Landrigan, Linda (ed). Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine Presents Fifty Years of Crime and Suspense.

NY: Pegasus Books, 2006.

I read a lot of mystery, private detective, police procedural, and general crime fiction, but it’s nearly all novel-length. In my experience, mysteries just don’t work well in short-story form — unlike science fiction, say, where short stories have been a major part of the market since the 1930s.

Still, there have been a number of mystery pulps published over the years, and one of the best (and practically the only survivor) is Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which began in 1956. And a number of well-known crime and mystery authors got their start there. The thirty-four stories in this fat volume range in their original appearance from 1957 to 2004 and a number were selected based on reader-popularity polls, which is a good method for a project like this. Still, a great many of them, perhaps most of them, depend on gimmicks of the most obvious sort, especially the earlier ones. This is even true of “Not a Laughing Matter,” a 1958 story by the great Evan Hunter.

Also, some of those early efforts simply don’t work anymore, largely because readers’ sensibilities have shifted. The “hero” of Jim Thompson’s “The Frightening Frammis,” for instance, is no longer the endearing tough guy the author hopes to portray. He’s simply casually abusive to every female he comes across. A very poor story that could never be published today. The ending of Jack Ritchie’s “#8” is so obvious, you can see it coming from the opening sentence. On the other hand, talent will usually out and Donald Westlake’s “Good Night! Good Night!,” about the slow, ruminative death of a TV variety show host, is very good indeed. Avram Davidson is usually thought of as a science fiction author, but he also won at least one Edgar, and “The Cost of Kent Castwell,” a riff on New England thriftiness, is easily the wryest and funniest thing here. “A Candle for the Bag Lady,” by Lawrence Block, is also excellent, relating a not-quite-case from early in Matt Scudder’s career. In fact, the murder mystery itself is minimal in this one; what draw you in is Scudder’s conversations with a variety of intriguing people.

Writing styles change considerably as you progress through the book and by the time you get to Martin Limon’s “Pusan Nights,” about a couple of extremely hardcore U.S. Army MPs in Seoul, you’re definitely in the modern age. There’s more meat in the stories and less fancy footwork and razzle-dazzle at the point of resolution. And sometimes there even isn’t a real resolution, just like in Real Life. “Erie’s Last Day,” Steve Hockensmith’s yarn about a rather depressive cop and his more upbeat buddy, is quite good. “Tabloid Press,” a cat-and-mouse story by Janice Law, is even better. “Leaving Nairobi,” by Ed McBain (who was really Evan Hunter wearing a different hat), considers a murder in the countryside of Kenya rather than the 87th Precinct. And I admit I was a bit surprised to find the English/Welsh Rhys Bowen represented here, in the volume’s last story, from 2004. I think of her as a writer of light, somewhat frothy “women’s mysteries,” but “Voodoo” demonstrates her perhaps surprising understanding of certain aspects of New Orleans black culture.

Overall, I was “whelmed,” as Matt Scudder says. Neither over nor under, but somewhere in the middle. While there’s some very good writing in this volume, I guess mystery stories at short length simply aren’t for me.

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