Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

June 25, 2008

Does Size Matter?

Curt asked: “Why are crime novels so long these days?”

Because most of them are throwbacks to the nineteenth and early twentieth style of wide-ranging psychological/realistic novels, and those were usually and almost by definition long, very long books. It’s one of the most fascinating paradoxes about *modern* crime fiction that it’s actually not *modernistic* – the genre has eschewed surrealism, structuralism, Nouveau Roman, stream of consciousness, magical realism, oulipianism and other movements that shaped literature in the last century, and basically remained stuck in the era when it was born. Which in turn raises another question: is it possible for crime fiction to be genuinely modern and accept, if not embrace, the state of the art?



  1. Yes, that makes sense, Xavier, except that writers like Ruth Rendell in the 70s and, before her Celia Fremlin and Ursula Curtiss and Margaret Millar, managed to be “psychological” in less then 300 pages (often less than 200). I know you have a high opinion of these writers, so do I.

    In my exchange was Nick he was pointing out some great (long) masterpieces of the 19th century, I responded with some great (short) masterpieces, mostly of the 20th, mostly from the 20s and 30s, the “modern” period, the time of the detective story. This is the time when Virginia Woolf was berating Arnold Bennett.

    Meanwhile in detection in the 30s, critics began touting 19th century writers like Collins and Gaboriau as the proper models. Sayers’ views led her to strongly praise “old-fashioned” novels like Rinehart’s “The Album” and Herbert Adams’ “John Brand’s Will,” which might surprise people today. And, of course, Sayers’ own books got much longer…


    Comment by jonjermey — June 25, 2008 @ 8:19 pm | Reply

  2. I think it may partly have to do with editorial constraints. It was not fashionable back then for a mystery writer to go beyond 300 pages without solid plot justification. Also, the authors’ backgrounds are different. Rendell in her early years followed in the footsteps of the laconic Patricia Highsmith and the even more laconic Georges Simenon. Curtiss and Millar were American, with a distinctively American “no superfluous weight” approach to the genre. As to Fremlin, I have always seen her as kind of an oddity in British crime fiction of the time, a gothic writer lost in a world of police procedurals, spy fiction and thrillers.


    Comment by jonjermey — June 29, 2008 @ 10:12 am | Reply

  3. On the subject of novel length, I don’t think anyone has mentioned what to me is obvious: When an author begins to sell, he or she develops more clout in the editor/author relationship, and it becomes much more difficult for an editor to do what an editor is supposed to do — enforce judicious cuts to prevent verbosity and create a more aesthetic product. As authors become more prima-donna-ish, they won’t hear of a single one of their words being cut.

    I suspect the issue, quite often, comes down to this, and this is why in the course of many popular authors’ careers, their novels went from short and tidy to long and sprawling. (NB: A friend who works in publishing popular fiction in NY has confirmed this for me.)

    I had to give up reading Elizabeth George entirely because each novel was longer than the preceding, and she was beginning to hit 800 pages. I love mysteries — that’s why I belong to this forum — but I don’t think any mystery novel is worth the time it takes the reader to plow through 800 pages. Especially a slow reader like me. Long live beautifully short novels. Down with the sprawlers and the self-important.


    Comment by jonjermey — June 29, 2008 @ 10:13 am | Reply

  4. Jeff – I could not agree more! But saying that, I would like to also state that if a novel is 700 pages and has 700 pages of decent plot and character than I can live with it. Nick’s three classic examples live up to that, especially the wonderful Count of Monte Cristo. But many authors of today seem amazingly long-winded and I think your view on why seems close to the mark. As an example, and I know I am in the minority here, The Da Vinci Code could easily have been 300 pages, but it wasn’t… I could barely finish it.


    Comment by jonjermey — June 29, 2008 @ 10:14 am | Reply

  5. For me, there is no problem with long (mystery or non-mystery) novels. The problem is what makes them long.

    Sometimes I have the strong feeling that some pretentiousness, of both authors and readers, is a key factor in making novels long.

    Unlike GAD writers, who created their own standard of literary quality, most Post-WWII mystery writers want to be accepted as good writers by mainstream literary standards. In some cases this comes off as somewhat bourgeois and mediocre. Raymond Chandler has written that he believed it was time for the mystery novel to start being published in decent editions (he also said that the tragedy of mystery writers lies in the fact that their gross and uncultured public is incapable of realizing their literary qualities, which must be the apex of authorial snobbery). Patricia Highsmith raved about being considered as a mainstream novelist in France and about being published there by J’ai Lu, alongside Dostoievski (which is quite naive, since, in the typically French unpretentious way, they were probably also publishing at the same time authors I doubt Highsmith would like to be associated with, like French idols Peter Cheyney and James Hadley Chase).

    Most of Chandler’s and Highsmith’s novels are not particularly long, but other authors moved by similar literary aims make the common mistake of believing that longer is better. Their novels are long not because in them the mystery element is more developed than by previous authors (far from it), but precisely because of the elements that are intended to give them the mainstream literary legitimacy their authors are seeking, mostly psychological and socio-analytical depth.

    Take, for instance, the most recent novels of two contemporary writers I respect, Ruth Rendell and P. D. James. The lenght of P. D. James The Lightouse comes mostly from insufferable delving into the minds and private lives of the characters and from the pseudo-contemporary subplots (e. g., the one about the conflict between science and environment protection). The same can be said of Not in the flesh. It is not a long book, but it could be even shorter. The subplot about genital mutilation is totally irrelevant and innocuous and the authorial reflexions about the pros and cons of political correctness that are constantly popping up are superficial if compared to the ones produced by members of this Forum in the recent GKC debate. Both the books have very good plots and characterization (although the Rendell one is comparatively routine work) that some trimming would not have impaired in the least.

    I also mentioned some pretentiousness of the readers. Probably, the word pretentiousness is in this case a little too harsh. Reading became to some extent a means of social legitimation. Some people feel important by reading what they perceive as important books. Long books are perceived as more important than short ones because reading them is initially regarded by the reader him/herself as a difficult task and therefore is superficially understood as a proof of greater literacy.

    By no means I intend to be a patronizing. I have observed several cases of this cultural phenomenon in people emerging from social and family backgrounds in which reading didn’t play a major part, and the fact that they read books is, in itself, noteworthy. Being able to read a book, even an average bestseller, is indeed a proof of cultural ability – so, there really is some truth in the assertion I mentioned.

    Anyway, the public appetite for long book fuels their production and makes them profitable for the publishers – no editor would allow an average 800 page novel to be published in that form if not sure there was a market for it! And this is not happening in the crime/mystery field: just look at the length of the average contemporary mainstream novels.

    This situation is an anachronism. In the 19th Century books were of mammoth length because reading was mostly a privilege of the leisured classes. After WWI books became shorter due to the decreasing availability of paper but also because they were increasingly being read by people who had less time to read. For the vast majority of readers, reading time has probably never been sparser than today, but the average length of books also has probably never been bigger than today!

    This is somewhat frustrating for me. Time being limited, I, like Mike Grost, also avoid long novels, unless I have strong evidence that they may be worth the time. In fact, I often find myself avoiding novels altogether in favor of short-stories. Some discerning friends tell me that Donna Tart’s first book is a masterpiece inverted mystery novel, but I shudder at the width of the book spine. Whenever I get time to read for pleasure, I always choose to read a really significant mainstream novel, even if lengthy, two 250 page mystery books or 20 short stories, instead of a 500+ page pseudo-mainstream crime novel.

    An editor may be almost powerless before a bestselling author, but if his/her books don’t sell, she/he will cease to be a bestselling author; as I mentioned in my previous post, no editor (better: no publisher) would allow an average 800 page novel to be published in that form if not sure that the public accepts, and indeed demands, novels of that length! So, there are some market aspects involved in this.

    Henrique Valle

    Comment by jonjermey — June 29, 2008 @ 10:15 am | Reply

  6. Henrique Valle wrote:


    .. or French popular writer Guy des Cars whose potboilers were J’ai Lu’s greatest sales. Hardly highbrow company. I don’t think Chandler and Highsmith can be quite lumped into the same wagon, however, as the latter deliberately chose the mystery genre while the latter was arbitrarily pigeonholed as a suspense writer on the publication of her first book. Higsmith’s longing for literary “respectability” is thus understandable when Chandler’s attitude is just one of snobbery.

    I am not convinced by this explanation, though I think readers indeed have a part in mystery fiction’s recent weight problems. The “literarization” of the genre has admittedly given it a higher profile and brought more readers, but those converts are not “fans” in the sense you, I and other members of this group are. They’re basically mainstream folks who expect mysteries to have what they like in general fiction, that is, well-rounded characters, social realism and florid prose, complete with a nominal plot to spice the whole thing up. Authors, since they are often of the same persuasion, are happy to oblige and here we are with anapurna-like mysteries with termitarium-like plots.

    Also, most of the novels we now regard as “classics” were first serialized in papers, with the authors paid per word. Making ends meet being hard in those copyright-free times, authors had no option but to write long, long, long novels. Written one century after or before, in a different publishing system, most of Dumas’ or Dickens’ master works might have been considerably shorter.


    Comment by jonjermey — June 29, 2008 @ 10:16 am | Reply

  7. I agree entirely. Only, when you write “mainstream folks” I would have witten “folks searching to attain cultural legitimacy by reading what they perceive as significant mainstream fiction”. I believe the true “mainstream folks” usually appreciate an altogether different kind of mainstream fiction. They may read Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, and they generally obtain from these authors what they expect from mainstream fiction in a degree they would never attain by reading the pseudo-mainstream mystery novels of today; for this motive, when they like mystery fiction, they frequently know, and favor, its traditional and well defined form instead of the Pattersons, Kellermanns or Mankells. The public I had in mind, and that you mention, seems to me to be of a very different kind.

    I believe the drama of contemporary mystery fiction is this: it tries to “transcend the genre” (how many times the words “not a mere mystery novel” have appeared in blurbs in the last 30 years?), but by “transcending” it it merely plunges in to the Big Nothing of mainstream fiction, where it is not comparable to the Roths, Vonneguts or Pynchons but to an immense body of fiction that will become culturally irrelevant within 10 years (if that much). How many books by Julian Symons are in print? The “urge to be contemporary” is a sign of this. The novels by Rendell and James I mentioned in my previous post are typical. They show a struggle to gain literary dignity by showing an awareness of contemporary problems. But this is an immense mistake: virtually all of the greatest fictional works Humankind has produced are great precisely because they tackle the timeless and not merely what is going on at a given time (even if they also do this). Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is not a mere depiction of the Dresden bombings. Graham Greene’s The Power And The Glory is a great novel not because it denounces the religious persecutions of priests in Mexico (which it does) but because at its core it is concerned with the timeless problems of sin and redemption. In a supremely unpretentious way, Greene elevated the thriller to a standard in which it is comparable with previous literary masterpieces. Dostoievski in Brothers Karamazov and Chesterton with the Father Brown stories did the same with the mystery story, someone else may have done it and may do it again, but this is not what generally happens. That’s why I speak of pretentiousness: most of these authors are trying to attain something they will never be able to do. Instead they could have been fabulous no-nonsense mystery writers like the GAD writers.

    I also agree that Chandler and Highsmith are different in this respect. When I mentioned pretentiousness I didn’t mean to preclude literary quality. Risking to shock some fellow Group members, I even like some Chandler. But I don’t think “the latter [Highsmith] was arbitrarily pigeonholed as a suspense writer”. IMHO, Highsmith also chose to be a suspense writer. After reading her Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction I ceased to have any doubt about it. Her non-suspense output is minimal. She even admits to have tried to write a whodunit (The Game of Life, that is not so bad as she herself believed). Her discomfort with the label of mystery writer is also clear, though. And her obsession with literary respectability is, at best, naively bourgeois.

    Xavier is also obviously right in his remark about the serialization of 19th Century novels (Gaboriau’s Le Crime d’Orcival, which I recently re-read, being a masterful example!). And there certainly are other factor that explain the variations in book length over the times apart from the ones I mentioned in my previous post.

    Best regards,


    Comment by jonjermey — June 29, 2008 @ 10:17 am | Reply

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