Book Review: Top Suspense

 The only thing I enjoy more than suspense stories, noir, and protagonists with alternative moral philosophies are Advance Reading Copies. 

 So when Libby Fischer Hellman, whose work I admire and whose collaborative blog I follow , offered an eARC of Top Suspense: 13 Classic Stories, 12 Masters of the Genre for review, I jumped at the chance for thirteen good reads and a blog post.

 Because I’m all about the altruism.

 I sat down with my laptop on Wednesday, intending to read a story or two before moving on to my own project.  I started at the beginning, as one does, with “Unreasonable Doubt” by Max Allan Collins.*  I loved watching Nathan Heller work again.  So much so that I took a peek at the next story. 

 After an hour and a half of just-one-more, I’d read the entire anthology.

The blurb says, in part: 

 . . .sit back, bite down on a piece of strong leather, and prepare to get hit by some gale-force suspense and writing so sharp it will draw blood.

 If you need an example of truth in advertising, Top Suspense will do the job.  Each memorable story evoked a strong reaction, whether humor or horror, noir-weary despair or holy crap shock. 

 Some of them work a combination, notably the exquisitely disturbing  “Poisoned” by Stephen Gallagher, which I refuse to describe at all for fear of ruining it, and Ms. Hellman’s “The Jade Elephant,” in which regret and reparations are paid just in time—at least for the victim. 

A few of them come close to all four:  Lee Goldberg’s “Remaindered” is a humorous nightmare of a cautionary tale for writers and librarians.  And my reaction to the reveal in “The Baby Store” by Ed Gorman made the lady next to me the café ask if I was all right . . . I’m still not sure.

Of all of these, Harry Shannon’s excellent “Handful of Dust,” might come closest to a true horror story, in which a human monster finds out he’s not at the top of the food chain anymore.   In contrast, the lightest of the collection—in mood, not quality, if that even needs to be said—might be Dave Zeltserman’s caper-based story, “The Canary.”  The ending isn’t in question, but getting there is all the fun.

 Both “Death’s Brother” by Bill Crider and “The Chirashi Covenant” by Naomi Hirahara provide unrelieved noir, though the settings are vastly different.  In classic tradition, their protagonists are each damaged before the first sentence, though Ms. Hirahara’s beautifully-layered Helen Miura evokes some sympathy and Mr. Crider’s Jon Cline only a weary shake of the head, poor sap.

Paul Levine’s “El Valiente en el Infierno,”  is singular for its protagonist, who may be the only genuine hero of the collection, and for an ending that offers hope, however fragile, that the next story for these characters might actually follow a different pattern.  Joel Goldman offers less reassurance in “Fire in the Sky,” in which young people race down a well-worn path towards a dubious future— while assuming they invented the shortcut.  “The Big O” by Vicki Hendricks offers no such expectations at all, although I’m curious to see how Chance might turn out .**  

There’s something for every suspense fan in this anthology—and if you aren’t particularly fond of the genre, this might change your mind.  It’s a great introduction to suspense written right.

The only criticism I have is that Top Suspense appears to be formatted exclusively for the Kindle***—though I do have a Kindle Reader on my laptop, so it’s not an obstacle as much as a preference for my Sony Touch. 

But believe me,this anthology is  well worth reading in any format.


 *Full disclosure:  Mr. Collins is considered something of a home town hero in these parts and he and his wife have been generously involved with the writing center a few streets away from my library. But to be fair, I’d devoured all his Heller novels before I moved up here.

 **And have been humming a certain song in anticipation.

***New information:  Ms. Hellman has informed me that a print version should be released in a few months—just in time for Dad’s birthday (and mine)!