Short Story Series #1: The super obvious

June 14, 2012

Of all the English classes I ever had, my 7th grade one was the best. And part of it was that my teacher was great, and part of it was that I realized that grammar is equal parts fun and fascinating — although I realize I may be alone on that one — but probably the single biggest factor was that we had to write an essay on a short story each week. And I could talk a lot about how helpful it was to have to churn out essays and learn to construct an argument and stuff, but what I’m here to talk about today is how much I hated the short stories.

Middle School and High School English classes do a lot to instill in kids the idea that serious literature is super depressing, and short stories, which tend to be sort of single-minded in pursuit of an idea, make it worse — at least with novels, there’s usually time and space to put in a few scenes that will make you laugh, or, you know, offer sidelights on a character that give you hope that they have inner resources to draw on and won’t spend the rest of their lives completely miserable. If they live to the end of the story, that is.

I mean, there were bright spots: “The Speckled Band.” Dorothy Parker. Vocabulary lessons. But I came out of Middle School English with the conviction that all short stories were terrible and that I would hate them forever, with a grudging exception for detective stories.

Anyway, the point of this is that for a long time I really believed I hated short stories — until a couple of years ago when I realized that I was reading short stories all the time, and loving them. It was just that they were short story series, character-driven and funny instead of literary and depressing. These days I get really excited when an author I’ve been enjoying turns out to have a series of short stories or two. So this is the first in what I expect to be a extremely rambling series of posts about those, and how much fun they are — starting with the super obvious.

Sherlock Holmes

It doesn’t get a lot more obvious than Sherlock Holmes, right? To the point where I don’t need to describe the series at all, because if you don’t already know the premise, you’ve been living under a rock since 1887.I’m only including the Holmes stories here to point out that they’re exactly the same as everything else I’m about to talk about — focused on a character, based around a central conceit, and closely tied to a specific setting. And all about a person who’s better at stuff than everyone around him, which is preferred, if not essential. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is, I think, the most fun — first collections usually are — and I retain my 7th grade fondness for “The Speckled Band,” although I think the one that kind of bowled me over the most when I first read it was “The Red-Headed League.”

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

The Return of Sherlock Holmes

Project Gutenberg doesn’t have the complete Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes or Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, but you get the idea. And the novels are sort of beside the point in this context, but I will freely admit that my favorite Sherlock Holmes Thing is Hound of the Baskervilles, which I love probably beyond reason.

Jeeves and Wooster

Then there’s P.G. Wodehouse. And if Sherlock Holmes is typical of the thing I’m trying to talk about, I don’t know what the Jeeves stories are, because really there’s no practical difference between Jeeves and Tish, or Jeeves and Bindle. I mean, the central characters, the supporting cast, the humor, the limited world in which the stories take place — it’s all there. You’ll probably be aware of Jeeves either through the stories themselves or through the television series starring Stephen Fry  and Hugh Laurie. I’m not going to recommend anything in particular, because it’s been too long since I read Wodehouse, but Gutenberg has My Man Jeeves and Right Ho, Jeeves. Sadly, I don’t think I could describe a single story — except for that one when Bertie says “Jeeves, I pity the fish that pits its feeble wits against you,” or words to that effect. I read all of them in a big fat omnibus edition when I was a teenager, staying up late at night when “just one more” became three or four more. Basically, Bertie Wooster buys ugly clothing and gets in trouble — these things are only loosely related — and then Jeeves gets him out of trouble and is allowed to throw the ugly clothing away. It’s pretty great.

Father Brown

I get kind of weird about G. K. Chesterton, I know — it’s okay, I’ve got it under control — but I’ve never had anyone who has read a substantial number of Father Brown stories tell me they’re not great. They’ve got minor classic status, I think. If you’re into golden age mystery or Anglo-Catholics, you’ve probably encountered them and learned all about dumpy, nondescript Father Brown, whose way of looking at the world isn’t quite like anyone else’s. Chesterton is really into paradoxes that aren’t paradoxes, and people are continually surprised to find that Father Brown, who is dead serious about religion and fighting evil and stuff, is much more grounded in the real world than they are.

And yeah, this is GKC’s world, not the real one. There’s a lot of red hair and things suddenly appearing grotesque and sometimes the entire world feels like it’s on the verge of hysteria, but still. The early Father Brown stories are perhaps the least weird of all GKC’s fiction, but the later ones are as outlandish as anything you’ll find in Tales of the Long Bow or Manalive. And they’re still fun, but none of the later Father Brown collections ever quite reach the level of The Innocence of Father Brown. I have favorite stories in it — “The Queer Feet” is kind of as good as anything ever, and I have so many feelings about “The Sign of the Broken Sword” I don’t even know what to do with myself. Just read the first three stories in The Innocence of Father Brown — “The Blue Cross”, “The Secret Garden”, and “The Queer Feet” — and if you’re not hooked, Chesterton probably isn’t for you.

If you are hooked, you’re in luck, because Chesterton did short story series all the time. You can find The Wisdom of Father Brown at Gutenberg, along with a bunch of Chesterton’s other stuff, but the best GKC resource on the internet is probably G. K. Chesterton’s Works on the Web, which was quite literally my favorite website for a while when I was in high school. So, here are a few other Chesterton short story series I like a lot.

The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, in which a middle aged civil servant is in the habit of dropping paradoxes into conversation, except that he always means them completely literally. GKC explains it like this: Mr. Pond is so reluctant to bug everyone with long, involved stories, that he shortens them to a point where they don’t make any sense.

Four Faultless Felons, four slightly longer stories, in which someone has apparently committed a horrible crime but turns out to be entirely innocent — which is not to say that they didn’t do the things that people said they did. These stories are also heavier on the romance, which…well, GKC’s romances are generally simultaneously super romantic and really, really weird.

Then there’s The Man Who Knew Too Much — no relation to the Hitchcock film, and totally gutting. This is G. K. Chesterton as serious as you ever see him, and while these stories have a lot in common with his others, they are overtly a lot darker.

I could go on recommending GKC stuff forever and ever, but I’m trying to keep this short, so: for a sample of GKC’s longer fiction, check out The Man Who Was Thursday. I recently saw a movie described as being “rapturous and slightly insane,” and while that’s probably a good description of Chesterton’s fiction in general, it’s definitely a good description of The Man Who Was Thursday in particular. For a sample of Chesterton’s short nonfiction, check out this essay on “Cheese”. It’s kind of the best thing ever, and while there are, like, three other things in this post I would describe the same way, this one is super, super short, so you have no excuse not to read it. And then, just for kicks, check out this debate on socialism between GKC and his companion in three-initials-starting-with-G, George Bernard Shaw.

So, yeah. Thoughts on short story series you’re a little less likely to have read in high school coming up soon.


  1. I’ve read one Father Brown short story and it was really odd. It was about this guy who lived at the top of a sky scraper and tried to convince people he was a god (?). And then he threw his secretary down an elevator shaft, I think.

    • Yeah, his secretary is wealthy, right? And he makes her eyesight worse by encouraging her to stare at the sun, and tricks her into falling down the elevator shaft after she’s made a will in his favor? Or he thinks she has? That’s a weird one, although it probably says something that I didn’t remember it when I was trying to think of weird ones.

  2. Have you listened to the BBC version of “The Man Who Was Thursday”? I haven’t compared it with the full written version, but it is just as incisive and dreamy as any GKC I’ve ever read.

    • I haven’t, but I have listened to the Mercury Theater one, which was pretty good. I have limited patience for audio books and radio plays, though.

  3. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never actually read any Sherlock Holmes or G.K. Chesterton but your post has inspired me. I love Bertie and Jeeves.

    • Well, Sherlock Holmes is kind of essential reading — even more than it is awesome, and it’s pretty great. I don’t even really know what to recommend for a first Holmes read, but I definitely stand by the first three stories in The Innocence of Father Brown as a good introduction to GKC.

  4. I used to catch sooo much grief from my best friend over my unnatural love of Jeeves & Bertie. She would tease me by saying “Have you read the one where Bertie gets bullied by one of his aunts, and gets engaged against his will?”

    I can’t help it. I KNOW they’re all the same and I DON’T CARE. The series is what cured her of the teasing, finally–she’s a devoted Fry & Laurie fan, and nothing they do could ever come in for criticism from her.

    Do you like any of the other Wodehouse stories? I quite enjoy his stories about the Mulliners, and “The Oldest Member” (the golf stories), too.

    • It’s kind of great that they’re all the same, though, right? Because you get the same stuff that makes one story so wonderful in all of the others, making each one familiar and new at the same time.
      The only Wodehouse I’ve read is the Jeeves stories and several Blandings books, but I’ve had Psmith recommended to me several times, and I suspect that the golf stories would be right up my alley.

  5. I agree with all these “super-obvious” choices. It’s kind of a shame that most detective and mystery fiction is focused on the full-length novel, because I could really go for more detective short stories or even novellas, as long as the writer is good enough to make it satisfying. But not too many people can write them like Doyle did.

    I like the Father Brown stories, but they’re not really mysteries–they’re more like riddles. That disturbed me initially because I thought they’d be mysteries, but once I got the hang of Chesterton’s style, I started to really like them. Paradoxes that aren’t paradoxes is a good way to put it. Father Brown is all about being counter-intuitive, and making it seem like everyone else is looking at things the wrong way. In the best of them, Chesterton manages to evoke a certain compelling atmosphere or ambience that acts like a red herring until the solution is revealed.

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