Book Review: The Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021, edited by Alafair Burke and Steph Cha

The Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021, edited by Alafair Burke and Steph Cha, is a collection of the 20 best crime short stories from the year 2020, featuring tales rife with the stress, anxiety, crime, and violence inspired by an unprecedented year.

After taking over as series editor, Steph Cha found herself facing the daunting task of selecting 50 of the best American crime short stories of the year 2020 before passing these on to guest editor Alafair Burke to winnow down to the 20 published here. Both editors are delightfully candid in their selection processes in their forewords, with Ms. Cha especially pushing back against the idea of entertainment, and particularly crime fiction, staying politically neutral.

When it comes to mystery and suspense, I tend to like stories that use crime—actions of transgression and violence that both occur under and create extreme circumstances—to highlight character as well as social and, yes, political realities. I understand that some people prefer to keep their reading segregated from politics, but storytelling is inherently political, even when fiction is methodically scrubbed of real-world context. Crime reveals the cracks in our characters, our relationships, our communities, our countries, and it is this quality that drew me to the genre in the first place.

As such, the stories in this book almost all reflect the realities of life in the 21st century, even when they’re set further in the past. Escapism is well and good, but in years like the ones we’ve just gone through as a nation, it seems irresponsible to ignore what’s going on in our communities, particularly in a collection tied so specifically to a place and time. So yes, there’s a story about a man driven to desperation by the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost of healthcare, Gabino Iglesias’s deeply empathetic “Everything Is Going to be Okay.” And there are stories that grapple with racism and homophobia and poverty both in the present and the past, from Christopher Bollen’s unexpected subversion of a classic in “SWAJ” to Faye Snowden’s grim depiction of our ongoing national shame in “One Bullet, One Vote.”

The stories set in the modern day are almost all marked by the pervasiveness of social media, from the dark horror of Joanna Pearson’s “Mr. Forble” to the almost wistful musings of Lisa Unger’s narrator in “Let Her Be.” Following recent trends in popular crime fiction—especially with the burgeoning psychological thriller genre—many of these stories feature unreliable narrators caught up in criminal circumstances. There are no cop heroes and only one private investigator protagonist, found in Delia C. Pitt’s excellent “The Killer.” There are no traditional whodunnits here either, where a sleuth collects clues in order to solve the question of who killed Mr. Body. Instead, the mysteries come in the form of how and why a crime is committed—and often who will be its unfortunate victim. In that sense, all these stories deconstruct the traditional mystery, eschewing simple tales of good and evil to explore the paths that lead to crime. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in E. Gabriel Flores’s “Mala Suerte,” where a hapless killer wonders whether she’s only the latest member of her family to manifest a curse of bad luck.

When you are a murderer on the run, accompanied by an accessory after the fact, you might as well discuss what brought you to this sorry pass. Better than worrying about what might happen next, bad luck-wise. The dead body in the trunk—a pale form loosely wrapped in an old green sleeping bag like an enormous California roll—could serve as Bad Luck Exhibit A. Did mala suerte lurk in a person’s DNA like a genetic disease, dormant until life circumstances triggered a flare-up?

While fans of more classical mystery setups may feel disappointed at not finding much of that here, there is still a lot to be enjoyed in this wholly absorbing collection. The book leans heavily on the suspense angle to provide an accurate depiction not only of the current state of crime fiction but also the state of the nation, as illuminated by one of its most vital entertainment genres. More so than in any other sort of fiction, crime is the most representative of a people’s fears and anxieties. The Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021 is thus a pitch-perfect snapshot of our current zeitgeist, eschewing escapism for realism but never abandoning its primary purpose: to entertain. That might not be to everyone’s taste now, but posterity will be kind to this thoughtful, deliberate effort to represent the truth of our interesting times.

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