In an interview by Sathnam Sanghera for the Times Magazine in September, William Boyd said that he thought his James Bond book, Solo, “might be the longest Bond novel at 336 pages” ('...pretending he doesn't know this for a fact', Sathnam Sanghera commented). Boyd admitted at the 'Boyd on Bond' event at the Southbank that he hadn't read any continuation Bond novels except Kingsley Amis' Colonel Sun and Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care, and so we can excuse the inaccuracy. In fact, the longest Bond novel is Jeffery Deaver's Carte Blanche, which at 432 pages is almost 100 pages longer than Solo.
Boyd's claim notwithstanding, his comment perhaps reflects a wider view that, certainly by modern standards, Ian Fleming's novels are rather on the short side, possibly even too short to be taken very seriously. Indeed, in his preview of the Designing Bond exhibition in London in July 2012, design critic Stephen Bayley, writing in the Times (2nd July 2012), dismissed the original novels as novellas. But is this fair? Are Fleming's books really so short? Are Bond books increasing in length over time? Let's have a look at some numbers.
I collected data for all of Fleming's books, except Octopussy (a statistical outlier), and all continuation novels, except the novelisations of Pierce Brosnan's Bond films. I chose to ignore several variables that might affect book length, such as font size, pages size, margins and spacing, simply taking instead the number of the last page in the UK first edition hardback. This gave me a dataset of 39 books.
Here are some basic statistics. As stated, the longest Bond book is Carte Blanche. The shortest is John Gardner's Nobody Lives Forever (1986), which is 192 pages long. In fairness to William Boyd, Solo is the second longest book (actually 322 pages). The longest Fleming novel is Goldfinger (1959) at 318 pages, only four fewer than Solo. The shortest Fleming novel is Casino Royale (1953) at 218 pages. Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care (2008) is within the top quarter with 294 pages, while Kingsley Amis' effort (1968) is roughly in the middle with 255 pages. Raymond Benson's novels are generally on the higher end, his longest being The Man with the Red Tattoo (2002), Doubleshot (2000) and Never Dream of Dying (2001), all being 320 pages in length. The longest Gardner novel is The Man from Barborossa (1991) at 303 pages. The overall mean across the dataset is 262 pages.
The sequence of books produced by Fleming, Gardner and Benson allows some interesting comparison. The mean length of Fleming's novels is 253 pages. This is slightly more than the mean for Gardner's books (241 pages) but somewhat smaller than the value (301 pages) for Raymond Benson's novels. The standard deviations for the books of Fleming and Gardner are also quite similar (27 and 29 pages respectively), but more than that for Benson (25 pages). This suggests that Benson's novels are more consistent in terms of page length, while the books of Fleming and Gardner varied rather more. This is confirmed by the overall range (that of Fleming is 100 pages, compared with 61 for Benson), and the coefficient of variation (standard deviation divided by mean), which standardises groups of data of different size. That for Fleming and Gardner is 0.12, while that for Benson is 0.08.
These values suggested to me that Gardner's novels are practically the same sort of length as Ian Fleming's, but that Raymond Benson's are different; judging by the means, Benson's books are consistently longer. I tested this by first combining into a single list Fleming's and Gardner's books and ranking the books in size order. I could see that the novels were fairly evenly mixed. There was a Gardner, then a Fleming, then two Gardners, followed by two Flemings, four Gardners then a single Fleming, and so on, as if randomly intermixed. When I compared Fleming and Benson, again combining the lists and ranking the books by page length, most of Benson's books were at high end of the list. There were eleven Flemings (out of 13) ranked below the shortest Benson. Evidently Benson's books were generally longer than Fleming's (and no doubt Gardner's too), and a Mann-Whitney test confirmed there there was a significant statistical difference between the lengths of Fleming's and Benson's books.
So while there has been no steady rise during the time that Fleming and Gardner were writing (1953-1996) (it could even be suggested that Gardner deliberately copied the length of the original novels for greater authenticity – his Herbie Kruger novels, for example, are much longer than his Bonds), the continuation novels of Raymond Benson and subsequent authors have been generally longer than earlier novels.
Much of the explanation for this is likely to be cultural, with authors (Gardner excepted) matching, to some extent unwittingly, the length of their Bond books with that of their other works or other contemporary fiction. It is probably true to say that when Fleming was writing, contemporary novels were the same sort of length as his own. Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe books averaged about 250 pages per book. William Boyd's novels are more consistently over 300 pages long. In other words, book length has been driven upwards over time, and authors conform to that trend. Nevertheless, does it really matter? After all, it's not the size of the book that counts, but what's inside it.