‘Dead Calm: Best New England Crime Stories’ Edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross and Leslie Wheeler. Level Best Books, Somerville MA, 2011. 288 pages. $15.95.
This year’s Level Best anthology of short crime fiction set in New England provides irrefutable evidence that great and entertaining writing is alive and well — at least in New England. There’s death by a shove down the basement stairs. Death by ingesting insecticide. Death by the rear tires of the farm truck. But there’s no lack of life in the writing.
In this ninth offering — a new anthology is published every fall — you see how quirky and clever New England-wrought characters can be in the hands of able writers. Go west for adventure but you are well advised to go northeast for zany crime. Among my favorites in this collection is Adam Renn Olenn’s “Coronation,” which takes place in a cabin somewhere outside of Bangor, Maine. Somehow Albert scores an interview with someone named Stephen, the “king” of macabre fiction, and in the middle of a very believable discussion about writing, Albert finds out why Stephen stayed put in rural Maine despite his massive success. It’s a masterful bit of right-on parody and storytelling by a music composer living near Boston who has never published before.
I particularly enjoy the lack of pretense and the sense of fun the authors display in these stories. What a lively bunch. Their mystery writer conferences must be memorable events; not to mention, there are a lot of them.
“Nameless” by Cheryl Marceau of Arlington, Mass., is one of the more serious pieces. A woman is fleeing from some unnamed danger. She has almost no money and no plan. She wipes out every trace of herself, even clipping tags out of her clothing and burying her credits cards. Then she takes off on a series of bus rides. Alternating with her story is the story of two detectives called to the scene of a suspicious death in a seedy motel.
One of the anthology’s editors, Barbara Ross, writes a funny piece about an aggrieved wife who gets even. “In the Rip” is full of little surprises, which is not easy in a short story, and ends with a big laugh. Sometimes you root for the wrong side, and it’s so in this story.
Pat Remick, journalist and author, manages to do a lot of clever writing in a short time. “The Lesson” is about a schoolteacher who isn’t all he seems. He may be a great teacher and a likable guy, but he also pores over dating websites for gorgeous dates. Those he finds inferior, he stands up and adds to his “loser list.” When he starts receiving letters in the mail every day with nothing more than a black dot on white paper, when his principal starts getting porn in the mail seemingly sent by Richard Springfield, and when people start getting killed, Richard begins to look guilty. This little story is fast-paced, not easily solved, full of twists and nicely tied up at the end.
“Dead Calm” is a worthy and delightful regional effort that deserves national attention. Maybe this is Level Best’s lucky year.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/.
Read the full review here.