TOP SUSPENSE: 13 Classic Stories by 12 Masters of the Genre
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
I suspect many readers feel as I do about most anthologies, genres notwithstanding, and find them uneven as to the quality of the stories they contain. Some stories are superb, others mediocre. Some make you wonder how and why they made it into the book at all.
In Max Allan Collins’s “Unreasonable Doubt,” Chicago P.I. Nate Heller, president of the A-1 Detective Agency, while vacationing in California visits his partner Fred Rubinski and ends up taking on a case Fred is too busy to handle himself--a case based partly on fact, as Collins explains in an afterword, involving the strong-willed teenaged daughter of a wealthy couple, the girl’s gold-digging boyfriend, and a vicious double murder.
Bill Crider’s story “Death’s Brother” finds a middle-aged professor of Romantic literature engaged in some extracurricular activity with a beautiful young student: extra-legal, extra-lethal activity.
Forbidden to leave the garden without telling his mother, Dylan nevertheless sneaks off to play with some neighborhood children who take him to an industrial area beneath a country park, a trip that has serious consequences, in Stephen Gallagher’s “Poisoned.”
“Remaindered,” Lee Goldberg’s darkly comic inverted detective story, concerns a writer desperate to revive a flagging career who meets an ardent--and amorous--fan at a book signing, who invites the writer to see her collection of signed first editions, among other things. The writer’s wife is hundreds of miles away and never needs to know. Where’s the harm? It won’t kill anybody--right?
Seventeen-year-old Bobby Staley, lusting after a young woman slightly older than he, bargains with God to see her naked. Thirty-four-year-old Vivian Chase, on the run from an accomplice after half a lifetime of robberies and seeking repentance, wants only to take care of the needs of the teenaged daughter she left in the care of another years before. Their paths converge in Joel Goldberg’s potent “Fire in the Sky.”
“The Baby Store” may at first seem out of place in an anthology of stories focused on crime and mystery, but Ed Gorman’s offbeat tale of a competitive future in which prospective parents can literally design their children ultimately deals with crime on a personal and, some readers will probably believe, a societal scale.
In Libby Fischer Hellmann’s “The Jade Elephant,” a professional burglar’s conscience is piqued after he gets some good news from a doctor but learns that one of his former marks has a serious medical problem. Wanting to make amends, he must contend with a partner who is a great deal less sensitive to the needs of others, and with a very determined fence.
Maternal and murderous instincts drive the protagonist in Vicki Hendricks’ raw, explicit, and ironic“The Big O”--a woman seeking a perverse kind of redemption for the sake of her year-old son, who must contend with his abusive father from whom she’s fled, the drug-dealing abusive lover she accepts solely to have a place to live, and a hurricane that’s both literal and symbolic.
Depicting the lingering anti-Japanese sentiment that permeated southern California in 1951, Naomi Hirahara’s “The Chirashi Covenant” tells the story of a Japanese-American woman who longs to sell the house she shares with her husband, daughter, and mother-in-law in a Japanese enclave , and find a new home closer to the ocean. Her quest leads to infidelity, tragedy, and revenge.
The narrator of Paul Levine‘s “El Valiente En El Infierno (The Brave One in Hell)” is Victor Castillo, a thirteen-year-old Mexican boy who, along with others--among them a pregnant Honduran girl--is attempting a midnight border crossing into California. He wants to get to his Aunt Luisa in Ocotillo. She’ll help him get to Minnesota so he can join his father and older brothers. A couple of vigilantes from the Patriot Patrol have other ideas.
Another story that takes place in the desert, this one in Nevada, is Harry Shannon’s tense and memorable “A Handful of Dust,” in which a hit man named Pike meets and confers with a bizarre prospective client who has an even more bizarre request.
Because of his partner’s ineptitude, a thief must bid on a painting from an auction house because its frame conceals the key to a storage locker containing three hundred thousand dollars he and the partner stole. In Dave Zeltserman’s fast-paced “The Canary,” the problem is that someone else is bidding, too.
“The Chase” is the thirteenth and final story in the anthology. It’s a round-robin effort, as explained in a prefatory note: “Each member wrote 250 words and sent it on to the next until it had gone around twice. No planning, re-writing or polishing allowed.” For this reason it’s the weakest story of the lot--but saying so is akin to fruitlessly debating who’s stronger, Superman or the Hulk. Whatever “The Chase” lacks in comparison with the individually written tales that precede it, it makes up for in nearly non-stop action. Like its predecessors, it will hook and hold readers.
If the authors represented in Top Suspense are among the kings and queens of their genre, these stories are jewels for their respective crowns. Highly recommended.
Barry Ergang (c) 2011
Winner of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Award in the Flash Fiction category, Barry Ergang’s work has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. For links to material available, see Barry’s Smashwords offerings http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/cassidy20
and Barry’s webpages