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Original Voices

George Pelecanos' Version of The Annual Mystery Omnibus Takes a Turn Toward The Thoughtful

By Jeffrey Anderson | Posted 2/18/2009

The word "mystery," as applied to fiction books, often conjures visions of guys in trench coats rooting through seedy alleys, or whodunit scenarios involving wealthy industrialists with sultry mistresses, or even modern-day detectives solving grisly urban crimes involving drugs and gangsters. But novelist, producer, and screenwriter George Pelecanos, guest editor of The Best American Mystery Stories of 2008 (Mariner Books), has stretched the genre to include a rich blend of contemporary stories that get under your skin without resorting to traditional crime fiction or genre conventions.

Pelecanos' introduction sort of prepares you for this, but he leaves room for surprise. After being asked by series editor Otto Penzler to guest-edit this edition, Pelecanos--the author of more than a dozen crime novels who nonetheless has branched out in recent years to explore broader social and historical themes in and around Washington, D.C.--combed through hundreds of crime/mystery stories to come up with 50 candidates "deemed to be of the highest quality." From there, he winnowed the group down to 20, based on his own eye for realism and what he promises to be "good, thoughtful writing."

The resulting collection of stories delivers. And with established authors such as Michael Connolly, Alice Munro, James Lee Burke, and Joyce Carol Oates, how could it not? Yet the intro doesn't exactly tip Pelecanos' hand. In fact, he devotes much of it to a discussion of what you would expect from a mystery compilation: the legacy of Raymond Chandler, with a nod to the heritage of other crime fiction juggernauts such as James M. Cain and Ross Macdonald and more contemporary writers such as Elmore Leonard. In doing so, he notes, at least in passing, the old "literary-versus-genre can of worms," but declines to crack it open. Instead, he obliterates academic discussion by stating simply, "It's my opinion that any kind of reading is good for you." Then, so as not to offend mystery or crime traditionalists, he continues: "I simply chose these authors because of their original, unique voices."

The very first story, James Lee Burke's "Mist," which originally appeared in the Southern Review, sucks you into a post-Katrina zone of despair that is thoroughly contemporary and painfully real. A junkie named Lisa has lost her man to the war in Iraq and a child to the hurricane. She is barely staving off addiction and the machinations of her slithery pimp Herman Stanga, who is "full of rebop and snap-crackle-and-pop and knows how to put some boom-boom in your bam-bam." Such descriptions might jar you at first, but this is Louisiana, and Burke's wordplay is sort of noirish, even though the story could hardly be described as mystery. Sure, you wonder what will happen to Lisa when Herman sends her over to a catering gig in Lafayette, and you cringe at the thought of her going back on the pipe or ending up violently raped, but in the end, Lisa's struggle is too engaging, too psychological to end with a cliché.

Chuck Hogan's "One Good One," from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, is about a South Boston loser named Eddie Milk who is figured for a snitch, and this one has a quasi-The Departed feel that puts it squarely in the mystery genre. As is Michael Connolly's "Mulholland Drive," from Los Angeles Noir--say no more. But Peter LaSalle's "Tunis and Time," from the Antioch Review, follows a wistful and washed-up CIA agent to what was once ancient Carthage along with a pair of clueless, hot French girls. By the time the agent is left standing on the edge of an esplanade looking out over the ruins and the Gulf of Tunis pondering his own miserable failures and envisioning Flaubert's celebrated journey to the same spot more than 150 years ago, his mission, and the "mystery" of the fate of the ostensible target of his assignment, are pretty much beside the point.

To an even greater degree Kyle Minor's "A Day Meant to Do Less" explores the imprisoned memory of a speechless, demented old woman who is re-living her Christian upbringing and seemingly banal family life--complicated by a central childhood trauma--as her pastor son prepares to give her a bath. No mystery here, just good, thoughtful writing.

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