What happened to the short mystery novel?
April 27, 2015 5:03 PM   Subscribe

In my blog, I've been running analyses of the length of mystery novels and have found that the short mystery novel has waned as an art form, the fall-off seeming to begin in the 1980s. Does someone know why?

For example, from 1960 to 1979, the median length of novels that won the Edgar Award for Best Mystery* was 72001 words. Since 1980 the median word count of Edgar Winners Best Mystery has been 102533.

Did something change in the publishing business that caused this?

*(I realize this is only one means of measure. I do have others and I would invite still more that could be easily researched. One possibility is that short mystery novels are still being published, but not being recognized, which is another puzzle.)
posted by dances_with_sneetches to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Same thing happened in SF/F. Here's MeFi's own cstross explaining the reasons.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:15 PM on April 27, 2015 [6 favorites]

One possibility is that short mystery novels are still being published, but not being recognized, which is another puzzle.

I think this is it. Hard Case Crime still does shorter novels (old and new), and many cozies seem to be of the "shorter" lengths.

Books generally are getting longer, and I think Edgar judges are going to favor longer, deeper books.
posted by Etrigan at 5:16 PM on April 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Complete guess, but it feels right that for both SF and mystery, as Charles Stross explains, the cause is the same: the demise of the pulps. Even mystery novelists of the 40s/50s like Raymond Chandler published much of their work in magazines -- and that goes for the next generation, too, from John D. MacDonald to Donald Westlake. Even though the latter two switched mainly to novels by the second half of their careers, my guess is that the genre was formed by people who were accustomed to writing 5,000- or 10,000-word magazine stories. As that form disappeared, it took a while for the current length of novels to evolve.
posted by goingonit at 5:30 PM on April 27, 2015

Best answer: I think it might be related to the trend towards more character-based and/or socially-conscious mysteries. If you think about someone like Agatha Christie, her characters were basically puzzle-pieces, and she wasn't that concerned with motivation except as a key to the puzzle. In 1970, you were just starting to see the rise of people like P.D. James, who were much more interested in exploring the interior life of both their suspects and their detectives and the social contexts in which those people acted. I think that mysteries got longer as they become less like puzzles and more like character studies or studies of particular social milieus.

I could be totally wrong about that, though.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:40 PM on April 27, 2015

You know, looking over a list of the actual Edgar winners, I'm going to say that I was totally wrong about that!

I think a fun project might be to go through and read all the Edgar winners. I'm going to put that on my to-do list.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:44 PM on April 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

In 1978, word processors were limited to the most forward looking of newspaper newsrooms. Five years later, every professional writer but ardent technophobes had one. Word processors made it FAR easier to write, edit and prepare for publication longer manuscripts.

The pre-word-processor novelist wrote his first and sometimes second draft in longhand on legal pads, typed (or paid to have typed) each subsequent draft, with copious cutting and pasting (that is to say, LITERAL cutting and pasting). There were HUGE efficiency returns to writing at shorter length.
posted by MattD at 9:21 PM on April 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

... and as with many many other creative and performing arts, tremendous style and aesthetics developed around the technical limitations of form, including the admiral concision of the post-war genre novel.
posted by MattD at 9:23 PM on April 27, 2015

Response by poster: Hello, again. I find Charles Stross's blog post interesting and a partial answer to the mystery of the mysteries.

First of all, mysteries were in part driven by the pulps in the 30s through 50s. If you look at several of the all-time classics from that period you will find pulpy short novels, for example: Maltese Falcon, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and I, The Jury. These writers disappeared by the time the 60s rolled in (exception Spillane). Their immediate heirs which were not supported by the pulp magazines, continued the tradition of reasonably short novels (Ross MacDonald, John D. MacDonald, Gregory McDonald and several other McDonalds).

Now, it should be noted, that these mystery novels were not being published directly to paperback. The popular authors of this time (60s to 70s) were hardback and short.

There was a second tradition to mystery that was not reflected in the fantasy/sci fi market. This was the golden age of detectives. Dorothy L Sayers (not short novels), Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen (short novels). Agatha Christie continued on producing short novel bestsellers until the 1970s. It was noted that she used her characters as pieces of puzzles rather than looking at psychological depth. Fine. But why did "puzzle" mysteries disappear?

I don't buy the "word processor" theory. I've been looking at the New York Times Adult Fiction Bestseller Lists of the 1960s and 70s for word counts and they were dominated by monster books: James Michener, James Clavell, Leon Uris, Herman Wouk. They gloried in the 800 plus page novel. (Although, Erich Segal did sneak in there with "Love Story," 28854 words. And then there was Jonathan Livingston Seagull...)

There is one other aspect to the story that I don't see a ready explanation for. Novels like "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold." Reasonably short (shorter, for example than any of the Edgar Winners of the last 25 years). It is not pulpy. It is genuine great literature. And yet nothing short matches it these days. In fact, Le Carré, is now known for long novels. And there are many other similar examples.

Some of it just comes from writers just writing longer as they go along. Carrie, by Stephen 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 it because of 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? (I was thinking to myself: yep, Harris, you definitely researched that.)

And another question. Isn't it economically advantageous to a publisher to publish 60,000 to 70,000 word books? It saves on editing time. The reader finishes the book more rapidly and is ready for another.

Finally, I feel a sense of loss. This is from the database of word counts that I prepared from the lists of the Top 100 best mystery novels (the British list and the American list). These are those under 60,000 words.

author: work, year, pages, word count
Graham Greene: The Third Man, 1950, 160, 28402
James M. Cain: Double Indemnity, 1943, 115, 30072
James M. Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1934, 116, 35000
Edgar Wallace: The Four Just Men, 1906, 127, 37586
John Buchan: The Thirty-Nine Steps 1915, 225, 41807
Simon Brett: What Bloody Man Is That?, 1987, 184, 47083
Josephine Tey: The Daughter of Time, 1951, 212, 48450
Rex Stout: The Doorbell Rang, 1965, 193, 50728
Walter Mosley: Devil in a Blue Dress, 1990, 228, 50880
Tony Hillerman: Dance Hall of the Dead, 1973, 242, 51056
Margaret Millar: Beast in View, 1955, 176, 51184
George V. Higgins: The Friends of Eddie Coyle, 1972, 190, 51639
Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None, 1939, 199, 52656
Mickey Spillane: I, the Jury, 1947, 160, 53310
Gregory Mcdonald: Fletch, 1974, 197, 54677
Donald E. Westlake: Bank Shot, 1972, 189, 54829
Mary Higgins Clark: Where Are the Children?, 1975, 274, 54870
Ed McBain: Sadie When She Died, 1972, 200, 55132
Ira Levin: Rosemary's Baby, 1967, 245, 56044
Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep, 1939, 234, 56955
Geoffrey Household: Rogue Male, 1939, 189, 56955
Arthur Conan Doyle: The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902, 128, 57689
J. J. Marric: Gideon's Day, 1955, 216, 58018
Vera Caspary: Laura, 1942, 236, 58170
Dashiell Hammett: The Glass Key, 1931, 224, 58170
Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express, 1934, 336, 58514
Ruth Rendell: A Judgement in Stone, 1977, 209, 58626
Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest, 1929, 224, 58778
Agatha Christie: Death Comes as the End, 1945, 272, 59311
Ed McBain: Cop Hater, 1956, 224, 59385
Ruth Rendell: A Demon in My View, 1976, 228, 59537
Donald E. Westlake: The Hot Rock, 1970, 306, 59537
Caryl Brahms & S. J. Simon: A Bullet in the Ballet, 1937, 159, 59993
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:42 AM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think it would be interesting to look at bestsellers, rather than award winners or things that are on best-of lists. My sense is that there are still a lot of pretty short, puzzle-y mysteries, but they're less likely to be recognized by critics or award committees. I also see a lot of short, lighthearted mysteries with punny titles and "fun" settings: this kind of thing, which I would never in a million years read voluntarily but which definitely seem to have a market.

Personally, I want to know why the Edgar winners list gets so brutally male-dominated after 1970, but I think that's probably a separate question!
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:12 AM on April 28, 2015

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