Edited by Mark Ellingham and Peter Florence — If you’ve been a regular visitor to Crime Fiction Lover, you’ll have noticed our exclusive extracts from OxCrimes, an anthology that will raise money for Oxfam’s aid and development work in the UK and abroad.
Of course, you’d have to be pretty mean-spirited to find fault with such a worthy project. Fortunately, OxCrimes never leaves you with the nagging feeling that you’re reading this book to do a good deed. It is simply an outstanding collection of inventive short stories from some of the finest crime writers around.
In fact, crime is a good fit for this Oxfam initiative. As Ian Rankin points out in his introduction, crime is a genre that shines a light on problems at the heart of society. And OxCrimes does a fine job of highlighting injustice (from various quarters) within tales that are vivid, gripping and entertaining. Take Anthony Horowitz’s contribution, Caught Short, a horrible and hilarious morality tale about an arrogant advertising executive whose drink-driving accident involving an African pedestrian leads to a messy end.
The immigrant experience is tackled in several stories. The Dead Their Eyes Implore Us by George Pelecanos is a superbly evocative tale about segregation in Washington in 1933. In Stuart Neville’s Juror 8, the wrangling over a murder trial verdict is twisted into something much more sinister for an Irish family in 50s New York. It’s one of the longer stories and Neville does a fine job of creating a convincing family dynamic while ratcheting up the tension.
One of my favourites is Adrian McKinty’s The Ladder, in which an academic loses the plot when his ranking in the faculty squash league is threatened by a new colleague from Pakistan. It’s a comic crime tale and McKinty’s light touch enables him to sneak in some serious points about everyday injustice without interrupting the momentum.
Several contributors favour the short, sharp shock – vignettes that can be read quickly but linger in the memory. Look out for an intelligent take on the femme fatale trope by James Sallis (Venice is Sinking into the Sea) and a crime from the past in Ann Cleeves’s creepy confessional The Spinster. And there’s a reprint of a 30-year-old Ian Rankin short (An Afternoon) that demonstrates his early interest in Scottish cops.
It’s refreshing to see that the editors have not been too strict about genre parameters. There’s science fiction from Walter Mosley in The Sin of Dreams (a courtroom drama about the legal status of souls) and Yrsa Sigurdardottir in Black Sky (a conspiracy set on the dark side of the moon). The crime-horror crossover stories work better, particularly John Connolly’s The Children of Dr Lyall. It’s a masterful tale about criminal gangs in London during World War II, though Connolly’s robbers get more than they bargained for in a story combining crime with cosmic terror.
Reflections in Unna, by Louise Welsh, also has a strain of the uncanny in its account of a travel writer on his uppers. When he discovers a bargain in an antique shop, he thinks his problems are solved. It’s a haunting story of avarice and paranoia in a foreign land that’s one of the very best in this anthology.
There are also welcome appearances from some familiar characters, including Fred Vargas’s Commissaire Adamsberg (Five Francs Each, a rare short story in translation); Phil Rickman’s Hereford vicar Merrily Watkins (The House of Susan Lulham); and DI Tom Thorne in Mark Billingham’s Christmas story, Underneath the Mistletoe Last Night.
Having been a supporter of short fiction, it’s encouraging to discover such a rich and varied anthology that maintains a remarkably high standard. My only complaint is a lack of clarity about the provenance of these 27 tales, though most are original to this book. When the reprints include Neil Gaiman’s The Case of Death and Honey, a magical Sherlock Holmes story like no other, it’s clear the editors have chosen wisely. As well as raising money for charity, this anthology is helping the revival of the short story. OxCrimes deserves the support of crime lovers everywhere.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars
Note: With previous books OxTravels and OxTales raising over £250,000 since their 2009 publication, Oxfam is hoping OxCrimes will raise even more, helping to tackle poverty and suffering around the world. Visit Oxfam’s emergency Response pages here to find out more about how you can help.