Onyx reviews: Transgressions edited by Ed McBain
One of the last projects completed before his death by crime novelist Ed
McBain was Transgressions, an anthology of novellas that brings together ten of
the top names in mystery. The book is unthemed-contributors had only to submit
original tales loosely crime-related. McBain's theory was that writing at
novella length (the stories range between 25 and over 100 pages) would be a
change of pace for his authors. The stories appear in the book in reverse
alphabetical order by author.
Like the fantasy anthology Legends, books of this sort are terrific
introductions to a genre. Readers looking to sample representative works from
some of the most popular authors in crime fiction will be right at home with
Donald Westlake's "Walking Around Money" features his series character
John Dortmunder, a hard-luck thief who invariably gets involved in capers that
go amiss. Westlake's prose is cut-to-the-bone sharp and witty at the same time.
A man called Querk has a foolproof plan that will yield a half-million dollars,
but he needs help so he approaches Dortmunder and his associate Kelp. Of course,
there isn't much honor among thieves, so Dortmunder and Kelp play it above and
below the table to protect their share of the take since they suspect-and
rightfully so-that they are to be left holding an empty bag and the end of the
Historical mystery writer Anne Perry goes modern with "Hostages," a
multi-leveled thriller set in Northern Ireland. IRA members hold a Protestant
faction leader and his wife hostage while on vacation. Every in the story is a
hostage in one way or another-hostage to public positions, beliefs, rhetoric and
inertia, to subservience in a marriage, to the past or the future, or at the
point of a gun.
One of the longer and more disturbing stories is "The Corn Maiden: A Love
Story" by Joyce Carol Oates. It has a very different style from the rest of
the book: literary, abstract and experimental. Three young rich girls kidnap a
schoolmate who isn't well off and keep her in the basement of one of the
mansions to perform an old Onigaran Indian ritual on her. Meanwhile the media
crucifies the single mother and the girls plant evidence to implicate a disliked
Walter Mosley creates a new protagonist, Felix Orlean, through whose eyes
readers are introduced to "Archibald Lawless, Anarchist at Large."
Felix is a journalism student at Columbia, the estranged son of a wealthy
lawyer. To help pay for his tuition, he responds to a newspaper ad soliciting
the services of a scribe. He ends up caught in the middle of a series of murders
spawned by the theft of valuable and rare red diamonds. Felix himself is not
overly interesting, but he plays the perfect foil for the ambiguous and
endlessly fascinating—and aptly named—Lawless, who has resources at every level
Sharyn McCrumb delivers "The Resurrection Man," set in the pre-Civil
War years. Her protagonist is Grandison Harris, a slave purchased by a Georgia
medical school to handle some of its morbid needs. From the story's introductory
scene, it's apparent to readers that Harris will rise to a position of respect
over the course of his life.
Ed McBain contributes an 87th precinct story called "Merely Hate," in
which his timeless and ageless characters Carella and Meyer investigate the
murders of Muslim cabdrivers. Blue Stars of David are left as a calling card,
making them worry that they're facing a series of hate crimes, though it may
turn out that the motive is simply what the story's title says.
The shortest contribution is Stephen King's "The Things They Left
Behind," also the only supernatural tale in the collection. A man who
should have been at work in the World Trade Center on 9/11 played hooky in
Central Park that day. He lived when all his friends and colleagues died and he
now suffers from survivor guilt. No longer in the insurance business, Staley has
been experiencing odd events of an earth-shattering, foundation-shaking sort: a
hole in the column of reality. Despite its brevity, this powerful story turns a
pair of sunglasses and a Lucite-encased coin into profound talismans.
John Farris is probably the least well known of the authors in the collection,
someone rarely associated with the crime genre. However, his novella "The
Ransome Women" is a powerful study in obsession and the effect it has on
both parties in the unhealthy relationship, extending even to those around them.
John Ransome is a reclusive and famous painter who does a series of five
paintings featuring a new model every three years. The time has come for him to
choose a new subject, and her husband, an NYPD detective, isn't happy about the
way things seem to be progressing.
Jeffrey Deaver's "Forever" starts with a bang-two of them in fact. An
apparent double suicide intrigues police statistician Talbot Simms because
several details about the event are statistical outliers. An investigative
novice, he's quickly in over his head when he has the deaths declared suspicious
and has to run a full criminal investigation. The story is overlong and has more
than its fair share of false endings, but Tal is an intriguing enough character
to return in a longer work.
The book closes with another 9/11-influenced story. In "Keller's
Adjustment," Lawrence Block's anti-hero is in Miami planning another
assassination for hire on that fateful day. He completes his assignment and
returns to New York, where he uncharacteristically volunteers to work serving
food to the rescue workers. He muses over how the tighter travel restrictions
will hinder his trade-he ends up driving to Phoenix rather than leave a paper
trail by flying-and discusses the nature of his personality with Dot, the woman
who hands out his assignments. He is bothered when she uses the term 'sociopath'
to describe him, which leads to some soul-searching moments as he tries to
figure out whether the word applies or not. Not many writers could pull off a
sympathetic hit man, but then again Lawrence Block isn't just any writer.
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