Category Archives: 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


E.W. HORNUNG. Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman (1899).

The exploits of the gentleman burglar A.J. Raffles, narrated by Bunny, his occasionally reluctant but ultimately stalwart comrade in theft, mirror the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and his friend and chronicler, Dr. Watson. That’s precisely what Hornung had in mind, having observed the astonishing success of his brother-in-law Arthur Conan Doyle. (He was married to the latter’s sister.) Inverting the Sherlockian formula, Hornung places his jaunty, masterful hero and his loyal-sidekick figure on the far side of the law. Like Doyle, however, he has created a saga whose real subject is neither crime nor crime-fighting, but male companionship—the rough-and-ready satisfaction that it affords, the trace of melancholy that runs through it.

Boyish camaraderie animates the Raffles-Bunny friendship at its outset. Raffles, a celebrated cricketer, and Bunny, an old chum whose only trade is that of a Grub Street scribbler, both lack the legitimate means to live properly as “men about town.” So they opt for safe-cracking and jewel-lifting, and they delve into the job as if it were a boarding-school lark. Their labor might not be honest, but they uphold the lofty code that extends from the ancient public school to the Pall Mall club: Among these thieves, there is honor aplenty.

Yet, as this larcenous collaboration progresses, a note of homo-romantic drama comes into play. In the final adventure, Raffles and Bunny share a ship’s cabin as they sail across the Mediterranean; their aim is to grab a pearl that belongs to a fellow passenger. When Raffles launches into an onboard flirtation with a young woman, Bunny begins to sulk. He calls the interloping female a “Colonial minx” (she hails from Australia) and a “chit.” About her and his friend, he writes: “They were always together. It was absurd.” Bunny’s pouting itself seems absurd, at least to modern eyes. It makes for a strange turn—comic but also slightly dark—in an otherwise genial sojourn through the “high life” of the late-Victorian bachelor.

At the level of plot, the eight loosely linked stories in this début collection (two other Raffles books followed from Hornung’s pen) are slighter than even the most mediocre Holmes tales. Rather than pulling off ingenious heists, Raffles and Bunny devote most of their on-the-page time to making narrow escapes from one bumbling pursuer or another. Beyond all of the derring-do, what stands out are some passages of fine writing—“fine” not in a fussy or precious way, but in the sense of being actually pretty good. Hornung certainly knows how to set a mood: “I could see no house at all, only the angle of a high wall rising solitary in the night, with the starlight glittering on battlements of broken glass; and in the wall a tall green gate, bristling with spikes.”

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Posted by on March 22, 2010 in British, Golden Age, Short Stories


CORNELL WOOLRICH. Rear Window and Other Stories (1984).

Woolrich was the prose poet of mid-century urban anomie. Which isn’t to say that his prose is all that poetic. In fact, it’s rather clunky, swerving from a mood of rhapsody that falls short in an attempt to sound like F. Scott Fitzgerald (an early literary idol for Woolrich) to a tough-guy argot that overshoots the mark in a bid to sound Runyonesque. Overall, it has a rough, brittle, dated feel, rather like the now-flaking pulp-magazine pages on which much of Woolrich’s work first saw print. But Woolrich had the vision of a poet—a vision pure and deeply personal, yet capable of touching a soft nerve in people who shared his lonely-in-a-crowd fatalism. Almost single-handedly, he created the genre known as noir.RearWindowCover.jpg

The lead entry in this collection of five novella-length tales, “Rear Window” (originally published as “It Had to Be Murder”), became the basis of the classic Alfred Hitchcock film of that title, while each of the others inspired an episode of Hitchcock’s television series. “Rear Window,” despite its renown, has a relatively blithe tone that puts it at a remove from the main body of the author’s work. It is the last tale here, “Momentum,” that most thoroughly explores the archetypal Woolrich themes. Paine, the none-too-subtly named anti-hero, has no job, no money, and no prospects. He has a wife whom he cannot feed and a crummy apartment from which he faces imminent eviction. To say that he’s “down on his luck” would be to suggest falsely that he had any luck in the first place. His last hope is to collect some back-pay from an old boss of his. But once he reaches the boss’s house, one damn thing—one damning thing—follows another. He commits robbery. He commits murder. Then, to cover his tracks, he commits other murders. Here’s a passage from the saga of Paine that exemplifies Woolrich’s often awkward style, even as it captures the bleak poetry of his worldview: “Instinctively he knew he was doomed now, if he hadn’t before. There wasn’t any more of the consternation he had felt the first two times. He kept buying off time with bullets, that was all it was now. And the rate of interest kept going higher, the time limit kept shortening. There wasn’t even any time to feel sorry.” A typical Woolrich protagonist, Paine finds himself trapped in the infernal machine that is the modern city. He lacks even the dignity that comes with being a secure cog in that contraption. Instead, the grim claw of Fate has flung him mercilessly into its gears.

Woolrich set many of his stories in New York, and his work as a whole conjures up the image of that teeming, “naked” city during the Depression-shadowed 1930s and 1940s. But in the tales that make up this volume, Woolrich bleaches any trace of specificity from the cruel metropolis of his imagination. Their setting might as well be Anywhere, USA—or, more to the point, Nowhere, USA. That schematic sense of location reinforces the strange, stripped-down quality of the stories themselves. They oddly resemble both a film treatment, with little more than a bone-bare plot to hold one’s attention, and a fever dream, with a residue of unease that lingers but eludes one’s mental grasp. In between, where individual character and social truth and the other stuff of fiction usually unfold, there is nothing.

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Posted by on March 16, 2010 in American, Noir, Short Stories