For me, short stories are like potato chips--it's hard sometimes to just stop at one. Short stories are really underrated in my opinion. There was a time when I gave wide berth to the genre, but now I have endless collections on my shelves and I look forward to discovering new stories and new authors. You never quite know what you'll get with a story. Sometimes titles aren't enough to give an idea of where an author will take you. It's like an unknown adventure--you just have to be willing to open the door and cross the threshold.
Let's see--it's taken me ten years(?) to discover The Mammoth book of Best British Mysteries. This is volume ten, edited by author and mystery bookshop owner Maxim Jakubowski (he also edited Following the Detectives). Although I've picked up and own a few other of the "Mammoth Book of" collections, I'm afraid I've only now discovered the Best of British Mysteries. It's disappointing then to find out that it may well be the last of the series. Jakubowski hints that it may be the last volume: "as the market for short stories and anthologies changes, its retail profile changes, too . . . ". Some other similar collection in a new (and digital) incarnation may take its place. Such a pity to hear that. At least I will have ten volumes of mystery/crime writing to go back to.
With more than forty stories collected here it was hard choosing which to read. Should I stick with a name I'm familiar with (Neil Gaiman, Ann Cleeves, Edward Marston, Sarah Rayne, Adrian McKinty) or try someone unknown to me (Amy Myers, Steve Mosby, Nina Allan, Tony Black)? In the end the tie breaker was to read the three stories that had been awarded prizes. Peter Turnbull won the Edgar and Margaret Murphy and Cath Staincliffe co-won the CWA Short Story Dagger. And I see that several of this year's shortlisted titles are also included in this collection.
First up the two CWA winners. Although quite different stories, they shared similar themes. In both cases it was a matter of be careful what you wish for--or rather be careful what you nick as you might find yourself in for much more than you bargained for. Both ironic in their endings and both had a certain poetic justice--though one was more warranted than the other. cautionary tales, I guess you'd call them.
In Margaret Murphy's "The Message" a young boy living in Liverpool in the early 1970s is a practiced "grafter". He's been eyeing a bright orange Raleigh Chopper in a neighborhood shop. If you want something bad enough you have to go where the action is, so he does odd bits of work in order to earn a little money towards his prize, a new bicycle. He'll mind cars for a fee (there being the threat that if the driver doesn't pay up he may return to find his car up on bricks).
He finds a suitable target but this one seems to have something to hide. Literally, the man--shifty-eyed--has a small carry-all that he takes great care to take from the car and then lean back in and hide it after a look around the street. Surely the bag must contain something valuable? Vincent imagines it to contain wads of cash, so once the man goes into his hotel he casually opens the door, finds the carry-all and lifts it. The contents are unexpected in more ways than one. They are less valuable than deadly, though Vincent doesn't quite realize just how much so, and the man who has lost them . . . well, let's just say his superiors are none too pleased with him.
In Cath Staincliffe's "The Laptop", it's another case of someone stealing something that they will later come to bitterly regret. There's enough money to be had in the theft of laptops for the narrator of the story to make a profession of it. She's unapologetic about her work; it's almost like being a freelancer. It's easy money and the hours are right--eight maybe ten hours a week and the rest for her own pleasure. She dresses nicely, professionally so who would suspect her? Passwords aren't always so difficult to break, and for those she couldn't she would pass on to someone who could. All in all easy money.
The Manchester Airport is one of her reliable trawling grounds. Four or five times a year she'd work the business flights. So many possible targets she could pick and choose. Her method of operating is slick and she always has a back up plan on case someone catches her. But what happens if the laptop you steal has something on it you shouldn't be privy to? Something you don't want to be privy to. And being a thief how can you turn it into the police and explain how you came by it.
The last story is a bit more perplexing and a quick reread I think is in order. In Peter Turnbull's "The Man Who Took Off His Hate to the Driver of the Train". I guess it is a story of human behavior as noted by a policeman who had been called to the scene of what seems to be a suicide. But what drives a man to throw himself in front of a moving train. Or who drives him there. A man of integrity until he does something so shameful there is no other way out.
I think now I am going to need to read this year's CWA shortlist (to that end I've requested two more books from the library so I can get to all six stories). The Mammoth Book of Best British Mysteries has "Method Murder" by Simon Brett, "Come Away with Me" by Stella Duffy and "The Case of Death and Honey" by Neil Gaiman. Perhaps I'll tell you about these next Sunday (or maybe I'll get back to Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op). Which to read--such a good dilemma to have.