Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Just Enough Violence to Convince

I was recently invited to take part in a discussion on crime writing (Feminists and crime fiction – an odd couple?) and this, together with my earlier post on Someday Never Comes, made me think about the nature of crime writing today.

The cosy crime end of the spectrum has changed little over the decades. A crime (or series of crimes) is committed, often quite gruesome and violent, but the reader never gets to see the detail, only the aftermath. Everything violent is glossed over and left to the reader’s imagination as the sleuths, both amateur and professional, track down perpetrators and solve seemingly unsolvable mysteries.

But this seems, to me at least, to be the only section of the genre untouched by the increasing depictions of violence. In Bad Moon Rising I show my killer in action and have sections of most chapters shown from his perspective. I feel the violence depicted is only that which is necessary and have avoided the gratuitous. I wanted his actions to come from an inner demon forcing him to carry out his brutal acts. But have I sold my readers short by doing so?

It seems that many of today’s crime thriller readers want to be there as victims are tortured for hours, or even days, before welcoming death as a blessed release.

Should I have introduced more violence? Had my killer keep his victims alive for days on end? I don’t think so because that would not have fitted his character. His acts were based on what was within his nature and to have him doing more would mean his character would no longer have been credible.

And this is the problem I have with overly violent killers in novels. The characterisation is not always credible. I know there are maniacs out in the real world who get off on torture, but all too often in novels this is depicted in ways which not only require me to suspend my disbelief, but to string it up from the rafters and leave it to choke to death.

I hope with Bad Moon Rising, and the forthcoming sequel Someday Never Comes, that readers will get to the final page believing that what they’ve read is so chillingly realistic it could have happened in their town.

What do you think – is the level of violence in crime too graphic, or not graphic enough?


Anonymous said...

Quality writing is able to build the suspense, create characters the reader cares about and drive the story without resorting to gratuitous and graphic violence that tips into horror, a genre I can't read.

DW96 said...

This is a difficult one, Frances. You read the original Handshaker drafts, in which I omitted much of the violence, yet an editor from a large house said it needed to be included, so where do you go from there.

The violence in BMR did not put me off, and in the same vein, the mainly female readers of my tale are not put off by the rape and murder scenes.

Is this a reflection of society and the world in which we live, constantly bombarded by images of violence from all corners of the world?

Wish I knew.

Frances said...

Thank you both for commenting. It's an interesting debate and clearly comes down to reader preferences.

My husband won't read anything with graphic violence, but will watch violent films. My daughter reads extremely graphic crime novels, but won't watch violent films.

Maybe she is able to gloss over the images in her head as she reads, but can't deal with the on the screen because they are too immediate.

As an author, I feel I have to portray my characters faithfully, but I don't necessarily have to show in detail every aspect of their crimes.

Barbara Scott Emmett said...

Personally, I don't like to read very graphic violence - or see it depicted in a film. I do believe it's necessary to show some though, as long as it's done well. I prefer my crime books somewhere between cosy and overly graphic and BMR fits this category as I didn't ever feel the violence was gratuitous.

Lorraine Mace said...

A friend wanted to post this yesterday, but technology interfered, so I'm posting on his behalf.

Perry says: violence in crime thrillers varies, like everything else. If you want a safe, Midsomer Murders kind of thing, avoid it, but I find that kind of thing a little distasteful because you're dealing with death after all, which is seldom peaceful. To write about violence in a non-violent way encourages people to think that if they bash someone over the head with a golf club, that person will just go "ouch!" and fall unconscious for however long the plot demands before waking up with a bit of a headache. When I was young and watched cowboy films, people who got shot just went "Argh!" and fell over, they didn't get bits of their head blown off like some kind of Zapruder footage. This kind of depiction lulls people into a false acceptance of violence as being not really violent. And eventually it just turns into some kind of kids' game, like Cluedo.

So if violent things happen, describe them. Descriptions of violence add authenticity and verisimilitude to books about violent things - crime thrillers for example. James Ellroy is my favourite crime writer, and he's as bloodthirsty as they come. I particularly loved his eight-word description of the Kennedy assassination: "Jack's head went ka-blooey. Jackie dived for scraps." And violence can be very meaningful and evocative if used incongruously. I've read McCarthy and Ellroy and bits of David Mitchell too, but the book whose violence I found most profoundly described was Faulks's Birdsong because it came after a hundred or so pages of girlie love-stuff that purposely lulled the reader.

And violence can be funny - American Psycho, Catch-22, Ellroy again, and JG Ballard's depiction of the assassination of JFK as a downhill motor race in The Atrocity Exhibition.

But violence tends to be quite nasty, and should be depicted as such. Saving Private Ryan was a film intended to put people off the idea of having wars, as were other, better war films. Compare those to the comic violence of Superman and war heros in kids' comics. Which does the most harm? People need to be shown what violence does, rather than some choreographed dance.

Sheila Bugler said...

Frances, you explore the psychology of your killer which is a key element of your novel's success. It also means the violence never seems gratuitous. In fact, it feels necessary as it helps us to understand what is going on in the mind of your killer. Can't wait for the sequel!

PB said...

Very interesting...

To be honest I always believe there exist a direct parallel between books and television - especially for the reader/target for the story. What I mean is we have seen a massive increase in brutality and horror from visual story telling and its only natural that it should become mainstream within literature.