Book Note: Best American Mystery Stories 2006

Nearly all the fiction I read is mystery or sci-fi, so I’m very interested in how genre is defined and which genres are considered “respectable” in the literary world. This year’s installment of the Best American Mystery Series anthology, edited by Scott Turow, has undeniable literary quality but also left me feeling hollow. I love mystery stories because they look honestly at human evil, an obsession of mine, but also place it within a moral universe where order is brought out of chaos, and justice is possible. Contemporary realist fiction about the darkness within has a tendency to wallow in perversion, irony and hopelessness.

The stories in the 2006 anthology aren’t mysteries but crime stories, stories in which a crime occurs but is usually unpunished. Many of them come from mainstream literary magazines, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but when combined with the overall mood of amoral violence, suggests that Turow and series editor Otto Penzler were feeling insecure about their genre. I had the same reaction when I read McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales a couple of years ago. No matter how many femmes fatales and circus elephants you have, it still tastes like anomie.

Genre fiction is refreshingly sincere at a time when sincerity in the arts still labors under the accusation of naivete. Mr. Penzler: Be true to your school.

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