Nearly a month ago, I parted company with Louise Penny, for the simple reason that she and I no longer get on together – literarily, that is. When I inaugurated a new era of Kindle reading, I read all her novels in one fell swoop and, despite a lingering affection for Armand Gamache and his Three Pines compatriots, I found Penny’s books lacking in the mystery department.
Saying goodbye to Elizabeth George is a more complicated affair. I have been intimately acquainted with her work for nearly thirty years now, ever since A Great Deliverance (1988) marked her debut as a writer. I actually met George – twice! – and was taken with her intelligence and generosity. (She even wrote this budding writer a lovely letter of encouragement!) Still, her latest tome, A Banquet of Consequences, feels like the proverbial straw, so I think it’s time to call it a day.
If you are at all familiar with George’s work, you know that her novels comprise one part murder mystery and one part soap opera and that they are very very long. Fans of George have been enamored of both her dark, twisty plots and of the trials and tribulations of her hero, the aristocratic Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley (who shares far too many traits with other “steeped in nobility” sleuths, from later Peter Wimsey to Roderick Alleyn, Adam Dalgliesh, and Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury) and his strikingly odd partnership with the far more interesting working stiff, Sergeant Barbara Havers, who can’t seem to catch a break in either her professional or personal life. The saga (and “saga” truly describes it, as in “long, involved story”) of this pair, and of the small company of supporting players who orbit around them, has so far comprised nineteen novels consisting of twelve thousand, two hundred eleven pages – an average length of 643 pages per novel. Several titles are actually over nine hundred pages long!!!
In this latest doorstop of a book, Havers’ career is once again on the line. After her last disastrous case (Just One Evil Act), where she struck out on her own to save her neighbor/friend/potential paramour’s young kidnapped daughter, wreaked havoc in Italy, and solved a murder case that left every person in her life, including herself, emotionally devastated, Barbara has been forced to sign a transfer order that her Superintendent now holds over her head as a threat unless she toes the line. But Lynley, who knows Barbara well, sees that “toeing the line” actually inhibits Havers from doing her best work, and he steps in to try and help his hapless ex-partner (the “ex” business comprises another saga) prove her worth to Superintendent Ardery.
The case in question is particularly grubby, and it centers around two women: noted feminist author Clare Abbott and her personal assistant, the odious Caroline Goldacre, whose family – husbands, sons, their spouses and lovers – form the suspect list when murder rears its ugly head. Over the course of six hundred and eight pages, which seem to stretch into infinity, Havers and Lynley unearth one sickening secret after another as they attempt to unmask a ruthless killer. This certainly resembles the structure of a “fair play” mystery, but alas! there’s nothing remotely fair play about this book. Rather, it’s a long slog of procedural activity, displaying little to no sleuthing acumen along the lines of Hercule Poirot. In fact, most of the salient evidence is uncovered by sheer luck, and the conclusions drawn from each clue are invariably wrong. What is particularly frustrating about this pattern of discovery is that the solution to the whole plot is incredibly obvious, hinging on an early exchange between two characters that remains unresolved for hundreds and hundreds of pages and is never uncovered by the sleuthing team. It all leads to a shockingly dissatisfying denouement that is sure to rile anyone possessed of even a whiff of a sense of justice.
In between, we are treated to dozens and dozens of scenes that inch each character’s arc forward just a bit: the conflict between Clare, Carolyn and Clare’s devoted lesbian editor Rory; the oh so slowly developed love story between Carolyn’s second husband Alastair and his employee Sharon, a woman so loving and perfect as to be almost unbearable (as a topper in ludicrous character traits, every time Sharon displays an element of goodness, Alastair develops an erection); the slow unearthing of Carolyn’s true nature as a horrible woman, person, wife and mother in every way, all of which could have been avoided had she remembered the Number One Rule: never push “send” after writing an angry e-mail. Meanwhile, on the soap opera side, we are treated to further developments in Lynley’s troubled new love relationship with Daidre the veterinarian, as well as Barbara’s trouble-plagued attempts first to fit in at Scotland Yard (through a series of comic misadventures that are decidedly unfunny and really make no sense for this character) and then to prove her worth by solving the case all by herself. Since Havers has acquired no sense of tact or decorum after twelve thousand pages of detecting, she is assigned a partner in the person of Sergeant Winston Nkata, who makes every right decision in the story and deserves all the credit for any correct procedure in this investigation. (He also cooks like a dream and loves his mother, another of George’s disquieting “saints.”)
Now, listen: I love long novels – I’m a Dickens and Dostoevsky fan from way back. I’ll also be the first to admit to a lifetime love of soap operas. I grew up on Dark Shadows! I watched All My Children for its entire run! But questions arise here, and a deconstruction of Banquet provides the opportunity for discussion of the following:
- How long should a mystery be? Just when does a detective novel become too long?
- In the war between SAM and SIS (the Stand Alone Mystery vs. the Serial Investigative Saga), where does the quality of imbuing your regular characters with a rich backstory and a continuing personal narrative independent of the crimes they solve become a disadvantage?
- Regarding the propensity of modern detective fiction to eschew the puzzle element and favor psychological complexity, when – if ever – is complex characterization a detriment to bringing off a good murder mystery?
There is no doubt that the mystery has evolved in a more striking way over the years than any other type of genre fiction. Science fiction continues to mirror the preoccupations of the times. Perhaps the romance novel has gotten more . . . explicit (Hello, Mr. Grey!), or maybe it’s just the covers, but the purport of your average bodice ripper remains the same. Perhaps fantasy novels have been inculcated with more elements of regular literature in order to increase the audience base beyond the gratified fanboys and fangirls who devour them. (Thank you, George R.R. Martin . . . I think!) One still has to commit to embracing an alternate universe with more rules than the bidding system for bridge!
But even as far back as the 1930’s, the height of popularity for the Golden Age of Detection, some of its progenitors like Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley were descrying the form’s limitations. (And for this information we are truly grateful to author Martin Edwards, whose must-read book, The Golden Age of Murder, plus his commentary in Taking Detective Stories Seriously, a marvelous compendium of Sayers’ book reviews, provides keen insight into how both these authors forced the evolution of the genre.) Sayers and Berkeley asked why the mystery couldn’t tackle some of the more serious elements of general fiction, providing richer language, better characterization and historical context, as well as deeper thematic resonance, rather than maintain the rigidity of a puzzle plot.
Most of Sayers’ peers essentially ignored her advice, and the puzzle ruled over all other elements for most of the Golden Age. (To these folks I say: “Hurrah, huzzah, and a million kisses!”) For them, the plotting, involving the author’s inherent contract with the reader to provide us with a mystifying series of events and to challenge us to figure the whole mess out, dominated the proceedings.
It couldn’t last, of course, for a variety of reasons. In my buddy JJ’s recent post about Miles Burton over at The Invisible Event, he cites the advancement of forensic investigation for speeding the demise of the classic whodunit. Our growing interest in psychoanalysis also contributed to focusing the mystery away from the puzzle and more on the lasting effects of crime on a community and the whys and wherefores of a killer’s actions. And honestly, people simply burnt out on the sheer inundation of plots that depended on increasingly repetitive variants of the same tricks and twists, with little else in the way of reading matter within its pages to appreciate and enjoy. I would suggest that the reason we can re-read the best mystery writers of old is because their works stand up as fiction: there is strong characterization to be found in Agatha Christie and Christianna Brand, much worthy historical context present in John Dickson Carr, and a whole slew of thematic treasures in Ellery Queen’s writing.
Gradually, the pure puzzle has been replaced by novels of psychological suspense and murder mysteries where the solving of the case is no longer the be all and end all of the story but a means to hook readers into the increasingly complex lives of a new generation of crime solvers. This became increasingly evident during the social upheaval of the 1960’s, and the phenomena circled the globe. You see it in Scandinavia in the ten Beck novels (1965 – 1975) of Per Sjowall and Maj Wahloo, which sought to expose the failed experiment of Swedish social democracy. This couple originated a movement that continues to today, with writers using the tropes of mystery fiction to investigate everything from sexual politics to the repressed guilt the Northern European nations felt over their complicity with the Nazis.
In Great Britain, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell embraced the conventions of Golden Age mystery and then sought to distance themselves from identification with the classic mold. The modern European mystery novel increasingly merges the troubled psychology of the sleuth and the sinner. Cases tend more often than not to provide fodder for a detective’s drunken binges, fractured relationships, and existential soul-searching; clearly there’s no time for actual detecting. There’s also little chance of order being restored anymore in this damaged world. Finally – and saddest of all – there’s very little fun to be had, for murder is a serious business, and don’t you forget that!
The Scheherazade Effect
Classic mystery authors rarely included serial elements in their books. When Hercule Poirot journeys to Broadhinny to prove whether or not the right person was convicted of bludgeoning Mrs. McGinty to death, his final summation marks the end of our relationship with every character save the two or three involved in solving the case. Furthermore, if Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, a late entry in the Agatha Christie canon, is a reader’s first experience with the author, that reader will have no problem if his next choice is an earlier novel, since there is little continuity from one Poirot novel to another. The Ariadne Oliver of McGinty is scarcely different from the one we met sixteen years earlier in Cards on the Table, nor will she change a lick by the time of her final appearance twenty-one years later in Elephants Can Remember.
One can criticize Christie (as many do in tiresome fashion) for reducing her characters to a series of mannerisms (Mrs. Oliver has flyaway hair, loves apples and makes silly pronouncements of feminism), but this standalone status – including a certain “freezing” of her series characters – freed Christie to focus all her energies on the puzzle. The idea of reading Poirot’s adventures in chronological order may be preferable, and it is certainly enjoyable; it is not, however, essential. Even characters who do age, like Tommy and Tuppence never lose the same spirit of character – they just move a little slower.
Does the lack of characters moving forward result in a certain sameness whenever one picks up a Christie novel? Perhaps – but then we are focused on the plot, not on how Poirot is getting along. Still, I will be the first to admit that most people are strongly attracted to serialized stories and characters they can follow on an extended basis. It’s the whole Scheherazade Effect. We like cliffhangers. We identify with the changes that time and incident have wrought on people we care about. This quality has made TV addicts of us all. Even Dick Wolf, the creator of the Law and Order franchise, finally acknowledged the power of the serial, making Special Victims Unit his longest running success. Will Olivia find love? Will Tutuolu pass his sergeant’s exam? Will that blonde detective quit gambling and realize her sister is psycho? Even the standalone nature of the L&O cases is often varied with multi-episode arcs or even crossovers between one Dick Wolf series and another!
This obsession with the private lives of beloved characters can build an author’s fan base, but it comes at a cost. I would challenge anyone to start reading Elizabeth George in the middle of her nineteen-book saga and not find oneself totally confused by what is going on. Some fairly interesting things happen to Lynley over the course of the canon, including a horrific tragedy that, to my mind, brought the whole series crashing down into a depressing bore. It is to Banquet’s credit that Lynley finally seems to be turning an emotional corner. He is decidedly less morose this time around, although his romantic travails with the comely vet feel like an endless spinning of wheels, flavored with some of the worst romantic dialogue I have ever read. Daidre actually says at one point: “There’s such equanimity in stasis, Tommy.” What the heck is that supposed to mean? Who talks like that to her boyfriend??
I reckon people have stuck with George through thick and through thin because of their love of the characters, Havers in particular. Yet I have to admit that our Barbara irritated me throughout this latest episode, falling back on her old ways and actually casting doubt as to whether her career deserves saving, as Sergeant Nkata made all the sane decisions during this investigation. The sad fact is that, as the author has expanded and explored Lynley’s universe, the mystery aspect of her novels has suffered mightily. George seems to require more and more space to tell less and less story, and the last half dozen or so titles have failed to satisfy in the crime department.
Meanwhile, my blogging colleagues are churning out two or three reviews a week, while I have spent the first two weeks of my summer vacation alternately reading and listening to the audiobook of Banquet in my car in a frustrating attempt to speed up this process. Why are her books so long? Well, part of it can be written off as a propensity on the author’s part to overwrite in an attempt to show off her descriptive powers. The rest may be due to her emphasis on the psychology of her characters. But her exploration into the darkest impulses of the human mind is pretty superficial in my opinion, often played for shock value without being particularly insightful. I could have told you by the end of her first appearance in the novel that Caroline Goldacre was a mother. Over the course of the next six hundred pages, we learn just how loathsome she was, but we never explore how or why she became this way. Or take her second husband, Alastair MacKerron: we observe the slow dissolution of his marriage to Caroline even as he grows closer and closer to Sharon. Yet those moments between the lovers become essentially the same scene played out, with slight variation, over and over and over again! By the fifth or sixth time Alastair declared himself unworthy of Sharon’s love, I found myself snorting, “Too right!”
The same goes for the plotting of the novel’s other major triangle, that of Caroline’s son Charlie, his estranged wife India, and her charming new suitor Nat. (The way that storyline played itself out made me want to throttle all three of them!) The alternating scene structure of Banquet made me feel like I was stuck in a sort of repetitive loop throughout my reading. (At one point, I placed discs thirteen and fourteen in the wrong order in my car’s stereo system, so disc 14 followed on the heels of disc 12. I actually did not notice my mistake for a long time.) In short, the novel feels extremely padded, adding to a sense of deep disappointment by the end.
We have seen this phenomenon over and over again, and not just in mysteries. The fifth book in the Song of Ice and Fire Saga is over four hundred pages longer than the first (and a hundred times less satisfying). This is clearly read by editors as giving fans “more of a good thing.” Perhaps I’m in the minority here, but I call it “bad editing.” Clearly, the increased length of George’s later novels has not, to my mind, improved her efficacy as a writer. She can still pen an episode that is incredibly gripping, and then she will drag it down with a compendium of overripe descriptions of minor people or places. She has never done comedy particularly well, yet Banquet sadly provides us with too much page time for one of George’s least convincing characters, Scotland Yard secretary Dorothea Harriman, whose ludicrous attempts to “fix” Barbara Havers’ social life amount to more unbearable filler than this reader could stand.
So I guess I’m done with the anvil-like adventures of Lynley and Havers . But reading them has, as I say, brought up these questions that I would like to open up for discussion. What is an “acceptable” length for a mystery? Can a story from this genre sustain itself over eight or nine hundred pages? Does the serialized nature of the modern mystery create an almost insurmountable obstacle toward the creation of a strongly clued puzzle? Does a greater emphasis on characterization or theme – or, for that matter, any element of “literature” that tended to get played down during the Golden Age – obstruct from the real job of a mystery writer: to baffle us until that “aha” moment of enlightenment?
There is no doubt that the modern mystery presents a more realistic depiction of how crime decimates a community. Gone, for the most part, is the sense of “order restored” by the end of a modern crime novel. Is this move toward realism a good thing for the aficionado of detective novels? I know that matters of taste can’t help but come into the dialogue, but I really am interested in a more technical application of the question. As a lover of complex characters myself, I still feel that Elizabeth George gets bogged down in the inner life of her characters, reducing the reading of her mammoth books to a slow crawl. Is this an example of “too much of a good thing,” or is there truly no place for such a plethora of detail in a well crafted mystery?
What do you think?
52 thoughts on “FAREWELL TO LYNLEY: This Endless Banquet Does Not Satisfy”
I know exactly what you mean, Brad, about the need for editing, and the joy in a novel that’s not a doorstop. I think economy of prose is a valuable trait; and, on that score, I can completely understand why you’ve parted company with Elizabeth George…
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It’s too bad, Margot, because George has some interesting stories to tell and characters that I (at least used to) care about!
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Brad, I’ve found that the older I get the less patience I have with long “anvil” stories of all sorts and, most particularly mysteries. I often find myself urging the author of any mysterious tome over 350 pages or so to “just get on with it already.” If you want to write a mystery, then write a mystery. Sure, make the characters interesting enough for your reader to care about…but if you want to write a soap opera, then go write a soap opera. Don’t write a soap opera and dress it up as a 19-volume (increasingly heavy volumes, at that) mystery series.
I parted ways with Elizabeth George and Lynley right after the disastrous event that I’m sure is what you allude to above. For heavens sake, let the man have some happiness. And I have no patience at all for Havers and the fact that she never seems to learn how to even minimally “toe the line.” It’s one thing to buck the system occasionally in a good cause–but she was doing it All. The. Time.
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I parted ways with George after With No One as Witness.
Length doesn’t disturb me, if it takes three days to read, rather than one, that is fine. A bonus.
What bothered me was George’s manipulation of her readers. The Haver/ Lynley relationship was set up in a very cynical way ( Haver hated him right unseen because he was titled therefore we would not)
That seemed all right, maybe even clever, but her disrespectful manipulation of her readers in With No One as Witness was the last straw.
Despise your readers and they will leave your books in the shop, or at least this one will. And has done while buying two books every week from other authors.
I certainly can’t fault an author for dropping an emotional bomb on her regular series of characters in order to further story and recharge her authorial batteries (as she explained in numerous interviews.) But yeah, I don’t have to like it or how she did it. I have met George, and I think she sees herself first and foremost as a novelist rather than a mystery writer. Her work, to my mind, reinforces that idea, but it does so to the detriment of the mystery. The emotional angst her characters have endured since that WNOAW has dragged this series down; meanwhile, the excessive length – which feels more like padding sometimes – does nothing to add suspense or joy for this reader. And I say “Enough, already!” with Havers’ stunted life! The latest book finally had her moving forward (through job success and, of all things, a tap dance recital). It’s time George moved ALL her characters forward.
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Brad, so you did read the latest Inspector Lynley installment after all and you and Ms. George haven’t parted ways completely, yet😉
I agree with most of your criticism btw. I had become increasingly annoyed by Barbara Havers’ character development a long time ago, and I was even more angry with everything which had been thrown at her because I really like her much better than Thomas Lynley and his various paramours. I fully agree that the series took a steep turn downwards after – well, I don’t want to spoil it for future readers, but those who read all the books know quite well what I’m talking about. None of the characters really recovered from this emotional earthquake in the following novels, and I especially loathed that Isabelle Ardery became a serious player.
That said, Elizabeth George managed to recover some lost ground in her latest installment. I really enjoyed to read it. All characters develop in a (mostly) credible way and the mystery is handled competently, too. And I even started to develop some sympathy for Isabelle Ardery. Her ongoing “problems with the bottle” and how they affect her professional and private life are treated in a very realistic way.
I don’t know if Ms. George plannes to continue the Lynley series. Nothing has been announced as far as I know and there was no obvious cliffhanger. So, if this was the last one it would be a nice goodbye for her tortured characters.
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Hey, Sabine! I hope you see this reply because you replied to a reply, and on WordPress I can never figure out which comment I’m commenting on!!!! Whew!!!!!
I actually did read The Punishment She Deserves, and if you check out my review, you’ll find we agree on the points you made.
I think it takes George a long time to write these doorstop novels, and I haven’t heard anything to suggest she has stopped. Still, as you say, there was a sense of happiness at the end of this last one, so if, for some reason, she isn’t continuing, at least we have a happy-ish ending for our main duo.
An excellent and thought-provoking post, Brad. Thanks.
I tried reading A Great Deliverance years ago and couldn’t get past p. 5, so I suppose that tells you what I think of Miss George’s writing. And that was her shortest book, I think?! But I have nothing personal against the lady and am happy to hear that she is so kind, especially to aspiring writers like you and me.
“What is an ‘acceptable’ length for a mystery? Can a story from this genre sustain itself over eight or nine hundred pages? Does the serialized nature of the modern mystery create an almost insurmountable obstacle toward the creation of a strongly clued puzzle? Does a greater emphasis on characterization or theme – or, for that matter, any element of ‘literature’ that tended to get played down during the Golden Age – obstruct from the real job of a mystery writer: to baffle us until that ‘aha’ moment of enlightenment?”
There are probably no easy answers, but by and large Dickens and Collins were able to make very long detective-novels work. (Bleak House is not a detective-story proper, but it gave birth to many of the genre’s tropes; heaven only knows what Dickens was intending with Drood!) On the whole, though, no, I don’t think this kind of story can sustain itself over so many pages–but, then, I doubt that many novels, except for Dickens’ work and some others’ (Russians’!), can sustain themselves for so long. I mean, celebrated “novels” like The Great Gatsby (or Kate Chopin’s The Awakening) for example are truly novellas; and “novels” like The Catcher in the Rye are truly short-story sequences. Interesting how few novels actually fit that category’s criteria.
Anyhoo, what is an acceptable length for the mystery? I don’t know, but I’d say that it is probably on the shorter side because–a bit like Gatsby, in fact–it’s extremely plot-based, a derivation of the old-fashioned “tale” that could be told around the campfire. Indeed, much of Fitzgerald’s work has a connection to the mystery story (as Mike Grost has pointed out); so does much of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, which is similarly plot-centered.
None of the above is to deny the possibility of detailed and in-depth characterizations–Gatsby, again, is the prime example here. Nor of theme, symbolism, or the poignancy of style.
I don’t think that a greater emphasis on characterization or theme, then, need obstruct the mystery writer’s “real job.” As you noted, we were able to see a union of these three criteria in such post-war mystery works as Five Little Pigs, He Who Whispers, or Ten Days’ Wonder. (Again, though, note that those aren’t all that longer than most those writers’ pre-war works.)
The problem, then? While the novelistic motives are good, the execution is not, and these writers have decided to neglect puzzle-plotting completely–which makes a mess of their books, because they’re writing in a genre in which they’ve no interest or understanding. The point is that we’re supposed to unite, amalgamate, the novelistic and the puzzle-plotting virtues–and we’ve completely forgotten the latter, leaving the scale unbalanced and the books remarkably dull. In order to understand both the joys of the novel and the joys of the puzzle-plot, we have to bring back the latter; that’s the only way, I think.
On a lighter note, your very funny Elizabeth George novel=anvil picture reminded me that I’ve long wanted to write a comic mystery in which a large modern “mystery” tome is used as the weapon!
All the best,
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I love your info about Fitzgerald, Karl, and your reference to Gatsby, one of my very favorite American novels. I venture to say that, with a little tweaking – some removal of the thematic push and the symbolism – Gatsby could be renovated into a nifty little whodunit. The cast of “suspects” is already there, and they are wonderful. In fact, I am now sooooo tempted to give it a try! I’m sure the Fitzgerald estate would give me no bother whatsoever!! 🙂
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I’m with you on Gatsby, Brad–it’s one of my favorite books of them all.
And, curiously enough, I had the same thought: how easily it could be a whodunit (though I’m happy it’s not, to be honest–the book is so good as-is), complete with Nick as the “Watson”! Fitzgerald’s plotting recalls the Aristotelian synthesis on the subject of plotting (in Poetics, which is also, as Scott Ratner has analyzed in-depth, the source for anagnorisis (that “aha!” sensation) in the detective story.
By the way–sorry to be a pest–but did you happen to see my comments on your dying clue post?
I think it depends on what the reader is looking for. For me, Sue Grafton has the same problem: the books get longer (although not to anywhere near the same extent as George’s do, which is why I still read one author and not the other) as the soap-opera quotient goes up. I well remember discussing the issue a few years ago with a pal whose views I very much respect, and found that he liked the Grafton series more and more as it continued for precisely the reasons that I carped about them. Where I would have happily carved out 90% of the soap-opera component, he’d have liked if anything more of it. So maybe it’s the same with Elizabeth George’s fans.
Like you, I found Havers far more interesting than Lynley. The same was true in spades of the tv series, where Sharon Small captured the character quite brilliantly.
I quite fancy the Alastair Robertson novel, though . . .
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John, who’s Alastair Robertson???
Have a look at the bottom right of your pic of the cover of The Drunk Detective.
Ah! It’s a short story, in fact: here it is, in a publication magnificently known as Modern Drunkard Magazine.
The ideal length of a mystery novel is 100,000 words. This is enough pace to makes things interesting and complex and then tie it all up, without having to introduce too many additional threads which then bloat the narrative. A number of thoroughly excellent classic mysteries came in less than this, which is testament to the skill of their authors, but 100,000 is the benchmark everyone should aim for.
The notion of “mystery” is a different thing — how much mystery makes the book a mystery? Ideally we’d insist that the main focus — let’s arbitrarily say 75% — of the novel should be on the crime and detection, but even then you get into difficulties: is seeing the famly bickering with each other for the first half of the novel part of the mystery element, as it may end up revealing relationships and clues? Or does the mystery only start when the crime is either committed (dead body in the library) or becomes inevitable (patriarch gathers everyone to tell them about he new will he’ll be signing in the morning)? Opinions willl of course differ.
I don’t really have an opinion either way, unhelpfully. I do feel like I’ve got a fairly good nose for padding, and generally if i can get through what I expect to be a mystery novel without leveling an accusation of padding at it then I’m happy with the proportion of mystery therein. What constitutes padding? Yeah, I’m really not sure how to define that…
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100,000 words is way longer than the average classic mystery. JDC’s, as a random example, are usually around the 70,000 to 80,000 mark.
And they often come up a bit hasty-feeling, don’t you think? I always feel that I could do with a little more…
I chose JDC just as an example. The same is true of Tey, Allingham, Christie (until she started to bloat ’em in her later years), etc., etc., etc.
The same still applies — they tend (in my opinion) to hastily resolve some aspects where a little more length would be able to give more detail, and fill things out a bit more. There’ the odd classic that belts it out in 80,000 words, but on the whole it’s taken me a lot of adapting to get used to the brevity of GAD. Being slightly short-changed here and there to keep the word count down is just part of the experience…
I confess it’s not something that has ever really bothered me. Oh, sure, I’m certain I’ll have felt the occasional novel was ended in a hurry, but I’ve felt that equally with the occasional 500-page stonkemoth.
Don’t you feel really short-changed when you read Paul Halter?
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I do at times, yes — in fact, halter is almost the perfect modern exemplifier of this. Seven Wonders of Crime would be a far better book if it took longer over its setup (the whole “sending warnings on a painting” thing is mentioned and then discarded, with no further attention paid to it…rendering a really cool aspect pointless); The Phantom Passage throws in a slight shortcut which would be better unexplored and a little more leg-work done to reach the solution…I could go on.
He gets it perfect at times — The Tiger’s Head for one, and The Seventh Hypothesis (which could do with another 1,000 words at a key point if we’re being picky), and Death Invites You spring to mind — but I’ve come to enjoy the wholesale barrelling towards the end aspect of Halter more as I read him more, so it’s become less and less of an issue. But with slightly more words divested on his characters, I think a lot of people would enjoy him as much as I do.
I would never think to limit the idea of what constitutes a mystery and thereby hamstring an author into a forced pattern of writing. It would be like creating a series of rules that everyone has to abide by! A mystery MUST do this and MUST NOT do that . . . Imagine!
I think that one can feel when a book is a mystery. At its heart, it hangs around a crime and the solving of it. I read Elizabeth George, and I know her books are mysteries. They’re just bad ones now . . . hopelessly long and out of balance with no care taken as to the detectival aspect of the story.
I went to a…sort of…gathering…of classic mystery fans yesterday where the Knox Decalogue was discussed by someone who had a uge amount of insight into Know as a person…and I’m still not convinced that we’ll ever be able to definitively say what Knox’s proper intention was with that list. I’m inclined to believe that he didn’t really know himself…
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“… sort of … gathering”
Very elliptical JJ.
Was this a clothing optional gathering perhaps?
I have to congratulate you for showing so much stamina. I lost my patience with Mrs George in 2001 after reading “A Traitor To Memory”. 860 pages long and clearly in need of an editor to chop out half of it. The soap elements were there from the beginning but after “Missing Joseph” it became a soap opera with mystery elements. I think a good mystery shouldn’t exceed more than 400-450 pages. Incidentially that includes Mrs George first three books which I think are her best.
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I agree, Jochen: I very much enjoyed her first three novels. I’m not sure why she started to go off the rails after that. *sigh*
I too have to admire your persistence in sticking with Tommy and friends for so long. I gave up after Careless in Red…the one after ‘the unfortunate tragedy’ to which you allude above and Linley tropes across the moors for weeks while a group of random locals have a lot of sex and commit the odd murder. I was bored to tears and have never been tempted to dip back into the series, though I loved it once.
I don’t believe there is a perfect length for a mystery novel…I have read good mysteries of great length though I do admire those who can be brief AND good…but I think the average increase in length for all books these days is more a factor of less editing/editors in publishing these days. Long running, successful authors like George and Grafton seem to bypass the editorial process entirely these days.
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Careless in Red was a real downer, Bernadette, both in terms of mood and as a mystery. (I can’t remember the murder story one bit, only Lynley tramping around and starting his relationship with Dairdre on a sour note . . . ) But it gets worse! This Body of Death is almost A THOUSAND PAGES LONG!!!!!!!! And it’s just as dreary as the other, only this time Lynley beds a colleague with a drinking problem. I can’t believe I slogged through that one and all the others, and the fact is that I can’t remember the book at all.
Brad, I certainly agree with your comments regarding anvils needing more focus on the mystery/detecting and less on the saga. Mysteries should be dance, but Elizabeth George and her ilk are offering choreography, which might be more ‘serious’ but is also more preening ‘look at me, look at how brilliant I am’.
However, three authors I’ve never seen mentioned here might be worth a look: Donna Leon, Jane Haddam and Caroline Graham. Leon’s Brunetti stories run about 300 pages, and are, I find well plotted and fairly clued. They focus on the impact and effects of corruption, including the corruption of love, and how an individual can maintain integrity and push back against corruption’s corrosive effects. Willful Behaviour is one of her best – it has the ‘aha’ moment, and while order is not necessarily restored there is justice. Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian series is lighter than Leon’s and more obviously traditional in the puzzle sense. The first one, Not a Creature Was Stirring, falls within the country house tradition – it even has a floor plan. Again, Haddam usually clocks in around 350 pages. Graham’s seven books about DCI Barnaby in Midsomer are tightly written and fairly clued. The only one of her books to be faithfully transferred to TV is The Killings At Badger’s Drift – the pilot episode for Midsomer Murders.
And now for something completely different (now that I finally got nerve to make a comment – I don’t have the expertise you and most of your regular commenters display). I think you’ve been a tad unfair to Les Petits Meurtres du Agatha Christie. Yes, they can play fast and loose with setting and characters, but the plot, the puzzle, the essence is always there. And somehow, perhaps because it’s evident that the Les Petits Meurtres team appreciates Christie, they’re enjoyable. I want to see their next triple axel without losing the plot. Frankly, Les Petits Meurtres are better than the mess ITV made with Marple! or some of disastrous later Poirot – Cards on the Table, Blue Train.
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Welcome, Tim, and thanks for your comments. I am a HUGE fan of Caroline Graham – read all her books and even own the entire series (which gets worse and worse, unfortunately.) Actually, SEVERAL of her books were adapted for TV and make up the first – and best – series. I read a few Jane Haddam books, including Not a Creature Was Stirring. They were just okay to me. I felt they started to get formulaic, and then they, too, started to get longer. I may give her a try again. A friend of mine had some not too great things to say about Donna Leon. I’m afraid my eyes go blurry when a book centers around gangsters. But I should give her a try someday.
As for your defense of Les Petits Meurtres (be brave, my friend, all comments are welcome here!), I think I’ve seen all the first season, and I’m having trouble getting around that obnoxious reporter in the second season. I grant you that some of the episodes have been relatively faithful to the text (Five Little Pigs comes to mind) and others have gone off the rails in a similar fashion to some of the worst excesses of the ITV. The Moving Finger is almost unrecognizable, and The A.B.C. Murders decided that Christie’s solution could be improved upon . . . . it could NOT! I think the relationship between Larosiere and Lampion was more tolerable in the pilot (their take on Hercule Poirot’s Christmas), but after that the emphasis was on comedy, and I was not laughing!
Brad, continuing in this vein, you’re right about Graham. She does go downhill, so it’s a good thing she stopped writing mysteries after seven (probably could have stopped after four). However, none of them are anvils and they all play fair. Badger’s Drift was probably the most faithful to the text, but the others in the first Midsomer Murders series were all adapted from her books, some, I think, more successfully than others.
Donna Leon is different, though set in Italy gangsters seldom take centre stage – maybe an indirect reference, but little more. They’re more centred on people who make wrong choices which lead to more wrong choices, usually people in the professional classes who feeling self-entitled fail to see where their greed (including love which becomes twisted by selfishness and greed) can/will lead. Brunetti is unusual for a modern detective – in a loving and stable relationship with a woman who maintains her personal and professional independence (a University professor who specializes in Henry James), and with an awareness that in modern day Venice/Italy sometimes discovering the truth may not result in justice being seen to be done – although sometimes justice can still be achieved without public awareness. Leon’s books aren’t fast paced page turners, but, to me, there’s a rhythm – like a Haydn symphony, certainly not Liszt.
Last but not least – what would your reaction have been if the series had just been called Les Petits Meurtres without any up front mention of AC? Just a series of murder comedies. Les Petits Meurtres has taken a different approach to the stories rather than the pretentious road taken by ITV in Marple or the later Poirots or Branaugh. For me, they’re a challenge – what book(s) are they doing; how are they changing it; and is the resolution satisfying. As for the obnoxious reporter – just a fresh take on Hastings. Meurtres en Famille was a joy in many ways, not least that they took six hours for a single AC book. OT: if Les Petits Meurtres gives you pause, do not track down the French adaptations of Tommy and Tuppence – although still better than the dog’s breakfast the BBC presented last year.
Have a pleasant weekend.
I recall reading A Great Deliverance years ago but remember little about it beyond the fact it was pretty long – I’ve never read another one of her books, so make of that what you will.
Generally, the overlong, soapy, integrated series is one of my great bugbears in books, TV, movies etc – I feel it’s essentially a marketing ploy to keep us hooked and has little artistic worth aside from that, and I don’t like the sense of being played like that.
I know it won’t happen but I long for a return to the days of non-franchise movies, TV that served up self-contained 50 minute episodes weekly, and mystery books that could wrap things up satisfactorily in somewhere between 250 and 300 pages.
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I confess to a love of serial TV, Colin, but many great mystery series did exactly that – created a group of characters we like and had them solve a crime without getting bogged down in their troubled lives. Perry Mason was like that, especially in the early years: each episode was like a short noir mystery, and the formulaic nature of the program never bothered me. It was great seeing Perry, Paul and Della go through their paces, watching Hamilton Burger and Lt. Tragg sneer through the episode until Perry put them in their proper place at the end, and allowing time for us to meet the victims and suspects instead of focusing on whether Della loved Perry or not. But that is not the way of modern television. They want to hook us in and make it impossible for us to miss an episode.
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I think it’s perhaps natural contrariness on my part, Brad, but I long ago decided that, when it came to entertainment at least, I was going to consume it on my own terms and not those dictated by the marketing teams of the production company. This mightn’t amount to a great deal in the chest-beating stakes but it still represented my taking a stand of sorts.
And I’ve stuck to it in the main; if a piece of entertainment is, as I said, essentially playing me, then I simply tune out and move my attention elsewhere. I guess it means I miss out on some good stuff, but principles are principles (dammit!) and I can’t say I’m short of material to read/watch and unlikely to end up in that position in the foreseeable future either.
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This explains your icon of the lone rider, Colin!!! Giddy-yap, Rawhide!!! I love it! 🙂
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Yeah, that is the general idea behind it. Sadly, it’s not a philosophy I’ve been able to apply to all areas of life, but if a man can’t carve out an independent niche as far as entertainment is concerned, then it’s a sad state of affairs.
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Wonderful post. I’m new to your blog, but I’ll say right off the bat – I like it very much (Sergio over at TIPPING MY FEDORA clued me in). I stopped reading Elizabeth George after the Tragedy and never went back. Adding to my frustration with the series is the glamorous casting of the television series. The two leads in the show had chemistry – something the two characters in the book certainly do not have. So in my mind, it became kind of confusing. In the show I could see how the two of them might get together (though of course that is not the author’s intention) despite Lynley’s girlfried who, by the way, was impossible to like in the show. My God was she a pain in the neck. Of course, there’s no way Havers and Lynley could get together as typified in the books. This whole thing got mixed in with my unhappiness with these characters and their on-going story.
I also agree that the over abundance of interior life pertaining to every single character is wearisome. To my mind this is not necessary in a mystery or thriller. I remember first reading Elizabeth George and reading and reading and wondering when the mystery would get going. I’m also, by the way, not very fond of books where most everyone is hard to like – but maybe that’s just me. Yes, I agree, the books have a lot or padding. I often wondered, in the beginning, why she took so long to get the story moving forward.
I don’t mind a long book though I don’t like sagas. As long as there is a valid reason for the story to be 6 or 7 hundred pages long, fine. But padding I will not like unless the author manages it with a special dazzle of brilliance and wit. I would have loved if Michael Innes had written longer and longer books – there is such a thing as books which are too short.
I’m wondering how you feel about Martha Grimes and her characters and the tortuous road down which she’s taken Richard Jury one of my favorite characters in fiction.This strikes me as another long term series which seems to be running out of steam. Though in truth, the last book in the series wasn’t bad. The couple before that though, not so much. I’ve gone on long enough, may I say again, how happy I am to have discovered your blog.
You are most welcome, Yvette, and I’m grateful to Sergio for pointing you in my direction. Lynley has for too long seemed patronizing in his “championing” Havers, at least IMHO, and in this last book, it’s worse because he keeps arguing that Havers needs her leash loosened so that she can be an effective investigator, but then she not only doesn’t investigate well (Sgt. Nkata corrects all her mistakes), but she ends up with the wrong solution!!! I wanted to like the series very much, but I found it tiresome, especially the original tales using the characters. They didn’t seem clever to me at all.
I read quite a few of the early Martha Grimes novels and enjoyed them very much for a while . . . and then they seemed to get bogged down in personal issues and more sprawling, less focused mysteries. Sometimes Melrose Plant seemed almost an afterthought to the plot. (Is he still in them?) And frankly, the whole “name them after a pub” thing started to wear thin for me. I think there was some controversy regarding Grimes and George, or Grimes and James – a sense that one was copying the other. I forget, but there certainly is a sameness to the three of them. Grimes was the most fun, but for a while I thought George was coming up with better mysteries. Not anymore!!! 😦
Yes, Grimes was always the most fun except when she had those plots featuring the death of children. Those were harrowing but featured some of her best writing, I thought. But I also love her sense of humor – Melrose Plant’s crazy aunt for one – she seems like someone out of another book, but I don’t mind. The village of Long Piddleton is a hoot (love the dozing cats and Ada Crisp’s barking terrier), the deceptively cozy goings on mixed with Jury’s life in London mixed with the stark terror of brutal murder there (how many murders can a small village sustain after all?) and in other parts of England are an odd trifecta to maintain, but I felt that Grimes did it pretty well. I have to say I won’t stop reading her books no matter what so I can’t be talked sensibly to. HA! But still, I do occasionally grow weary. Obviously I much prefer Grimes to George and James, no question.
P.S. I don’t mind at all that Grimes gets into the occasional dog’s (or cat’s) interior life. This is richly and imaginatively done. Some of her readers, I know, don’t like it at all, but my imagination and sense of the fitness of things mysterious makes allowances. 🙂
I broke up with George after that “red” book. I had been loyal for perhaps too long. I read that social worker type one, for example. I just could not follow her passions.
Randell and James remained reasonably consistent and I have read all their works. I have read everything by Christie, Nicholas Blake, Ngaio Marsh, Colin Dexter, and Donna Leon. Some of their offerings disappoint, but they find their way back to True North and my compact with them.
I love Deborah, but Daidre Trehair is about the strongest and most interesting/intriguing of all of George’d women characters. She is intuitively wise – and “brave”. (with a sense of humor too). Hers and Tommy’s dialogue certainly resonates with me. Daidre has a lot to give to the series, especially if she were in the thick of things more in her own right.
She has given Tommy a run for his money and helped him out of that six-novel funk that happened when Helen died.
But the books are still waaaay too long!!!!
Too long? How about too short?? What was with “The Evidence Exposed,” ripoff? A chopped down version of “I, Richard,” and two other mediocre short stories, and rare book sellers are asking $90 for an unsigned, paperback edition??? Come on, Liz… you are so much better than this… and you certainly do not need the money!!!
I guess my winter diet of Grishom, DeMille, Clancy (RIP) and George has ended, at least in part.
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Hi i’ve Never been here before, but this post showed up in one of my feeds for some reason. I’m so glad, because you’ve put into words something that has bothered me for a long time about long series of ever-longer mystery novels. They seem more and more like an the author showing off- which is a problem with many authors of long series, not just mysteries. I bailed on George years ago when it seemed clear to me that Barbara Havers was never going to be anything but a — well, “buffoon” is over-stating the case but it comes close. Thanks for posting this.
I know what you mean about Havers. I remember reading George say something like, “Havers will never be happy.” The endless beating down of a woman because she’s socially awkward got tiresome long ago.
So, what do you think of Stout”s Nero Wolfe books?
Has some of the best vocabulary I’ve ever encountered. And, the New York Goodwin is spot on and fun, while enmeshed in some pretty ugly crimes. AND, never too long.
Len, I think the real triumph of Stout’s books is the magnificent relationship between Nero Wolfe and Archie. I think Archie is the best Watson ever created. I went through a period (long ago) of reading quite a few of these, and I felt that, plot-wise, they all sort of merged into one to me. But the writing is so good most of the time, and those two central characters are deservedly classic!
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1 I am wiser than you as I gave up after the second book 😁.
2 agree on bad editing. Some series seem to turn into “ fan fiction “
3 I agree about Stout and Wolfe, which example undercuts your puzzle first thesis
4 my wife adores Louise Penny but I have never read one
5 just bought my first Caroline Graham today
Off on a slight tangent, cozies are derided a bit too much, in my opinion. M. C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series is cozy – no gore and blood are described in oozy detail, nor are hideous perversions, etc. but Agatha Raisin and her pals offer a simple puzzle and lots of laughs at their rudeness, nastiness and awkwardness. The characters all develop and un-develop as the series continues, and the TV series, while strangely miscast and with added goofiness to substitute for the rudeness, is pretty OK. Lots of bright colors and a wacky wardrobe by Agatha spice up the basic plot puzzles. Rhys Bowen’s several series are cozy and puzzley, and her characters are well drawn. I like both of these authors more than I ever liked Agatha Christie, who, as you well put it, defines her characters by a couple of mannerisms, and relies mostly on plot puzzles. There is more to a mystery than a plot, such as interesting characters and settings. Classic example, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series. Time marches on, though, and what is popular in mystery fiction is changing. Some of the so-called cozies offer excellent glimpses into the specialty worlds of brewers, bakers, book-makers, librarians, tea shop owners, etc. So for me an 800-page mystery is just unnecessary. Oh, PS on Thomas Lynley. Never saw such a case of miscasting as for this TV series. What’s up with all the miscasting of these classic, thoroughly described characters? Havers was cast perfectly, though….