The Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021

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The Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021 front cover

Edited by Steph Cha and Alafair Burke — Short mystery/crime fiction lovers in the United States have been more than a little curious to see what changes might be made in this annual series since publisher HarperCollins yanked the project from long-time series editor Otto Penzler last year. The ousting prompted a juicy literary brouhaha on this side of the Atlantic. Many people believed that, under Penzler’s guidance, the anthology trended too ‘white and male’. It wasn’t bringing in new voices and, by extension, wasn’t expanding the audience for the crime and mystery genre.

The new series editor is award-winning author Steph Cha (Your House Will Pay) with guest editor for the 2021 edition, Alafair Burke (The Ex, The Better Sister). The process worked the same as under Penzler. Cha, as series editor, took an initial whack at the pile of stories and gave her favorites to Burke, who made the final selection.

The differences in the new collection are immediately obvious, in the refreshing diversity of authors and story content, as well as in the large number of new bylines. As Cha says in her foreword, “Reading the traditional legacy sources [the major US mystery magazines], I began to understand why this series has tilted so heavily male and white.” That is a choice maintained, by the way, in Penzler’s recast collection, The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021, now published by his own company, The Mysterious Press.

To bring a wider array of voices to the ‘best’ table, Cha scoured literary journals, anthologies, and online publications. It’s heartening to see the number of high-quality, non-genre magazines that cherish crime and mystery fiction, well outside the usual stalwarts.

Diversity is the name of the game here. Not only diversity among the authors and the publications where their stories first found a home, but in the types of mystery and suspense stories represented. Whether your taste is for police procedurals or amateur sleuths, people getting their comeuppance, or giving it, or the hapless nature of criminals, you’ll find stories that hit those buttons. They aren’t all conventional crime stories, either; in two of those highlighted below, the characters are up against implacable bureaucracies.

A good example of how criminals paint themselves into tight corners – which once again proves the validity of Murphy’s Law – is E Gabriel Flores’s story, Mala Suerte. In it, Carmelita wonders whether bad luck runs in families. A recounting of her family history suggests it may. But she’s plucky and talks her way into a pretty good job. Now, if only she would leave well enough alone. But she’s one of those people who cannot recognise when she’s about as well off as she has any right to expect, and you know she won’t…

It’s hard to say much about Ravi Howard’s suspense story, The Good Thief, without giving away the clever plot twist. A conscientious cook at a small-town luncheonette is asked to prepare a prisoner’s last meal, actually a cake the young man once ate in her establishment. Alone in the kitchen of the prison’s new wing – the biggest kitchen she’s ever seen – you are alone with her thoughts as she talks briefly with the warden and methodically goes about preparing the cake. So little action, so much happening.

Aya de León’s touching Frederick Douglass Elementary delves into the crimes a mother will commit in order to get her son into a decent elementary school, when all manner of bureaucracy is set against her. Keisha’s not a serial killer or a bank robber, or someone at the very fringes of society. She’s just a working single mom. Her crimes may seem trivial, but in the lives of her and her son, they are hugely consequential. (You could be forgiven for believing that the real crime is the condition of the schools that tempted her into law-breaking.) Any parent will recognise the stomach-dropping uncertainty that hits Keisha throughout.

In The Killer by Delia C Pitts, you return to familiar crime-story territory. A mother and small child are on the run from New York to Tampa, with a gangster hot on their heels. The story’s told from the point of view of their driver and bodyguard, who believes every stop along the way risks bringing their pursuer closer and every encounter risks betrayal. They stop at the kind of rural Virginia diner where the manager and cook have never met up with anyone as dangerous as their pursuer, and even that naivete presents a potential risk. First published in the literary magazine, the Chicago Quarterly Review, it’s a nail-biter.

I’d read One Bullet, One Vote by Faye Snowden in the Low Down Dirty Vote collection, liked it then and on repeat. In the mid-1960s, a young Black man from up north has arrived in small-town Louisiana determined to convince his new wife’s relations to register to vote. ‘What you trying to do? Get us all killed?’ His wife’s elderly grandmother is the only one who takes him up on it. Bureaucracy thwarts her in many ways, but she’s dealt that that before. The author not only creates an engaging story of people pushed to extremes, she provides a powerful demonstration of what’s meant by ‘systemic racism.’ Not one, but two true heroes in this one.

Among the other authors included are Jenny Bhatt, Gar Anthony Haywood, Alison Gaylin and Laura Lippman. If you’re puzzled by the title to the second story in the collection, SWAJ by Christopher Bollen – it’s the logo to the movie Jaws read backward. In some circles, that’s a thing.

On the whole, the selections are excellent; only a couple of the stories struck me as predictable. You may find yourself returning to several of them for the issues and social truths they reveal. Although a Best of… compilation has no theme, many of these stories are similar in having compelling characters. In this era of social media bubbles, when we hear mostly from people who share our beliefs and outlooks, seeing the world through the eyes of some of these characters is enormously valuable. If this collection presages what Cha will manage in future editions, they will be well worth looking forward to.

Also see our recent review of Afraid of the Shadows – a charity anthology by British and Irish authors.

Mariner Books

CFL Rating: 5 Stars


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