Short Can Be Sweet

It’s a truism in the publishing world that ‘short stories don’t sell’, and there are few print outlets for short mysteries and anthologies these days. Yet it’s rather baffling – surely in an age of decreasing attention spans, short stories ought to be enjoying widespread popularity?

The detective story began with the short form, not the novel. Edgar Allan Poe’s Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin appeared in three tales offering plenty of mystery as well as imagination, and nearly half a century later, the early short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes made much more of an impact than his first appearance, in the longer story A Study in Scarlet. Raffles, Father Brown, Max Carrados and Martin Hewitt were among the rivals of Sherlock who were seen to best advantage in the short story, and it was not until after the First World War, with the emergence of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts and Anthony Berkeley, that the detective novel became more important and popular than the short mystery. – even though Sayers went on to edit a number of excellent short story collections.

Today, the main publishers will rarely consider publishing a single-author collection, although Peter Lovesey – a brilliant practitioner of the short form – has managed to produce five collections of stories. Very often, the finest crime novelists are also accomplished short story writers – Jeffrey Deaver, Peter Robinson, Reginald Hill, Ian Rankin and Ruth Rendell are among the names that spring to mind. But ‘mid-list’ writers find it much harder to market short stories. Online publication of short fiction offers a route to readers, but the financial rewards tend to be minimal.

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine remains the premier print outlet, and the editor, Janet Hutchings, does a superb job in providing readers with a diverse range of stories from writers the world over. The Strand Magazine, edited by Andrew Gulli, also includes short stories of real quality. But in the UK, magazines such as Bella (which published my very first short mystery, something for which I shall always be grateful) no longer take short fiction, preferring to concentrate on celebrity revelations and features about ‘miracle babies’.

Anthologies can play an important part in showcasing an author’s work. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of editing the CWA’s (more or less) annual anthology since the mid-90s, and I’ve been keen to balance the list of contributors, mixing stellar names with relative newcomers, as well as trying to provide a blend of different types of story, linked by a common – albeit very broad – theme. Mike Ashley has edited a considerable number of themed anthologies, while Maxim Jakubowski’s series of Best British Mysteries has achieved noteworthy sales figures, suggesting that, if publishers were willing to risk more resource on the marketing of short stories, the investment might reap a handsome dividend.

Most crime writers I know relish the chance to try their hand at a short story. The short form offers a break from the marathon effort required to write a novel, as well as an opportunity to experiment that is almost always a creative stimulus. Reg Hill’s Joe Sixsmith first appeared in a short story, but Hill enjoyed writing about the character so much that he turned Joe into a series detective. Some authors, admittedly, feel reluctant to ‘waste’ good ideas on a short story, but in truth, good ideas seldom need to be wasted. One remarkable example from the Golden Age was Berkeley’s clever story ‘The Avenging Chance’, which he later turned into The Poisoned Chocolates Case – although with a different, and even more ingenious, solution.

Short stories can also cast fascinating new light on the lives of characters from series of novels. The next CWA anthology, Original Sins, will include stories featuring sleuths from no fewer than five notable series, by Andrew Taylor, Charles Todd, Christopher Fowler, Tim Heald and Simon Brett. Putting the book together has been a delight – what crime fan would not be happy to be the first to read a brand new story by Reg Hill, say, or Sophie Hannah? The only snag was that CWA members inundated me with so many entertaining tales that the real mystery was deciding what to leave out. One thing is for sure – the stories that did make the cut are first-rate reminders that the short mystery is not only alive and kicking, but in the rudest of health.

(This article first appeared at