“Cutting Edge: New Stories of Mystery and Crime by Women Writers”
Edited by Joyce Carol Oates with stories by Margaret Atwood, Aimee Bender, Edwidge Danticat, Valerie Martin and others. Published by Akashic Books, 2019. 288 pages. $28.95
“Shape of Night”
By Tess Gerritsen. Published by Ballentine Books. 2019. 268 pages. $28
“Haunted House Murder”
By Leslie Meier, Lee Hollis and Barbara Ross. Published by Kensington Publishing, 2019. 325 pages. $26
We like to be - maybe we need to be - scared out of our wits every now and then. This time of year haunted houses spike the adrenaline in a good way. We know the headless, bloody torso we just tripped over is all in fun. Not so in the Joyce Carol Oates story, “Assassin,” that falls at the end of a book of extremely readable short noir fiction - “Cutting Edge: New Stories of Mystery and Crime by Women Writers.” Oates delivers to us a woman in mid-delusion … maybe. The woman wields a grudge and a double-serrated knife and a kind of invisibility she can count on. Such people walk among us, do they not?
And though Tess Gerritsen’s new novel, “The Shape of Night,” is fiction, too, who hasn’t seen someone sinister in an upstairs window, someone who didn’t belong there? And what is it about Maine? The book “Haunted House Murder” features three scary mysteries by respected cozy authors Leslie Meier, Lee Hollis and Barbara Ross. All take place in coastal Maine. We already know that villages both quaint and picturesque practically beg for trouble.
Joyce Carol Oates starts off “Cutting Edge” with an excellent essay about noir in literature. She writes that in noir, a woman’s place until fairly recently has been limited to one of two roles, muse or sexual object. She’s compiled a book of new stories told from the female point of view. “Suddenly, the male becomes the object of the protagonist’s gaze,” she writes.
“One of These Nights” by Livia Llewellyn has more shocking twists than most full-length mystery novels and they spring, like goblins, when you least expect it. But the protagonists are not goblins, they are adolescent best girlfriends with a dangerous, sly agenda. Lisa Lim’s graphic story, “The Hunger,” is about a young woman, Lilly, who has skin “as tough as beef jerky.” She deals harsh justice, unperturbed.
This collection is exceptional, including Oates’ own contributions. Her six poems - dark, smart and energized - are deep and savory worlds worthy of many reads. “Siren Brooding on Her Eggs” and “Spider Signatures” both give us points of view that remind us just how insightful, witty and talented Oates is. “Assassin,” her short story, reveals the mind of a 53-year-old woman whose murderous obsession is triggered by the hissing of a radiator. Perhaps Oates was exploring motivations of people who commit random murders when she came up with this unlikely assassin who set her sights on the Prime Minister, an arrogant and hateful man that fate chose her to kill.
Tess Gerritsen, author of the bestselling “Rizzoli and Isles” detective series, has just published a new, stand-alone thriller, “The Shape of Night.” It’s an unapologetic, erotic ghost story that leaves us breathless, at times. “A ghost, after all, is every woman’s perfect lover,” says her protagonist, Ava Colette. Ava rents an old but restored mansion on Maine’s coast for the summer. She is put off by the place at first, but she is, fortunately, rather fearless. She also needs to finish a cookbook that’s a year overdue and she needs to face up to her excessive drinking and bad behavior.
This thriller offers up a panoply of stunning evils. Neither Ava nor the reader can discern whether the ghost, Captain Brody, is real and whether his intentions are nefarious. Many women resembling Ava have died in that house. Odd that she doesn’t worry about her own well-being, but for a good part of the book she’s too intoxicated to walk a straight line. Captain Brody, in his nighttime visitations, tells her she can trust him and that he will deliver exactly what she wants and deserves. Alas, her guilt is extreme so Captain Brody doesn’t hold back.
Maeve Cerridwyn, a professional ghost investigator, is smart and compassionate. She brings some balance to the story when she arrives with her crew and all their recording equipment. If there’s something evil lurking in the house, she has the tools to document it. We welcome the investigators because they will find out what’s really going on. Unfortunately what’s uncovered is disturbing.
Gerritsen knows how to craft a mystery thriller. Ava is an attractive young woman who befriends two men, a young doctor and a master carpenter who is also an accomplished artist. With all the goings-on in the house, it’s hard to trust anyone besides Maeve, who keeps telling Ava to get out and never look back. Ava, like so many protagonists in mystery novels, is headstrong to a fault.
For a bit of a lighter read, “Haunted House Murder” by a trio of cozy mystery writers is just the ticket. These Maine stories are lots of fun and unlikely to deter anyone from renting a place on the coast for a quiet getaway.
Rae Padilla Francoeur can be reached at Rae@RaeFrancoeur.com.