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Mystery Dance

Crime stories as hot as a cigarette coal

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As Joyce Carol Oates notes in her introduction, "Crimes can occur without mystery. Mysteries can occur without crime." And superb mystery anthologies? They occur this way: Take an accomplished author and voracious reader (Oates), add crackling dialogue, toss in sublime range, top with a pitch-perfect blend of contributors (famous and fledgling) -- and there you go.

Oates sifted through hundreds of short stories and selected 20 captivating tales, ranging from Lemony Snicket creator Daniel Handler's "Delmonico," a howdunit exploring a trapeze artist's escape from a mansion's locked room, to Oz Spies, whose "The Love of a Strong Man" details the downward spiral of a wife who learns her husband is a serial rapist.

Reading this collection offers compelling evidence of how much quality writing goes overlooked by the mainstream. Many entries carry unfamiliar bylines -- Richard Burgin? Joseph Raiche? -- and entertain with killer precision.

Raiche, in "One Mississippi," relates a heartbreaking account of a man widowed during a homicidal subway shooting rampage and the subsequent hollowness induced by the perpetrator's public execution.

Another anknown writer, David Rachel, delivers a delicious dissertation on deceit in "The Last Man I Killed." It follows a conniving faculty member (and former SS member) at a Midwestern university as he maneuvers into a position heading -- yes -- the German studies department.

The brand-name writers here live up to their lofty reputations. Pulitzer winner Edward P. Jones conjures a grim world of urban decay and a sinner's desperate reach for redemption, in "Old Boys, Old Girls." Noted filmmaker John Sayles renders a sharply observed murder episode as not-quite-witnessed by retirees in a free-floating maritime clique. Louise Erdrich goes against type with a chilling local history as told by an octogenarian doctor in a dying, dusty North Dakota town, and Scott Turow, in "Loyalty," explores the intangibles that make marriages fail and succeed. Dennis Lehane, of Mystic River fame, delivers the showstopper, "Until Gwen." The story begins as a Tarantino-spiked picaresque before descending into a dark, mournful ballad worthy of Johnny Cash.

Lehane's muscular narrative hammers everything else into oblivion. A typical example: "Then the window came down like yanked netting and chucked glass pebbles into your shirt, and you felt something in your head go all shifty and loose and hot as a cigarette coal."

Now that's smokin'.

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