Eight of Elsa Hart’s Favorite Crime Short Stories
By Elsa HartAugust 12, 2020
Elsa Hart stops by to share eight of her favorite crime short stories. Add these to your TBR, and also make sure to save room for The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, the first book in a new atmospheric mystery series set in 1703 London—a time when the old approaches to science coexist with the new, and one elite community attempts to understand the world by collecting its wonders.
Sometimes I want to step into a narrative and come out on the other side an hour later. Maybe it’s the warm hour of dappled sunshine in the park before a forecasted storm rolls in. Maybe it’s the quiet conclusion of an evening in the glow of a lamp. Of the eight short stories included here, some take place in a world that resembles the real one. Others navigate more ghostly realms. All of them deal with crime and its consequences.
“The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter
“All is yours, everywhere is open to you—except the lock that this single key fits.”
Angela Carter’s retelling of Bluebeard brings the reader into the mind of a teenage girl traveling to the castle of her new husband, a wealthy French Marquis who adorns her with jewels and tells her she can open every door in his home except one. Carter’s version of the notorious serial killer is terrifying, but it is the heroine, her mother, and the three dead wives that ignite the story. It also features the scariest necklace I’ve ever encountered.
Find it in The Bloody Chamber
“The Blue Cross” by G. K. Chesterton
“Reason is always reasonable, even in the last limbo, in the lost borderland of things.”
This story follows the famous French investigator Valentin, who has come to London to find and arrest the notorious criminal Flambeau. Valentin feels only pity and slight derision for the awkward priest he sees alighting from a train, fumbling to keep hold of his parcels and umbrella. But as Valentin follows a trail of clues that leave him more and more perplexed, we realize that the great investigator may not be the character who has the situation under control. Reading this story is like walking through a picture of London as it is being painted around you, complete with glittering stars above.
Find it in The Innocence of Father Brown
“The Companion” by Agatha Christie
“‘Now, Dr. Lloyd,’ said Miss Helier, ‘don’t you know any creepy stories?’”
A group of acquaintances, gathered one evening in the village of St. Mary Mead, take turns sharing stories of crimes, the solutions of which are known only to the tellers. After each story is told, the other members of the group attempt to solve the puzzle. What makes the whole collection a delight is that we learn about the characters through the stories they choose to tell, and through the solutions they suggest. But “The Companion” is one of my favorites. Two women go swimming. One drowns. The solution, once revealed, will make you think you should have seen it, but of the group, it is of course only the redoubtable Miss Marple who does.
Find it in Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories
“Death and the Compass” by Jorge Luis Borges
“He reflected that the explanation for the crimes lay in an anonymous triangle and a dusty Greek word.”
Like so many of Borges’ works, Death and the Compass is a story about stories. The body of a man is found in a hotel room. He has been stabbed to death. In the typewriter on his desk is a sheet of paper containing the words: The first letter of the Name has been written. This sets the detective Lönnrot on the track of a killer, seeking to understand a sequence after a second body is found, and then a third. Lönnrot’s path leads him through ancient philosophies to a ruined house and a fated confrontation. Death and the Compass is a gift to readers who revel in the repeated patterns of mysteries.
Find it in Collected Fictions
“August Heat” by W.F. Harvey
“‘You must excuse my asking,’ I said, ‘but do you know of anything you’ve done for which you could be put on trial?’”
My first encounter with this story was in a collection compiled by Edward Gorey, whose ghoulish illustrations certify him as a trusted guide through the macabre. Many ghost stories are about crimes. This one is about a crime that might have happened already, might be about to happen, or might not be real at all. Even though the late summer heat of the title hangs heavily on the pages, this is one of the most chilling stories I’ve ever read.
Find it in The Haunted Looking Glass: Ghost Stories Chosen by Edward Gorey
“A Study in Emerald” by Neil Gaiman
“It is the immensity, I believe. The hugeness of things below. The darkness of dreams.”
Neil Gaiman was asked to write a story in which Sherlock Holmes meets the world of H.P. Lovecraft, and this is the result. It’s both rollicking and meticulous, and if you read it slowly enough to form pictures in your mind of what is described, you will be rewarded. It’s a story that adheres to the rules of the mystery genre while drawing on the crackling chaos of a more insane vision of the world. Read it on a stormy night, then look out the window and let yourself wonder for just a moment if that crooked tree root is the limb of an Old God.
Find it in Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders
“The Queen of Spades” by Alexander Pushkin
“‘Three seven ace’ soon eclipsed from Hermann’s mind the form of the dead old lady.”
In a glittering society world where fortunes are won and lost at the gaming tables, we meet a young man unwilling to wager unless he knows he will win. When he learns that an aged countess may hold an arcane secret that would guarantee his success, he becomes obsessed with discovering it. I rarely shuffle a deck of cards without remembering for a moment this story of murder, madness, and revenge.
Find it in Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin
“The Purloined Letter” by Edgar Allen Poe
“‘Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which puts you at fault,’ said my friend.”
There is more to enjoy about this puzzle than its well-known solution. So much of this great genre of crimes and clues is built not only on the plot of “The Purloined Letter”, but on its style. Settle into a gusty evening in 19th-century Paris, philosophize with a pipe-smoking detective, and let this classic game of wits inspire you to look at problems from every angle.
Find it in The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales
About The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne: