Last year, The Life Sentence—a fine and then still relatively new website devoted to all things mystery—asked me to contribute a guest column on my favorite short stories of all time. There’s a lot packed into a phrase like that—expectations and complications both—as I tried to explain in the article I finally turned in. Sadly, The Life Sentence has since shuttered, so I decided to “reprint” the article here, if only to have it for myself. Hope others might enjoy too!
Life Sentence: Stories That Have Stuck
By Art Taylor
I’m always hesitant to label anything a “Best Of” list—a tag that suggests the list-maker has carefully considered the entire range of possible contenders and then deliberately discounted anything that failed to make the cut.
Even if I simply had to name the best mystery stories I’ve read (with that phrase “I’ve read” probably bolded and italicized both), I’d feel obligated to include a handful of foundational tales like Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” one or another Sherlock Holmes’ case, Chesterton’s “Hammer of God,” and one of Hammett’s Continental Op short stories. Beyond that, I’d want an asterisk somewhere to explain the kinds of short stories I lean toward in the first place: darker tales (much darker than what I myself write in most cases), tales that have some moral weight, that don’t just engage but provoke, and that end with the sense of unease, no easy resolutions in sight.
All that in mind, consider the selections below not as a “Best of” but as a personal and occasionally eclectic list of crime stories that have stuck with me—and that might well have some lasting impact on you too.
In chronological order from first publication:
- “Red Wind” (1938) by Raymond Chandler
From the brilliant opening (proof that you can start a story with the weather) to the tender closing scenes in which Marlowe prototype John Dalmas solves the final mystery but scuttles the truth for a nobler good, “Red Wind” seems pitch perfect in every way—and already reaching toward the mastery of Chandler’s later novels.
- “Death and the Compass” (1942; first English translation 1954) by Jorge Luis Borges
Many readers today wouldn’t generally think of Borges as a crime writer, but the wall between literary and genre has always been permeable at best—and doubters should take note: Borges’ very first appearance in English translation was “The Garden of Forking Paths,” in the August 1948 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. This story is one of his richest: a bookish detective believes a series of killings point toward someone searching for the name of God—only to discover that the killers are actually searching for something much more earthly. At once one of the most traditional of the stories here—murders, clues, and an investigation—and yet also one of the most radical.
- “The Moment of Decision” (1955) by Stanley Ellin
I’ll go on record as saying there’s been no finer short story writer in the mystery genre than Stanley Ellin, and a handful of his tales could’ve made this list—“The House Party” or “The Day of the Bullet” chief among the other contenders. But “The Moment of Decision” remains my favorite. Two men of very different character, different ways of viewing the world, challenge one another over the future of a house each values in his own way. A bet is made, the stakes are unexpectedly raised, and in the end… well, suffice it to say that the story lingers long past the closing line.
- “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” (1969) by Joyce Carol Oates
Structured as fragmented “Notes for an Essay for an English Class at Baldwin Country Day School” (and that’s still only part of the full title), this story follows a teenage girl chafing at her privileged life in an affluent suburb of Detroit and gradually descending into a life of sex, drugs, prostitution, abuse, and jail before returning home to an uneasy peace. Re-reading after re-reading, there’s always something more to discover, something else to consider (and reconsider).
- “Don’t Look Now” (1971) by Daphne du Maurier
Du Maurier’s short story has long been eclipsed by Nicolas Roeg’s masterfully disturbing 1974 film adaptation—unfairly so. The original, equally haunting tale shows the author at the height of her powers. To restore themselves after their daughter’s death, a couple vacations in Venice, but more troubles await: twin sisters, one of them a blind psychic who claims to see the dead daughter at the table with them; a telegram from England claiming that their son has fallen ill; a murderer stalking Venice, a city that’s sinking, dying itself. At one point, the husband muses over the “nightmare logic” of the events unfolding, and I can think of no better description of the story myself.
- “The Black House” (1981) by Patricia Highsmith
A friend and fellow writer once told me he could only read Highsmith in small doses; her prose was just too cold. I’d add “stark” and “unblinking” to that description, and some combination of those phrases speaks to the terrible beauty of “The Black House,” which explores a young man’s tragic fascination with an abandoned home venerated by the men of an upstate New York town. Innocence and experience, masculinity and nostalgia, the bonds of community and the secrets and the viciousness too—Highsmith turns that cold, unblinking eye on all of it.
- “Billy Goats” (2001) by Jill McCorkle
In this story—shaped like a memoir and told mostly in the first-person plural “we”—the crimes are mostly backdrop or (seemingly) incidental to any main plot line: the famous Jeffrey Macdonald hearing going on during the summer of the story, a murder-suicide house that the kids dare to creep close to, a sexual assault presented as little more than an aside (and even more disturbing because of that treatment). But the cumulative effect gives a looming quality to those crimes, and the questions and musings that pepper the story are provocatively philosophical—both about how we die and about how we live. Read it here at BOMB Magazine.
- “Ibrahim’s Eyes” (2007) by David Dean
Dean may well be my favorite of all contemporary short story writers in the mystery genre, and this story stands as one of his finest. A former marine, now the night shift clerk at the Kwik and EZ Mart, reflects on an emotional episode from his time in Beirut while also trying to prepare against a string of convenience store robberies. Slowly the two stories fold together—toward a final line that’s both inevitable and ultimately heartbreaking. Listen to it here as part of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine’s podcast series.
- “Night Stand” (2009) by Daniel Woodrell
Another story about an ex-Marine, another tale in which military history proves central to the story, but this one focuses on the aftermath of a killing—provocatively and poignantly, in ways that force the main character to see himself in a fresh and unflattering light. Several rural noir stories could’ve earned mention here too—Tom Franklin’s “Poachers,” Frank Bill’s “Amphetamine Twitch” and probably a half-dozen from Steve Weddle’s Country Hardball—but the final passages of “Night Stand” are so unsettling (and at the same time so right) that I’ve never fully been able to shake the story. Read it here at Esquire.
- “The Drive” (2014) by Gabrielle Sierra
I selected this story myself during a guest editor stint at SmokeLong Quarterly, and it still stands in my mind as the best piece of flash crime fiction I’ve ever read. Like the sharpest short stories, it builds on suggestion rather than explanation, on hints instead of heavy-handedness. To my mind, the result is brilliantly chilling. Read it here at SmokeLong.