Sunday 25 March 2012

Violence in crime fiction

There are fashions in crime fiction. Tastes change and trends are influenced by individual success stories, hit television series and popular films. A few years ago Lynda La Plante became very popular, with sales of her books boosted by Helen Mirren’s brilliant performance of Jane Tennison on television. Publishers were suddenly looking for police procedural novels. Then psychological thrillers became popular, with a movement away from ‘cosies’. Publishers wanted manuscripts to be ‘gritty’ and ‘edgy’. The depiction of violence in crime fiction became increasingly graphic, bordering on horror. As PD James wrote, “The physical act of killing a human being has an awesome and horrible fascination. All that flesh to dispose of, all that blood to be washed away.”

At one time crime authors seemed to be vying with one another to produce the most dramatic impact with scenes of violence. Reading a crime novel about severed body parts being discovered, I felt that one particular author had abandoned plausibility for the sake of shock tactics. This ruined the book for me. The very next week there was a case in the news of severed body parts found strewn over the countryside. Truth is often more extreme than fiction can dare to be. Readers of crime novels are looking for thrilling stories and love dramatic shocks, but the balance must be right. Too much violence can compromise the credibility of a book, and descriptions that are too extreme can be off putting.

Of course different readers like different degrees of violence. Within reason, how palatable it is depends entirely on personal taste. You might reasonably expect readers of the genre to anticipate some violence in a crime novel. Yet some readers are quite squeamish, steering away from violence. There’s no denying that cosies are enduringly popular. Look at the shelf space given to Agatha Christie in bookshops and libraries. At the same time, many crime readers relish guts and gore in their crime novels. “I do like a bit of blood,” readers frequently tell me, often adding words to the effect of, “aren’t I awful?” And many of the most successful crime writers give precise details about their victims’ injuries. Medically trained, Tess Gerritsen writes clinical descriptions of blood and guts which can be very graphic. Patricia Cornwell is another bestselling author who writes dispassionately about gore, having worked for a medical examiner before writing crime novels.

Violence can be an important technique for raising the stakes for readers. Think about Shakespeare’s dark tragedy Macbeth with its murders, treason, infanticide and genocide. Despite the killing of a king, and the reports of violent battles and bloody murders elsewhere, the most memorable and shocking moments in the play are the few scenes when characters are murdered on stage, in full view of the audience. Showing violence creates far more impact than reporting it. Creating violent characters does not mean authors are violent people. PD James says that people have expressed surprise that she writes about violent murders, she is such a nice lady. (No one has ever said that to me!) In fact, authors of crime fiction are notoriously nice. All the crime writers I have met have been generous and gentle people, from Lee Child, Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham, Val McDermid and Jeffery Deaver, to aspiring writers struggling to complete their first crime novel.

There is no right or wrong answer to the question of how much violence should be included in a novel. Everyone draws their own line of what is acceptable, from Agatha Christie’s inoffensive intricate plots, to the bloody bodies in Tess Gerritsen.


Guillaume said...

For me, one thing matters about violence: that it is justified by the characters and the plot. If a character can act violently in such a way, if he is motivated to be violent and of the events lead him to be, then he should act accordingly. If characters are ready to kill each other's over a dog (I am thinking about a particular novel where it worked beautifully), over a cartoon of cigarets, then so be it. But gore and violence for the sake of gore and violence never impress me.

Leigh Russell said...

I agree, Guillaume, characters have to act in character or the book becomes unbelievable. Great to hear from you.