Punishment Stories

August 18, 2014 4:11 AM

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Crime and the punishment that—sometimes—ensues have been rich fictional subjects since long before Dostoyevsky’s novel was serialized in a Russian journal in 1866. Why are writers drawn to the subject? Fiction explores the full spectrum of human emotions, and crime is virtually always driven by emotion, whether it’s anger, desire, jealousy, or despair. Prison stories, on the other hand, have less emotional range: there’s hopelessness, mostly, and the occasional flash of enlightenment or redemption. They lack, too, the narrative arc of crime stories; they begin, by definition, after the fact, in that last car of the train of cause-and-effect. The deed has been done (or, if the justice system has failed, not done), and what remains for the reader is a kind of cinema verité, a look at how the criminal holds up to the consequences, or how society holds up to its own strictures.

In this collection of recent stories about crime and punishment, you’ll find crimes that resonate throughout a life: the date rape that is avenged fifty years later in Margaret Atwood’s “Stone Mattress” or the unfathomable child murders in Alice Munro’s “Dimension.” There’s a kidnapping, in Louise E...

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