A crime fiction short story has to accomplish a lot in a compressed space. It of course has to describe the crime involved in enough detail that it makes sense to readers; it has to create believable characters whose fates you care about, at least enough to arouse your curiosity, if not your admiration; and the narrative has to move along briskly—skirting the law isn’t an occupation for laggards. The twenty-one crime stories in the new anthology Jacked, edited by Vern Smith, manage to do all this and then some.
A lot of the stories are pretty dark indeed, and I was interested in how some of the authors managed nevertheless to produce a few laughs. A bit of humor is a welcome addition to what can be a rather bleak assessment of human frailty. Here’s how the stories in this collection manage it.
In several, the situation itself is innately funny. An example is Eric Beetner’s “First Timers,” in which a pair of inexperienced teenagers steal the wrong person’s car. The laughs end before the story does, you’ll find.
A long story that closes the book is Ricky Sprague’s “The Gryfters.” Again, there’s a wacky premise. The humor arises because all the characters (who are a motley group) play the situation straight, except the narrator Chris. He sees all the weirdness for what it is. His roommate, a young guy on the fringes of criminality, hits upon the bright idea of developing a ride-share service for criminals who need a fast getaway. You know you’re in for an entertaining ride, when, early on, the roommates discuss possible names for the service. Gryft is the apparent choice.
Chris’s hesitant, stumbling conversation shows how swamped he is by fear and doubt. Still, he can’t escape a rapidly deteriorating situation. He’s doomed to be a passenger in the slowest imaginable trip across Los Angeles in a car so ridiculously crowded you’ll envision a circus clown car. What makes the humor work is Chris’s miserable awareness and the cinematic clarity of Sprague’s descriptions. (No surprise then that he has two stories in the 2021 anthology of humorous mysteries, Die Laughing.)
In Jacqueline Seewald’s “Worst Enemy,” the sister of a man accused of murder convinces a private investigator to try to prove her brother’s innocence. P.I. Bob Harris doesn’t want to take the case, because it looks like the brother is the killer—the police have DNA evidence—and he was too drunk to remember anything that might provide an alibi. In fact, he even concedes he might have done it. Despite his original misgivings, Bob digs in, and his unease provides a few unexpected light moments.
Reading a collection like Jacked is a good way to sample different authors’ styles. Editor Vern Smith, himself an author, is an Arthur Ellis Award finalist. The three stories mentioned aside, the collection falls on the dark end of the spectrum, gritty and uncompromising, with a sense that the characters are teetering on the edge of something and may fly off at any moment. Strap on your seatbelt before reading.
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