Recently I had an interesting comment exchange with Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan (an excellent blog that I highly recommend) about pacing and timing in crime fiction. It’s got me to thinking about how the pace of crime fiction novels has changed as time has gone by. In general, are today’s crime novels faster-paced with more twists and action than novels of earlier years? On the surface of it, you might think the answer is “yes;” we can all think of novels where the action moves quickly and sometimes unexpectedly. And timing and pacing is often a part of what publishers use to sell books. How many books have you seen advertised where the blurb includes words and phrases such as “pulse-pounding,” “action-packed,” or “twists and turns?” I’ve seen a lot of them.
That said, though, there are plenty of crime novels from the earlier days of the genre that also have lots of action and quick pacing and timing. And there are plenty of novels and series today that are both well-regarded and popular where the pacing isn’t fast. So there’s likely more to this question of pacing, timing and the drama in novels than it seems on the surface. And that’s what makes the question an interesting one . One possibility is that sub-genre and author style also have a lot to do with it.
For instance, the hard-boiled sub-genre made famous by authors such as Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett tends to have a lot of action and drama. Novels such as Hammett’s The Thin Man and Spillane’s My Gun is Quick include a number of fight scenes, chases and so on. The events in the stories happen quickly and unexpectedly, too. That fast pacing is part of what makes the hardboiled sub-genre popular with its fans. Today’s hardboiled series also feature quick pacing and timing and plenty of action. For instance, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski doesn’t have many dull moments. Neither does Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. James Ellroy’s novels also feature plenty of action and quick pacing and timing. Hardboiled novels have always had lots of octane, so to speak, and that doesn’t seem to have changed over time.
The detective novel made famous by writers such as Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers and John Dickson Carr tends to have less fast-paced action. The focus in this genre is more on the mystery itself. There is violence (after all, they are murder mysteries) in these novels, and sometimes there are “high-octane” moments, but in general, they’re more focused on the mystery – the puzzle at hand – than they are on fast-moving events. Of course, at least in Christie’s case, that’s not true for each novel she wrote. The Big Four, The Man in the Brown Suit, and N or M? are all examples of Christie novels where there’s plenty of action, narrow escapes and so on. So this question of pacing and timing isn’t entirely a matter of sub-genre (I’ll get back to that in a minute). But, to use a proverbially very broad paintbrush, this kind of detective story tends not to focus as much on pace and action. That’s true today, too. For instance, P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh series certainly includes plenty of “action” scenes. But the focus is on the mystery. That’s also the case with Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks series and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series. Yes, there are fast-paced moments and twists and turns in the plots. But the emphasis isn’t on those moments as much as it is on the cases these sleuths are working.
Sub-genre does play a role in how much action there is in a novel, and how much pacing and timing there is. But it’s not the only factor. Author style matters as well. I don’t have a whole lot of research to support this but my guess is that author style plays a bigger role in a novel’s “octane level” than it used to play, simply because there is so much more variety and diversity in crime fiction than there was. Authors have more flexibility, so their individual ways of expressing themselves come through more obviously.
For example, Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series and his Precious Ramotswe series are both thoughtful, “quiet” series. There are certainly mysteries and in Mma. Ramotswe’s world, there are cases that need to be solved. Events happen, people interact and so on. But both series move along at a quiet pace. And that’s just the way some readers like their crime fiction.
Some authors such as Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine and Margaret Yorke include action in their stories but it’s often more of what you’d call psychological action. In other words, the pace isn’t frantic in terms of one event happening after another. Rather, the “octane” comes from the buildup of psychological suspense.
Other authors such as Lee Child and Leigh Russell write thrillers. Their novels have a lot of action in them. The pace is quick and that pacing and timing add a great deal to the suspense of the stories. Here too, the pacing seems to be affected by the sub-genre (thrillers do tend to move at a faster pace and have more dramatic events) and author style.
With all of this, though, it’s worth pointing out that times have changed. Today’s crime fiction addresses sometimes very ugly issues in a way that wasn’t always done in the past. Today’s sleuths are more diverse than ever and live and work in more different kinds of contexts than ever. And today’s crime fiction fans are savvier than ever. They don’t want “cookie-cutter” plots (so there have to be well-written twists). They don’t want novels that aren’t engaging (so there has to be some action. Something has to happen). In that way, there is more room for drama, action, plot twists and so on than there was. And in that sense, crime fiction probably does include more novels with fast pacing and lots of plot twists than it did. It’s a larger genre with more diversity.
But modern crime fiction also includes plenty of novels and series where the pace is slower and where the focus is more on the mystery or the characters than it is on pacing and timing. And there are plenty of crime novels from bygone years that move at a fast pace and where there is all sorts of action and drama. That’s where there’s an argument that author style and sub-genre play important roles, too. In the end, crime fiction is affected by several factors, and that’s what makes it such an interesting genre. That goes as much for its pacing and timing as it does for any other aspect of the genre.
What are your thoughts on this question? Do you think today’s crime fiction novels are faster-paced and more “high-octane” than novels of earlier times? If you think other factors are involved, what do you think they are? If you’re a writer, how do you use pacing and timing in your work? Do you feel compelled to move things along really quickly and include lots of action?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from AC/DC’s Highway to Hell.