Our local library has a little shop on the main floor, operated by volunteers from the library association, where it sells gifts, sundries, and quality used books. I usually gravitate to the bookshelf near the window, where one can find hardback and quality paperback mysteries for $5.00 and sometimes less (like the occasional half marked price sale). The books are donated, and culled out from the mountains that will be sold at the annual book sale.
Not long ago I found Murder and Other Acts of Literature, edited by Michele Slung, and as soon as I looked at the table of contents, I knew the shop was going to get my $5.00. In this rather intriguing collection of stories about (mostly) murder, one finds authors like William Faulkner, Muriel Spark, Isabel Allende, A.A. Milne, Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Trollope. Isak Dineson, Louisa May Alcott, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Virginia Woolf, Alice Walker, and some 12 more of equal or greater literary fame. It was published in 1997.
A.A. Milne, he of Winne-the-Pooh fame, and Louisa May Alcott writing about murder?
Well, yes. Sort of. These stories are all classic murder mysteries. In some, the murder is never solved. In others, the reader knows the murderer from the start.
Instead, these are stories, literary stories, that involved murder to some degree.
In Muriel Spark’s “The Portobello Road,” the story is narrated by the ghost of a woman who died some years before. It turns out that she’s accidentally haunting the person who killed her. Alice Walker’s teenaged heroine goes calmly about the business of killing a man in “How Did I Get Away with Killing One of the Biggest Lawyers in the State? It Was Easy.” Paul Theroux’s “The Johore Murders” has an embassy official figure out what the local police can’t (and this story comes closest to a traditional murder mystery).
Rudyard Kipling’s “Mary Postgate” is a story of World War I, grief, and how a woman passing middle age “does her bit” for the war effort. In “The Woman and the Parrot,” a parrot repays kindness with kindness. Louisa May Alcott tells a story of star-crossed lovers who happened to be Shakespearean actors in “A Double Tragedy: An actor’s Story.” A.A. Milne’s “In Vino Veritas” present a police detective and a mystery writer who find a twist within a twist.
Slung had edited quite a number of similar collections, including I Shudder at Your Touch (1991); Living with Cannibals and Other Women’s Adventures (2000); Murder for Halloween (2010); Garden of Reading: Contemporary Short Fiction about Gardeners and Gardening (2012); and many more.
Murder and Other Acts of Literature, properly speaking, isn’t really a collection of mystery stories. The stories, or most of them, have a more literary bent, which is what one would expect from the authors. But who knew Faulkner could tell a gripping tale of justice gone wrong, with a prison mystery to solve to boot, in a story like “Monk?”
Top photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.