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Tales That Sift Fact From Fable

Great detectives often have split personalities. They always remain cool and aloof; yet they come across as somewhat eccentric.

Sleuths can best be described as metaphysical. They routinely confront a gaggle of falsehoods posturing as fact. Their life's mission is to explain the truth, to ferret out the illusions. They do this by solving the crime.

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And solve them they do in this stellar compendium, "The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories." The hook, of course, which separates a good puzzler from mere epistemological rumination, is blood on the floor. Someone has been murdered. The natural order is not right. Setting it right, imaginatively, is the literary quest of each writer.

This collection serves as both historical marker and sociological road map to the American psyche on mystery and crime. Edited by Tony Hillerman of Navajo detective fame and Boston Herald reporter and mystery columnist Rosemary Herbert, it successfully conveys the "emotional range" of the American detective short story.

Lest it be forgotten, it was the American Edgar Alan Poe who single-handedly invented the genre in 1841 with his "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841).

The selections are tasteful with visceral mayhem, profanity, and sex almost nonexistent, or discretely handled. One difference between American and British detective fiction is that Americans are prone to link humor and pathos in a mystery.

But there is no stereotyping any of the detectives in this volume. Amateurs abound, like Poe's Mr. Dupin in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Anna Katherine Green's private investigator, the doe-eyed and petite Viola Strange, is a 20-something American version of Miss Marple in "Missing: Page Thirteen" (1915).

"Scientific sleuths" work in places other than Baker Street. Jacques Futrelle's haughty and irritable Professor S.F.X. Van Dusens in "The Problem of Cell 13" (1905), as well as Arthur B. Reeve's Professor Craig Kennedy in "The Beauty Mask" (1917) hold more than a candle to their British Sherlockian counterparts.

Uniquely American are the hard-boiled cops like Robert Leslie Bellem's Dan Turner in "Homicide Highball (1943) and street-savvy police characters like Ed McBain's 87th Precinct cop Dave Levine in "Small Homicide" (1953). Hillerman's own Navajo detectives, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, fall into this category. Chee demonstrates his understated detective talents in "Chee's Witch" (1986).

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Not surprisingly, Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors write good mysteries as well. William Faulkner's "An Error in Chemistry" (1946) makes a moral point about a husband's murder of his wife.

A special treat is Pulitzer playwright Susan Glaspell, drawing on color and place from her childhood Iowa in "A Jury of Her Peers" (1917). It is one of the first examples of the regional mystery.

*Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's book editor.

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