APRIL 1, 2020
ANNE PERRY’S ANTHOLOGY Odd Partners, a showcase sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America, is an entertaining and compelling hodgepodge. If the reader anticipates a particular kind of mystery story, the book will challenge expectations. The selections are remarkably diverse, featuring everything from talking dogs solving mysteries to bees that avenge a human benefactor. The 19 tales are all fun and often enthralling, and the sheer range among them is impressive, though at times the variety can be a bit overwhelming. I like dog noir — à la Jacqueline Winspear’s “The Wagatha Labsy Secret Dogtective Alliance” — as much as the next person, but sometimes less is more.
The collection starts with editor Perry’s compelling and tensely wrought “Reconciliation,” set in the brutal trenches of World War I. Jack, our war-weary protagonist, must find Private Richards, a tormented young recruit, before he gets killed trying to prove himself as reasonably brave. Along the way, Jack befriends a German tunnel rat, and they work together to rescue Richards. It’s a good, suspenseful read.
The next story, William Kent Krueger’s “The Nature of the Beast,” is concise and sharp, with an angularity that is refreshing and challenging. And how can you not be moved by a story that starts off with the line “I am a Neanderthal” and ends with the mysterious death of a rapacious developer hell-bent on ruining paradise? Joe R. Lansdale’s “Sad Onions,” an installment in the author’s “Hap and Leonard” Texas noir series, is an entertaining hard-boiled buddy story that could easily be retooled as a Netflix pilot — or an episode of the Sundance TV series based on the novels. Our heroes adroitly root out police corruption, the tale ends with a satisfying shoot-out, and the narration and dialogue are suitably laconic:
Clover had wrapped Jones’s head in towels and then put a black trash bag over it, tightened it around her neck with a bathrobe belt. Leonard and I were both in handcuffs. I wished for a moment that I had just taken the chance before that was done, been shot out in the open and had it over with.
As Clover drove, Jones’s body rocked between us.
“You two have made things kind of messy,” Clover said through the wire grating between the seats.
“That’s our bad,” Leonard said.
“Sad Onions” is mostly tongue in cheek, but it’s enjoyable, and the plentiful violence is lighthearted.
A few stories, such as Charles Todd’s “Blood Money,” build on Perry’s “Reconciliation,” revealing the complications of morality in war. While both stories work well, “Blood Money” would have benefited from greater narrative economy. Some of the other stories, while often compelling and always readable, feel a little mechanical, with resolutions that come across as forced. Amanda Witt’s “Hector’s Bee’s” falls into this category: it’s entertaining but weirdly complicated, with the vengeful bees stealing the show.
Adele Polomski’s “NO 11 SQUATTER” is a relationship-driven tale that entwines race, dementia, and class issues; a criminal is tossed into the mix, and though this addition isn’t really necessary to the plot, it doesn’t harm the complex dynamic Polomski creates. Claire Ortalda’s “Oglethorpe’s Camera” might be the most inventive of the stories, a complex comedy that is surprisingly lighthearted about sex, divorce, and death. Mark Thielman’s “A Cold Spell” succeeds in exploring the brutality of Puritan hypocrisy while solving a clever mystery. Georgia Jeffries’s “What Would Nora Do?” is a domestic tragedy that segues brilliantly into absurdist comedy. The protagonist is driven mad by her cheating husband and goes to jail for killing him; after doing her time, she tries to make it in the world, but even the solace of shopping at the Container Store in Old Town Pasadena (a favorite haunt of mine) cannot save her from another violent encounter. Despite the heroine’s occasional lapses into psychotic rage, the story offers her an opportunity for a redemption of sorts.
Odd Partners is a strange bird, awkward at times, but once in the air, it really does fly.