Some mystery writers start with conventional forms—the whodunit, the caper, the tale of revenge—and fill them in; Cohen (Taking Gary Feldman, 1970, etc.) starts with nifty ideas and fills them out. An endodontist lugs home a discarded rug just like the one his wife craves and finds a body rolled inside; a bagman is stranded with a locked briefcase bulging with banknotes in midtown Manhattan. “A Case of Grand Cru” and “The Ransom of Retta Chiefman” update “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Ransom of Red Chief.” And a surprising number of these 15 reprints from 1973 to 2000 have their origins in dreams. Sometimes Cohen’s premises run down instead of winding up, as in “Neville,” which uses Jamaican voodoo for a flat sample of exotica, or “I’m Sorry, Mr. Griggs,” which turns a disgruntled sharpshooter loose at a ski lift. And the stories that involve escalating conflicts, like the battle of wits between the homeowner and the delinquent in “The Battered Mailbox,” the idealistic landlord and his tenants in “How Much Justice Can You Afford?” or the wealthy citizen and the couple he takes out for a fast-food lunch in “Homeless, Hungry, Please Help,” gather so much momentum that their payoffs are inevitably anticlimactic.
At his best, though, in “Nadigo,” a ghostly anecdote about what happens when two young men get off a train in the middle of Arizona nowhere, or in the superlatively creepy title story, Cohen has something of Scheherezade’s gift of keeping you reading because you just can’t stop.