Write the perfect crime story? Are you kidding? That’s like asking someone to commit the perfect crime; it’s why writers keep writing and felons keep breaking the law.
But okay, we’ll give it shot (no pun intended), some dos-and-don’ts for the aspiring Agatha Christies.
Start with a crime. Jonathan’s personal favorite is murder, though adultery is a close second, the reason he combined the two in his story for THE DARK END OF THE STREET. SJ, for short stories, tends to prefer extortion and what the Italians refer to as "scamotage," which is exactly what you think it is. But there are also, for your consideration, all the rest of those Crimes Against Persons, as the police call them: rape, kidnapping, assault, not to mention assorted felonies and misdemeanors – theft, forgery, extortion, and the more subtle forms of crime – lying, betrayal, heartbreak.
A good crime story, like any good short story, is a tightly drawn little episode, a yarn spun quickly and succinctly, often with a surprise ending, an unexpected twist or reversal. Personally, we favor the double or even triple reversal, but that’s asking a lot of the short form. It’s enough to capture the reader and hold him or her in thrall for the duration of the story. And the good news is no one expects the whole story, all the subplots and side roads. In fact, it’s better to avoid them, to stay on course. And you needn’t bother to create a hero, someone to save the day. If you want your protagonist to be a villain, a nasty little shit who does whatever he or she wants to do, the short story is the perfect place to do it. It may not be a lot of fun to spend three-or-four-hundred pages in the twisted mind of a deviant, but for a few pages, we say: Bring it on. This was SJ’s thinking in her DARK END OF THE STREET story, and Jonathan’s protagonists aren’t boy scouts and girl scouts, either.
Some of the best short stories are wrapped around some sort of crime. Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, written in 1948, still surprises and packs a wallop. The set up: A balmy summer day in a small American town. The plot: The townsfolk are about to enact an annual ritual, a lottery. Jackson loads her story with detail, assembling the townsfolk and families, the lists involved, a ritual chant, chips of wood versus slips of paper for voting and selection, all of it very civilized, and yet an ominous tone prevails: Why are kids arriving with their pockets stuffed with rocks? And what about that omnipresent pile of stones? Soon enough the reader gets an answer: The chosen person will be stoned to death.
The best crime stories draw you in, hold you hostage, and though they release you, the crime should resonate.
Pascal said something along the lines of "If I’d had the time I’d have made it shorter." And Balzac said it too. And Mark Twain as well. Good advice. A short story needs to be like a liquor store holdup: get in and get out. This is a sudden strike, not a long con.
In the end, the greatest crime short stories are like the greatest stories in any genre, including the genre of High Lit: use all the ingredients and mix them perfectly. And then make sure there’s a crime in there someplace, and you’re in business.
The Dark End of The Street is edited by Jonathan Santlofer and SJ Rozan, and published by Bloomsbury at £7.99.