Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I had a gun, you know the rest

By Jay Stringer

I wrote a few weeks ago about violence in crime fiction. At the time, I was looking more at the difference, if there is one, between male and female writers. But I want to return to expand on a different point. I like to get into an idea and dig around.

Violence is key to crime fiction. It really is. There are a number of different branches within the crime family, the cosy, the mystery, the crime, the noir, and the yadda yadda. Something that unites them is that they would all have some form of violent act in there, somewhere. And what separates them is how that is dealt with.

It might not be extreme violence, and it may not be on screen, but it’s there. Five minutes before Miss Marple walked into the room and saw the local doctor lying dead on the floor, someone hit the poor quack over the head with a vase.

Something I’ve often found with crime fiction is that too many writers are more interested in the act itself than the consequences.The physical rather than the emotional. I touched on this aspect again a while back when I talked about grief.

I read two books recently that really impressed me with their handling of violence. The first was Hell To Pay by George Pelecanos. There is a lot of violence in and around the edges of that story, but very little of it is really described. There’s a horrific event about halfway through the book, and it is touched upon. But Pelecanos invested much more time into showing the aftermath. We see the funeral; we see the family’s grief. We see the shockwaves that go through the community and then the speed with which modern life forgets. It was an act that we didn’t really need to see, our brains are well capable of detailing it, but what we did need was all that followed. In fact, for those of you who've read the book, think abck to that incident and even as it was happening, Pelecanos took us inside the mind of one of the victims to show us a simple and heartbreaking last wish.

Likewise near the end of the novel the main character stops an act of violence, something that was about to happen ‘off screen’, and this simple moment carried a lot more weight than it might have in the hands of another writer. The character got into the emotions of the scene, and thought through the consequences that would have followed, and intervened.

I find that kind of writing far better than any number of grisly descriptions of murder or autopsy.

The other book I’m thinking of is The Lost Sister by our very own Russel D Mclean. There is a lot of violence in there; we know this because we don’t see it. We see the blood and the pain that follows. We see the weight that the violence leaves behind rather than the weight that went into the punch. Naturally I won’t go into spoilers here, but there was a key scene where something important happened, and rather than show the act Russel chose to show the aftermath. I was really struck by that decision, largely because it showed that sometimes the best thing a writer can do is not write.

It can be far more effective sometimes to leave a scene rather than to explore it.

There’s a camera move in the film Dr No which has always stuck with me. James Bond is about to be beaten up by some of the henchmen, and as they start hitting him the camera drifts away to focus on something else. We hear the violence but we don’t see it. Now, in terms of the film this may have been to do with ratings. But a trick that might have grown out of compromise became one of the most effective parts of the film.

In this month’s issue of Detective comics, written by Greg Rucka, there is another such moment. The scene shifts from the usual third person P.O.V to first person, so that the reader is seeing things through the eyes of the main character as she and her family are kidnapped. The thing is, the main character has a bag over her head, so all we can ‘see’ is the sound of her mother and sister begging for their lives. We hear, rather than see, the violence. We feel the lump at the pit of our stomach as her family fall silent following gunshots, and then we are left with the mess as the bag is pulled from our eyes.

Rucka, and the artist J.H.Williams could have chosen to show the act in graphic detail. But they decided that showing the aftermath would have a far bigger impact, and it does.

And so it is with crime fiction. Do I need a detailed description of a woman being raped, or the places a snake can be fitted into? Do I need to see or read an autopsy, the cold clinical examination of a corpse or a victim? Do I need to know what sound a madman makes as he kills someone? Nope.

I need to know what the affect is. I need to know what makes this act of violence important, and that is measured by the wake that it leaves.

And so that’s where I find myself as both a writer and a reader. Don’t try and impress me with your hyper-violence. I don’t care if you can blow something up in slow motion, describe the trajectory of a bullet, or prove to me that you’ve done a ton of research on anatomy.
I just want to know that you understand the emotions behind what you’re doing. And I want to see how people deal with the mess that’s left behind.

The most important lesson I’ve learned from all of this as a writer is that sometimes what you don’t write is far more important.


Dana King said...

Well put. There have been a lot of posts around the blogosphere lately about violence in crime fiction, particularly grisly violence toward women. I'm not squeamish, nor am I a prude, but a lot of what is currently passed off as realistic and gritty is sadistic and pornographic.

I hadn't thought about it much until recently, but it occurs to me now that my favorite crime stories are about picking up the pieces after a crime. Seeing the crime isn't nearly as important as trying to leaven its consequences.

Jay Stringer said...


There was another point I could have made, but I didn’t want to get too high up on a soapbox; I heard an interview with Reed Coleman where he suggested we have become removed from death because we no longer have to bury our own dead as people did hundreds of years ago.

I'm not suggesting we all start doing our own mortician work, but the fact that we have become desensitised to violence and death is surely to do with the fact that there are so few depictions of dealing with the consequences.

John McFetridge said...

I think you're right, Jay. I have very little interest in the details of the violence.

I think it's interesting that you used the phrase, "... blow something up in slow motion..." because we do owe a lot of this to the movies. You're probably right that as ratings loosened up it was allowable toshow more violence, so filmmakers did - and then there wasn't as much time left for the consequences.

So, in the days when movies were moreheavily censored, the violence was something that set apart novels - not just pulp novels, but even some classic war novels had more violence than the movies of the time.

But it's a losing proposition to try and keep raising the bar with movies for depictions of violence. Hey, they have cool soundtracks.

So it surprises me that so many books try to be movies, instead of moving into the deeper territory of, as you say, dealing with the consequences - something that books can do so much better than movies.

Jay Stringer said...

Totally, John.

I find it funny that two of my best loved forms of story telling, comics and novels, have spent the past generation or so trying to be more like films.

Each one, films, comics and books, have their own strengths. They have their own limitations, too. But for me the best storytellers are the ones who delve into what their chosen medium CAN do, instead of trying to make it more like one of the others.

John McFetridge said...

Well, one of the things I like about books and publishing is how it just rolls along, immune to fads, but I have to wonder sometimes.

When we talk about technology changes it's almost always about the way things are packaged and sold but recently I've been thinking about how technology changed affects the content.

Mostly I was thinking about how pop music changed when it went from mostly 45 rpm singles to albums - some musicians really embraced the change and put out twenty minute songs - whole album sides, or even the dreaded "concept album" (there were a few I liked).

So, as you say, there are things books CAN do that movies can't and I suspect adding internet communication and digitial delivery will affect content when we figure it out, taking this medium even further into areas only it can be taken.

Chris said...

I like what John said about moving from singles to albums in the music biz . . . which, with downloads, seems to have come full circle where single songs are becoming the driving force again, apparently. I was shocked when the guy who plays guitar in my band was talking about an album he downloaded, but not the whole thing -- he just clicked through the samples and grabbed the ones that seemed cool to him. Me, I find the stuff that takes a while to grow on me is the stuff that has staying power.

But violence. I think about this a lot. Comics anymore seem to assume that to be "edgy" they have to try and out-violence the last one. That's disappointing to me, and has turned me away from a number of them. Of course there are exceptions (Scalped comes immediately to mind). Same with movies. I am a much bigger fan of letting my imagination fill in the blanks. I don't mind a line like "x shot y in the face." I don't need to see the graphic details of the bullet striking flesh, you know?

The only Pelecanos I've read was The Night Gardener. I'll definitely be reading more.

Great post, Jay. Christa Faust has a similar theme running over on her blog.

Jay Stringer said...

I recomend DRAMA CITY as a good next step on the PELECANOS trail. Its one of the best 'crime' novels i've read, one that really shows what can be done.

I havent checked out Christa's blog in a little while, i'll go do it now.