They’re not quite long enough to count as novels. But at the same time, they’re not really short stories either. I’m talking of course of novellas. Novellas are really interesting forms of the crime fiction genre, and it takes some skill to do them well. The author doesn’t have the room for character development that’s possible in a novel. At the same time though, the pace and timing of a novella aren’t the same as they are in short stories. Not every author does novellas of course, but for those who do, novellas can give readers an interesting insight into that author’s work.
Some of Agatha Christie’s stories are arguably novellas. One, for instance, is Dead Man’s Mirror. Hercule Poirot is summoned (there really is no other good word for it) to Hamborough Close, the home of the Chevenix-Gore family. Family patriarch Gervase Chevenix-Gore has come to believe that someone may be cheating him and he doesn’t want the police involved, since he suspects it’s a family member. Poirot arrives at Hamborough Close just as the family gathers for dinner. Then it’s discovered that Sir Gervase has been shot in his study. All of the evidence suggests it was a suicide, but Poirot isn’t sure of that. So he looks more closely into the case. He discovers that someone found a very clever way to make a murder look like suicide.
Ellery Queen’s The Lamp of God is one of those ‘impossible but not really’ mysteries. Queen gets a call from an attorney friend Thorne, who wants Queen to meet him at New York’s Pier 54. Queen agrees, mostly for friendship’s sake, and duly arrives at the pier. Together, they meet Alice Mayhew, a young heiress who’s just disembarked and whose life may be in danger. They escort her to the Mayhew family home on Long Island. There, they discover that the main house isn’t habitable, so everyone gets as comfortable as possible in the smaller house next door. The next morning, the larger house seems to have completely disappeared, along with any evidence that it ever existed. As if that weren’t enough, some strange and disturbing things happen that convince Queen that there is a real threat here. He doesn’t have a lot of time to get to the truth about the case, but in the end, we learn what happened to the big house and why Alice Mayhew is in peril.
Fans of Rex Stout’s work will know that he wrote several novellas. One of them is Disguise For Murder (AKA The Affair of the Twisted Scarf). In that story, Nero Wolfe is reluctantly persuaded to host the Manhattan Flower Club and display some of his prize orchids. During the event, Archie Goodwin sneaks to his office for some much-needed peace and quiet – and a drink. That’s when he gets a visit from a young woman calling herself Cynthia Brown. She claims that one of the other guests is a murderer, and that that person is likely aware that she knows about the killing. If so, then she’s in danger, and she wants Wolfe’s help. Goodwin is finally convinced that she might be telling the truth. But by the time he finds Wolfe and talks him into meeting this client, she’s been strangled. Now Wolfe and Goodwin have to find out which of the guests is responsible.
Robert Colby’s No Experience Necessary begins with an unusual employment advertisement. Glenn Hadlock has recently been released from San Quentin, and his job prospects are limited. So when he sees an advertisement for a bodyguard/escort position, he can’t resist applying. The benefits and pay are appealing, and he’s qualified for the work, so he shows up at the appointed place and time. He discovers that his prospective employer is wealthy Victor Scofield, who is disabled and therefore needs a chauffeur/escort/bodyguard for his beautiful young wife Eileen. Hadlock is duly hired and it’s made clear to him that his loyalty is to Scofield, who pays his salary, and that his relationship with Eileen must be strictly professional. Hadlock’s happy enough with that arrangement and at first, all goes well. But slowly (Oh, come on, you saw this coming, didn’t you?) Hadlock learns that this position is a lot more dangerous than he thought it was…
D.S. Nelson’s first two Blake Heatherington mysteries, Hats Off to Murder and One For the Rook, are both novellas. In them we are introduced to Heatherington, who is a milliner by profession. The business has been in his family for generations, and he himself takes great pride in his work. He has a true ability to match each client with exactly the right hat. He’s observant, he has compassion, and he’s intelligent and a quick study. So he’s exactly the right choice when, in Hats Off to Murder, new client Delilah Delibes asks him to help her find her mother, who’s disappeared. That search leads to a case of multiple murder, and establishes Heatherington and Delibes as friends. In One For the Rook, Heatherington gets involved in murder much closer to home, when he discovers the body of a neighbour Peter Kürbis in among his prize pumpkins. At first the police consider Heatherington as a suspect, especially since it was one of his own pumpkins that seems to have been the murder weapon. But then there’s another murder. Now Heatherington works with his new friend to find out who the killer is.
Pascal Garnier also made regular use of the novella format (e.g. The Panda Theory; How’s the Pain?). The Front Seat Passenger, for instance, is the story of Fabien Delorme, who is informed that his wife Sylvie has died in a car accident. Although their marriage hadn’t been happy for some time, he still feels her loss. But worse than that, he learns that she was not alone in the car; she was with her lover Martial Arnoult. That hurt to Delorme’s pride is almost worse than losing his wife, and he finds himself thinking of the man. When he discovers that Arnoult left a widow Martine, Delorme begins to become obsessed with her. He finds out where she lives, contrives to meet her, and soon is involved in a relationship with her. That obsession has all sorts of tragic consequences for several people…
Novellas can be tricky to write. The author needs to provide enough character development and plot to sustain the story. At the same time though, the author needs to ‘telescope’ some of the action and limit the number of characters, as one does in shorter fiction. When they’re done well though, novellas can serve as an interesting introduction to an author’s work. And they’re a nice change of pace if one’s been reading longer books.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you read novellas? If you’re a writer, have you experimented with the novella format?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Allan Sherman’s An Average Song. (I know, I rarely do novelty songs, but this just…fit).