- By Sam Cornish
- Sam Cornish teaches creative writing at Emerson College, Boston. Two new collections of mystery, suspense, and hard-boiled stories depict their characters facing conflicts in domestic, foreign, gothic, and always strange circumstances. ''A Choice of Evils'' contains compact and, for the most part, ingenious and atmospheric tales taken from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine: In ''The Web She Weaves,'' editors Muller and Pronzini pay homage to the women who helped shape the mystery genre. Throughout ''A Choice of Evils,'' Ms. Lore's editorial approach is evident: The scene is set, and the characters are introduced. They are grubby, small-souled people - stockbrokers, blackmailers, assistant DAs, or just ordinary folks like Henry Warner, who repeatedly finds his mailbox lying on the ground. He knows the neighborhood kids are the culprits and that the police can and will do nothing about it. Settings here are also important - from diners, golf courses, and dingy hotels with young pimple-faced desk clerks to a hotel overlooking the Bay of Naples, where a concert singer contemplates the murder of the Other Woman. The writers of these stories insinuate that such things could happen to anyone. A blackmailer in Arthur Porges's ''A Change for the Better'' buys his secrets from hairdressers, bookkeepers, and maids. Porges deftly prepares his reader for the outcome as being the only solution available to his character. In ''A Killing in the Market,'' Robert Bloch's stockbroker, who once worked as a clerk on Wall Street, has, after careful planning, changed his life - but not for the better. There's more to investment, he finds, than stocks and bonds. Sometimes these stories read like newspaper reportage, where conflicts are resolved with the immediacy of a news bulletin. On closer reading, however, the authors' skillful handling of plot and situation is evident. Characters are well drawn; the action is swift; and endings are marked by an uneasy coexistence of justice and irony. The reader will not be disappointed. By comparison, ''The Web She Weaves'' is both historical and literary, although its contents may encompass too many styles and epochs. It is a book to be read at leisure, and its editors in their introduction state that it ''makes the case for women as primary forces in the shaping of the mystery genre.'' This is done by arranging the stories somewhat chronologically, beginning with early 20th-century writers Marie Belloc Lowndes, Edith Wharton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Katherine Mansfield. The stories by these writers, however, and even later ones by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Mignon G. Eberhart seem slow or heavy-handed in comparison with contemporary suspense masters. One of these is Ruth Rendell, who in ''The Fall of a Coin'' writes of a husband and wife who feel so unhappy about living together that each contemplates murdering the other. Another is Joyce Carol Oates, whose ''Norman and the Killer'' is a clever study in paranoia. Also Shirley Jackson's ''The Possibility of Evil'' and Margaret Millar McGowney's ''Miracle'' are not merely crime stories but exercises in literary suspense that many mainstream writers would envy. ''The Web She Weaves'' might have been intended as a definitive anthology of suspense by women, but the reader sometimes feels that the editors were too reluctant to select only one kind of story (as were the Hitchcock editors), or unable to compile a thematic collection. Therefore, both the stories and their arrangement seem academic rather than quality-conscious. They betray an uncomfortable merger of mainstream literary writing with genre entertainment. The stories in ''Choice of Evils'' are blunt-as-a-nightstick tales of motive, action, and consequence. ''The Web She Weaves'' is a collection that, although ambitious in scope, is never clear in its intentions, and so constitutes a pastiche of genre, literary, and gothic tales of murder and intrigue.
The Web She Weaves: An Anthology of Mystery and Suspense Stories by Women, edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini. New York: William Morrow. 514 pp.