Crime novels, current wisdom dictates, should be around 80,000 words long. That’s enough to fill 300-400 pages and so feel like good value to a contemporary reader. The problem is, that’s too long.
Most of my favourite crime novelists wrote short and lean. Ed McBain, Georges Simenon, Gladys Mitchell, Ruth Rendell, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Sjöwall & Wahlöö… All of these writers produced classics at around 150-220 pages, or 50-60,000 words.
- Chandler, The Big Sleep – 57,000
- McBain, Sadie When She Died – 55,000
- Rendell, A Judgement in Stone, 59,000
- Sjöwall & Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman – 60,000
- Simenon, The Yellow Dog – 40,000
When I’m deciding what to read, I’m often drawn to slim paperbacks – the kind that fit in your inside pocket. It’s partly about time and patience, of course, but that tight page count also signals efficient writing.
Maybe longer crime novels are better
Perhaps the fact that crime novels have grown longer is good news. Perhaps it means they’re deeper and more complex. Well, not in my experience.
Last year, I made a point of reading a stack of recently published books to help me improve the commercial prospects of my own work-in-progress. While I enjoyed most of what I read, and even recommended some of those books to other people, I did notice quite a bit of what felt like padding.
For example, one character spent a lot of time in Waitrose browsing ready meals. Then unpacking her shopping. Then cooking per the instructions given on the packaging. Then eating while pondering an office romance.
The protagonist of another book undertook renovation work on a flat. This had nothing to do with the plot; it did not reveal anything much about the character other than that they weren’t very good at DIY; and slowed the story down when it should have been accelerating.
You might say diversions like the above add realism and make characters more relatable but I can’t help thinking that if the target word count had been 60,000 words, these would have been the first sections lost to the red pen of a surgical editor. Or, at least, condensed to a single line: ‘She spent too long at the supermarket choosing what to eat for dinner, ate alone, and fell asleep on the sofa.’
I’m a slasher… of words
The first draft of my current project is finished at just over 70,000 words. The voice of the industry is telling me to flog it to 80,000 words, somehow – perhaps by introducing an aimless sub-plot or two, a prologue that will probably annoy people, or some extended moping and brooding by my protagonist.
But my own instinct is in the other direction. I want to hack away at descriptions, get characters from A to B faster and make the dialogue more sparse. If I follow that urge, I reckon I’ll be left with – hey, fancy that! – about 60,000 words.
General writing advice agrees: kill your darlings, remove filler words, combine or remove characters, make sure every scene moves the plot forward or develops your characters, and so on.
I think I’ve decided that I want to write a tight, economical crime novel of the type I like to read. That might well reduce its already slim chances of getting published – “Yeah, thanks for sending us half a book – are you planning to write the rest of it at some point?” – but it will feel right to me.
Although evidence seems to suggest that readers are hungry for long books, I’m hopeful the tide might turn. There’s certainly a growing backlash against films that don’t earn running times of more than two hours and I’m certainly drawn to anything at 90 minutes or less.