The Short Mystery

Volume 15, No. 3, Fall 1999

The Short Mystery


  • Confessions of a Short Story Addict by Marvin Lachman
  • A Small World with a Big View by Janet Hutchings
  • True Crime As a “Short Story” by Carol Harper
  • The Mystery Short Story by Natalee Rosenstein


  • Murder Mysteries: America’s Game by Kent Braithwaite
  • Contests, Writers’ Groups, and That Elusive Letter of Acceptance by Jim Doherty
  • Murder in Small and Varied Doses… by Elizabeth Foxwell
  • A Brief Essay on Vertically-Challenged Mystery Stories by Kate Grilley
  • Going Long: Writing Novella-Length Mysteries by David K. Harford
  • A Banquet for Thousands: The Mystery Anthology by John Helfers
  • Writing and Editing Short Stories by Edward D. Hoch
  • The Short Story Imperative by Wendy Hornsby
  • Doing It the Hard Way by Janet LaPierre
  • Crime, Color, and Comedy by JoAnne Lucas
  • Canine Crimes / Canine Christmas by Jeffrey Marks
  • Going Once… by L.C. Mohr
  • Short Story Writer to Novelist? by Kris Neri
  • A Short Trip Through Time by Sharan Newman
  • Finding the Good Stuff by Steven Saylor
  • Publish an Anthology? Sure We Will! by Margaret Searles
  • Oh Lord!: Putting Together an Anthology by Serita Stevens
  • Magazine Publishers’ Secret Guidelines and How To Find Them by Sunnye Tiedemann
  • Themeless in America by Marilyn Wallace


  • Mystery In Retrospect: Reviews by Carol Harper
  • On the Net: E-zines—Pulps of the 21st Century? by Kate Derie
  • Just The Facts: The Cigar Girl And The Storyteller by Jim Doherty
  • A Mystery Reader Abroad: Some Like It Hot! by Carol Harper
  • MRI Mayhem by Janet A. Rudolph
  • Letters to the Editor
  • From the Editor’s Desk by Janet A. Rudolph

A Small World with a Big View
by Janet Hutchings (New York, New York)

My work is confined to a small area of publishing. Most New York publishing houses expect their editors to acquire both fiction and nonfiction, and even those who work exclusively with fiction usually cover everything from mainstream to mystery to other genres. That rare publishing professional who wears only the mystery editor’s hat often edits the occasional short story collection in between full-length novels. Only I, at Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and Cathleen Jordan, my counterpart at Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, devote ourselves full-time to the mystery short story. We occupy a tiny outpost in the vastness of publishing.

Our less trafficked place is a happy spot for me due to an enduring appreciation for the richness of the mystery and suspense story in particular and the short story in general—an appreciation I try to convey, through EQMM, to readers who might otherwise have virtually forgotten this splendid literary form.

The first and most obvious pleasure of a short story is that it can be consumed in a single reading. If a work of fiction is good, the impression it makes will generally be more powerful and longer lasting if taken in all at once rather than in separate segments, interrupted by the humdrum of daily life.

Because shortness demands economy of words, the successful short story writer is necessarily a master of the art of selectivity, and this gives him or her a great advantage in effectively delineating character. For those of us whose chief pleasure in reading fiction derives from characterization, the short story is more satisfying than most novels, for in the short story we are given the essentials of a personality and left with our imagination to fill in the rest. When I pick up a novel now, after so many years of daily immersion in the short story, I feel like the boy who on first seeing the newly invented television declared, in disappointment, that what he’d been used to hearing on radio was so much more vivid. (A case like many others in the arts in which, for me, less turns out to be more.)

To complement its vividness, the short story provides a sense of completeness I rarely experience reading a novel. This is probably a matter of perspective: The shorter work is small enough to be viewed as a whole, and for the events of the story to be seen to bring us back to where they started—as they so often do in fine fiction.

Readers who enjoy short fiction at all, whether for my reasons or others of their own, usually also have a special predilection for mystery short stories. In fact, most lovers of the mainstream short story have carried on at least a flirtation with the crime or mystery story, often without even knowing it. In the early 1940s, Fred Dannay, the founding editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, demonstrated to his readership that many of the greatest works of literature, by Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners, were actually crime stories. Readers simply hadn’t thought of them in that way before. As EQMM‘s current editor, I accept Dannay’s generous definition of what constitutes a crime story; how could I not when it allows us such wide scope to indulge our own literary preferences in acquiring stories for the magazine?

Besides, Dannay was clearly right. The number of short story readers who subscribe to the so-called literary magazines only to find there, and enjoy, stories that most writers and editors nowadays would classify as crime tales is larger than some literati might like to admit. (After all, wasn’t last year’s Edgar Allan Poe Award winner for best short story from just such a literary stronghold?) Fred Dannay’s view of crime fiction has become the accepted view. But this goes to show that the mystery magazines are not marooned in an out-of-the-way space after all. In a way, you might say that we sit right at the center of the fiction universe, where every writer interested in the darker motives for human behavior will probably decide to come, sooner or later, if he or she decides to make the journey in less than 20,000 words.

Our magazines’ central position in the world of mainstream fiction is assured by the fact that so many short stories, at least peripherally, involve crime: The important place we occupy in crime fiction as a genre has even firmer roots, for no one who claims to like only the detective or crime novel can get around the fact that the earliest detective tales, those of Edgar Allan Poe, were short stories. In the century and a half since Poe’s first detective story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was published, the mystery short story has developed diverse forms. The classical detective story of Poe’s devising is less often seen these days, but we have, in addition to it, police procedurals, cases for fictional private eyes (both male and female), cozies, woman-in-jeopardy tales, British noir, the psychological suspense story, the twist-in-the-tail Hitchcockian thriller, and more. At EQMM, the oldest mystery short-story magazine continuously in print, we publish them all. We do so with a view to representing not only the mystery genre as classically understood, but as it has developed over the last few decades.

As every serious reader of crime fiction knows, there has been an expansion in recent years in the various mystery sub-genres. Where we once had simply hardboiled private eyes, for example, we now have male and female ops, hard- and soft-boiled cases, and British and American versions of the form. This breaking open of the categories has resulted in a greater variety of authors finding a home in our genre than ever before. Gone are the days when the mystery—short or long—was largely or exclusively concerned with the presentation and solution of a puzzle. After World War II, and most noticeably in the 1980s and 90s, mystery and crime writing began consciously to include serious subjects, and to strive to be more than pure entertainment. Though many of the very best contemporary mysteries still contain some form of puzzle, most also treat realistic themes and pose the same kinds of questions about human nature that absorb writers of general fiction. This is true of short-story mysteries no less than of mystery novels.

To some, the world of the mystery magazines may appear small, but, surprisingly, they provide a vantage point from which we have the pleasure of seeing and assessing nearly every type of short fiction being written. My greatest satisfaction in editing EQMM comes from finding and presenting to our readers the finest examples I can of the inexhaustibly rich and growing form we call the mystery short story.

Writing and Editing Short Stories
by Edward D. Hoch

As I write this in September of 1999, I find that I have published 812 short stories over a period of forty-four years, a figure that staggers even me. That’s more than eighteen stories a year, every year, and I’m still writing them at about the same rate. I suppose I started writing short stories, and have continued writing them, because the ideas have always come easily to me. The few novels I published back in the late 1960s and early 1970s were a real effort for me to complete—and perhaps they showed it. The stories, on the other hand, come relatively easily.

Unfortunately, this is not the golden age of the mystery short story. We’re a full century removed from those days when British train travelers would purchase a copy of the Strand or its imitators to wile away an hour or so on their rides home from London. For today’s travelers it’s usually a paperback novel picked up at an airport, or a laptop computer so they can continue working during the flight.

Still, the detective story was born in its short form. It could be argued that Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in addition to its other perfections, is the perfect length for a detective story—about 14,000 words. That length is a hard sell for an author these days. The mystery magazines and original anthologies are more comfortable with something about half as long.

Since I often mention how easily ideas seem to come to me, I’m sometimes asked how this happens. With me the answer is simple. I read a great deal, see movies, watch television. I’m constantly looking for something that’s both intriguing and unfamiliar. A tiny incident from a novel can trigger a plot idea. A hundred-year-old fantasy about a disappearing room can become the problem in an impossible crime story with a perfectly logical solution. A travel book about Hong Kong can furnish material for a spy story. Even an occasional incident in my own life, like a trip to the emergency room at a hospital or a visit to the dentist, can provide a plot.

Authors often complain that there’s not enough money to be made writing short stories, but anthology reprints, collections, foreign sales in Europe and Japan, and occasional television sales can make it rewarding. In my own case, I have labored in the short story field as both writer and editor. For twenty years I edited an annual anthology series of the year’s best mysteries, and I’ve published six additional anthologies, two of them for the Mystery Writers of America.

Editing a collection of reprinted stories is not the same as choosing new stories for a magazine or anthology, of course. In my annual series of best mysteries, I felt the author and original editor had done most of the work for me. Except in rare instances where an obvious error or typo cropped up, the stories were reprinted as they originally appeared. More than once I had to dissuade my editor at a publishing house from making changes so a particular story (even an Edgar winner!) would conform to the publisher’s style standards. Obviously an award-winning story should be reprinted in its original form.

With my annual best mystery anthologies, I was chosen to take over the job after Al Hubin retired from the position. I edited the series for Dutton for six year and for Walker (with a title change) for fourteen additional years. My other six anthologies were all suggested to me by the publishers or by MWA. It is a sad truth today that publishers demand a certain number of big names, preferably best-selling mystery novelists, in the anthologies they publish. I’ve always tried to balance these with at least a few lesser-known writers.

The criteria for inclusion in one of my anthologies depended upon circumstances. With my annual series I was choosing my favorite stories of the year, always including the MWA Edgar winner. With themed anthologies I wanted stories that fit the themes—historical mysteries and impossible crimes in the pair of volumes I edited for MWA. I was limited to MWA members in those books, but still came up with a wealth of material. In others like Murder Most Sacred (1989), a collection of Catholic tales of mystery and suspense, my extensive reading and a good memory served me well, shortening the time of the selection process. Once the stories were chosen, there was an introduction to be written, along with headnotes for the individual stories. Their order of appearance in the volume had to be decided. Often they were arranged alphabetically by author, although sometimes I like to start and finish the book with the strongest stories. In my recent anthology, Twelve American Detective Stories (OUP, 1998), the arrangement was chronological.

It’s quite possible in the years to come that mystery magazines may be replaced by anthologies of original stories, providing less opportunity for beginning writers. But I doubt if the short story form will ever completely vanish, either in mainstream or mystery. It is a particularly American sort of fiction. At its best it can be a memorable character sketch, a fascinating tale with an unexpected ending, or even a novel in miniature. It’s fun to read, and even more fun to write.

Finding the Good Stuff
by Steven Saylor (Berkeley, California)

In 1998, I served as chair of the Mystery Writers of America short story committee, which selected the nominees and winner of the Edgar Award. By year’s end, the committee had reviewed a total of 617 entries. Sources were as varied as Playboy and a self-published children’s book of Mexican folk tales, but most of the stories came from EQMM and AHMM and from original anthologies published in hardback or paperback.

Out of that experience, I have a few observations to make on the state of the mystery short story at the end of the millennium.

There are scores of good stories being published every year. Good, I said; not great. Our problem wasn’t wading through dreck; we weren’t dealing with slush pile material, but for the most part with stories written by professional writers, accepted or commissioned by professional editors. But while there is a lot of B+ and A- material out there, stand-out stories that boldly announce “This is award-winning stuff!” are few and far between.

Even among good-to-fair stories, there’s a lot of clutter. Many more short stories are being published every year than should be, stories that simply reiterate ideas and characters and plots from other stories, that add nothing new or noteworthy or even enjoyable to the genre. I blame this clutter chiefly on the original anthologies produced by professional editors who choose a theme, contact a given number of pro writers, and then seem to accept pretty much whatever the writers turn in. (This type of “high concept” anthology is typical of the current market; the theme may be cats, dogs, geographical regions, historical setting, fairy tales retold as crime stories, etc.) While a few of the contributors seem to really “get” the idea of the project and produce genuinely inspired gems, many more of the authors seem almost to begrudge the effort, like students who resent a rigid and uninspiring class assignment. Consequently, most of these anthologies produce just a handful of stories worth reading, while simultaneously producing many more stories that need never have been written at all. The world does need any more stories written simply for the purpose of filling pages.

So where is the good stuff? Three of our nominees came from tried-and-true EQMM, including two stories by past Edgar winners. But our winner came from a surprising source—an academic journal called The Texas Review. Tom Franklin’s “Poachers” was unlike anything else we read, and was far and away the consensus choice of the committee. Atmospheric, chilling, unforgettable, it’s about as far you can get from an arbitrary effort churned out to satisfy a theme anthology. Someone at William Morrow thought so, too; even before our Edgar balloting, “Poachers” was chosen to be the title story for Franklin’s debut collection of short fiction. Quality gets noticed.

“Poachers” marked the first time that a story from an academic journal was nominated for the Edgar. Another of our nominees, “Sacrifice” by L.L. Thrasher, marked the first story to be nominated from the small-circulation Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine. “Sacrifice” proves that stand-out stories don’t appear just in the mass-market publications, but also in smaller, less prestigious, less lucrative venues… where they can still get noticed.

Steven Saylor’s “Roma Sub Rosa” series set in ancient Rome includes the short story collection The House of the Vestals (St. Martin’s, 1997).