But I Got These Short Stories in My Bag*

Agatha Christie’s The Big Four started life as a series of short stories that were drawn together. And, as you’ll know, several of her sleuths (the Beresfords, Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot) feature in both short stories and full-length novels. That’s not easy to accomplish. Short stories require a different form of writing to novels. That may be part of the reason for which some authors are better known for (perhaps even better at) short stories or novels.

Many authors who do both short stories and novels use their novels for ‘regular’ sleuths, and short stories for different sleuths, different styles of writing, and so on. Other authors, though, feature their main protagonists in both formats. There are advantages to doing this. Readers who are new to an author can ‘meet’ the author’s sleuth in short stories, and then move on to novels. For the author, a short story or a collection can be an effective way to keep a featured sleuth active while a new novel is in the works.

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. That’s the format for which he is perhaps most famous. But he also wrote four Holmes novels, including Holmes’ first appearance in A Study in Scarlet. Many people (certainly not all) think the short stories are better. Aidan at Mysteries Ahoy has an interesting discussion about A Study in Scarlet and the novels vs the short stories. You’ll want to check that out for a more in-depth look at that novel. And you’ll want to have a look at Aidan’s blog. Rich discussions and thoughtful reviews await you.

John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole actually started life as a television character. As you’ll know, he is a barrister who is completely dedicated to defending his clients. He doesn’t always like them, and he doesn’t always really think they’re innocent. But he always does his utmost for them. The move from television to short stories and novellas makes sense, when you consider the television episode format. The content of a short story or novella is often appropriate for the length of a television episode. It’s harder to fit the content of a full-length novel into a one-hour or ninety-minute television episode. Still, there are a few Rumpole novels. Rumpole’s Return, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, and Rumpole and the Reign of Terror are three of them.

Ellery Queen appears in a number of novels, beginning with The Roman Hat Mystery. And, most people think of those novels when they think of Queen. But he also appears in a number of short stories and collections. For example, there’s the Ellery Queen Omnibus, which contains nineteen short stories. The Adventures of Ellery Queen, which includes eleven short stories, and The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, which includes nine short stories and the novella The Lamp of God. Like Christie’s short stories, some of these are reprinted in more than one collection. But the net result is a variety of different ways for readers to experience Queen.

Lawrence Block has been quite prolific. Perhaps his most famous sleuth, though, is Matthew Scudder, the former police detective who’s become his own sort of private investigator. Scudder’s appeared in a number of novels (e.g. The Sins of the Father, Eight Million Ways to Die, and When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes). Many readers know him mostly through those novels. But Scudder has also appeared in several short story collections (e.g. The Night and the Music).

So has Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. He’s a Southern California PI who first appears in 1949’s The Moving Target. There are sixteen other novels in which he features. But he also appears in short story form, too. There are three Lew Archer collections: The Name is Archer; Lew Archer, Private Investigator; and, Strangers in Town. There aren’t as many Archer short stories as there are novels. But those stories allow readers a chance to get to know him. In fact, it was through a short story, The Singing Pigeon, that I first ‘met’ Lew Archer.

Elly Griffiths has also been versatile in her writing. Her Ruth Galloway series features Galloway, who is a forensic archaeologist. Thus far, there are ten novels in that series, and many people have become acquainted with Griffiths’ writing through them. But she’s also done a short story, Ruth’s First Christmas Tree. It’ll be interesting to see, as time goes by, whether Galloway appears in other short stories at some point.

And then there’s Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus. Rebus has featured in a number of full-length novels, beginning with Knots and Crosses. And those novels have allowed Rankin to explore quite a lot about Scotland, about history, and about Rebus. Fans of the series have followed the various story arcs and gotten to know the characters through those novels. But Rankin has also written several short stories featuring Rebus. They’re all collected, if you’re interested in The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories.

There are, of course, many other examples of authors whose main characters appear in both novels and short stories; I know you can think of many more than I could. How do you feel about this? Do you have a preference for novels or short stories about the fictional characters you like best? If you’re a writer, do you write both novels and short stories about your main character(s)?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Current Swell’s Short Stories.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Elly Griffiths, Ian Rankin, John Mortimer, Lawrence Block, Ross Macdonald

17 responses to “But I Got These Short Stories in My Bag*

  1. On balance, purely from the perspective of a reader and not a writer, I think the ability to write both short stories and novels really well, is a rare feat. I’m basing this on my vintage crime fiction reading. Holmes for instance has much better plots in the short stories in comparison to the novels, where he often is off the page. Conversely I think Poirot does better in novels. Perhaps it is due to their differing detecting approaches. Miss Marple I am a little in the middle about. I prefer her novel appearances, but I think she does quite well the Thirteen Problems setup, due to their structure.

    • I think you have a very well-taken point about The Thirteen Problems, ACR. The structure of those stories does lend itself to Miss Marple’s style. With Poirot, I wonder if it’s because Christie often (certainly not always!) let us get to know the victim and other characters before the (first) murder happens. It’s harder to do that in a short story. That’s just my impression. And as for Holmes, I agree with you that the short stories that feature him work better than the novels. His detecting style is, I think, a good match for the short story format.

  2. I’m always going to prefer a full length novel over a short story but that isn’t to say I admire those writers who can pull off the latter which I personally feel it is harder to do. I have to admit that many of the ‘biggies’ you mention in this post work better for me because I’m already acquainted with the main characters and therefore their placement doesn’t take up precious word count.

    • Now, that’s a really interesting point, Cleo. When we know a main character/sleuth really well, we don’t need a lot of backstory and other placement. So a short story featuring a really famous sleuth might work well. It’s harder with a sleuth one doesn’t know as well. And I agree completely; writers who do both novels and short stories very well are admirable. It’s not easy!

  3. Mudpuddle

    i just finished a collection of shorts by Edgar Wallace, who’s better known for his mysteries and adventure novels… the initial one, “The Governor of Chi-Fong” was not very good but the rest of them were… mediocre… i was surprised because lately i’ve read 6 or 8 of his novels and i thought they were well done and entertaining… just goes to show…

    • That’s interesting, Mudpuddle! And, as you say, it certainly goes to show how different writers can be when they write short stories as opposed to when they write novels. And you’ve reminded me that, at some point, I need to spotlight one of Wallace’s novel.

  4. Glad you mentioned The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, Margot. If any of your readers haven’t read Queen’s novella, “The Lamp of God,” encourage them to run out NOW and get a copy (at the moment, alas, that pretty well means via e-book) – it’s one of my favorite “impossible crime” stories.

    Speaking of Queen, he did one anthology of short stories I must recommend, although it’s very hard to find. It’s called “Challenge to the Reader,” published in 1940. It’s a collection of relatively unfamiliar stories by authors who were tremendously popular at the time of publication. The gimmick is that, in the stories, the names of the detectives are changed (and the author’s names withheld until after the story has been read). So Nero Wolfe (who is not in the anthology) might be changed to “Claudius Bear,” to confuse the reader. The idea is for the reader to guess the identity of the sleuth based on descriptions of the character, the setting, etc., and – most important – how the detective does his/her detecting. It’s a lot of fun, though I fear there are now some once-popular detectives in the book who won’t be at all familiar. If you ever find a copy, I think you’d enjoy it.

    • I agree, Les, that The Lamp of God is an excellent ‘impossible’ mystery. I’m glad it’s included in that collection. It’s very much worth reading, whether one’s new to the genre or a veteran reader who hasn’t read that one yet. Thanks, also, for sharing Challenge to the Reader. It sounds as though it’s not just a solid set of mysteries, but also a nice nod to the avid reader who knows those detectives. I may have to start keeping eyes open for a copy. It sounds like a lot of fun. And I do like that name ‘Claudius Bear’ – inventive!!

  5. I enjoyed The Beat Goes On, especially because they were written at different times rather than as a deliberate collection, so they end up giving a kind of overview of how the Rebus character developed over the years. As a kid I vastly preferred the Holmes short stories, but these days I’ve come to love the books more – they give more room for ACD’s wonderful storytelling skills and to take us to different places around the world. I think youthful me felt they didn’t have enough Holmes in them, but mature me is happy to spend time with other characters…

    • I think that’s very interesting, FictionFan, that your taste has changed over time. I think that’s true for most of us. We change how we feel about reading as we move on in life. And you make a solid point about the difference between the Holmes stories and the novels. There really is more focus on other characters in the novels, and that certainly makes sense. And thanks for your comments on The Beat Goes On. It does have a solid breadth of Rebus stories, doesn’t it? It’s interesting to see how Rankin has changed as a writer (and how Rebus has changed as a character).

  6. Col

    I wonder if Scudder would feature. Block has also done the same with his Keller character as well. If I don’t have time for a full length novel, it’s nice to cross paths with his characters in the shorter format.

    • You’re right about Block, Col. He’s done some well-written Keller stories as well as the others. You have a point, too, about the time issue. When there isn’t time to read a full-length novel, it really is nice to read some shorter stories that feature characters you really like.

  7. Spade & Dagger

    These days I never pick up collections of short stories – not that there is anything wrong with the stories. It’s just that I get frustrated with their shortness and feel deprived when it all ends so quickly, especially if I’m really enjoying the characters & storyline. I prefer novellas for a quicker read than the full novel.

    • There is something to be said for that slightly longer novella format, isn’t there, Spade & Dagger. It is a jolt if one’s really enjoying a story to have it end quickly. And a novella is an interesting balance between the length of a novel and that of a short story.

  8. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this great post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog on the topic of short stories in crime fiction

  9. I tend to avoid short stories, but I make an exception for Lawrence Block – particularly the Keller tales.

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