Two of the Deadliest is a collection of 23 short stories specifically centered on “two of the deadliest” of the seven deadly sins: lust and greed. Of the stories, 18 are written by women already established in the genre and 5 by female newcomers. As in most short story collections, there are hits and misses in this volume, but the newcomers do score with what is perhaps the best story of them all, Z. Kelley’s “Anything Helps.” And, surprisingly, one of the weaker stories in the collection comes from the book’s editor, Elizabeth George.
Many of the stories are set in contemporary, big city America, but there are also side trips to France (in the 1920s), rural California (in 1916), rural Texas (in the 1930s) and contemporary Ireland. The narrators of Two of the Deadliest’s audio version were well chosen and, with an exception or two, were nicely matched to the stories they read. I did, however, find both the tone of the story titled “Enough to Stay the Winter” (by Gillian Linscott) and that of its reader to be particularly dull. I still cannot decide whether I should blame that more on the story or the reader.
Of the book’s 23 stories, I most enjoyed “Everything Helps” by one of the newcomers, Z. Kelley. Despite its violence, this is a rather endearing story about a single mother so desperate for the money she needs to pay for her son’s urgent surgery that she takes a cashier job in a Las Vegas storefront that combines slot machines and sales of pornographic material from a back room. The woman befriends a homeless man who panhandles on the street outside the storefront and surprises herself by how much she looks forward to seeing him each day. This story is solid all the way through, and its ending is a memorable one. Kelley is a good storyteller and she has filled her story with remarkable characters: the two Arab brothers who run the little casino, the cashier’s mother and son, her co-worker, and the homeless man who gives her the courage to go on with life.
I also particularly enjoyed Wendy Hornsby’s alternate history version of Jack London’s death, “The Violinist.” This one, set in 1916 during London’s last days, speculates about the people who surrounded London at the end of his life and whether or not one of them might have had a personal reason for wanting to see him dead. Was it suicide or murder? Hornsby builds a good case for the latter while introducing the reader to some of the people and problems London was dealing with at the end of his life.
The beauty of a large collection of stories like this one is the likelihood that there will be stories in it to please any reader. Whether or not different readers will agree about which are the best stories is a whole other question, and that is another part of the fun. Frankly, I could take or leave most of the stories in the book because they struck me as pretty average. Of the 23, I would say that about half a dozen are outstanding, ten are average, and the rest are not very good. I will leave it up to future readers to decide for themselves which are which.
I do have one final thought, however, concerning Elizabeth George’s contribution to the book, “Lusting for Jenny.” The story is passable all the way up to the ending George chose for it. As the story progressed (no spoilers here), I could see the possibility of a clichéd ending ahead, but I hoped that it would not be chosen by George. Unfortunately, that is exactly what she used - and it is that ill chosen ending that will first come to mind any time I think about Two of the Deadliest.
Rated at: 3.0