edited by Ed McBain

Published by Forge

784 pages, 2005





Short But Savage

Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith


Poor novellas. They just don't get any respect. Not quite short stories and not quite novels, these literary Dangerfields are too big (at 10,000 to 40,000 words long) for most short-fiction markets and a tad on the skimpy side for standalone book publication. So what do you do with 'em?

The "brilliant idea," as crime writer Ed McBain boasts in his introduction to the new, industrial-size Transgressions, was to "round up some of the best writers of mystery, crime, and suspense novels, and ask them to write a brand-new novella for a collection of similarly superb novellas to be published anywhere in the world for the very first time."

Unfortunately, like the novella itself, this 784-page hodgepodge of an anthology is neither quite fish nor fowl. While the 10 writers featured are certainly impressive in their own rights, the results run the gamut from "Wow!" to a qualified "Huh?" Theme-wise, story length just isn't a strong enough unifying factor, and the "loose adherence to crime, mystery, or suspense" is actually very loose indeed. But the ultimate irony may be that a few of these stories go on -- forgive me -- just a little too long.

Things certainly kick off promisingly enough with "Walking Around Money," an easygoing Donald E. Westlake tale featuring his always affable professional thief, John Dortmunder; and they draw to an equally pleasant conclusion with "Keller's Adjustment," a Lawrence Block yarn about his whimsical hit man going through yet another existential crisis, while at the same time suffering all the pesky inconveniences of air travel a professional assassin must face in this era of Homeland Security and multi-hued national emergency alerts. Westlake and Block are, of course, old pros, and while neither story is absolutely essential, loyal fans definitely won't want to miss out on either.

Likewise, followers of editor McBain's long-running 87th Precinct series (Fat Ollie's Book, Hark!) won't turn their noses up at his own "Merely Hate," which amply demonstrates the reason for that series' amazing longevity (2006 marks it's 50th anniversary!). In fact, this tale, which finds homicide detectives Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer hot on the trail of a serial killer who's apparently targeting Muslim cabbies, is one of Transgressions' highlights, providing a hard little look at the stupid hatreds that, unfortunately, reverberate around us more loudly than ever in this post-9/11 world. (The tragedies of that day in 2001, or more precisely their aftermath, are almost the unspoken -- or even, perhaps, considered and discarded -- theme of McBain's collection, being featured either directly or by inference in several of Transgressions' stories.)

But the absolute highlight here has to be Anne Perry's "Hostages," a taut, angry piece of business that nails extremism -- of faith, of politics and even of love -- right to the bloody wall. It introduces us to Bridget O'Malley, the long-suffering wife of a volatile, outspoken Protestant clergyman in Northern Ireland, and the mother of a sullen teenage boy and a recently married daughter. Bridget reveals unexpected depths of character after her dreams of a much-needed peaceful family getaway are rudely shattered, when representatives of the local chapter of the Irish Republican Army drop by. "Hostages" is simply the most gripping family-in-jeopardy story I've read since Robert Crais' 2001 novel, Hostage, and a stinging indictment of blindered fanaticism and pig-headed "resolve" that's about as timely as it is timeless.

Some of the other tales contained between these covers, though, are less satisfying. There are no outright clunkers, I'm pleased to report; and in general, the quality of offerings is very high indeed. However, there are missteps. The usually strong Stephen King, for instance, offers up a disappointingly subdued tale ("The Things They Left Behind") about a New Yorker who has his own post-9/11 reverberations to deal with -- the possessions of his coworkers who were killed when the World Trade Center towers fell keep materializing in his apartment. It's an intriguing idea that goes on too long for where King ultimately takes it -- and it's by far the shortest story in this collection.

I also had high hopes for Walter Mosley's "Archibald Lawless, Anarchist at Large: Walking the Line," especially since I thought last year's Little Scarlet was arguably his most potent and fully realized novel yet. But this novella is an oddly off-kilter affair about a well-scrubbed journalism student who answers a Help Wanted ad for a "scribe," only to be drawn into the charismatic web of a self-styled, larger-than-life anarchist who works out of a downtown Manhattan office. As wild a ride as the story is -- and at times it spirals into an almost Kafkaesque freefall -- the tone seems a little bipolar, the angry contemporary political rhetoric grating uneasily against the quaintly formal Victorian-era Great Detective/Boys' World prose style -- a far cry from the street-level grit and hard drive of Mosley's best work.

Joyce Carol Oates' disturbing "The Corn Maiden: A Love Story," which has her venturing deep into the world of troubled youngsters, already so well-plumbed recently by Laura Lippman (Every Secret Thing, To the Power of Three), also features a charismatic figure at its core. But while Mosley's aptly named Lawless is a generally benign, almost cartoonish figure, teenager Jude is breathtakingly evil and unnervingly real, the ultimate mean girl whose hostility and hatred manifests itself in a kidnapping and ritual sacrifice scheme directed at a younger neighborhood girl. It's a real white-knuckler of a pulp tale that unfortunately dawdles off to a too-pat, self-consciously writerly ending and an unnecessary epilogue that's a slap in the face to the carefully orchestrated and delightfully uneasy tension that built up to it.

Jeffery Deaver's "Forever" also overstays its welcome, and gets a little too cute in the end, though it does introduce a character I would very much enjoy revisiting in the future: Talbot Simms, an earnest young mathematician employed by the Westbrook County Sheriff's Department to compile crime statistics. Tal brings his formidable talents to bear (and gets to act like a real detective, for once) on a baffling series of murder-suicides plaguing that sleepy New York City bedroom community. Deaver's yarn has some intriguing, vaguely ominous science-fiction aspects to it, and Tal's relationship with his reluctant partner, rough-hewn Detective Greg LaTour, is subtle and engaging. More please.

Sharyn McCrumb, meanwhile, travels into the past and to her beloved American South in "The Resurrection Man." This is a brooding character study on a 19th-century black man, Grandison Harris, who looks back on his picaresque life as a body snatcher for an Augusta, Georgia, medical school. It's grisly, at times, and not exactly heavy on actual plot, but it shows a surprising amount of heart.

Finally, horror writer John Farris, the only author in Transgressions whose work I was previously unfamiliar with, chips in an eerie novella called "The Ransom Women." It's a strong entry featuring a tough cop, a beautiful artist's model and a famous painter who's possibly completely off his rocker. A macabre sort of love story, "The Ransom Woman" wouldn't have been out of place on Rod Serling's Night Gallery TV series, and it also boasts my favorite line in this tome: "I've seen better art on a sailor's ass."

And so, there you have it. A big whopper of a book, costing close to 30 bucks (U.S.), in which there's bound to be something for everyone. But the question remains: Is story length a good enough hook on which to peg an entire anthology?

The best short-story compilations, to my mind, demonstrate a pervasive motif or some sort of overriding editorial vision that ensures a continuity between tales, one that can bridge the yawning gap between stylistic differences and varied voices. But Transgressions lacks that sort of thematic unity; nor does it help that the individual story introductions too often read more like slightly warmed-over press releases. So Transgressions ends up being a collection of often very different narratives, seemingly thrown together only because they share a size and a very general concept of genre -- the equivalent not of a great mix-tape but of a literary iPod on shuffle play. The individual songs may all have a great beat, but can you -- or would you want to -- dance to them all? | June 2005


Kevin Burton Smith, feeling more than a little like a transgression himself, is a Canadian living in Southern California's High Desert region. He's a January Magazine contributing editor, a columnist for Mystery Scene and Crime Spree, and the founder/editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site.