As I took inventory of what I'd been reading recently, I realized I've been reading a lot of short stories, both as single-serve and in collections. In fact, as I thought about it, I realized it seems as if I've being seeing more crime fiction shorts lately than I can remember seeing in quite some time. So, I thought it would be nice to shine a spotlight on some of the current crop, as well as to speculate about why the format works so well for the genre.
Conventional wisdom says that short stories are less complex than full-length novels, an idea with which I strongly disagree. Not when done well, they aren't. In fact, good short stories are actually much harder to write than a full-length novel. But it's a lot fewer words so it must be easier, right? Wrong. There is no margin for error in a short story. Just one misstep, one weak link will cause the whole thing to implode. The author of a short story doesn't have the luxury of padding things out and glossing over details they never fully figured out how to explain. No, a short story must be tight, seamless. It forces the author to jettison all the filler and superfluous tangents and to say exactly what they mean.
Crime fiction’s storytelling, by definition, is tight; you rarely encounter page after page of exposition (the dreaded “information dump”) in a crime story. Also, the concepts in crime fiction are straightforward and universal: good guys and bad guys, cops and criminals, victims and villains. A crime fiction author can drop readers right into the middle of a bank robbery in progress and know readers will immediately understand the setup. Writing a story about a hit man? Readers know what that means: some badass is getting paid to take someone out. The author doesn't have to waste time explaining some alternate universe just to get us started, as they would in science fiction, but rather can get right to the meat of the story. It is the very nature of the crime fiction genre, therefore, that I believe makes it the perfect fit for the short story format.
So who's throwing knock-out punches these days in crime fiction short story writing? Quite a few people, actually. Of course there are always the old-school big dogs like Stephen King (Full Dark, No Stars) and Lee Child (editor of and contributor to First Thrills: High Octane Stories from the Hottest Thriller Authors), but I've found the most interesting stuff these days to be getting accomplished somewhat off the mainstream’s radar. For example, there are several outstanding magazines (both hard copy and online) dedicated strictly to crime fiction and showcasing new talent, such as Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Crimespree Magazine, Spinetingler, Plots with Guns, Crime Factory, and Beat To A Pulp, just to name a few.
There are also numerous authors taking advantage of e-publishing (usually at ridiculously inexpensive cost to the reader, if not free) as well as personal websites to showcase their talent. You'd do well to download 8 Pounds: Eight Tales of Crime, Horror & Suspense by Chris F. Holm, Naughty: Nine Tales of Christmas Crime by Steve Hockensmith (yes, I know Christmas is over, but the stories are still damn good!), and look for the collection of Jackson Donne stories More Sinned Against by Dave White. You should also read the Oscar Martello shorts by Steve Weddle, and treat your ears to the short stories of Dan O'Shea. In particular, “Thin Mints,” as read by the author himself, is amazing.
No doubt many of the publications and authors I just mentioned are probably new names to you. And that's the thing I think I love most about short stories, especially in crime fiction. You get a chance to discover and sample new authors, to give them a test drive if you will, without having to invest emotionally or financially in a full-length novel right off the bat.
Discover new authors, enjoy great stories, and do it for dirt cheap? As far as I'm concerned, that's the very definition of the perfect crime.
Where do you stand on short stories, particularly in crime fiction? Love 'em or hate 'em? Are there any authors whose work you discovered via their short stories? Are you more likely to try short stories now in e-book format/as a download than you may have been in the past? Share your discoveries and experiences!
PS – I prefer my crime fiction dark, so most of the material I referenced does contain relatively graphic violence and more than a little profanity. This is not cozy material. You are forewarned.
Elizabeth A. White, Musings of an All Purpose Monkey