This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Friday, February 21, 2014

The One-Hour Mystery

            While up in Point Reyes a few weeks ago, doing revisions for my second Quill Gordon mystery novel, Wash Her Guilt Away, I found myself in an interesting market for reading material.
            During the days I was working away on the book, and after dinner I would typically put in another hour or two, depending on what I needed to hit my work goal for the day. That left me in the position of having an hour or hour and a half before bedtime for free reading, and though it might seem like a busman’s holiday, what I wanted was to read mysteries.
            The problem with that was that I couldn’t be sure how much (if any) time I would have the following night or the night after that. I was holding myself to strict work goals and couldn’t really predict how long it would take to meet them. So I didn’t want to start a novel and have to set it aside for a few days. I wanted something I could start and finish in that night’s time.

The Virtue of the Novella

            For that problem, there’s a perfect answer — the novella or novelette. Longer than a short story and shorter than a novel, it can typically be read in the time I had most of those evenings. The problem is finding a suitable supply.
            Even in its heyday, the novelette was the funny uncle of fiction. It was pretty long for most magazines and too short to be bound up as a book. The authors who wrote them typically published books that collected three or four works in the genre, and that was what I wound up with. (Interestingly, owing to the popularity of ebooks, novellas and novelettes are making a bit of a comeback, with some authors issuing them individually, at lower prices than a full novel.)
            A couple of weeks before the trip, at Barnes & Noble, I came across Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Mews, a collection of four shorter cases of Hercule Poirot. It was originally published in 1937 under the title Dead Man’s Mirror, which was another of the stories in the book. There were four stories in all, ranging in length from 39 to 106 pages.

Can Be Read in One Sitting

            Typically the stories a mystery writer does as novellas or short stories are ones that have a good idea, but one the writer doesn’t want to flesh out into a full-length novel. This was early Christie, from the first 15 years of her 50-plus year career, so you’re mostly reading the stories for plot and atmosphere. Of course, if you’re reading for plot, you could do a lot worse than Agatha Christie.
            In any event, the novellas got me through two of those six dark winter evenings I was alone in the cottage. (I’d read two of the stories before I left.) For the rest of the week I worked on a short-story anthology I’d picked up at a used bookstore and brought along.
            That book was Famous Stories of Code and Cipher, edited by Raymond T. Bond and originally published in 1947. It had everything from classics such as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug” and M.R. James’s “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” to works by writers that even I have never heard of (Harvey O’Higgins, Lillian De La Torre). I now know more about code than I think I want to, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to work a code or cipher into one of my mystery novels.
            Oh, and by the way, one of the stories in the code book was by Agatha Christie. She did everything.