I’m continuing my pursuit of tidier (and ultimately empty) shelves—reading and then passing along the books in my office—and I’ve shot through two anthologies of short crime fiction by two well-known writers.
The first, a short (194 pages) collection called Sleep No More by P.D. James, is just terrific. I’m not a huge fan of the short story; it always seems to me that characterization can suffer with the shorter length. But James (whose novel-length detective protagonist is Adam Dalgliesh) has really nailed these. Dalgliesh does not appear in any of these stories; each presents a new set of characters who, remarkably, might get found out, but often get away with murder.
My favorite story, I think, is the longest one (maybe because it’s also the most amusing): “The Murder of Santa Claus.” It’s a rather satiric nod to the old-fashioned, country house Christmas story, where the characters eat goose, pull crackers, and sit before the fire, drinking sherry. Here’s how it starts:
If you’re an addict of detective fiction, you may have heard of me, Charles Mickledore. I say addict advisably; no occasional or highly discriminating reader of the genre is likely to ask for my latest offering at his public library. I’m no H.R.F. Keating, no Dick Francis, not even a P.D. James.
Who wouldn’t love that? This collection has a copyright of 2017, but the stories are written between 1973 and 2006. (And the one published in 1992 references Game of Thrones, so that’s fun.) As a side note, H.R.F. Keating was an occasional editor of James.
I can recommend this one if you’re looking for satisfying short reads in a compact anthology.
Much less satisfying was One Night Stands and Lost Weekends by Lawrence Block. This anthology is a double volume of two collections of Block’s earliest work, when he was still writing for pulp magazines that were so popular from the 1940s through the early 1960s. I had bought this book as one of three when I’d decided to check him out: he’s been writing for a long time (he’s 80 now), he’s won a ton of awards (four Anthony, 11 Edgar, and 11 Shamus awards), and I’d never picked him up.
So I got the three books. Two were full-length novels and one was this short-story collection. One of the novels I finished but didn’t much like, the second I didn’t finish. I didn’t finish this anthology, either.
These stories were published between 1958 (when Block would have been 20) and 1963. In the foreword, he says that they are dated, that he wouldn’t have written them the same way now as he did back then, that they are the product of a young writer learning his craft.
All true. In addition, the magazine format required that these stories be short, often just three or four pages. By necessity, there’s no character development. It’s all plot, and often the plots seem—especially after reading P.D. James—ludicrous.
Another problem with these stories is the problem of gender (and other types of) stereotyping, which was more acceptable then than now. This issue, and others, bothered me in the novels, too. I usually can overlook in older work the attitudes, words, and conversational gambits that would strike one now as insensitive. I can read these expressions as indicative of the period in which they were written and take them in as historical context. I was not able to do that with these books, and I’m not sure why.
Block is a tremendously prolific author; he’s written dozens of books and short stories under his own and numerous pseudonyms; he seems equally prolific in short stories, full-length novels, and screenplays. He’s also written about a dozen nonfiction books about writing. So it’s entirely possible I’m just hitting the wrong titles. I don’t want to say he couldn’t be a satisfying read. But this anthology didn’t do it for me.
What have you been reading?