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.