December 2005

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

The Hits Just Keep On Coming

The worst part about having this raging mutant death cold is that I just can’t seem to concentrate. I tried television but found that five or six reruns of Frasier in the middle of the afternoon has roughly the same effect as lots of Nyquil, as did an aborted viewing of Stealth, which in my condition wasn’t dissimilar to watching someone else play a video game. Badly.

Someone kindly lent me The Tender Bar, but it only made me feel sorry that I wasn’t up to going down the pub myself. I even tried a book on CD but made the dreadful error of putting in Sarah Vowell’s oddly contemplative Assassination Vacation. Unfortunately, Vowell gives us the voice of the little sister in The Incredibles and, running a fever as I am, the effect isn’t dissimilar to dropping a couple of tabs of something slightly but not robustly hallucinogenic and having someone else’s gothy sister read to you from her creepy diary. In short, the experience is not unpleasant, just mildly unnerving.

So in my abbreviated mental state, I’ve decided I better stick to short subjects this month. Luckily, I’ve gotten a couple of anthologies of crime fiction that fit the bill to a T.

The far weightiest tome to arrive has been A New Omnibus of Crime, a collection of short fiction so imminently rewarding that I would have no qualms at all about putting it in the time capsule next to the collected works of John D. MacDonald, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, and Bill Hicks’s Arizona Bay. Even better than relying on it as an artifact of our own time, it carries even more weight by running the gamut of the crime story from its very beginnings with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, both of whom are represented here, all the way up living legends like Elmore Leonard.

For those who don’t know the dark tale, A New Omnibus of Crime is walking in very big footsteps. In 1928, Dorothy L. Sayers edited together a collection of short fiction, The Omnibus of Crime, from authors ranging from Robert Louis Stevenson up to more modern writers in the first two decades of the century, divided into a section on “Detection & Mystery,” and another, “Mystery & Horror.” Her offbeat selections are impressive, considering that for many of the authors selected, Sayers didn’t have the advantage of hindsight. The original collection includes stories by Aldous Huxley, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, and G.K. Chesterton.

The postmodern New Omnibus aspires to pick up where Sayers left off, and editors Tony Hillerman and Rosemary Herbert, with some pick-up help from Sue Grafton and Jeffrey Deaver, succeed admirably. As I’ve noted above, the editors pay their respects to their elders with the early stories including Sayers’s “The Man Who Knew How,” Hammett’s “The Girl with the Silver Eyes,” and Chandler’s “Red Wind.” There’s also a nice selection from the vastly underappreciated Patricia Highsmith, who created a fundamental serial killer in Tom Ripley, in “Woodrow Wilson’s Necktie,” another contemplation of an unconventional character.

The modern choices are by no means definitive but the heavy hitters of our own age are well represented here. Dennis Lehane, who has evolved far beyond his early private eye novels starring Pat Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, contributes a colorful southern tale in “Running Out of Dog.” Ian Rankin’s piece is deceptively short but taut, delving into a creepy European caravan carnival in “The Hanged Man.” For the cozy sort, there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s story set in Swaziland, a sort of locked-room mystery in which the landlocked country sets the barrier, and a Horace Rumpole piece by John Mortimer.

I’m not sure that editing the collection rates Hillerman two stories but one of them is the plotless experiment “First Lead Gasser,” followed up by a more typical story starring his Navajo Tribal Policeman Jim Chee, so that’s all right. Sara Paretsky sticks with her series character V.I. Warshawski in “Photo Finish,” reflecting on the paparazzi-tainted life and death of Princess Diana, and Sue Grafton keeps plying us with Kinsey Millhone in “A Poison That Leaves No Trace.” And that’s all right, too. They all reflect one of the key elements that Sayers missed and Hillerman points out in his introduction.

“What she didn’t anticipate was the ingenuity future crime writers would apply to characterization,” Hillerman writes. “In her day, characters were subservient to the plot. And now character is king.”

It’s sort of refreshing that the editors haven’t simply picked the most popular series characters to populate the book with, though. The late Ed McBain, who is already richly missed, gives us a nasty little look at couplehood in “Barking at Butterflies” that could sing right along with Tom Waits’ “Frank’s Wild Year” -- never could stand that dog. Jeff Deaver does his procedural thing with “Copycat,” but gives it a nice Stephen King twist on writers’ block. Even Donald Westlake leaves Parker and Dortmunder behind with a brief glimpse behind the curtain in Las Vegas. It’s a fine collection, beautifully printed by Oxford University Press, and the strength of its selections make it worth its somewhat equally weighty price.

If you’re looking for something quicker and dirtier, you can do far worse than Greatest Hits, an outstanding anthology of stories about hired killers. These aren’t the bumbling amateurs of the paperback rack or the slightly twisted homebodies of the Omnibus. These are assassins, mechanics, button men and hit men with little remorse and even fewer missteps to get hung up on. We are, after all, professionals.

Greatest Hits carries its own weight in the name of its editor, Robert Randisi, the popular writer-editor responsible for a majority of the best anthologies out there and creator of the Shamus Award. Randisi has hand-picked a marvelous selection of stories out of a subgenre that not too many authors delve into.

Naturally, Lawrence Block is ahead of the game. Block managed to blend the weary cynicism of Matthew Scudder with the absurd humor of his Burglar novels in two distinctive collections of short stories, Hit Man and Hit List, that revolve around an old pro named Keller. Block promises that Keller will return in next year’s Hit Parade but in the meantime we get to see the softer side of the hard man in “Keller’s Karma.”

It’s almost funny how worn out some of these guys seem. You can almost hear the killer in James W. Hall’s “The Catch,” whistling to himself as he listens to a man who wants his own son murdered unburden himself, unaware that the picture he’s sitting in front of covers a whole wall full of bullet holes. They’ve heard it all before.

“I’m an old man. There’s only so many ways people can treat each other badly,” he says.

Not that some of the stories don’t have real heart. Randisi’s own compelling story, “Upon My Soul,” is about a hardcore professional who grows a soul and retires from the bloody game. When the new school comes looking to kill their proverbial “father,” Randisi’s pro has to gamble his life against his conscience in deciding whether to ice the “kids.” Kevin Wignall’s “Retrospective” features a war photographer who doesn’t even realize the emotional toll his photographs have taken until he’s offered the opportunity to get shot himself.

There are some quirky stories here. TV writer Paul Guyot, who writes Judging Amy for chrissakes, turns out to have a cleverly adept hand when it comes to fictional murderers. His clever satire “The Closers” channels Glengarry Glen Ross by way of Max Barry’s Jennifer Government, conjuring up a cubicle farm in which backstabbing co-workers are way more dangerous than usual.

Naturally, the dramatis personae of police detectives, private eyes and underbosses working our killers to death are often as interesting as the featured players. “The Right Tool For The Job” starts with the ungainly torpedo Eddie Ballard but it turns out that Cecil, a rigorous geek along for the ride, turns out to be the top dog of this modest crime drama.

It’s dirty work but someone’s got to do it, right? There are a few other anthologies floating around out there, but I found Joyce Carol Oates’s selections in the new Best American Mystery Stories to be uninspiring and with a few exceptions, fairly far off the mark from the crime genre and teetering into literature, god forbid. When did Scott Turow or David Handler rank as mystery writers anyway? Better perhaps, if you must stray, to stick with picks from James Ellroy and Otto Penzler for the Best American Crime Writing 2005. At least that collection features some believable crimes and digs a bit deeper into the heart of darkness than you might be ready for.

And that’s a year, dear readers. My very fondest holiday wishes go out to you and yours, by way of a brief selection from my favorite imbibing Irishman, Garth Ennis, who writes a good bad guy himself in the comic book Hitman:

For Christmas is Whizzo! Christmas goes PING! Christmas makes people feed squirrels and sing! And no matter your race or your class or your creed -- isn’t that something we all really need? One day in the year painted up in bright colors? One day when we’re groovy and cool to each other?

And sure you can grumble, but any who would are missing on something incredibly good! Anyone bitching and moaning instead --

Might get two in the back of their miserable head….