When a Stranger Comes to Town
“When a Stranger Comes to Town will give you the very best of what crime fiction should deliver. Means, opportunity, and obsession—right?”
Just seeing Michael Koryta’s name as editor for When a Stranger Comes to Town makes a mystery reader’s fingers itch to open the cover—which also bears the names of noted crime fiction authors like Alafair Burke, Michael Connelly, Joe R. Lansdale, Joe Hill, and Lisa Unger. There are 19 wildly varied stories in this collection from the Mystery Writers of America, and each one packs a punch of plot and character, bound so tightly in the short story format that their power can be explosive. Or, on the other hand, haunting.
Part of the fascination of these compressed-action stories is wondering where they fit into each author’s outpourings. For example, the Michael Connelly story has nothing to do with his iconic protagonists Harry Bosch and (Lincoln lawyer) and Mickey Haller. Instead, it gives us a nearly solo detective on a busy resort island, with a plot twist that provides both whiplash and high excitement. So you have to wonder after reading it: Was this a character that Connelly intended (or will intend) to introduce into one of his two big series? A situation he imagined Bosch falling into? Or something he dreamed up especially for Koryta’s Mystery Writers of America collection, with delight in building a new “world” and characters?
On the other hand, S. A. Cosby, in spite of being an Anthony Award winner, isn’t anywhere near as well known. His “Solomon Wept,” just nine pages long, opens the volume with a startling glimpse into a desperate female criminal’s world. The experience of stepping into this story will take many readers off in search of more by this Southern author.
Compare that to the hefty 44-page story from Lisa Unger, so complex that it’s divided into twelve mini chapters, with a major plot twist that emerges in the final section. Or explore for diverse experiences, like the horror that Joe R. Lansdale serves up (if you’ve read his crime novels, you’ll be ready), a toe into Mumbai crime with “Kohinoor” by Smita Harish Jain, Ukrainian online crime and love (!) from Bryon Quertermous, or the emergency-room story from Steve Hamilton, set at the front edge of the COVID-19 pandemic: “It’s a cold night in February and Charlotte is about to see her first snowfall. And her first gunshot wound.”
Positioned as the collection’s finale is “Last Fare” from Joe Hill. A quirky and tender tale that veers into speculative fiction, it holds the potential for crime to erupt out of all the interpersonal tensions revealed. That may be one of the big “life lessons” from reading crime fiction: that crime doesn’t come out of a vacuum, but often from the pain and not knowing what to do next. Hill’s precision comes through in this shred of experience for Gene, who’s losing everything via her alcohol problem, and desperate enough to risk her very soul, it seems, in a taxi ride: “The time bomb tick-tick-tick of the meter gave her a queer feeling in the head. She reached for the crank and lowered her window halfway, feeling a sudden urgency for fresh air. The night smelled of baked clay, the still-hot kiln of the painted desert. The stone-oven heat rushed in and dried the bad sweat on her forehead.”
That’s the marvel of really fine short stories: Despite the intensity, the demand that everything important take place in a handful of pages, these authors provide vivid details of character and location and terrible situation so that in almost change of protagonist, there’s a fresh demand for attention, excitement, and even compassion.
When a Stranger Comes to Town will give you the very best of what crime fiction should deliver. Means, opportunity, and obsession—right?