From an isolated Wyoming ranch to the Detroit boxing underworld, and from kidnapping and adultery in the Hollywood Hills to a serial killer loose in a nursing home, The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, edited by John Sandford, hosts an entertaining abundance of crime, psychological suspense, and bad intentions.
I wouldn’t envy Otto Penzler’s task in compiling these “Best Of” anthologies. Not these days, anyway. In what once may have been a more manageable feat, the flourishing of webzines over the past decade means there must be thousands of stories published in any given year that are arguably in the “Best” category. Whittling down to a tight, chosen few (20 for 2017) might feel like an exercise in futility. Just the same, long-time series editor—and legend—Penzler has done an exceptional job over the last quarter of a century, give or take, in assembling collections of the best short stories that have crossed his desk.
When his latest crossed my own, I hastily leafed through the contents and set it aside. Mistake! A few weeks later, I picked it back up, wondering, holy hell how did I miss Peter Straub’s name! Flipping immediately to the 19th story, I was hypnotized by main character Tillman Hayward, who can smell words. His “ability” seems quirky—in a disturbing way—as he explains while holding a discarded children’s balloon underwater, “pierce their hides with your knife,” and in the bubbles that escape, he can hear sounds of the tyke’s party along with the smells. Beyond the smells of balloon air bubbles, he rattles off another jarring disclosure, quirky giving way to psycho unhinged as he begins following a woman that has caught his fancy.
Blood is particularly given to the formation of bubbles. Those with the stomach to lean over bubbles of blood and inhale their messages will find that they have in the process acquired a complex detailed subtle record of the life from which the blood emerged. It is one of the most delicate and moving instances of information transmission that I can imagine. It is certainly one of the most beautiful experiences that I have ever known—the catching of the deep, particular inflections within the bubbles of blood that issue from the human throat.
I would dissect this specimen under a brighter light, but it would reveal too many spoilers, ruining your own discovery. Don’t let Straub’s “The Process Is a Process All Its Own” pass you by.
Leafing back a few stories, I found a tale in Craig Johnson's Walter Longmire series called “Land of the Blind.” It is December 24th, and the lawman is hoping for a quiet holiday. But that wish is short lived when Jess “Double Tough” Aliff informs him of a hostage situation:
“Christmas Eve service at the church had just begun when they had this kid come in, twenties, wearin’ nuthin’ but a pair of tighty-whities with a nine-millimeter tucked in the waistband. He grabs this poor woman from the front row and drags her up on the altar and says he’s going to shoot her for all our sins. I guess the preacher tried to step in and got a round through his hand for his trouble.”
I rested a palm on the red leather volume that I had set on the center console. “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead…”
He nodded toward the copy of A Christmas Carol. “You still reading that book every Christmas?”
In a time when mass shootings are occurring in the US with devastating outcomes in just about any imaginable place, this fictional story almost hits a little too close to the nerve. But in Mr. Johnson’s nimble hands, he takes a sad song and makes it better. And though its ending may be a bit offbeat and far from realistic, sometimes a little hope is just what’s needed—especially after the recent events in Texas, Las Vegas, and California.
Filled with stories delivering taut suspense, even if a tad light on the mystery, Doug Allyn, Jeffery Deaver, Loren D. Estleman, and Wallace Stroby are among those to check out. And while other names seem to appear because, in fact, they have name recognition, the scales still balance in the compilation’s favor. “Best Of” collections don’t often ignite my interest as much as they used to, but The Best American Mystery Stories 2017 is a fine collection for your shelf.
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David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.