The collection stretches from O. Henry's 1903 tale of a bank robber who abandons his trade ("A Retrieved Reformation") to Dennis Lehane's unsettling sketch of a post-Gothic southern town and its canine conundrum ("Running Out of Dog," 1999), and brings together authors who at first seem uneasy bedfellows. William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway jostle for space with Donald Westlake and Stephen Greenleaf; Willa Cather and Flannery O'Conner stare combatively at Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton. But as one reads along, these potentially tense alliances relax: the boundaries between "modern" and "classic," "pulp" and "literature" evanesce, leaving instead a shimmering web of serendipitous affiliations: O. Henry and Stephen King nod amiably to one another, united by the skill of their devious narrative twists.
Hillerman and Penzler's selections reflect a century-long shift in mystery fiction from an emphasis on an exterior landscape--replete with the tangible artifacts of who, what, where, when, how, why--to a growing interest in the geography of interiority. This landscape thrives on the amorphousness of its own features. In Tom Franklin's "Poachers," for example, the puzzle hardly matters at all: real people, and their endlessly convoluted relationships, do. Three orphaned brothers who live as predators in the swamps of the Gulf Coast, the old widower who loves them, the sheriff who pities them all--who kills two of the boys and blinds a third? We never really know. In any case, Franklin's infinitely shaded nuances of silence and speech matter far more than the violence of the crime itself.
And for those readers who, when all is read and done, still insist that they could have done a much better job of judging, Penzler's disarming editorial shrug serves to remind that any anthology should be approached with equanimity, a touch of resignation, and not a little humor: "There are no scientific instruments that can tell a reader which of Harlan Ellison's two Edgar-winning short stories is better. It is a coin toss, and it can't be anything else. Let's just live with it." Happily, The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century is an extraordinarily rewarding companion. --Kelly Flynn