Murder is a violent crime. Of course, some murders are more brutal than others, but it’s just about impossible to talk or think about murder without considering that aspect of it. In real life, police and other investigators have to deal with sometimes horrific violence on a regular basis, so if crime fiction is to at all reflect real life, you could argue that it, too, should acknowledge that violence. The problem is, of course, that for many people, violence – a tremendous amount of violence – is off-putting. That may be because we don’t like to really think about how much violence people are capable of committing. Or it may be because crime fiction, like other fiction, often serves the purpose of helping readers escape from everyday life. Violence isn’t pleasant, and escapes aren’t very restorative if they’re not pleasant. The question then becomes: how much violence should there be in a novel? And there isn’t really a definitive answer. For one thing, everyone has a different threshold for violence and gore. Secondly, each murder mystery’s different. In some, not much violence is needed. In others, the story makes less sense and is less believable if there’s little violence. The key seems to be that the violence should make sense and be a logical part of the novel if it’s going to be there. In other words, there’s a fine line between violence that’s an integral part of a novel, and violence that’s “gorebage,” or gore that’s included in a story gratuitously*.
Agatha Christie’s novels don’t include a lot of descriptions of violence. For instance, in Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning murder of Celia Austin, a resident at a hostel for students. Celia’s a nice, if not overly intelligent, young woman who, as one character puts it, is definitely not the kind of girl to get herself murdered. Poirot gets involved in the case because there’ve been some other very mysterious goings-on at the hostel that seem to have no explanation. In the end, and after two more deaths, Poirot finds out how those deaths are connected with the other events at the hostel. Even though three people end up being killed (and not by an exactly remorseful killer, either, really), Christie doesn’t include a lot of violence. There are no detailed descriptions of the deaths; rather, the reader is left to “fill in the gaps.”
That’s also true in 4:50 from Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!). In that novel, Elspeth McGillicuddy is on a train from Scotland to St. Mary Mead to visit her friend, Jane Marple. On the way, another train passes in the other direction. Mrs. McGillicuddy glances through the windows of that train just in time to see a woman being strangled. At first, no-one believes her. After all, there is no dead body, and no-one has reported anyone missing. However, Mrs. McGillicuddy knows what she saw, and insists that she’s right. When she tells Miss Marple what she saw, Miss Marple pays attention and the two women soon set to work trying to figure out what happened. In the end, Miss Marple connects the murder on the train with events at Rutherford Hall, where the woman’s body is eventually found. It turns out that the woman was murdered mostly for financial gain.
Christie actually pokes fun at her reluctance to describe graphic violence. She dedicated Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder) to her brother-in-law, who’d mentioned there wasn’t enough blood in her novels. In this novel, Simeon Lee, a tyrannical but wealthy old man, is brutally murdered on Christmas Eve. Since all of his relatives have gathered for the holiday, and each of them had plenty of motive, there are lots of suspects for Hercule Poirot. He gets involved in the case because he’s spending the holiday nearby. Although you could argue that this is one of the most violent of Christie’s novels (it’s possibly got the most blood), even this one isn’t graphic. Christie describes the murder scene, but not in gratuitous detail.
Dorothy Sayers’s work is also not excessively violent. In Have His Carcase, for instance, Harriet Vane discovers the body of a man who’s had his throat cut. There’s no doubt about the death, either, yet Sayers’ description isn’t excessively violent:
“..for the larynx and all the great vessels of the neck had been severed…and a frightful stream, bright red and glistening, was running over the surface of the rock…
I have to confess that I don’t write graphically violent scenes, myself. My reason is that the stories I write don’t require a lot of graphic descriptions in order for them to make sense. There are many, many fine modern authors who also don’t include lots of violence in their novels.
That said, though, there are plenty of novels where violence – sometimes a lot of it – is integral to the plot. For instance, Ian Rankin’s Mortal Causes is the story of the brutal torture and murder of Billy Cunningham. At first, it looks as though Cunningham may have been murdered by an Irish terrorist group, so Inspector Rebus works with the elite Scottish Crime Squad to investigate that possibility. When Cunningham turns out to be the son of Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty, everything changes. Cafferty, a powerful local crime boss, is at least as eager to find out who murdered his son as Rebus is, and makes it clear that if Rebus doesn’t solve the crime, he will – in his own way. So, in order to prevent a frightening outbreak of violence in Edinburgh, Rebus reluctantly agrees to work with Cafferty to find out who’s behind Cunningham’s death. In this novel, the violence is graphic, but it’s an important part of the plot. Without it, it would be harder to believe the events in the story. So while the violence is graphic, you could argue that it’s not gratuitous.
That’s also true of Simon Beckett’s David Hunter novels. Hunter is a forensic anthropologist, so forensic details are important parts of the cases he investigates. In Whispers of the Dead, for instance, he’s visiting Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropological Research Laboratory when a decomposed body is found not far from the lab. The lab team, including Hunter, works with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) and local police to try to find out who the dead man was, and how (and by whom) he was killed. Then, another body appears. Soon, it’s clear that a serial killer is at work, and Hunter and the lab team work to solve the crimes before someone else dies. In this novel, there are several questions of identification, so some of the violence done to the bodies, and lots of the forensics details, are important in understanding the story. Again, the violence here is graphic, but not gratuitous.
In Rob Kitchin’s The Rule Book, we see another example of a novel where violence is integral to a believable plot. In that novel, D.S. Colm McEvoy is called in to investigate when a young girl is found brutally murdered. Next to her body is the first chapter of what seems to be a self-help instructional manual for serial killers. Nearby are six carefully-placed business cards, each advertising the book. Soon, the killer, whom the media dubs The Raven, promises that a new chapter of the book will be delivered each day, along with a new body. The killer begins to make good on this promise when a second, and then a third, brutally murdered body is found. Now, McEvoy and his team have to “race against the clock” to catch the killer before any more deaths occur. In this novel, again, violence is a part of the plot. The story wouldn’t be believable without it. Yet, here, too, Kitchin doesn’t include violence arbitrarily. It’s all tightly connected with the plot.
So how much violence is too much? When does graphic become “gorebage?” In the end, it seems that the plot has to determine that. When the violence moves the plot along, is integral to it, or helps us understand the characters better, it’s not necessarily gratuitous, even if it’s graphic. When the violence is arbitrary, described in un-necessary detail, and doesn’t add to the plot or help readers understand the characters, it can quickly become “gorebage.” But, everyone has a different definition of “too much.” Mine is hardly the only one. What’s yours? When does violence become “gorebage” to you?
*Note: My thanks to Bernadette at Reactions to Reading for posting this terrific link of crime-fiction-related neologisms that helped me coin this word.
Also, my thanks to Rob at The View From the Blue House for an excellent post that made me think about how crime fiction makes us think about ourselves. As you predicted, Rob, it inspired me to ponder issues like violence. You must know me better than I suspected ; ).