The Best American Mystery Stories 2011

Brock Adams, Eric Barnes, Lawrence Block, David Corbett, Luis Alberto Urrea, Brendan Dubois, Loren D. Estleman, Beth Ann Fennelly, Tom Franklin, Ernest J. Finney, Ed Gorman, James Grady, Chris F. Holm, Harry Hunsicker, Richard Lange, Joe R. Lansdale, Charles Mccarry, Dennis Mcfadden, Christopher Merkner, Andrew Riconda, S. J. Rozan, Mickey Spillane, Max Allan Collins, Harlan Coben, Otto Penzler

The Best American Mystery Stories 2011

A book in the Best American Mystery Stories series, 2011


MANY OF THE GREATEST NAMES in the mystery genre have appeared on the pages of The Best American Mystery Stories during its fourteen-year history, including Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Jeffery Deaver, and Lawrence Block. Too, many of the major authors of literary fiction have contributed outstanding work to the series, including John Updike, Jay McInerney, Roxanna Robinson, Russell Banks, Alice Munro, and, of course, the incomparable Joyce Carol Oates. I would make the argument, however, that one of the greatest strengths of the series has been the stories of relatively little-known writers who have graced its pages, many of whom have gone on to enjoy warm critical attention as well as popular success.

Stories by these authors are seldom found in the pages of such acclaimed purveyors of contemporary fiction as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or Harper's Magazine. Most of the early work by these hugely talented writers has been discovered in the pages of literary journals, those labors of love produced in such modest numbers that very few readers ever get to see them, and a few in electronic magazines.

Here was the introduction to a large readership of Scott Wolven, whose "Controlled Burn" was initially published in Harpur Palate and collected in the 2003 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories. This, and subsequent stories also published in BAMS, got him a book contract with Scribner's (Controlled Burn: Stories of Prison, Crime, and Men).

Tom Franklin's "Poachers" was found in the pages of Texas Review and appeared in BAMS 1999. The story went on to win the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America and a book contract from William Morrow for Poachers: Stories; it was later selected for The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century. Franklin has gone on to write several novels, including Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which was nominated for an Edgar as the Best Novel of 2010.

"All Through the House" by Christopher Coake was chosen for BAMS 2004 after its first publication in The Gettysburg Review; it became the centerpiece of his Houghton Mifflin Harcourt collection, We're in Trouble.

It is profoundly gratifying and humbling to know that this series can have such a powerful impact on the world of mystery fiction and the enormously talented writers who toil in its gardens. One can only wonder if some of the contributors to this volume will go on to follow in the footsteps of Coake, Franklin, and Wolven to find similar much-deserved success in their mystery writing careers.

While it is redundant for me to write it again, since I have already done so in each of the previous fourteen volumes of this series, it falls into the category of fair warning to state that many people regard a "mystery" as a detective story. I regard the detective story as one subgenre of a much bigger genre, which I define as any short work of fiction in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or the plot. While I love good puzzles and tales of pure ratiocination, few of these are written today as the mystery genre has evolved (for better or worse, depending on your point of view) into a more character-driven form of literature, with more emphasis on the why of a crime's commission than on the who or how. The line between mystery fiction and general fiction has become more and more blurred in recent years, producing fewer memorable detective stories but more significant literature.

It is a pleasure, as well as a necessity, to thank Harlan Coben for agreeing to be the guest editor for the 2011 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories. Putting aside virtually everything on his very crowded plate, he delivered the work on schedule, thereby causing champagne corks to pop and hats to be flung in the air at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as the very tight deadlines have been met. Sincere thanks as well to the previous guest editors, beginning with Robert B. Parker, who started it all in 1997, followed by Sue Grafton, Ed McBain, Donald E. Westlake, Lawrence Block, James Ellroy, Michael Connelly, Nelson DeMille, Joyce Carol Oates, Scott Turow, Carl Hiaasen, George Pelecanos, Jeffery Deaver, and Lee Child.

While I engage in a relentless quest to locate and read every mystery/crime/suspense story published, I live in terror that I will miss a worthy story, so if you are an author, editor, or publisher, or care about one, please feel free to send a book, magazine, or tearsheet to me c/o The Mysterious Bookshop, 58 Warren Street, New York, NY 10007. If it first appeared electronically, you must submit a hard copy. It is vital to include the author's contact information. No unpublished material will be considered, for what should be obvious reasons. No material will be returned. If you distrust the postal service, enclose a self-addressed, stamped postcard, on which I will acknowledge receipt of your story.

To be eligible, a story must have been written by an American or a Canadian and first published in an American or Canadian publication in the calendar year 2011. The earlier in the year I receive the story, the more fondly I regard it. For reasons known only to the blockheads who wait until Christmas week to submit a story published the previous spring, this happens every year, causing much gnashing of teeth as I read a stack of stories while my wife and friends are trimming the Christmas tree or otherwise celebrating the holiday season. It had better be a damned good story if you do this. Because of the very tight production schedule for this book, the absolute firm deadline is December 31. If the story arrives two days later, it will not be read. Sorry.

O. P.



You should skip it. I'm serious. You know what this is, don't you? This is the part of a story collection where the editor writes some faux-deep, pseudo-erudite essay on the larger meaning of the short story. It is, quite frankly, an irrelevant exercise. The collection is about the story, not my view of it, and thus this introduction becomes the literary equivalent of a bad overture at a musical: It gets you in your seat, but if you're already seated, you just want the curtain to open. It stalls. It annoys. Even the best introductions, no matter how well done, are a bit like a toupee. It may be a good toupee. It may be a bad toupee. But it's still a toupee.

It is also pretty ironic when you think about it-an excess of words to introduce a form that relies on the economy of them. A novel is a long-term commitment. A short story is more like a heady fling-intense, adventurous, emotionally charged, and, when I was young, embarrassingly quick. Okay, forget that last one. The best short stories, like those high-octane lovers, never fully leave you. They burn, linger, haunt. Some sneak up on you in a subtle way. Others are like a punch in the gut-sudden, spontaneous. They knock the wind out of you.

One of my favorite rules of writing comes from the great Elmore Leonard: "Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip." If you learn nothing else from this introduction-as if you're really learning something-please make sure you keep this rule front and center in your thoughts. The best writers do. The best writers ask themselves on every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word: "Is this compelling? Is this gripping? Is this absolutely necessary? Is this the best I can do?" (So, too, do the best readers, but that's for another time.)

That doesn't mean you can't have larger themes, descriptions, well-defined characters, or explore matters of great import. You can and you must. All great stories-long and, yes, short-contain those elements. You will, in fact, witness many examples in just a few turns of the page. Again, my job here is to delay that sense of satisfaction, I guess, by pointing out the obvious in wonderful, economic storytelling, so let us continue.

What Elmore Leonard means in the above quotation, of course, is that every word must count. The writers included in this collection are masters at this. In the pages after this intro, you will find no navel-gazing, no endless descriptions of winter weather or dithering on about worldview, no fashionable "look at me" acrobatic wordplay that amounts to nothing more than proving that someone bought a brand-new thesaurus and isn't afraid to abuse it.

What will you find, then? In two words: great storytelling.

The writers in this varied and brilliant collection-a heady blend of household names, veteran scribes, and promising new ...