Mysteries: the Century’s Best!

August 13, 2007 at 6:03 pm (books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

As year 2000 got under away, a number of “Best of the Century” lists began to appear. Happily for the mystery genre, numerous fans and cognoscenti jumped on this bandwagon.

bests.jpg One result was the Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, edited by Tony Hillerman and that supreme guru (and advocate) of the crime fiction genre, Otto Penzler. This is an interesting, if quirky, collection, containing stories that vary in quality. For one thing, many stories by great mainstream American writers are included, authors whom one doesn’t normally associate with crime writing. Some examples: Willa Cather, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon. On the other hand, stories by the acknowledged “greats” in the field make their appearance: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, John D. MacDonald and Ross MacDonald. One especially pleasant surprise to be found in this anthology is “Naboth’s Vineyard” by Melville Davison Post (1871-1930). post_melville.jpg Post was a prolific writer of short mystery fiction. His Uncle Abner stories, set in Virginia (what is now West Virginia) in the early 1800’s, are extremely evocative and readable. Although they have now pretty much dropped out of the canon, in their day they were considered small masterpieces. No less an expert on the genre than Howard Haycraft, author of the classic work of history and criticism Murder for Pleasure: the Life and Times of the Detective Story (1941), said this of Post’s tales of Uncle Abner: “No reader can call himself a connoisseur who does not know Uncle Abner forward and backward. His four-square pioneer ruggedness looms as a veritable monument in the literature. Posterity may well name him, after Dupin, the greatest American contribution to the form.”

jdm.jpg don1.jpg Two relatively lighthearted entries in Best American Mystery Stories were quite enjoyable: “The Homesick Buick” by John D. MacDonald (pictured above, left), and the Edgar-winning – and truly hilarious – “Too Many Crooks” by Donald Westlake (above, right). “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather is a marvel of powerful writing, but I thought it was a stretch to include it in this anthology. I highly recommend the film version of this story, though, starring Eric Roberts. It is part of a series called The American Short Story. These films were made in the early 1980’s under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Humanities. They are outstanding, the embodiment of what government sponsorship of the arts can achieve when a project is informed by true expertise and discernment. Other performers you will encounter in these films are Fritz Weaver (“The Jolly Corner” by Henry James), Tommy Lee Jones (“Barn Burning” by William Faulkner) and Ron Howard (“I’m a Fool” by Sherwood Anderson). paul.jpg fool.jpgbarn.jpg

Back to the stories themselves: “Ransom” by Pearl Buck had me shaking my head in amazement. Such clunky, graceless writing by a Nobel Prize laureate! In stark contrast, there is Raymond Chandler’s masterful “Red Wind,” with its oft-quoted opening lines:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.” chandler.jpgcain11.jpg

One story that was for me a real revelation was “The Baby in the Icebox” by James. M Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice. This story is a real noir gem. [Raymond Chandler is pictured above left; James M. Cain, to the right]. Finally, there is Susan Glaspell’s much-anthologized “A Jury of her Peers,” still a must-read, as compelling and disturbing now as when she wrote it in 1917.

I believe that a more accurate, inclusive title for this book would have been “The Best American Crime Writing of the Century.”

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Crum Creek Press is The Little Press That Can – and Does!

100-fav-myst-of-cent.jpg in-vain.jpg muses.jpg In 2000, it published 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century. The titles included in this tiny but mighty little book were selected by members of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. It’s a great little source book for readers wanting to fill in the gaps in their knowledge of the history of crime fiction. Following hard on its heels was They Died in Vain, subtitled “Overlooked, Underappreciated and Forgotten Mystery Novels” (2002). The premise of this quirky, fascinating little of volume of undeservedly forgotten writers and writing is stated on the back cover: “If characters die in a mystery novel, and no one reads their story, have they died in vain?” As in the previous book, the accompanying annotations are meticulous and thought-provoking. There is a third book in this series called Mystery Muses; it’s enjoyable, but not, in my view, as essential or as entertaining as the previous two. (Crum Creek used to put out a wonderful little periodical that featured truly incisive reviews and essays on trends in crime fiction. It was called The Drood Review of Mystery. Although it ceased publication several years ago, “the Drood” is still remembered and missed by its loyal – and wistful! – readers.) drood-2.jpg drood-1.jpg The Independent Mystery Booksellers Association has on its site an excellent feature called Killer Books. This is yet another of the primary places I go to for reading recommendations.

crime-mstyery-100.jpg keating.jpg Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books was written by H.R.F. Keating and published in 1987. Keating is a veteran author of mysteries as well as a highly respected commentator and reviewer. His essays are full of insight and beautifully written. Mixed in with the (justly) famous are authors and titles you’ve likely never heard of (including the aforementioned Uncle Abner stories by Melville Davisson Post). At any rate – as with the above reference works: highly recommended.

And before I close: Baltimore’s own Mystery Loves Company Bookstore has a Best Mysteries of the Century list posted on its website.

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