A Few Words, That’s All I Need*

One of the great things about crime and mystery fiction is that it’s adaptable. You can find crime/mystery stories in short story length, novella length, and novel length (and that’s to say nothing of microfiction and plays, etc.). And the most memorable stories are those that are really suited to their length. Some stories, for instance, are best kept short. That gives them the ‘punch’ they need to have an impact.

That’s arguably why, for example, Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories still resonate as they do. One of those stories is The Fall of the House of Usher. An unnamed narrator visits his friend, Roderick Usher, and Usher’s sister, Madeleine. Both of the Ushers are suffering from anxiety and anxiety-related disorders, and that only adds to the eerie, grim atmosphere of the house. Then, some unsettling things begin to happen, and it all ends tragically. The buildup of tension, and the growing suspicion that something very, very wrong is going on might be hard to sustain over the course of a novel. But as a short story, it’s quite powerful, as are Poe’s other short stories.

That’s also true of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper. A young woman and her physician husband have taken a summer home, and are settling in. Both are hoping that a change of scene will help alleviate the ‘temporary nervous depression’ she has suffered from since the birth of their new baby. She spends most of her time in the nursery and is strongly advised not to go out. Little by little, she becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in the nursery. She begins to believe that a woman is trapped in the wallpaper and, as time goes by, becomes more and more convinced of that. The woman’s growing sense of paranoia and the fear that she may be losing her mind are effective in this short story. It’s eerie and unsettling. But as a novel, it’s possible that this story wouldn’t have the impact that it does as a short story.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that he wrote 56 short stories and four novels. By and large, they’re narrated by Holmes’ friend and colleague/sidekick Dr. Watson. In that sense, they are similar to a physician’s case notes. They contain the facts of the case, the events, Holmes’ explanation, and the outcome. They don’t go deeply into character development or psychology (although it is factored in at times). Instead, they focus on the clues and the deductions Holmes makes from those clues. That approach to storytelling might not be as effective over the length of a novel as it is in the short story format, as there might be too much ‘padding.’ And, in fact, plenty of Holmes fans prefer the short stories to the novels.

Fredric Brown’s Don’t Look Behind You is another story that likely wouldn’t have the impact as a novel that it does as a short story. It begins in this way:

‘Just sit back and relax, now. Try to enjoy this; it’s going to be the last story you ever read, or nearly the last. After you finish it you can sit there and stall awhile, you can find excuses to hang around your house, or your room, or your office, wherever you’re reading this; but sooner or later you’re going to have to get up and go out. That’s where I’m waiting for you: outside. Or maybe closer than that. Maybe in this room.’

Brown goes on to tell the story of an introverted printer named Justin, a suave man named Harley, and the consequences for both when they come up against some very dangerous people. It’s unsettling and uncomfortable, especially the ending. Part of the reason for that (at least for me) is that it’s a short story that doesn’t try to sustain the dread of anticipation too long. It would be very hard to do that over the course of a novel.

There are also plenty of excellent short stories in contemporary crime fiction, too, of course. For example, Paul Thomas’ Sex Crimes is a collection of seven stories about, as the blurb says, ‘The things we do for sex – lie, cheat, scheme, kill….’  There’s plenty of double-crossing, betrayal, revenge, and more. These stories are somewhat of a departure from Thomas’ series featuring Auckland police detective Tito Ihaka. But they are written with a similar dark wit, and they might serve as an introduction to Thomas’ writing style.

There’s also Patricia Abbott’s Monkey Justice, 12 short stories that focus on dark motives and the consequences of them, especially for the victims. Each story’s focus is human relationships, what happens when they go wrong, and how they can become dysfunctional. These stories might not be as effective if they were drawn out into full-length novels. On the other hand, they are (as I see it) very well suited to the short story format. And they offer a way to get to know Abbott’s work.

Short stories aren’t always the answer. But sometimes, they’re the best choice for a given story. And many people like the fact that they can dip in and out of a collection of stories. If you like short stories, you’ll want to find out more about Short Story Wednesday, which Abbott is hosting on her blog. Each Wednesday, participants share their views about a short story they’ve read. Here’s the first edition. It’s a terrific way to share stories you’ve loved, and explore new ones.

What do you think? Which short stories have left a mark on you? If you’re a writer, what’s your experience writing short stories?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gregory Isaacs’ A Few Words.

Published by Margot Kinberg

I'm a mystery novelist and professor who loves to read, write, and talk about crime fiction.

12 thoughts on “A Few Words, That’s All I Need*

    1. I don’t think so, either, Sue. There’s an urgency – is that the word? – about it that probably wouldn’t be there if the stories were longer. And I do recommend Don’t Look Behind You. The link will take you right to the story.

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      1. The Brown is a justly lauded classic. A small thing–he was Fredric Brown (vs. Frederic). A name that is spelled at least four different ways by writers of his generation…

        And thanks to the pointer to Paul Thomas…I’m not familiar with his work.

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      2. Brown really was a skilled writer, Todd – I’m glad you enjoy his work. And I’ve corrected the name – thanks. As for Paul Thomas, I hope you’ll like his work when you get to it.

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  1. When I was younger – a phrase to make you feel old – I read a fair number of short story mysteries but now it is rare. year recently for reading short stories. Earlier this year I did read and enjoy the short story collection The Old Man in the Corner – The Teahouse Detective by Baroness Orczy. Written in 1908 they are good stories. In addition to the authors you mentioned I loved the Father Brown mysteries of G.K. Chesterton. I cannot imagine them as full length books.

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    1. I know what you mean, Bill. I used to read short stories quite often, although I haven’t as much in recent years. And there are some great collections out there. Thank you very much for mentioning the Father Brown stories; some of them are excellent, and I agree that they wouldn’t do nearly as well if they were full-length novels. I should have mentioned them in this post, because they’re such good examples of fine crime fiction short stories. I didn’t, so I’m glad you did. And I remember your excellent post on The Old Man in the Corner – The Teahouse Mysteries. That’s another example of a solid set of crime-fictional short stories. They really can be effective vehicles for telling a story.

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  2. Margot, I love short stories. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to read full-length novels so I could spend all of my time reading short stories. But I’m glad I reading both formats.

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    1. I love short stories, too, Prashant. They offer variety, they don’t take up too much time if you haven’t got much, and they can be very powerful. As you say, reading more than one format has a lot of benefits, but short stories definitely add a lot to the genre.

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  3. Since I’m sitting here surrounded by the eight anthologies I seem to have acquired for this winter, I think it’s fair to say I enjoy short stories! Though I do think they often work better for horror rather than crime – sometimes a crime story needs more space to allow for the mystery element to be developed. When they’re done well though, they can be an excellent way to fill in those odd gaps between books, or for reading before bed. Of course you know how I feel about Holmes and Watson, and I’ve been enjoying the Bodies from the Library series of anthologies recently – previously uncollected stories, often from very well known novelists, showing they could work just as comfortably in the shorter format.

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    1. You know, FictionFan, I was thinking the same thing about horror stories. They often do lend themselves nicely to the short story format, don’t they? I think it takes real skill to tell a crime story within the limits of a short story, for just the reason you mentioned. I also think it’s a bit harder to do solid character development within the confines of the short story than it is to do that in a novel. The Bodies From the Library anthologies are great, and I they do show how the best-known novelists could also do short stories. They also let people ‘meet’ some of the ‘unknown’ or lesser-known writers, and I think that’s a real plus. And as for the Holmes and Watson stories, they are classics, and some of the best examples there are of well-written short stories.

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    1. Oh, it really is scary, Moira! It’s one of the few short stories I’ve read that really made the hair on the back of my neck go up…

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