07 November 2015

A Bunch of Good Mysteries

Almost every year for the past ten or so, I've picked up a copy of Otto Penzler's annual Best American Mystery Stories (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). I of course enjoy short fiction anyhow, and because this series has been around for so long, many of my favorite mystery writers have been included in its pages. I also consider it a good way for me to (1) read new stories by authors whose names I know, (2) discover stories by others I don't know but might like to, and (3) learn about what's being published currently in the leading mystery magazines and anthologies.

On October 6th, when the 2015 edition was released, I had yet another reason to buy the book: I somehow turned out to be one of the writers included. My short story "Molly's Plan," first published last year in The Strand Magazine, is one of the twenty stories chosen by guest editor James Patterson for this year's lineup. On three previous occasions (in the 2000, 2010, and 2012 editions) I was fortunate enough to make the "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list in the back of the book, but this is the first time I've made it to the inner sanctum. Whether I belong in such talented company is another matter--but I'm certainly grateful to be there.

My mission today is to say a few things about the BAMS series and about some of the other stories in this year's edition. I sadly admit that I've not yet read all twenty of them, but I have finished a dozen or so, including three written by friends of mine. And every one I've read so far has been outstanding. Kirkus Reviews and Publisher's Weekly seemed (thank goodness) to agree.

Backstory and M.O.

For those of you who aren't aware of this, the Best American Mystery Stories series began in 1997, and has always been edited by Otto Penzler, who owns The Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan and probably knows more about mystery fiction than all the rest of us combined. The names of all nineteen of his "guest editors" so far--among them Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton, Harlan Coben, Ed McBain, Donald Westlake, Lisa Scottoline, Scott Turow, Laura Lippman, Nelson Demille, and Carl Hiaasen--are immediately recognizable to any mystery reader, and probably to any reader, period.

How does the selection process work? Each year, according to Otto's foreword to the 2015 edition, he and his colleague (partner in crime?) Michele Slung examine between 3000 and 5000 stories, from many sources: popular magazines, short-story collections, literary journals, etc. He also says that "every word of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and The Strand are read."

From these, Otto chooses fifty stories. Those fifty are then turned over to a guest editor (Patterson, this time), who picks twenty to be published in the book. The titles of the remaining thirty stories are listed in a "Distinguished" honor roll. I'm pleased to announce that this year's "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list contains (alongside names like Lawrence Block and Charlaine Harris) the names of my fellow SleuthSayers Rob Lopresti, Art Taylor, and David Edgerley Gates.

Otto also mentions in his foreword that the definition of a mystery story for this series is "any work of fiction in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or the plot." That seems to be a common measuring stick, and it's the reason some of the stories in this year's BAMS edition wound up coming from non-mystery publications like The Georgia Review, Glimmer Train StoriesThe New Yorker, Ploughshares, etc. In case anyone's interested, three of the stories this year came from AHMM, one from EQMM, and one from The Strand.

BAMS 2015

The first story in this year's book, and one of my favorites, is "The Snow Angel," by my friend Doug Allyn. That story was also nominated for an Edgar Award earlier this year, and won the 2015 Derringer Award for best novelette. Yes, novelette--it's a long tale, covering about 33 pages, and well worth the time it takes to read it.

Another favorite of mine is "Red Eye," a collaboration by Michael Connelly
and Dennis Lehane. It features characters made famous by both authors: L.A. cop Harry Bosch travels to Boston on a case, and winds up assisted (in many ways) by P.I. Patrick Kenzie. Having read many of the adventures of both these characters, I think I was able to relate even more closely to them here. "Red Eye," by the way, was another of the stories nominated for an Edgar this year, and deservedly so.

Other excellent entries in this edition are "The Adventure of the Laughing Fisherman," by Jeffery Deaver; "Crush Depth," by Brendan DuBois; "Wet With Rain," by Lee Child; "Harm and Hammer," by Joseph D'Agnese; and "The Home at Craigmillnar," by Joyce Carol Oates. (Ms. Oates's story brought tears to my eyes, which doesn't happen often.) The truth is, I haven't come across a bad story yet, in this anthology, and I don't expect to. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of them.


One more thing. I had the great pleasure of meeting Otto Penzler in New York earlier this year, and when I saw him again at Bouchercon in Raleigh and we were talking about the size of the conference, I said to him, "You know almost everyone here, don't you." He replied, "No--but I think almost everyone here knows me." I'm sure he was right.

If you happen to pick up a copy of The Best American Mystery Stories 2015--and I hope you will--I hope you'll like my story.

I know you'll like the book.


  1. Congratulations on making the Best American Mystery Stories

  2. Thank you, Janice. I was fortunate that my story was chosen. (My first thought was that it must've been a mistake.)

    I was also surprised that quite a few of the selected stories came from markets that are not primarily known for publishing mysteries.

  3. Congrats, John. I don't usually buy a copy of this book but I did this year because I was Distinguished. It occurs to me that if Penzler doubled his Distinguished list he could sell fifty more copies. Probably not his major concern, though.

    As for a lot of the stories not being from mystery-publishing sources, every year the review of the book in Mystery Scene complains that a lot of the winners are not mysteries at all, and I am not referring to only fair play whodunits. But as I said, I dont generally read these books so I can't judge...

  4. Thanks for the background about BAMS. This has been quite a year for you--a story in BAMS (with your story singled out for special praise by both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly), an Edgar nomination, and your first story in EQMM! That's quite a list of accomplishments. And who knows what next year will bring?

  5. Rob, I've heard that complaint, and it's valid. I confess that only a small percentage of the so-called mysteries that I've sold over the years were truly mysteries--and certainly not traditional whodunits. Yes, a crime is usually central to the plot, but my stories are more often howdunits or whydunits.

    Thanks, Bonnie--you too have had, and are having, a good year. (Congratulations again, on the upcoming publication of your short-story collection!) As for me, I think I'm probably due for a long dry spell, after all this.

  6. Congrats, John! I think this is wonderful, and you're obviously much too modest. I look forward to reading the book.

  7. How kind of you, Jacqueline--many thanks. I hope the book meets your expectations. I've honestly been impressed with the stories I've read so far, including a few I didn't mention: "Rosalee Carrasco" by Tomiko Breland, "Apocrypha" by Richard Lange, "Shared Room on Union" by Stephen Heighton, and others. All of these make me proud to be in the anthology.

  8. Congrats for this very important accomplishment, John. I'm not a bit surprised that your story was picked this year. All your writing is that good. And thanks for some tidbits about the process and the characters, I mean, people involved in getting the collection out every year.

  9. Thanks, Jan. I can't imagine the effort it must take, each year, to sift through that many stories from that many sources and try to decide which ones to choose. Besides, whoever does this has to not only look for story quality but has to determine which ones can be considered "mysteries." Even using the broad definition mentioned earlier, there are obviously many stories (especially in those literary mags) that don't qualify as mystery fiction.

  10. Rob, Art and David, I am proud to know you! And John, to see your name in that publication is no surprise at all. I'm clapping like crazy from Toronto.

  11. Melodie, how nice of you! Thanks so much.

    By the way, I met a friend of yours last month in Raleigh: Rob Brunet. I told him you and I were not only e-friends but e-colleagues--and asked him to pass along my regards.

  12. I just went over to Amazon to buy my copy. I have already read your story, but it is certainly worth another read. Congratulations.

  13. Thanks, Herschel. You and I have certainly read a lot of each other's stories, over the years. I think you'll enjoy this anthology. (Start with Doug Allyn's story--it's fantastic, as usual.)

  14. I love the BAMs and now that I know you are in there, It is definitely on my list. It's funny, I just mentioned this collection to a friend last week who was looking for short crime. He'd never heard of it!

  15. Congratulations, John! You've certainly had a wonderful year of honors. I'm so happy for you.

  16. Judy, I discovered the BAMS series some time ago and try to pick up a copy every year. I remember being surprised when I once saw that my fellow Mississippian Tom Franklin was in there with a story he'd had published in The Texas Review (in fact, that story won the Edgar Award that year). Only then did I realize that literary journals are also possibilities for this anthology. I hope you'll enjoy this edition!

    Thanks, Barb, for the kind words--and the same to you! I can only hope 2016 will be half as good to us as this year has been.

  17. I can hardly wait! Congratulations, John - what a year!

  18. Thank you, Eve--much appreciated!!

  19. John, I know you're genuinely modest and humble in the best sense of the word, but it's time to stop disclaiming. The acclaim your work is getting is no accident! Repeat after me: "I am a damn fine writer..."

  20. Hey Liz! Thank you for the kind words, my friend. (Your check is in the mail . . .)

    By the way, if I recall, one of your stories was in Otto's "Distinguished" list last year!

  21. Congrats on your inclusion in this prestigious collection, John! (Meanwhile, I'm working my way through FIFTY MYSTERIES and enjoying trying to figure out the solutions to the stories. What fun!)

  22. Thanks, Josh! I'm enjoying your book as well. Congrats on your latest accomplishments, and thanks for all the time we spent together at B'con this year. Visiting with you was one of the highlights of that trip. Carolyn sends best regards.

  23. John! I think I've already congratulated you on this honor before—but congratulations again! I'm sorry to have been slow on commenting on the post here (Thanksgiving break is for catching up on all the things I haven't already been trying to catch up on!) but so much enjoyed the post here--and the quick shout-out to those of us in the honorable mention slot too! :-)
    Hope you have a happy Thanksgiving ahead. More soon!

  24. Thanks, Art! This has of course been a banner year for you, awardswise, and i hope you have a great Thanksgiving as well. Keep up the great work!


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