Category Archives: Short Stories

ELLERY QUEEN. The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1934).

Despite the deliberate Sherlockian echo in the title of this collection, the stories brought together here bear only a loose resemblance to those of the Great Detective. The Queen household on West 87th Street never attains the mythic presence of the fabled rooms at 221B Baker Street, and the pairing of Ellery Queen and his inspector father inspires none of the eternal fascination that the relationship between Holmes and Watson elicit to this day. Queen the author is not the builder of a densely imagined and richly peopled world. (About the scurrying figure of Djuna, the Queens’ houseboy, the less said the better.) More to the point, these chronicles from the early days of Ellery’s sleuthing career are not high-spirited “adventures” of the kind that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. Instead, they are well-crafted puzzles that far exceed in ingenuity the simple plots that Doyle typically generated. Ellery may not be a great detective in the Holmes mold, in other words, but he is a master of truly great detection.

AdventuresEQ.jpgTake “The Adventure of the Bearded Lady,” in which Ellery cracks the code of a “dying message”—a special variety of clue, and one that became a trademark of the Queen canon. Such clues, at their best, evoke the image of a victim who frantically expends his last moments on a Hail Mary bid to communicate with the would-be avenger of his murder. In this case, Ellery must figure out why an amateur artist devoted his last spasm of life to shading a patch of facial hair onto a woman in a Rembrandt reproduction that he had been painting.

Or take “The Adventure of the Two-Headed Dog,” which carries a distinct narrative echo from the Father Brown stories by G.K. Chesterton. As in many of those stories, the protagonist happens into an out-of-the-way spot where strange goings-on are already in progress: Ellery stops at a roadside inn along the New England coast, and from a querulous innkeeper named Cap’n Hosey he learns about the apparent haunting of one of the small cabins that surround the inn. Three months earlier, a guest had disappeared from that cabin, and on certain nights afterward folks have heard eerie, desperate sounds emanating from the place. Later that evening, a killing occurs in the same cabin. An otherworldly mood pervades the scene, but Ellery deduces his way toward an outlandish yet fitting (and entirely non-supernatural) solution.

Or, finally, take “The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party,” the longest and justly the best known of this book’s 11 tales. At a Long Island estate, a wealthy investor plans to stage a famous scene from Alice in Wonderland for his son’s birthday. Then he disappears. And then a phantom presence begins delivering assorted objects—shoes and ships, cabbages and kings—that bring to mind another work by Lewis Carroll. The puzzle in this instance is workmanlike but hardly stellar. Yet the madcap atmospherics are gripping, and they foreshadow the nursery-rhyme tropes that will become a fixture of later Queen works. Among British writers of the Victorian era, Carroll casts as least as long a shadow on the Queenian universe as Doyle did. For Queen, as for Carroll, the glories and perversities of logic provide a bottomless source of both delight and mystery.

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Posted by on January 2, 2017 in American, Golden Age, Puzzle, Short Stories


AGATHA CHRISTIE. The Tuesday Club Murders (1933).

The British title of this story collection, Thirteen Problems, is prosaically accurate but lacks the sly poetry of its U.S. counterpart. The American title points to the animating tension that underlies the world of Miss Marple, who appears here in her second book. (Her first appearance between hard covers came in the novel Murder at the Vicarage, published in 1930. In fact, though, several entries in this collection saw publication in magazines before then.) TuesdayClub1.jpg The premise of the book is contrived but charmingly simple: A half-dozen stolid, middle-class types agree to gather on Tuesday evenings for a spot of peaceful conviviality. Instead of chatting about their gardens or gossiping about the new vicar’s wife, however, the members of this club swap accounts of hitherto unsolved mystery and vie to see which of them can crack each puzzle. Not every story in the collection contains a murder—in that regard, the Stateside title is a misnomer—but each one hinges on an episode of violence or criminal deceit. It’s not the sort of thing that usually makes for very clubbable fare. And that, of course, is the genius of the Tuesday Club conceit: These stories are suitable for polite discussion. There are thrills, and occasionally there is a bit of gore, but there is nothing that might truly threaten the order that prevails in St. Mary Mead, as Christie calls her version of Mayhem Parva.

In each of the tales on offer, Christie strives to build up to a double-twist ending. Along with delivering an unexpected solution to a crime problem, she aims to startle readers by bringing forth a least-likely sleuth. Time and again, Miss Marple emerges from her cozy, self-knitted shawl and softly utters the words that will dispel the mystery at hand. Occasionally, the quest for surprise falls short of its mark. Several of these short stories achieve their effect precisely because they’re so short: No sooner does Christie set the telltale clues in place she than lets Miss Marple spring the pivotal revelation upon her readers. Even a brief pause for a thorough dissection of those clues, or for an exploration of mood or setting or character, would give a reader time to see the childishly simple trick upon which the mystery (such as it is) turns.

TuesdayClub2.jpgBut a few entries in this compendium hold the promise of something more. “The Idol House of Astarte” takes place in and around a reputedly sacred grove where Lady Diana Ashley, an ethereal beauty who inspires a cult-like devotion in certain men, meets with death by stabbing. In “The Bloodstained Pavement,” an artist paints a charming country-town scene and finds that her brush has rendered a grisly clue to a devious murder plot. “The Blue Geranium” builds a classic domestic poisoning case around a series of quasi-Gothic elements: an ill-tempered wife who can’t leave her bed, a fortune teller who sends cryptic notes of warning, a patch of wallpaper that suddenly changes color. Each of these episodes from the Marple casebook could easily serve as the nucleus of a longer, richer tale of intrigue and misdirection. In them, as in much of her best work, Christie demonstrates a near-magic ability—shown only by small crew of writers (Stevenson, Conan Doyle, and Wodehouse come to mind)—to toss off tales that simultaneously possess the solemn force of myth and the airy lightness of a comic sketch.


Posted by on August 7, 2013 in British, Golden Age, Puzzle, Short Stories


AGATHA CHRISTIE. The Labors of Hercules (1947).

At the end of one story in this collection, “The Girdle of Hyppolita,” Hercule Poirot is thrust into a scrum of schoolgirls, all of them beseeching the world-famous detective to sign their autograph books. “Here, indeed, is the attack by the Amazons,” he says under his breath. LaborsHercules.jpgPoirot lives in the 20th century and does his work amid the streamlined wonders of a technology-driven age, and yet for him the age of legendary heroes who traffic in wonders of a different kind has not passed. In each of the 12 tales gathered here, those two realms exist coterminously, rather as they do in the Dublin of Ulysses. Christie was no James Joyce, but she too had the wit and imagination to render modern bourgeois life under the aspect of eternal myth. She extends that conceit mainly in the spirit of wry amusement (“He disappeared in a wave of young, vigorous femininity,” she writes of Poirot’s encounter with those Amazonian teenagers), and not in order to achieve depths of literary profundity. Still, by deftly adding a layer of classical reference to a series of otherwise routine detective shorts, Christie again undermines the notion that she was a one-dimensional hack, lacking in all but the most basic writerly virtues.

Poirot inaugurates this sequence of adventures by resolving to seek out and then solve cases that echo the Labors of Hercules—the dozen arduous feats accomplished by his ancient Greek namesake. Sometimes the mythic echoes are dim or distorted, but in every case the allusion is puckishly conceived and gamely executed. In “Girdle,” Poirot recovers not the eponymous garment of Queen Hippolyta, but a stolen Rubens painting with a particular connection to the original Herculean labor, and along the way he tangles with an Amazon queen who appears in the guise of a school headmistress. In “The Lernean Hydra,” he defeats the many-headed monster known as village gossip; as Hercules does with his Hydra, Poirot masters the task in question by lancing each “head” at its source. LaboursHerculesNew.jpgIn “The Horses of Diomedes,” he confronts the “man-eating” force of drug addiction, and triumphs over a latter-day Diomedes by turning that man’s “horses” against their villainous owner.

The pretext for this campaign to emulate the Hercules of old, Poirot explains, is his pending retirement. Given that he would continue his sleuthing labors for another three decades, that explanation comes across as faintly ridiculous. But, then, Poirot is nothing if not a ridiculous figure, with his spats and his waxed mustaches and his perfectly egg-shaped head. His absurdity is essential to his charm—and to his ability to carry readers along for any contrived expedition on which Christie wants to take them. So if Poirot says that he plans to give his “little gray cells” a rest, but only after reckoning with the modern equivalents of the Nemean Lion (which he will find in the form of a Pekingese dog), the Arcadian Deer (which will manifest itself as fetching but elusive lady’s maid), and so forth, who will bother to argue with him? None of the dozen puzzles that Poirot undertakes on his supposed valedictory tour are truly Herculean in difficulty, and a couple of them are duds. Even so, several of these episodes pack real punch, and, while even the best of them are mere trifles, the effort overall is far from trifling.


Posted by on September 13, 2012 in British, Golden Age, Puzzle, Short Stories


JOHN MORTIMER. The Trials of Rumpole (1979).

The exploits of Horace Rumpole, typically classified as “crime stories,” are about crime only in the most tenuous sense. But they are stories, stories of the purest kind. As a barrister in the London “defence” bar, Rumpole deals constantly with criminals, actual as well as merely accused: TrialsRumpole.jpgthe wife who kills her two-timing, murder-bent husband in self-defense; the old soldier, lost in nostalgia for “the Empire,” who stands charged with inciting a fascist riot; the thieves’ fence who for once is innocent of receiving stolen goods. Yet an overwhelmingly comic mood hovers over both the defendants and their deeds, and it puts the six novella-length tales in this volume at a far remove from the dark-edged fiction usually sold under the “crime” or “mystery” banner. The spirit of comedy starts with Rumpole’s marriage to Hilda, known as She Who Must Be Obeyed; it’s a telling departure from the bachelor-haunted structure of the classic detective story. Rumpole and his comrades down at the Old Bailey, moreover, evoke the shades of Jeeves and Wooster more than they do those of Holmes and Watson. Mortimer, indeed, resembles P.G. Wodehouse in his knack for making a story move on the energy generated by its own well-tuned engine—and on the strength of his own purring prose. In his imagined realm, God may or may not be in His heaven, but Rumpole is in his chambers and all is right with the world.

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Posted by on March 29, 2011 in British, Short Stories


STEVEN SAYLOR. The House of the Vestals (1997).

In each tale of this collection, a moment arrives when every element in play—every character, every clue, every quirk and curiosity of life in ancient Rome—snaps into its right relation to every other element. The effect, sudden and viscerally immediate, calls to mind the snap of a Roman master’s whip as it lashes out to strike an errant slave. A great gap, in spirit as well as in time, separates us from the world of antiquity. HouseVestals.jpgIt separates us, not least, from the casual brutality of a realm in which slavery was more common than free citizenship. Yet Saylor, in these nine “investigations” of Gordianus the Finder, shows that a finely honed story has the power to make a distant world seem vividly near.

Gordianus, a citizen of Rome during the final decades of the Republic, earns his bread by shrewdly navigating the circus of crime and deceit that flourishes just beneath the surface of city life: The scion of a noble family, entangled in a kidnapping scheme that recalls the exploits of a young Julius Caesar, tests the patience of Gordianus, as well as his bravery and cunning. A death by bee-sting, unfolding almost literally in the shadow of the god Priapus, disturbs a vacation in the Etruscan countryside. Finally, in the title adventure, Gordianus enters the forbidden sanctum of the Vestal Virgins in order to solve a murder mystery with dire implications for Rome’s civic and religious peace. Saylor writes with ingenious wit and with a keen (indeed, classical) flair for turning a well-balanced phrase. Although his mode of storytelling betrays a modern sensibilityone that thrives on comic warmth rather than tragic austerity—his prose crackles with all of the sharpness of that slave-owner’s whip.

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Posted by on December 19, 2010 in American, Historical, Puzzle, Short Stories


REX STOUT. Three Doors to Death (1949).

The adventures of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are best told, as they are told here, in novelet form. In its traditional forms, those of the short story and the full-length novel, the tale of detection depends for its success on a measure of ingenuity; it requires a master-stroke of deception or an intricately devious plot. ThreeDoors.jpgAnd although Stout could spin a twisty-enough yarn when he set his mind to it, he lacked the patience needed to bury a clue with precision or to spread suspicion convincingly among a crew of alibi-bearing, motive-concealing characters. His strengh lay in so engagingly depicting his two protagonists, along with their milieu on West 35th Street in Manhattan, that readers are happy just to be with them for the ride. The road on which Nero and Archie happen to travel—that is, the plot that Stout musters for each of their outings—rarely holds much interest in its own right. So the trip should be neither too short (lest one feel harried in the company of old friends) nor too long (lest overexposure cause their charms to fade). The three stories in this volume, which clock in at 70 to 80 pages apiece, fit the bill perfectly. The victims, the murderers, and the sundry supporting figures in each case serve their appointed functions and quickly recede from view, leaving in one’s mind the unchanging image of Nero and Archie, alone against the cozily urbane backdrop of New York at mid-century.

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Posted by on July 29, 2010 in American, Golden Age, Short Stories


JOHN MORTIMER. Rumpole of the Bailey (1978).

The six entries in this suite of tales are a bit long to be short stories, and in fact Mortimer adapted them from the scripts that he wrote for a very long-running TV series. They are loosely but genially connected, as viewers of the series well know, by stray plot elements, by a repertory cast of updated Dickensian types, and above all by the legal, moral, and narrative presence of Horace Rumpole, a wry, pugnacious London barrister in the autumn of his years. Congenitally incapable of “taking the silk”—that is, becoming a Q.C. (Queen’s Counsel), or member of the prosecutorial bar—Rumpole practices only as counsel for the defense. Among those whose cause he takes up in this first collection of his published reminiscences are the scion of an East End criminal clan who may or may not have robbed a pair of Brixton butchers, an ethereal beauty charged with selling cannabis out of a West Country commune, and an unfortunate simpleton accused of stabbing a rent collector outside a Stepney pub.

RumpoleWide.jpgThe tales are as clever as they need to be, and sometimes a little more so, and while they revolve around crime, they ultimately focus less on criminals than on the Falstaffian spirit of the Keats-quoting, small-cigar-puffing lawyer who defends them, usually with scant help from the obtuse judges, unctuous solicitors, and arrogant Q.C.s who compete for the attention of Lady Justice, that blindfolded damsel who presides over the Old Bailey. Rumpole, through it all, keeps to the fixed points of his gruffly comic existence, which include not only the courtrooms and holding cells of the Bailey, but also Pomeroy’s Wine Bar on nearby Fleet Street, the cramped quarters of his chambers in one of the Inns of Court, and the flat in Gloucester Road that he shares with She Who Must Be Obeyed (also known as Hilda, his wife). Those locales together form a clubby, almost timeless world, and a reader leaves it reluctantly.


Posted by on June 28, 2010 in British, Short Stories


W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM. Ashenden (1928).

Ellery Queen included this book in an updated version of the “Reader’s List of Detective Story Cornerstones,” a much-cited roster of genre-defining works originally compiled by Howard Haycraft and first published in 1941. Yet the seven loosely joined tales that Maugham crafted about Ashenden, a writer recruited into undercover service during the First World War, are not detective stories by any stretch of the critical imagination. AshnedenHCalt.jpg Nor, in conventional terms, are they spy stories. Far from propping up the edifice of either tradition, they tend—slyly but unmistakably—to weaken the foundation of any approach to fiction that relies on a vision of individual heroism. Neither a sleuth who exposes criminals nor a spy who saves his country from its foes, Ashenden serves almost passively in his title role: He is a mere “agent” of the British state, a tool deployed to maintain the grinding, impersonal machinery of war. Although it’s possible to trace a line from Ashenden to the scarred anti-heroes of (for example) John le Carré, Maugham’s stories about this Englishman abroad have a closer kinship with his other writings about British people in distant climes than they do with the broad heritage of espionage fiction. Like those other writings, the Ashenden tales fall within a quasi-genre that one might label “imperial realism.” Taking place at various far-flung compass points, stories in this mode offer acute glimpses of the British Empire and its flawed subjects during the period after the empire’s famously never-setting sun had reached its apogee. Maugham’s characters, including Ashenden, never question the legitimacy of British power, but everything that they do and say calls into question its core myths.

Ashenden, a man of letters who retains the orientation of an observer even after history has turned him into a man of action, comes cast from the mold of autobiography. Maugham served as a secret agent during the Great War himself, using as a cover his identity as a successful playwright. He operated both in Switzerland, where small-scale intrigue seethed quietly under an umbrella of official neutrality, and in Russia, where the storm of revolution washed over all parties who lay in its path. So, too, does Ashenden operate in those two locales. In either setting and on either scale, the war could inflect the course of personal destiny, and such inflection points are the chief object of interest for Maugham. Each Ashenden tale is a slice of life as it’s lived on the edge—the edge of death, the edge of insight. The literary values on display throughout this volume are those of the classic short story: not ideas, but people; not events, but moments; not resolution, but epiphany; not passion, but irony.

In the early stories, Maugham deals directly with the stuff of war and espionage, placing special emphasis on the brutal workings of real-world spycraft—the cynical manipulation of weak people, the routine subordination of individual desires to reasons of state, the crass lying, the fatal mistakes. In “The Hairless Mexican,” Ashenden acts as the handler of an assassin whose outlandish self-importance doesn’t hide the fact that he’s quite bad at his job. In “Giulia Lazzari,” a love affair between a vagabond music-hall dancer and an Indian nationalist becomes a lever that Ashenden uses to eliminate one of Britain’s wartime enemies. But as one story follows another, the war retreats further and further from view. “Mr Harrington’s Washing,” set during the 1917 revolution in Russia (where Ashenden has come to help bolster the Kerensky government), finds its true point of focus not in crises of state, but in the improbable bond that emerges between a narrow-minded American businessman and a fiery Russian woman. The man’s refusal to flee the Bolsheviks without his laundry in hand strikes a resounding chord in the woman’s romantic soul, and Maugham’s rendering of their encounter reads today like a prescient Cold War parable:

Anastasia Alexandrovna stared at the floor for a moment; then with a little smile looked up. It seemed to Ashenden that there was something in her that responded to Mr Harrington’s futile obstinacy. In her Russian way she understood that Mr Harrington could not leave Petrograd without his washing. His insistence had given it the value of a symbol.

The collection ends with a tale that makes no reference of the war at all. Simply titled “Sanitarium,” it takes place at a retreat for tubercular patients in the Scottish highlands. How exactly Ashenden landed there goes unexplained, but a spell of TB puts him in an ideal spot from which to observe how diverse people respond to the presence of death—a presence that they feel in their very lungs. (Maugham, as it happens, had suffered from tuberculosis.) In parts, the story reflects the common postwar belief that European civilization itself was sick. AshendenPanPB.jpgIf Maugham doesn’t mention the four years of pointless carnage that were the most visible symptom of cultural disease, the reason is that he plainly doesn’t have to. (The landmark novel Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, wields the same metaphor to explore a very similar theme.) Despite evoking that sentiment, though, Maugham issues an implicit call to seize the day, however short or nasty it might be. Life has much to recommend it, he suggests, even though death surrounds it on all sides.

[ADDENDUM: Maugham’s attitude toward death and its quandaries clearly differed from the prevailing attitude in the detective stories of his day. The puzzle mysteries that were highly popular during the 1920s treat death as a clean, soluble problem—and thereby keep it at an antiseptic remove from readers. Maugham, who attended medical school before he settled on a writing career, adopts a more clinical view of the matter in his own work. Yet he admired “the immense and varied achievements of the detective writers,” as he wrote in an essay (“The Decline and Fall of the Detective Story”) published many years after Ashenden. To future critics, he speculated, those achievements might prove more compelling than “the compositions of ‘serious’ novelists.” One thing is certain: Detective stories, if they do nothing else, allow us to “spy on” the culture that produces them.]

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Posted by on June 23, 2010 in British, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Short Stories


G.K. CHESTERTON. The Wisdom of Father Brown (1913).

WisdomBrownPan.jpgPuckish and unassuming, as colorless in personality as he is in name, slight in stature yet possessing an immensity of spirit that lies hidden beneath his parson’s hat, Father Brown is an easy protagonist to overlook. Frequently, in the dozen tales that make up this collection, he seems at risk of getting lost within the outlandish, romanticized picture that Chesterton paints of Edwardian England and points beyond. But in case after case, the sly little priest comes into view at just the right moment, emerging from clouds of fantasy—almost like a descending angel—in order to exorcize the demons that haunt the twilit plane on which he works his wonders. Amid the hills of Tuscany, brigands kidnap an English “colossus of finance.” On a Paris boulevard, a reactionary army officer proposes to duel a scientist whom he accuses of treason, and then disappears without leaving a trace. Along the rocky, perilous coast of Cornwall, an ancient family curse threatens to set its evil in motion once again. In each instance, Brown dispels the mystery of criminal circumstance even as he summons forth the mystery of faith. Chesterton writes well, but often he overwrites, turning an air of mystery into a fog of confused action. Still, he usually succeeds both in construing a neat puzzle and in furthering a much grander agenda: the reenchantment of our dull and fallen modern world.

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Posted by on April 26, 2010 in British, Golden Age, Puzzle, Short Stories


AGATHA CHRISTIE. The Mysterious Mr. Quin (1930).

MrQuin1stEd.jpgChristie said that these stories about Mr. Harley Quin and Mr. Satterthwaite were among her favorite writings from her own oeuvre. And with good reason. Atypical of her work as they are in some ways, the dozen tales in this volume nonetheless highlight her merits as a literary artist. They showcase her workmanlike ability to summon forth a character with a few simple words, or to evoke a mood with a single striking image. (By contrast, the more purely plot-driven exploits of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple tend to mask those qualities.) Satterthwaite, a prim old bachelor who “sees things” that others are blind to, serves as the main point-of-view character; he actually occupies more “page time” than the title character. Meek and watchful, yet capable of turning a situation inside-out with his capacity for observation, Satterthwaite is a mouse who occasionally roars. Those occasions always coincide with moments when Quin is nearby. A trickster figure inspired by the harlequinade tradition, Quin flits in and out of his friend’s genteel life, and he performs his tricks indirectly, as Satterthwaite notes to an acquaintance: “I have a friend—his name is Mr. Quin and he can best be desribed in the terms of catalysis. His presence is a sign that things are going to happen; because he is there strange revelations come to light, discoveries are made. And yet—he himself takes no part in the proceedings.”

Mixing straight realism with a hint of fantasy, the adventures of Quin and Satterthwaite recall G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown series. As in a Father Brown tale, the spell of high drama—chiaroscuro lighting, sudden entrances and exits, larger-than-life gestures—hangs over every scene, as does the central conceit that behind every worldly puzzle lies a mystical, otherworldly truth. Most of the Quin stories involve a criminal problem of some kind, and they end with Satterthwaite offering some kind of solution to it. But not all of them follow that pattern. In the last of them, “Harlequin’s Lane,” Christie takes a high-brow turn. The tale explores a pair of romantic triangles, after the style of drawing-room theater, and it culminates not in a neat resolution but in a stark epiphany.

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Posted by on April 6, 2010 in British, Golden Age, Short Stories