Monday, September 1, 2014

The Best American Mystery Stories of the Nineteenth Century

In some minuscule way, a mystery story allows us to know the unknowable.  In real life, we don't get all the answers.  I know of no real-life Sherlock Holmes with extraordinary crime-solving abilities.  Bad guys do get away with murder.  And that rots.  So, so much.  Fiction gives closure, in a way.  It allows us to pretend that serial killers will be caught, that murders will be solved, and that missing persons will be found.  Happy endings, of course, are rather rare, but there is an ending.  That's something that so many victims of crime never receive.

I enjoy mysteries, although not all of the ultra-genrefied are for me.  I like Agatha Christie (one of my coworkers adorably calls her "Aggie" and keeps a Christie next to the bed at all times), Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, and the Preston/Child Pendergast books.  My tastes in mystery, however, generally lean to the other side of the pond: the aforementioned Dame Christie, P.D. James, Dorothy Sayers, and S.G. Bolton (everyone!  Go read Blood Harvest!  And then Awakening!).  I was very curious to see a mystery anthology on Goodreads, so I snapped it up.  It was The Greatest American Mystery Stories of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Otto Penzler (who seems to edit everything mystery).

Although the book is rather long (over 600 pages--at least in the electronic version), it doesn't contain a ton of stories.  Part of this is because two of the stories: The Murders in the Rue Morgue (Poe) and Tom Sawyer, Detective (Twain) are quite long: Twain's story could be a novella.  I actually skipped the Poe stories (this volume also contains The Purloined Letter) and the Twain one because I've read them all before, numerous times.  I adore Poe, but I wanted to see what else the editor included.  Honestly, I wasn't really impressed with the rest of the collection.  There were some good stories, but I don't know if I would classify them as mysteries.  A short story in which someone dies is not a de facto mystery.  For example, Ambrose Bierce's story My Favorite Murder is more dark comedy than anything: the murderer completely admits his guilt, and even convinces the justice system that he was completely in the right!  Bierce is a master of sarcasm, but the story isn't a mystery.  It's an excellent short story, and I'm so glad that I read it, but it doesn't really belong in a mystery collection.  Ditto for Edith Wharton's A Cup of Cold Water.  It's a bit sensationalist, sure, but it's a smashingly written (duh, it's Edith Wharton!) exploration of character and not a mystery.

I wonder if Penzler placed too many constraints on this book: the stories had to be written by American authors, published in the 1800s, and mysteries.  All of them fit the first two criteria, while the third is often ignored in favor of saying, "Hey, this is an obscure American short story you should read!"  When I finished certain stories, I thought, "That's it?  Where's the mystery?  Why is this here?"

Other than Poe and Twain's contributions (Twain's fingerprint story is also an excellent detective procedural mystery), I enjoyed Anna Katherine Green's The Doctor, his Wife, and the Clock the most.  I already have some of her work on my TBR, but I may move it up--I liked this one so much.

I was really surprised that the last story, A Thousand Deaths, was written by Jack London.  It's basically speculative fiction, or maybe even nascent sci-fi.  I would have believed you if you'd told me it was an early draft by H.G. Wells, but it's a rather ridiculous story that made me want to giggle.  The casual racism was also a big problem for me.

I'm not sorry that I read this, as it did contain some good short stories, but it's not a good example of a mystery anthology.  On the plus side, reading this made me realize that I infinitely prefer British mysteries to American ones.  I'll take a Wilkie Collins or a W.W. Jacobs any day, thank you very much.

I received a copy of this title from NetGalley.

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