The Horrors of the Everyday

Sunday, October 28, 2007


Tales of Mystery and Suspense

By Joyce Carol Oates

Harcourt. 229 pp. $24

Of all the literary writers who dip their toes in the dark waters of crime fiction, few do so with the credibility and acumen of Joyce Carol Oates. The focus of The Museum of Dr. Moses, her latest collection of mystery stories, is on relationships. Whether they are between man and woman, parent and child or simply between strangers, Oates uses these relationships to generate the tension and conflict that any good suspense tale requires.

The best stories here deal with the complicated bonds between parents and children. "Suicide Watch" finds a wealthy man visiting his son in a psych ward, where the young man has been locked up after his girlfriend and their little boy went missing. The son spins a tale for his father of a drug binge that resulted in something terrible happening to the boy. Or did it? The challenge of this story is trying to decide what is true and what the young man is manufacturing simply to torment his father. It's an effective piece of psychological suspense.

Perhaps the most chilling entry in the book is the title story, "The Museum of Dr. Moses," in which a young woman, estranged from her family, is trying to make amends. She visits her mother and her new stepfather, Dr. Moses, at their grand, albeit bleak, house. There she finds that Moses, a former coroner, has turned the place into a ghastly museum of medical lore -- and that's not even the creepiest thing going on.

The best of the collection, however, is "The Man Who Fought Roland LaStarza," a long, layered tale of a washed-up boxer who killed himself and the lingering effects of his suicide on the people around him. Although his life and death were shrouded in mystery, the darkest secret of all belongs to the fighter's best friend.

By finding the horrors that exist in everyday life -- always the most fertile source for fear -- Oates has crafted a suspenseful and satisfying collection. Some of the stories in The Museum of Dr. Moses hew more closely to mystery than to the macabre, but they are all a ghoulish delight.

-- David J. Montgomery, the editor of Mystery Ink, writes frequently about mysteries and thrillers.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company