Who Killed the Short Mystery Novel?
In the first post in this series, I described the methods by which I assembled a database of word counts for the top mystery novels. I summarized my findings regarding the entries appearing on the Crime Writers' Association and the Mystery Writers of America compilations of the 100 best mystery novels. Both of these lists were assembled in the 1990s, before the great list-flood of the internet in the ought-oughts and provide an idea as to which mystery novels are considered the best of the best. In this post, I will discuss my findings in more detail. I have also calculated numbers from the past fifty-five years of Edgar Award winners which I will begin to present here.
One of the conclusions which startled me is how many of the entries among the compilation of the greatest mystery novels were short novels: 38% of the CWA and MWA novels contained under 70,000 words. For those of you without an instinctive sense of word count numbers, the cut-off of 70,000 words worked out (on average) to be about 240 pages -- although this figure should be taken with a grain of salt: the page length of novels vary between editions.
The four novels at the top of the CWA/MWA list averaged under 59,000 words: Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time; John le Carré's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold; Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep; and, Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. Each of these works were lean and perfect: I did not feel cheated when I finished reading them.
The shortest "novels" ran 35,000 words or less: The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity by James M. Cain; The Third Man by Graham Greene.
The 70K Barrier.
Now, to back up a bit, several sites will advise mystery writers that 70,000 words is the bare minimum of words that an aspiring author should aim for. This advice is from Chuck Sambuchino of Writers Digest:
"Now, speaking broadly, you can have as few as 71,000 words and as many as 109,000 words. Below 70,000: Too short"
This is from a post by Jessica Faust of the BookEnds Literary Agency.
"In the case of mysteries 70,000 to 90,000 words will likely work for you."
And from the Literary Rejections blog:
"Mysteries / Thrillers / Suspense: 70,000 to 90,000."
With this tide of counsel, burgeoning authors might well be shy away from presenting a shorter work -- and that may be a good idea. Another way of looking at this is from the practical sense. If, for whatever reason, publishers today don't want shorter works, the agents are doing right by advising their prospective clients to bulk up their 60K novels. But should a prejudice against shorter works exist?
Note: some advice-givers make an allowance for short cozy mysteries. I can't claim to recognize the category of all of the CWA/MWA entries, but I did read the brief summaries of each (I performed an analysis of who were heroes and who were villains) and, with one or two exceptions, the lists seemed virtually cozy-free. I, The Jury, was not a cozy mystery.
So what happened to the short mystery novel?
It seems remarkable that such a dominant art form should all but disappear. Let's ask the first question: When did the short mystery novel disappear?
Or, from the flip side of the coin: when were those short novels published? The CWA/MWA list breaks down as follows.
Selections refers to the total number of selections in the CWA/MWA list for the given time period.
Undetermined refers to the number of novels for which word counts could not be determined.
Mean word count is derived from those novels with determined word counts.
<70K are the number of novels in the given time period with less than 70,000 words.
Percent <70K is the percentage of novels (with determined word counts) which were less than 70,000 words in the given time period.
A data-geek like me goes squee! any time the data actually tell a defined story. From the above table it can be seen that novels that were less than 70,000 words comprised a good chunk of the mystery novels published between 1900 and 1979 (cumulatively 48% of those recognized as being the best by the MWA and CWA). For the 1980s, which was represented by 30 books with word counts, only 10% were under 70k.
What is even more remarkable is that the 1970s with 24 books with word counts, twelve were under 71,000 words, while the other twelve averaged 123,723 words. A divergence was occurring. The short punchy works like those of Westlake and McBain coexisted with Lawrence Sanders' The First Deadly Sin (220,338 words) and le Carré (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 117,251 words and Smiley's People, 131,244 words).
Note: the prior volume by Lawrence Sanders, The Anderson Tapes had 78,077 words while Le Carré's previous outing with George Smiley was 68,355 words (The Looking Glass War).
The Edgar Award Winners.
A reader might say, okay, CWA/MWA lists cover the span of the history of mystery novels but these lists were composed in the 1990s and half of the selections on the list were written before 1962. What's been going on more recently? I decided to examine the last 55 years of the Edgar Award Winners for Best Novel and Best First Novel to look at how these trends might or might not extend to the present day. First Novels first.
Decades back, the Edgar Award for the First Novel maintained an eerie prescience in selecting authors who would go on to achieve great fame. (It may be doing this today, however it's too early to divine the career arc for the recent winners.) A sampling of winners from the time period of 1961 to 1980:
Year First novel award winner. Measures of success.
1961 Jack Vance. 11 mystery titles. Over 80 Sci-fi novels.
1963 Robert L. Fish. 33 books. The Edgars now present the Robert L. Fish award.
1965 Harry Kemelman, 12 highly popular novels.
1967 Ross Thomas. 25 novels.
1968 Michael Collins. 80 novels.
1970 Joe Gores. 23 books, many shorts.
1971 Lawrence Sanders. 36 novels.
1975 Gregory McDonald. 25 novels (Only 9 starred Fletch).
1976 Rex Burns. 17 novels and counting.
1977 James Patterson. Nobody knows what became of him. (All right, over 130 novels, 16 in 2014 alone.)
1979 William L. DeAndrea. 19 novels, 3 Edgars.
1980 Richard North Patterson. 22 novels.
I will go into the numbers in detail in my next post, but for now it suffices to note that the last ten years of the Edgars, zero of the First Novel Award winners had page counts of less than 300. This trend among the First Novel winners goes back to 1981. From 1981 to 2014, the novels averaged 355 pages. The twenty-two First Novel Award winners (one tie) between 1960 and 1980 averaged 229 pages with exactly one novel of over 300 pages. In the past twenty-five years, not one of the Best Mystery Novel winner of the Edgars has been under 300 pages. Which leads me to the conclusion: The short mystery novel died in 1981!
Coming up: Word Count Van Helsing, Part Three. The Unusual Suspects and the Killer(s).
The CWA/MWA lists ordered by year.