Wednesday, May 11, 2011

And Different Strokes for Different Folks*

One of the great things about crime fiction is that it comes in all sorts of forms. Two of the most common written forms of crime fiction are novels and short stories (but of course, there are a lot of other forms, too, such as films, games and plays). This variety gives the genre a lot of versatility and makes it appealing to lots of people who might not otherwise be interested in crime fiction. There are advantages and disadvantages of novels and short stories for readers and authors, and in terms of which one is the better form, it’s probably most productive to think of novels and short stories as complementary.

Short Stories

Short stories have a lot of advantages, both for authors and readers. For the reader, a short story gives one the chance to sample the work of an author one hasn’t “met” before without investing an awful lot of time and effort. For instance, Agatha Christie’s The Labours of Hercules, Partners in Crime and The Tuesday Club Murders are collections of short stories featuring her most famous detectives, respectively Hercule Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford and Jane Marple. Those collections allow new readers to see what they think of Christie’s sleuths, one story at a time.

Although Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes made his debut in the novel A Study in Scarlet, many people have actually been introduced to Holmes through one of the 56 short stories in which he appears. I know that’s true of me (my introduction to Holmes was The Adventure of The Red-Headed League). And I’m sure you can think of other authors, too, whose work you first read in short story format. That’s one of the benefits of short story anthologies such as 100 Malicious Little Mysteries, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Greenberg and Joseph Olander. Since a group of writers contribute their work, the reader gets to sample all sorts of “new” authors.

Short stories also allow the reader to experience a whole crime story – from start to finish – in just a few pages. For example, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s Cutbacks, from her collection Liquorice Twists, tells the story of a fateful decision that a man makes when his financial advisor warns him that he’ll have to make drastic cuts in his business expenses. It’s only four pages long, but it provides background, builds up to a dramatic dénouement, and gives closure.

And then there’s one of my personal favourite short stories, Roald Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter, which tells the story of Mary Maloney, who’s six months pregnant, and her police-officer husband Patrick. When Patrick comes home from work one day and gives Mary some drastic news, he sets in motion events that he couldn’t have foreseen. This story is less than 4,000 words; yet it gives background, tells the story of a crime and its investigation, and provides a famous plot twist.

For the busy reader or the reader who’s not sure that he or she will enjoy crime fiction, short stories are a very appealing alternative.

Short stories give the author advantages, too. They allow the author to introduce new characters and try them out. They also allow the author to stretch his or her writing and experiment. And they allow new authors to get some name recognition. Many authors who haven’t yet had novels published have been able to have their stories included in magazines and anthologies.


For all of their advantages, short stories don’t fit the bill all the time. Many readers, for example, prefer the character, setting and plot developments that are sometimes best done through the novel format. For example, Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night tells the story of mystery novelist Harriet Vane’s return to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford. When she first receives an invitation to the college’s annual Gaudy Dinner and celebration, Vane is reluctant to attend. She’s gained a certain amount of notoriety because she was on trial for the murder of her former lover (events that are detailed in Strong Poison). So she’s not sure of the welcome she’ll receive. And yet, for the sake of an old friend, she decides to go. When she arrives, Vane is received much more warmly than she’d expected, and all goes well. Then, two months later, Vane receives a letter from the Dean of Shrewsbury College. Some disturbing events, including anonymous “poison pen” letters and vandalism, have been taking place at the college. College authorities don’t want the police involved, so the Dean asks Vane to investigate. Vane agrees and goes back to Shrewsbury, this time under the pretext of doing research for a book. She and, later, Lord Peter Wimsey, look into the matter and find that the upsetting events at the college (which include an attack on Vane herself) are the work of someone who’s holding an old grudge. This story would have been very hard to tell in short story form. There’s too much important backstory, and there are some interesting sub-plots (including Vane’s developing romance with Wimsey) and those couldn’t be told effectively in a short story.

Lots of crime fiction fans like the character evolution that can best take place in a novel or better yet, a series. For example, in the course of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller series, we see how both protagonists grow and change and cope with what life brings them. That’s also true of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. It’s hard to get the full flavour of a character’s growth and development within the space of one short story, or even several short stories.

Novels also allow the reader to truly get immersed in a story. That can be especially enjoyable when one’s reading stories that take place in different places and times. For example, Ellis Peter’s A Morbid Taste for Bones and Philip Kerr’s If the Dead Rise Not both transport the reader to a different time; the former to 11th Century England and Wales, the latter to Germany just before the outbreak of World War II. Particularly for readers who aren’t familiar with the times and places mentioned in this sort of novel, it’s very beneficial to have the length of the novel to provide the background needed to enjoy the story.

For the author, novels allow for a variety of characters, plots twists and so on that are more difficult in short stories. Novels also allow the author to build suspense more slowly, take more time with details, and add layers to a story.

There’s a good argument that in order to really get a sense of the crime fiction that’s out there, it’s perhaps best to read both short stories and novels. But what do you think? Do you read both forms of crime fiction? Do you have a preference? If so, what is it? If you’re a writer, do you write both short stories and novels? Which do you prefer writing?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jeff Buckley’s Everyday People.


  1. Actually, in the old days there were a LOT more novellas -- which have some of the advantages of both. Rex Stout is one of the few novella writers whose books have survived into the modern age, with his famous collections -- Three For The Chair, Trouble in Triplicate, etc.

    IMHO the shorter novel and longer short stories (novelettes) both have a whole lot of advantages over what they've been printing for the past 30 years.

    And with the advent of ebooks, we're going to see more of these other lengths.

  2. Daring Novelist - You really do make a strong point about novellas. It's interesting, isn't it, how novel length has increased so much in the last decades. I'm not sure if it's because publishers or readers (or both, for the matter of that) think that stories have to be longer to be worth what people pay for them, or if there's another reason. But I do agree with you that stories have gotten longer.

    And you're probably right about E-books. They do tend to be shorter than a recent typical novel (if there is such thing), and since E-publishing is a different sort of publishing, I'll bet we will be seeing different lengths. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. I love novels because of the character development and the chance of a series bringing further into the life of the story.

    However, I just love some short stories. I'm loving Dorte's books and I have all of Doyle's books.

    My favorite short story by Agatha Christie is Philomel Cottage. It was also made into a great radio play.

  4. Clarissa - Oh, I agree; Philomel Cottage is a wonderful short story! I've never heard it broadcast, but I can certainly see it as a terrific radio play, too.

    And you make a well-taken point about novels giving the chance for characters to develop and for a book to turn into a series if it evolves that way. But then, there are writers such as Dorte and Arthur Conan Doyle who do wonderful short stories. I say there's room for both :-).

  5. I'm trying to like short stories and even flash fiction - really I am - but I just don't find them as satisfying as a good novel (though heaven knows some of those could do with a good edit). With shorter fiction though I find that plot is king and there really isn't enough time for characters to develop and I have learned that it is people I really enjoy getting to know.

  6. Bernadette - No doubt about it; it's much harder to develop characters in shorter fiction. It's harder to get to know them and harder to follow through on what happens to them. So if characters are what "get" you, then I'm not surprised that you think a good novel is more satisfying than shorter fiction. Of course, as you say, there are novels that could use editing, too....

  7. I don't read as many short stories as I used to. I like Stephen King's short stories. Now I'm inspired to write a few.

  8. I do sometimes read short stories...sometimes, actually, short stories are the only things I have *time* to read! I couldn't write them, though...too difficult.

  9. Chase - Interesting, isn't it, how sometimes, reading other people's short stories can give us "zip" to write our own? And I like some of Stephen King's short stories very much, too...

    Elizabeth - That's the thing, isn't it? So often there's not a lot of time to read much more than a short story. And with your hectic schedule, I'm surprised you even have the time for that. I think it's hard to write short stories, too. I did write a few, long ago. Thankfully, they were never published.

  10. Recently I got a fascinating collection of short stories, all mysteries written by women, edited and chosen by Elizabeth George. I've written one short mystery and was amazed at how carefully I had to choose my words since less really is more in that discipline. I appreciated the irony of writing a short story and continuously wanting to add more when I constantly look at my full length manuscript and see it's word count coming up shy.

  11. Elspeth - That book sounds fascinating!! I would love to read it. It's funny; I haven't written a lot of short stories, either, but from my experience, you are 100% absolutely right that one has to choose one's words extremely carefully. It takes so much care and thought, doesn't it? And yet, like you, when it comes to a full-length novel, I have to figure out how to make it full enough. Hmmm.... yes, that is ironic.

  12. Arggh! Just got caught in a blog comment whirl! OK - I can remember what I said. I said "I don't like short stories unless they were written by Alice Munro or in The New Yorker. I don't like writing them and I don't want to read them. I like marathons not sprints. In mysteries I prefer series to a stand-alone. I want to eat and prepare 7 course meals not appetizers. I know it is hard to write them but I'm not going to try cuz I don't like 'em!

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