#38: Five to Try – Short Story Collections

Following my torrent of Sherlock Holmes I was tempted to do a ‘Five to Try’ on the short story collections, picking my favourite story from each.  But it’s not as if the Holmes canon doesn’t have enough words dedicated to it already, and thus I thought I’d opt for collections by other authors instead.

So, the rules: collections of short stories by a single author (no compendiums, wherein the quality always varies horrendously), readily available today…that just about covers it.  And so, alphabetically by author, we have:

Fen Country (1950-79) by Edmund Crispin

Fen CountryThe second of Crispin’s two short story collections, published posthumously.  My choice of the two because of the way a lot of the stories hinge on a very simple core idea – homonyms, for example – that might come across a gimmicky but manage in about six or seven pages to communicate setting, setup, event, outcome and misdirection.  Frankly no small feat! Yes, consequently the characters tend to suffer (the ebullient Fen is a curiously neutered presence in the stories in which he features) but for sheer inventive interpretation after inventive interpretation this is hard to beat.  And as an example of Crispin’s tight hold on the reins of his plots (which could, let’s face it, get a bit beyond him in his novels) this reinforces his reputation in a form that has often proved the undoing of lesser talents. [Available in ebook and thoroughly unattractive print form from Bloomsbury]

Recommended reading: ‘Death and Aunt Fancy’, ‘The Hunchback Cat’, ‘Outrage in Stepney’

The Speciality of the House (1948-79) by Stanley Ellin

Speciality House“Ellin consistently wrote the best mystery stories of his time,” runs the quote from Lawrence Block on the cover of my edition of this, and it’s hard to disagree.  These 35 standalone stories represent the entirety of Ellin’s short-form output and brilliantly run the gamut of styles, situations and outcomes.  ‘The House Party’ is an absolutely corking Möbius strip of a story, ‘The Question’ and ‘The Moment of Decision’ barrel straight to the core of the psychology of an instant, ‘A Corner of Paradise’ shifts gears smoothly to become something really very different from what it starts out as, the title story is as marvellously sinister as prose can get…to be honest, only really impossible disappearance story ‘The Twelfth Statue’ is a disappointment, because virtually everything in here shows an ability, diversity and talent that is astonishingly hard to match.  I’m going to call it: this is the finest example available today of how to write a crime short story, not just once but again and again and again, without falling back on familiar characters or easy tropes…recomended in the highest possible terms. [Available in print and ebook from Orion]

Recommended reading: ‘The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby’, ‘The Faith of Aaron Menefee’, ‘The Nine-to-Five Man’

The Thinking Machine (c. 1908) by Jacques Futrelle

Thinking MachinePerhaps out of my era, as Futrelle died in 1912, but there’s too much that’s good here to ignore.  The author and his creation Professor Augustus S. F. X. van Dusen, PhD, LLD, FRS, MD, MDS – referred to as The Thinking Machine – are best known for the complicated and frankly slightly ridiculous ‘The Problem of Cell 13’ in which the professor accepts the challenge to escape from a death row cell.  These 50 stories showcase a broader range to Futrelle’s pen, from the moderately mundane to the staggeringly inventive.  The crotchety van Dusen isn’t a likeable character at all, and some of the earlier stories are among the less successful, but stick with him because there’s a scope here that’s phenomenal especially when you consider the short period over which these were produced.  Had his untimely death aboard the Titanic not cut short his novel writing, Futrelle would have probably produced some truly classic longer works and be far more widely appreciated today, and so a sense of the bittersweet is inevitably woven through the best of these, but the best really are very good indeed. [Available from Mysterious Press in ebook only]

Recommended reading: ‘The Problem of the Lost Radium’, ‘The Grinning God’, ‘The Jackdaw Girl’

The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (19??-75) by Arthur Porges

Cyriack Skinner GreyAgain possibly out of my era as the earliest publication date of these stories is 1965, but then this also contains three previously-unpublished stories that might have been written before then.  And, anyway, it’s an awesome collection so no arguments.  Grey is a wheelchair-bound scientific genius with a precocious genius teenage son who acts as his eyes and ears at crime scenes and feeds back the relevant information for Grey to deduce the solution without leaving the house – shades of Nero Wolfe, you’ll detect.  The stories are textbooks on how to give the reader everything needed and yet still bamboozle the hell out of them; some arguably non fair-play specialist knowledge required, but honestly the conceits are so original – ‘The Scientist and the Time Bomb’, for instance – that it’s hard to hold it against them.  Porges also had another series character – Joel Hoffman, star of the absolutely wonderful ‘No Killer Has Wings’ – whose stories need to be collected and released.  Any offers…? [Available from Richard Simms Publications as a POD paperback only]

Recommended reading: ‘The Scientist and the Vanished Weapon’, ‘The Scientist and the Wife Killer’, ‘The Scientist and the Multiple Murder’

The Great Merlini: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective (1946-69) by Clayton Rawson

Great MerliniRawson was, of course, one of the great and the good in these circles – regularly setting up challenges with other authors (see ‘From Another World’ here, which was a response to an idea from John Dickson Carr which Carr himself wrote up as He Wouldn’t Kill Patience), and able to indulge original wrinkles on account of his own background as a stage magician and consequent magician detective.  Like Jonathan Creek’s grandfather, Merlini puts his knowledge of the art of misdirection to use when it comes to explaining baffling crimes, and these shorter tales (there were four Merlini novels, too) encompass miraculous murders, disappearances and alien lifeforms aplenty.  Unlike Jonathan Creek there’s no sudden tailing off in quality towards the end, requiring stories with massive coincidences or narrative Heimlichs to disgorge important and ridiculous plot developments.  Also, Merlini isn’t married to someone really annoying who’s just there for comic relief.  So it’s like Jonathan Creek when it was good. [Available from Mysterious Press in ebook only]

Recommended reading: ‘Off the Face of the Earth’, ‘Nothing is Impossible’, ‘The World’s Smallest Locked Room’

Disclaimer: opinions are my own, it’s been a while since I read some of these and so I might be getting some titles mixed up, you must be at least this tall to enjoy these books.

30 thoughts on “#38: Five to Try – Short Story Collections

  1. You recommend “The Hunchback Cat” and “Outrage in Stepney” from Fen Country, but not “Death Behind Bars” and “A Country to Sell,” which are the superior of those two in every single way imaginable and impossible crime stories on top of that. I’m tempted to give away my best Perry Mason impression and wave this recommendation away as irrelevant and immaterial. 🙂

    On the other hand, I whole heartily echo your recommendation for Arthur Porges’ The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey. I enjoyed those stories and not just for the bizarre or clever plots, but for the wonderful, somewhat pulpy, characters as well. That collection ought to be better known than it’s today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, let the disagreements begin… 😛
      There’s so much that’s good in that Crispin collection – ‘The House by the River’, ‘Blood Sport’, ‘The Pencil’ and, yes, ‘Death Behind Bars’ among them – that picking three was always going to be a fool’s errand. I nearly went for ‘A Country to Sell’, too…

      And, yeah, the Porges is fabulous and criminally under-read. It would appear that the Hoffman tales are about the only ones of his that haven’t been collected, so I’m moving onto his Sherlock parodies with Stately Homes next.


  2. I don;t have the Porges but the rest are all treausured item on my shelves chum – great choices! I would probably always start, after Holmes, with GK Chesterton’s INNOCENCE OF FATHER BROWN, but that’s just me 🙂


  3. Thanks for the review – my mystery reading diet usually excludes short stories, so it’s good to have a few recommendations under the belt. Always good to know that there is more Crispin/ Fen to read, when I run out of the novels…

    Surprised that Paul Halter’s short stories didn’t make the cut…?


    • Yeah, I toyed with putting The Night of the Wolf in, but the simple fact is that Halter will have many more posts dedicated to him whereas I’m not certain I’ll ever get the chance to write about Porges (who only did short stories), Futrelle (ditto, at least as far as I’m likely to ever cover) and Ellin (whose novels don’t really fit in with my chosen area) and they deserve a bit of coverage. Similarly, the Crispin and Rawson collections I read so long ago that I’m unlikely to revisit them for blog purposes…and there are about another four books I missed out again for similar reasons.

      Ha, perhaps I’ll do another one of these in a few months, hey? I now realise that I have enough material…!


  4. Futrelle’s Thinking Machine stories are terrific. I first encountered Futrelle in Hugh Greene’s superb RIVALS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES anthologies (which I can’t recommend too highly).

    Other must-read short story collections are Arthur Morrison’s THE DORRINGTON DEED-BOX and any collection of Ernest Bramah’s tales of the blind detective Max Carrados.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Arthur Morrison was one of the big guns of Victorian detective fiction. THE DORRINGTON DEED-BOX stories are about an absolute rogue and rotter who uses his detective skills for his own gain. They’re delightfully twisted stories. His Martin Hewitt stories are straightforward detective stories. Hewitt is the anti-Sherlock Holmes – he’s the complete opposite of Holmes in every way. They’re superb stories.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Also good: The New Adventures of Ellery Queen by Queen; Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles by Stuart Palmer; Department of Queer Complaints by Carter Dickson {and I second the suggestion for Bramah’s Max Carrados


    • I have Palmer’s Murder on Wheels somewhere and have yet to read it, so it’s great to know he’s capable of somethng worthewhile even if it isn’t that precise book; many thanks.

      And Carr/Dickson is simply marvellous and would have been a shoo-in, of course, but as far as I’m aware all his short stories are OOP at present. One day that will change, though…!


      • I’ve to second the recommendation for the excellent Hildegarde Withers collection (includes several impossible crimes, by the way) and Stuart Palmer in general. Palmer also wrote a collection of crossover stories with Craig Rice, in which Withers and Malone work together on several cases and especially the first story is wonderful.

        Liked by 1 person

    • The Department of Queer Complaints is great fun. Colonel March is a wonderful character. The stories have definite hints of the weird. There was a 1950s British TV series based on the stories with Boris Karloff as Colonel March. Quite a few episodes survive and are on DVD – it’s worth watching. If you’re a Boris Karloff fan (and what right-thinking person isn’t?) then it becomes a must-see.


  6. >sees short story list
    >is excite
    >sees no Edward D. Hoch
    >is no longer excite. (Nah, I’ll be digging into some later.)

    Come on man! That’s at least a level 5 heresy. 😛


    • Shhh, keep it to yourself but I haven’t read enough Hoch to be able to recommend any one collection with authority. I know, I know, but I’ve read him in several anthologies, read his Sherlock Holmes stories and that’s about it. I will get around to correcting that at some point. Just don’t tell anyone; my reputation would never recover.


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  8. Thanks for this post from…. seven years ago, Jim! I’m reading FEN COUNTRY now, have already read “Who Killed Baker?” which might already be my favorite anti-mystery ever written. It’s just pure, distilled jackassery of the highest order. This also brought Stanley Ellin to my attention, so thank you very much for that.

    But most importantly, it convinced me to keep reading Futrelle. You say his later stories get better, and that’s great, because I read seven or so of the Thinking Machine stories (in order) and just… did not get it. They all just felt like exactly what you would expect (bad) amateurish pre-Golden Age mystery stories written by an unremarkable random would be. They were bad in a very unique way that tend to be reserved for “random author summoned from the depths of the public domain for anthology stuffing” stories, not someone with the acclaim of Futrelle. So I’ll definitely push through his initial slop to get to whatever gems are potentially buried beneath! 😀


    • Futerlle’s output varies wildly in quality, almost to the extent that it would be easier to believe that he was in fact several people writing under a house name than a single man who could plot sublimely one day and atrociously the next…I guess that’s what comes from being so productive in such a short time.

      So you might have to kiss a few frogs in his work, but the princes when they reveal themselves will hopefully be all the more pleasing for the work put in to discover them.


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