Monday, September 13, 2021

Sometimes less is more

John Corrigan's post a few days ago about short novels resonated with me.

My crime reading tastes were honed by Ed McBain and his 87th Precinct novels.

(At this point, there will be people here in the UK rolling their eyes and murmuring here he goes again. For 'tis true, I have waxed lyrical about McBain many a time and oft. But bear with me).

Anyway, when they began they were short. I mean, unfeasibly short by today's standards. The first, COP HATER, came in at around 170 pages. The next two - THE MUGGER and THE PUSHER - at even less. 

Immortal characters were created. Scenarios etched. A city built from scratch. Believable dialogue echoed from page to ear. They didn't need to be any longer than they were.

All three were published in the same year - 1956 - and were viewed as pulp. Mere ingredients to keep the paperback pot boiling.

Of course, as the years passed and the stature of the series grew so did the pagination. 

But think about it. Three fully realised tales in the reading space that many of today's novels take to tell one.

Agatha Christie's seldom breached the 200 page mark. Chandler's THE BIG SLEEP was even less. FAREWELL MY LOVELY crept closer to the double century. The edition of THE LONG GOODBYE I have is barely 250 pages. 

And Hammett's THE MALTESE FALCON? A stonking great 189 pages. THE DAIN CURSE just under 200 pages.

These are classics, folks. These are the books that have lived on through the decades. 

Of course, I'm using my copies as reference. Different editions may be longer, even shorter. It's all down to the font used, type size, even the size of pages. I've seen a version of THE LONG GOODBYE listed at 450 pages, thus living up to its title. You must be able to see that type from the moon.

But, I hear you say, we have more depth now and that may well be true. I'm not here to cast aspersions on modern day books.

As the McBain books progressed,  crime fiction began taking more than a few pages from the blockbuster genre which in the 1950s, 60s and 70s tended to run to the doorstop size. Harold Robbins' THE CARPETBAGGERS was around 650 pages, as was Irwin Shaw's RICH MAN, POOR MAN. James Jones' FROM HERE TO ETERNITY even longer. I lost my copy years ago but if memory serves it was a bugle note below 1,000 pages.

And let's not even go the James Clavell route. Yes, NOBLE HOUSE, I'm looking at you. It's a book I felt needed a series of gym workouts before I could even consider picking it up.

But these were massive sagas. Without discussing their literary merits, which to be frank I'm not interested in (I just want to be entertained when reading these books), they were busy books with lots of characters, lots going on and when I read them I wasn't aware of any padding. Perhaps there was. Perhaps I've become more critical in my old age.

So what's my point? 

Well, I think a book - any book - should be as long as it needs to be. It is true that - in my opinion - there are reads today which go on a bit longer than they need to. That also goes for movies and TV series, which can be also be guilty of having plot lines that deserve a certain running time but end up with considerably more. 

McBain, Christie et al felt no need to extend their books for, in truth, back then they didn't need to. Styles, tastes, needs change however and much of the reading public want - no, demand - heftier reads. In crime fiction's case, more bang for their buck. At least in physical copies. Direct to digital can be different.

I drew just as much enjoyment from my 150 page McBains as I do from today's 400-500 modern crime thrillers. Sometimes more. I didn't feel cheated. I didn't take to social media to complain (not that I could back then. It was a simpler, even happier time).

And, in the spirit of the subject, there I will leave it. 


Anna said...

I faithfully followed one of the most famous and well-established crime writers
(who has generously publicized her complex writing methods) until her books got so long, plot-involved, heavily populated, and heavy (re: pages per pound) that I stopped reading her a few books ago. I had simply finished the recent one in a state of exhaustion. Douglas, I'm right with you. There are still simpler happier books worth reading, and I'll happily take them.

Douglas Skelton said...

I'm all for a complex read as long as the characters, dialogue and plot are engaging. It's when they have been stretched far beyond their welcome that gets to me, whether on page or screen.