When you're sitting in the dentist's waiting room or passing 20 minutes while your car's oil is changed, a novel seems like a hassle. Just when you start getting into the story, it's time to put your book away. That's where a short story comes in handy. Your commitment is to a few thousand words that take you from beginning to end in less than 30 minutes.
Once upon a time, many magazines published at least one short story per issue. A few - Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine - were dedicated to short mystery fiction from cover to cover. Alas, advertising space took precedence and few magazines today even consider the lowly short story, let alone a devious one. Now they're generally found tucked away in the pages of anthologies such as Opening Shots.
The beauty of this particular book is that not only are these shorts by known mystery and crime authors, but they are their first published short stories. Some land at the beginning of the writer's careers, such as David Black's "Laud," which later became the opening chapter of his first novel, Like Father. Others, such as Susan Isaacs's "Compliments of a Friend" came after a series of novels.
Editor Lawrence Block gives an excellent brief history on short fiction followed by 18 pieces plus one of his own. The stories are fun, provocative, twisted. All of this in 385 pages.
I sat down with the book and couldn't stop reading (kind of defeats the purpose of a short story, huh?) until I'd finished them all. Not one of them stunk and none of them left me feeling like I'd wasted my reading time. Block knows how to pick `em. (As well he should. He is a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master and has taken the Edgar Allan Poe and Shamus Awards four times.)
Original publication dates range from 1952 to 2000. Styles vary widely, as one would expect. There are a couple with a tricky Hitchcock twist, two or three with a Stephen King ending, and one that features a cat as the detective. Because I haven't read most of these authors yet, I can't say whether or not the short stories are a fair representation of the authors' styles in longer works. I suspect the novels are nothing like the shorts. But I look at this as a way to pick new names for my library and the opportunity to get a taste of a certain writer before making a commitment to a full-length book
Who are these authors, you ask? In addition to those mentioned above, the contributors are Donald E. Westlake, David Morrell, Sara Paretsky, James Sallis, Simon Brett, Max Allan Collins, Loren D. Estelman, Peter Lovesy, Peter Robinson, Margaret Maron, Joan Hess, Susan Moody, Justin Scott, Minette Walters, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, and John Harvey.
Would I recommend this book?
If you like crime fiction, definitely.
If you're a mystery writer, absolutely. Writers in this genre should take a look at how these stories are put together and what makes them work. Several of the authors admitted in their introductions that a short story is much harder to write than a novel.
And by the way, if you like what you see in Opening Shots, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine published quite a few of these short stories. Both still feature short mystery fiction.