“The Curious Case of the Novel in Stories” (by Art Taylor)

Art Taylor made his fiction debut nearly twenty years ago, in EQMM’s Department of First Stories, with the December 1995 story “Murder on the Orient Express,” but there was a long hiatus before he appeared again, and most of his work has appeared over the past decade. He has won an Agatha, a Macavity, and three Derringer Awards for his short fiction. Currently, two of his stories are finalists for this year’s Agatha Award. They are: “The Odds Are Against Us” (which can be read here), from EQMM‘s November 2014 issue, and “Premonition,” from the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays. In September of this year, Art’s first book, On the Road With Del and Louise: A Novel in Stories, will be released by Henery Press. It belongs under the novel’s wide umbrella, but contains two short stories previously published in EQMM. In this post, the author, who teaches at George Mason University and reviews for the Washington Post, examines the literary structure and expressive possibilities of the “novel in stories.” —Janet Hutchings

Red Harvest remains my favorite of Dashiell Hammett’s books—both to read for pleasure and to teach in my courses on crime fiction at George Mason University. A corrupt community; secrets and lies; power struggles and power plays; moral quandaries and compromises—there’s a lot of stuff for students to dive into, a lot to discuss and explore.

It’s also a great book to analyze for style and structure, and at some point in our lessons, I always ask my students to consider the book’s shape against the classic ways we think about narrative: that old triangle of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution most of us learned at some point studying Shakespeare in high school. But the trouble with charting Red Harvest in that way is that you end up not with a triangle’s peak but with a mountain range. The case that draws the Op into the story—newspaper editor Donald Willsson’s summons and then his murder—is solved by the end of Chapter 7: the murderer revealed (our climax) and then a brief falling action and resolution with the murderer arrested, other suspects cleared, and the Op going out for “breakfast-and-lunch” and “a shave and hair-cut.” Case closed.

Trouble is, the book has twenty more chapters to go.

You can play the same exercise with the next section of Red Harvest—chapters 8-14—by the end of which the Op ferrets out the truth about the intertwined tales of a fixed fight, a dead boxer, and the suicide of the police chief’s brother two years before. Another case (or two) closed, more justice served, and the next day the Op sleeps till noon.

Only thirteen chapters left now.

The secret behind this odd structure can be found in the novel’s genesis. Before Knopf released Red Harvest in 1929, Black Mask magazine published a slightly different version of the saga in four installments between November 1927 and February 1928: “The Cleansing of Poisonville,” “Crime Wanted—Male or Female,” “Dynamite,” and “The 19th Murder.” In his fine biography Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett, Richard Layman describes Hammett’s early work on the book: “He organized his novel into discreet sections—fifteen thousand to eighteen thousand words each, and he considered it as four long, interconnected stories.” In his correspondence with Blanche (Mrs. Alfred A) Knopf, who bought the book, Hammett didn’t emphasize that they’d been published as stories; instead he said that the novel had already been “serialized”—a fine line maybe, but an interesting distinction, marking Hammett’s move from short-story master to landmark novelist.

Charting those narrative moves and peaks—overlaying the shape of the novel over the shapes of several short stories—always proves a fascinating exercise, and I don’t mean that solely in an academic way. As a short story writer myself, this kind of analysis of the shape and movement of plot provides an understanding of my own craft: the tactics and strategies and approaches that guide and inspire me.

To me, one of the most exciting trends in fiction today—hardly new but certainly still evolving—is the novel in stories and its not-too-distant kin, the flash novella or novella in flash. (You’ll sometimes see these phrases hyphenated: novel-in-stories, novella-in-flash. It’s personal preference here to skip the hyphens.) In each case, a longer work is built by the careful construction and arrangement of smaller components: a series of short stories or flash-fiction pieces coalescing to form something greater than the simple sum of its parts.

But defining what happens in that “coalescing” and what’s meant by “something greater” is the tricky part, of course. What differentiates a collection of short stories from a novel in stories? Is it just that all the stories need to feature the same characters? Is it that the stories have to be in chronological order, contributing to a larger plotline? Or maybe it’s something about a theme as the special connective glue?

A consistent cast of characters in a series of stories simply isn’t enough. We know that the twelve stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes don’t constitute a novel in the same way that The Hound of the Baskervilles does. Likewise, I just recently finished Rex Stout’s Three Witnesses, and while we get Wolfe and Archie in each of those three novellas—and while readers can find some resonance between the roles of the witnesses in each story—it doesn’t seem that the novellas interlink in any more organic or alchemical way.

While neither Hammett nor anyone else would call Red Harvest a novel in stories (for one thing, the phrase simply didn’t exist back then), the book’s origins serve as a rudimentary example for one of the most basic approaches to such a project: four short stories told by a single narrator, each with its own narrative arc, linked by chronology and characters, and serving as part of a larger, fuller narrative. But it would be limiting to say that a novel in stories requires tales to be so tightly connected chronologically or so relentlessly in the service of a single plotline. In fact, the beauty of the novel in stories or the flash novella lies in an author’s freedom not to be bound by chronology or perspective or relentless plotting and yet still to fashion something that proves cohesive to a reader in some complex way.

Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge—a baker’s dozen of stories loosely connected by the presence of the title character—offers a prime example. One of the stories, “A Different Road,” originally published in Tin House, was featured in the 2008 edition of Best American Mystery Stories, but the collection overall isn’t crime fiction, and the stories aren’t connected by any single plotline. Even more to the point, they’re not exclusively focused on the title character; though she steps to the forefront in some cases, she also takes a background role in others. And yet the intersection and juxtaposition of the stories offers both greater perspectives on and a more comprehensive understanding of the character and her world. A review in O: The Oprah Magazine called Olive “the axis around which these thirteen complex, relentlessly human narratives spin,” and the Washington Post’s review explained that “what you begin to realize, as these carefully crafted, individual pieces accumulate, is that together they shape the arc of a narrative, and that the narrative is nothing less than the whole of Olive Kitteridge’s life. A novel, yes, in stories.” (Tellingly, when I searched for the book in our own home, I found that my wife had shelved it in novels, not story collections—the place I first looked.)

Steve Weddle’s 2013 Country Hardball offers another fine example of a novel in stories, and its bold structure made it one of the most striking and successful debuts in my own memory. The storytelling is fragmented—individual stories jump to different times, different characters, different perspectives—so much so that it would be easy to call it simply a collection of stories loosely unified by place and a few recurring characters. But something more seems to be happening as the stories unfold.

In a recent email exchange, Steve talked more explicitly about the novel in stories as a form with rich possibilities: “To me, a novel in stories can be a great way to layer together narrative and character. A good novel in stories is one in which each story stands alone, but the stories create a larger narrative and inform each other when taken together.” Stories from Country Hardball can indeed be read in isolation from one another. The opening one, “Champion,” is a heartbreaker about a father and son and a confrontation that seems a triumph even when it’s not. “The Ravine” offers a two-person showdown taut with suspense, with only one person coming out the winner. “Purple Hulls” charts a tale of revenge and revelation amidst economic hardship and injustice. That’s just the first three stories, and I could go down the line, summarizing conflict and resolution for each, I imagine, right through until the final story, “Harvest.” The brilliance isn’t that this last story gathers together the loose plotlines and thematic threads for some final statement, but instead that the overall organization of these fragments offer a beautiful and unforgettable mosaic of both people and place (to borrow a metaphor from Madison Smartt Bell’s fine book Narrative Design).

Of course, not everyone is enamored of this form. In a 2011 essay in The Rumpus, “The Mysterious Case of the Novel-in-Stories,” novelist William Giraldi took to task the validity of this approach, particularly in terms of what he called “destination via narrative thread. Every story should rightly achieve its own destination, so a novel-in-stories ends up having several, whereas a novel can have only one.” Country Hardball offers a different perspective—and to me, a sharper one. Each of the stories standing alone can take you to its own destination, but together, this novel in stories also delivers you to a whole nother place.

I find myself excited and emboldened by these and other approaches. The May issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine includes my story “Commission,” the second outing for characters who first appeared in EQMM with 2010’s “Rearview Mirror,” and together, these and other stories will be published in September by Henery Press as my first book: On the Road with Del and Louise. I decided to return to Del and Louise simply because I liked them and was curious what happened to them next, but as I was writing “Commission,” I started imagining a series of other adventures they might stumble into and how those stories might unfold. I liked the idea of shifting tones from one to another (screwball comedy, tense domestic drama), varying the structures (some more straightforwardly dramatic, others folding in flashbacks to one of the character’s childhoods), or even playing with genre: a heist tale, a romance, a more traditional whodunit. But in a curious twist, I also realized that Del and Louise didn’t just have more stories in them—more crimes to commit, more conflicts to overcome—but that those individual stories could be part of a bigger story about a couple struggling (and sometimes failing) to make a fresh start, to make better choices and become better people, and to move toward building a family. When On the Road with Del and Louise comes out this fall, it’s going to have the phrase A Novel in Stories as its subtitle—really the only way I could tell their story as I envisioned it.

Mountain range, axis, mosaic—whatever the structure, maybe what sets a novel in stories apart from a collection of stories is some combination of intention and attention. You have to organize your stories not just in a workable order but with an eye toward a more significant overall design (character, plot, place, theme). You have to orchestrate carefully both the junctions and—perhaps more importantly—the disjunctions between your stories (shift in tone, perspective, internal structure). And even while you might have the aspirations of a novelist in mind, you also have to embrace fully the short story as a form of its own—its limitations, its challenges, its flexibility, and, yes, its many rewards.

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29 Responses to “The Curious Case of the Novel in Stories” (by Art Taylor)

  1. Art Taylor says:

    Thanks for hosting me here! Hope folks enjoy. 🙂

  2. Art, You have whet my appetite for reading On the Road with Del and Louise. How great that you found a publisher willing to take on a book with a structure so different from most of today’s crime novels.

  3. Larque Press says:

    Great topic, Art. The larger story made up of shorter ones works beautifully in many of the best television series these days. With digital publishing, story length is more flexible too. Combined, these two trends help create a welcome environment for novels in stories. Thank you for examining this topic!

    • Art Taylor says:

      Thanks so much for the kind words—and yes, I think you’re right about how TV does this right in so many ways. I think particularly about Veronica Mars: individual cases, the big overarching storylines—perfect in so many ways. (Not sure if you’re a fan of that one yourself, but obviously plenty more series that do similar things well.)

  4. Red Harvest is also my favorite from Hammett, and also my favorite crime novel, but The Dain Curse might be a better example of a novel by Hammett serialized in 4-parts. Like Red Harvest, each of the 4 novellas can be read independently, but more so than Red Harvest, the 4th novella builds on the other 3 creating an overall more powerful work. While not stories that can be read separately, Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) structured all of his Parker books in 4 parts, many times the first from Parker’s perspective, 2nd from another characters, 3rd might be covering the same time as the 2nd part, but from Parker’s perspective, 4th speeding to a violent conclusion.

    • artandliterature says:

      Hey, Dave —
      Thanks much for this—and good point about The Dain Curse! I focused on Red Harvest primarily because I’ve taught it so many times, and (sadly) it’s been many years since I’ve last read The Dain Curse. Need to remedy that for sure. In fact, I’ll plan on rereading soon!

    • Art Taylor says:

      Hey, Dave —
      Thanks much for this—and good point about The Dain Curse! I focused on Red Harvest primarily because I’ve taught it so many times, and (sadly) it’s been many years since I’ve last read The Dain Curse. Need to remedy that for sure. In fact, I’ll plan on rereading soon!
      (Posting a second time, since I posted my first from a different account and not sure it went through.)

      • Harley Mazuk says:

        Hi, Art,
        I enjoyed your interest in, and your relating your novel to Red Harvest. I immediately thought of Olive Kitteridge when you first mentioned it.
        Replying here under Dave’s post because my second (unpublished) novel, “Last Puffs,” is based on the structure of The Dain Curse–four parts–but it’s closer to Dain Curse than Red Harvest. It’s my thought that the divisions in Dain Curse are clearer than in Red Harvest which I think tries to smooth over the breaks.
        Both swell books.

  5. tfmoran2014 says:

    Fascinating. Thank you.

  6. Art,

    Well-written and very interesting article.

  7. Art, thanks for this. You’ve given me quite a bit to think about.

  8. Barbara Ross says:

    Oh, now I can’t wait to read On the Road with Del and Louise. I love Olive Kitteridge and you didn’t talk about my other favorite, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

    I started a novel in stories, but I have to admit, it was partially a desperation move when I was working a full, full time job and didn’t feel like I could cope with the inevitably very delayed gratification of working on something novel length. I also wanted to do something with the episodic feel of Alexander McCall Smith’s early Botswana novels. They’re not novels in stories, but he often resolves one plot thread before moving along to the next. Maybe I’ll learn enough from Del and Louise to pull it out and start up again.

    My daughter is getting an MFA in Creative Writing in May and her thesis is a series of linked stories. I’ve never read them all together, so I don’t know yet if they are quite a novel in stories. But I do know they are brilliant! (So says her mother.)

    • Art Taylor says:

      Hi, Barb —
      Thanks for the note—and I did leave out Goon Squad, primarily because I haven’t read it! (My wife loves it, and she mentioned it as well in response to my post here (posting on her own FB wall).)

      My own novel in stories is nowhere near as intricately arranged as some of the works that have come up. In my case, the stories are all told by the same narrator and are basically chronological, though I try to vary up tone and theme from one to another. But the episodic feel appealed to me as well (good word) and the sense that while an individual plot thread might be wrapped up in a single story, larger plot threads continue from one to another, connecting only in the long run.

      And best of luck to your daughter as she wraps up her program! Where is she in school? She’s certainly had a great model to follow, that’s for sure. 🙂

      • Barbara Ross says:

        Hi Art–

        You must read Goon Squad. (I suspect your wife has already told you this.)

        My daughter’s at UMass Boston, putting the finishing touches on a thesis and teaching in this very challenging environment ( five Tuesday classes in a row cancelled due to weather and MBTA problems. Aside from the syllabus juggling, who’s a workshop class supposed to jell?) But she loves it.

      • Art Taylor says:

        Yep, I’m way behind on all the recommendations (urges, exhortations, threats) that I should read GOON SQUAD. One of these days!

        And tell your daughter I feel for her. I teach Tuesday/Thursday classes, and we’ve had FOUR of them cut because of weather. One group of students I didn’t see in person for a full month (including spring break).

        Tell her to hang in there—and congratulations too!

  9. Craig Faustus Buck says:

    Enticing discussion, Art. As I thought about it it occurred to me that, though I am a seat-of-the-pants novelist, if I were to write one of these newfangled novels-in-stories, I’d be inclined to outline it. The line between an actual novel-in-stories and a short story collection with common characters seems vague, indeed. Sort of like the difference between the ancient forms of record albums and rock operas. I look forward to On the Road with Del and Louise and hope it helps me understand this distinction. Expect a cross-examination at the bar at Bouchercon.

    • Art Taylor says:

      Hi, Craig —
      I like that comparison of an album of songs versus a rock opera. That’s a good one!
      But yes, it can be vague. A collection of stories, a set of linked stories, a novel in stories—one could easily blur into the other. At what point does having connections between stories help them to add up to a unified piece?

      Coincidentally, yesterday the Washington Post published a review of Charles Baxter’s new collection (http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/lives-intertwine-in-charles-baxters-theres-something-i-want-you-to-do/2015/03/19/2e9bcd82-b937-11e4-9423-f3d0a1ec335c_story.html), and the reviewer drew on another set of parallels:

      “Surprisingly, the fictional equivalent of the ensemble movie is not the novel, no matter how enormous its cast or byzantine its plot. It’s the collection of connected short stories. Charles Baxter’s sixth book of short fiction, “There’s Something I Want You To Do,” shows him as a master of the genre and highlights what finely crafted short stories can accomplish better than any art form. Even those characters who seem hopelessly sunk into their daily struggles are revealed as part of a larger pattern of interconnections.”

      Not sure if any of this helps to clarify or further confuses, but yes, plenty to talk about at the bar. 🙂

  10. Barry Ergang says:

    Mike Resnick, best known for his science fiction (though he’s also written mysteries), has a wonderful book that could be considered a novel-in-stories called KIRINYAGA.

  11. Harley Mazuk says:

    I won’t compete with you for who’s the biggest Hammett fan–alas, named my son Satch, not Dash–but in addition to my note above about basing a book on the structure of the Dain Curse, I also have a long story–15,000 words–that I’m pitching now based on my fascination with Red Harvest. I love the Continental Op, and I tried to explore what was for me the most troubling aspect of the book–the killing of Dinah Brand. The story’s called “Pearl’s Valley,” and I hope to find a home for it soon.

    • Art Taylor says:

      Hey, Harley —
      Thanks for both posts here—and fun to hear that you’ve got works based on/inspired by both of those Hammett books! I’m rereading Dain Curse now; been so long I don’t remember most of it….. And look forward to “Pearl’s Valley” finding a home so I can read it! (The killing of Dinah is something we spend a lot of time on when I teach that book.)

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  15. jeffbaker307 says:

    Oh, I’m late to this one! I think I have the original version of “Red Harvest” in one of those Big/Mammoth collections somewhere. I seem to have read a bunch of “fix-up” novels (including a couple by L. Sprague deCamp) over the years. Thanks for this, Art!

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