BOOK REVIEW: 'High Crime Area': You Never Know Where Dread Takes Us, But Joyce Carol Oates Does

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

In her latest collection of stories, "High Crime Area: Tales of Darkness and Dread" (Mysterious Press, an imprint of Grove/ Atlantic Inc.,  256 pages, $23) Joyce Carol Oates takes us to places where most people don't want to go.

The title is somewhat misleading, because some of the stories -- all published previously -- are not set in high crime areas, at least as we understand them.

BOOK REVIEW: 'High Crime Area': You Never Know Where Dread Takes Us, But Joyce Carol Oates Does


Take the exquisitely written (as are all of the stories; there is no better stylist alive than JCO)  “The Last Man of Letters,”  where 70-year-old  world-renowned author X embarks on a grand tour of Europe. I'm thinking of a number of people who might deserve his fate (no, I'm not telling!) but let's say he stands in for a whole class of literary celebrities who have money, fame, but not a whole lot of manners. Arrogance doesn't begin to describe them.

X manages to insult a variety of women: A publicist (Never, never insult a publicist…what's with the parentheses? Am I making fun of one of Oates' stylistic quirks? what will happen when I use italics?).

Author X proceeds to insult  a translator and he insults a journalist. All women of different nationalities. This guy is on dangerous ground…. doesn't he realize which gender is the more dangerous? Could his whole life be in a high crime area? The story was originally published in Playboy….let your imagination run riot!

In the title story, "High Crime Area" (which is the last one in the book, not the first one) a prototypical Oates character, a nervous young white college teacher, is in a real high crime area, Detroit in 1967. That was the year of one of the worst riots in the nation (

 Ms. McIntyre is a graduate of the University of Michigan,  in her second year as an adjunct instructor teaching English 101 at Wayne State University and most of her students are minorities, most of them black. In the first person story, she states that she loves her students and clearly wants them to succeed in their continuing education course. 

 As she goes to her car one afternoon, she is convinced she is being followed. No need to panic—she has a .22 caliber Saturday Night Special semi-automatic pistol in her purse, just in case. But when she turns to confront her black male shadow, the situation isn’t what she expects.

In the longest story -- really a novella -- "The Rescuer", Lydia Selden receives a call from her worried parents. Her brother, Harvey, has gone AWOL from his studies at a theological seminary and is living in a high crime area in Trenton, New Jersey. Lydia is a graduate student at a university 200 miles away -- her parents are closer to Trenton than she is, Lydia pleads, to no avail. 

Lydia reluctantly leaves the residence hall, drives her nondescript Mazda to Trenton and discovers that Harvey is a wreck. He's aged measurably and seems to have shrunk from his previous size. He's in hock to a black drug dealer named Leander, who is almost always accompanied by a pit bull and various companions, his posse. 

Lydia stays with Harvey and fails to notify her university, where she has a fellowship and a monthly stipend. She visits a bookstore where Harvey has bought books. She accompanies several women friends of Leander to Atlantic City, where she manages to lose a lot of money. She discovers more about Harvey and his friends in a starkly told, chilling story.

 "The Home at Craigmillnar" is set in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, not a high crime area -- at least not when I was last there. But that was in the early 1970s. Iraq war veteran Francis Gough is an orderly in a elder care home who discovers the lifeless body of Sister Mary Alphonsus. The attending doctor rules the cause of death was cardiac arrest, but was it natural or something else? 

Sister Mary Alphonsus was for two decades the director of the Craigmillnar Home for Children, a Catholic-run orphanage near Eau Claire. In 1977, the orphanage was shut down by county and state authorities, because of numerous cases of abuse. The death of the elderly nun stirs interest because of the many cases of sexual abuse by priests in the church, throughout the nation including a notorious and well publicized series of cases in the Milwaukee Archdiocese. The Milwaukee Archdiocese declared bankruptcy at the beginning of 2011.

Did I say that Joyce Carol Oates is one of our best mystery writers? In past reviews I've called her an outstanding horror writer. Is JCO a master of genre as well as so-called literary novels? Or is she so good that she transcends labels? Why am I asking all these questions?  I'll go with the transcendence of labels. Read "High Crime Area" and prepare yourself for eight surprises, the number of stories in the book.


Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates

About the author

Joyce Carol Oates, born in Lockport, NY in 1938, is the author of more than 70 books, including novels, short story collections, poetry volumes, plays, essays, and criticism, including the national bestsellers "We Were the Mulvaneys" and "Blonde". Among her many honors are the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and the National Book Award. Oates is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University, and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.

For my Jan. 3, 2013 review of her novel "Daddy Love": For my Sept. 11, 2013 of her "Evil Eye":