Top critical review
Not Bad, but Nowhere Close to a Good-Faith Assemblage of 2021's Best
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on March 27, 2022
It’s hard to critically assess the stories in THE MYSTERIOUS BOOKSHOP PRESENTS THE BEST MYSTERY STORIES OF THE YEAR: 2021 without putting the collection as a whole in context.
This is the first edition in the series, which came into being when Otto Penzler, the owner of Mysterious Bookshop and publisher of Mysterious Press, was removed from the editor’s post of THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES series that he had held for more than twenty years. (The series was rebranded THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY AND SUSPENSE under a new editor, author Steph Cha, with a stated mandate to reflect more diversity in the crime-fiction community by ethnicity, age, gender, form and source material than had been seen in Penzler’s latest editions of the anthology. I think that’s fair to say.)
Penzler responded by creating this rival anthology, and doubling down on many of the traditional iterations of the short mystery story that he appears to favor. Or so it would seem from his story selections, which include a Sherlock Holmes pastiche; a tough-guy private eye from 1950s Los Angeles; a Golden Age gasser; a locked-room mystery; and a story from 1888.
So it would also seem from the author selections as well. There’s an objective basis as well as a subjective one for this assessment. The anthology skews elderly and white to a degree that, I think it’s safe to say even though I don’t have the numbers, is not reflected in the diversity of crime fiction published in 2021. All twenty of the authors whose work is published here are white; and nearly three-quarters of them are male. I couldn’t find ages for all the authors, but more than half are in their seventies or eighties. It also seems fair to say that this is by design, and what that says about the intent of Penzler and his guest editor Lee Child (author of a nearly incoherent and barely relevant introductory essay here) is best decided by you.
It’s also worth noting that Penzler & Co. appear to have called in favors and markers far and wide to assemble the highest-profile lineup possible, in the reasonable hope that star power would drive strong sales of this anthology. Many of the stars in this lineup were bigger stars thirty or forty years ago, but it can’t be denied that any lineup with Stephen King, James Lee Burke, David Morrell, Sara Paretsky and Joyce Carol Oates is one with a lot of attractive neon wattage. And, it must be said, the stars mostly shine here.
What’s harder for me to accept is that anyone could have read THE MYSTERIOUS BOOKSHOP PRESENTS THE BEST MYSTERY STORIES OF THE YEAR and concluded that its contents constitute a good-faith effort to find and fairly assess the actual best short mystery fiction published in 2021.
Opinions will vary, of course, and of course I probably read only a fraction of the tales and anthologies published over that year. (I’d conservatively say I read about fifteen anthologies and maybe four hundred total stories, including flash fiction, published in 2021.) But I can say that I read a lot of stories from 2021 that made me sit up and say “HOLY SH*T!” and that only one of them appeared in this anthology. Whether that’s a lapse on the submissions end or complacency on the curation end, I cannot say.
In my opinion, this collection consists mostly of merely competent stories, with some tickling me more than others, alongside a handful of flighty tossoffs and final-page fizzles. No outright clunkers in the bunch, I’ll hasten to add.
The best of the bunch, as I see it are:
“Parole Hearing,” by Joyce Carol Oates. (This is my “HOLY SH*T!” story.) As masterful in form as well as function, the story is written from the voice of one of the Manson Girls (Leslie Van Houten) as she asks to be paroled for her 1969 crimes. It’s incredibly chilling to see her slowly drift from humble penitent to … well, I won’t spoil it. It’s one of those “Damn, I wish I’d thought out that!” stories, which is a thought I often have when reading Oates’ work.
“Requiem for a Homecoming,” by David Morrell. A nice sneaky buildup as two old college friends reconnect on campus after twenty years apart, and reminisce about a campus murder. The more they chat, the more it becomes clear that one of the two has, at the very least, guilty knowledge of the crime. I had no idea how this one would end, and when it came, I found it satisfying.
“Harbor Lights,” by James Lee Burke. Plot matters in Burke’s work, but what readers love most is his unique voice and the spicy seasoning of his settings. This father-and-son tale of manliness and murder is set in 1942 Louisiana, amid much prejudice and paranoia, and is endlessly quotable. A favorite: “The rain had quit and the electric lights on the bridge had gone on, and a tugboat was working its way up the bayou. Through a break in the clouds I could see a trail of stars that was like crushed ice winding into eternity. I wanted to believe I was looking at Heaven and that no force on earth could harm my father and me.”
“If You Want Something Done Right….” By Sue Grafton. The creator of Kinsey Millhone, the iconic ‘80s private eye of twenty-five novels, Grafton was not known to produce much short fiction. It might have been supposed that after Grafton’s 2017 death, the world might not see anything new from her. But this one turned up, and it’s an on-the-money honey and a hoot to boot. A woman decides to bump off her husband, and everything goes comically awry along the way, including her choice of hitman. How confident would you feel entrusting a job to someone who says: “So what I hear you saying is that you and him are engaged in a parcenary relationship of which you’d like to see his participation shifted to the terminus.” And the ending is a happily nasty surprise.
As far as the other A-listers go, I give them both a B-minus. Stephen King’s “The Fifth Step” has a great setup — a stranger approaches a man on a bench in New York’s Washington Square Park to fulfill one of his Alcoholics Anonymous steps. King does a great job of making wonder where it could possibly be going, but the destination is Groansville.
Sara Paretsky’s “Love And Other Crimes” is a V.I. Warshawski tale that, like the Warshawski novels, is best enjoyed for its South Chicago settings and not its overcomplicated plot. Love or hate one another, Southsiders are united in a defiant tribalism against all outsiders, and the flavor of the old neighborhood is pungent here: “Don’t try spinning me a line, Donny. I’ve been watching you cheat at marbles since we were six.”
My pick from among the non-stars was Joseph S. Walker’s “Etta at the End of the World,” in which one seen-it-all woman tries to help a girl who’s essentially her younger self out of a jam at a Florida beachfront motel.
The others had flat stretches, overly schematic structures, punchless finales, and obnoxiously toxic masculinity, among other defects. (Could anything be less 2021 than a “man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” story?) None is an outright dud, but I can honestly say that if I were trying to pick the very best short crime fiction of 2021, none of these would make my second cut. Even for an audience of Caucasian Ye Oldes.