Saturday, October 21, 2017

Story Collections to Savor, John Sandford, Soho Crime, D. P. Lyle

There's something about the on-rushing holiday season that makes a good collection of short stories especially welcome -- a way to grab some entertainment in a small pocket of time, a chance to savor the compact and intense writing of an already favorite author or sample an unfamiliar one, and at its best, a way to place the heavy demands of the American end-of-year culture back into perspective.

So I'm delighted to have three interesting collections to describe. I hope you'll take advantage of the season and dip in.

First -- because the editor is among the top crime fiction authors of our time, and because his introduction is so significant -- consider THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2017, edited by the inimitable John Sandford. Author of some 40 novels, best known for his "Prey" series (it started with Rules of Prey about 1989), Sandford also has a gift few authors can boast: He can write compellingly ABOUT writing. Here, from his introduction, are some guidelines for the ideal short story:
The story must be tight and well written; a novel can take a few fumbles without much damage, but a short story really suffers from them.

The opening must be catchy and quick and set a mood -- the story should be rolling with the first line. No space here for the dark and stormy night. ... [He quotes from a story by C. J. Box.]

Scene-setting should be integral to the story, part of the fabric rather than long blocks of exposition. The scene-setting ideally should contribute to the mood and texture of the story. [This, he illustrates with a PI -- that is, private investigator -- story from Charles John Harper.]

Now, we get to character. The physical description of the characters is critical, and what the reader sees in this physical description should tell us much about the character's personality. There's a reason for that: it creates an immediate image in the reader's mind, so that laborious explication isn't necessary [Fedora, double-breasted suit, smoking Lucky Stroke Green? Or an excerpt from Dan Bevacqua's story of a thin man with an orange beard and a tattoo over each eyebrow.]

And finally: there has to be some resolution. You can't just end a short story; you have to wind it up. 
Sandford's picks for the collection -- drawn from a larger pool provided by Otto Penzler -- also include stories by Jeffrey Deaver, Brendan DuBois, Loren Estleman, Craig Johnson, William Kent Krueger, and Joyce Carol Oates, among others. They are all over the map (and timeline), and they demonstrate the many delicious flavors of suspense, risk, complexity, and satisfaction that a mystery story can best serve up. Yumm.

Should you happen to be frustrated by today's phrases that carefully edge around the religious roots of year-end festivals, here's balm for your wounds: THE USUAL SANTAS, a bluntly Christmas-focused collection from the always inspiring Soho Crime unit of Soho Press, with an introduction by British crime fiction leader Peter Lovesey. Lovesey's intro chants gleefully the wide range of mystery types included here: from cyber criminals to Sherlock Holmes, and from dark noir to tender kindness to deep mysteries of life and death (including a ghost story).

If you're already savoring some of the Soho Crime authors, this collection is like a dessert buffet. Recognize any of these names? Helene Tursten, Mick Herron, Martin Limón, Timothy Hallinan, Teresa Dovalpage, Mette Ivie Harrison, Colin Cotterill, Ed Lin, Stuart Neville, Ted Goldberg, Henry Chang, James R. Benn, Lene Kaaberbøl & Agnete Friis, Sujita Massey, Gary Corby, Cara Black, Stephanie Barron, and of course Lovesey himself ... I was drooling just from the Contents page, mentally rehearsing the locations from Thailand to Chinatown, England and Ireland, Utah, Scandinavia ... and timelines that include Ancient Greece as well as World War II.

I haven't yet reviewed Sujita Massey -- her first Soho Crime book comes out soon though, so I will -- and I was briefly stumped by Teresa Dovalpage, a Cuban writer whose first Soho book wasn't crime fiction. But in 2018 the press brings out her first mystery, featuring the characters introduced here, a great chance to taste the work ahead of time.

Don't expect me to say my favorites; there is still time to re-read the collection in the holiday mode, and I will probably change my mind at least twice more. Every one of these stories is worth multiple readings. I might have to give several copies as gifts!

Last in this group is a collection that's not intended to be mystery/crime fiction, but happens to be edited by -- with a story by -- an expert teacher in the field, D. P. Lyle. The books is called IT'S ALL IN THE STORY -- CALIFORNIA and is an "anthology of short fiction" from the Southern California Writers Association. The level of work is uneven, but it's interesting to see the wide range of approaches among this gathering of Golden State scribblers. It's not a pick for crime fiction readers (unless you are a "completist" in terms of Lyle). But if you have a Golden State itch, this will provide a good scratch, with appearances by William Randolph Hearst and by San Francisco's Russian immigrants, as well as mention of San Jan Capistrano. And of course the gold rush!

Wishing you many moments to read in the upcoming months. It will surely add some spice -- and suspense! -- to the season's special treats.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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