Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Cream of Crime

The Cream of Crime: More Tales from Boucher's Choicest (1969) edited by Jeanne. F. Bernkopf gives us what purports to be some of the best selections from Anthony Boucher's annual Best Detective Stories of the Year. Just as a point of clarification:"detective stories" implies, to me, that a certain amount of detective work (mystery-solving, tracking down criminals, etc.) will be done by a protagonist who at least loosely fits the "detective" role--whether that be a professional (private eye, policeman, etc) or amateur detective. A number of the stories in this collection do not fit that description--some of them don't even contain what could be called (except in the loosest possible terms) a crime. A few of these could fall into the category of moral crime--but there would be difficulty ever bringing the perpetrator to justice. This makes rating the collection a bit difficult. If I were to rate it purely on whether the product were as advertised, then I would have to give it a very weak three stars. If I rate it purely on story quality (regardless of what genre the stories ought to be listed as), then I would definitely be handing out at least four stars and quite possibly four and a half.

All but two of the twelve stories included here are very fine stories, indeed. I didn't care at all for the parody-pastiche of Sherlock Holmes by Robert L. Fish ("The Adventure the Double-Bogey Man"). I found it neither "hilarious" (as promised) nor a particularly good rendering of Holmes in pastiche. I was also promised that William Wiser "writes like an angel," but if this is the case I certainly didn't hear any harp strings or glad tidings of great joy in his "A Soliloquy in Tongues." Perhaps he writes more like a fallen angel...

In my opinion, the creamiest of the Cream presented are "A Case for the UN" by Miriam Allen deFord, "The Opposite Number" by Jacob Hay (a truly good pastiche of espionage novels), "The Oblong Room" by Edward D. Hoch, and "The Possibility of Evil" by Shirley Jackson. Only two of these (by deFord and Hoch) are strictly speaking detective/crime fiction, but all four are extraordinarily good short stories. DeFord presents a murder committed in full view of a plane full of witnesses, but such a way that it looks like the murderer can never be prosecuted--because no particular country has jurisdiction. There is a famous lawyer among the witnesses. Will he be able to find the loophole that will bring the killer to justice? As mentioned, Hay's story is a very good pastiche--it pokes gentle fun at the spy story and is quietly funny in a way that is much more effective than the blatant attempt at humor in the Fish story. Hoch's "The Oblong Room" was the 1967 winner of the annual Edgar Allan Poe award for best crime short story and it is apparent why. Hoch's story evokes the best of Poe's short stories and provides a simple plot full of atmosphere and a shocking finale. There is also a nice bit of detection included. "The Possibility of Evile" is Jackson doing what she does best--taking the ordinary village life and revealing the evil undercurrents with realistic flair. And the bit of karma that is served up to our "villain" is right on point.

Final verdict, after averaging both methods of rating the collection: ★★ and 3/4. 

Finished  5/26/19
Deaths: 7 shot; 1 poisoned; 1 hit on head; 1 stabbed

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