Thursday, December 15, 2016

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2016,
Part IV: Stephen Miller

Stephen Miller was a regular contributor to Mystery News, writing the “In the Beginning” column about new crime-fiction writers for several years. He has also penned posts for The Rap Sheet and reviews for January Magazine. Originally from Central Ohio, Miller now makes his home in Massachusetts with his wife, Leslie, and spends his days working in the insurance industry.

Crime Plus Music: Twenty Stories of Music-Themed Noir,
edited by Jim Fusilli (Three Rooms Press)

In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper, edited by Lawrence Block (Pegasus)
Short-story anthologies look easy—a reasonably well-connected author or editor handpicks an assembly of similar writers, gives them the theme of the collection, sits back … and voila, a year later appears a perfectly balanced quilt of short fiction, memorable but not overwhelming, that readers can dip into every now and again. It strikes me as not unlike leading a jazz quintet—everyone gets a solo, but no one should be a spotlight hog to the detriment of the other journeymen. Well, that’s the theory, anyway. Often, the results are less than optimal. The theme is weak, perhaps, or the editing too light and the stories entirely forgettable once a page is turned. In late 2016, two terrific new anthologies broke the mold, favoring discerning readers of short fiction with tales of particularly high quality. Most of us know Jim Fusilli as the creator of the Terry Orr series of private eye novels (Hard, Hard City, etc.). In his day job, however, Fusilli is the rock and pop music critic of The Wall Street Journal, which makes him well-suited to edit an anthology of crime fiction set in and around the music scene. While many of the stories in Crime Plus Music focus on musicians (among them Naomi Rand’s “The Misfits,” about a creepy, predatory producer taking advantage of a naïve girl band), a surprising number of them center around the role music plays in the lives of civilians and how we react to music and let songs serve as the soundtracks of our lives (see “Me Untamed,” by David Liss, for what can result from some auditory courage). A particular standout here is David Corbett’s “Are You With Me, Doctor Wu?” which contains a terrific villain who reminded me of Dashiell Hammett’s Kaspar Gutman, plus several sly references to the Steely Dan album which contains the inspiration for Corbett’s title. (On a related note, this year I also dipped into Fusilli’s Catching Up: Connecting with Great 21st Century Music, a collection of essays about the current state of pop music, and I direct all music lovers to follow my lead.)

In his own 2016 collection, In Sunlight or in Shadow, Lawrence Block amasses another impressive roster of short-story writers (not a single one of whom is duplicated from Crime Plus Music), who were asked to choose a favorite painting by Edward Hopper, the 20th-century American master most closely identified with the theme of urban loneliness and solitude, and go at it. Not all the resulting yarns are mysteries; Jill D. Block’s “The Story of Caroline,” for instance, certainly has an element of the unknown, but it can’t be truly classified as crime fiction. Yet each contains the elements associated with Hopper—characters with troubled pasts and uncertain futures, alone in their thoughts with or without helpful accomplices. Many of the authors mustered here pop up frequently in themed anthologies (Stephen King, Michael Connelly, Joyce Carol Oates), but Block also throws two surprises at us. Craig Ferguson, formerly of late-night television, contributes a laugh-out loud yarn that contains both a whale and the ghost of Elvis Presley; while Gail Levin—author of the definitive Edward Hopper biography—offers a story about the value of owning a Hopper original (as Block notes in his introduction, Levin tells us about “an extraordinary little-known episode toward the end of the artist’s life, of which she has firsthand knowledge”).

Both of these short-fiction collections are well worth your attention.

The Girls, by Emma Cline
(Random House)

I suppose it’s possible that reasonable minds could fairly debate the inclusion of young Emma Cline’s literary-fiction debut in a tally of exceptional crime fiction, but I long ago gave up that particular ghost—if there’s crime at the center of a story, that’s good enough for me. Cline’s coming-of-age novel about a girl at the periphery of a Manson Family-like cult envelops the reader in a cloud of foreboding that the noir masters could respect. Set during the Summer of Love, 1967, this tale finds an impressionable and largely abandoned 14-year-old Evie Boyd walking her bicycle on the side of a road in Marin County, California, just a few short weeks before she is due to be shipped off to boarding school. That’s when her life changes. After encountering a group of free-spirited girls in a park, she’s swept up by them and taken to their knockabout compound. There she is drawn not to the godlike Russell, this novel’s Charles Manson stand-in, but instead to raven-haired Suzanne, the leader of these acolytes who blindly follow Russell’s increasingly erratic orders. Although in the case of Suzanne, she also serves to provide subtle manipulation, egging Russell on to exercise his worst and deadliest tendencies. Suzanne provides the dramatic lynchpin to both this book’s final act of violence and the haunting secret that Evie will take with her into her adulthood. Cline’s prose is occasionally difficult to claw through, but the characters and atmosphere make up for any stylistic overreach. Fans of Laura Lippman and Donna Tartt will be rewarded here.

1 comment:

Richard L. Pangburn said...

The Hopper that stands out is NIGHTHAWKS, which was the inspiration for Tom Waits' classic 1975 album, NIGHTHAWKS AT THE DINER. The album ciover was a parody of the picture. Wikipedia notes other parodies of that particular picture as well.