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.