The Mysterious Short Story: Why Read It?

shadows and words by Fred Eerdekens
shadows and words by Fred Eerdekens
I recently bought a Kindle Fire. (Don’t ask, I have no idea how it works; haven’t yet opened the box.) The first thing I did when I got home was to log onto the Kindle website and spend nearly an hour browsing the short mystery fiction collection. Giddy with the prospect of so many short stories available to me, I had trouble making a priority list of what I wanted to read. My predicament reminded me of Elizabeth White’s post here some months ago. Elizabeth mentioned she’d been reading a lot of short stories lately and that she was pleased with what seems to be their increasing availability.

I have to agree. Last spring I talked about the 70th Anniversary of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and also remarked on the resurgence of short stories. So what has brought short stories to the forefront of our reading material once again? I’m sure that many things have contributed, but the simple answer may be brevity. I do remember a time when reading for pleasure was a daily event and could last for an hour or more each day. That was before our lives got more hectic and before the advent of cable television, the Internet, tablets, and smart phones. Now most readers have to squeeze in the time to read the latest novel by their favorite author or the new book that their next door neighbor says is a fantastic read.

Crimes By Moonlight, edited by Charlaine Harris
Mystery on top of mystery…
So, instead of reading eighty thousand words over the course of several days or weeks, you can open a book, meet a few people and follow an incident to its satisfying conclusion in three to seven thousand words, and go from start to finish in less than half an hour. The twelve to twenty-four stories in the standard anthology or collection can be read in bits and pieces over a year if need be, because there is no continuity of story from first page to last.

And what does the reader get out of reading a short story? Well, if all goes well, the reader will meet an interesting character at a crossroads moment. A precipitating incident will cause a crisis and by the end of the short story, the crisis will be resolved. The protagonist may not be loveable or even likeable, and the resolution may be quite unpleasant but if together all the parts hold the readers attention, then the story is a success.

It is said that Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective story when he published “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841. While it is a trifle longer than today’s short stories, The Rue Morgue meets all the requirements of a short story that will keep the reader absorbed. The detective, C. Auguste Dupin, is a young man from a good family but of poor circumstances. We are told that he is frugal and that books are “his sole luxuries.” I like him for that alone.

When the newspapers report that two women are killed in a locked room, (the precipitating incident) Dupin is obsessed by the details of the murders (crossroads) and proceeds to solve the crime (resolution.)

Thousands of writers have followed Poe into the realm of short fiction, and have developed stories of the same types as the novels we crime fans love to read. Whether your favorites novels are detection, suspense, noir or cozy; there are plenty of short stories that will entertain you—each in less than half an hour.

According to Terrie, writing short mystery fiction is nearly as much fun as hanging out with any or all of her seven grandchildren. She is editor of the recently released Sisters in Crime New York/TriState chapter anthology, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices and blogs at Women of Mystery.

Read all posts by Terrie Farley Moran for Criminal Element.


  1. Deborah Lacy

    I love reading short stories, especially when I know I am too busy to get deep into a book.

  2. Terrie Farley Moran

    @Deb, that’s it exactly! When life gets in the way of my being able to read an entire novel over the course of a few days, I can still pigeon-hole a short story here and there. Short or long, fiction keeps my anxiety levels down, so I like to have mysteries of various lengths handy.

  3. Kathleen A Ryan

    Love this post, Terrie! What I love about certain short stories are those you can read in an hour (or less, even better), but they remain with you the rest of your life. So many writers and their stories have influenced me and have stayed with me; I share them with my kids, my nephews, and friends. I’m thrilled when I later hear they hunted down the story, read it, and enjoyed it. My kids and nephews always know my usual question: “What are you currently reading?”

  4. Earl Staggs

    Terrie, I’m with you all the way. I continue to write and read short mysteries in addition to novels and always will. Whether I’m writing or reading, I enjoy switching characters, styles and voices once in a while. One of my proudest events was publishing 16 of my published short mysteries in a collection this year. Short mystery will never fade away as long as I’m around.

  5. Anita Page

    Terrie, I agree with what you say about the time issue, though when I’m reading a collection or an anthology, I rarely stop at one. It’s such a pleasure to read a well-written short story.

  6. Jenny Milchman

    A great short story is like a rich dessert. Perfect in tiny bites. Stephen King’s are some of my favorites–and he’s long been banging the gong for people to read more of them. It’s nice to find some fans here!

  7. Terrie Farley Moran

    How terrific that so many folks who visit CE are short story fans. @ Kathleen–for kids who aren’t crazy about reading ( they think it is a waste of time!!) short stories can lure them in! @Earl–may you continue to write and read shorts for many years to come. @Anita and Jenny-“well-written short story” “rich dessert” says it all.

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