Crimes can occur without mystery. Mysteries can occur without crime. Violent and irrevocable actions can destroy lives but bring other lives together in unforeseeable, unimaginable ways.
In 1917, in the grim waterfront section called Black Rock, in Buffalo, New York, a forty-three-year-old Hungarian immigrant was murdered in a barroom fight, beaten to death with a poker. A few years later, in a rural community north of Buffalo, another recent immigrant to America, a German Jew, attacked his wife with a hammer and committed suicide with a double- barreled shotgun. Both deaths were alcohol-related. Both deaths were “senseless.” The men who came to such violent ends, my mother’s father and my father’s grandfather, never knew each other, yet their deaths precipitated events that brought their survivors together and would continue to have an influence, haunting and obsessive, into the twenty-first century. Families disrupted by violent deaths are never quite “healed” though they struggle to regroup and redefine themselves in ways that might be called heroic.
It’s an irony that I owe my life literally to those violent deaths of nearly a century ago, since they set in motion a sequence of events that resulted in my birth, but I don’t think it’s an irony that, as a writer, I am drawn to such material. There is no art in violence, only crude, cruel, raw, and irremediable harm, but there can be art in the strategies by which violence is endured, transcended, and transformed by survivors. Where there is no meaning, both death and life can seem pointless, but where meaning can be discovered, perhaps even violence can be redeemed, to a degree.
I grew up in a rural household in the Snowbelt of upstate New York in a household of family mysteries that were never acknowledged in my presence, and very likely never acknowledged even by the adults who safeguarded them. My father’s mother, whose deranged father had blown himself away virtually in front of her, had changed her surname to a seemingly gentile name, renounced her ethnic/religious background, never acknowledged her roots even to her son, and lived among us like one without a personal, let alone a tragic, history. In this she was quintessentially “American” — self-inventing, self-defining. Her life, like the early lives of my parents, seems in retrospect to have sprung from a noir America that’s the underside of the American dream, memorialized in folk ballads and blues and in the work of such disparate writers as Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. It was as if, as a child, I inhabited a brightly lighted space — a family household of unusual closeness and protectiveness — surrounded by a penumbra of darkness in which malevolent shapes dwelled.
The earliest books to cast a spell on me were Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass, nightmare adventures in the guise of a childhood classic, and Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. Both Carroll and Poe create surreal worlds that seem unnervingly real, like images in a distorting mirror, and both explore mysteries without providing solutions. Why does the Red Queen scream, at the mildest provocation, “Off with his head!”? Why are hapless creatures in Wonderland and the Looking-Glass world always changing shape? Why does the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” kill an old man who hasn’t harmed him, and in such a bizarre manner? (Crushed and smothered beneath a heavy bed.) Why does the narrator of “The Black Cat” put out the eye of his pet cat and strangle his wife? Motiveless malignity! Individuals act out of impulse, as if to assure that irrevocable: the violent act and its consequences.
Because I grew up in an atmosphere of withheld information — a way of defining “mystery” — I can appreciate the powerful attraction of mystery as art: it’s the formal, mediated, frequently ingenious and riveting simulacrum of the unexplained in our lives, the haphazard, hurtful, confusing, tragic. A crime or mystery novel is the elaboration of a riddle to which the answer is invariably less gripping than the riddle; a crime or mystery story is likely to be a single, abbreviated segment of the riddle, reduced to a few characters and a few dramatic scenes. It’s a truism that mystery readers are likely to be addicts of the genre, no sooner finishing one mystery novel than taking up another, and then another, for the riddle is, while “solved,” never explained. But it’s perhaps less generally known that writers in the genre are likely to be addicts as well, obsessively compelled to pursue the riddle, the withheld informationn, the “mystery” shimmering always out of reach — in this way transforming the merely violent and chaotic into art to be shared with ottttthers in a communal enterprise.
Of contemporary mystery/crime writers, no one is more obviously haunted by a violent family past than James Ellroy (see the memoir My Dark Places), which accounts for the writer’s compulsion to revisit, in a sense, the scene of the original crime (the unsolved murder of his mother) though it can’t account, of course, for the writer’s remarkable and audacious talent. In an earlier generation, Ross Macdonald is the preeminent example of the mystery/detective novelist whose carefully plotted narratives move both backward and forward, illuminating past, usually family, secrets as a way of solving a case in the present. Michael Connelly’s isolato L.A. homicide detective Harry Bosch, as the son of a murdered woman, is temperamentally drawn to cold-case files, as are the haunted characters of Dennis Lehane’s most celebrated novel Mystic River and the narrator of his brilliantly realized short story “Until Gwen,” included in this volume. Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins is a private “eye” in a racially turbulent, fastidiously depicted Los Angeles milieu of past decades in which the personal intersects, often violently, with the political. In this volume Louise Erdrich’s beautifully composed “Disaster Stamps of Pluto” is, in its most distilled form, a “whodunit” of uncommon delicacy and art, set in a nearly extinct North Dakota town in which the past exerts a far more powerful gravitational pull than the present. Edward P. Jones’s “Old Boys, Old Girls” is the life story of a man so marginalized and detached from his feelings that he seems to inhabit his life like a ghost, or a prisoner. (See Jones’s remarkable story collection Lost in the City for further portrayals of “young lions” like Caesar Matthews.) In the unexpectedly ironic “The Last Man I Killed,” David Rachel explores a Nazi past as it impinges on a banal and utterly ordinary academic career in a midwestern state university.
While mystery novels are readily available to the public in bookstores and libraries, mystery stories are relatively hidden from view. Only a very few magazines regularly publish them — Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine come most immediately to mind; the majority of mystery stories are scattered among dozens of magazines and literary reviews with limited circulations. The inestimable value of The Best American Mystery Stories series is that the anthologies bring together a selection of stories in a single volume, with an appendix listing additional distinguished titles. While guest editors for the series appear f...