Reviewer:  Paul Burke

Pubisher:  Mariner Books, xx

ISBN 978-0358525691   PB

This is among the crème de la crème of crime short story collections for 2021. Steph Cha, the new editor of the Best American Series, replacing the legendary Otto Penzler, has teamed up with guest editor Alafair Burke for this anthology of American short fiction. The twenty offerings were chosen from top magazine publications across the US. Burke leaned on Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for short stories as her criteria for selection. See the introduction for the full list, but it includes: Every sentence must advance the action or delineate character and, one I like a lot, start as close to the end as possible. Cha’s preference was for stories about people on the edge, each story a test of character but each also has something to say about the social and political reality of modern America. Consequently these are short, short stories, bar the last tale by Lisa Unger, a complex portrait of a young writer deluding himself about his relationships with women, unable to distinguish reality from social media with terrible consequences. It’s a tense psychological gripper. These are tales of murder and peril that address social ills, racism, misogyny, vulnerability and domestic violence, but entertainment is always to the fore. This is a collection of powerful contemporary tales.

We start with a story that deals with the pernicious influence of racist rhetoric on daily lives leading to tragedy. Drawing on her own experience of migration of the States Return to India by Jenny Bhatt addresses Trump’s America and the licence he gave to the expression of hate and othering. When Dan is murdered in a bar a policeman talks to the witnesses, the various testimonies describe events Rashomon style. Each person betrays a telling detail about their relationship to Dan, whose real name is Dhanesh Patel. Neighbors by Nikki Dolson reflects on marriage breakdown through the lives of two women. They are from similar backgrounds but have followed very different paths. One is law abiding, living the good life, the other a grifter, con artist. Both women want to protect their world and so when they cross paths it gets ugly. This is a thought provoking study in perspective, ambition and desire. Alison Gaylin’s Where I Belong is a strangely redemptive tale of a young man angry at the world and not fully aware of reasons for his quick temper. He is lured into a terrible crime by someone who realises how vulnerable he is. It’s a poignant but hopeful tale. Ravi Howard points up the absurdity of the rules that accompany an execution, the fascination with ceremony, in The Good Thief. The chef for the condemned man’s last meal stages a rebellion against the system. A thoughtful dig at capital punishment. Menace slowly creeps up on us in Potato Salad Days by Preston Lang, it all starts when Dan explains to a customer that the potato sandwich special is no longer on the menu, that doesn’t go down well. Among the best here has to The Killer, the reference to Hemingway’s The Killers is clear, particularly as this is set in a diner. This is Delia C Potts take on a ruthless assassin hunting down his prey, in this case a family on the run. It becomes very tense as the peril mounts. These are the best of the batch, one or two are less successful in capturing a moment or an emotion. All are, however, accomplished, taut and fresh. It’s clear Burke and Cha had a vision for the stories they wanted and their cherry picking works well.

On the whole this is a collection of well written stories that do have something to say. They are innovative and thought provoking as well as being intriguing and exciting. The factor that bring these stories together despite the different styles and backgrounds of the authors is that glimpse of society at its crumbling edges. This is not an easy read though, most of the stories demand your full attention and can be opaque. Very few opt for a simple tale with a twist. It’s more that the meaning in the story that the end reveals than the name of the killer/perp. If you want standard mystery fare this may not be for you. There are a couple of big names here, such as Laura Lippman, most are well known in the States and have substantial reputations on that side of the pond but may be less well known to UK readers. This is an ideal opportunity to familiarise yourself with some fine writers. That spirit of the noir in the American crime story is alive and well and this collection is truly relevant.