The Best American Mystery series has never been for readers who want police procedurals or other traditional detective formats. These stories rarely feature anything in the way of detecting, let alone detectives; instead, they emphasize crime's narrative shapes. Few Moriarty-type masterminds here: characters stumble across or into deadly situations, stealing and killing from a sudden surge of unpredictable impulses, or they mature into worlds where crime seems to be the only option. Would-be victims fall out of danger just as they fall into it. Cops and lawyers ruminate on their own motivations.
If Robert Crais' volume has a unifying theme, it's national decay--mostly of the American variety, as one might expect from an entry in this series. Many stories unfold against a gritty backdrop of racial tensions, poverty, and sheer frustration. The most extensive treatment of this theme is Lones Seiber's "Icarus," which begins with a group of prisoners returning home for what turns out to be the search for a young girl's body, but soon unwinds into a story of a small town's rise and utter collapse. The girl's murder, which will probably never be solved, occurs in the context of a community's breakdown, its emotions emptied out along with its pockets. By contrast, the death of one African-American prisoner, possibly a would-be escapee, possibly a suicide-by-cop, suggests to another prisoner, Ramsey, that "he had succeeded, that, like a transparent cicada husk clinging to a winter-stripped limb, Webster had left nothing behind to kill" (310). In an environment of sheer hopelessness, what looks like Webster's figurative escape before his death appears to hint at a fleeting possibility of some sort of transcendence. K. L. Cook's "Filament" also dramatizes working-class lives imploding, tracking how one man's rage and increasing abusiveness in the wake of his disabling injury ultimately gives birth, not to another child, but to the moment that leads to his death. Tim L. Williams' "Half-Lives" marries mob fiction to industrial pollution, as the white narrator--a moral failure who fails once again--slowly realizes that a young African-American man was murdered because he had uncovered links between illegal dumping and the explosion of cancer in his neighborhood. The narrator's apparently empathic solution to the problem, which involves reaching out to a mob boss over their shared experience of child mortality, produces an apocalypse.
In some cases, the fury apparently arises from nowhere. Accidents happen. Thus, in Jason DeYoung's "The Funeral Bill," a landlord-tenant quarrel turns deadly; lurking behind the conflict, though, is the slumlord's cool exploitation of his tenants, such as they are. Jesse Goolsby's "Safety" and Katherine L. Hester's "Trafficking," which appear next to each other, both imagine how bystanders might find themselves inadvertently dragged under by criminal relatives. Goolsby's protagonist, however, reads his increasingly dangerous relationship with his brother-in-law as a form of providential retribution for his own unspoken crime, years before; in a world apparently lacking in effective law, the logic of providence steps in, even if only in the narrator's head. Nathan Oates' narrator in "Looking for Service," who audits big companies for fraud, winds up bizarrely adopted by some kids touring Third World countries. His instinct to protect them jars against the young woman's equally instinctive but superficial lefty impulses, leading up to a non-conclusive conclusion that the narrator is sure ends with the youngsters "dead, raped and tortured and robbed" (198)...but that, then again, may not. Symbolically cut off from his home (the title refers to his inability to get a cell phone connection), the apparently-grounded narrator is as much at moral sea as the kids.
The anxiety underlying the narrator's moral certitudes in "Looking for Service" recurs elsewhere, as characters try to find new plots for themselves in a world without reference points. Gina Paoli's "Dog on a Cow," one of the most explicitly metafictional stories in the collection, shows us one victim's attempt to stave off his own possible murder by playing Scheherezade; it works, but the conclusion brutally reminds him that other victims might well have their own stories to tell about their oppression. By contrast, T. Jefferson Parker's "Vic Primeval" shows us two crooks, would-be actors, who work by plotting life in terms of gangster scripts. As in Paoli's story, the "moral" lies in the reminder that "'[i]t's not make-believe blood'" (232): the aesthetic pleasures of televisual crime become monstrosities when real human bodies are at stake. Tom Andes' "The Hit" shows multiple lives intersecting: a bitter husband and wife, their angsty teenaged daughter, and the ex-cop turned hitman initially hired to kill the wife. Andes' decrepit hitman, morally adrift--"If he no longer wore the uniform, if he no longer had the force of law at his back, how could he know what was right any longer?" (12)--seeks certainty in a world in which all human relationships appear to have collapsed utterly. By contrast, Mary Gaitskill's protagonist in "The Other Place" has his certainty: he's a predator, a man with a "death obsession" (109), whose impulse to kill was nevertheless abruptly thwarted by an unforeseen encounter with a woman late one night. And now, his son shows signs of the same impulses. What does "right" mean to such a man?
Other stories suggest the unforeseen impact of the past on the present. In Kathleen Ford's "Man on the Run," an elderly woman who fondly remembers the days in which her family sheltered Eamon de Valera is moved to protect her great-niece from an abusive man, conquering the "[f]ear" that "had pulled her back and stopped her from taking action" (102). Thomas J. Rice's "Hard Truths," set in late 1950s Ireland, features a woman with an initially mysterious background and a very different attitude to fear, whose romantic love for her wastrel husband ultimately collides with his abusiveness. In Gothic form, the husband and wife wind up repeating one deadly (but locally famous) event in a very different key. The past also comes back in Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Local Knowledge," one of the few straightforward detective stories in the collection, in the form of a figurative vampire who has repeatedly sucked the lives out of everyone around him. The final story in the collection, Daniel Woodrell's "Returning the River," is a mood piece with almost no plot--just an act of arson, a burning house, and rage against a present world encroaching inexorably on a landscape loaded with memories. At stake is the quasi-religious "mystery" of love for place, incomprehensible to those from outside.