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.