Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance: An Introduction

Editing this anthology was a lot of fun—not least because Mystery Writers of America’s invaluable and irreplaceable publications guy, Barry Zeman, did all the hard work. All I had to do was pick ten invitees. And write a story. And then later on read the ten winning stories chosen by MWA’s blind-submission process. Piece of cake. Apart from writing my own story, that is, which I always find hard, but that’s why picking the invitees was so much fun—I love watching something difficult being done really well, by experts.

It was like playing fantasy baseball—who did I want on the field? And just as Major League Baseball has rich seams of talent to choose from, so does Mystery Writers of America. I could have filled ten anthologies. Or twenty. But I had to start somewhere—and it turned out that I already had, years ago, actually, when I taught a class at a mystery writers’ conference in California. One of the after-hours activities was a group reading around a fireplace in the motel. A bit too kumbaya for me, frankly, but I went anyway, and the first story was by a young woman called Michelle Gagnon. It was superb, and it stayed with me through the intervening years. So I e-mailed her about using it for this anthology—more in hope than in expectation, because it was such a great story, I was sure it had been snapped up long ago. But no—it was still available. Never published, amazingly. It is now.

One down.

Then I had to have Brendan DuBois. He’s a fine novelist but easily the best short-story writer of his generation. He just cranks them out, one after the other, like he’s casting gold ingots. Very annoying. He said yes.

Two down.

And I had Twist Phelan on my radar. She’s a real woman of mystery—sometimes lives on a yacht, sometimes lives in Switzerland, knows about oil and banks and money—and she had just won the International Thriller Writers’ award for best short story. I thought, I’ll have a bit of that. She said okay.

Three down.

Voodoo doll

Then there was the overtalented but undersung Jim Fusilli. He wrote two great New York novels that I really loved, and then four more just as good, and he’s the rock music critic for the Wall Street Journal. We make lists together, like the top three bands most dependent on their drummers for their sound. (Led Zeppelin, the Who, and the Beatles, obviously.)

I asked; he said yes.

Four down.

And then, purely by chance, in the course of a conversation Karin Slaughter told me she’d just finished the nastiest story she’d ever written. Which had to be something, right? With Karin? I didn’t ask. I just told her.

Five down.

Alafair Burke was next. I’ve followed her novels from the very beginning and loved them all. Then she went and wrote a terrific story for Michael Connelly’s MWA anthology a few years ago. I thought, Hey, she did it for him, she can do it for me. I asked. She said yes.

Six down.

Then, because I’m a transatlantic person, I thought about a couple of great writers from the old country. First up: Dreda Say Mitchell. She’s five novels into a terrific career, and I find her narrative voice completely fresh and utterly addictive. I asked; she said yes.

Seven down.

UntitledThen, Zoë Sharp. If I were a woman, I’d be Zoë. If Jack Reacher were a woman, he’d be Zoë’s main character, Charlie Fox. A natural fit. I asked; she said yes.

Eight down.

Two spots left.

I thought: Let’s complete the lineup with a couple of heavy hitters. I waited until both of my targets were drunk and happy at the Edgars, and I asked. Michael Connelly first. A busy guy, but a nice guy. He blinked. He said yes.

Nine down.

Then I turned to Dennis Lehane. Equally busy guy—he’d just had a kid. But equally nice too. He blinked. Twice. But he said yes.


So then it was about sharpening my editorial blue pencil and waiting for their stories to show up. They did, but I didn’t need the pencil. I think there was a spelling mistake in there somewhere, but authors like these don’t need help. So then it was about waiting for the MWA winning stories to arrive.

The way it works is that any paid-up MWA member can submit a story; the author’s name is replaced with a code number, so the judges read each story blind. The selection panel evaluates them all and chooses the ten best. The panel for this anthology was Heather Graham, Tom Cook, David Walker, Joe Trigoboff, and Brendan DuBois (pulling double duty, which was good of him—he could have written another nine or ten stories, probably, in the time it took). I thank them all for their hard work, and for their excellent judgment—the ten they came up with are first-class, and when the numbers were matched to the names, it turned out we had an interesting bunch of people.

Ladies first: Anne Swardson submitted from Paris, where she’s been living for fifteen years as a heavy-duty financial journalist. Tough gig, but hey, someone’s got to do it. C. E. Lawrence is a multitalented New Yorker—writer, performer, poet, composer, and prize-winning playwright. Quite irritating. Janice Law is already an Edgar-nominated short-story writer (but the panel didn’t know that—remember the code numbers). She’s had stories published all over the place, so it’s no surprise she made the top ten.

And the men: Rick McMahan is a special agent with the Department of Justice, so he walks the walk, and naturally he’s also published here and there. Adam Meyer is an accomplished movie and TV writer and novelist and short-story writer who comes from New York but lives in DC. Michael Niemann is a German guy who lives in Oregon and is mostly a nonfiction writer specializing in African and global issues. Orest Stelmach is a thriller writer from the Northeast. He’s fluent in four languages, which is four more than me on an average day. Darrell James lives in California and Arizona and is a multipublished and award-winning short-story writer, and also a debut novelist. Steve Liskow lives in Connecticut and is also a published novelist and short-story writer. And finally, Mike Cooper is a former financial guy from the Boston area whose stories have won a Shamus Award and been selected for The Best American Mystery Stories annual anthology.

So, ten high-quality invitees and ten high-quality competition winners, plus me. We all got the same brief: Write about vengeance, revenge, getting even, maybe doing a bad thing for a good reason. Or a bad reason. It was a loose specification; a tighter one would have been ignored anyway. Writers are like that. Their imaginations run along unique and uncontrollable paths, as you will see. Or maybe as you’ve already seen. I know some people read anthologies back to front. If you’re one of them, thanks for reading. If you’re not, I hope you enjoy what follows.

Lee Child is the author of sixteen Jack Reacher thrillers, all of which have been optioned for major motion pictures. Child, a native of England and a former television director, lives in New York City, where he is at work on his next thriller.

MYSTERY WRITERS OF AMERICA PRESENTS VENGEANCE is now available in bookstores everywhere.