Monday, June 15, 2015

Padded mysteries

Novel, n. A short story, padded.
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

After a mystery writer passes the 200-page mark, it's all ballast.
Joe Queenan, One for the Books

So when is the last time you read a mystery novel that wasn't more than 200 pages long? I looked back at some I have read over the past six months and found just one under Joe Queenan's arbitrary 200-page limit. That is The Lolita Man by Bill James, which came in at just 158 pages. Nothing seemed to be missing. Others I've read include Live from New York by Dick Belsky (a fellow I worked with on the Ohio University Post back in the Sixties), 248 pages; A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George, 412 pages; Murder on the Eiffel Tower by Claude Izner. 292 pages; Railway to the Grave by Edward Marston, 348 pages; Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane, 324 pages; Wings of Fire by Charles Todd, 294 pages; Through the Evil Days by Julia Spencer-Fleming, 355 pages; The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection by Alexander McCall Smith, 257 pages;  If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O by Sharyn McCrumb, 316 pages; and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, 323 pages. George's book is 200 pages times two, and A Great Deliverance is one of her shorter novels.

Then there's the book I just finished, The Shadows in the Street by Susan Hill, which is 372 pages long in the trade paperback edition. This mystery in the Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler series involves a serial killer preying on street prostitutes. Does the novel seem padded, as Ambrose Bierce would say, or full of ballast, as Queenan might prefer? Well, yes. Hill includes several tedious chapters where not much happens that seems to advance the story. She throws in a lot about church politics, the home life of prostitutes with children and Serrailler's love life.

Yet I see reasons for all this padding and ballast, not just in Hill's mystery but in the others, as well. One is character development. In some of the shorter classic mystery novels Queenan praises, including those by Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell and Georges Simenon, the heroes sometimes seemed to have no private lives. What did we know about Jane Marple's life when she wasn't solving mysteries or before she started solving mysteries? Not much. Alexander McCall Smith could easily tell his mystery stories in fewer than 100 pages. His novels are mostly about the personal lives of his main characters. We read his novels for the padding, not for the mysteries.

The ballast in mystery novels also serves to misdirect the reader. Not knowing until the end who the murderer is, we don't know which of the seemingly unimportant bits of the story might prove to be important after all. The killer is usually hiding in those pages and pages of details. One reason the Bill James novel was so short was that the plot involved just finding a killer, not in picking the killer out of a number of possible suspects. To do the latter in a convincing way requires a few pages, and a lot of apparent padding.

Finally, Susan Hill, like so many other contemporary mystery novelists, strives to be a "serious writer." That is, her novel purports to be something more than just a murder mystery. Hill uses her book to comment on changes occurring in the Church of England and on programs for helping prostitutes improve their lives and the lives of their families. The mystery may interest her readers, but the padding may be what most interested Hill.

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