Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Resolution

In the eyes of a bibliophile, the whole universe can be split into two – people who read books and those who don’t. The people who read books can further be divided into folks who read fiction and those who don’t. The people who read fiction can be split into three categories – those who read only novels, those who read only short stories and those who read both. I certainly belong to the last category – enjoying the short stories and novels in the mystery genre in equal proportions. However, in the past few years, I’ve shamelessly neglected the short stories to give preference to its big brother (the novel), the only reason being the thrill of pitting one’s wits against the author and winning.

Reading a detective novel is indeed like engaging in a game of chess with the author where in the reader always has to look a few moves ahead of the detective, defend your intellectual fortress by avoiding the red herrings thrown at you by the author and plan a strategic offensive towards winning the game by analyzing all the clues presented and arriving at the solution to the mystery much before the author reveals the denouement. Somehow, I associate playing this game with the reading of a novel rather than a short story even though there are abundant short stories where this game can be played. And hence the reason for my neglect of the short stories these past few years. To quote numbers, in the year 2010, I read a total of 109 books out of which only 10 books were collections of short stories. In the year 2011, I read a whopping 154 books out of which only 16 were short story collections. The percentage of short story collections read in both the years is roughly 10 percent. An anomaly, which I would like to correct this year!

Not reading them has not deterred me from buying new ones. In the past 5 years, I’ve bought a total of 155 short story collections (105 of them back in India and 50 here in US) and all of them are patiently collecting dust while begging for my attention. To add insult to injury, I happened to read Ellery Queen’s seminal work ‘Queen’s Quorum’ recently and I realized that I’ve read only 12 of the 125 titles that have been considered as the most important books published in the field of detective-crime short story from 1845 to 1967. And that I believe, calls for some desperate measures from my side which leads to this New Year resolution: The Year 2012 for me would be the year of the SHORT STORY!

What are the stories that I’m gone read? Being a mystery fanatic, there is hardly a strong motive to deviate from the mystery genre but I would like to classify all the stories that I’ll be considering into these 4 categories:

1.    Locked Room Or Impossible Crime Stories
2.    Mystery stories in general to encompass detective, suspense & crime stories
3.    Stories with a Twist in the end
4.    A story which might not belong to any of the above 3 categories but still packs a punch to leave a lasting impression(doubt there will be many)
Exclusions: Romance, Pure Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror stories.

The source for the stories - For easier classification, I would like to split the stories into 2 different eras:
a.    1841 to 1967: Ellery Queen (the duo of Frederic Dannay & Manfred B Lee) has already provided me with all the tools that I need to tackle this period. I’ll be closely following the Queen's Quorum as a textbook in addition to the numerous Ellery Queen & Alfred Hitchcock Anthologies that have been published.
b.    1968 to the present: This is a blur for me as of now. I’ll be making use of the existing periodicals like The Strand, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Suspense Magazine, Online Forums, the yearly Anthologies (Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories & Best of the Mysteries), the mystery journals like Old Time Detection, CADS, Clues & others, Crippen & Landru series and finally the short story collections from various authors(wonder how many of the modern authors have short story collections as part of their huge output?).

There are a lot of reading challenges on the blogosphere. One such challenge ‘Can You Read a Short Story a Day?’ gave me an idea! Reading a story a day is no problem at all. So I thought I’d modify this into a more interesting and tougher challenge – why not read one GREAT STORY a day? There are very few (I believe) collections where at least half of the stories are really good. So in my opinion, to come across 1 GOOD or GREAT story, you need to read at least 9 duds. Of course, this analogy doesn’t hold good if you are thinking of only reading some of the best anthologies like the ‘101 Years of Entertainment’! Setting these few great anthologies aside, I’m anticipating reading around 4000 odd stories to get my figure of 365 good stories! I’m hoping this would also take me past my reading goal for the year which reads something like this:

a.    At least one story from each of the 50 Queen Quorum titles
b.    Completely read 20 of the Queen Quorum tiles
c.    Read 20 ‘Crippen & Landru’ titles
d.    At least 60 landmark stories from the modern practitioners – from the year 1968 to the present(I know, am a little pessimistic about this one as I hardly read contemporary authors)

How will I be using this blog? I’ve all along been taught that one of the best means of achieving something is to first set a goal, set deadlines around it, and achieve it in a step by step manner by measuring them periodically. And that’s exactly how I’ll be using this blog – not as a mode to review the stories or the books but as a monitoring and motivating tool to keep my goal in focus. Also, it’ll act as a recording tool for my voyage of discovering the whole new world of the detective short story. Of course, I’ll be writing about a few novels as well as I might take up a few more reading challenges for the year but they will be few and far apart. I don’t even know whether I’ll be able to keep up the blogging activity for a year but I’ll aim to post 1 story a day or 7 in a week, or in the worst case a total of 30 in a month – however possible. Posting 1 story a day for 365 days looks a tedious and boring thing. To overcome this feeling, I’ve set another twist to my challenge: I’m going to group my stories every alternate week on a particular theme. The first 10 to 15 days in January will solely concentrate on the stories that I’ve already read and which I’ll be revisiting – I’ll just be wandering all over the place reminiscing some of my very memorable stories. Day 16 to 30 should be stories which I’ve read very recently from old to the very present. From February, every alternate week will have a theme and the following 7 stories in that week will fall into it. Some of the themes that I can think off are: Legal Mysteries, Historical, Indian, Japanese, Forensic, Scientific Detective, Theatrical settings, Medical, Christmas Mysteries, Twist Endings, Espionage etc.

Finally, I’m going to set some rules for myself:
1.    The grand aim is to get a total of 365 stories. I might post one a day or club a few together when I’m discussing the stories from the same author.
2.    I’ll not be writing about all the stories in a book. I’ll be restricting myself to 2 or 3 of the best from that collection unless it is from an anthology where different authors are contributing on different or similar themes.
3.    Avoid the clich├ęd stories which can be found in numerous anthologies.
4.    Not all stories are gone be new. I’ll go back to a collection that I’ve previously read to highlight a particular story.
5.    I’ll be restricting the stories to one of the 4 categories that I’ve already mentioned: locked room, mystery story, twist in the tale and some rare exceptions.
6.    I may occasionally break one of the above rules. J