Tuesday, May 24, 2011

More on Violence in Crime Fiction

Jay Stringer's computer hates him, so we're going with an ENCORE EDITION -- this one playing off Steve's post yesterday about Writing Violence.

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...

I started reading Richard Price's SAMARITAN yesterday. An excellent example of what you're talking about here. Done well, the effect of the violence on the story and the reader may be inversely proportional to the amount of time spent describing it.

Al Tucher said...

That's one of the things that has impressed me about The Killing on AMC. It's all about the aftermath. The camera lingers when it would usually cut away from the pain of the survivors of murder, which is revealed as the hideous waste that it is.

Lawrence Block said...

Interesting topic. Some lines just linger in the mind, long after the rest of the story fades from memory. Hammett wrote somewhere (I think in Red Harvest): "I hit him with the door, repeatedly." That's all you need, but you need every word of it, and the next time some witling tells you adverbs are always a bad idea, well, I suggest you hit him with the door. More than once.