The bestselling author of the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache adventures selects this year’s outstanding short mystery fiction in the 22nd entry in Otto Penzler’s long-running series.
Penny, who writes only full-length novels, marvels at the compactness of short stories. And the stories she selects as the year’s best are, in her own words, “lean, muscular, graceful.” Even the longest have a clean, unitary narrative arc. In “Too Much Time,” Lee Child offers one more glimpse of Jack Reacher, whose offer to give the police a statement about a botched mugging he’s witnessed leads like a set of cascading dominoes to increasing peril. Alyce, the naïve college student in Joyce Carol Oates’ “Phantomwise: 1972,” finds herself caught in a web of events more mundane than Reacher’s but just as terrifying. These two stories, though compact, occupy more than 20 percent of the real estate here. David H. Hendrickson’s “Death in the Serengeti” chronicles a ranger’s battle with rhino poachers in Tanzania. Martin Limón’s “PX Christmas” pits GIs against human traffickers during the Korean War. And in Brian Silverman’s “Breadfruit,” the owner of a Caribbean watering hole is puzzled to find two examples of the island’s homely culinary staple sitting on his bar one morning. But some of the most poignant stories are set closer to home. Michael Connelly’s “The Third Panel” is set in an abandoned model home stranded in the desert outside Lancaster, California, and Louis Bayard’s “Banana Triangle Six,” in a single room of a nursing home; both offer a chilling look at people overpowered by their own misguided choices.
The year’s top 20 mystery stories offer a variety of delights, not the least of which are what Penny calls their “brilliant marriage of intellect, rational thought, and creativity.”