Chicago Tribune

Celebrating crime stories by women
By Ron Bernas, Knight Ridder/Tribune news

     Elizabeth George, whose books about detective Thomas Lynley make her a regular on best-seller lists, doesn't think her work is any less worthy because it carries the tag "crime novel."

    "Crime writing does not have to be considered genre writing," George writes in the introduction to "A Moment on the Edge: 100 Years of Crime Stories by Women" (HarperCollins, 560 pages, $24.95), a collection of 23 short stories that have, at their heart, a crime. After all, "Hamlet," she notes, is set into motion by fratricide. Included in this collection are most of the usual suspects -- Dorothy L. Sayers, Ruth Rendell, Sara Paretsky -- but also others who might not immediately spring to mind when talking of crime writers -- Joyce Carol Oates and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, for instance.

     The collection begins with a 1917 story by Susan Glaspell. An unfamiliar, though insightful and truly suspenseful tale, "A Jury of Her Peers" shows how two frontier women are able to piece together the heartbreaking tale of a man's murder, most likely by his wife, by noticing things obvious only to women.

     It's stories such as this, which work as short fiction as well as they work as mysteries, that give the collection its life. Among the real gems here: "The Summer People," Shirley Jackson's disturbing tale of what happens when a couple decide to stay on at their summer home past Labor Day; Rendell writing of a man's hatred for his wife's best friend in "The Irony of Hate"; and Gordimer's "Country Lovers," which has, as its ultimate criminal, the system of apartheid.

     Each author is introduced with a short but thorough biography, though George's personal insights on the authors and their work might have been more helpful than her frequent quotes from other sources.

    Some readers might wonder why the collection has no work from the woman whose success no doubt inspired many of the women included in George's collection. It's no mystery: The family of Agatha Christie keeps a tight rein on her copyrights, so the grand dame is not represented.

     Yet, as one picks through "A Moment on the Edge," the spirit of Christie can be felt throughout. Like a proud mentor, she's smiling over the whole project.

Copyright 2004 Chicago Tribune Company