Saturday 19 June 2010

Margot on short stories versus novels

Margot Kinberg needs no introduction to readers of her insightful blog, ‘Confessions of a Mystery Novelist’ or her two novels, Publish or Perish (great title!) and B-Very Flat. Her blog posts are not merely regular but detailed and very skilfully conceived, leaving the rest of us in awe at her industry as well as her depth of knowledge. She also manages to find time to be an associate professor in San Diego.

I greatly appreciate her comments on this blog, and I’m delighted she has agreed to contributed a guest post today, as part of her current blog tour, on the pros and cons of short stories as compared to novels. Over to Margot...

‘First, thank you, Martin, for your kind invitation to guest blog. I am truly honored. One of the appealing aspects of crime fiction is that it can take any number of forms. Many crime fiction authors focus on one of those forms or subgenres (e.g. police procedurals, psychological thrillers, historical crime fiction, and so on). Mastering even one of those subgenres or forms takes talent. There are some authors, though, who’ve mastered more than one form of crime fiction. That requires even more talent and hard work, since crime fiction is not the same across the genre. For example, let’s consider crime fiction short stories versus crime fiction novels.

In novel form, a well-written crime fiction story usually involves solidly-developed characters, a strong plot that keeps the reader guessing, and the buildup of tension and suspense as the story goes on. Crime fiction short stories, though, are quite different in some ways. For one thing, there’s little opportunity to develop characters, so the author has to let the reader know as much as possible about the character in a very efficient way. Also, there’s little opportunity for the buildup of tension and suspense. The author has to convey the suspense with far fewer words. There are other differences, too, of course. The linear approach to telling a story that can work well for a short story can be quite unsatisfying in a novel. The slow buildup of tension that can make a novel unforgettable is too slow for the short story. Given these differences, most authors choose one or another of these forms of crime fiction. Some, though, master both.

Arthur Conan Doyle is perhaps best known for his short stories, especially the fifty-six short stories in which his sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, features. However, Conan Doyle also wrote four Holmes novels. In fact, Holmes first appears, not in a short story, but in the novel A Study in Scarlet. In that novel, Holmes and his new room-mate, Dr. Watson, discover the murderer of Enoch Drebber and his friend, Joseph Stangerson, who’ve been staying in the same rooming-house. At first, Drebber’s murder is blamed on his landlady’s son, since Drebber had been making advances on the boy’s sister. But then, it looks as though Stangerson may be guilty. When Stangerson, too, is murdered, Holmes looks into both men’s histories, and the clues that connect the deaths. He finds that Drebber’s murder and that of Stangerson are connected with their past lives. Conan Doyle wrote three other Holmes novels, as well as other novels of historical fiction and numerous other novels and stories.

Agatha Christie is usually remembered for her novels, in particular those featuring her sleuths Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. However, she also wrote several short story collections. Some of them, such as The Labors of Hercules, Partners in Crime and The Thirteen Problems feature her famous sleuths. Other collections of her stories, though, have featured other characters. One of the most memorable of Christie’s short stories is The Witness for the Prosecution, which appears in The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories. In that story, Leonard Vole is tried for the murder of wealthy Emily French, who befriended him without knowing that Vole was married. Vole’s attorney wants to enlist Vole’s wife, Romaine, as a defense witness, but in one of the story’s many twists, she plans to appear as a witness for the prosecution. Romaine Vole’s reasons for appearing for the prosecution (and, of course, the outcome of the trial) make for compelling reading.

The writing team of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee, better known as Ellery Queen, wrote dozens of Ellery Queen novels from 1929’s The Roman Hat Mystery through 1971’s A Fine and Private Place. While a few of those novels didn’t feature Ellery Queen himself, the vast majority of them did. The prolific “Queen team” also wrote several short story collections featuring Queen. One of their more famous short stories is The Adventure of the One Penny Black, in which Queen solves a baffling series of thefts. Several copies of the same book have been stolen from the owners. At the same time, there’s been a robbery of a very valuable stamp from the collection of the Ulm brothers, a pair of stamp collectors. In an interesting twist, Queen finds out how these events are all tied together.

Ross McDonald, who created the famous private investigator Lew Archer, was also talented both at novels and short stories. In the course of his career, McDonald wrote nearly twenty novels featuring his empathetic but world-weary private detective. Many consider Lew Archer to be one of the groundbreaking characters in the genre. McDonald was also the author of several Lew Archer short stories, including The Singing Pigeon. In that story, Archer’s on his way back to Los Angeles from Mexico when he decides to stop for the night at the small, family-owned Siesta Motel. All is not as peaceful as it looks at the hotel, as Archer finds out when he discovers that there’s been a murder there. He also discovers that the murder is connected to the disappearance of a young woman he met at the hotel. McDonald wrote other short stories, too, that don’t feature Archer.

And then there’s Ed McBain, the author of the very popular 87th Precinct series featuring Detective Steve Carella. He, too, is well-known for his novels, but he’s also written several short stories. One of them is One Down, the story of Ben, a traveling sales representative who finds a unique way to deal with his domestic complications. This and McBain’s other stories are an interesting departure from his 87th Precinct series, but they still have his distinctive style.

Ruth Rendell has also carved a literary niche for herself as a novelist and as a short story writer. She is, of course, the author of the popular Inspector Reg Wexford series of novels. She’s also written several standalone novels, both as Ruth Rendell and as Barbara Vine. Novels such as From Doon With Death (Rendell) and A Dark Adapted Eye (Vine) have established Rendell’s reputation as a novelist. She’s also, though, written several collections of short stories. Her stories have the same intensity that her novels do and she’s been able to create memorable scenes and characters with them. For instance, in Catamount, which appears in Piranha to Scurfy and Other Stories, we meet Nora and Gordon, who visit their friends, Carrie and Chuck, who live in the Rocky Mountains. Over the course of several visits, Nora finds that she has a certain fear of how big and even un-tamed everything is. It turns out that her fears are justified when a severe storm strikes the area where she’s staying on the same night that Chuck falls ill and desperately needs medical assistance. As we follow Nora’s attempt to help her friends, we see how Rendell explores the psychology of fear.

I would be more than remiss not to mention the contributions my talented blog host has made both to the world of crime fiction novels and the world of crime fiction short stories. Martin Edwards’ Harry Devlin novels and Lake District novels have justly received commendation. They feature strong characters, engaging plots and unexpected twists and turns. His recent novel, Dancing For the Hangman is a fascinating fictional look at a real-life murder case, the Crippen case, from the point of view of Crippen himself. He’s written other novels and non-fiction as well. But Edwards is also an award-winning short-story writer. Some of his stories feature his sleuth, attorney Harry Devlin. Others don’t. For instance, in 24 Hours from Tulsa, we meet Lomas, a sales and marketing director for whom the world is changing so fast that he’s struggling to survive in it. His children have grown up so fast that they’re nearly strangers to him. He’s found out his wife’s been unfaithful. His company is putting more and more pressure on him and his colleagues to keep increasing sales in a world where people are purchasing online. Even the traffic patterns are no longer what they used to be. Lomas’ stress at having to deal with this new world is causing some people, including his boss, to think he’s “losing it,” and that only adds to Lomas’ anger, resentment and, in a sense, bewilderment at what’s happening around him. We feel Lomas’ increasing rage and fear as, desperate to retain some control over his life, he takes a drastic step.

Writing crime fiction stories in any form can be challenging. Writing different forms of crime fiction takes particular flexibility and talent, and I salute those who accomplish this successfully. Which are your favorite authors who write both novels and short stories?

Thanks once again, Martin, for your hospitality.’


Jose Ignacio Escribano said...

Just wanted to tell you both how much I enjoy your blogs and this particular post.
Now to answer your question Margot I have enjoyed very much some Raymond Chandler's short stories or novellas, besides obvioulsy his great novels.

Unknown said...

Other than the ones you listed above. I'm not sure I know many. However, my favorite short story is called The Nine Mile Walk by Harry Kemelman. Two men solve a mystery with just this one line from the murderer: "A nine mile walk is no joke especially in the rain." Love it.

Great post.


Mason Canyon said...

Martin, thanks for hosting Margot.

Margot, as always your post makes one stop and think. The post is both informative and entertaining. You bring out facts I wouldn't have thought about and mention books I'm adding to my wish list. Thanks.

Thoughts in Progress

Dorte H said...

Personally I prefer novels, but of course I often teach short stories (and for that purpose they are a wonderful genre).

Reading about Rendell´s short stories I recall one, The Mouse in the Corner. What impressed me was that it has been made into an excellent film (an hour perhaps?). I imagine that if I wrote a novel, it might entertain viewers for five minutes or so, but this story was absolutely engrossing, and I still remember a scene between one of the main characters and Wexford.

Martin Edwards said...

Jose, many thanks.
Clarissa, I like that story too: a real classic.
Thanks, Mason, I must add your blog to my blogroll.
Dorte, my favourite Rendell shorts include The Wrong Category and The New Girlfriend.
Margot - thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Jose Ignacio - Thanks for the kind words : ). I like Raymond Chandler's short stories very much, too. Thanks for the reminder of them.

Clarissa - Oh, that story sounds intriguing! I'm going to have to find it; thanks for sharing it.

Mason - Thank you for the kind words; much appreciated

Dorte - I like novels a lot, too. Some stories, though, really do grip one. I remember reading The Mouse in the Corner a lot time ago. I'm going to have to dig it out again...

Martin - Many thanks for being such a kind and hospitable host. I appreciate it very much : ).