Monday, July 16, 2007

Stories from the bargain bin

Feeling unreasonably glum over the weekend, I stayed in and read a book I'd picked up in the clearance aisle at Border's for $3.99--not bad for close to 800 page. Transgressions is a collection of ten previously unpublished novellas by Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Walter Mosley, Ed McBain (who also edited the volume), and six other authors. The only common denominator is that all the stories deal somehow with crime.

Overall, the book is uneven but enjoyable. The most memorable work is Joyce Carol Oates's creepy but compelling thriller "The Corn Maiden," which gives away many of the secrets right at the start but remains suspenseful throughout. Oates knows how to make syntax sing. Sharyn McCrumb's "Resurrection Man" is a really lovely treatment of an ugly historical fact: the need to procure fresh corpses for medical students at a time when dissecting human corpses was illegal. Her carefully researched novella explores the intersections of medical ethics and racial discrimination in the American south before the Civil War and during Reconstruction.

Several of the authors deal with racial or ethnic hatred (McCrumb, Mosley, McBain, Anne Perry), and several explore the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks (McBain, King, Lawrence Block). Stephen King's "The Things They Left Behind" provides a thoughtful metaphor for survivor guilt but is also disarmingly funny.

And then there's "Archibald Lawless, Anarchist at Large: Walking the Line" by Walter Mosley, an utterly improbable mystery full of unbelievable characters which I nevertheless found delightful. Lawless is a volatile character, looking like "a rattlesnake in a Sunday bonnet, a stick of dynamite with chocolate coating up to the fuse." Mosley's confident prose goes rollicking off in all directions and there's nothing to do but hold on and enjoy the ride.

A few of the works are less than stellar. "Hostages" by Anne Perry introduces an unlikely but likeable hero, but the other characters tend toward caricature. "The Ransome Women" by John Farris features a suspenseful and original plot, but I couldn't shake the feeling thatI was reading a movie treatment for a blockbuster summer thriller starring Julian McMahon as the psychopathic artist, Scarlett Johansson as the dewy-eyed ingenue, and Demi Moore as the murderous Lady in Black.

"Forever" by Jeffrey Deaver is crawling with crime-fiction cliches, but it features an interesting detective, Tal Simms, who approaches all of life with the mind of a mathematician: "Yes, he'd had many interesting evenings with his 2 2/3 dates every month. He'd discussed with them Cartesian hyperbolic doubt. ... They'd draft mathematical formulae in crayon on the paper table coverings at the Crab House. They'd discuss Fermat's Last Theorem until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. (These were not wholly academic encounters, of course; Tal Simms happened to have a full-size chalkboard in his bedroom.)" Sadly, these brief moments of humor are the sole bright spots in an otherwise unmemorable work.

So all told the collection of 10 novellas contains four I would gladly read again (Oates, King, McCrumb, Mosely) and several others I enjoyed reading even though I'll forget them by tomorrow, Wednesday latest. Not bad for $3.99.

No comments: