Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Word Count Van Helsing, Part Five.

Did the Short Mystery Novel Have to Die?
Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four

Short novels make up some of the greatest representatives of the mystery art form. The following is excerpted from the first 30 selections of the combined American/British Mystery/Crime writers associations list of the top 100 mystery novels of all time. Presented in the table below are those novels with less than 70,000 words. By this standard, a full thirteen of the top thirty selections were short. 

These MWA and CWA lists were compiled in the 1990s and therefore the novels come from a time before that. In contrast, if you look at the past 25 years of the Edgar Awards for Best Mystery Novels, not a single selection ran less than 80,000 words. What happened?

Let's go back in time. The development of mysteries over the course of the 20th century were in part driven by the presence of the pulp magazines and cheap novels of the 30s through the 50s. Several of the all-time classics from that period were pulpy, punchy and short, for example: The Maltese Falcon, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and I, The Jury. Many of the first generation of pulp writers had passed on by the time the seventies rolled in. Their immediate heirs were not supported by the pulp magazines but did continue the tradition of reasonably short novels, often with gumshoes in starring roles. These authors included Ross MacDonald, John D. MacDonald, Gregory McDonald and several others of the MacDonald clan.

A second tradition comprised a large part of this period of mysteries. Beginning in the 1920s and continuing through the 1940s there existed the golden age of detectives. During this era Anthony Berkeley, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, among others, wrote pithy, compelling novels. Agatha Christie continued on producing short novel bestsellers until the 1970s. These novels were often brief because they were dominated by the puzzle. But why did the "puzzle" mysteries disappear?

Other than the works of Agatha Christie, few novels on the New York Times Adult Fiction Bestseller Lists of the 1960s and 70s were brief. The lists were dominated by masters of the monster-sized novel: James Michener, James Clavell, Arthur Hailey, Leon Uris, and Herman Wouk. (On occasion, an author such as Erich Segal snuck in with Love Story at 28854 words. And then there was hard-to-explain phenomenon of Jonathan Livingston Seagull...)

Part of the explanation for word inflation comes from the fact that writers tend to write longer pieces as they mature, and, in the seventies, we did get a major crop of new writers , including James Patterson, Lawrence Sanders and Stephen King. Carrie, the first novel by King, ran about 66,000 words. Now, he is a major cause of deforestation. P.D. James wrote Agatha Christie-length novels in the sixties and then went on to write 200,000-plus words per book

Is this increasing bulk in part due to a lack of judicious editing? I enjoyed Stieg's Millennium trilogy, but I did wonder why I was reading the entire content of a bag of groceries. Is this lack of editing in part due to the relatively new phenomenon of the star power of authors? When reading Hannibal, I asked myself, do I really need an essay on the breeding of pigs for their teeth number? (I was thinking to myself: yep, Harris, you definitely researched that.)

I suspect that Alex Haley's Roots may have contributed to the demise of short novels. Published in 1976, at 278,020 words, it was adapted into a new form of television presentation: the mini-series. Running over several nights, it became the most watched program of all time. The market began rewarding supersized bestsellers. The Thorn Birds, Trinity, and Shogun became the prized standards for fiction.

Regardless of what caused the fattening of the mystery novel, did the short novel have to die? If novels such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Big Sleep, or And Then There Were None were released today, would they not succeed?

One final matter. Isn't it economically advantageous to a publisher to publish 60,000 to 70,000 word books? It saves on editing time and production costs. The reader finishes the book more rapidly and is ready for another. When done correctly, a quick read makes for a fun and bracing diversion. It is time to revive a lost art form.

Coming June 2015, Ransom Note Press


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