Short story round-up: mystery, murder and virtuoso ventriloquism

Late crime queens Ruth Rendell and PD James serve up collections full of wit and ingenuity, while William Boyd and TC Boyle indulge a fascination with failure

Along with a shot of an ivy-tangled iron gate squatting beneath a rook-dotted sky, the jacket of Ruth Rendell’s posthumous story collection, A Spot of Folly, carries a subtitle: Ten and a Quarter New Tales of Murder and Mayhem. Barely 50 words long and more spectral mystery than whodunit, its opening quarter-tale, Never Sleep in a Bed Facing a Mirror, is a wickedly macabre jape that sets the tone for all that follows.

In the title story, a philandering business exec collides with a colleague who’s both lovelorn and puritanical – a deadly combination, it turns out – while away at a sales conference in Paris. The Price of Joy sees much-married tycoon Daniel Derbyshire smitten anew with the first Mrs D; when his current bride is conveniently kidnapped, he finds himself hesitating over payment of the ransom. And in Digby’s Wives, a man suspects his boyhood acquaintance, a widower, of foul play.

Waiting until the last moment to turn the tables, these strong, atmospheric stories convey a sardonic message to their villains: never underestimate the low cunning of others.

As the nights draw in, you’re unlikely to encounter a book more ingeniously pleasing than the late, great PD James’s Sleep No More, six flawless new stories in which period settings – think boarding schools and Christmas house parties – nod slyly to detective fiction’s golden age.

An accidental witness becomes complicit in murder; a young woman unwittingly causes her repressed homicidal past to come flooding back; and a killer finds that in the process of dispatching his victim, he’s extinguished himself – or at least, any self that he recognises. Always, a shrewd closing twist lies in wait.

It’s a collection seamed with trenchant, often humorous social critique, be it the selfishness of an age in which getting what we want has morphed into a basic human right, or a murderer who’s undone by his lousy spelling.

In the opening story, The Yo-Yo, a quote from Henry James – “Never say you know the last word about any human heart” – suggests a leitmotif for the collection as a whole. Yet these pages are also stalked by a third James, Montague Rhodes, and no more so than in The Girl Who Loved Graveyards, in which a tomcat feasts extravagantly without growing tubby. “Instead his sleek black body lengthened until – stretched in the sunlight along her windowsill, his sharp nose turned always to the cemetery – he looked as sinister and unnatural as a furred reptile.”

It’s nice to see James allowing herself a little modest metafictional fun, too. The narrator of the longest story, The Murder of Santa Claus, is a second-rate author of “cosy” detective novels. As he confesses, “I’m no HRF Keating, no Dick Francis, not even a PD James.”

One of the longest stories in William Boyd’s new collection, The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, follows a similarly jaded creative type. Alex Dunbar is an actor who specialises in dying early on and whose films have mostly gone “straight to radio”. It is only when he finds himself being chased across Scotland by armed assassins that he realises just what an education bad movies provide. He’s even able to rig up a timebomb.

The events of that clever – and, yes, cinematic – story teach Dunbar that: “What seemed random events, part of the here and now of an ordinary urban life, were in fact beads carefully slipped on to a string.” The opposite is true for the titular heroine – or should that be anti-heroine? Bethany Mellmoth is a millennial, her dreams big and vague. She’s going to be an actress – no, a novelist. Or maybe a photographer? Meanwhile, she’s still relying on mum to snag her day jobs, and, every few months, when yet another hasty relationship hits the skids, she moves back home.

TC Boyle at the hotel Imperial in Vienna, Austria
‘Exuberantly creative’: TC Boyle. Photograph: GmbH/Rex/Shutterstock

Aside from their breezy excellence, what these stories share is a fascination with failure. Its odour also wafts through TC Boyle’s exuberantly creative collection, The Relive Box. In the title story, a single dad can’t resist a gizmo that lets him relive the exploits of his younger, more hopeful self, even though he knows it’ll get him fired. Designer gene editing goes awry in Are We Not Men?, and in Theft and Other Issues, a relationship teeters when a man’s car is stolen with his girlfriend’s dog on its back seat.

With fiction rooted in technology, ecology and timeless human nature, Boyle is not just a virtuoso ventriloquist, he’s among the most acutely interesting writers at work today, and no form better serves his prolific imagination than the short story.

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Hephzibah Anderson

The GuardianTramp

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