Edited by Vaseem Khan and Maxim Jakubowski
Reviewed by Peter Kalu
The Perfect Crime finds 22 ‘bestselling’ authors slumming it in the short story genre. There are some blazingly good crime short stories here. British writers contribute a third of them; roughly the same number are from the USA, then come Canada and Australia. ‘The Mayor of Dukes City’ by S. A. Cosby is sharp, terse and compassionate, an excellent portrait of small-town American grief and grime. In ‘The Land of Milk and Honey’ by Silvia Moreno-Garcia of Mexico/Canada, a tragic atmosphere builds, redolent of García Lorca’s Blood Wedding – superb storytelling boosted by its surrealist ways. ‘Sundown’ by Sheena Kamal features a ‘sundown’ town in little America, a place where black folk are not safe after dark; ‘Sundown’ is claustrophobically gripping.
The UK contingent are a mixed bag. The title of Vaseem Khan’s ‘Death in Darjeeling’ purposely echoes that of the uber-Orientalist Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie. Set in 1947, India’s first female police detective, Persis, was ‘born and raised in Bombay’, while her cast of suspects is a motley collection of ex-pat whites. The story has a Golden Age bundle-of-clues plot, and manages to position itself as mildly critical of colonials: the ‘cosy’ crime story form softening the satire. In the bristling ‘Paradise Lost’ by Abir Mukherjee, a Scots-origin, repulsive white crook boasts he has bribed his way into the upper echelons of an island society, and has filled the pockets of the island’s prime minister. This story is brilliantly voiced but I long for characters from Jacob Ross’s novel Black Rain Falling, also set on a fictional Caribbean island, to provide some depth to Paradise Lost’s ‘natives’. ‘The Beautiful Game’ by Sanjida Kay has young-and-starstruck, half-Nigerian Selene Jackson meet £100 million Manchester footballer, Luke Allard, in a bar. The story is filled with dread while being simultaneously good fun. ‘Quiet Night In’ by Amer Anwar finds late-middle-aged Londoner, Tej, visited by an old Sikh friend, Billy. It transpires they used to rob banks together and have unfinished business. That business gets finished in lethal style. This is well-constructed, written in unshowy prose with convincing detail. ‘The Long Con’ by Nadine Matheson stars Julia Carter, con artist du premier cru. It stays safely within the conventions it announces in its second paragraph, of ‘a 1970’s conspiracy movie starring Gene Hackman’. In ‘Buttons’ by Imran Mehmood, a man, Daniel, goes on an ominous date with Holly, a new arrival to London. Deftly plotted, with brisk dialogue, there is no flicker of a racial dimension here, nor any pointers to cultural difference, so I assume the author is sidestepping any contemplation of the intersection of race, culture and crime. We reach our nadir with ‘Gnome Man’s Land’ by Felicia Yap. A Sandhurst Deputy Commander finds his military academy bursting with unauthorised gnomes. Who is responsible? I could make some complicated point about the role of art being to challenge the status quo not confirm it, but, applying Occam’s razor (the principle that the simpler explanation is usually the one closest to the truth), maybe I just don’t like gnomes. On to Mike Phillips’ ‘A Breath of Change’. White academic, Simon Hudson, asks his black friend, Sam Dean to find Simon’s young black woman assistant, Claire, with whom Simon had been having an affair. A well-told miniature, the story is adroit in its exploration of the dynamics of a racialised society. All the UK’s young pretenders in this collection will have to wait to seize Mike Phillips’ crown.