The short story is often regarded as an under-appreciated art form. The mainstream publishers have habitually baulked at supporting them in the face of sales figures that compare unfavourably with those of traditional length novels. This has often led authors, particularly crime and mystery ones, to only pen short stories on commission rather than write them out of pure creative enjoyment.
But that hasn’t stopped many of them rising to the challenge of expressing themselves through brevity. Creating a snappy, compelling tale with fascinating characters and quickly weaving it all into a striking conclusion that stays with the reader is no mean feat, and deserves high praise. But some excellent short stories have received more recognition than others, so this feature is to champion my favourite short pieces of fiction that have been underrated – or even criminally neglected – over the years.
The Five Orange Pips, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Many of Conan Doyle’s 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories have of course received glowing acclaim and been adapted in some way for the screen. The likes of ‘The Speckled Band’, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ and ‘The Final Problem’ top many people’s favourite lists, but for me ‘The Five Orange Pips’ has always been left, undeservedly so, in the shade.
First published in The Strand magazine in 1891, this is an off-beat tale laced with fascinating elements. The case – or bizarre mystery – is presented by the client, John Openshaw, who has just received a letter with ‘K.K.K’ scrawled on the inner flap of the envelope and five orange pips enclosed. His father received a similar letter three years previously, as did his uncle five years ago. Each of them died in a suspicious accident a few days after receiving the pips. The day after visiting 221b Baker Street to see Holmes, a newspaper report reveals that Openshaw himself has been found dead in the River Thames. Shaken by the death, an emotional Holmes tells Watson: “I shall be my own police. When I have spun the web they may take the flies, but not before.”
The showcasing of Holmes’ deductive skills that follow is particularly divine, and the ending is wonderfully elegant. Interestingly, this is one of only two Holmes short stories where the detective’s client dies. The 1945 film Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear was partly based on ‘The Five Orange Pips’ while a 2014 episode of the TV show Elementary took some facets of the story.
The Birds Poised to Fly, by Patricia Highsmith
A story of a deranged man whose disappointment in love sparks an irrational reaction that leads to a cruel deception, this is Highsmith at her neurotic best.
Obsessed with dark subject matter throughout her writing career, this story was heavily inspired by a painful moment in Highsmith’s own love life. After engaging in a blissful affair with English doctor Kathryn Cohen during a holiday in Italy in the summer of 1949, Highsmith returned to New York and wrote to her. Each day she awaited a reply from Kathryn that didn’t come, suffering inner torment.
In ‘The Birds Poised to Fly’, Don returns from a holiday romance smitten with Rosalind and writes to her proposing marriage. When she doesn’t respond he convinces himself that her letter was delivered to his neighbour by mistake. He breaks into his neighbour’s mailbox, finds a letter written to him by a lovesick woman called Edith. Don assumes his neighbour’s identity and replies to Edith, arranging to meet her at Grand Central station. Eventually Rosalind replies, refusing Don’s marriage offer. A dejected Don still goes to Grand Central to meet Edith. “The story is so much K and myself” Highsmith later wrote in her diary.
It wasn’t published until 1968, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, before being released as part of Highsmith’s short story collection, Eleven.
The Living Daylights, by Ian Fleming
James Bond is captured in a rare morose mood during this dark, counter-espionage tale that was first published in The Sunday Times supplement of 4 February 1962. Assigned to prevent a prolific KGB sniper – codenamed ‘Trigger’ – from killing a fellow British agent who’s due to make a street crossing between East and West Berlin, Bond waits patiently at his hiding post for three days and nights, contemplating his mission to take out the KGB assassin. A killer killing a killer.
Fleming delves into a corner of Bond’s psyche we’d never quite seen before as he broods over the concept of committing a cold, calculated murder (with no high-octane build-up), something he’s clearly uncomfortable with. Each night he sees an orchestra arriving and leaving a building opposite for practice, a beautiful blonde cellist among them. When the agent is finally ready to cross over to Bond’s side of the street, Bond peers through his rifle scope to see the Russian sniper take up position in the building opposite. ‘Trigger’ is the blonde cellist. Faced with an instant decision and his finger on the trigger, Bond switches aim, shoots the stock of her sub-machine-gun, wounding her hand.
The relieved agent makes it back into MI6 hands safe and sound, but Bond gets an earful from top brass for failing to execute the kill. Bond is always at his most compelling through the theme of disobedience, and Fleming exploits that beautifully in this short work.
ICU, by Dennis Lehane
Intrigue lays at the heart of this tale, which formed part of Lehane’s collection of short stories titled Coronado, released in 2006.
Tension is present from the off when the protagonist, Daniel, is told by a woman regular in his local bar that a couple of guys were in earlier asking after him. Wearing smart suits and ties. A worried Daniel visits his ex-wife, who describes the same guys stopping by earlier looking for him. The mysterious well-dressed men (possibly federal agents, although it’s never revealed) are soon pursuing Daniel in a car chase. He takes refuge in the grounds of a large hospital, shifting from one specialist area to another before settling in the vast ICU unit.
Daniel, seemingly ignorant of his offence, remains in hiding there, becoming acquainted with family members of critically ill patients in the waiting room, and pretending to be a relative of one himself. His world is now one of helplessness, quiet anticipation and confinement.
Lehane’s exquisite turn of phrase and tight prose comes to the fore here, unravelling the character at his own pace and always keeping the reader guessing – not to mention engrossed. The story, more than a passing nod to Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, depicts one man’s journey to grasping the concepts of empathy and humanity, but without making any moral judgements. A fascinating read.
The Killers, by Ernest Hemingway
This 1927 story is an immaculate piece of writing but, perhaps due to its style (minimalist to the core, there is hardly any plot), never attracted as much praise as some of Hemingway’s more famous short pieces such as ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ and ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’.
Two hit men walk into an Illinois diner looking for Swedish boxer Ole Anderson, who they plan to kill ‘for a friend’. The duo tie up the proprietor, George, the cook, Sam, and the lunchroom’s only customer, Nick Adams (a recurring character in Hemingway’s short fiction), and wait for Anderson, who they’re expecting to walk in. But he doesn’t show up and the frustrated duo leave.
George knows the boarding house Anderson is staying at and sends Nick over there to warn him. When told about what happened, Anderson is resigned to his fate and tells Nick there is nothing to be done.
Having spent his younger years in Chicago during Al Capone’s rise to power, Hemingway had a strong knowledge of prohibition-era organised crime and weaves this understated story with an authoritative voice and from a marvellously objective viewpoint.
Duffers of the Apocalypse, by Victor Gischler
Part of the 2006 Damn Near Dead anthology, a collection of invigorating short stories based around senior-aged criminals, this story is dripping with smart, black humour.
Set on a golf course in the grounds of an Oklahoma retirement community (“the land of broken hips and strokes and backs thrown way, way out”), three old timers, narrator Roscoe Carter and friends Tony DeLuca and Pete Dexter, are having a round. A wayward tee shot from Tony strikes a course groundskeeper in the skull, killing him as he’d been raking a bunker. Tony, hinting that he has a bad history with cops, convinces Roscoe and Pete to help bury the guy in the sand.
Roscoe, a retired army veteran who’s just been told he has four months to live with stomach cancer, wants to spend his remaining time playing golf, not seeing the course closed down as a crime scene.
News of a major fire sweeping through the state towards them causes many of the panicked residents to flee, but Roscoe has no relatives who’ll take him in and is in no mood to go anywhere. “All I had was a set of Ping irons and a tee time.” He gets in his cart, takes to the course, flames swirling in, smoke burning his eyes, the course record for the over-65s the only thing on his mind. Gischler’s riveting prose makes this a darkly perverse, hilarious yarn.
The Shooter, by Irvine Welsh
The first entry in Welsh’s 1994 short story collection, The Acid House, this taut, stark thriller set in Hackney is a classic example of what makes a gripping short story.
An underlying sense of unease is present throughout as the narrator Jock sits through an uncomfortable meal with his bad-tempered mate Gary, his wife Marge and their young daughter. Later, Gary, recently out of prison for theft, and Jock talk through a plan to scare Tony Whitworth, who owes them two grand. They agree to pay Whitworth a visit that night. Jock turns up with a baseball bat, Gary brings a sawn-off shotgun.
Gradually that sense of unease turns into outright menace as Welsh skilfully cranks up the tension, the anxiety and curiosity peaking within the reader, until laying out a shocking and valiant ending where everything is at stake.
While reading through the Amazon reviews of my crime thriller Chasing the Game recently, I was struck by one comment in particular: “It would be interesting if the story could be dramatized for the 50th anniversary of the theft in 2016.”
The novel’s main character, Dale Blake, who plots the theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy in 1960s London, would certainly make a powerful and captivating on-screen presence, and it got me thinking about those actors who have really pulled off a performance that matched the momentous work of the author who created their character.
There have, of course, been many examples of on-screen portrayals of literary figures not working out (John Hannah’s version of Rebus just didn’t hit the mark) but let’s focus on the positives and run through some shining examples of compelling character acting that either lived up to – or even surpassed – our high expectations, having sat down to watch with the literary versions of these characters foremost in our minds.
The characters listed below are simply some choices I’ve made from my experiences of watching TV or film adaptations of my favourite books (and ones that I’ve managed to recall on the spare evening I’m writing this). I’ve thrown in a few unusual ones to catch the eye, but if you feel I’ve made a glaring omission or a ludicrous pick, tell me about it on Twitter – @PaulJGadsby – I’d love to chat about it with you.
Mark Strong as Harry Starks (The Long Firm)
Jake Arnott’s debut novel was a groundbreaking piece of fiction that rejuvenated the gritty British gangster genre, and charismatic nightclub owner and racketeer Harry Starks stole the show. When it came to the BBC’s four-part dramatization of the book, Mark Strong nailed the role to such a degree that it’s impossible to read the book now without imagining Strong’s face in every description of Starks and every line of his dialogue. Strong’s performance was magnetic, forceful, tender and utterly convincing, piercing into Stark’s complex and fascinating soul and capturing every single aspect of it.
Richard Attenborough as Pinkie Brown (Brighton Rock)
The 1947 film version of Graham Greene’s haunting classic is widely regarded as one of the finest ever cinematic expressions of British noir, and this was in no small part down to the skill Richard Attenborough applied to playing Pinkie, the story’s lead villain. A sadistic teenage gangster, a thrilling and terrifying embodiment of pure, irredeemable evil, Pinkie is one hell of a character to play and his relationship with young waitress Rose takes him on an emotional rollercoaster in the second half of the movie and Attenborough expertly maintains his immense control over the part throughout – resolute, chillingly sociopathic, and downright creepy wherever appropriate.
Gert Frobe as Auric Goldfinger
Okay, at some point I was going to squeeze a Bond villain into a list of crime fiction characters. Goldfinger was not only one of my favourite books from Ian Fleming’s series, it was also one of the best films from the franchise. German actor Gert Frobe captured the subtle gestures and nuances from Fleming’s alluring prose quite beautifully, and he just . . . looked like the guy you imagined in the book. Frobe was a strange casting choice as well – in that he couldn’t speak English – but that was nothing a bit of voice dubbing couldn’t fix. Frobe’s appearance and mannerisms matched the essence of the character, and for me he is the finest representation of a literary Bond villain we have seen, with Mads Mikkelsen’s portrayal of Le Chiffre in Casino Royale coming a close second.
Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes
Now we’re talking classic. Rathbone appeared as the cunning sleuth in 14 films between 1939-1946 and for me no one has quite matched him since. When I read the books, I imagine Rathbone’s face, Rathbone’s profile, Rathbone’s turn of phrase, Rathbone’s charm. The fact that Nigel Bruce’s stupendous depiction of Watson during those films has since blurred into the background perhaps says it all about the impact Rathbone brought to the lead role. With his deerstalker silhouette having reached iconic status, Rathbone will always be, for me, the quintessential Holmes.
Matt Damon as Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr Ripley)
A bit left-field this one but still worthy of extremely high praise. Patricia Highsmith was a glorious novelist and this is my favourite book of hers (just beating Strangers on a Train). There are so many angles to the character of Ripley, her darkly twisted young man who’s in Italy trying to escape his true self, that Damon really has his work cut out in order to slip into Ripley’s skin. Morally vacant, haunted, desperate, sad, lonely, evil, lost, gifted, tender – Damon masters them all in a powerhouse performance that’s as fantastically elegant as it is deeply unsettling. You just can’t look away from him on the screen. To me this is still Damon’s signature role despite the subsequent success of the Bourne franchise.
Ashley Judd as Joanna Eris (The Eye of the Beholder)
Marc Behm’s 1980 novel paints a vivid picture of this psychologically scarred character who’s no ordinary femme-fatale. The composed and striking Joanna employs her raw survival skills to hop from city to city, changing wigs and aliases as she preys on rich men before marrying and then killing them. A private investigator (played by Ewan McGregor in the film), absorbed by her life and fascinated by her backstory, follows her as she cuts a deadly swath from New York to San Francisco to Alaska with many scintillating stops in between. The killing is Joanna’s coping mechanism to get through life, but when she genuinely falls in love with a sophisticated but vulnerable wine merchant (who’s blind) and falls pregnant, tragedy strikes. Judd crawls into the heart and soul of Joanna, expressing her wild personality changes, her dark cunning and her crushing sense of abandonment and loss with such sincerity that we never judge her. We, like the PI who follows her, just want to watch and understand her.
Paddy Considine as Peter Hunter (Nineteen Eighty)
In this second instalment of the three-part Channel 4 serial depicting David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, Peter Hunter is the lead detective in a disturbing fact-meets-fiction investigation to catch the Yorkshire Ripper. A Lancastrian called in to lead the paranoid and dejected Yorkshire CID team who’ve failed so far to catch their man, Hunter is up against it to get the officers who hate him on his side and the infamous serial killer behind bars. As the pressure mounts in a community gripped by fear and a police force riddled with corruption, Considine brings just the right amount of steel, anxiety and dismay to the role that Peace so poetically conveys in the book.
Ryan Gosling as Driver (Drive)
The lead role in this tale (James Sallis only ever referred to him as ‘Driver’ in his novel while in the film he was unnamed) is the archetypal example of the neo-noir hard-man male, a walking embodiment of the description ‘enigmatic’. The prose in the book is so startlingly sparse that we are captivated by this mysterious lead character and are desperate to know more about him. A Hollywood stuntman by day and underworld getaway driver by night, Driver is a weighty creation and Gosling does a mighty fine job of representing him faithfully on screen – his performance is poised, restrained, slick and brutal.
Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs)
I guess the Academy Award says it all. Hopkins’ portrayal of Thomas Harris’ cannibalistic serial killer will never be forgotten. Clearly one of the most strikingly visual cinematic performances of all time, my favourite scene is how Hopkins appeared the first time we meet Hannibal as Clarice Starling approaches his cell. He’s not gripping the bars or slouched on his bed as he awaits his visitor; he’s standing bolt upright in the middle of the room, arms down by his sides, staring right at her. Chilling.
Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep)
Another choice that perhaps picks itself. I think the strongest element to the 1946 film version is how the script is heavy with graceful dialogue rather than loaded with action – the characters are free to talk, in keeping with Raymond Chandler’s book. And when it comes to verbal tone and visual style, the cool Bogart earns the plaudits. His wry, humorous delivery, set amongst the beautiful black and white cinematography, just oozes noir, while his lusty on-screen chemistry with Lauren Bacall adds a dynamic, hearty charge to the narrative.