Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Best American Mystery Stories--1998, Part 3

photo: book cover from its Amazon page

This is a continuing series of short story critiques and summaries from The Best Mystery Stories--1998.  While these stories are a bit old, of course, the hope is that the reader will check out the authors of the stories positively reviewed, as many of these authors are still pounding the keys today.  Check out the other blog entries here and here.

The Adventure of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, by John H. Watson, M.D., edited by John T. Lescroart

Shame on you and go to the back of the class if you didn't recognize the name of the good doctor as the character who was the author of his adventures with his friend, Sherlock Holmes.  Lescroart has apparently received permission from Conan Doyle's estate, or maybe the publishing company owned the copyrights and gave the series to him, or something, not sure of the legalities here.  I suspect it's like Jeffrey Deaver now writing the James Bond novels, and whomever else is doing Robert Parker's Spenser novels.  Might be worth a little Google search...and you might be wondering why the story would be in a "Best of..." volume of American stories.  Either Lescroart's American, which would be sort of blasphemous, considering Holmes is a very British creation, or the story was first published in an American publication--which would be even more blasphemous.

Anyway, the story is short and crisp and well-written, with all the little details that you would expect Holmes to get and you (and, often, Watson) to miss.  This one's a good one about the possibility of a nasty plague, which, if you've been reading my blog for awhile, you know I'm interested in.  I won't give away the mystery here, so you'll have to get a copy of the book somehow, but I will say that the only problem I have with this series is that Holmes is portrayed as such a genius that we may not even try too hard to figure it out before it's told to us.  That's the trap I fell into here, which is unusual for me.  I put some of the pieces together before Holmes tells it all to us--and to Watson, which has always been a clever writer-ly trick, so that the reader doesn't feel spoken to, though of course we are.  (That trick is maybe original to Holmes, unless Poe pulled it off first.  Now that I think about it, I think Poe did, and Conan Doyle took it.)  I usually get pieces of these stories right, such as the dirt on the knees of the guy in "The Red-headed League," which, by the way, is one of the more ridiculous short stories I have ever read.  I mean, what moron wouldn't suspect that something is up when he's chosen, without reason, among hundreds of other red-headed guys, and is hired only to copy every letter of every word of a dictionary?  Ludicrous.  But I digress.  This one is not ludicrous, and is far better, actually, than "League," so read it.  Though it's a stretch that Holmes would notice the existence of the crime at all from the newspaper articles mentioned, but whatever.  That's Holmes's genius, right?  Again, you expect that he'd get things that you wouldn't, which gives the writer more of a pass than most mystery writers would get.  (I suspect Agatha Christie got away with much the same thing.)  But, when you're done, you'll be impressed with the author's cleverness, so he got that part of the series correct as well.  Memorable.

Night Crawlers, by John Lutz

This one is passable, though just a solid okay.  Nothing you wouldn't see coming, really, and there's a bit of a cliche about motorcycle gang members with tattoos.  And that the whole town is scared into silence by these three guys.  Wouldn't they just get ten townspeople together and take care of them?  Guess not.  Anyway, the swampland is used to good (cliche) effect, and it's well-written on the whole.  It's just that what happens and what's said is what you'd expect to happen and what you'd expect to be said.  But still done well, I guess.  Not a big fan of the "this happens then this happens" type of mystery, as the writer never tries to hide the mystery too much, and the bad guys are very clearly bad guys right away, so the suspects aren't the mystery, either.  In fact, there's no mystery to this mystery, but it's readable and you won't be worse off for reading it.  'course, you won't be better off, either, but, hell, at least the title means two or three things at the same time.  Just read it and move on.

Prayer for Judgment, by Margaret Maron

This one is a small, impressive little nugget, solved practically between cases in the judge's spare time.  It starts off with a well-written description of North Carolina flowers and scents, which has been done a billion times before in short stories and novels, just change the state.  (It also frequently repeated the word "gardenias," which was discomforting to me as it reminded me of one of Marlon Brando's bald head in the darkness blabberings towards the end of Apocalypse Now.  But that's me; not the writer's fault.)  Anyway, the author tried to glaringly bookend it with a two-sentence mention of the same at the end of the story, and it didn't work.  The whole flower/scent thing is unnecessary at the beginning and at the end.  Luckily, the mystery in the middle is set up as a minor puzzle, and you should be able to follow along and piece it together as the judge does, so that when she pulls apart the curtain at the end, you're nodding along, and satisfied at your own cleverness.  Well-written but for the flower nonsense.  Title sounds like it'll have more gravitas than it actually does, as you're waiting for a double-meaning that never really asserts itself.

More to come.


  1. I like what you said about there being "no mystery to this mystery" with the John Lutz story. I've read a few of his books actually and I've concluded that's the problem with them. It's all too easily shown to the reader with no second guessing. I think it's very tricky to write a good mystery and not all can do it well.

    1. That's true. I think my novel Cursing the Darkness handles the whodunit and sort of everyday, common sense clues pretty well, and certainly Foster is very observant, but there is no way I'm mentally compartmentalized enough to make my mystery sleuth as inordinately observant as Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie were able to make theirs. Not gonna happen.

  2. Well don't sell yourself short. I'm sure you have the ability, perhaps it's not as well crafted as the greats you mentioned, but it's no easy task. Regardless I'd like to give your novel a read!

    1. No good deed goes unpunished! If you'd like, I can send it as an attachment to you. I'd love to get your opinion. Send me an email if this is really okay with you. And thanks!