The Dark End of the Street
New Stories of Sex and Crime by Today's Top Authors
Illustrations by Jonathan Santlofer
Bloomsbury: 292 pp., $16 paper
To a fan, there's nothing like a good mystery anthology. These books have a box-of-chocolates quality that allows us to pick and choose or plow right through. Read your favorite author in the collection? Or save that story until the end? Choosing is part of the fun. Also, a good anthology can introduce us to writers we did not previously know.
Jonathan Santlofer and S.J. Rozan have brought together an impressive group of contributors for "The Dark End of the Street: New Stories of Sex and Crime by Today's Top Authors," including bestselling crime writers Michael Connelly, Lee Child and Lawrence Block. But the editors haven't limited themselves only to those who work within the genre. Also featured are Jonathan Lethem and Joyce Carol Oates — so-called "literary" writers who work in, out and around genre — as well as Amy Hempel, Francine Prose and others who are not known for writing about crime at all.
This, as it turns out, is an important distinction, for subtitle aside, the stories here are more about crime than sex. The collection does have the femmes fatales, twisted serial killers and suave-but-dangerous gentlemen that we expect from pulp or neo-pulp. But if the material does range from vanilla to the nearly kinky, most entries are barely R-rated; this is largely bodice-ripper stuff. The book is heavily, although not exclusively, heterosexual. ("I've Seen That Movie Too" by Val McDermid is a notable exception; her femme fatale, Cerys, is worthy of James M. Cain.) Something with a little more edge would have been a good addition to the mix.
"The Dark End of the Street" is saved from being an outright bait and switch by a couple of funny, sexy stories. James Grady's elegant "Night Stalkings" isn't overtly sexual, but it is steamy in the tradition of good pulp. And in "The Creative Writing Murders," Edmund White is ribald, a little mean and dirty in the best sense of the word. White takes the usually staid academic murder mystery and turns it on its head. His descriptions of the various faculty members of Wilford College are hilarious.
Most of the stories work as pure entertainment. The authors are having fun, and it shows: This is airplane/beach/hotel reading at its best. There are a few exciting exceptions — strange stories that take things a little deeper, in the way noir should.
"Celebration" by Abraham Rodriguez is almost a prose poem, but the language doesn't get in the way of the narrative. This piece serves well as an introduction to an author who deserves a wider audience. Lynn Freed's "Sunshine" mixes genres by veering into fantasy territory with dreamy, sensual prose. In "Deer," Janice Y.K. Lee gives us quirky, sad characters and a sense of impending violence. Lee has a beautiful ear for dialogue. When a conversation begins nonchalantly with "Frank killed somebody once … did I tell you?" we know we're in for a bumpy ride.
There are other fine efforts, true to the reputations of the writers involved. Lethem moves reality slightly left of center, easing us into his surreal vision and ending with a clever line that recalls a famous psycho killer. Connelly and Block are tough, ironic and technically perfect. Oates, in what is arguably the book's standout effort, uses her perfect pitch to draw us into a tale of confused perceptions inside a troubled family. Prose's piece reads, convincingly, like a personal essay, although any story that begins, "As a child, I was fascinated by decapitation" and includes the line "beheading is only part of what I thought about in my spare time" promises to be deliciously perverse.
Santlofer and Rozan also contribute satisfying stories, and Santlofer's illustrations have a nice noirish quality. One flaw in the package: Since a function of any anthology is to introduce new authors, a list of contributor's biographies would have been helpful.
But that's a minor problem in a collection that is so rewarding. "The Dark End of the Street," though a little light on sex, is smart and entertaining — a welcome addition to any carry-on.
Hill is the author most recently of "The Incredible Double."