I drive a two-seater. It’s a drop-top sports car built low to the ground for better control and handling. All right, it’s an automatic with a pushbutton, electronic top. But that’s not the point. The point is that when the top’s down and I’m sailing through the curves along the bay, the wind cutting in behind my shades, I can’t think of a better car to be in. Sure, it’s so small, I can’t fit more than one suitcase into it. But again, that’s not the point. The point is performance and beauty. In a word, velocity.
The point is this is why I love the short story. Velocity. Room for one suitcase only. The short story deals with issues and themes large and small. But it does it succinctly and quickly. The short story is a car for the short track. Put the top down and power into the curves. If you’re going a long distance, get yourself a novel. Take the freeway and get yourself an SUV.
I drove seven SUVs before I ever tried a sports car. I found the difference amazing. You have to dig in to write a novel. You have to cover all the angles. You need a trunk big enough to carry a lot of baggage and extra supplies. Conversely, the short story is lean and mean and built low to the ground. Its ideas burn on high-test. They are spare and to the point.
What happened to me happened to many novelists I know. You push a few books out there, get them on the shelf, and get a bit of notice. Then comes the big question: “Have you ever thought about a short story?” One thing leads to another, and you leave the big car in the garage, and you’re out running around in a candy-apple-red sports car. It’s fun. It’s a change of pace. Nine out of ten doctors recommend it.
In these same pages last year James Ellroy said he wrote his first short story only to pay off a debt. After that, he repeatedly returned to the short form. Me, too. In fact, my guess is that the debt I paid with my first short story was to the same guy — but that’s another story. The point is I reluctantly tried it and then liked it. I ended up happy for the coercive genesis of it. I got hooked. I found the short story gave me balance. Elements of character and action and intrigue were all there. But in a spare form I found invigorating. I like the short story because you can conceive and complete in hours or weeks instead of months or years. It is a form I am sure I will always come back to. It has become part of how I evaluate and then execute my ideas as a writer.
This is not by any means to say that the short story is the easier road to take. The novel and the short story are simply different animals. Or, I should say, beasts. In the spare style of the short story is the bedrock philosophy of less is more. This makes the labor over each paragraph, each sentence, intensely important. Every word must count in the short story, so the pressure of the writing experience is ratcheted down tightly on the author.
What you have here in this collection are the examples in which the author has met that pressure and come out with a beauty. Each one of these stories has a well-tuned machine under the hood.
What I have tried to do here is put together a collection that showcases the power of the short story. These stories run from the traditional to the experimental, from deadly serious to deadly satirical, from established writing masters to voices I am betting you have not heard before but will likely hear again.
Each story is a sports car that handles superbly as it takes you to a destination you haven’t been to before. Pay attention to the nuances of the ride, the telling details of character and place and emotion and experience. Watch the way a man struggles with language and a new country, the way a man sees his long-lost daughter in the reconstructed face of a murder victim. The way a woman extracts justice after being betrayed. On and on. The way you never know how somebody is going to act or react.
These aren’t shiny sports cars. No way. There is a lot of road grit on these pages. There is violence and betrayal and justice meted out without the benefit of the justice system. There is also sympathy and hard-edged romance and a haunting sense of hope. I think that is why the mystery story is so important. It can carry all the ingredients, even if the car will hold only one suitcase.
We live in uncertain times. And as I write this it looks as if they are only going to become more uncertain. The mystery story is no antidote. But it certainly can act to reassure, to help make some sense of the world. Maybe only in a small way, but that is still better than in no way.
So let’s begin. Time to take a ride. You are in luck here. I think you will find everything you are looking for in these pages. —Michael Connelly
Copyright © 2003 by Houghton Mifﬂin Company. Introduction copyright © 2003 by Michael Connelly. Repriintedddd by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.