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by Maxim Jakubowski, editor
Allison and Busby, November 2004
380 pages
ISBN: 0749083360

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Any book of short stories boasting the names of Mark Billingham, Colin Dexter, Reginald Hill, Val McDermid, John Mortimer, Ian Rankin and Peter Robinson on the front is bound to have mystery fans rooting through bookshops to buy it. And THE BEST BRITISH MYSTERIES 2005 is well worth hunting out and storing up for a chilly winter evening.

I'm not a huge fan of short stories, mainly because the author seems to have done all the hard work of getting me hooked -- and then has to tie it all up indecently early with a fetching bow.

With novels, I suspect I'm not the only person to operate the 50-page test before laying or throwing the book aside. What do you do with a short story, though? A two-page test, maybe. Those that failed under that criteria included John Mortimer's Rumpole and the Scales of Justice (is it sacrilege to say I've always preferred the TV Rumpole?) and Michael Jecks' No One Can Hear You Scream (erm, I think you're supposed to get the reader interested early on . . .)

Stories that missed the mark for me were Brian Thompson's Geezers, a weird gangster-lite tale that needed a strong hand on the editing; Lindsey Davis's Something Spooky On Geophys, which tried too hard for humour, and Liza Cody's Turning It Round (yes, and . . .?)

Interestingly, it's the lesser-known names who do best here on the whole. I particularly liked School Gate Mums by Muriel Gray (presumably the Scottish TV presenter, but I can't say for certain -- some biographies in the back of the book would have been nice) where a seemingly innocuous mother of a bullied child has a most unusual way of making money. I rather enjoyed John Grant's Tails about a DJ on a small Devon station with a rather unconventional private life. Christopher Fowler's American Waitress is a tightly-written tale about a strange customer in a restaurant which shows that the present tense can work well in the right hands. And Francis King's The Sitting Tenant hovers into horror territory when two gay men buy their dream house -- but find it comes with an unwelcome extra.

Among the big 'uns, John Harvey's Chance kept me hooked, and introduced an intriguing new character in struggling PI Kiley. Wouldn't mind seeing more of him in a full-length novel. And Reginald Hill is as off the wall as ever with The Game of Dog, which has DCI Peter Pascoe nosing around into a suspicious house fire where a dog takes on special significance.

Best of the lot, though is Ian Rankin's in Tell Me Who To Kill where Inspector Rebus investigates a sinister message on a mobile phone which results in a bloke getting mown down by a bus. It's a textbook example of how to write short stories -- reader hooked from page one, a tight structure to the story, exemplary pacing and then a plausible denouement. Class will always out.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, November 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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