Sunday Thoughts: The Short Story Edition

My previous Sunday musings had no unifying theme – they were what they were branded to be, that is, random thoughts. Today’s edition is slightly different as it more or less revolves around the short story, which long-time readers of this blog know I’ve always held to be the purest and thus most exacting incarnation of the genre. While most of my recent reading diet has been of the novelistic kind, I keep reading shorter works on occasion and my thinking on the issue is forever evolving like one former POTUS would say.

Warning: The following contains some opinion stated as fact, which doesn’t mean it isn’t open to reasonable discussion. 

My misgivings about the impossible crime subgenre are now well known and documented. Still, I’d like to add a few words on the subject as I recently made an interesting discovery. Having as usual nothing better or else to do, I decided to make a list of my favourite stories in the genre and it turned out not only that there were quite a few, which was already surprising, but also that a strong majority of them were short stories; only a small number were novels, all of which being by the same writer. It appears then that my issue with impossible crimes might not be a matter of theme after all, but of length.

It was Chesterton I think who said something to the effect that the ideal detective story was a short story. He himself never wrote a novel-length mystery, unless you count The Man Who Was Thursday as one, so that his defence of the short story may also have been a defence of his own work. Still, I think he had a point. The genre after all originated with a short story, with the form remaining its default mode for a long time afterwards. The rise of the detective novel was arguably a step forward from a « literary » viewpoint as it allowed writers to broaden the scope of their narratives but it also came at a coast, for what was perceived as the short story’s weaknesses – its brevity and simplicity – were also its strengths. If we agree that the best plot is the one that can be explained in a few sentences, then we ultimately make a case for the short story over the novel whose length entails greater complexity, for better but also for worse. It’s revealing I think that most of the attacks on Golden Age fiction have focused on novels – it can be argued that the long form for all its virtues also brought artificiality and excessive complication to a genre that had mostly avoided these perils until then.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating the genre ditching the novel entirely and going back to its short story roots. Publishers and readers for a start wouldn’t let us do it; but even if they did the novel has its benefits by allowing what S.S. Van Dine called « literary dallying » which is more problematic, though by no means impossible, when you’re writing a short story. Whether said benefits also include better and more efficient plotting on the other hand is open to debate. It all depends in the end on what you’re looking for in a « good » detective story. If good plotting is but one of many things you crave for, then the novel might and often will do – but if the puzzle is the only or main thing you’re interested in, then maybe the short story would be the best choice.


3 commentaires sur “Sunday Thoughts: The Short Story Edition

  1. Xavier, This is a good post. I came to the same conclusion about the novel length being a source of what made Golden Age Mysteries convoluted. Some of it is that certain writers ignored the way real people behave. Which is what Chandler complained about in his famous essay. Still enjoy Christie and Queen among others because they could overcome it at times.


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