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Onyx reviews: The Best American Mystery Stories (1999) edited by Ed McBain and Otto Penzler

Series editor Otto Penzler has a very loose definition of what constitutes a mystery. All that is necessary for a story to be legible for this anthology is "that there be a crime, or the threat of a crime, central to the plot or theme of the story."

Readers coming to this collection expecting to find brainy detectives in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, or cozy English mysteries will be disappointed. There is nary a whodunit between these covers. The detectives, when present at all, are the type who sit for long hours in beat-up cars outside of dingy hotels waiting to catch unfaithful spouses in illicit trysts.

The authors of some of the stories in this collection will be unfamiliar to all but the most serious mystery aficionados. The nineteen tales were culled from the hundreds that appeared in such anthologies as Robert Bloch's Psychos or monthly digests like the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The most familiar authors are Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, not often associated with the mystery genre.

Many of the stories are not about the resolution of a crime. Lawrence Block's lead-in story, "Keller's Last Refuge," is about the misadventures of a hit man as he plies his trade. Two of the mysteries, Peter Robinson's "In Flanders Fields" and David K. Harford's "A Death on the Ho Chi Minh Trail," are set against the backdrop of war, besieged England and Vietnam, respectively. The notion that a criminal act of violence can take place even on a battlefield is an interesting one. The distinction between acceptable and unacceptable violence is sometimes blurred.

In "Survival," by Joseph Hansen, a small town sheriff takes an unfortunate detour while on a cross-country journey and finds himself in a nest of survivalists in rural Idaho. The survivalists, of course, are reluctant to believe that he has stumbled across them by accident.

Jeffery Deaver (whose novel The Bone Collector is a recent big screen adaptation) puts a small town policeman in the hands of a trio of roughians in "Wrong Time, Wrong Place." The story, like many in the collection, ends with a wry and unexpected twist. L.L. Thrasher's "Sacrifice" starts out with a cute seven-year-old girl attempting to hire a private detective to find her lost doll. This simple, innocent beginning leads to a much darker tale as the detective learns that the missing toy is just the tip of the iceberg.

Another detective, forced to accept an observing professor tagging along with him for the day, handles the case of a suspected infidelity in Gregory Fallis' "And Maybe the Horse Will Learn to Sing." The truth he discovers, and his client's reaction to the news, is both amusing and unexpected.

Ed Gorman blurs the edges between mystery and horror in "Out There in the Darkness." A group of poker buddies carries out vigilante justice when the home of one of their homes is invaded. However, their circle grows ever smaller as the table is turned on them.

John Updike closes out the collection with the fiendishly naughty "Bech Noir," wherein the title character, an aging writer, takes his revenge on all of the reviewers and critics who have inflicted literary barbs on him over the years. The unique ways in which he knocks off his nemeses are both creative and witty.

This is the third annual volume in this series. It provides an excellent and diverse window on the current state of the modern American mystery.

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