Monday, September 16, 2013

Otto's All-Nite All-Rite Krime-O-Rama

Otto Penzler (editor), Kwik Krimes

Please forgive this anthology’s silly name. Despite its resemblance to a doughnut franchise, Otto Penzler, long-term friend of mystery authors everywhere, has compiled a spirited collection of over eighty crime and mystery stories, running under 1000 words—five pages tops. This creates a selection of authors’ views on what mystery fiction looks like when stripped of the ornaments that have accrued to the genre.

Penzler, founder of the Mysterious Press and Manhattan’s legendary Mysterious Bookshop, has probably advanced his genre more than any non-author in the last fifty years. His work as editor guided authors like James Ellroy and Marcia Muller to stardom, gained American renown for international authors like PD James and Ruth Rendell, and edited collections that gave many young authors needed attention. This collection continues Penzler’s tradition.

1000 words seems remarkably short by current standards, since we’ve grown accustomed to novel-length virtuosity. But Poe’s Dupin stories, which essentially invented the detective genre, ran barely longer than this, as did many of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories. Like Poe and Conan Doyle, these authors reduce their styles to their most fundamental elements. The wildly different results highlight the diverse elements contributing to modern mystery fiction.

Some emphasize character. Christopher Fowler’s “The Girl Who Loved French Films” explores how somebody can deceive herself into becoming a con artist’s perfect pigeon. Patricia Abbot’s “Lambs of God” demonstrates how much violence one person can endure before becoming the monster he formerly fled. “Nothing Left to Lose,” Dana C. Kabel’s narrative of a particularly gruesome card game, demonstrates what broken souls can buy with pain.

Other stories highlight plot. Bruce DeSilva’s “A Foolproof Plan” mocks the sentiment inherent in its own title. Carolina Garcia-Aguilera’s “Halloween” describes the intersection between public justice and private investigation, and what compromises each must make when they collide. Jon Land’s “The Tenth Notch” depicts two men trained to kill ruthlessly, trapped together in a situation of utter hopelessness. These stories care less about “who” than “how.”

The authors define their stories by what they include, but also what they exclude. Some eschew dialog or exposition, dropping us into action-heavy stories already in progress. Some are all set-up, ending with the narrative still in motion; others are all resolution, creating a world that ends without necessarily beginning. Many of the best stories forgo moral framework, reveling in ambiguity and challenging our desire for heroes or villains.

Penzler invites many novelists I’ve previously reviewed, letting long-time readers rediscover beloved authors anew. Lindsay Faye, who writes historical mysteries, here attempts a gritty urban noir. Tyler Dilts, author of the Danny Beckett procedurals, here drills down on one aspect of police technique, unpacking the psychological impact in one moment of honesty. And Andrew Klavan, often guilty of overwriting, reveals a remarkable storyteller when forced to remain austere.

This collection partly returns mystery to its roots. Not only Poe and Conan Doyle, but also Wilkie Collins, Agatha Christie, and other (predominantly British) mystery founders dealt in very concise, unornamented stories that named a problem, challenged readers to outthink the hero, and ended with some twist or flourish that upset everyone’s expectations. Though Collins and others wrote many classic novels, they lacked today’s accumulated mystery conventions.

Innovators like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett supplemented this cerebral foundation with highly demonstrative characters, complex and often lengthy procedures, and resolutions that often created more problems than they solved. While these authors crafted classic mysteries that remain readable, they also initiated an avalanche they couldn’t stop. Mysteries today obey so many conventions that new readers often find them cluttered and impenetrable.

Penzler does mystery a great service by forcing novelists, including many best-sellers, to choose one convention and unpack it with brutal efficiency. Nobody could mistake these stories for mindless returns to Golden Age detective classics. Rather, Penzler forces modern authors to re-envision contemporary mystery with Poe-like austerity. Hopefully, this starts a new trend.

Not every story succeeds. Penzler’s authors sometimes encounter the problem with modern short stories, that novelists aren’t skilled today in writing short. Some stories read like outlines; their authors haven’t so much reduced their prose to its smallest form, as simply elided anything necessary for their sweeping stories to make sense. Thankfully, though these stories exist, they remain an unobtrusive minority.

Thousand-word stories will certainly remain rare, brief excursions between the novels which will remain mystery staples. Yet hopefully, authors will repeat the feats these spartan nuggets prove possible. These short, economical gut-punches remind readers why they first fell in love with mystery.

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