Pros: Some absolutely wonderful stories in here—I definitely found some new authors to enjoy
Cons: The typical anthology issue: you won’t love all the stories equally
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Group.
Unusual Suspects, edited by Dana Stabenow, contains a dozen short stories of murder, mystery, fantasy, and the paranormal, including a few by highly recognizable name authors. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never gotten around to reading Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels. After reading her story Lucky, which has Sookie investigating how her insurance agent’s being sabotaged, I hope to find time to correct that! Even in such a short story she displays an incredibly evocative and whimsical style, and a wonderful sense of both place and character.
Carole Nelson Douglas’s Bogieman delves into the tricky gray areas of morality and ethics that emerge when silver-screen characters are “resurrected” for the entertainment of others. When one is murdered, is it a crime? And who would do such a thing? Not only does this story explore a fascinating world and a nifty ethical quandary, but the mystery itself is handled in a fashion that suitably evokes the feel of a noir-ish detective story.
Michael Stackpole’s Looks Are Deceiving takes the murder mystery into a more traditional fantasy world, in which a physically weak (and mystically powerful) man agrees to find out who has poisoned the nobleman he hates. Spellbound, by Donna Andrews, is another fantasy mystery: Gwynn, the student of mage Master Justinian, must thwart the efforts of a witch to ensnare him, and help him to uncover who murdered a particularly obnoxious academician. Both stories are enjoyable, and establish a strong sense of the worlds they take place in despite their short length.
Sharon Shinn’s The House of Seven Spirits is the mirror image of a traditional haunted house story: in it, a woman finds herself getting along quite well with most of the ghosts haunting her house, but she must solve the mystery of a certain murder in order to give them rest. Laurie R. King’s The House, by contrast, is an enjoyable tale of a “haunted house” that draws several children to it—but I found the ending a little too predictable.
Glamour, by Mike Doogan, is hysterically funny. A girl has gone missing from a small village; an odd cloaked “man” has arrived and offers to help; and something… strange… is going on with the women in town. This is one of the most unlikely stories, but it succeeds because of the point-of-view character. He’s delightfully dense, and yet… well, has his own positive qualities that keep him from being an unlikeable or overly stupid character.
Michael Armstrong’s The Duh Vice is almost more SF than fantasy, although it’s near future, much like Bogieman. It takes place in a time when resources are scarce and limited, and explores the ramifications of the discovery of a source of limitless energy. It seems to fit a little oddly into the theme of the book (not really fantasy; only sort of a mystery), but it was definitely fascinating & a fun read!
John Straley’s Weight of the World was one of the most memorable reads of the book for me. It explores in a surprisingly insightful and interesting manner the question of how you reconcile Santa Claus with the fundamental purpose of Christmas—via a murder among the most unlikely of beings, the elves and dwarfs who help Claus prepare and deliver gifts.
At the paranormal/urban fantasy end of things you’ll also find Laura Anne Gilman’s Illumination. It’s a fascinating tale of a young woman with unusual gifts who’s trying to figure out what happened to her flaky father. He’s vanished, and while the obvious evidence points to violence at the hands of a cave dragon loan shark, Bonnie comes to believe something else is afoot—and a mysterious presence seems determined to be her guide and teacher in her investigative efforts. This story also contains one of my favorite quotes:
I had let out what J. later described as a mental all-points bulletin, asking for a mentor who didn’t suck. My exact wording, apparently.
Simon R. Green’s Appetite for Murder is a story I was eager to read. I’ve heard wonderful things about his recent work in urban fantasy, but my only experience with his work until now was his old SF novel Deathstalker, and to be blunt, I hated that book. I was extremely curious to find out whether a combination of time & change of genre had altered his style such that I would find it enjoyable. The story takes place in Nightside—a setting Green has already established, I gather—and involves a gory string of serial murders. Detective Sam Warren is investigating, and a costumed “hero” called Ms. Fate drops in to help. I felt the resolution wrapped up a little quickly, but other than that the story was fantastic. It had plenty of atmosphere, enjoyable characters, and a nifty mystery. It was kind of a relief, since it was hard to resolve my impression of that one book with the recent reviews I’ve read of his work.
A Woman’s Work, by editor Dana Stabenow, was another of my favorites from this volume. Two women must travel to a province that subjugates its women to dispense the king’s justice in the matter of a murder. Given the near-universal negative reaction to their appearance, they wonder why they’ve been sent in place of male counterparts to handle the matter. But eventually, the power of their offices will show them the truth of a highly unusual situation. I had a little bit of trouble making sense of some of the world-building at first—this seems to be a well-established and complex world—but once I got comfortable I was absolutely hooked.
There were no stories in this volume that I truly disliked, and frankly, when you read an anthology like this, you usually expect to find at least one. There might have been one so-so story, but plenty of them were absolutely fascinating, and the mysteries were a lot of fun. If you enjoy mysteries and a wide range of fantasy, urban fantasy, and paranormal settings, then I think you’ll enjoy Unusual Suspects!