The beach stretches away into the heat haze, waves reflect bluefish in their green depths, an osprey hovers in a thermal, piping plovers increase and multiply, the breeze warbles softly — only one thing is lacking to make this idyll complete: a tale of murder and mayhem, strangling and stabbing, treachery and revenge, and other nastiness to read in those moments when you are not communing with nature.
“The Rich and the Dead”
Edited by Nelson DeMille
Grand Central, $24.99
“The Rich and the Dead,” a collection of short stories put together by the Mystery Writers of America and edited by Nelson DeMille, would fit the bill very nicely: 20 brief tales in which the rich do various egregious things or have various egregious things done to them.
Perhaps because the Wall Street scandals are still very much with us, there are two or three in which rich swindlers are foiled in their schemes to separate suckers from their life savings and a couple where bitter spouses, with much the same idea in mind, are also foiled. And a few delightful revenge stories. There are even some nice, worthy rich people in here — but not many.
Do you remember the frustration of those old bank heist movies, where you were rooting for the robbers but they never, ever got away with it, thanks to guardian angels such as the Hays Office and the Legion of Decency? It’s good to be able to report that in “The Rich and the Dead” more than a couple of righteous, deserving people are permitted to commit murder and live to fight another day. In fact in one story with a wholly unexpected twist, the villain — charming, but a total villain nonetheless — also gets away with murder, leaving you quite pole-axed with surprise.
The majority of the stories are fast paced and lighthearted, as befits a beach read, and often have a good sting in the tale. But a few, like “Daphne, Unrequited” by Angela Zeman, manage to combine lively mayhem with elegiac wistfulness. Its theme is the closed world of the very rich, their feelings of entitlement, and their ruthlessness when that world is threatened. Daphne is a beloved society columnist who knows every secret but who for decades has never written an indiscreet word. Now about to retire and write her memoirs, she knows she is trusted and beloved by all her rich friends. Or is she?
If I had to pick a favorite among this lively and varied collection, I think it would be “The Itinerary” by Roberta Isleib, mainly because her protagonist is an absolute honey.
“Detective Jack Meigs knew he’d hate Key West the moment he was greeted off the plane by a taxi driver with a parrot on his shoulder.”
So the story opens, and Meigs sees no reason to change his opinion as he grouches his way through his enforced, paid-for vacation. Until, that is, a young woman goes missing from a cruise ship and Meigs finds something to do with himself.
Then there’s “Poetic Justice,” a nicely told tale of injustice and retribution. One of the characters is a poet named Edwin Arlington Robinson and I think the story probably works best if, as happened with me, the name rings the merest tinkle of a bell until the very end, when the eureka moment comes and you slap your head and say, “Of course!”
In “Addicted to Sweetness,” Lee Child, the author of the enormously popular Jack Reacher thrillers, has a firecracker that, although short, manages to include his mandatory doses of high-tech expertise and gruesome mayhem. His writing can be pretty violent, but as the violence invariably happens to the bad guys, instead of saying, “Oh dear, oh dear, this is too much for me,” your gentle inner self whispers, “Hit him again! Kick him off the cliff! Smash his fingers!”
In this case, the bad guy is a sadistic drug dealer wreaking a grisly punishment on some wretched peon. Since the story is only eight pages long, you are almost certain that divine retribution is going to come along with an ax in its hand and call his number. Almost. Because you can’t imagine how on earth this is going to happen in time.
There’s really only one dud, and that of such magnitude that one wonders if the Mystery Writers of America slipped it in as an example of how not to write a short story — implausible, overwritten, with careless flubs such as spring-flowering trees dropping their blossoms in November and passages such as “. . . he hissed wetly, his protuberant Hitchcockian lips quivering” or “ ‘No worries about that,’ Forsythe sneered, a strangled laugh in his voice. . . .” But it’s the exception.
So stretch back in the shade, send the sticky, sand-encrusted kids to bug the lifeguard, shoo away the piping plovers, and settle down to some good beach reading.
Nelson DeMille lives in Garden City. He will be at the East Hampton Library’s Authors Night on Aug. 13 with his latest thriller, “The Lion.”
Sheridan Sansegundo is a former arts editor at The Star. She lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.