Saturday, April 25, 2015

Word Count Van Helsing, Part Three.

Who Killed the Short Mystery Novel? The Unusual Suspects and the Killer(s).

As I have put forward in Parts One and Two of this series, short mystery novels were a prominent part of the history of mystery. For those selected to be on either of the two top 100 mystery novels lists, one compiled by the Crime Writers' Association and the other by the Mystery Writers of America, 48% of the novels published from 1900 to 1979 were less than 70K words. During the 1980s, that number dropped to 10%.

I made a similar point about the Edgar Award winners in the category of debut novels. In this case, the gold standard of novel length, word counts, was not always available. For the 55 years of winning debut novels which I examined, word counts could be estimated for 28/56 (and only one of the 11 winners in the 1960s). Page counts could be found for all of the novels and, beginning in the 1980s, the number of pages increased from 218 pages to 368 for the most recent (last 16) winners.

For the Edgar Award for the Best Mystery Novel, word counts could be found for 46 of the 55 most recent winners going back to 1960. Here, the trend towards longer novels was equally pronounced. For the 1960s, the novels averaged 69,532 words. For the 2010s, so far, 123,304 words.

Edgar Award Winners Debut Novels.

Decade pages word count number with word counts
1960s 217.9 60001             1 of 11 (1 tie)
1970s 237.9 68264             5 of 10
1980s 304.5 111305            4 of 10
1990s 363.6 96203             6 of 10
2000s 380.6 107071            8 of 10
2010s 368.4 108722            4 of 5

Edgar, Best Mystery Novels.

Decade pages word count number with word counts
1960s 256.0 69532            8 of 10
1970s 285.9 78314            8 of 10
1980s 290.4 90137            5 of 10
1990s 365.1 100968          10 of 10
2000s 381.0 112700          10 of 10
2010s 384.0 123304           5 of 5

Word counts could be estimated for the last 25 years for the winners of Best Mystery Novel. Not one was less than 80,000 words. Words per page did not greatly change over the decades. For the Best Mystery Novels, there were 312.9 words per page in the 1960s, and 307.1 in the past 15 years.

So who killed the short mystery novel? 

As I stated in the last post, the disappearance of the short mystery novel began in 1981. In this year, the Edgar Awards were presented on June 20th. This helps us narrow down the list of suspects.

Rogues Gallery of 1981:

  • In television, The Brady Brides debuts and is cancelled after ten episodes. Suspect: Jan Brady. Motive: Marcia drove her crazy with jealousy. Alibi: Off the air in April, two months before the Edgars.
  • In cinema, one week before the Edgar Awards, Raiders of the Lost Ark premiered. Suspect: Nazis. Motive: They're Nazis. (I hate these guys.)
  • In mystery novels, "Who Censored Roger Rabbit?" is published, later made into the movie, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" Suspect: Doom. Motive: A desire to eliminate public transport which is great for reading short novels.
  • On April 19th, the New York Times Best Sellers List for Adult Fiction, the novel, "The Covenant" by James Michener, concluded a run of 25 weeks in the number one position, bumped off by Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith. Evidence: The Covenant ran 1201 pages. Seriously, dude, 1201 pages?  Audio recording: 3325 minutes. Estimated word count, 505,067.

So, James Michener was the killer? But wait, a surprise twist!
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The novel, "Noble House," by James Clavell, dominated the New York Times Best Sellers List for Adult Fiction settling in at number one for 15 weeks, covering the entire summer, including the time of the Edgars. It was 1154 pages. Unabridged audio recording: 45 hours 21 minutes. Estimated word count: 414,079.

Conclusion: The James Gang, led by Michener and Clavell, in a psychotic literary pact, killed the short mystery novel.

Coming up: Did the short mystery novel have to die?

 Never Kill A Friend, Available June 15, 2015

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