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The Mysterious Bookshop Presents the Best Mystery Stories of the Year: 2021


The Mysterious Bookshop Presents the Best Mystery Stories of the Year: 2021

edited by Lee Child, series edited by Otto Penzler

Ever since I left New York, I’ve missed my visits to The Mysterious Bookshop. Whether it was their current location on Warren Street or the previous one in midtown, this is a place created for readers and lovers of literature like me. I have nothing but fond memories of going there for holiday parties, author talks and signings, or just the random opportunity to speak with owner Otto Penzler about their Sherlock Holmes collection.

Therefore, it was a total pleasure for me to read and review this book brought to us by Otto Penzler and The Mysterious Bookshop, and edited by bestselling author Lee Child, as we take a look at some of the best mystery stories of 2021. Each is written by either very well-known authors or less popular ones, but all are award nominees or winners in their field. I will be highlighting six of them that stood out to me.

“Blest Be the Ties That Bind” by Michael Bracken
Imagine if a wealthy gangster attempted to use a local church to “clean” his illegally gotten cash by including it in the Sunday tithing collection. When Robert Connelly, the pastor of the Union Revival Baptist Church, marries Heather, they hold both the ceremony and the wedding party on church grounds. It is here that a mysterious man approaches Pastor Connelly and whispers in his ear something about his wife. He never gets a chance to track down this person but does recall the same unknown man also having words with the church treasurer.

When the gangster does reach out to the pastor directly, it happens after Heather has been mugged while shopping. The man offers $100,000 to the church as their cut in the business of “cleaning” upwards of a million dollars. Pastor Connelly reaches out to a law enforcement friend of his, and together they devise a plan to safely and smoothly rid the church of their slight problem.

"Each [story] is written by either very well-known authors or less popular ones, but all are award nominees or winners in their field.... I thoroughly enjoyed this collection."

“Harbor Lights” by James Lee Burke
The great James Lee Burke takes a break from his Dave Robicheaux stories to bring us this tale set in 1942 on the Gulf of Mexico just off the Louisiana coast. It is here where Aaron’s father points out the bodies he sees floating face down in the water. An ex-military man who shares his wit and wisdom with his son, he is also the only one shrewd enough to put two and two together and conclude that an enemy submarine may have been to blame. During the brief afterword, Burke proclaims that “Harbor Lights” is his best short story as he put his entire life into it.

“The Gift” by Alison Gaylin
Oscar winner Lyla McCord is appearing at the London premiere of her latest film, Desire of Annabeth. She gets the message every mother dreads: Inspector Harrison of Scotland Yard regrets to inform her that her daughter, Fidelity, has gone missing from their home in upstate New York. Lyla catches the next flight back to the States so she can join her husband, Nolan, at their place in Shady, New York --- within the heart of the Catskill Mountains --- to assist the police in whatever they need to find Fidelity. Once readers discover what “The Gift” actually means (yes, there is a psychic involved), everything will make sense in this well-written tale.

“If You Want Something Done Right...” by Sue Grafton
Sue Grafton left us far too soon, and ironically after the letter “Y” in her alphabet-titled mystery series. Her contribution is a tale involving a wife stuck in a childless and now possibly loveless relationship with her husband. She is trying everything she can think of to prove his infidelity but has not turned up anything as of yet. So she seeks out the assistance of someone who can “take care” of her issue, and they decide on poisoning --- a favorite method of murder made famous by Dame Agatha Christie. Of course, as you can gather from the title, some things are better done by yourself.

“The Fifth Step” by Stephen King
At one time, readers might have been surprised to find Stephen King’s work in anything but a horror collection. However, he has proven to the world that he is a top-notch writer who is not constrained by genre tabs. Harold Jamieson is recently retired from his role with New York City’s Sanitation Department and enjoying retirement at his home in Queens, where he can work on his garden. He is met one morning by a complete stranger who finds himself on Harold’s doorstep seeking help. Jack claims to have been a former salesperson and wants to know if Harold is familiar with The Steps. The two proceed to swap stories, and once the Fifth Step is revealed, the discussion will really get interesting and possibly deadly. This is an unsettling story that only a master like King could have created.

A surprise entry in this above-average collection was not written in 2021 but way back in 1888 by the great Ambrose Bierce. Even if you have never read Bierce, you probably are familiar with his story used for an Oscar-winning short film, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. It’s a classic, and it inspired me to read more by him. The story included here is called “My Favorite Murder,” and all you need is the opening line to get you hooked: “Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity, I was arrested and put upon my trial, which lasted seven years.” To quote Stan Lee, “’Nuff said!”

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. In the foreword, Otto Penzler states, “Long ago I came to agree with the brilliant John Dickson Carr, who wisely averred that the natural form of the traditional mystery is not the novel but the short story.” Lee Child adds his own observation: “Therefore, you’ll also agree the items included here should be called simply stories, and those other things their authors produce from time to time should be called long stories.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on October 15, 2021

The Mysterious Bookshop Presents the Best Mystery Stories of the Year: 2021
edited by Lee Child, series edited by Otto Penzler

  • Publication Date: September 14, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 451 pages
  • Publisher: Mysterious Press
  • ISBN-10: 1613162383
  • ISBN-13: 9781613162385