Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Society Celebrates 20 Years: Jim Doherty

In the first week of April 1996, the members of shortmystery-l-digest voted to become the Short Mystery Fiction Society, with goals of better representing mystery & crime short stories in the public eye.

In honor of the Society's establishment and our twenty years increasing publication and regard for the form, President Jan Christensen has invited members' reflections on joining the Society and why they've remained members and fans of the form.

From Jim Doherty:


This genre we all love, crime fiction, comes in many forms, but the most important, historically, and, arguably, the most perfect artistically, is the form this organization celebrates, the short story.

Historically, the importance of short mystery fiction is beyond dispute. It was, after all, introduced in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by the literary figure who was, perhaps, the staunchest advocate of short fiction in the history of prose, Edgar Allan Poe.
And in that story, and in two sequels featuring the same lead character, C. Auguste Dupin, "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Purloined Letter," and in two non-series tales, "Thou Art the Man" and "The Gold Bug." Poe worked in almost every variation on crime fiction possible.

The series detective, the narrating sidekick, the gifted amateur sleuth outdoing the official police, the Macguffin/quest object, the master criminal who’s the hero’s arch-foe, the fictionalization of a real-life case, the least suspected person turning out to be the villain, the courtroom thriller, the use of codes, all of these and more in just five stories, all of them short, all of them readable in a single sitting. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would later note that Poe, in those five stories had, "...covered [detective fiction's] limits so completely that I fail to see how his followers can find any fresh ground which they can confidently call their own."

And of those who came after, look how many, even if they wrote novels, seemed to specialize in short fiction. So many of the great fictional detectives who came after Dupin, Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot (particularly in his early years), Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op, Michael Gilbert's Patrick Petrella, Lawrence G. Blochman’s Dr. Daniel Coffee (fiction's first forensic pathologist), Jacques Futrelle's the Thinking Machine, and every series character created by Edward D. Hoch, all appeared, primarily or exclusively, in short fiction.

And even those detectives best known for their appearances in full-length novels, Raymond Chandler's Phil Marlow, Ed McBain's 87th Precinct, Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter, Ian Fleming's James Bond, or Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn, all made short story appearances.

As for the perfection of the form, that's clear just from the concision that makes the modifier "short" necessary. The brevity, unity, and clarity possible in the short form give it the potential for an impact that is simply not possible in a novel.

Don't get me wrong. I love novels. But even a shortish novel, something between 40,000 and 70,000 words long, will be discursive, and perfection of style can never be achieved, total satisfaction with the finished product never be reached. As someone else (I don’t recall who, at the moment) once said, short stories can be finished, but novels are abandoned.

And given his arguments in favor of short stories over novels, one wonders how Poe would feel about the most famous award given in the genre he created, the award that's actually named for him, has no less than six categories for novels, but only one for short stories (two if one counts the Bob Fish Award, which really isn't an Edgar).

And since short mysteries are important, it follows that SMFS is important. It keeps the short story at the forefront of attention in the mystery world. It awards writers of short stories in several different lengths because we know that it takes a different set of muscles to write a short-short or a flash, than it does to write a novelette.

It also uses current communications technology to form an organization that anyone with an email address can join without paying costly dues. That's the kind of ingenuity we expect from short story writers.

And all of these are just a few of the reasons I'm proud to have served as an SMFS officer. I've been in "lurk mode" for some time (major drama at my day job, and even more in my private life, not the place to go into details), but I'm still getting the digest every day, and still seeing what;s going on with you all. I imagine I will for as long as SMFS and I both continue to exist.

Career law enforcement officer Jim Doherty served as SMFS vice president 2008–10. Also a member of Mystery Writers of America, Jim has published several short stories and articles on the mystery genre.

To join our twentieth year celebration, email your reflection to Gerald So (G_SO at YAHOO dot COM).

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