My first published fiction was a short story. ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably?’ won a competition at a seminar organised by a writers’ circle, and was duly published in a national magazine, and then in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in the US. After that, there was no stopping me. Although my next published work was my debut novel, All the Lonely People, I’ve kept writing short stories, as well as editing anthologies of short crime fiction. I don’t keep count, but the tally at the moment is about seventy stories and forty collections, so you could certainly say that I’m as committed to the short form as I am to the novel.
Where did this love of the short story come from? It goes back a long way, that’s for sure. I can remember asking for, and being given as a Christmas present, a Crime Writers’ Association anthology when I was about thirteen. That book contained stories by great names of the genre such as John Dickson Carr and Edmund Crispin, and it fired my imagination. So did an anthology of ‘tales of terror’ edited by Crispin, which includes one of my all-time favourite short stories, the wonderfully haunting and enigmatic ‘Three Miles Up’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard.
Later, as I began to write fiction for publication, I found the short story liberating. You can do almost anything with it. ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably?’ was an unorthodox type of mystery, and from time to time I’ve tried further experiments with the form. So ‘An Index’ is a crime story which takes the form of a short extract from an index to a book. ‘Acknowledgments’, which won the inaugural CWA Margery Allingham Prize, is a skit on those sections in books where the author acknowledges help received. Recently, for an American anthology, I wrote ‘The Observance of Trifles’, a story in the form of a blog post, and accompanying comments.
Even if you’re not in the mood to push the boundaries in structural terms, the short form offers endless possibilities of subject, theme, and mood. There are ideas which, to my mind, suit a short story but not a novel. One day I went for a test drive in a car. The chatter of the showroom salesman gave me the idea for a story, but it was clear from the outset that it would only make a short piece, rather than a novel. The result was ‘Test Drive’, which was shortlisted for the CWA Short Story Dagger. Occasionally, I read novels which seem to me to be just expanded short stories; an example I came across the other day is Miles Tripp’s A Man Without Friends, published in 1970, which contains a brilliant central idea connected with the vagaries of justice, but not quite enough (in my opinion, anyway) for a truly satisfactory full-length book.
A particular setting often inspires me to write a short story. Typically, a trip on holiday or to a festival (in pre-pandemic days, of course!) might introduce me to an interesting location that I’d like to write about. Not knowing the place in depth, I wouldn’t want to produce a novel with that setting. Maintaining authenticity for, say, five thousand words is much easier than in a book of ninety thousand words. So I’ve written stories set in places as varied as Hartlepool (‘Lucky Liam’) and Hawaii (‘Catch of the Day’). Wandering the darkened streets of Venice one night, I lingered in front of a shop window and a rather macabre thought sprang to mind. The upshot was a story called ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’, which won the CWA Short Story Dagger, and represented a real breakthrough in my crime writing career. And when I was hired to give a series of lectures about crime fiction to passengers on the Queen Mary 2, I read about the history of the ship while on board. This gave me the idea of writing a story set on the original Queen Mary: the eventual result was ‘The Locked Cabin’.
‘The Locked Cabin’ has recently been chosen for inclusion in a prominent American anthology, The Best Mystery Stories of the Year, but it wasn’t an easy story to write. I began with the idea of a crime taking place on the ship, but couldn’t figure out what to do with it. I left it for a while, and then started thinking about the possibility of writing a short ‘locked room mystery’. The two ideas coalesced, and I was able to start work on it in earnest.
Something of the same kind happened after I visited Bletchley Park. I had an idea for a story about war-time code breakers, but somehow it didn’t come to life, so again I left it to simmer. Months later, I visited Jersey to give some talks about writing. Whilst on the island, I visited Gorey on a lovely sunny day, and thought that I’d like to use the resort as a setting. I came up with a way of combining this backdrop with the code breaking story. The result was ‘The Sound of Secrecy’.
I particularly like to write short stories in between novels. They represent a welcome break, a change of pace, and a chance to do something different. My early novels and short stories had urban settings, but my experience in writing a story about rural life, ‘Melusine’ (set against the horrors of the foot and mouth outbreak), gave me the confidence to accept an editor’s challenge to start a new series of novels based in the countryside. Thus the Lake District Mysteries were born. That was about eighteen years ago, and a new novel, the eighth in the series, is due to be published later this year. Similarly, to have written stories set in various different historical periods was very helpful when I came to write my first full-length book set in the past, a novel about the misadventures of Dr Crippen called Dancing with the Hangman.
There’s something else you can do with a short story. You can treat it as a professional exercise. When I first dreamed up the idea for the novel that became Gallows Court, I was very taken with it. The concept involved an extremely ruthless and fabulously rich young woman called Rachel Savernake, who arrives in London in 1930, and becomes involved in a series of bizarre murder mysteries. My thinking was that I’d try something fresh as a novelist, writing a book very different from my other work: an attempt to ‘break out’, so to speak. It was bound to be a gamble, especially given that I didn’t know how the novel would develop. So I decided to write a short story featuring Rachel, to see if I enjoyed writing about her and if I felt I could ‘soak’ myself in this rather unusual character for a year or two. I wrote the story, and found that I loved writing about Rachel. This encouraged me to crack on with the novel. One thing led to another, and the Rachel books have become my most successful novels. I never tried to publish the short story – it was simple a trial run, a way of acclimatising myself to a new type of crime writing. But I have recently written a story which features Jacob Flint, another key character in the series, although Rachel does not appear.
Around the time Mortmain Hall, the follow-up to Gallows Court, was published, I was commissioned to write a short story with a ‘Golden Age’ setting for a national magazine, with a view to promoting the book. The story needed to be very short. I decided that the specified word count didn’t give me enough room to write about Rachel, or Jacob for that matter. Their cases tend to be dark and byzantine, and demand plenty of space to develop and then unfold.
So I created a fresh character, Miriam Ackroyd, who seemed suited to a story with a tone that wasn’t quite as dark as the novels. This was ‘Respect and Respectability’. Even then, the magazine editor did ask me to ‘soften’ the ending a little, as she felt their readers didn’t want too many sleepless nights!
I’m hoping the original version will be published before long, as I still like it…
I’ve read countless anthologies over the years, and back in the early 1990s, I suggested to fellow members of the northern chapter of the CWA that we might produce a collection of our short fiction. They agreed – provided I organised the book. The result was Northern Blood, which featured the likes of Reginald Hill, Robert Barnard, and Ann Cleeves. The book was a lot of fun to put together, and I was soon asked to compile further anthologies. In 1995, the CWA asked me to take over their annual anthology, and the first book under my editorship, Perfectly Criminal, appeared the following year. I’ve been producing CWA anthologies ever since.
To be the first person to see a terrific story by a terrific author is a source of great joy. It justifies all the work involved in editing an anthology. To give just one example, in Perfectly Criminal I was determined to include a story by a young writer whom I greatly admired, but who – at that time – hadn’t received the recognition I thought he deserved. In a short preface to his story, I expressed my enthusiasm for his work. That story, ‘Herbert in Motion’, won the CWA Short Story Dagger. The author was a chap called Ian Rankin. Whatever happened to him?
For me, an anthology should be about variety. I like there to be a connecting theme, but I also hope that the collection will showcase a range of different styles of storytelling. I don’t think one should expect readers to like every story equally. Reactions will vary. What I aim for is to introduce people to stories and authors they might not otherwise bother with – and be tempted to read more.
This approach holds good for the British Library Crime Classics anthologies which I edit, as well as for the contemporary collections. From a commercial perspective, it’s usually important to try to include some ‘bankable names’, but it’s just as desirable to give space to authors who are relatively little-known. I’m proud that some of the earliest work of gifted – but, at the time, unsung – writers like Sarah Hillary, Frank Tallis, and Mick Herron, appeared in anthologies I edited.
As a reader, I love a short story that has something special about it. Preferably an ingredient that would be difficult or impossible to replicate in a novel. So my favourite short story is Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’. In the crime genre, you can’t go far wrong with the likes of the Jackson’s fellow American Fredric Brown or, in Britain, three authors who contributed to several of my anthologies: Ruth Rendell, Reginald Hill, and Peter Lovesey. Among younger writers, the American writer Art Taylor has won many awards and is a master of the form.
I’ve often been told by people that they don’t enjoy short stories. It’s a matter of personal taste, of course, but I don’t see any good reason to harbour prejudice against a literary form that offers such riches. These days, we’re also frequently told that we live in an age of shortening attention spans. If that is true, then it’s one more good reason to relish short stories. They may not take long to read, but the best examples give lasting pleasure.