The Interrogator and Other Criminally Good Fiction will probably derive most of its notoriety from the fact that it was the last anthology put together by legendary anthologist Martin Greenberg (in conjunction with the equally legendary Ed Gorman), which is a bit of a shame. As notable (and unfortunate) as that particular bit of trivia is, it’s the book that deserves attention, a meaty collection of nearly thirty stories from many of the leading lights in crime fiction. Not every story hits, but plenty of them do, and there’s something for every palate.
The opener to the collection is actually not fiction; it’s an essay by Jon L. Breen about the state of crime fiction in 2010. There’s some interesting material in there about the rise of the eBook, but what the piece really does is pin a collection that really feels timeless to a particular year, reflexively dating it. At the very least, the essay should have been moved to the end; where it sits, it sets expectations that the stories neither can nor should meet.
But the stories, those are worth talking about. The author list includes David Morrell, Joyce Carol Oates, the unfortunately ill Tom Piccirilli, Michael Connelly, Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane and numerous other recognizable names. What’s even better is that most of them are working outside their comfort zones here – Connolly does a “Lincoln Lawyer” short and the Collins-Spillane collaboration’s an early Mike Hammer, but most of the pieces push the envelope in exciting, interesting ways.
One of the highlights of the anthology is the very last piece, a serial killer story from David Hong entitled “Plainview” that elegantly sandbags the never-ending stream of television police procedurals with their easy captures and smug punishments for the guilty. The case here – small-town murders with an obvious suspect – gradually becomes less important than what it means, and the effects it has on the men who live in its shadow. Clark Howard’s “Escape From Wolfkill” is another winner, detailing the escape of three elderly cons from a prison built especially for the elderly. Opening fiction “The Interrogator”, from David Morrell, follows the question of the efficiency of interrogation methods down a logical rabbit hole, to interesting, understated effect. Don Winslow’s “Old Men and Old Boards” is an elegiac love letter to a vanished California; the thematically similar “Sometimes You Can’t Retire” by Marcia Muller gives us a droll glimpse at a pet lover who takes his sympathies very seriously. And Kristine Kathryn Rusch pulls a switcheroo for the ages with “What People Leave Behind”, setting up an intensely sympathetic protagonist and then explosively yanking the rug out from under her – and the reader.
Not every piece is a strong one, of course, but even most of the misses are interesting and challenging. Piccirilli’s “The Return of Inspiration” is less a crime story than one of self-realization, albeit with the trappings of a more dangerous genre. Robert S. Levinson’s “The Girl in the Golden Gown” takes a wonderful premise – a millionaire in love with the woman in a portrait he purchased, and a detective’s attempt to hunt her down for him – and rushes to its conclusion. “The Scent of Lilacs”, by Doug Allyn, is a Civil War tale that’s as much Western as it is crime fiction, and its elegiac pace may be a little slow for the readers impatient to get to the two-fisted Mickey Spillane stuff still to come. But even these pieces – Connolly’s light-hearted take on an indecent exposure charge in “The Perfect Triangle”, Lee Child’s “Section 7 (A) Operational” with its tongue-in-cheek peek at the the source of a thriller writer’s inspiration, and the rest – offers something interesting.
Again, it’s highly unlikely that every reader is going to like every piece in the collection. But Greenberg and his co-editor Ed Gorman have done an excellent job of collecting stories that hew to the theme while expanding on it, changing up mood, tone and style in such a way that the book never feels repetitive or dull. Cemetery Dance could do far worse for one of its initial crime fiction offerings. Fans of the genre will find much to enjoy, and newcomers will get a well-stocked buffet of highlights to whet their appetites for more.