Oxford University Press has been making a fetish out of publishing mystery anthologies over the last year, with the noirish "Hard-Boiled" deserving a place on any mystery reader's shelf, and "The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories" of somewhat more borderline quality. Now comes "Murderous Schemes," a cleverly designed book by Donald E. Westlake, a writer of mostly comic caper mysteries who is himself something of an institution.
What is ingenious about "Murderous Schemes" is that Westlake takes eight conventions of the mystery genre -- locked room, capers, armchair detectives and so on -- and picks four good stories to illustrate each, from an oldie but goodie to a hope-to-be classic. The result is an evenness of tone which the eight sections bob up and down like a steady sea wave. The book's organization also allows the reader to dive in according to his or her interests: fans of over-the-top mysteries can head directly to that section, while those who want to read all the latest stuff know exactly where to go.
What they will find in almost all cases are top-quality stories that are not solely limited to mystery writers. Alongside such standbys as Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout, Stanley Ellin and Lawrence Block are some effective choices from writers whose nefarious doings are rarely noted: Isak Dinesen, Roald Dahl, Jack London and Damon Runyon.
Weaknesses? Hardly any, although it's surprising to find Chandler's "I'll Be Waiting." It's a fine, taut tale, but the fellow's waiting also in Oxford's other two anthologies. Ellery Queen's "The Adventure of Abraham Lincoln's Clue" can also be found in "American Detective." And -- this is a personal quibble, mind you -- but I can do with a lot less of Edward D. Hoch's stories. His clue-filled stories are rarely memorable, and he seems to be praised more for his output (he's a monthly fix in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine) than for the quality of his work. Like Dr. Johnson's dog walking on its hind legs, it is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.