> WHODUNIT: JACK BATTEN
SWEET NOTHING By Richard Lange Mullholland, 272 pages, $29
The male central characters in many of Richard Lange’s beautifully crafted short stories collected in Sweet Nothing tend to be jerks. They live in Los Angeles, are in their early 30s and present themselves as cool in style. They also admit they come up short in everyday morals.
“I need to hear what a rotten bastard I am,” the unnamed narrator says in the story titled “Gather Darkness,” “because part of me still isn’t convinced.”
In an ordinary week in this guy’s life, he cheats on his wife, swipes a bottle of Xanax from a friend’s medicine cabinet and tells smooth lies to head off his unveiling as a cheat and a thief.
Deceit is part of the package for several of Lange’s male characters. Untruths and concocted stories fall easily from the lips of the narrator, also unnamed, of “The 100-to-1 Club.” Gambling — cards, horse races, dice — consumes this guy’s days and his cash. When he takes a young woman to the track, he needs to call on a series of prevarications to conceal the disastrous bets he places with her money and his. Like the characters in other stories, the guy is not unaware of his own flaws.
“I’m the one,” he says, “who’s rotten through and through.”
These sad and hopeless characters are part of what Lange calls “a universal melancholy.” He thinks Samuel Beckett is the writer who best captures the essence of people consumed by melancholy. Beckett is Lange’s major writing influence, but judging from the casual eloquence of his stories, Lange has already earned a place close to Beckett’s elevated company.
THE BEAT GOES ON By Ian Rankin Orion, 454 pages, $28.99
This collection is billed as “the complete Rebus short stories,” though Rankin, a writer who rarely takes a day off, may have turned out even more stories featuring Edinburgh DI John Rebus before the collection reached print. Rankin tells us in an engaging 10-page autobiographical preface that he began his career, still a kid at the University of Edinburgh, writing short stories in various genres. In his 29 Rebus stories, he shows a faultless touch at the short length, a skill he underlines with “Atonement,” a heartbreaker of a story published here for the first time.
THE BLACK LIZARD BIG BOOK OF LOCKED-ROOM MYSTERIES Edited by Otto Penzler Vintage, 944 pages, $29.95
Nobody knows more about crime stories than Otto Penzler. Over the years, he has published crime fiction under his Mysterious Press imprint, sold it at the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan and anthologized it in a dozen different collections. His anthologizing hits a peak in the new book, almost 1,000 pages of stories by familiar authors (Edgar Allan Poe to Stephen King) and by authors whose names have faded but whose work survives.
Are there surprises in the collection? Plenty. A 1914 P.G. Wodehouse story, for example, contradicts every impression you may have formed of Wodehouse’s work.
THE LIFE I LEFT BEHIND By Colette McBeth Headline, 378 pages, $22.99
Three women narrate the novel’s story. One is a Detective Inspector covering a patch of west London. Another is the assault victim from a few years earlier of a man who served time for the crime. And the third has recently been murdered, perhaps by the guy responsible for the earlier assault. The state of the third narrator — yes, she’s dead — is the book’s particular conceit. McBeth is such a clever storyteller and so graceful a writer that she makes it work. The story raises a barrage of questions and keeps the reader pleasantly off balance from beginning to end.
Jack Batten’s Whodunit column appears every other Sunday.