Tony Hillerman, author of the popular and award-winning series of Leaphorn/Chee novels, has placed his taste on the line in The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century. The title, of course, invites rebuttal. Who is to say that these are the best stories of the genre from the last hundred years? Well, these kinds of groupings are always arbitrary, and there's nothing to be done but look for gems and try not to lament the absence of your own personal favorites.
The gems aren't hard to find. It's fun to see Cornell Woolrich's splendid Rear Window (yes, the basis of the Hitchcock film) alongside William Faulkner's An Error in Chemistry. (What, you aren't familiar with Faulkner's detective from Yoknapatawpha County, attorney Gavin Stevens?) Note that the title doesn't describe the entries as detective stories. There are detectives in some of these stories from Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone to Harry Kemelman's Nicky Welt but many are crime stories that do not involve the traditional clue-chasing detective. When you find authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Willa Cather, and Pearl S. Buck alongside Sue Grafton, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald, you know that the anthologist was marching to the beat of a different drummer. This obedience to informed whim is the great virtue of this anthology.
Readers will quibble with some choices; knowledgeable fans always yell at referees. For example, with O. Henry's many hilarious and slyly deceptive con man stories, why did Hillerman choose instead to include the sentimental tale of Jimmy Valentine? However, Hillerman had the great good sense to include an outing of Melville Davisson Post's detective Uncle Abner from 1916. Not to mention a John Steinbeck and a Jack Ritchie and a fine story by the always mesmerizing Shirley Jackson. There are plenty of contemporary authors, as well, ranging the spectrum from Sara Paretsky to James Crumley. It's quite a guest list. Speaking of which, how on earth did Harlan Ellison sneak into this party? Oh, well, Mr. Hillerman is the host. We're just lucky to be invited.