The Right Length

If you’re not (yet) a member of the Golden Age Detective Fiction group over at Facebook then you miss a lot of great discussions. The latest hot topic t here started with a member voicing his disappointment with Otto Penzler’s Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries but quickly turned into a larger debate over whether the short story is compatible with impossible crime and overall traditional mystery plots. Some think that it isn’t, or only in the hands of a few masters, whereas others (among which I count myself) disagree. The subject is actually an old one which I have addressed more than once on this blog, but I think it’s worth revisiting again. 

The short story in crime fiction has its pros and cons. The former include a greater focus on the essential elements of the story without the risk of gratuitous digression. Also the short story undeniably makes for easier and faster reading than a novel, especially of the triple decker kind so prevalent nowadays. The skeptics retort not without reason that the form’s narrow focus deprives it of full plot or character development, precluding it from reaching the level of complexity found in novels, something even some supporters readily admit: you can’t pack the plot of The Hollow Man into a short story as one of the group members rightly put it.

The problem with the skeptic attitude is that it equals a great story with a great plot and a great plot with a complex or a complicated one. Few mystery shorts admittedly rise up to the challenge, but we don’t have to accept these standards without question. A great plot is not necessarily a long and winding road leading to a Whoa solution. Some of the best stories ever in the field are built on plot ideas that are ludicrously simple, whereas some of the worst are extremely convoluted affairs. Conversely and probably more controversially, a mystery story is admittedly about a mystery but also is a story and must be primarily judged as such. If the writing is good, if the story is fun or moving or thought-provoking then it is a good mystery short story, even if the plot is only okay. 

At the end of the day a good short story like a good novel is one that justifies its length. If your plot belongs in the simpler category, better write a short story for it is the medium most suited for that. If on the other hand it is of a more complex kind, then maybe it’s better you write a novel but even then try to be as compact as possible for rare are the plots so rich that you need 600 pages to unroll them. 


Un commentaire sur “The Right Length

  1. As I suspect that my view is among those referenced here, I think I should clarify what I consider a misrepresentation. I stated that I don’t believe that the short story form is ideally suited to the impossible crime puzzle plot. But that’s a different thing than saying that the short story form is incompatible with impossible crimes— a very different thing. I was merely suggesting that I don’t consider impossible crimes AS compatible with short stories as it is with novels. To characterize this as claiming incompatibility I consider akin to suggesting that because The Burning Court is not my favorite Carr novel, I therefore don’t like it. I love The Burning Court… I merely don’t love it as much as I love Till Death Do Us Part or He Who Whispers.

    I feel there is a tendency toward artificiality and incredibility (in not only in problems, but also solutions) inherent in nearly all impossible crime stories, and that the brevity of short stories generally emphasizes this liability. The thumbnail explanations in the latter section of Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders provide an extreme illustration of this effect— even the best and most convincing of Carr’s solutions sound rather ludicrous in single sentence form. Of course, this is not merely so much a problem in short stories, but I feel still more so than in novels.

    I recall reading Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia and feeling afterward that it wasn’t QUITE believable. She had almost convinced me regarding the key point of incredibility in the plot, employing her often underrated skills in characterization to smooth over a frankly ludicrous plot point. I believe it can be attributed to the novel form— allowing for more persuasion through characterization— that she was almost able to get away with it… had it been in short story form, I think the blatant stupidity of the idea would have been far more salient and readily apparent.

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