Book Review: The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century – Edited by Tony Hillerman and Otto Penzler

This is a monster of a book: eight hundred pages of stories.  It’s also an excellent book, and probably the best value for the money of any book I’ve ever bought.  I came across it at the annual Seattle Friends of the Library book sale.  It was a like-new hardcover, jacket intact, and it cost me two bucks.  I wish money could always be that well spent.

When I grabbed it off the piles of books for sale, I had the vague idea that it might be a good idea to tackle a few mystery stories.  Sometimes I have a tough time coming up with story ideas, and I supposed that working in a new genre might stir up the creative juices, so to speak.  It has worked, by the way.  I recently finished a dark mystery story that I started around the same time I started this book.

I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading this heavy tome.  Usually when I read an anthology, I like some stories, feel so-so about others, and dislike yet others.  This anthology, though, rose well above the norm.  I found myself enjoying story after story.  The level of excellence remained high throughout.  Sure, I liked some more than others, but I didn’t dislike any, and there are very few that I would classify as mediocre.

The editors have the stories arranged chronologically, with the oldest stories first.  The older stories, though, did not feel dated.  I suppose the mystery genre is not time-specific.  Many of its situations can happen anywhere, to anyone.  I thought that “mystery” involved some sort of sleuthing or detective work, and that was true for some of the stories, but not all – not even a majority of them.  It seems that in the estimation of the editors, any story that involves a crime, particularly a murder, can be called a mystery.  Fair enough.

There are too many stories to appraise them all, but one that I was especially pleased to see here is “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” by Harlan Ellison.  This story has a history with me.  When I was nineteen and had recently realized that I wanted to be a writer, I heard that Ellison was giving a reading on the University of Washington campus in Seattle.  He was a great showman – telling anecdotes and answering questions – but when it got down to the reading, he had all the lights in the auditorium turned off except for a single small lamp at the podium, and he read this creepy, terrifying story about the new murderous god of New York and the people that worshipped it.  The experience was awesome.  I learned that he was in Seattle teaching at a science fiction workshop called Clarion West, and I enrolled for the following year – 1973 – and Harlan Ellison himself became one of my early writing teachers.

Many great writers have dabbled in mysteries from time to time, and the table of contents in this volume is full of literary luminaries.  There are names you would expect such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen, John D. MacDonald, Stephen King, Lawrence Block, and Donald E. Westlake.  But there are also stories by so-called literary authors such as John Steinbeck, Pearl S. Buck, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Joyce Carol Oates.

All in all, it’s an excellent book, and a great choice for writers who want to learn by example how to put together gripping, well told tales.

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