Lots of Crime, Not Much 'Whodunit' in 1997's Best American Mysteries

'Best of' collections offer a mixed bag of literary efforts

The best American Mystery stories 1997

Editor Robert B. Parker

Series Editor Otto Penzler

Houghton Mifflin

357 pp., $25

Frontier myth and fiction

[T]he man with a gun became a staple of American fiction. He was alone, outside of society, compelled by his own rules. Though he was often the hero of popular fiction written with indiscriminate crudeness, his story still retained some grace of tragedy because he was finally, often reluctantly, but inevitably, a killer of men. It is this aspect of the myth of America that informs much of American fiction.

- From the introduction to 'The Best American Mystery Stories 1997'

Books touting the "best of" everything from dog stories to quilting patterns crowd store shelves every winter. These should be approached warily and with a shaker of salt. Otherwise, the reader might find himself looking up from the pages in bafflement, wondering, "Is this it?"

"The Best American Mystery Stories 1997" is a prime example of the species, with 20 tales of mayhem ranging from thoughtful explorations of moral ambiguity to shockers so dark they should be printed on black paper. Like most anthologies, it proves the old adage, you can only please all of the people some of the time.

The book is chock full of murder, but there are very few mysteries in the spirit of Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple. (In fact, a few of the more grisly would probably send that redoubtable Victorian fleeing the room.)

This is due to series editor Otto Penzler's definition of what constitutes a mystery: "any [story] in which a crime, or threat of a crime, is central to the theme." This admittedly loose description grants admission to stories by literary heavyweights such as Joyce Carol Oates, but it also means that whodunit is rarely in question.

Readers picking up these American stories can count on a few things: Scotland Yard will never be called in, there isn't a single drawing room in the entire anthology, and not one of the characters ever sits down to a spot of tea.

Instead, the action takes place in a Detroit blues bar, inner-city basketball courts, Florida's swamps and beaches, and that American staple, the convenience store. Yorkshire pudding and bangers and mash are not on the menu; barbecue and Spam are.

Also not on the menu is any sense of law or order to the universe. In his introduction, anthology editor Robert B. Parker quotes D.H. Lawrence: "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer." This sensibility definitely informs the anthology, as does that American icon - the man with a gun. If visions of Clint Eastwood are dancing in your head, good - the book could easily serve as a homage to Sam Spade or Dirty Harry. The loner is star here, and he who is without friends is more likely to make it out alive.

Nowhere is this more true than in Jeffrey Deaver's "Weekender," where a thief learns repentance isn't all it's cracked up to be, and James Crowley's darkly unpleasant "Hot Springs" about a football coach searching for his lucky break.

Andrew Klavan explores temptation and the necessity of making your own luck when a celebrity murder gives "Lou Monahan, County Prosecutor," a chance to preen for the media's cameras (and lord it over an old rival).

Oates examines whether truth and love can survive simultaneously in a relationship in "Will You Always Love Me?" Also delving into moral ambiguity is S.J. Rozan's "Hoops." One of the few classic mysteries in the anthology, this well-done look at inner-city hopes was nominated for an Edgar Award, the most prestigious award for mystery writing.

Food, that great American preoccupation, plays a prominent role in several mysteries, including "Mrs. Feeley Is Quite Mad," which takes the award for most original murder weapon of the year (watch out for those canned goods). However, "Kindred Spirits," Brad Watson's tale of barbecue and adultery, owes rather too much to Fannie Flagg's "Fried Green Tomatoes."

There are also obligatory appearances by mystery heavyweights such as Elmore Leonard. Elizabeth George abandons England for California to explain why you should never listen to psychics in the well-done "The Surprise of His Life." And Jonathan Kellerman offers up the clever "The Things We Do for Love," in which a young woman juggles work, motherhood, and an extremely handy diaper bag. Finally, a serial killer goes on the college lecture circuit in Allen Steele's "Doblin's Lecture."

Skeptics who consider mystery writing a lesser genre may find themselves silenced by the fine, intelligent writing of a number of the stories in this collection. But those looking to match their wits against the finest minds in the crime-fighting biz will have to get out their magnifying glasses and search elsewhere.

* Yvonne Zipp is on the Monitor staff.

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