Steph Cha’s 2019 novel, Your House Will Pay, altered the trajectory of an already successful career. After three mysteries featuring the Los Angeles–based private investigator Juniper Song, Your House Will Pay vaulted Cha into the top tier of American crime fiction, winning a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a California Book Award. Now, Cha’s taken on a venerable franchise that desperately needed a refresh: the annual Best American Mystery Stories. Overseen from 1997 to 2020 by Otto Penzler, this anthology series has been guest edited by the likes of Donald Westlake, Scott Turow, and Lee Child. But what started out as forward-looking has become, in recent years, nothing if not entrenched. Cha’s appointment as series editor promised seismic changes, and she’s come through, starting with a new name, The Best American Mystery and Suspense, and bringing wit, darkness, social relevance, and a much-needed infusion of new voices into the first volume to appear under her supervision, in collaboration with guest editor Alafair Burke.
You write in your introduction to The Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021 that we’re likely to see more stories by women and writers of color because you have “opinions, a worldview, and a pulse.” Since 1997, the series has had only six women as guest editors and not a single person of color. When you took on the role of series editor, did you feel pressure to modernize?
Goodness gracious, those numbers are embarrassing, although I understand that they reflect the tastes and opinions of one person, and honestly, I try not to take people to task for their individual preferences. When I took over the series, I wasn’t given any particular mandate, but I knew the goal was to modernize—and by modernize, I mostly mean diversify—the series. Before I started reading for this volume, I was a little worried that I wouldn’t have enough stories to do so organically, that maybe I would be faced with difficult decisions that pitted diversity against merit because there weren’t enough crime stories published by marginalized writers—after all, we only look at previously published material, and there are many barriers to publishing. As it turned out, this was nowhere near the case. I found an incredible wealth of stories by people from every background, and I guess I’m personally drawn to points of view that are traditionally underrepresented, because they strike me as fresh and interesting.
None of the stories in this anthology feature a cop or a detective as the main character. Do you think this reflects taste or culture? Or merely that form, in this case, dictates some of the content: it’s easier to write about doing a crime than solving a crime in the short space of a story?
You’re going to get me in trouble for being anti-blue, but yeah, this is in part a reflection of my taste. The other part of it, though, is that I do think it’s harder to pull off a satisfying short story with a traditional mystery engine than it is a novel, where you have more room for experimentation and detail. I certainly enjoy a good, thoughtful police procedural, and I made my bones writing PI fiction, but the detective narrative requires so much that when you’re only dealing with a few thousand words, it has a tendency to push out the extraneous bits, where a lot of the best stuff happens in longer works. That said, I really admire a short, contained mystery that’s both well executed and interesting, so it’s only a matter of time before the right one makes it through.
Much of the anthology seems possessed by technology—Laura Lippman’s “Slow Burner” hinges on text messages; Alison Gaylin’s “Where I Belong,” on a viral video—and the pervasive (some might say insidious) way it has wormed itself into nearly every aspect of our lives. Is this a larger trend you spotted while reading, or is it simply a reflection of the current zeitgeist, since we all spent 2020 married to technology?
I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s a great observation. Most of the writers I know spend hours a day hooked up to the drip, drip, drip of one timeline or another, and honestly, I’m so immersed in my phone and my Twitter feed that I’m more likely to notice when writers sidestep technology than when they incorporate it in a natural way. This is how we live now, especially these last two years, so this must be how we do crimes, too.
Only Gabino Iglesias’s “Everything Is Going to Be Okay” directly addresses the pandemic, but there’s a real sense of claustrophobia throughout the book, often in the form of a small town or an enclosed setting. Did you run into much writing about COVID-19, or were writers handling it more metaphorically?
Gabino’s story came from a collection of pandemic stories called Lockdown, edited by Nick Kolakowski and Steve Weddle. I read that anthology in its entirety, but otherwise, COVID came up less often than I would’ve thought. I actually wrote a pandemic story for Alta, because I was living at my parents’ house with a newborn and couldn’t ignore the narrative possibilities of my immediate circumstances—it was the only piece of fiction I wrote in 2020. Though you’re right: that unease and claustrophobia crept in all over the place.
How many stories did you read? And how many did you give to Alafair Burke to cull the final lineup?
I’m not sure, actually, as I didn’t read every story beginning to end, but probably well over a thousand. When it made sense to do so, I asked editors to help cull the field by highlighting the best stories in a given journal or anthology. We can only publish two stories from any given publication, and I like to have a variety of sources anyway. But even with this streamlining, I still feel like I’m always reading short stories or feeling anxious about not reading them. I give the guest editor around 50 of my favorites, and then the final selection is up to her—though we certainly discuss. The 2020 volume is very much a reflection of Alafair’s taste. Naturally, we didn’t have the same top 20, but there was a good deal of overlap.
Do you see a difference, regionally, in the kinds of crime fiction people are writing?
I think the larger difference is urban and rural, but I love stories with strong regional flavor. The stories I gravitate toward do tend to be rooted in place, wherever that place happens to be. One thing I will say about California, though, and maybe even Los Angeles in particular, is that we have a really strong set of crime writers who are both steeped in and challenging genre traditions. Must be that noir heritage.•