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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 Transgressions.

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 caper.

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 part-time teacher.

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 of society.

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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