The Wonderful Versatility of Crime Short Stories by Leslie Wheeler

LUCY BURDETTE: Today I'm happy to welcome one of our longtime JRW writing pals Leslie Wheeler, to introduce an anthology of crime fiction shorts which many of us have contributed to over the years. Welcome Leslie!

LESLIE WHEELER: Having just released Deadly Nightshade, the 2022 Best New England Crime Stories anthology with co-editors/publishers, Christine Bagley and Susan Oleksiw, I’m struck by the different shapes the short form can take. I’m not talking about subject matter or mood, but rather story structure. Here are two examples, taken from Deadly Nightshade. One is a lengthy, complex, and rule-defying story; the other, a masterpiece of minimalism.

The first story, “Playing God,” by Avram Lavinsky does two things that at least one short story maven lists as “don’ts.” The first don’t involves point of view: “A clear point of view. Whose story is this? Only one POV!!” While some crime stories juggle two points of view—this often occurs in stories where spouses are plotting to kill each other—“Playing God” has as many as five. And I thought I was being daring when I wrote a story with four points of view! 

The other don’t has to do with time frame: “A limited time frame (Real time) No long flashback’s please!” “Playing God” toggles back and forth between the present day and eight years earlier. With its multiple points of view and time frames, this story about two police chaplains of different faiths who must comfort the grieving relatives of suicides and murder victims, demands more from the reader. But it also offers more with well-crafted scenes in which the characters and settings are presented with cinematic precision. And by the end when the connections between the various pieces of the puzzle are revealed, I, at least, felt that it was more than worth the effort. “Playing God” is a prime example of a story where “More is More,” in the sense of more satisfying and powerful.

Still, the minimalist approach of “Less is More” can also result in a compelling story, as evidenced by Tilia Klebenov Jacob’s “By the Book.” This story of a kerfuffle in a library where a librarian is arrested by a policeman, whom she has known since he was a teenager, consists of a one-sided conversation between the librarian and the cop. It’s as if we, the readers, are in a room with the librarian while she’s on the phone with the cop, and we can only hear what she’s saying. Yet her dialogue is written in such a way that we can easily fill in the blanks, not only about what caused the current kerfuffle, but about the past events that led up to this moment.  The use of a single character’s dialogue to tell a story is both clever and economical, something that works well in a short story, but is hard to imagine doing in a novel, unless it’s a novella, and even then, it can be hard to pull off, requiring as it does a strong and distinctive voice to carry the narrative. 

As these examples demonstrate, there are more ways than you might think to pen a successful crime story. Do you have a favorite short story, mystery or not? If so, please share. One of the commenters will receive a copy of Best New England Crime Stories 2022: Deadly Nightshade.

Award-winning author, Leslie Wheeler, writes two mystery series: the Berkshire Hilltown Mysteries and the Miranda Lewis Living History Mysteries. Her latest release is Wolf Bog, the third book in the Berkshire Hilltown series. Her short crime fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies including the Best New England Crime Stories anthologies, published by Level Best Books, where she was a co-editor/publisher for six years, and now by Crime Spell Books, where she holds the same position. She divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Berkshires, where she writes in a house overlooking a pond.

About the book: A man commits suicide for no apparent reason; the muscle for a mobster reviews his mentor’s life lessons; a longtime widow takes up a life of crime; a librarian proves formidable if occasionally oblivious; a young man escapes the nightmare of a future; and a killer is trapped—these and other tales of murder, deception, trickery, and rough justice fill the pages of the eagerly awaited annual anthology of Best New England Crime Stories.