Katherine Hall Page’s award-winning Faith Fairchild mysteries have delighted readers since 1991, when she released her debut, The Body in the Belfry, and introduced the world to her charming caterer and sleuth. Small Plates, Page’s first collection of short stories, is filled with wit and intricately spun mysteries, along with decadent descriptions of all things culinary. While Faith makes plenty of appearances in stories such as “The Body in the Dunes,” new characters shine just as brightly in “The Would-Be Widower” and “Hiding Places.” Cozy mystery lovers are sure to find a tale to sate their appetite here.
Small Plates is your first collection of short stories. What advantages does this format lend to the mystery genre?
The brevity of a short story gives mystery writers a chance to pack a wallop. In the traditional mystery novel, the pace is more leisurely, albeit suspenseful. The denouement comes at the end and the hope is that readers will be stunned. Yet, the end of each chapter has a tantalizing hook baited to keep those pages turning. In the short story, all this must be compressed. Poe and Saki did it best.
What are the biggest challenges in crafting a successful short story?
In the introduction I quote Henry David Thoreau: “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short” and Edgar Allan Poe, “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build toward it.” Taken together, these are a fine summation of the challenge posed by short story writing: that paring-down process, the examination of each word essential for a satisfactory result. I’d also add a reminder based on advice from Strunk and White—nowhere is omitting needless words more essential!
Many of these stories feature Faith Fairchild, a sleuth you have featured in 21 previous novels. Did you discover anything new about Faith during the writing process?
This is a terrific question and something I had not considered before. One of the pleasures of writing a series is “growing” a character and Faith Fairchild has certainly changed over the years—as have we all!—yet yes, I did discover something new about the character in this book, specifically in the story, “Sliced.” Not exactly a dark side, but most assuredly darker, and it was freeing to write about her this way.
Who are some of your favorite short story writers?
A wide-ranging bunch: again Poe and Saki. Theirs are among the first short stories I read when young, as well as O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf” and, similar in spirit, de Maupassant’s “The Necklace.” Others in no particular order: Melville, Dorothy Sayers, James Thurber, Willa Cather, Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty, Alice Munro, Carson McCullers. John Cheever, J.D. Salinger, James Joyce, Shirley Jackson, Agatha Christie, Flannery O’Connor, Ellen Gilchrist, Laurie Colwin, Wodehouse, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Barnard. Heresy, but I am not a Hemingway fan.
Many of these stories—especially “The Would-Be Widower”—feature some delightfully dark humor. How important is humor in your writing?
Extremely important, although in life, there is nothing remotely funny about murder. That said, I have always enjoyed crime fiction with this kind of twist. Besides the dark humor aspect to these stories and my novels, I like to add other forms of comic relief as a break from sitting on the edge of one’s chair. Often this takes the form of a character.
Are there any new characters in these short stories that could pop up in your future novels?
Yes! I became wrapped up in Polly Ackroyd in “Across the Pond,” who bears more than a passing resemblance to a Nancy Mitford-type character. I’m not sure where Polly might appear, but since I made her a friend of both Faith Fairchild and her sister, it might happen!
Many of these stories feature your famously mouthwatering descriptions of food. If you had your own restaurant, what type of cuisine would be on your menu?
Many years ago when I was young and more foolish, I thought about opening a seasonal restaurant on an island in Maine using local ingredients—the menu an earlier version of the slow food movement. While I think some of this cuisine has veered off into cloud cuckoo land (do we really need to know the name of the cow that gave the milk for the butter?), it is still what I would do. I also like borrowing from a number of regional and international cuisines with ingredients like pomegranate molasses, Anson Mills grits, elderflower liqueur and smoked paprika. I’ve never met a cheese I didn’t like, nor a salad green. Nothing fussy though, or architectural.
What are you working on next?
I am finishing up the 22nd novel in the Faith Fairchild series, The Body in the Birches. It is set on the fictitious island, Sanpere, I created in Penobscot Bay, Maine. Aside from what I hope is the gripping mystery component, the whodunit puzzle—it’s a book about families, specifically the turmoil created by the inheritance of property. In this case, the clash is over a summer home that has been in a family for generations. We all know real estate can be murder.