I think most people would agree that there is such a thing as a book that’s too long. And if you’ve ever stopped reading a very long book halfway through, wondering why you’d even bothered with it, you know that some such books could do with a good editing. Both in my reading and in my writing, I tend to like books that aren’t overly long.
At the same time, some stories take longer to tell than others do. And some highly regarded books are longer than you might think. They may not be to everyone’s taste, but there are some longer books that really don’t seem too long when you’re reading them. Let me offer just a few examples. Keep in mind, everyone’s taste is a bit different. Still, I think you’ll get my point.
On Monday, I spotlighted Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, which is the story of a protracted lawsuit, a suspicious death, and a murder. Those aspects of the novel are woven into a larger picture of social class, the legal system and family dynamics in Victorian England. It’s a long book. And yet, fans will tell you that the story moves along, the characters are well-developed, the plot threads mesh together and the novel unfolds beautifully. In other words, the length isn’t a problem because the story keeps the reader absorbed. It’s a novel that needs extra time to evolve, if I may express it that way. It’s also worth noting that this novel (and plenty of others too) started life as a set of monthly instalments. The story unfolded over a period of time.
But there are plenty of long novels that didn’t start out as instlaments that have gotten a great deal of praise. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is one of them. It is the fictionalised account of the rise of Thomas Cromwell to power in the court of King Henry VIII. Wolf Hall isn’t a typical crime novel (is there such a thing?) complete with detective, suspects and an investigation. Yet it is a crime novel in the sense that there is plenty of court intrigue as well as plotting and untimely deaths. But it’s also the story of an era, of Cromwell’s background and the events that led to his coming into power and a lot more too. The novel is long and there are a lot of characters in it. It begins in Cromwell’s adolescence and moves through the next thirty years. There are a lot of events in the novel. But the story is woven together into a cohesive whole, so that a lot of people feel it isn’t ponderous at all. The story needs extra time.
Ian Rankin’s Exit Music has as its focal point the murder of Alexander Todorov, a dissident Russian poet whose death looks like a mugging gone horribly wrong. But as Inspector Rebus and DS Siobhan Clarke get deeper into the investigation and trace Todorov’s movements, they begin to believe there’s more to this case than a mugging. That’s even more likely when local recording engineer Charles Riordan dies and his studio goes up in flames. Todorov had done some recording of his work at that studio not long before, so Rebus and Clarke suspect the deaths might be related. Matters become more complex when it’s discovered that a group of wealthy Russian business executives were not happy about Todorov’s political stance. And when Rebus finds out that his nemesis ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty might have been involved with this group – might even have arranged for the murders – he thinks he’s found his man. Of course, this is Ian Rankin, so things aren’t quite what they seem. This is a long book; my paperback edition comes out at just over 520 pages. But Rankin draws the story threads together and the plot and action move along, so that fans of the novel don’t see the length as being burdensome.
That’s also true of Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Case). In that novel, Intendant Münster and his team investigate the stabbing death of Waldemar Leverkuhn, who’s murdered after a night out with friends to celebrate a lottery winning. Münster’s team begins of course with Leverkuhn’s family members. There’s also interest in what Leverkuhn’s neighbours were doing at the time of the murder. And when it’s discovered that Leverkuhn and his friends had gone in together on a lottery ticket and won, the investigating team also takes a look at those friends’ backgrounds. Their alibis become especially important when one of them goes missing and is later found dead. It takes time for the team to trace the Leverkuhn family background and follow up on all of the evidence from Leverkuhn’s neighbours and friends. And there are some sub-plots in the novel too. So it’s not a short novel. And yet, fans will tell you that the story is absorbing, the pace solid and the character development rich.
Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine introduces readers to Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police. He and his assistant Detective Yu Guangming get involved in a very delicate case with far-reaching implications when the body of a young woman is discovered in Baili Canal. The woman is soon identified as national model worker Guan Hongying. Because the victim was a celebrity and a national role model, this investigation will have to be handled very delicately and very carefully. The first theory is that she was raped and murdered by a taxi driver, since she was known to have taken a taxi on the night of her death. But Chen and Yu soon find other possibilities. And as the trail begins to lead to some highly-placed people, the need for care and delicate handling becomes even more urgent. This novel is long by a lot of people’s standards – over 400 pages. But those who’ve loved it say that it includes solid sub-plots, interesting characters and a realistic look at 1990’s Shanghai. In this case, the book doesn’t feel too long, if I may put it that way.
Of course, everyone has a different idea of what counts as ‘long.’ What’s more, plots that feel too long to one person may not to another. So what’s your view? Are there any novels you’ve read that are long but that you’ve really enjoyed? Do you have a cutoff point for novels (i.e. you won’t read novels longer than __ pages)? If you’re a writer, do you have a mental page limit as you write?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Carrack’s How Long, made famous by Ace.