One of the foremost practitioners of the short story looks at the genre’s development over the last 50 years
It’s well to remember that by the time the Mystery Writers of America was founded in 1945, as World War II was ending, the so-called “Golden Age” of the detective story was already past. It was certainly past for the short story. The pulps were dying and would vanish from the scene within another decade. The slick magazines were using less fiction, and it was no longer certain that such fiction–even by top writers–would be collected in book form. It was not until after his death that Erle Stanly Gardner‘s publisher issued collections of his short stories.
During the 1950s, the pulp magazines gave way to digest-size mystery magazines, but by the 1960s, many of these were dying as well. In the magazines that remained after 1965, notably Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, there had been a shift in the stories themselves. The change was most notable in EQMM because until the mid-1960s editor Fred Dannay had separated the contents page of each issue into listings of detective stories and crime stories. A typical issue might contain five detective stories, four or five crime stories, a spy story or riddle tale, and a “first” story. He decided to abandon the practice when the number of detective stories sometimes dropped to only two or three per issue. To paraphrase the late Julian Symons: The detective story was becoming the crime tale, reflecting perhaps the changing tastes of the reading public.
My own stories, for the most part, have usually relied heavily on the trappings of classic detective fiction. That’s not surprising, since I grew up on writers like Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr. I still remember the weekly Ellery Queen radio shows, when guest experts were invited to solve the mystery before Ellery Queen revealed his solution. I listened to these, and learned from them.
Times, and themes, have changed for the detective story. Blackmail, once a popular motive for writers as different as Queen and Chandler, must hardly exist in today’s real world of talk-show openness. Likewise, it’s difficult to imagine a modern author building a plot around pornography or nude photos or poison pen letters. Perhaps this is why some mystery writers are finding their plots in the past, in the growing popularity of historical mysteries. Unfortunately, some themes from mystery’s Golden Age are still with us. Drug dealing, an exotic crime to most readers of the 1930s, is all too common today.
In England, where the formal detective story has always been more firmly entrenched than in America, mystery magazines vanished entirely many years ago. The short mystery survives there because many British authors enjoy writing them, and because a number of annual anthologies provide a small but steady market.
Author James Gunn, writing recently about science fiction, stated: “Short stories represent the genre at its best….The novels may get all the glory, but the short stories are nearest heaven.” I feel much the same way about the mystery genre. Its history, from Poe through the pulps to the present, is in its short stories.
Edward D. Hoch is a past president of Mystery Writers of America and winner of its Edgar Award for best short story. He was the 1991 Guest of Honor at Bouchercon and won its Anthony Award for best short story in 1998. His most recent collections include Diagnosis: Impossible, The Ripper of Storyvilleand the forthcoming The Velvet Touch.