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When Crime Does Pay

Hiaasen assembles rich collection of mystery tales

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Meet Keller. He's walking around New York shot up with Novocain after a lengthy dentist's visit.

Keller watches a bit of street-hustle basketball on a playground. Since childhood, any game of hoops has always depressed him. Keller is a contract killer and -- delicious irony -- his next job is in Indianapolis, where his patron has left him a couple of tickets to watch the Pacers.

More basketball, more blues. Driving around Indianapolis and circling his mark, he takes time out to engage in sardonic banter with Dot, who serves as a bit of a sales rep for Keller's killings. Their banter wanders here and there, leaving plenty of room to argue over whether words such as "shenanigans" and "fiddle-faddle" can be used without shame -- before returning to the details of offing another target. To kill time, Keller searches for stamps, a habit ingrained by his long-running role as a relentless philatelist.

Welcome to "Keller's Double Dribble," a delightful dose of workaday criminal enterprise by Lawrence Block. His gun-for-hire has the easy, wry sensibility of an Elmore Leonard character, one reason that both Block and Leonard routinely run up the best-seller lists. That Keller winds up bonding with his intended victim in an insider-trading scheme makes for the perfect bit of poetic (in)justice.

Block's story is one of many gems to be found in The Best American Mystery Stories 2007. The annual collection of widely varying crime tales is in its 11th incarnation, this time with guest editor Carl Hiaasen.

As series editor Otto Penzler makes clear in his introduction, the mystery series remains devoted to far more than mere detective stories. Mystery, as Penzler defines it, encompasses "any short work of fiction in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or plot." Such latitude leaves room for infinite possibilities, possibilities that Hiaasen mines with great success in the stories he has chosen.

For every familiar name such as Block, there are writers that most of us have never encountered. That their work stands up alongside the household names provides ample evidence of how many good writers are criminally overlooked.

Start with the collection's first story, "Stab" by Chris Adrian. A little boy whose conjoined twin brother has just died encounters a far more harrowing circumstance in his neighborhood. An orphaned neighbor, a little girl named Molly -- known for an auspicious vocabulary and an obsequious manner with adults -- enlists the narrator in a brutal string of animal murders and mutilations.

Molly wields a fairy-tale dagger, stabbing rabbits, dogs, horses and, eventually, even making an unsuccessful murder attempt on the local sheriff. "In the dark his blood was black on the snow," Adrian writes. "He lay on his face and was silent. I stood in the snow, clutching my pipe and wondering if I should hit him with it."

A ne'er-do-well father named Sussman gets hit with something else: the horror of absentmindedness. Sussman turns his head for a split second on a New York subway platform -- "to check out that hoochie mama in the low-slung ram-riders and the spaghetti-strand top" -- and then discovers his 6-year-old is behind the closed doors of a moving train headed for Coney Island. Gone is the idyllic father-son day of bonding at the theme park, replaced by utter panic, dread and helplessness. This simple, nightmarish premise fuels Peter Blauner's "Going, Going, Gone."

In John Sandford's "Lucy Had a List," an embittered 17-year-old golf prodigy exacts revenge on a country club pro. The evidence turns up nose-first in a bunker guarding a dogleg turn along one of the holes. Sandford reveals an alternately amusing and horrifying murder as conceived by a methodical, calculating teenager destined, perhaps, for the LPGA -- but not jail.

It should come as little surprise that James Lee Burke serves up yet another pitch-perfect story with "A Season of Regret." Optimistic fatalism courses through this account of a man reckoning with the sorrows of his past while recognizing the cruel, violent streak lurking in all of us. As always, Burke juxtaposes human atrocities with natural wonders, in this case those found in Montana's Bitterroot Mountains.

Of the 20 stories in Hiaasen's anthology, there isn't a single clunker in the bunch, an impressive achievement for any literary juror. And, as a quick perusal of just one of these tales demonstrates, the true crime would be for mystery lovers to miss out on these gems.

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