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.