Mystery Writers of America Presents The Mystery Box - Mystery Writers of America, Brad Meltzer

Well, I don't know about you, but the quote that got stuck in my head when I read the title was,

I'll put that box inside of another box, and then I'll mail that box to myself. And when it arrives, AH HA HA HA, I'll SMASH IT WITH A HAMMER! 


The Mystery Box, a collection of stories by a set of highly acclaimed authors from Mystery Writers of America, has an absolutely tantalizing theme.  According to Brad Meltzer, who organized and edited the collection, each story had to involve a mystery box, either literal or figurative, prosaic or poetic.


The authors chose to run with the theme in a variety of ways, from the "lost and found" boxes of Laura Lippman's "Waco 1982" to the hidden strongbox of Catherine Manbretti's "The Very Private Detectress" to the purely figurative box of C. E. Lawrence's "The Vly." As is always the case with such collections, the stories vary widely in targeted audience and quality, so while there are sure to be stories to fit any reader demographic, there will also be an equal number of misses.


My favourite stories tended to be those that used the theme both creatively and literally rather than settling for the rather tired "locked box of the heart" or "Pandora's box" or similar.  I was rather surprised by the high variance in time period and location, as well as the of authenticity of the settings. (Please, please, authors, try a little research first! Realizing that people of different time periods do not speak either Ye Olde Speeche nor current American slang would be a first step.)  A rather shocking percentage decided that it would be an appropriate time to Introduce Serious Matters by placing their stories during wartime, with WWII the apparent favourite.  Personally, I have issues with such cardboard-cutout grief and pain; unless captured well, the end effect is cheap.  "The Hedge" by Jonathan Stone wins my personal award for pretentious, self-conscious, meandering, painfully obvious moralizing about Serious and Important Matters.  It was a surprisingly tough competition; unfortunately, quite a few authors took the opportunity to try their hands at Poetic Meaning or polemics or horror rather than writing, a, yaknow, mystery. Unfortunately, I don't think they quite got the hang of it.  


Fortunately, there were also plenty of gems in the collection.  My personal favourites included "Waco 1982" and "The Boca Box" by James O'Bourne.  Both used the theme in an extremely concrete and yet creative manner.  In Lippman's tale, a young journalist is forced to document the contents of various motel lost and found boxes and ends up discovering rather more about the world than she had planned.  In "The Boca Box," a policeman decides to participate in an ex-con-man's failsafe diet plan--failsafe because of the mystery box, kept at the front, which will be opened if and only if all else fails.  Both were well-written and full of humour, with entertaining and quirky characters.  On the other side of the table, I found "War Secrets" by Libby Fischer, a story of a young Persian man in prewar Germany, to be both touching and thought-provoking.


My take? Worth reading, if only to get a better understanding of the various writers' talents.  Overall, an interesting collection with an intriguing theme.