Review: Cast a Long Shadow – Welsh Women Writing Crime
Great short stories, according to Frank O’Connor, derive from and focus on ‘submerged population groups’. The submerged population ‘changes its character’ from writer to writer, from generation to generation and, as in this fine collection, from story to story.
The raison d’être of this anthology requires us to consider its contents not only as short stories in the literary sense, but also as genre stories. And yet, however well-represented women are in what the editors Katherine Stansfield and Caroline Oakley call ‘this rich field of contemporary crime writing’, the genre aspect of the stories may be the more difficult trick to pull off successfully.
At the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime-Writing Festival held at Harrogate in July, the great Irish crime-writer John Connolly, a fierce and erudite champion of the value of genre fiction in all its guises, spoke of finding ‘straight’ crime fiction unsatisfying in the short form. Conversely, Connolly said, supernatural stories are better short, where the ending can be left open and the mystery maintained, than in novels, where the inevitable explanation can end up undercutting what was most intriguing about the initial premise.
It is hard to disagree with Connolly. Crime fiction as it is generally understood – murder, mystery, investigation, red herrings, twists, and resolution – seems to need more words than the short story allows. This challenge is acknowledged by the editors in their introduction: ‘if the short story is its own distinct form of fiction, the glimpse it offers inherently different from the complex tableau of the novel, then the crime short story must surely be classed as a separate entity within the world of that glimpse’.
Perhaps echoing John Connolly’s Harrogate comments, many of the stories (including ‘Hiraeth’ by Katie Munnik, ‘Stone’ by Louise Mumford, and ‘Jack and the Juniper Tree’ by Julie Ann Rees) venture into the realm of myth, fantasy and the supernatural, with favourable results.
Nevertheless, in ‘The Ship’, the final story in the anthology, an affecting complex story about the death of a child told in the first person plural by the patrons of the local pub, Eluned Gramich somehow manages to compress all of the elements of crime fiction into a mere twenty pages without making it feel rushed.
And in ‘Play it for Me’, Maggie Himsworth provides a gutsy take on a police procedural, with the compelling DCI Elin Owens solving a case involving skeletal remains found beneath the hearth of an abandoned house.
Val McDermid has described crime fiction as a three-legged stool comprising character, plot and a sense of place. Bearing that in mind, it might be expected that all of the stories in ‘Cast a Long Shadow’ would be set in Wales.
The first story in the collection (‘Song Fox’ by Tiffany Murray, set above the Arctic Circle) blows any such preconceptions out of the water, and serves to remind the reader that the anthology showcases Welsh Women Writing Crime rather than about Wales. Other locations visited include Australia (‘Hiraeth’), Saudi Arabia (the quietly devastating ‘The Cats of Riyadh’ by Rachel Morris) and Turkey (‘Galata’ by Caroline Stockford). Wales is convincingly drawn throughout the anthology too, rural and urban, and historical and contemporary, not least in the well-worked title story by Hazel Ward.
For anyone seeking what the editors describe as ‘a snapshot of the Welsh women crime writers at work today’, this collection is a very obvious must read. But it is much more than that. The editors have done an excellent job of assembling the anthology and while the individual stories might have little in common in terms of location, tone or approach, the one thing that unites them is their quality.
One tiny quibble relates to a common problem with anthologies: because the contributors’ list is organised alphabetically at the back of the book, readers may struggle to keep track of the names of individual authors. Surely it would be better if each story was either followed or preceded by a biographical note?
I returned to consuming short stories in quantity during the pandemic as lunchtime reads. I can testify that the stories in this anthology are the ideal coffee and sandwich length and considerably more satisfying than doom-scrolling on a mobile phone, but I commend the stories to you whenever you might think of reading them.
Cast a Long Shadow: Welsh Women Writing Crime, edited by Katherine Stansfield and Caroline Oakley, is published by Honno Press and is available from all good bookshops or you can buy a copy here.
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