By Elaine Viets
Does your mind wander when you read the hot new thriller? Does that blockbuster mystery sag worse than a flophouse couch?
Yep, I’ve been running into lots of those: Highly touted bestsellers that make excellent doorstops.
This isn’t about how to fix the sagging middle in your novels. It’s a question about what causes them:
Are modern mysteries too long? Are we forced to produce bloated books?
Most commercial mysteries are 75,000 words or so. The average mystery weighs in at about 325 pages. Many are twice that size.
But thrillers and mysteries didn’t used to be so big. Once they were as slender as that deadly dame in black. Many Golden Age mysteries were 150 to 200 pages LESS than today’s mysteries.
Raymond Chandler’s The High Window was a scrawny 206 pages when it was published by Pocket Books in 1945. Curt Cannon’s I Like ’Em Tough (“Me?” he says, “I’m a down-and-out private eye with nothing to lose”) delivered 143 action-packed pages a princely 25 cents in 1958. Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale was 144 pages in 1953.
Makes you wonder if Fleming’s spy classic could be published today.
Or would an editor tell him, “Nice story, Ian, but you need to flesh it out a bit. Maybe add another subplot. Or get more of Vesper’s life before she met Bond to justify her actions. And we know almost nothing about Bond’s childhood. Clearly he’s got some daddy issues with M.”
Personally, I like the Bond novels better than the movies. Ian Fleming’s Bond in the original novels is more sensitive and less cartoonish than the man in the movies – and I’ve seen them all. For the record, I like Daniel Craig best as Bond, even better than Sean Connery.
By the way, if you haven’t read the original Bond novels, you’re missing some elegant writing.
Here’s the opening to Casino Royale: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – become unbearable, and the senses awake and revolt from it.
“James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired.”
And so the adventure starts and “hums with tension,” according to Time magazine.
The plot is clean and unburdened by armchair psychology. The ending is swift, free of the current trends for corkscrew plotting.
As the end of the contemporary overcomplicated doorstop nears, I find myself saying, “Yes, he did it! I knew it was the American tourist. No, wait, it was the Russian! No, not the Russian, the undercover CIA agent who betrayed his country. Wrong again! It was his gay lover, who wanted revenge.”
When the book finally ends, I’m so exhausted, I don’t much care.
Hardcovers are $25 to $30 now. Maybe we’d have more readers if we wrote smaller books.
Maybe we’re breaking that important writing rule: Less is more.