Friday, October 5, 2012
The Lost Virtue of Brevity
In his excellent mystery My Late Wives (1946), John Dickson Carr, writing as Carter Dickson, tells the story of serial killer Roger Bewlay. With a wittily observant eye, Carr shows how Bewlay targets vulnerable virgins of a certain age (early thirties, considered past marriage in those days) and woos each according to her ruling passions. One he takes to the symphony; another for long walks along the beach promenade at Brighton, and so forth.
The result, in each instance, is the same. The lady in question falls head over heels in love, marries him quickly, signs over all her property to him, and they go off on an idyllic honeymoon, from which only Bewlay and the lady’s property emerge. A chance occurrence leads police to become suspicious and another allows them to close the net on Bewlay. But at the end, he slips away and vanishes into the vastness of metropolitan London.
And that’s just the first 12 pages. The rest of the book takes place 15 years later, when it appears that Bewlay has returned to his old ways, and the detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, attempts to catch him once and for all.
Telling the Story Succinctly
Carr, a master storyteller if ever there was one, was able to cram enough material for an entire book into a fairly short chapter. In today’s world of mysteries and thrillers, the opposite seems to be happening. More and more books seem to be taking 250 pages of story and stretching it into 350-400 pages.
How and when this happened is a mystery to me, but I can trace some examples. One successful author began writing about 30 years ago and originally wrote brisk 250-page books. Then she started adding characters, and in subsequent books, each character had to be brought in, often to the detriment of the narrative. On the other hand, she sells way more books than I do, so either the readers don’t care, or they like her enough to put up with it.
The bloat in book size affects even older books. I have in hand a recently published copy of Agatha Christie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? In this version, the spacing between lines is generous to a fault, as are the margins. That makes what was probably a 225-page book originally come out at 279 pages.
When I wrote my mystery, The McHenryInheritance, I deliberately tried to keep it to 200-225 pages so it could be read on a cross-country plane flight or on a rainy afternoon. It came in at 200, but I wonder if anyone appreciates the brevity.
Longer Movies, Too
Movies, like books, seem to be getting longer as well. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot, writing about her father, the actor Lyle Talbot, noted that a number of the films he made for Warner Brothers in the 1930s were an hour and ten minutes long. These days, it’s hard to find any movie that comes in at less than two hours. It seems as if fewer directors today know how to move a story along, the way directors like William Wellman, Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks used to do.
In 1935, MGM made a movie of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, starring Greta Garbo and Frederic March. The book is more than 800 pages, but after some competent scriptwriters got through with it, and it was turned over to veteran director Clarence Brown, he was able to get Anna under the train in a brisk hour and 35 minutes. If they tried to make it today, they would sink so much into stars, costumes, props and locations, it would turn into a three-hour epic and probably be less entertaining than Brown’s version. Less is often more.