17 December 2016

Twenty Years of B.A.M.S.

by John M. Floyd

I'm not much of a goal-setter, in my writing. Like all of us, I try to do a good job of writing stories and submitting them to markets--but beyond that, I don't feel there's much I can do. If something gets published, great. If something good happens after it's published (awards, other recognition, etc.), that's icing on the cake, and I'm honored and grateful if/when it does. But that's out of my control.

Having said that, I think there are certain things that most mystery writers have on their bucket lists. One might be to win an Edgar, or even to be nominated. Or to win other writing awards, or to have a story picked up for a film. If you're a writer of short mysteries, an additional dream might be to appear in the annual MWA anthology or an Akashic noir anthology.

I've been fortunate enough to grab a few of these golden rings, as have most of you. One of my fantasies was realized last year, when I had a story chosen for The Best American Mystery Stories 2015.

The B.A.M.S. file

I would guess that almost all of us have looked through volumes of Best American Mystery Stories at one time or another. For those who might be interested, here's a quick overview of the series, and the procedure by which the included authors are selected.

The B. A. M. S. anthologies began in 1997 and have always been published by Houghton Mifflin (later Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). In his introduction to the debut edition, series editor Otto Penzler explained that he identified and read all the mysteries published during the previous calendar year--1996--and chose the best fifty, which he then turned over to a guest editor. That editor, Robert B. Parker in this case, selected what he thought were the best twenty stories for the publication; the remaining thirty were listed in a close-but-no-cigar honor roll in the back of the book, called "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 1996." This process has been continued every year since. Those lucky enough to be in the "top 20" are notified, early in the year, that their stories will be featured in the book. Contracts are then sent out, the writers are paid, and the anthology is published in the fall.

Where does Otto go to find all this original fiction? "The most fruitful sources," he said in the B.A.M.S. 1997 intro, "are the mystery specialty magazines, small literary journals, popular consumer publications, and an unusually bountiful crop from anthologies containing all or some original work." Apparently the field consisted of around 500 stories at first, and has now expanded to become 3,000 to 5,000 stories a year. His colleague Michele Slung apparently does most of the initial culling, and is, according to Otto, "the fastest and smartest reader I have ever known."

The names of all the guest editors can be found in the opening pages of every edition, but they're so impressive I'll list them here as well:

1997 - Robert B. Parker
1998 - Sue Grafton
1999 - Ed McBain
2000 - Donald Westlake
2001 - Lawrence Block
2002 - James Ellroy
2003 - Michael Connelly
2004 - Nelson DeMille
2005 - Joyce Carol Oates
2006 - Scott Turow
2007 - Carl Hiaasen
2008 - George Pelecanos
2009 - Jeffery Deaver
2010 - Lee Child
2011 - Harlan Coben
2012 - Robert Crais
2013 - Lisa Scottoline
2014 - Laura Lippman
2015 - James Patterson
2016 - Elizabeth George

20/50 vision

As I mentioned earlier, the stories featured in the anthology are the top twenty of the year, chosen by the guest editor. Those named in the Distinguished Mysteries list in the back of the book are the runners-up, the "rest" of the top fifty that were originally chosen by Otto Penzler.

I restated that because most folks don't know about it--including, until recently, me. At the 2012 Bouchercon I had the opportunity to meet Lee Child, one of my favorite authors. I remember saying to him (babbling, probably), "I saw that one of my stories was listed as "distinguished" in The Best American Mystery Stories 2010 . . . and, well, since you were guest editor that year, I'd like to thank you for that honor." He said something kind and gracious and we both went on our way. What I didn't realize at the time was that my story was in the "distinguished" list because it was one of the fifty that Otto had selected, not one of the final twenty that Child chose. What I'd done, essentially, was thank him for not picking my story to be in the book. Good grief.

An SS/B.A.M.S. history

From looking at my own editions of the series, snooping on the Internet, and pestering my fellow mystery writers for information I couldn't find elsewhere, I have created the following unscientific report of current and former SleuthSayers who have wound up either in Best American Mystery Stories or named in its "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list. Please forgive me, and correct me, if I've overlooked anyone.

year       included in book (top 20)              named in "distinguished" list (the rest of the top 50)

1997 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1998 ----Janice Law--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1999 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2000 ----David Edgerley Gates-------------------John Floyd----------------------------------------------------
2001 ----------------------------------------------------David Edgerley Gates-------------------------------------
2002 ----David Edgerley Gates-------------------R.T. Lawton---------------------------------------------------
2003 ----O'Neil De Noux--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2004 ----------------------------------------------------O'Neil De Noux, David Edgerley Gates----------------
2005 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2006 ----------------------------------------------------O'Neil De Noux-----------------------------------------
2007 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2008 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2009 -----------------------------------------------------Dixon Hill-------------------------------------------------
2010 -----------------------------------------------------Art Taylor, John Floyd-----------------------------------
2011 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2012 -----------------------------------------------------Eve Fisher, Janice Law, John Floyd--------------------
2013 -----O'Neil De Noux, David E. Gates-----Janice Law, B.K. Stevens-----------------------------------
2014 -----------------------------------------------------David Dean, Elizabeth Zelvin--------------------------
2015 -----John Floyd---------------------------------David E. Gates, Rob Lopresti, Art Taylor--------------
2016 -----Rob Lopresti, Art Taylor-----------------David E. Gates, R.T. Lawton, John Floyd--------------


Here are some things I found interesting about the above chart:

- As you can see, not one but TWO SleuthSayers have stories that made it to the top 20 and into the book this year: Rob Lopresti and Art Taylor. Both are tremendously deserving of the honor, and--not surprisingly--neither of them is a stranger to the limelight. Both have been recognized with multiple awards and honors over the past several years.

(Art Taylor and I seem to have a strange connection: This year, when he made it into the book, I made the "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list; the year I managed to get in, he was in the "distinguished" list; and one year both he and I had stories listed as "distinguished." In other words, I always root for Art all the more, because if he's involved I seem to have a better chance of sneaking somewhere into the picture as well.)

- For the first 18 years of the series (before the 2015 edition of B.A.M.S.), only three SleuthSayers had stories featured in the book (top 20): David Edgerley Gates three times (2000, 2002, and 2013), O'Neil De Noux twice (2003 and 2013), and Janice Law once (1998). And only recently have two SleuthSayers been in the top 20 in the same year--O'Neil and David in 2013 and Rob and Art in 2016.

- When you combine the SSers included in the book and those named in the "distinguished" list, David Edgerley Gates has made the top 50 an astounding seven times (2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2013, 2015, 2016), I've made it five times (2000, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016), O'Neil four (2003, 2004, 2006, 2013), Janice three (1998, 2012, 2013), Art three (2000, 2015, 2016), R.T. twice (2002, 2016), Rob twice (2015, 2016), and Dixon Hill, Eve Fisher, Bonnie Stevens, David Dean, and Liz Zelvin once each.

- David Edgerley Gates's stories were either included or named in the "distinguished" list in four out of five consecutive editions (2000-2004) and in another three out of four (2013-2016). Also, O'Neil De Noux's stories were either included or distinguished in three out of four consecutive years (2003-2006). A lot of fine stories over short stretches of time.

- In only six years out of B.A.M.S.'s 20-year history have no SleuthSayers been included in either the anthology or the "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list--but in one of those no-SS years (1997) Criminal Briefer Melodie Johnson Howe was featured in the book, and in another year (2011) CBer Angela Zeman appeared in the "distinguished" list. And by the way, Angela was also included in the book in 2004 and Criminal Brief founder James Lincoln Warren made the "distinguished" list in 2010. (I couldn't resist mentioning those colleagues; Criminal Brief was the forerunner to SleuthSayers, and Rob, Leigh, Janice, and I were all CBers in a previous life.)

- In the before-I-forget department: Frequent SS guest-blogger Michael Bracken was named to the "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list in 2005.
That's my take on Best American Mystery Stories and its connection with our blog. If nothing else, it might steer you to some SleuthSayers' stories in the old volumes you might already have on your bookshelves. (In the course of putting this column together, I wound up going back and reading a lot of them.) May ALL of us be represented often in B.A.M.S.'s pages in the future.

Many thanks to Otto Penzler, to his assistant(s) and his guest editors, and to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, not only for providing us with outstanding reading material but for giving some of us the opportunity, and the great honor, to be a part of the series.

Here's to another twenty years!


  1. Another twenty years indeed!
    One thing that stood out for me in your list was the welcome increase in women editors just over the last few years. I think you will probably notice an increasing number of women included in the selections as well.

  2. Yes, three women editors in the past four years, Janice. And I think you're right, there'll be more women's stories included in the book also. (Most of the magazine editors I submit to, these days, are female.) Is there a trend here someplace???

  3. Wow, I didn't even know that I had a story make the "Distinguished" list in '14. I guess that it's true that even a blind pig finds an acorn every now and then. Congrats to all my fellow Sleuth Sayers on their BAM contributions! And thanks to you, John, for doing this research.

  4. It's great to be a part of this blog - so many great writers!

  5. John — Great post, and pleased that you and I have crossed paths a couple of times in the BAMS pages! Another coincidence: I had almost literally the exact same conversation with Lee Child that year and then the exact same realization soon afterwards. So I was there with you in more ways than one. :-)

  6. This is an intriguing post, John, and an impressive list. I have the current BAMS on my table and read a story or two to unwind from my own writing at the end of the day. This year's collection may be one of the best, and the SleuthSayers contributions top the list. Told my wife I was going to learn a lot when Janice invited me to join the group, and this proves it.

    For more of your bucket list, Rob and I have both won the Black Orchid Novella Award, and Janice and I were both included in the 2013 MWA anthology Vengeance. My story was nominated for an Edgar, too. I didn't win, but it's hard to feel bad about losing an award to Karin Slaughter.

    This essay and your previous post on short stories demonstrate that the form is alive and well, which is terrific news.

    Thanks for another informative post.

  7. Though you were concentrating on SleuthSayers members (and one hanger-on), I wonder what a similar list would look like for magazines/editors. Which publications (or which editors, in the case of anthology editors) have been most-often represented?

    And then, how does that correlate to SleuthSayers members?

    I suspect the strongest correlation is going to be AHMM or EQMM to SleuthSayers members. That is, SleuthSayers members more often make the final 50 with stories first published in AHMM or EQMM. But that's only a guess. I wonder what the reality is?

    (FWIW: Three stories from anthologies I edited made the Other Distinguished Mystery Stories list. None made it into the top 20.)

  8. A lot of fun, John, and not just because my name appears in it. You seem to be missing the obvious reason the membership of SleuthSayers has become more prominent in BAMS in recent years (taking up a full 10 percent of the 50 slots in the last two years.) Clearly it is because the writers joined SleuthSayers, which cast a great light upon them. (Prove I'm wrong.)

    Michael, as for your theory that we appear because we are in EQMM and AHMM, my "distinguished" story appeared in EQ but my recent appearance in the top 20 was from an anthology called nEvermore! (Exclamation point in the original.)

    By the way, a few years ago I wrote about which writers I had appered with the most often in magazines. The winner (or victim) was Michael Mallory, who had shared pages with me six times: http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2012/03/stablemates.html

  9. Nice post, John. Alas, my stories have not appeared among the chosen in BAMS. But it leaves me something to aspire to.

  10. Gee, John, until you published your blog article, I didn't know one of my stories made The Other Distinguished Mysteries list in 2002. That had to be either the second or third story I sold to AHMM, which now explains why Michelle Slung came up to me during an Edgars reception about that time and told me one of my stories almost made it into BAMS. My writing ego floated on that recognition for about a year, but I had no idea the story got listed in the back of the book for 2002 until now.

    Thanks for digging up all that history.

  11. Just wonderful, how many Sleuthsayers have had stories selected! Platinum company, we are in. Congrats to all!

  12. Just arrived back home from a booksigning about 100 miles east of here--sorry not to have responded yet to recent comments.

    David -- Like you, I wasn't even aware that one of my stories had been honored that way, until years later. They never officially notify those whose stories make the top 50 but aren't chosen for inclusion in the book. But hey, I'll take any little bit of recognition I can get!

    Eve, I agree--I feel fortunate just to be a part of this group. My goal has been to try to eventually meet all the SSers face-to-face, but I still have a long way to go. Bouchercons have helped, though, in that regard.

    Thanks, Art. That IS a coincidence. One thing about Lee Child, though--he was as open and friendly as I'd hoped he would be, even though he didn't know me from Adam.

    Steve, we're just lucky to have you in-here-amongst-us. I've already learned a lot from your posts. And congrats to you, and Rob and Janice also, for those additional honors.

    Michael, I'm not sure I have enough dedication to try to assemble a list like the one you've described. As a group, I too would imagine SleuthSayers have published more stories in AH and EQ than anyplace else, and maybe the Strand as well.

    Rob, that's a good theory--I agree! And, like you, I'm always pleased when I happen to appear along with writer friends in certain issues and anthologies.

    Barb, your honors and awards are many, and will continue to be. We're fortunate to have you in this group.

    R.T., as I mentioned in response to David's comment, I too bopped along in blissful ignorance of my 2000 appearance in that BAMS list until six or seven years later. And I also discovered long afterward that one of my AHMM stories, "The Blue Wolf," was selected for a similar "honorable-mention" list in The World's Best Mystery and Crime Stories 2, in (I think) 2001. Hey, I was just glad I found out about it at all!

    Thanks, Melodie! We need to also make a list of Canadian awards!!

  13. Thanks for compiling all this information, John. Interesting post! And congratulations to all who have had stories included or mentioned.

  14. Pretty impressive. And congratulations to everyone.

  15. Bonnie, it was actually fun trying to find all this stuff. I have a bunch of the BAMS editions here at home, and I located some of the lists at Amazon using the "Look Inside" feature, but since that wasn't always available I also pestered Art, O'Neil, Paul, James Lincoln Warren, Leigh, Rob, Janice, Eve, David Dean, Liz, Melodie Johnson Howe, and others to try to make sure of all the names.

    Paul, thanks for your help as well. Here's hoping that the 2017 edition will include even more of us.


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