Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Reviewing Otto Penzler's Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021

In my first entry to this series, I presented the broader picture of how a culture war is playing out in America as to who gets to tell history and what history is told. I showed how these battles have extended in the past decade to the science fiction writing community. 

In the second entry, I looked at a schism in the mystery-writing field between Otto Penzler, author and editor of the annual Best Mystery Stories series and Steph Cha, author and mystery reviewer for the Los Angeles Book Review

Although the war of words began over the matter of Linda Fairstein, author and former prosecutor involved in the Central Park Five case, it continued on to question the diversity, or lack thereof, of the authors whose works were recognized for the annual mystery anthologies.

Through 2020, Penzler had edited the Best Mystery Stories for 24 years. For 2021, he was replaced by the publishers with Steph Cha. Penzler responded by putting out his own anthology with Lee Child as the guest editor. 

In this post, I will review Penzler's anthology. Being a review, it is the personal opinion of a mystery consumer. In my next post, I will review Cha's anthology.

Penzler's 2021 entry to the best mysteries.

The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021

Twenty mystery stories plus a bonus story by 19th century author Ambrose Bierce. Introduction by guest editor, Lee Child.

The Introduction.

Oy vey.   

I don't want to pick a fight with Lee Child. I've heard he is a genial guy and I know he gives back to the literary community. That said, his introduction to The Best Mystery Stories of the Year: 2021 is cringeworthy.

"I was delighted when Otto Penzler asked me to be involved in this new short-story project. I felt the request implied he thought I had something worthwhile to offer on the subject. I'm always delighted to create that impression. But sadly, on this occasion, an impression is all that it is. I don't know much about short stories, or their true origins, mechanisms, or appeal. My only consolation is I'm not sure anyone else does either."

I ground my teeth when he confessed to not know much about short stories, origins, or mechanisms. I wanted to scream when he said he didn't know much about their appeal. Really? Your every reader knows their appeal. That's why we bought the book. And then Child goes on to insult everyone else by suggesting we share his ignorance.

Sigh. Okay, so he's assuming some sort of humbly-grovelly, self-deprecating voice. I kicked myself so now you don't have to. No. Not good. I want confidence in my editor. If you don't know much about short stories, keep it to yourself. Or maybe you shouldn't be here. At least tell me you know their appeal and appreciate them.

His second paragraph:  

"What is a short story? Clearly there's a clue in the name. A short story is a story that's short. A story is an account of events -- in this context almost certainly made up -- and the adjective short acts to separate the form from other types of accounts that customarily tend to be longer."

Now we're in Bart Simpson book report territory. Perhaps he is leaning on some post-modern irony here: all we can say is about a short story is that it is a story and short. It comes across as putting no effort to his writing. Why is he slapping us in the face?

After a time he goes into a painful-brainful description of how the short story must have developed from the mind of early man. This event, he says, must have taken place sometime after man developed the non-fiction narrative. Non-fiction came first for practical reasons, like describing how to hunt. He treats this matter as though language developed instantaneously and a choice between non-fiction and fiction was made. He says that because no verbal (or written record) is available, we don't know what went on. Of course we do know some things. We have painted images of hunts, that is, stories. (Were they fiction or non-fiction?) We have records of early man's tools and their practicality. We have unpractical depictions of night skies and early idols. The presence of idols equals stories equals fiction.

Child makes the observation: "Scientific advances in the field of human origins have been spectacular, but scientists don't like to speculate."

I am a scientist and I can tell you: scientists love to speculate. When it comes to speculation, you can't get them to shut up.

This is my speculation: by the time humans could linguistically tie together a non-fiction story, they could tie together a fiction story. If I had to pick between the two, I would guess fiction came first. What is that round ball of flame in the sky? (The answer at the time was not non-fiction) Let me tell you a tale of my father who punched buffaloes: Ogg Reacher.

As for their practicality, you can teach a lesson in fiction as well as you can teach a lesson in non-fiction. History tells us people employed fictional explanations of real world phenomena long before we had non-fictional explanations.

As I have put forth already: I was disappointed by Child's introduction. He could have talked with archaeologists. He could have spoken with those who know about the progression of the short story. Even without delving into its literary definition, short stories are much more than stories that are short.

Child recognizes the underwhelming aspect of his introduction:

"I bet they [many of the authors who appear in the anthology] think this foreword is crazy. I bet they don't agree with a word of it. . . . I bet they're going to quote from my first paragraph, right back at me: I don't know much about short stories, or their true origins, mechanisms, or appeal." Well, I did quote it back at him.

Child is a great entertainer. Entertainment, done well, enriches our lives. He is a par excellent storyteller who has thrilled millions. I don't hold a candle to that. I don't want to be the author who makes enemies, but I feel he snubbed the short story. The glibness of his introduction, even with its wincing self-deprecation, came across as a slight to a great art form.

The Stories

As I mentioned in the last post, the 21 authors in Penzler's anthology were white. They averaged 67 years old.

The stories in Otto Penzler/Lee Child collection are written for the most part by authors who have earned ridiculously long credits. How can you turn down Steven King, Joyce Carol Oates, Sarah Paretsky, or the final short story by Sue Grafton? Even many of the selected authors who are not household* names have been highly prolific with hundreds of stories to their credit. 

*The thriller writer Geoffrey Household was not part of this anthology.

The stories are, as they have been in past anthologies, presented in alphabetical order by the authors' surnames. I don't understand this. If I was presenting a series of stories, I would choreograph their order. I often see this in authors presenting their own collections. A grand flourish at the beginning. An intriguing impossible leap for the second story. A thoughtful third piece followed by a joyous high-kicking chorus, and so on. That jolting novella at the end.

Nevertheless, alphabetical is the tradition, so Doug Allyn is first with 30 and Out. Unfortunately, this was one of my least favorite of the anthology. It is the story of a police officer who has eight days to retirement and yet involves himself in a big case. And, spoiler alert—and it deserves to be spoiled—he is murdered. He is killed by a ridiculously long sniper shot to the neck, estimated on the scene to be 700 to 800 meters. The rest of the story is spent trying to redeem these clichés.

Jim Allyn, brother of Doug, has the next story, Things That Follow. I enjoyed this much more. It set up a by-the-books straight-line police narrative and then tied in knots.

Michael Bracken has had 1300 stories published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I already hate him. He left no room for me! His story, Blest Be the Ties that Bind, was well-told, however I found the theme that a holy man of God sometimes has to involve himself in multiple murders to be depressing.

James Lee Burke cannot write badly. Okay, I've only read about twelve of his novels and a half-dozen short stories, so I am not a complete authority. His entry, Harbor Lights, doesn't disappoint. His stories are worth it for the atmosphere alone. And the characters. And the action.

Martin Edwards, who authored a definitive non-fiction book about the golden age of mysteries, provides a superb piece of golden-age-style fiction, The Locked Cabin. I'm a sucker for a murder aboard an old-timey passenger liner (or aboard a train, for that matter).

John Floyd, Biloxi Bound. A mob assassin has moved into town. Enjoyable, atmospheric.

After six male authors in a row, we get three female authors. All right, alphabetical, the vagaries of chance. 

Jacqueline Freimor, That Which Is True. A fine story of a jury held hostage with the lead character getting beyond her history with a bully. 

Alison Gaylin's The Gift fell flat. A child goes missing in the glamorous world of celebrities. The razzle didn't dazzle me. I enjoyed the character of the psychic.

Up above, I asked how can you turn down Steven King, Joyce Carol Oates, Sarah Paretsky, or the final short story by Sue Grafton. This is part of the problem: this anthology leans hard on the big names. Some of them disappoint. Sue Grafton's final short story, If You Want Something Done Right . . ., was not among her best work.

Paul Kemprecos, The Sixth Decoy. A strong story using classic tropes, a P.I. on the run from his previous life, an eccentric millionaire, and valuable art.

Stephen King, The Fifth Step. This story didn't work for me, covering too familiar territory for King and leaning too hard on its twist. In contrast, right now, I am reading King's If It Bleeds and it is marvelous.

Janice Law, The Client. Well-done. A lawyer learns the truth about her sweet old client. Has an Alfred Hitchcock Presents feel to it. (That's a good thing.)

Dennis McFadden, The Truth About Lucy. An old crime haunts a town. A well-told tale.

David Marcum, The Adventure of the Home Office Baby. I love a good Sherlock Holmes' pastiche. This is a good pastiche and I do love it, but, among Sherlock pieces this past year, I thought The Twenty-Five Year Engagement by James Ziskin was more deserving of anthology.

Tom Mead, Heatwave. In 50s LA, a PI seeks a missing 17 year old. Also seeking the kid are two hitmen. Well-told, steeped in noir. One of my favorites of this anthology.

David Morrell, Requiem for a Homecoming. During homecoming, friends recall an old murder from the year of their graduation. I don't know why, but I didn't get involved in this one. With apologies to the author, (taste is arbitrary), I had to read it a second time to remember it for this review.

Parole Hearing, California Institution for Women, Chino, CA. Joyce Carol Oates is a great author, I've loved many of her stories, including her mysteries. This one didn't work for me. I suspect this is a story that will work for some people, a love-it or hate-it piece. I felt like it jack-knifed between clichés and gushes of invective and emotion with little for me to hang on to.

Sarah Paretsky, Love & Other Crimes. This story was my favorite of the anthology, and may be my favorite from Paretsky. The story-telling is masterful and I loved the accumulation of the clues in small details. 

Joseph S. Walker, Etta at the End of the World. This was the only story in the group that I had previously read. I'm a 50 book-a-year reader, not one who is as omnivorous as my book-crazed friends. Maybe that's why I read year's best anthologies, to catch up on what I missed. This story was nominated for the Edgar award this year and deserved the recognition. Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine offers an audio presentation of the story as part of their podcast, read by the author.

Andrew Welsh-Huggins, The Path I Took. Wonderful, atmospheric tale of a small town in Ireland. Welsh-Huggins knows how to immerse the reader in a place and time. 

Bonus Story: Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce, My Favorite Murder. I don't agree with the rationale to include a 110-year-old story at the end of the collection. Better to add one from the honorable mentions. 

In its own way, the inclusion of Bierce makes a fine commentary on the topic of the old and the new. I enjoy Bierce: a mystery writer who became a mystery. I consider the time he disappeared in late 1913 as being the dividing line between early period and modern short stories. Many of the great 19th century/early 20th century short story writers had died in the past ten years including Twain, O. Henry, Chekhov, Jules Verne, Leo Tolstoy, and Kate Chopin. In 1914, James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence would publish their first story collections, ushering in a new age of short fiction. In 1915, they would be joined by Franz Kafka. 

Bierce also provides a final commentary on men and women. He was the author of the intentionally subversive, The Devil's Dictionary. Under the definition of woman he writes: "The woman is lithe and graceful in its movement, especially the American variety (felis pugnans*), is omnivorous and can be taught not to talk." Under "man" we find Bierce is also critical and demeaning, but for his definition "man" is humankind. By Bierce's standards: Women are something bad, but men are everything. 

*Latin for fighting felines.

In summary, the Penzler/Child anthology provided me with a heaping helping of classic mystery stories. As do most mystery readers, I love classic stories when they are well-told: they are one of the reasons I entered the mystery field. Some of these stories are very well-told, others have the feel of entries by authors who have passed their peak. 

I understand Penzler's sentiments. I remember in the eighties when I saw Liberace on Johnny Carson's Late Show. He played the piano somewhat poorly and I winced, wondering why he was there. Liberace died in the days after from AIDS. Carson was giving a legend a goodbye. With Penzler's choices, he seems to be providing the same sort of honor.

That said, I was disappointed by the general lack of variety in stories and was shocked at the complete absence of minority writers (or should I have been?). With few exceptions, these stories fulfilled Cha's criticism of white male protagonists, tough cops, tough PIs, or good guys who resort to murder. To Joyce Carol Oates's credit, her piece took chances and fit none of these tropes.

In my next post, the final of this series, I look at Steph Cha's anthology of the year's best mystery stories.

The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021

Otto Penzler, Lee Child, guest editor. 


Doug Allyn, 30 and Out

Jim Allyn, Things That Follow

Michael Bracken, Blest Be the Ties that Bind

James Lee Burke, Harbor Lights

Martin Edwards, The Locked Cabin

John Floyd, Biloxi Bound

Jacqueline Freimor, That Which Is True

Alison Gaylin, The Gift

Sue Grafton, If You Want Something Done Right . . .

Paul Kemprecos, The Sixth Decoy

Stephen King, The Fifth Step

Janice Law, The Client

Dennis McFadden, The Truth About Lucy

David Marcum, The Adventure of the Home Office Baby

Tom Meade, Heatwave

David Morrell, Requiem for a Homecoming

Joyce Carol Oates, Parole Hearing, California Institution for Women, Chino, CA

Sarah Paretsky, Love & Other Crimes

Joseph S. Walker, Etta at the End of the World

Andrew Welsh-Huggins, The Path I Took

Bonus Story: Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce, My Favorite Murder


I have several short stories coming out soon, including ones in Mystery Magazine and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. A science fiction story has been accepted in El Porvenir ¡Ya! Chicano Scifi Anthology. It has a Kickstarter page now, a new experience for me. My late mother, a Chicano activist, would be proud.

Martin Hill Ortiz is a Professor of Pharmacology at Ponce Health Sciences University and has researched HIV for over thirty years. He is the author of four novels and numerous short stories and poems.


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