The Campaign for Shorter Crime Novels

A pile of slim crime novels.

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.

Here are estimated word counts based on various sources including MetaFilter, readinglength.com and howlongtoread.com:

  • 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.

Haunted by St. James’s Square, the square that isn’t there

St. James’s Square – an entire piece of the Georgian city of Bristol that simply doesn’t exist in 2021 – intrigues me.

My current novel project is set in Bristol in the 1950s when much of the city centre had been destroyed or damaged in the Blitz and post-war rebuilding was just getting underway. I have my protagonist living in what remains of St. James’s Square which means I’ve had to try to get a feel for this stolen place.

It’s not only that the buildings have been demolished – the pattern of the streets has fundamentally changed, like the site of some atrocity everybody wants to forget. What is there now? A chain hotel forecourt and a dual carriageway, pointedly cutting across the old lines.

Making my way to work from Horfield to the city centre for several years, I walked over the grave of St James’s Square most mornings and often stopped to see if I could find any trace at all. 

Cumberland Street, behind St James’s Square.

Cumberland Street, which runs behind the brutalist slabs of the Hilton and Holiday Inn, is the last connection. Enter it from Brunswick Square, pass the surviving red-brick Georgian terrace and you’ll eventually reach a pedestrian footpath that goes under and through the hotel. It always feels to me as if, on the right day, at the right time, that footpath might lead to St James’s Square, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1925 story ‘He’. It’s never happened yet, unfortunately.

The passageway that ought to lead to the square but doesn’t.

The surviving Brunswick and Portland squares also offer hints of how their missing sibling might have felt. Laid out in a line, the three were constructed one after the other, St James’s Square being the first, with houses in place by 1716. Enclosed and private, clamshell hoods over every door, it perhaps felt more like a relic of the 17th century than its larger, grander siblings. But squint, catch the right angle, and there’s surely a family resemblance. Look into the corners, away from the garden and eccentrically designed church, and Portland Square in particular catches something of the feel of the photographs of St James’s Square I’ve seen.

Ruined buildings.
Portland Square – is this Blitz damage?

Yes, there are photographs. Old Bristol was particularly well-photographed compared to some cities and between Know Your Place, the Bristol Post archive and the comprehensive works of Reece Winstone, I’ve harvested quite a few images. Two of my favourites, though, are in Walter Ison’s book Georgian Buildings of Bristol, first published in 1952.

A Georgian square.
SOURCE: The Georgian Buildings of Bristol, Walter Ison, 1952.

Other pictures online capture St James’s Square in its later years, approaching its doom. As happened in many British cities, Georgian houses built for gentlefolk became workshops, warehouses and institutional buildings. There was a large YMCA hall, for example. From the 1920s onward, Ison says, “its disintegration was rapid”:

During the late war more than half the total of houses, including the forest and least spoiled, was destroyed, and only the mutilated and disfigured ranges on the north and east sides remain… The surviving north row consists of two double-houses, Nos 6 and 7, and two single houses, Nos 8 and 9… These fronts have been suffered greatly in appearance by the partial removal of the crowning cornice, and by the brickwork having been rendered and generally defaced by painted signs.

This is the St James’s Square in which parts of my novel are set – a square that is no longer square, facing demolition. Portland Square, again, helps catch a little of how that might have felt, with half of the west side of the square still occupied by miraculously extant tottering ruins.

A little further away, across Stokes Croft and up the hill towards Kingsdown, there is also King Square – formerly genteel houses, sign-covered commercial properties and discarded strong cider cans piled around the wastebins.

St James’s Square, the square that isn’t there, disappeared for good in the 1960s, making way for new roads and a roundabout suitable for mid-20th century traffic. As local historian Eugene Byrne has written, “As you wait at the traffic lights where Bond Street joins the St James Barton roundabout, you are on the spot where the YMCA Hall used to be.”

I hope that reading my book will bring the Square back from the dead, even if I’ve taken some artistic licence to create a single surviving townhouse in that post-war period where my lead character lives, surrounded by dusty Georgian furniture and faded paintings, soon to be displaced.

The local weirdo

Corrupt police officer

Another important strand of The Grave Digger’s Boy (due out in about three weeks) is what happens when the police imprison the wrong person.

Not only is justice left undone but also a new injustice compounds the original evil.

The detective who acts on unerringly correct gut feeling is a standard trope in crime fiction. They’re plagued by bureaucrats and do-gooders who insist on the following of due process, or let creeps walk free for the trivial reason that there’s no real evidence.

In extreme examples, they bend or break the law to achieve justice – a fascist fantasy, essentially, in the Death Wish or Dirty Harry school.

I’m sure that in real life, police officers who falsify evidence or bend the rules often think they’re doing the right thing. But sometimes, it’s just about ticking a box, getting promoted, or fame.

That’s what I wanted to explore in The Grave Digger’s Boy with reference to some real life cases.

Though my book is primarily set in Devon, one important touchstone, for example, is the case of the New York City detective Louis Scarcella.

During the crack boom of the 1980s and 90s, Scarcella planted evidence, coached witnesses and forged statements to convict people for crimes they didn’t commit with the primary aim of advancing his career. In particular, he convinced one woman, a drug addict, to give false testimony in case after case.

When the truth emerged recently, every conviction he had achieved was thrown into doubt. At the time of writing, fourteen people have had their convictions overturned and about another 60 are still under review.

There’s a fantastic account from the perspective of one of the men Scarcella framed, Derrick Hamilton, in this 2016 article by Jennifer Gonnerman from the New Yorker:

The detective, Louis Scarcella, then thirty-nine, reminded Hamilton of the actor Joe Pesci, as he swaggered about the room, brandishing a cigar. But what Hamilton remembered most clearly, he says, is that Scarcella told him that “he didn’t care whether I did it or not, because I didn’t serve enough time for my previous case, and I would be going back to jail.”

Another story I find awfully fascinating is that of Colin Stagg – the ‘local weirdo’ who was the obvious, easy suspect in the murder of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common in 1992.

Based, we now know, on little more than guesswork, flawed psychological profiling and prejudice, the police tried and failed to convict him. They used desperate measures, including getting an undercover police officer to flirt with him, encouraging him to confess to the murder and give details under the pretence that she found it arousing.

Even after the conviction collapsed, so convinced were police they’d had their man that they failed to relaunch a proper investigation. That left the actual murderer, Robert Napper, free to continue offending for more than a year when he was imprisoned for a different offence, and Stagg spent a decade being treated by the press as a murderer who had ‘got away with it’. His name was only cleared when Napper was convicted in 2004.

There are lots of instances of the police latching on to ‘local weirdos’ – Stefan Kiszko, Christopher Jefferies and Barry George (Bulsara) are other notable examples – and they’re depressing for various reasons.

First, they reveal how little tolerance our society has for people who are developmentally challenged, mentally ill or just a bit different.

How many of us can say honestly that when we saw Christopher Jefferies on TV during the investigation into the murder of Joanna Yeates we doubted his guilt? The police seemed sure; there was something unnerving about his manner; and the story seemed to tie up so neatly.

But he didn’t do it. He was just a man who fit our collective idea of what a murderer might look like, and who was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Secondly, then, what makes these stories worrying is the same thread Alfred Hitchcock so often pulled upon – how many innocent people are in prison right now?

And what must it be like to be The Wrong Man?

If they really wanted to, could the police make you look and sound like the kind of misfit who might murder someone? A particular hazard for crime writers, I suppose: “He obsessively read about murder, closely followed police investigations and even kept notebooks with the details of how people were killed…”

Things are further complicated by people like Levi Bellfield. He was convicted for the murders of three young women, including Milly Dowler, between 2002 and 2004.

Bellfield is thought to have murdered and abducted many more victims from around 1980 which is why when he confessed to the 1996 killings of Lin and Megan Russell, police took it seriously.

If he was found to have committed that crime it would have meant that Michael Stone, imprisoned since 1998, was innocent.

But investigators concluded that Bellfield couldn’t have done it and that his motive for confessing was probably to cause pain to the families of the victims.

What The Grave Digger’s Boy explores is the difficulty of ever really feeling sure that anyone is innocent or guilty. It also shows how quickly and easily we turn what we know into a narrative, filling in any gaps with assumptions and imagined details.

Humans are programmed to discern patterns and narratives. Unfortunately, sometimes, the conclusions we draw mean that innocent people go to prison while the guilty walk free.