Sunday, 16 January 2011

How long should a crime novel be?


There’s little doubt that – as a generalisation – crime novels have grown fatter over the years. Jessica Mann pointed out a while back that, in days gone by, a typical crime novel was not much more than 60,000 words long; she pointed to many of the old green Penguins to illustrate her point. But things have change. Compare, for instance, the early Reginald Hill books with his more recent publications. The latter are much longer – yet equally fine, I hasten to add. But length is not always synonymous with quality.

This trend towards obesity is driven, primarily, by publishers’ requirements, but no doubt the publishers would say they are only responding to consumer demand. A writer like Robert Barnard, for instance, tends to stick to relatively short books. But Stieg Larsson’s success has not been hindered the bulkiness of his three novels. Some have opined, though, that Larsson’s books might not have been harmed by a bit of judicious cutting. And much as I liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I think the book could easily have been shortened.

I know of one successful writer of historical mysteries whose publisher insisted that she increase the already substantial word count of her books. And a fellow lawyer once told me that he judged the value of a book by its size. Which shocked me at least as much as those who judge the quality of a novel by its cover.

Personally I have a slight prejudice as both a reader and a writer for books that are not too long. But of course there are plenty of exceptions – Reg Hill’s work is but one example. All the same, I do think that the quality of plenty of crime novels might be improved by some cutting. Most stories have a natural length, and it does them no favours to increase it.


14 comments:

Bernadette in Australia said...

As I develop carpal tunnel syndrome from holding the latest Sara Paretsky novel (a mere 443 pages) I took a look at the first of her novels which I still have on my shelves - that was a mere 240 pages. I haven't finished the latest one yet but I really can't see that it's a better book for being nearly twice as long. Brevity appears to be a lost art

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Well-put! I've noticed, too, the increasing length of some modern crime novels and I'm not at all convinced that they are any better for that. Thanks for a solid argument for quality of writing over quantity of words...

Eric Mayer said...

Oh how I agree. I think a book should not be longer than it needs to be and that many modern novels are too long, one reason I tend to read older books. I noticed quite a long time ago that science fiction novels seemed to bloat up and now that trend seems to have spread to mysteries. I love short, sharp books. Look at They Shoot Horses Don't They? which you mentioned last column. Great book, great movie, and the book is not even really novel length but packed with character, incident, atmosphere, philosophy. Heck, maybe The Great Gatsby should have been longer. Maybe it is too short to be great. But if readers are going to price books by the pound, or by cost per word (and doesn't Amazon show that?) than I guess publishers will demand length.

Deb said...

I've said it before, but I'll say it again--compare the length of one of P.D. James's early books (COVER HER FACE, for example) with her most recent book--the current book is almost three times as long as the earlier book (the same could be said of other writers who have been publishing for decades, Ruth Rendell or Reginal Hill spring to mind). I don't mind a meaty mystery with lots of sub-plots and good old red herrings, but when the bulk of the book is filled with irrelevant and technical details or long back-stories that contribute nothing to the plot (Elizabeth George--I'm looking at you), an editor really needs to step in with judicious pruning shears. Of course, it's harder for a publisher to justify charging $25 for a 200-page hardcover than it is for a 600-pager, so I suppose I have my answer!

lyn said...

I agree with you about some crime novels being too long. I think 250-300pp is about right. I can think of a few authors whose early books were shorter &, in my opinion, much better. It's a shame that publishers put that pressure on authors to write longer books. The author (& maybe editor) should be the best judge of the right length for a book. I've just read Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop. Not crime, I know, but 150pp. Just right. Doesn't need a word more, let alone several extra chapters!

Morgenländer said...

Great post!

I have been rereading Hammetts "Glass Key" lately, 210 pages of swift action, brillant dialogue and most atmospheric prose.

I cannot think that "The Glass Key" could be improved by adding further material.

And, then, there are so many wonderful books around! The longer it takes to finish a novel, the less time there is for all the others. So, IMHO, a writer must have somthing quite substantial to say to ask for weeks and weeks of my reading life.

Dorte H said...

Oh, consumer demand. I loathe that concept, and I am sure most readers are sensible enough to enjoy a book that has the proper length, meaning that the writer has written his story and not bothered about how long it was going to be. I read a lot so I do like getting 3-400 pages, but as you hint, quite a large proportions of the 500-page books we get, could have been so much better if the publisher had told the writer to cut away 20-30 %.

I don´t know how it is in Britain, but I know that many Danish publishers don´t want these long works if it is a debut; the longer the book the larger the risk.

Margaret @ BooksPlease said...

I agree with Agatha Christie - she thought 50,000 words the right length for a detective story.

But to judge a book by its size isn't helpful - it's quality not quantity that's important and too short is just as bad as too long, I think.

Sarah Hilary said...

I agree that all stories have a natural length, Martin. But I must admit that, if I'm really enjoying a book - and this means that it's moving along at a smart pace, no padding - then I love it to last. So a fat book suits me, in these circumstances. The thumb rule has to work, though. By which I mean, if my thumb is in a place that feels like the climax to the story and I'm only halfway through... Something is amiss.

Unsettling to think that some publishers are persuading authors to pad, because the public expects a certain weight to the genre. Perhaps if they were persuading some literary authors to cut down...?

Rob Kitchin said...

I had a conversation with a beta reader about this once. I ended up saying, 'But that's what happened!' Meaning I was digging my heals in about adding in new sections or deleting some out, that was the story; it had a 'natural' length and I felt all the sections were relevant. I think anywhere from 50-100K words (150-300 pages) is generally fine, after that the story tends to become a bit flabby with too much show and not enough tell. Of course, sometimes they can be a bit too thin such as Carlo Lucarelli's wonderful novellas which barely scrape 100 pages.

Paul Beech said...

Hi Martin – It seems to me a distinction has to be drawn between big novels and obese novels, i.e. between multi-layered, complex or grand scale novels, which may be tautly written, and novels bulked out with wodges of unnecessary detail. Even quite a short novel can be obese.

A little flesh on the bones may be necessary for a novel to be a comfortable, enjoyable, satisfying read, but excess padding will dilute the impact of the story and ruin it. As you say, it’s all a matter of the natural length of the story.

There is obviously a demand for big stories nowadays but I believe the beautifully crafted short novel must always have a place. In fact, given the difficulties new authors face in finding a commercial publisher, I wonder whether POD self-published works might even lead a revival of the short novel. Any thoughts?

Regards, Paul

J said...

The publishers want bigger books so they can charge more. Here in the States, Putnam bloats up the Robert B Parker and Dick Francis books by increasing the type size and page margins--I doubt there are any more words in their books than there were a dozen years ago.

LauraR said...

I prefer 200 to 300 pages. I am put off trying some new authors by the thought of a 600 page doorstop,

Martin Edwards said...

These are fascinating comments, thank you so much. In fact, I am strongly tempted to return to this topic soon to explore your thoughts further.