Wednesday, May 12, 2010

It Was a Beautiful Song, But it Ran Too Long*

The finest crime fiction novels are stories that make readers come to know the characters and care about them, get involved in the plot, and want to know the outcome of the story. That means characterization, plot details and so on, and what that means is that crime fiction has to be of a certain length. The trouble is, though, that exactly how long a crime fiction novel ought to be isn’t nearly as clear. On one hand, a novel that’s too short runs the risk of leaving out the richness that can make a mystery unforgettable. On the other hand, a story that’s too long very often has characters, sub-plots or other details that aren’t related to the mystery that’s at the core of the story. Those “extras” can be distracting and pull the reader out of the story. Many of the books that end up in readers’ “Did Not Finish” pile do so because they’re too long. So what’s the key? Is there a “right” length for a crime fiction book? I don’t think so; there are very well-written long crime novels and poorly-written short ones. The reverse is also true, of course.

Many of Agatha Christie’s novels, including those regarded as her best, aren’t particularly long. For instance, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot decides to retire and move to the village of King’s Abbott to grow vegetable marrows. That plan changes quickly, however, when retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed to death one evening in his study. There are plenty of suspects, as Ackroyd had a large fortune. Chief among the suspects is Ackroyd’s adopted son, Ralph Paton, who’s chronically short of money and, in fact, quarreled with his father about money on the night Ackroyd was killed. Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, asks Poirot to investigate the case and clear Ralph’s name, and Poirot agrees. In one of the most famous dénouements in crime fiction, Poirot figures out who the real murder is. This novel, which many regard as one of Christie’s best, is 288 pages long.

Evil Under the Sun, which is at least as highly regarded, is even shorter, at 208 pages. In that novel, Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel, on Leathercombe Bay off the Devon Coast. Staying at the same hotel is the Marshall family, which includes Captain Kenneth Marshall, his beautiful wife, Arlena Stuart Marshall, and his daughter, Linda Marshall. Arlena, a former actress, has quite a reputation, and seems to live up to it when she and another guest, Patrick Redfern, begin a somewhat obvious affair. One day, Arlena is found strangled near a cove not far from the hotel. Poirot gets involved in the investigation in part because he was the last person known to see Arlena alive. At first, Kenneth Marshall seems the most likely suspect; he knew about his wife’s relationship with Redfern, after all. However, he’s got an alibi, and couldn’t have committed the crime. In the end, Poirot finds that Arlena Marhsall’s death wasn’t the result of sudden jealousy; it was a carefully planned crime.

Christie isn’t the only highly-respected novelist whose stories aren’t particularly long. For example, Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, one of her well-regarded novels, is 272 pages. That’s the story of Harriet Vane, a mystery novelist who’s tried for the arsenic poisoning murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. She’s the most likely suspect, too. For one thing, the two had quarreled. Also, Harriet Vane had arsenic in her possession (she claims it was a matter of research for a novel she’s writing). What’s more, the last thing that Boyes ate or drank was a cup of coffee that Harriet gave to him. Lord Peter Wimsey, who attends the trial, is quickly smitten by Harriet and resolves to clear her name. When his friend, Miss Climpson (who’s on the jury) has doubts about Harriet’s guilt, she forces another trial, and gives Wimsey the time he needs to prove Harriet innocent.

There are also more modern highly-regarded and strong crime novels that aren’t overly long. For example, Martin Edwards’ very high-quality Lake District novels aren’t particularly lengthy. In the most recent novel in the series, The Serpent Pool, DCI Hannah Scarlett re-opens the drowning death of Bethany Friend, who was found dead in the Lake District’s Serpent Pool six years before. The verdict on Bethany’s death wasn’t definitive, and even now, there are questions about whether she committed suicide. Besides, Bethany’s mother, Daphne, is in failing health, and Scarlett feels that she deserves the truth. For both reasons, Hannah Scarlett resolves to find out what really happened to Bethany Friend. Then, Oxford historian Daniel Kind returns to the Lake District from a trip to the U.S. He’s researching 19th Century writer Thomas de Quincey. When Kind’s sister, Louise, tells her brother that she’s attacked her partner, Stuart Wagg, with a knife, Kind turns to Scarlett for help. As Kind and Scarlett search for Wagg, who’s disappeared, they gradually find unexpected connections between Bethany Friend’s death, Kind’s research, and some unsettling events going on in Scarlett’s personal life. This absorbing and well-written novel is 274 pages.

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover novels are also not overly long. In Pretty is as Pretty Dies, retired schoolteacher Myrtle Clover decides to take matters into her own hands and solve the murder of rapacious real estate developer Parke Stockard, just to prove that she’s not ready to be “put out to pasture.” There are plenty of suspects, too; Parke Stockard was roundly disliked, and no-one in town is exactly upset that she’s dead. Over the objections of her son, Red, who’s the local police chief, Myrtle investigates, puts the clues together, and solves the mystery of Parke’s death. This engaging cozy is 206 pages.

Does this mean that a crime fiction novel can’t be longer? I don’t think so. There are, of course, some very high-quality crime novels that are longer. For instance, Michael Connelly’s fifth Harry Bosch novel, Trunk Music, is 438 pages. That’s the story of the murder of Tony Aliso, a mediocre film-maker whose lifestyle far exceeded his legitimate income. When Aliso’s body is found stuffed in the trunk of his Rolls Royce, it looks at first like a Mob hit. So Bosch investigates it that way, and follows the “money trail” to Las Vegas, where it turns out that Aliso had dealings with local gangsters there. He also had dealings with Eleanor Wish, Bosch’s old flame, so in the process of investigating Aliso’s death, Bosch also rekindles his relationship with Wish. He also encounters surprising resistance to the investigation from the L.A.P.D’s organized crime unit and the F.B.I. As it turns out, this case is full of dark secrets, “dirty laundry” and twists and turns.

And then there’s Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. That series features magazine publisher Mikael Blomkvist and his research assistant, Lisbeth Salander. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, in which we meet them, Blomkvist agrees to find out what happened to Harriet Vanger, who disappeared nearly forty years ago, when she was sixteen. Her grand-uncle, wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger, offers Blomkvist desperately-needed financial support in exchange for his “detective work.” He also offers Blomkvist the evidence he needs to bring down Hans-Erik Wennerström, another industrialist, who defeated Blomkvist in a trumped-up libel suit against Blomkvist’s publication. This award-winning novel is 480 pages long.

Ian Rankin’s Exit Music, the last Inspector Rebus novel, is also comparatively long, at 515 pages. In that novel, Rebus and Siobahn Clarke investigate the murder of dissident Russian poet Alexander Todorov. At first, Todorov’s death looks like a mugging gone terribly wrong. He’s found in the kind of disreputable neighborhood where a mugging isn’t at all unusual. Soon, though Rebus begins to suspect that this death is more than a simple mugging (if there is such a thing). Todorov’s political views were dangerous and upsetting to the clique of wealthy Russian businessmen who’ve relocated to Edinburgh. And when Rebus finds out that his old nemesis, “Big Ger” Cafferty, may be involved, he thinks he’s got his culprit. Of course, things are not as they seem, and it turns out that Todorov was killed for an entirely different reason. This novel is very highly-regarded, and contains surprising twists, solid character development, and a solid intellectual puzzle.

There are other examples, too, of both long and short high-quality novels. The key seems to be a focus on the plot and characters. Long novels that provide rich characters, an engaging plot and a solid mystery can be very high-quality. Those that don’t, where the story is overburdened by detail and un-necessary information, can be tiresome. Short novels that don’t provide enough detail and background can seem “flat;” those that use deft touches to “fill in the blanks” are high-quality. What’s your view on this? Do you have a preferred length of novel?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's The Entertainer.


  1. Margot your music collection must look very similar to mine. This is yet another line from another favourite song of mine.

    As for length I do agree that there are good books of all lengths but I think there does seem to be a trend these days of longer books and it's not a good trend in my humble opinion. When I look at long running series such as Sue Grafton's the books have gotten progressively longer but the last one is not better than the first even though it's almost double the length. Even the Stieg Larsson books, all of which I enjoyed, would have been improved with tighter editing. I once had a tutor at University who made us write a 2000 word assignment on something or other when we had submitted the work he made us submit the exact same assignment - same topic, same arguments - but in 1000 words. He had other ways of making us self-edit too. Of all the lecturers and tutors I encountered at Uni I think he is the one who taught me the most valuable lesson that I still use to this day about being succinct and saying what you need to say in as few words as possible.

    Your own two novels are fine examples of what can be done in less than 300 pages and neither would have been improved by doubling in length though I'm sure you could have easily published them in a longer form.

    Besides as someone whose main form of transport is walking I like small books that don't weigh much in my backpack :)

  2. Bernadette - How interesting about our music collections! I'd love to compare notes. Of course, anything Billy Joel is probably a winner with me ; ). That one, though, is one I particularly like, although it didn't get a lot of critical acclaim when it was released.

    I've noticed, too, that there seems a trend towards longer books, and not just in crime fiction, either. I'm not sure whether the reason has to do with what publishers want or something else, but I have noticed it. You give a great example with Sue Grafton's series, and I've seen the same with other series as well. Just as another example, Ian Rankin's first Inspector Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, is 228 pages. Exit Music is just under twice that length. As I think about that series, too, I don't see that the later novels are improved by length, and I like the Rebus series.

    The funny thing is, I often see reviews of books by readers who complain about the lack of editing. Perhaps some of those authors should have had your tutor : ) or be forced to carry copies of their books around in backpacks ; ).

    Your story reminded me of my own university experience. Let's just say we were not encouraged to be wordy. We were encouraged to say what we had to say concisely, so I can completely relate to what you say.

    And thanks much for your kind words about my own novels. Maybe it's because of my academic background; I don't know. But I like to get to the point...

  3. I have read some books that were 350 to 500 pages and not realize they were that long until I began writing the review and needs the page count information. The story flowed smoothly and keep my interest from beginning to end.

    Then on the other hand, I have read some books that weren't even 200 pages long and thought I'd never get through them. Sometimes it was because the plot was too slow or there were way too many details that really didn't help the story.

  4. Mason - I know exactly what you mean. If the story is well-written, clear and with interesting characters, it's easy to forget the page count. On the other hand, if the story is herkimer-jerkimer, boring, and with "flat" characters, fifty pages is too much. I think that if authors focus first on the plot and characters, and keep their focus on those things, the length often turns out to be right for the story.

  5. I agree about the trend toward longer books as an author works on a series. Elizabeth George is a good example. She is a great writer and I enjoy reading her novels, but the last few are rather long, and I have had trouble finishing a couple of those.

    While I love well-developed characters, I think this can be done without adding unneccesary length. I like best the books where the characters are allowed to develop themselves in some sense without the author writing pages about little incidents in their pasts.

  6. Yes, I *do* have a preferred length. :) At least for writing novels and probably for reading them, too. I think it's my crazy lifestyle. I do read longer books as long as they can hold my interest and keep me turning pages. But writing, contractually, I'm keeping the stories tighter and shorter.

    Thanks for the mention! :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  7. Many of the mainland European novels seem quite short in comparision to those by Us, UK and Australian authors, in my experience (though anyone's experience in this regard is highly subjective compared with the total book universe!). It is not uncommon to read translated novels of under or only just over 200 pages. There is something about a "standard" UK/US book - 350 pages seems to be a minimum. And as you so correctly state, some 200 page books can be far too long, and some 500 page books can be far too short. It all depends on how much one is enjoying it - another subjective question!

  8. Book Mole - You've got a point. Some of Elizabeth George's novels have gotten longer; I hadn't remembered that about them, but you're right. There is a fine line between character development (which can add a great deal of richness to a story) and too much length and detail. If the background is relevant for the story, and adds some depth to the character, it also adds to the story. Otherwise, it can "pad" the story and take away from one's enjoyment.

    Elizabeth - My pleasure : ). Your writing is such a good example to show that a very fine story can be told in a relatively short book. I've found, myself, that even though I sometimes thoroughly enjoy a longer book, that I write shorter and tighter plots. It may be my lifestyle, it may be my academic background, which has focused me on facts; I don't know. But I don't write long novels, either.

    Maxine - That's an interesting distinction you make between mainland European authors and U.S./U.K./Australian authors. It's funny; right now, I'm reading Yrsa Sigurdardóttir's The Last Rituals (and thanks for that recommendation - I'm really enjoying it), and it, too, is relatively short - 275 pages, I think. Although Iceland isn't mainland Europe, I think it's an example of what you mean. So perhaps in certain countries there's not a trend towards longer novels. In either case, I agree with you that length of novel doesn't always determine quality. Like you, I've read 200-page novels I almost couldn't finish, and 500+-page novels that I didn't want to put down. In the end, it's quality of the story that matters.

  9. I never notice the length unless I really don't like the book! :>)

  10. Maribeth - Interesting point; it may be that, if a story is working well, is interesting and so on, we don't pay much attention to the length. If the book falters, gets boring or falls "flat," then the length is more noticeable. And that can happen whether a book is 150 pages or 750 pages.

  11. Two weeks ago I dragged ten crime novels home from the library. Most of them 400-500 pages! I have read six or seven now and enjoyed most of them. But I am growing really tired of the Swedish writer Åke Edwardson. Years ago I liked his protagonist, Erik Winter, very much, but in my opinion his latest books would have been much better if he had cut away at least one third of the very long, very wordy descriptions of the private problems of each and every member of the police team!

    So 500 pages is nothing if they grip you - but if not, the editor should have sent the writer back to his study to revise the work.

  12. I think the older classic mysteries are shorter than they are written now. I don't know why. I find many modern "longer" mysteries are stuffed with filler anyway. I wish people would write more like Christie.


  13. Dorte - Your example of Edwardson is exactly what I mean by novels that are overburdened with detail and therefore, get tiresome. As you say, if a novel grips the reader (I like that verb, too : ) ), and is engaging, then reading a long novel doesn't feel like a chore. If the novel is mostly, "filler," though, then reading it becomes onerous, and that's how lots of books end up in the "did not finish" pile.

    Clarissa - Christie really was a genius at giving enough, but not too much, detail. She used subtle touches to give background, and give the reader enough information to get caught up in the story, but not so much as to be burdensome. Unless I'm forgetting something or mistaken, none of her novels was long...

  14. Jo Nesbo is one writer who can get away with the 500 page novel because of all the twists and turns and sustained action, but I have to agree about Ake Edwardson. The Martin Beck novels were only about 250-350 pages long so I cannot understand the need for these modern doorstop size novels.

  15. Norman - I love your description of the size of some modern novels. That's exactly what they look like, too, some of them : ). And I agree with you about Jo Nesbø; his novels keep readers turning pages because the action in the story is well-paced and -timed, and there are, as you say, solid, engaging plot twists. Without those elements, and good character development, books do, indeed, become doorstops.

  16. Another thought-provoking post, Margot! If the plot is strong, and the characters are engaging, I'll keep reading. Elizabeth George's novels aren't short and I gobble them up.

    Elizabeth makes a fair point too - many times writers are under contractual obligations about length and I would think this would affect the complexity of the plot and the number of sub plots.

    Then there are all those sites out there dictating acceptable word counts for different genres or first books or whatever. It makes my poor head spin. What's a writer to do?

    Motto of this lesson? Size DOES matter!

  17. Elspeth - LOL! It certainly can matter. And thanks for the kind words. You make a really salient point about the writer's perspective on all of this, too. As Elizabeth says, writers are frequently under contract for specific word counts or page counts, and so they can be rsetricted to a particular length. Writers who aren't under such strictures have to make a decision about how long their stories are going to be. As we're all mentioning, greater length means more detail, more possibility of sub-blots, backstory, character development and the link. It can also mean too much detail and tiresome "filler." Less length can mean crisper plots, faster pace and a tighter story. It can also mean "flat" characters and unexplained behaviors and events. It all seems to come down to each author finding the right balance.

  18. A correction to the Stieg Larsson's Millennium series as a fellow resident of the Nordic Countries i.e. Finland: Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series features magazine publisher Mikael Blomkvist, not Mikhail.

    Mikhail sounds too Russian to be Swedish :).

  19. Hi, Christine - Oh, thank you for that correction - how embarrassing! And I know that, too : (. I'll go back and correct it right now!

  20. THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD was the first adult mystery I ever read. So I had no idea, she was breaking a rule by having the narrator be the murderer. The unreliable narrator is such an interesting technique.

  21. Patti - Isn't it interesting how the first mysteries we read stick with us? I agree with you, too, that it's really interesting when the narrator's perspective doesn't tell the reader everything. The same thing happens in Murder in Mesopotamia, where the narrator misses lots of important clues (even though she's no dummy). The narrator's perspective is, well, inaccurate, and that makes the story more interesting.