Please welcome award-winning author Art Taylor, to talk about choosing the order of the stories in his new suspense collection The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense:

Plans are afoot for me to teach a course on short story collections at George Mason University in Spring 2021—not reading collections but creating them. This would be a creative writing course, not a literature course.

What choices should student authors (or any author) make in selecting their stories or writing new ones with an eye toward a cohesive book? Should the stories adhere to some specific genre? have some thematic focus? And once they’ve chosen/written their stories, how should they arrange them to choreograph an experience for the reader? Would the strongest story be first or last, for example, or somewhere in between?

These won’t be simply academic questions for those creative writing students. They’ll sift through drafts from their college workshops and craft new stories within our own class. And those questions weren’t academic for me either, when I pulled together my own collection into a full manuscript more than a year ago.

That collection—The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense—was released this month by Crippen & Landru, and while I’ll leave it to readers to determine whether the book ultimately coheres as a satisfactory read, I’m glad to share my thoughts on organizing it.

The stories here cover 25 years in my writing career (has it been that long?) from “Murder on the Orient Express” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s Department of First Stories in December 1995, to the collection’s title story, which first appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s January/February 2020 issue. Rereading the stories, I was intrigued myself to see how certain themes persisted over that quarter-century—this writer’s own interests and obsessions revealing themselves. A focus on relationships predominated, for example—family ties, romances, core friendships—and on the responsibilities of being in those relationships, the costs of betraying them.

While that focus helped provide a core thread here, the stories also loosely follow some chronological progression: The title story, about childhood and coming-of-age, appears early in the collection, while “When Duty Calls,” the second-to-last story, features an aging character, a retired serviceman now in his dotage. Midway through the book, “Parallel Play” explores parenthood and its many perils.

I also tried to situate stories next to others that resonated with them or offered some counterpoint. “Ithaca 37,” for example, begins with the line “Family takes care of family”—but it’s sandwiched between two stories that directly challenge the idea of family being a place of safety and support: “The Care & Feeding of Houseplants” and “Parallel Play,” mentioned above. (And truth be told, “Ithaca 37” challenges that notion too.)

For the stories that open and close the collection, I chose two experimental stories—also among the shortest. An amuse-bouche and a taste of dessert perhaps? As an added bonus they respectively feature small welcomes and farewells. The first story, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” includes the line “Take that first bite”—a welcome of sorts to the collection ahead. And the final story, “English 398: Fiction Workshop,” actually ends with the phrase “the last word.” Can’t get more final than that.

Maybe these organizing principles and small flourishes won’t stand out explicitly to readers, but they gave me a sense of direction in assembling the manuscript—and I hope they’ll add some sense of subtle cohesion to the collection as a whole.

Art Taylor

You can find Art’s new book here:

In addition to the new collection, Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He won last year’s Edgar Award for Best Short Story for “English 398: Fiction Workshop,” and his story “Better Days” has recently been named a finalist for this year’s Agatha Award. Find out more at