Saturday, 11 July 2009

Sauvignon blanc? Or would you prefer blood?

I was at an Oxfam shop this morning, signing books as part of their Bookfest fortnight and I got into conversation with a reader about the gory bits of crime writing. It reminded me that I'd written a piece about it on my website, so I've lifted it from there for this blog.

OK, this is the dilemma. I started a chapter with the following:

He considered nailing her hands to the floor but the thought of the delirious headlines which that would generate quickly helped to banish the impulse.

There followed two paragraphs written from ‘his’ POV. Here’s another fragment to give the flavour:

He wanted her to see him, look at him, know that the hopelessness of her condition left him cold. He wondered if cutting off her eyelids would do the trick. She’d certainly have nothing to close then, no little blinds to draw down over the sight of him. But how much blood would there be? Would it cloud her vision? Well, it would clot eventually and he’d be able to sponge it away from her irises with some warm soapy water. Anyway, there was only one way to find out.

The dilemma was that, having re-read the stuff a few days later, I wondered, for the umpteenth time, what damage it might do to a susceptible or slightly unbalanced reader and whether it was irresponsible to pander to tastes which derived pleasure from scenes of torture and sadism. I know that it’s a subject that’s been debated by the best writers, critics and psychologists, but so far none has been able to quell the visceral unease I feel at putting yet more Grand Theft Auto mayhem in the public domain.

There’s a nasty scene towards the end of Material Evidence. It’s there because I thought that’s what the public wanted and that it might help to get the book accepted. That suggests that it may be gratuitous, but it’s not; it’s necessary both for the plot and to help understand the psychology of the character involved. After reading it, a cousin of mine wrote to say that she was appalled that I could have such ideas in my head and, to judge from our contacts since, it did alter the nature of our relationship. My agent, the late and sadly missed Maggie Noach, reinforced the notion, once introducing me to a friend as ‘a nice man who has very nasty thoughts’.

In Rough Justice, there’s a rape; it’s brutal but, once more, it’s necessary. Indeed, in her review in the Sunday Telegraph, Susanna Yager wrote ‘It isn’t there to titillate, but to carry the story forward and ultimately bring about the climax to a thoughtful and thought-provoking book’. And yet, when I’m asked to give a reading, I never choose such passages. So what’s happening here? As the writer, I create the fiction; as the reader, I feel squeamish about it. I’m not tempted to use terms such as multiple personality or schizophrenia because I’d get them wrong, but it does seem that there are two different types of thinking involved.

Most people are fascinated by violence – witness the rubber-necking at accident scenes, the scrupulous recording of the intimate aspects of murders in the papers, especially when the circumstances are particularly grisly. We (if this doesn’t include you, my apologies) enjoy the frisson such stories give us, and when something nasty happens to someone we know, i.e. a character in a book with whom we’ve become familiar, the effect is that much greater. On the other hand, and simultaneously, we deplore violence and would be incapable of perpetrating such acts ourselves.

There’s no point in denying the fact that I get as much pleasure, maybe more, from writing a harrowing scene as from writing a ‘normal’ piece of narrative. And not because I’m doing what one apologist suggested, i.e. ‘stylising’ murder. I don’t remember who it was, but he/she claimed that violence in crime novels was acceptable because it was stylised rather than real. How do you stylise an axe biting into a skull? Does using the word ‘biting’ soften it through metaphor? Not in my literal mind it doesn’t.

No, the pleasure is a delight in breaking the taboos, inhabiting for a few moments the primitive segments of my psyche, setting aside the glass of Sauvignon blanc and the bons mots about the failure of the violinist to sustain the tempo in the accelerando passage of the second movement. It’s a wide-eyed amazement at what our imaginations can conceive and of the desecrations we’re capable of performing on our fellows.

And I suppose it’s an escape valve. The horror is such that it satisfies those deeper instincts and allows us to take our seats after the interval and appreciate the virtuosity the violinist brings to the pizzicato passage (or whatever the correct musical terms for all these things are – the language of savagery comes much more easily to me than that of refinement).

The problem comes when we reflect on copycat killings, on the casual use of knives by kids, on the glamour of violence itself. I’m not happy at the thought that some words of mine, dreamed up in the comfort of my study, with my view of the garden, might lodge in the mind of some unfortunate whose moral antenna are set differently and who might find the products of my primitive indulgences ‘cool’.


  1. facinating post, Bill and I' afraid I can add nothing to the debate. You should go to the Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate y'know. You'd love it. They debate this and other issues around crime writing. And if you went I could brag to everyone that I know a real published writer.

  2. The older I get, the less tolerance I have for violence in books or movies. Not tolerance in the sense of, "I can't believe you wrote that, you sick bastard." I mean an inability to shed those graphic images. I dream them. Daydream them, even. Which is unfortunate, because I find myself unable to read excellent stories by excellent writers simply because my subconscious can't seem to separate creative images from reality.

    I assume it's also why my own writing veers toward humor, even when I make an attempt at depth ;>

    Kari Dell

  3. I don't write crime but I recall writing one of the best scenes I ever wrote. It hasn't been published--and may never be, but it was written from the POV of a criminal - a real weirdo, for lack of a better description.

    I have several points to make concerning your comments, whatever it is that motivated me to write that gripping scene, and the pshyches of people like you and me.

    Ethics is all about differening perceptions, degrees of self-interest, and a host of other things. Each writer must determine for himself whether his content oversteps the boundaries of his ethics. Regardless of your decision, Bill, some people will agree and others will not.

    One of the advantages, to my way of thinking, about the written word in book form is that we can preview the content--which we can't always do with movies and television. We can also instantly put a book down the millisecond we read something we don't like; again, that isn't always possible when we're in a movie theater or in front of the TV. So, if a book contains more violence or graphic content than we like, it's much more easy to put an end to our lack of enjoyment.

    What motivates people to write violent, graphic content? Real life. The things you write have happened, are happening this moment, and will happen in the future. Is some of it sick? Absolutely. Will writing about such things put an end to them? I doubt it. Will creating violent, graphic scenes give one or more weirdos some ideas they didn't already have? Perhaps. Are you responsible for the behavior of other people? That's your call--we're back to Ethics again.

    At the risk of disagreeing with your cousin, I don't think the thoughts live in your head so much as your imagination dreams them up. You're a crime writer--that's what you do.

    P.S. The chapter hook with the hand-nailing is excellent - exactly the sort of opener a writer needs.

  4. Michael - Thank you but I think your priority should be to get on with the WIP. If it’s half as readable as your blogs, you’ll soon have enough to get that little place you’ve always wanted on Mustique.

    Kari Lynn - Strangely, you’ve achieved a state I’ve always yearned for, i.e. being so gripped (and/or scared) by a fiction that it genuinely spooks me. I’ve read many I’ve loved, many that have produced the wee frisson, but none that has stayed with me in the way you suggest. I suppose I like the idea of confronting some sort of fear or horror yet in a totally safe environment.

    And what you describe as your apparent inability to ‘separate creative images from reality’ is a gift. It confirms the REAL power of fiction, i.e. to generate experiences and truths as powerful as or maybe more powerful than those in our daily routines.

    Linda - I totally agree about the multi-layering of ethics and the intense subjectivity which they involve, especially in such an intimate experience as reading. And, no, in the end we’re not responsible (we can’t be) for what readers get from our books. On the other hand, I think I’d be very upset if anything I wrote actually encouraged someone’s anti-social tendencies. For every responsible reader who, after previewing the content, chooses not to read on, there must be another who actually seeks the vicarious thrill of indulging in carnage or extremes of brutality.

    The more I think about the sort of things I write, the more I realize that part of what I’m trying to do is present readers with ethical dilemmas, encourage them to think about them and realize that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are very difficult concepts to pin down.

    And thanks for the compliment in your PS. Ironically, it sums up everything we’re talking about very aptly in the easy co-existence of the literary technique (chapter hook) and the grotesque (hand-nailing) in a reasoned, balanced, ‘normal’ sentence.

  5. Easy for you to say, Bill. Those stinking velociraptors from Jurassic Park didn't stalk your every sleeping moment for a week.


  6. A very thought provoking article, Bill. I also worry about implanting murderous ideas into someone's mind. I shy away from using knives, axes and other sharp instruments when I murder victims because I can't read someone elses's "slasher novels." They give me nightmares. :)