- - Thursday, April 14, 2022

Mystery and crime short stories are popular with readers and Otto Penzler, the president and CEO of MysteriousPress.com and the owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, offers another fine anthology of crime and mystery short stories.

“The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021,” guest-edited by Lee Child, the author of the Jack Reacher thriller series, offers short stories from some of our best writers, such as James Lee Burke, Stephen King and Joyce Carrol Oates.

“Long ago, I came to agree with the brilliant John Dickson Carr, who wisely averred that the natural form of the traditional mystery is not the novel but the short story,” Otto Penzler noted in the introduction to the book. “It is not uncommon for a detective story to revolve around a single significant clue – which can be discovered, divulged, and its importance explained in a few pages. Everything else is embellishment, and novels have more of this than short stories.”

Mr. Penzler goes on to write that the working definition of a mystery story for his series is any work of fiction in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme of the plot.

“I’m confident that you will find this to be a superb collection of original fiction about extremes of human behavior caused by despair, hate, greed, fear, envy, insanity, or love — sometimes in combination. Desperate people may be prone to desperate acts — a fertile ground for poor choices,” Mr. Penzler writes. “Many of the authors in this cornucopia of crime have described how aberrant solutions to difficult situations may occur, and why perpetrators felt that their violent responses to conflicts seemed appropriate to them.”

My favorite story in the collection is James Lee Burke’s “Harbor Lights.” Mr. Burke, the award-winning author of two short story collections and 38 novels, including the outstanding crime novel series that feature the Louisiana Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, offers a story of a young man and his father who discover dead bodies floating in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast in 1942.

“I think ‘Harbor Lights’ is my best short story. I put everything in my life inside these few pages,” Mr. Burke writes at the conclusion of his story. “I learned early on that there are many forms of pain and many kinds of evil. I know of things that I will not discuss with anyone. I might write about them, but I will not talk about them.”

Stephen King is more associated with horror and supernatural stories, but he has also written crime stories. His short story in this collection is “The Fifth Step,” in which a retired New York City sanitation engineer sits on a bench in Queens and meets a stranger. The two speak about their lives, and the stranger explains the steps associated with Alcoholics Anonymous. The tale then becomes grim.

Mr. King writes at the conclusion of the story that this is a hard story to talk about without spoiling it.

“So just let me this: I’ve been a friend of Bill, as we call ourselves at AA meetings, for over thirty years,” Mr. King writes. “It’s a wonderful, lifesaving program, but as my readers know, I can find the dark side of almost anything.”

Joyce Carol Oates, a fine novelist, offers an eerie story of a woman up for parole in this collection called, “Parole Hearing, California Institution for Women, Chino, CA.” Joyce Carol Oates offers the convicted and imprisoned woman’s own criminally insane voice to explain why she is asking for parole. It is a brilliant and insightful story that illustrates the mad rationale of a convicted murderer.

Otto Penzler has been publishing “The Best Mystery Stories of the Year” series annually since 1997 with guest editors. Mr. Penzler has been called the champion of crime stories. The Mystery Writers of America presented him with two Edgar Awards, the Ellery Queen Award in 1994 and the Raven, the organization’s highest nonwriting award, in 2003.

I recall Mr. Penzler telling me how he has been selecting stories for anthologies for more than 50 years.

“I’ve been a reader, a collector, an editor, a publisher, and a bookseller,” Mr. Penzler said. “I’ve read voraciously for many years and my collection is nearly 60,000 volumes of first editions of mystery, thriller, espionage and suspense.”

I love short stories, especially crime and mystery short stories, and I believe that crime aficionados like me will enjoy this excellent collection of gripping and entertaining crime and mystery short stories by some of our finest writers.

• Paul Davis’ “On Crime” column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers. 

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“The Best Mystery Stories of the Year: 2021”
Edited by Lee Child
Mysterious, $25.95, 450 pages

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