Readers of the first “Mystery Masterclass” column may remember that Charles Ardai referred to “a recent article in the Wall Street Journal [that] spoke of a mystery short story renaissance.” The author of that article was Tom Nolan, the WSJ’s regular correspondent for mystery fiction and the editor of Strangers In Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries by Ross Macdonald (Crippen & Landru, 2001) (alas, now out of print) and author of the Edgar-nominated Ross Macdonald: A Biography.
There are few, if any, literary critics in the United States with a deeper or more profound knowledge of crime fiction. Criminal Brief is proud to present this exclusive report from him.
STATE OF THE ART
by Tom Nolan
It was an American who invented the mystery short-story; and for at least a hundred years, Americans loved reading and writing this sort of brief crime-tale. In recent decades, though, the detection short-story has been a lot harder to find in the U.S.
Edward D. Hoch, by far the most prolific American writer of brief detection-stories, says: â€œIâ€™ve had more collections of my stories published in Japan than in the United States. New Japanese writers tend to go for this sort of fairly-clued whodunit-story more than up-and-coming American writers. And the French also do this quite a bit.â€
But while the crime short-story is nowhere nearly as much in evidence now in this country as it was forty or even fifteen years ago, it still endures; and in fact, it may be making something of a comeback, through original-story anthologies such as those edited by the knowledgeable and enthusiastic Otto Penzler.
Nowadays, though, thinks Mr. Penzler, authors are writing such tales as much for love of craft as for money: â€œEven [with] the best-paying anthologies â€“ and Iâ€™ve paid more than anybody, I think, in the history of the genre, for short-stories â€“ itâ€™s a trivial amount, compared to what a novel can engender â€¦ I think that a lot of writers have ideas that donâ€™t fit into a full-length novel: you know, theyâ€™re single-twist; or just a nice nugget of a story, but not enough to fill out 300 pages. And so the short-story gives them the opportunity to use a good idea in a constructive way.â€
Otto Penzler has not only coaxed memorable short work from such celebrated contemporary crime-novelists as Elmore Leonard and Michael Connelly; he has come across less-well-known young writers who are proving to be contemporary masters of the short-story, he says: â€œPeople like Scott Wolven, who I think has been in â€˜Best American Mystery Storiesâ€™ six years in a row. Christopher Coake, who wrote a long short-story, â€˜All Through the Houseâ€™ â€“ Iâ€™ll tell you, Iâ€™ve read an awful lot; itâ€™s really hard to surprise me, but â€“ about halfway through this story, I literally had to catch my breath, what I had just read was such a shock to me. To be able to do that, after all these years and all the stories that Iâ€™ve read â€“ itâ€™s really an amazing thing.
â€œBoth of those guys, their first hard-cover book was a short-story collection, not a novel.â€
While such books of short-stories donâ€™t do as well in the marketplace as do novels, they do well enough for publishers to keep publishing them. â€œYou know, theyâ€™re not philanthropists,â€ says Mr. Penzler (who is also a bookseller). â€œThey keep putting them out because they sell.â€
And readers buy and read them because they fill a continuing need for brief, entertaining fiction. â€œI think itâ€™s fairly obvious,â€ Mr. Penzler says, â€œthat there are times â€“ being a guest at somebodyâ€™s house, being on a short train- or bus-ride â€“ when the idea of being able to conclude the reading experience without letting it [carry over] to another time where you just might lose focus on what it is that youâ€™re reading,â€ is ideal.
â€œI think perhaps people like short-stories maybe to read before bedtime,â€ guesses Ed Hoch, who lists Lawrence Block, Ruth Rendell, and Joyce Carol Oates as among current practitioners he especially admires. Of recent past-masters, he says: â€œRoald Dahl â€¦ his early, adult short-stories were very good. Certainly Ed McBain â€“ heâ€™s one who was successful at the novel but continued to write short-stories through his whole career.â€
For Laura Lippman, a current best-selling novelist whoâ€™s also been known to write as many as six short-stories in a single year, the many original-anthology volumes being done by such publishers as Akashic are a great place to discover not only â€œterrific new voicesâ€ but also to find out â€œnew things about writers that you thought you knew.â€ As a for-instance of the latter, she cites author Bill Crider: â€œHeâ€™s been on the scene for a long time; and â€¦ I think people would say, â€˜Oh, Bill Crider, heâ€™s this nice man from Texas, and he writes these very â€“ nice booksâ€™; but if you read Billâ€™s story â€“ I think itâ€™s â€˜Crank,â€™ in Damn Near Dead [Busted Flush Press, 2006] â€“ youâ€™d be surprised!â€
Whether theyâ€™re having their preconceived notions shaken or making brand-new discoveries, Laura Lippman thinks readers (herself included) are now using mystery and crime short-stories in part as introductions to authors they might then like to read longer works by: â€œItâ€™s a way to sample the writerâ€™s style and voice, and get a feel for whether this is someone you want to spend more time with â€¦ Certainly thatâ€™s the way Iâ€™ve used short-stories â€¦ You know, itâ€™s sort of like a low-key first-date: â€˜Iâ€™ll meet them for lunch.â€™â€