Friday, September 25, 2009

Violence is Golden

Murder is, of course, an act of violence. So a good murder mystery almost has to include violence, at least to some extent. But authors vary greatly in the amount and kind of violence in their stories. Readers, too, vary in the amount and kind of violence that they like to read. It seems, though, that crime/mystery readers expect that, if there's going to be murder, there's going to be violence.

Some mystery series involve a lot of violence. That's especially true of the hardboiled detective genre such as Mickey Spillane's work. It's also true of some other, similar, series. For instance, John D. McDonald's Travis McGee series includes quite a lot of violence, and McGee prides himself on his fighting ability and physical fitness. Later in the series, some have argued that it seems McGee has become violence-weary, and that's probably true. But, especially in the earlier novels, it's an important part of the plots. Some of the Ellery Queen novels involve that kind of physical violence, too. For instance, Ten Days' Wonder begins with Howard Van Horn, a wealthy young man and friend of Queen's, waking up from a blackout covered in blood, with the realization that he must have committed some horrible crime. He asks Queen for help in figuring out what's behind his blackouts and what murder, if any, he's committed. As the plot unfolds, we see that the novel is much more than a string of violent acts, but violence permeates it.

More modern crime fiction also includes a great deal of violence. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series is one example of a series that includes violence. After all, Plum is a bounty hunter who's protected by a former member of the Special Forces. So one would expect a lot of violence. Nora Roberts, writing as J.D. Robb, has also created a violent mystery series, the In Death series, featuring Lieutenant Eve Dallas as the sleuth in a futuristic setting.

Of course, not all murder mysteries focus as much on the violence of murder. Laurien Berenson's Melanie Travis series is one example. In this series, Berenson certainly describes how the victim is killed, and her sleuth, Melanie Travis, gets into more than one dangerous situation and is hurt a few times. However, the violence isn't graphic. It's not graphic in Dicey Deere's Torrey Tunet series, either, nor in Rita Mae Brown's Mrs. Murphy series.

For the author, there is always a balance to strike when it comes to violence. Many people's taste runs to violence, so there's a temptation to include it, so as to keep readers engaged. In fact, Agatha Christie discusses this very point in The Clocks and, even more directly, in Hallowe'en Party . In Hallowe'en Party, Christie's fictional mystery author, Ariadne Oliver, is helping prepare a house for a Hallowe'en party. When one of the guests, a young teeenager, finds out that Oliver writes murder mysteries, she claims to love mysteries with "lots of blood." In Cards on the Table, Oliver tells Rita Dawes, a fan of her work, that she sometimes has to include another murder and, "get the heroine kidnapped again," if her novel isn't long enough or interesting enough to satisfy her editor.

Yet, Christie herself doesn't include gratuitous violence. In fact, Hercule Poirot may very well be the voice for Christie's view about violence. As a former member of the Belgian police force, he's seen a lot of violence and gore. It bores him. We see that in Murder After Hours (AKA The Hollow). In that novel, Poirot is invited to lunch at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. When he arrives, he sees the body of Dr. John Christow, who's apparently just been shot, lying beside the pool. At first Poirot thinks it's a scene staged for his benefit and the thought of that makes him weary and annoyed. It's only after he finds that the crime is real and involves much more than the violent scene he's witnessed that he gets interested in the case.

My own Joel Williams series doesn't include a lot of graphic violence. It's not that I'm squeamish; I'm not. It's more that I think the intellectual challenge of solving the mystery is a lot more interesting than gore is. Also, I must confess, I don't enjoy writing graphically violent scenes, so I don't write them as well as I do other things. Other authors do things differently.

What's your view? Do you avoid violent series? Prefer them? Does the amount of violence make a difference for you?


  1. I'm afraid that I almost always skip graphic descriptions. I just don't see that they add anything to the story.

    The method of murder may be relevant, or the fact that it was (or appears) committed in rage. Other than that, I think we can take it as read that murder is ... unpleasant :-)

  2. You make a good point, Tim. As a reader, I'm not much of a fan of really graphic descriptions, either. Beyond what the reader needs to make sense of the murder, I don't see, either, that a story is better if there's more gore. In fact, I think too much takes away from the challenge of the mystery. I'm sure there are mystery lovers who disagree with us on that score, but frankly, I'm with you.

  3. For me, it's all about the puzzle. The violence is just necessary to have a puzzle to solve. :)


  4. Well-said, Elizabeth! That's exactly how I feel.

  5. I'm far more interested in writing the mystery than writing the murder!


  6. Not much for me to say except agree with the comments above. I think some thriller writers add a lot of graphic violence and sex because they are not good enough at writing and plotting. Not all of them, of course (I think Val McDermid writes well for example), but apparently there are not many women who read crime fiction to get a dose of blood and gore.

  7. Elspeth - I know exactly what you mean. I far more enjoy the mystery part, too! In the end, it's the mystery that engages the reader more, anyway, I think.

    Dorte - I agree with you that Val McDermid writes well, but in general, yes, too often, authors use graphic violence and sex to "fill up a book." It takes more skill and finesse (and trust me - more time and energy!) to write the rest of the book than it does to write the graphic stuff.

  8. I can't make a hard and fast rule about violence. It depends on the context and the skill of the author. There are authors I have stopped reading because of the violence and the way it is handled, there are authors (and their works) I admire greatly who include graphic violence.

  9. Mack - Thanks for your input. There are certainly authors who are skilled at integrating graphic violence in their stories. There are others who don't do it very well. In those cases, it's jarring and takes away from the story.