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Bewildering Stories

Best Is in the Eyes of the Reader

by Bertil Falk

Rain poster
film poster, 1934
Once upon a time, the short story “Rain,” by W. Somerset Maugham (1921), was considered to be the best of its kind ever written. Indeed, Maugham’s prostitute Sadie Thompson has been portrayed on the silver screen by Gloria Swanson (1928), Joan Crawford (1932), and Rita Hayworth (1953), and on the small screen by Carroll Baker (1970). “Rain” has not been forgotten, but today hardly anyone calls it the best short story ever written.

The same is true about that phenomenal story “The Green Door” (1906) by O. Henry. Over the years its fame has faded in the light of later stories. My question is: are there any “best” stories at all?

Ellery Queen's cover
issue 200, July 1960
I thought of that when I happened to pick out issue number 200, July 1960, from my collection of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. That issue reprinted — with a most interesting introduction — a Karmesin story by Gerald Kersh, “The Thief Who Played Dead.” It had originally appeared in the February 13, 1954 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

Checking back on the annual awards made for the best detective-crime-mystery short story of 1954, we discovered that “The Thief Who Played Dead” seems to have been completely ignored. For example, the Mystery Writers of America did not even nominate the Gerald Kersh story for the short-story “Edgar” prize of 1954; it was neither a winner nor a runner-up. For another example, David C. Cooke failed to include the story or even to mention it in his anthology The Best Detective Stories of the Year, covering stories published in 1954.

Gerald Kersh
Gerald Kersh
Surely there must be a moral lesson in these simple facts, something to do, no doubt, with the fallibility of annual awards and the impossibility of judging the so-called “best,” especially in our own time; for in our humble opinion Gerald Kersh’s “The Thief Who Played Dead” was the finest crime short story of its year, and The Saturday Evening Post deserved honor and acclaim for publishing it.

If we look at how the best novels, stories etc. are selected, we find much evidence for the editorial statement made by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. It applies not to the status of the story in question but more generally to such things as annual awards.

The late Jerry Weist wrote an excellent book about Ray Bradbury. At a convention in Canada it lost to a Canadian book. We have a word for that in Swedish: vänskapskorruption (‘friendship corruption’). And it is not limited to science fiction conventions in Canada. The tsunam-like wave of people voting for stories written by their fellow countrymen and friends is rampant everywhere.

And have you discovered how often obscure awards are marketed as “prestigious.” If an award is prestigious in the eyes of a majority of people, then such awards as the Nobel Prize, Le Prix Goncourt or the Pulitzer Prize do not have to be presented as prestigious. When an award has to be called “prestigious,” someone probably wants us to believe it is.

Karmesin cover
How come? Probably because competition is enormous. In France alone about two literary awards are distributed every day. In other circumstances that would be described as inflation, and I think that the value of many awards is devalued. What is the consequence? You must trust your own judgement. Many people have regretted that they bought a book because the writer had been given some more or less prestigious award.

As for Gerald Kersh, his most renowned novel Night and the City was turned into a noir film in 1950, starring Richard Widmark. And it was remade in 1992 with Robert de Niro. As for Karmesin, Kersh wrote 17 stories about this master criminal. They were all collected, edited and introduced by Paul Duncan and published by Crippen & Landru in 2003 as a part of its The Lost Classics series.

And by the way, “The Thief Who Played Dead” is not bad.

Copyright © 2011 by Bertil Falk

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