lehane), the point of view of a murderer who may or may not seem sympathetic at the beginning ("Sheep" by Thomas H. McNeely), and the criminal who takes things a step too far and finally gets what's coming to him ("The Island in the River" by Chad Holley). The stories are included in alphabetical order by the author's last name, but coincidentally, seven of the last eight are really creepy, leaving you with an aftertaste of what Buffy Summers would call "the wig."

I'm sure there's a lot of sociological analysis that could be done here. For instance, compare The Best American Mystery Stories with CSI:. Both feature a preponderance of morally depraved characters whose crimes sometimes approach mystery-horror, but CSI: situates these nasty individuals within a morally upright world where the inexorable trail of evidence (and David Caruso's righteous indignation) leads to their inevitable apprehension by the authorities. In the book, though, some of the nastiest characters get away, or fall into the hands of someone even nastier. Even more tragic are the good people, upright characters in a depraved world, who must sacrifice their closest friends and family, and then pay the consequences. Both TV and literature give recognition to the darkness within us; perhaps mass culture seeks to reassure its audience with happy endings, while individual writers of thrillers (at least the thrillers that Otto Penzler likes) see the world's unredeemed brutality.

One could also consider the role of women in these stories. Most are dissatisfied (which usually means unfaithful) wives, many are murder victims, but there are notable exceptions. In David Edgerley Gates's "Compass Rose," the daughter of a prostitute is forced to commit murder in order to make herself a better life in the man's world of turn-of-the-century Texas. In the decisive moment of "Grit" by Tom Franklin, the moll turns on the gangster. But in the end, for every serial killer driven by unexplained evil, there is another who kills because he has reached the extremes of sexual frustration; misunderstandings between men and women are the seeds that grow into violent crimes.

The collection is also notable because it reprints one of Shel Silverstein's last stories, a courtroom comedy called "The Guilty Party" where a rapist pleads innocent because his "Sam Johnson" did it.

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