Leslie Wheeler reads “Dead Man’s Shoes” in West Tisbury

Leslie Wheeler reads “Dead Man’s Shoes” in West Tisbury

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“Thin Ice: Crime Stories by New England Writers,” paperback fiction anthology. Co-edited by Mark Ammons, Kat Fast, Barbara Ross, Leslie Wheeler. Level Best Books, Somerville, November 2010, 276 pp. $15. Available at Island bookstores and libraries.

One of the beauties of short fiction is that a good writer can wrap up novel-length topics such as death, lust, and envy, package it with a wacky plot line, and deliver a complete, believable read in just 12 pages.

Leslie Wheeler has done that in “Dead Man’s Shoes,” her written contribution to a new anthology of short crime fiction by New England writers.

There’s more. You don’t need to be Stephanie Plum or Matthew Scudder to find crime fiction writer Wheeler’s fingerprints all over “Thin Ice,” an eighth annual anthology of short story crime thrillers, penned by New Englanders and set in our region’s neighborhoods.

Author of a host of non-fiction books and now three New England mystery novels, Ms. Wheeler agreed with three of her mystery-writing colleagues to jointly edit the annual anthology this year when its future was in publishing doubt. She will be at the West Tisbury Library on Saturday, Dec. 11 at 3 pm to discuss her writing and her co-editing caper for Level Best Books.

Ms. Wheeler is an Island summer resident who has a complete resume of fiction and non-fiction books, short stories, and magazine writing to her credit. She spends the off-season in Cambridge with her husband and two children.

Her latest novel, “Murder at Spouters Point,” released last month by Five Star Publishing (260 pp. hardcover, $25.95), features sleuth Miranda Lewis, the protagonist of the murder series. Miranda is a history researcher/writer with a penchant for discovering recently dead bodies.

In Ms. Wheeler’s contribution to the anthology, called “Dead Man’s Shoes,” the hero is, well, a pair of shoes. These shoes are…different. Paranormal shoes. They literally lead a nebbish-y bookkeeper to the spot of the ultimately strange demise of his Lambert’s Cove neighbor. The story shouldn’t work, I know, but it does.

I haven’t read much short fiction in recent years and now I’m wondering why. There is, to be sure, a deliciousness about sitting down with a 300-page account of Jack Reacher’s latest exploits. I love the descriptive detail to follow involved plot line to the finale, some 50,000 words later.

But the short story writer doesn’t have that luxury. As in “Thin Ice,” short stories are typically required to be less than 5,000 words, so there’s no room for careful explication of environment and character development. Like the age-old burglar’s mantra, short story writers have to get in quick and get out fast.

“Thin Ice” reflects that speed. Little time for long explanations. Descriptives delivered in a sentence rather than over a page. Dialog, lots of dialog, has to carry the details, or even better, make them unnecessary for the reader to have in order to enjoy and understand the story. As many of the offbeat stories in “Thin Ice” do.

That’s tough to pull off and some of the pieces are better than others. My other favorites included “The Bank Job,” about a bank robbery gone right for the hero-loser; and a charming piece called “Changes” in which an elderly Alzheimer’s candidate outwits a robbery plan.

“The Bank Job,” by the way, won the Al Blanchard Crime Fiction Award, presented each year in honor of longtime New England mystery writer Al Blanchard, who died recently. In researching the book, we find that Mr. Blanchard was a prime mover in New England Crime Writers Assn. (NECWA), a robust group that has a healthy membership and an annual Crime Bake Conference to celebrate their literary work.

Regional literary fellowship groups such as NECWA and a trend toward renewed vitality of independent bookstores are welcome signs that the book will remain a national treasure, Kindle notwithstanding.

“Thin Ice” is a byproduct of that environment. It’s a good change of pace, a good reading choice. There are dumb criminals, smart plans and lots of humor — and noir — in the 25 short stories. “Dead Man’s Shoes” is the final story in the anthology and an appropriate set piece.

Author’s talk: Leslie Wheeler, “Dead Man’s Shoes,” from “Thin Ice: Crime Stories by New England Writers,” Saturday, Dec. 11, 3 pm, West Tisbury Library. westtisburylibrary.org.

Jack Shea, of Oak Bluffs, is a frequent contributor to The Times.

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