Are crime novels killing short stories?

4 Mins read

Deadley-pleasures While the crime novel is in rude health with huge sales for contemporary genre authors, what about the short story? It’s true that labyrinthine crime plots have always suited the novel – although Golden Age writers penned shorter novels than today’s chunky bestsellers – but let’s not ignore the atmospheric tale you can read in one sitting.

The Sherlock Holmes stories are as popular as ever, while Raymond Chandler perfected his art in Black Mask magazine, beginning with Blackmailers Don’t Shoot in 1933, and cannibalized early tales for material in his classic novels. Psychological novelists such as Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell penned some of the strangest, most unsettling crime stories you’ll encounter – Rendell’s Collected Stories volume 2 is one of the most addictive collections I’ve read.

But if you scan the crime section in bookshops it’s hard to find many anthologies or author collections beyond Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. The contemporary crime novel is king.

mammoth_book_of_british_crimeMore Mammoth Crime…
However, there are reasons for fans of short crime to be hopeful. Despite suggestions in the introduction to the Mammoth Book of Best British Crime 10 it would be the last, publisher Constable has confirmed to CFL that the 11th edition of the anthology will appear in the UK in June 2014. A 12th edition of acclaimed TTA Press magazine anthology series Crimewave is due in November (the previous edition provided stories by Nina Allan, Christopher Fowler, Joel Lane and Alison Littlewood to the Mammoth anthology). And Quercus imprint MacLehose is adept at sourcing international short fiction, such as the Italian Outsiders anthology featuring Dagger-nominated stories by Carlo Lucarelli and Piero Colaprico.

The Mystery Writers of America anthology Vengeance is out in the UK this month with an understandable focus on a new story from editor Lee Child. Shotgun Honey has just released Reloaded, the publisher’s second volume of hardboiled short stories. The Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) is marking its diamond jubilee with a new anthology, Deadly Pleasures, and there’s the CWA and Margery Allingham Society short story competition, with a winner to be unveiled in May 2014 – read our news story here.

Don’t expect a twist…
The crime fiction short story was the subject of a CWA panel event at the Hampstead & Highgate Literary Festival featuring Stella Duffy, John Harvey and CWA chair Alison Joseph at the London Jewish Cultural Centre yesterday (17 September). Duffy was the deserving winner of this year’s CWA Short Story Dagger for Come Away With Me, a Highsmith-like cat and mouse tale set in Venice.

Stella Duffy (photo by Gino Spiro)

Stella Duffy (photo by Gino Spiro)

The story, which appeared in the Mammoth Book of Best British Crime 10, is about a romantic trip that goes very wrong. Duffy revealed she was inspired by a friend on Facebook, who described the overly intricate travel plans prepared by her absent partner for a romantic getaway.

The panel members agreed that short stories are different from novels – they’re more about a moment in a character’s life than a plotted story, and don’t even need a body.

“I always used to be terrified of writing short stories just because I thought you had to have a twist at the end,” said John Harvey. “Then I realised you could get away with murder – or without murder, which is more to the point.”

“People think a short story needs a twist and a crime story needs a reveal – it doesn’t,” agreed Duffy, who said she tried to find the key moment that makes a story. She’s known for her series of novels featuring private detective Saz Martin but has also written around 50 short stories.

Elmore Leonard’s advice…
Harvey believes the pared down short story leaves gaps for readers to do some of the work themselves. He did a reading of Well, You Needn’t, a story that was barely 700 words and featured his jazz-loving DI Charlie Resnick (the story title is from a Thelonious Monk composition) who encounters an ex-miner he knew from the 1984 strike.

Elmore Leonard will teach you to write, and sign your book.“Elmore Leonard said he used to ‘walk characters around the block’ to see whether they had the legs to be in novel,” said Harvey. “I certainly do it.”

Harvey also described using the form to address contemporary issues or events that are impossible to ignore, such as a stabbing that occurred at the end of his street, without needing to spend 18 months on a novel.

Miss Marple’s not as nice as you think…
Duffy said her favourite short stories were by JD Salinger though she also spoke fondly of the Miss Marple stories, having recently written the introduction for the handsome Folio Society collected edition, which we recently offered as a competition prize.

missmarpleFS“At 14 it was exciting to find a woman hero and even within the formula there’s some playing around,” said Duffy. “And the myth about Miss Marple being nice is so clear in the stories, possibly clearer than in the novels.”

However, Duffy said she shared Agatha Christie’s irritability with Poirot – Christie called her creation ‘insufferable’ as far back as 1930 – and expressed surprise at the Belgian detective’s revival by the Christie estate. Sophie Hannah will write the novel due in September 2014 – read our interview here.

“Christie was pleased to kill him off so I think it’s an interesting choice to reincarnate him,” said Duffy.

Duffy also discussed the tendency in our novel-based culture for publishers to demand longer books from authors, adding that she was weary of the trend towards gratuitous violence.

There was strong support for the short story on the panel and in the audience, and Alison Joseph proudly unveiled the latest CWA anthology, Deadly Pleasures, which features Peter Robinson, Michael Ridpath, John Harvey, Ann Cleeves and Peter Lovesey. If you want to support the crime short story, the book is available directly from the organisation’s website.

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