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The guilty vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict—By W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden (Harper's Magazine)

I read another story from the Best American Mystery Stories of the Century anthology last night. It was Jack Ritchie's the Absence of Emily. The story has a couple of interesting features. The narrator is the only suspect in the murder of his own wife. He is, more or less, an unreliable narrator. He never explicitly lies to the reader, but he does lie to other characters through words and deeds. Which is not to say that Ritchie is above throwing in a couple of red herrings just for the reader. The narrator explains that, despite owning a mansion, his wife has little money. The reader thinks, "ah! Then he has scant motive to murder his wife." However, the narrator then goes on to imply that he murdered his first wife for less money still. So, the unreliable narrator plays with the reader a little, but Ritchie keeps things pretty fair. The other interesting thing about Emily is how closely it follows a pattern with which the reader is bound to be extremely familiar. It reads like every husband-kills-wife-her-family-suspicious story that airs every night on any one of a half dozen true crime TV shows. And Ritchie works it. He uses that true crime template to firmly guide reader expectations. As a longer story it wouldn't work, but at eight or nine pages it's pretty sweet. I wonder if this story could get published today by an unknown author, or if an editor would toss it after only reading the first two pages.

If I'm going to write in the mystery genre, I had best be familiar with its history. I have read widely in the genre, but not deeply and not with any sort of plan. So, I tallied entries from several best-of lists.

This list is not the least bit comprehensive. G.K. Chesterton is glaringly absent, for example, because no one agreed on which of his works is the greatest (the votes were split in effect). P.D. James is missing for the same reason. I have read both James and Chesterton extensively (and recently), so I left them off. I have read about 1/3 of those twenty, but not in many years. I had never even heard of several novels on the list, including Trent's Last Case. I'm a few chapters in, and enjoying it thoroughly. If you want to explore best mystery lists yourself, here are a few:

Tonight I read the Lawrence Block short story By the Dawn's Early Light (from the Best American Mystery Stories of the Century anthology). I enjoyed it. The protagonist is a hard drinking ex-cop named Matt Scudder who places justice ahead of the law. I haven't read any other Block pieces, but the story is told as a flashback so I assume Matt is a series character.

Thinking about the story, I remembered Matthew Baldwin's post about the difference between noir and hardboiled fiction. By the Dawn's Early Light is certainly hardboiled by that definition, but I'm not certain if it would also be entirely noir.

I picked-up an anthology called the Best American Mystery Stories of the Century. I'm going to read a bunch of the stories, and write little critiques in order to better understand the mystery short story form.

I was a reader all my life. I got it from my parents, who both spent hours with their noses in books. My mother preferred to sit on the floor in front of a heat register (usually the one under the breakfast counter in the kitchen). I think I was around seven years old when I first decided to write a book. I remember pulling my mom off the floor, saying "we can write a novel." That masterpiece is lost to history; I only remember that it was a mystery. I was heavily into the Bloodhound Gang and Scooby-Doo at that age. I was even head of a detective club with some neighborhood kids.

I think it's time to write a mystery novel again.