If you’re kind enough to have read my blog at least a couple of times you may have noticed that I like crime novels. And I do. A lot. Let’s face it; there’s nothing like getting lost in a well-written novel. But here’s the thing. Good stories about crime and mystery don’t necessarily have to be in the form of a full-length novel. Of course, novels allow for the slow buildup of tension that can make them impossible to put down. They also allow for in-depth character development, sub-plots and more as well. But well-written short stories add a lot to the genre as well. Short stories are excellent ways to get to know an author one hasn’t ‘met’ before. And a well-constructed short story anthology gives the reader very welcome variety. Short stories pack a ‘punch’ too that isn’t always possible to sustain over the length of a novel. And they’re just the right length for a short train or bus ride, a wait to pick a child up from school or a walk. And lest you think that short stories are easier to write than novels are, think again. They require real skill at ‘telescoping’ a character’s personality and backstory. They also require the ability to ‘fill in gaps’ in terms of the setting and so on with just a few verbal ‘brushstrokes.’ Not an easy thing to do.
Lots of crime writers have become known for their short stories, too. I’ll just mention a few. As Arthur Conan Doyle fans know, the Sherlock Holmes canon is mostly made up of short stories (there are 56 of those if I’m right about that). And that makes sense as they were originally published in The Strand Magazine. The short story lends itself quite well to the magazine format. What’s interesting is that by the time A Scandal in Bohemia was published, The Strand had already published two of Conan Doyle’s novels (A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four). Those novels were well-enough received but it wasn’t until the short stories were published that Conan Doyle (and Sherlock Holmes) became truly popular. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Agatha Christie is well-known of course for her novels, but she also wrote a wide variety of short stories. Some are Hercule Poirot cases, some involve Tommy and Tuppence Beresford and some involve Miss Marple. Her other familiar characters Mr. Parker Pyne and Mr. Harley Quinn also appear in several of her stories. Christie also created many short stories that don’t feature any of her well-known sleuths. Some of them are psychological in nature, some are suspense, some are romance and some explore other themes. In my opinion (so feel free to differ with me if you do), Christie’s short stories allow the reader to see Christie’s breadth as a writer, possibly more than her novels do.
Dorothy Sayers also wrote several short stories. Busman’s Honeymoon was the last Lord Peter Wimsey novel that Sayers herself wrote. But interestingly she continued to share the lives of Wimsey and his wife mystery novelist Harriet Vane through a series of short stories that take place after the events in Busman’s Honeymoon. Of course not all of Sayer’s short stories feature those characters, so in those stories we get the chance to see the variety in Sayer’s writing.
Many other authors such as the ‘Ellery Queen team,’ Michael Collins, John Dickson Carr and John D. MacDonald also wrote collections of short stories as well as full-length novels.
Today, the short story format is more than alive and well. For example, Patti Abbott’s Monkey Justice is a collection of noir stories that explore a whole range of themes including family dysfunction, tragic miscalculation, ‘down and outers’ and karma. The stories take a variety of perspectives including children’s, young adults’ and retirees and feature a focus on psychology and characterisation.
Another deliciously creepy (Whoops! There’s my opinion coming through again….) collection of noir short stories is Rob Kitchin’s Killer Reels. All of the stories feature Jimmy Kiley, a crime boss you simply don’t want to run afoul of – at all. Kiley is a film buff who has – er – unusual taste in what he likes to see and this collection is a set of his encounters with different people he meets in the course of his business.
And then there’s Martin Edwards, who’s written quite a few short stories. One of his collections is Where Do You Find Your Ideas and Other Crime Stories. In this collection Edwards includes several stories featuring his sleuth Liverpool attorney Harry Devlin. But there are also several other stories of psychological suspense, some historical mysteries and even some Sherlock Holmes pastiches. And that’s part of the beauty of short stories for an author: it allows the author to experiment and to show the breadth of her or his repertoire.
Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s short story collections Candied Crime and Liquorice Twists feature stories that run the gamut from light, cosy mysteries to humour to darker and grittier stories. They feature a wide variety of themes too, from whodunits to family secrets to psychological suspense and more. Some of them feature the characters from fictional Knavesborough, a Yorkshire town that’s the setting for her novel The Cosy Knave.
Of course, you don’t have to confine yourself to collections by only one author. Short story anthologies can be excellent ways to get to know the crime fiction from an era, a sub-genre, or a particular country or region. For instance, a group of Australian writers has come together in Crime Factory’s Hard Labour. It’s a collection of fourteen noir criminal stories from all over Australia. All of them are gritty, realistic stories that give the reader a real sense of what’s happening in Australian crime fiction.
There’s also 100 Malicious Little Mysteries, which is a very wide and varied selection of short stories that range from a sci-fi sort of theme to a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Lots of prominent authors such as Isaac Asimov, Edward D. Hoch and Judith Garner are represented, and each story has a slightly different bent. Collections like this one allow the reader to get a sense of how diverse the crime fiction genre really is.
There are many, many other collections of short stories out there of course – many more than I have space to mention. Short stories are diverse and flexible. They show the breadth and variety of the genre and of individual authors. They allow the author to experiment and the reader to ‘meet’ all sorts of different authors. But what’s your view? Do you like dipping into short stories? Which collections have you really enjoyed? If you’re a novelist, do you also write short stories? How does it compare with writing novels?