Sunday, November 6, 2011

THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011, edited by Harlan Coben

Otto Penzler controls this series, and he assigns a different editor every year.  Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton, Ed McBain, Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, and several other giants of crime fiction have accepted the job over the years.

First is the standard short foreword by Penzler, warning those who regard a mystery as a detective story that the wider criteria for selections in this series is:  Any story in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or plot.  As simple as that.

Next is the comic introduction by Harlen Coben:

"I hate this part.'

"You should skip it.  I'm serious.  You know what this is, don't you?  This is the part of the story collection where the editor faux-deep, pseudo-erudite essay on the larger meaning of the short story.  It is, quite frankly, an irrelevant exercise.'

"The collection is about the story, not my view of it, and thus this introduction becomes the literary equivalent of a bad overture at a musical:  It gets you in your seat, but if you're already seated, you just want the curtain to open.  It stalls.  It annoys.  Even the best introductions, no matter how well done, are a bit like a toupee.  It may be a good toupee.  It may be a bad toupee.  But it is still a toupee.'

"It is also pretty ironic when you think about it--an excess of words to introduce a form which relies on the economy of them.'

"A novel is a long-term commitment.  A short story is more like a heady fling--intense, adventurous, emotionally charged, and, when I was young, embarrassingly quick.  Okay, forget that last one.  The best short stories, like those high-octane lovers, never fully leave you.  They burn, linger, haunt.  Some sneak up on you in a subtle way.  Others are like a punch in the gut--sudden, spontaneous.  They knock the wind out of you."

Harlan Coben then elaborates on the Elmore Leonard axiom, about leaving out the parts that readers tend to skip.  Coben's introduction falls into that category of novel periphery, the comic anti-introduction introduction (foreword, preface), of which I recall several shining examples.

One of these is in John Lancester's The Debt to Pleasure, in which the pseudo-author chooses to write his preface before the book is written because:

"...we are all familiar with the after-the-fact tone--weary, self-justificatory, aggrieved, apologetic--shared by ship captains appearing before boards of inquiry to explain how they came to run their vessels aground, and by authors composing forewords."

After Harlan Coben, we could have used a table of contents, but it isn't here.  Instead, there are the stories.  In the back of the book, there are brief biographies of the contributors, most of them well known, with the author's story notes often included.  There is also a list of "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2010" that for one reason or another, didn't make the final cut.

This turned out to be the best collection in years, for which I am thankful to Mr. Penzler, Mr. Coben, the authors of the stories here themselves--and thankful to those who continue to support them.  Highly recommended.

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