photo: cover of the book from its Amazon page
A few comments about the stories I've read so far in The Best Mystery Short Stories--1998 (edited by Sue Grafton). Though of course the collection is old, stories are stories, and good writing is timeless. You couldn't do much better, for example, than some of Chekhov's short stories; writers like Alice Munro and others are still obviously indebted to him. The hope here is that you'll check out the other works of the writers positively mentioned below. Most of them are still pounding the keys...
Child Support, by David Ballard
Not overly impressive. Generic story about a guy, who you don't like, wheeling his baby around in a carriage, and walking his dog, at the same time, and grousing about it. He's being divorced; the language and tone he uses to think about his ex-wife and baby make you dislike him immensely. That is, of course, the idea. So these tough-looking guys straight out of every bad (and good) film of its type approaches him. He thinks they're from this guy he owes a lot of money to (he's a gambler, too, of course). They say that they'll give him riches if he can make his dog catch a frisbee eight times. The dog is super-awesome and by far the best character of the story. If not, they threaten to kill him, take the baby for immoral purposes, or both. (So you could argue he takes the wager to save the baby's life, which defeats the entire purpose of the story, and is clearly overlooked by Ballard.) The dog drops the eighth toss, after seven predictably tough and awesome catches. Just when he thinks he'll be plugged and his baby stolen, the guy whips out a card, introduces himself as his ex-wife's lawyer, tells him they have it all on film--him taking the wager--and then his ex-wife gets out of the car at the curb. The guy hands over custody of the baby and the dog to the wife. The story reads as bad as it sounds. The writing is so pedestrian that I constantly felt I could do better. Hard to believe this one was chosen to start off the book, but a quick look now at the Table of Contents shows that they listed them in alphabetical order, by the author's last name. Hard to believe this was one of the best mystery stories of 1998, or of any year.
Swear Not By the Moon, by Scott Bartels
This was a very edgy, harsh and effective short story about drug addiction, crime, and the depths that an addict will go to just get away. Very desperate story, desperately written. It all goes to hell at the end, of course, and the crime he commits isn't the one he was supposed to commit (though neither one is better), and you get the impression that his end won't be a good one, and it'll be soon. Well-written and memorable. There's no mention in the story, by the way, of the title, or the title's source, which I know you know is Romeo and Juliet. (At the balcony scene, she tells him not to swear his love on the moon, the inconstant moon, because it's face changes every night.)
Keller on the Spot, by Lawrence Block
Passable short story, very readable, though not extremely memorable. A hitman is sent on a job, but saves the life of the grandson of the target. The guy thanks him, and the hitman grows to like him, so he doesn't want to kill him. He tries to get out of it, but can't, unless he walks away--at which point they'll just send another hitman to do the job. But, turns out, the target ordered his own hit--he's the customer. He has cancer, so he wants to get shot because he couldn't kill himself. But the target knows the hitman was sent to do it, and he doesn't want to get killed anymore, at least not by that guy. The waiting's been killing him, knowing it could be any second. The anxiety just wore him down. So he cancels his own hit, and still pays in full, so nobody's going to shoot him after all. He says goodbye to the hitman; they've become good friends. At their goodbyes, it's obvious that the target is still in a lot of pain from the cancer, so the hitman will stay hang around the city for four days or so, until the guy gets calm and relaxed again--but still in great pain--and then the hitman will put him out of his misery. Well done, very readable. Fans of the genre will recognize Block's name.
The Man Next Door, by Mary Higgins Clark
Hate to say it, but this is really bad, one terrible cliche after another. A serial killer with a mommy complex lives next door to attractive younger woman who's too trustful and friendly to the weird neighbor. He takes down his cinderblocks in his basement and enters hers that way, which is how he gets into her house unseen, and injects her with something so he can bring her to his basement, where he makes her read him children's books, and he responds like an adult infant. Meanwhile, the boyfriend just knows there's something wrong, and he investigates. Turns out, the killer also has OCD issues, to the extent that he tidied up the woman's house after he'd kidnapped her. And she's a lovable slob, so everyone knows someone's been in the house. And the guy next door has become infamous for his manicured lawn, and pristinely-pinned curtains. The boyfriend gets to the basement just in the knick of time...Ugh! So bad, you compulsively keep reading, mesmerized by how awful it is. Hopefully her novels are better than this. Hard to believe this writer is a famous millionaire.
This Is A Voice from Your Past, by Merrill Joan Gerber
Very, very well-written story, very touching and memorable. A woman with a husband, kid, and another on the way gets a call from a college lover, asking for a favor. As the story says, it's a call we all get, in one fashion or another, and we all dread it when we get it. This guy had been the gifted writer of the college class they shared, a sure thing. The professors and students all thought so. But he drinks, and drifts...and then calls. He and the narrator meet up after the second time he called, thirty years after the other call. She's a published author by then herself, making a reasonable but not rich living, and she's a college professor as well, teaching creative writing. He's in AA, destitute like last time, but in town, he says, living there because she lives there. She doesn't want to see him, afraid of the feelings and memories he turns up--and churns up, as he's irascible and unreliable. She's too nice to ignore him, so she invites him over a few days later, when she's having a big family and friend barbecue. He looks really bad, and pathetic, and by the time he leaves, he's eaten a piggish amount of food, he's been given all of the tons of leftovers, and he even walks off with the narrator's old but cherished typewriter, which she still uses. Soon she's gotten him a place to stay, and he attends her class...only to leave with a much younger and naive female student, who naively lets him borrow her car, which he takes to the racetrack and to bars, with predictable results. And he leaves with the typewriter after he drops the car off at the girl's place, its tank empty. Much later, the typewriter turns up at the guy's wheelchair-bound brother's place, because the brother finally told him to get lost and stop mooching off of him...Finally, the third call comes. He's yelling, screaming, angry, obviously on a bender, and tells her that he's stopping by right away. Days, weeks, months go by--and the narrator cringes every time the phone rings. This is a well-written story about enabling the needy, which we've all done, and about that someone we all know who we're afraid will call and disrupt our lives, yet we're almost powerless to do anything about it.
Full disclosure: On a whim, I came across Ms. Gerber's website, on LinkedIn and via the university at which she teaches. I sent her one very short complimentary email, which she was kind enough to respond to. She wrote that I wrote like a writer, which is one of the better compliments I've gotten about my writing (I think).
More to come...Check these writers out. They have other books and stories out there.
P.S.--This book is available at Amazon for $88.00 because it has four autographs--one from Ms. Gerber, Lawrence Block, Mary Higgins Clark and Donald Westlake, who's story will be covered in a later post.
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