A cold collection of crime stories

2009-08-12 00:00

GOOD collections of crime short stories should leave one feeling satisfied and yet haunted by several different kinds of disquiet — satisfied because the stories are skilfully written, combining clever plotting, split-second timing and delicious surprise, and disquieted because of the glimpses afforded of the endlessly varied dark corners of the human spirit.

This collection of 23 tales fails on both counts. Sure, all of the stories focusing on two of the traditional “deadly sins”, lust and avarice (misnamed “greed” by editor Elizabeth George — not the same thing) are ably written, and although almost none of the authors — apart from George herself — will be known to South African readers, all are experienced and many well published.

They know how to put a story together, how to plot, how to pace, how to introduce characters, how to handle dialogue, how to build a climax. A lot of them have obviously read the classics, such as G.K. Chesterton and Guy de Maupassant, and have faithfully applied the principles.

And yet with all this there’s very little memorable about the collection. It’s workmanlike, competent, readable and, on the whole, flat as a pancake.

The only sparks, for me, came towards the end, where there are five stories by less experienced writers, students in George’s creative writing classes, apparently as yet unspoiled by the rigours of writing for money.

Among these peppier offerings, only one really stands out, Z. Kelley’s Anything Helps.

It may be no more than a new take on an old theme already well worked by such as O. Henry, but it’s genuinely touching and one of the very few that seems not to have been written by numbers.

As her Inspector Lynley novels declined into unreadability, Elizabeth George began to grow very self-important about writing and about teaching people how to do it (see her book about it, Write Away).

This collection suggests that she should sit quietly, think hard, write nothing and attempt to teach no one for a good long while.

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