Detective fiction began with a short story, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders on the Rue Morgue. For many decades afterwards, the cases of the world’s greatest fictional sleuths were usually gobbled down by readers in bite-size pieces from newspapers or magazines. Carefully constructed to deliver maximum mystery per sentence, the short story remains a great way of sampling the writer’s wares.
The Holloway Flat Tragedy
Ernest Bramah’s kindly, wise, and humorous blind detective, Max Carrados, once rivaled Sherlock Holmes for popularity. You get a good feeling in this fine story of an ingenious crime in a seedy part of North London. The unsighted Carrados is able to use his senses to detect things other detectives don’t—smells, sounds, even changes in the atmosphere—and Bramah puts these factors to ingenious use in a story of passion, deceit, and Italian anarchists.
The Purloined Letter
The third and last of Poe’s highly influential tales featuring C. August Dupin sees the eccentric Parisian sleuth puffing away on his pipe as he uses his logical brain to unravel a knotty case of royal blackmail. A letter from one of the Queen’s lovers has been stolen by an unscrupulous government minister, but how he took it and where the letter is now hidden baffles the regular police. The plot twist in this story, written in 1844, has been reworked hundreds of times since, but never to greater effect.
The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans
There are 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories, and picking out just one is difficult. But this 1917 tale wins, thanks to the setting of fog-bound London—and a rare appearance from Holmes’ brilliant but lazy brother, Mycroft. The case revolves around a dead government clerk and some top secret plans for a Royal Navy submarine. Holmes is at his arrogant best throughout, and his genius is duly, if discretely, rewarded by Queen Victoria.
The Case of Oscar Brodski
R. Austin Freeman pioneered a new type of mystery fiction: the inverted detective story. Tales like “The Case of Oscar Brodski” are divided into two parts. In the first, the reader is given an account of the crime—in this case the murder of a London diamond dealer—that takes in every detail including the name of the killer, his method, and his motivation. In the second half, Freeman’s great criminal pathologist, Dr. John Thorndyke, arrives on the scene, using physical evidence, questioning, and logical deduction to catch the criminal. The fun for the reader is following the process of detection as it takes place. In the masterful hands of Freeman, it’s a remarkably exciting ride.
The Blue Cross
The first appearance of Chesterton’s much loved priest-detective, Father Brown, comes in his entertaining tale from 1910. “The Blue Cross” features French master-thief Flambeau and his pursuer, the suave and swell-headed Parisian private eye, Aristide Valentin. Flambeau—a master of disguise—has vanished in London. Nobody knows where he is, and when the evidently bumbling Father Brown appears on the scene apparently carrying a parcel containing a valuable church relic, it only seems to complicate matters. Witty and ingenious, “The Blue Cross” is a classic mystery story that opens a window onto the world of Edwardian England.
Miss Marple and a group of acquaintances gather after dinner in St. Mary Mead to swap crime stories, the solution of which is known only to the teller. The second tale is told by Dr. Lloyd. The set-up of “The Companion” is simplicity itself—two women go swimming on the Spanish Island of Gran Canaria, one of them drowns. However, a series of strange events surround the death, and no one is certain what they mean. The answer should be easy, but predictably Miss Marple gets there faster than her friends—or the reader.
Hammett’s unnamed Continental Operative is the archetypal hard-boiled private eye—a tough, cynical loner with a pure heart hidden beneath a sharp suit and a shoulder holster. In this classic noir tale, the Op finds himself on the trail of the wild, runaway daughter of a wealthy man. Soon he’s deep in a murky world of extortion, double-crossing, and murder, which is just the way his fans like it.
The Man Who Knew How
Sayers is most famous for tales involving her upper-crust investigator, Lord Peter Wimsey. His Lordship, however, does not feature in this twisting and darkly comic tale of two strangers—Pender and Smith—who meet on a train. Smith claims to be able to pull off the perfect undetected murder, but is he for real, or is it all a complex confidence trick? Shot through with macabre humor and with a real sting in the tail, it’s easy to see why this was one of film director Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite stories.
Related: Dorothy L. Sayers: Meet the Doyen of Crime Fiction Who Created Lord Peter Wimsey
They Never Get Caught
Harold Brownrigg, a married pharmacist with money-worries and a roving eye, begins an affair with Phyllis, a woman half his age. When Phyllis dumps him for a younger man with a smarter car, Brownrigg’s imagination takes a darker turn. If his wife, Millie, were dead and he inherited her money, perhaps life would be different... A well-plotted, acidly comic, and pleasingly twisty tale from Margery Allingham—one of the Queens of Crime from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.