Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tough Guys

John McFetridge

Over the past week here we talked a little about ‘male’ books and that discussion brought up Tom Clancy and Lee Child and the strong, silent (or at least not overly talkative) types – the stoic heroes – and we talked about characters being, “put through the wringer,” which has been pretty much standard operating procedure in crime fiction since... well, who first used the phrase, “When I came to,” in a story?

At the same time here in Canada our news was full of stories about three young men, hockey players, who died this summer. All three were “tough guys,” known more for fighting and hard-hitting than for scoring goals. It’s now known that two of the three young men battled depression for years and both committed suicide and the third died from a combination of alcohol and painkillers.

One thing that came up in many news reports about these tragedies was the link between depression and head injuries. There’s a lot of info on the net, of course. This article said, “The incidence of major depression among 559 people with traumatic brain injury was nearly eight times greater than would be expected in the general population, the researchers report in the May 19th issue of the JAMA/Journal of the American Medical Association.” Eight times, wow.

And it seems to me that a lot of the characters in crime fiction suffer head injuries, maybe as often as a hockey enforcer.

One of those enforcers, Georges Laraque, recently talked about the amount of stress involved in being a tough guy, "This job is so hard, physically and mentally," said Laraque. "You can go to a movie theatre the night before a game and you're thinking of the fight you're going to get into the next day. On the day of the game, some guys might be sweating because of the anxiety, have a hard time having their pregame lunch or even pregame nap. It’s often why when two tough guys face each other in a game, they want to get it over with as soon as possible so then they can play and not worry about it. This mental struggle is constant, because when this game is over, then there’s the next one, then you think about the next guy, and after a while this can drive you crazy. On top of that, you got the pressure of doing well, you want to keep your teammates’ respect, and, of course, you want to keep your job. You know one bad loss in a fight can cost you your job. Tough guys are easy to replace.”

That sounds like some characters in crime fiction. And living with that pain and that stress leads to painkillers. As one hockey player said, “Percocets are golden in the hockey world.” Former Flyers enforcer Riley Cote, now an assistant coach with Philadelphia’s top minor-league affiliate, wrote on his FaceBook page that “someone needs to step in and speak up about these very preventable deaths. This is absolutely crazy. These [painkillers] are mass produced, way overprescribed and are flooding the black market with pharmaceutically made, very highly addictive drugs. This is a growing epidemic all across North America. We need some action ASAP otherwise there will be plenty more of these sad stories.”

And, of course, many, many articles are saying the same thing – that we need to talk about this more, that maybe being strong and silent isn’t so heroic.

I remember getting annoyed with how much of the stories the psychologist Susan Silverman started to take up in Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels. Looking back now I’m starting to understand what Mr. Parker was up to and what he was up against.

One of the things I really liked about The Sopranos was how well Tony’s battle with depression was dealt with on the show. By the end when it became known to the mobsters that Tony was seeing a psychiatrist some of them didn’t even think it was a big deal.

When I was working on the TV show The Bridge one of the stories we were hoping to develop was based on the true story about the psychiatrist that the police union set up for its members to see in secret. It seemed that police officers were even more worried than Tony Soprano was that talking to a therapist would be seen as a sign of weakness and damage their careers.

So, where are we at in crime fiction these days?


Dana King said...

Tony Soprano pretty much removed the stigma from allowing tough guys to seek help. (I hope so. My next project has my PI protagonist seeing a counselor.) The trick, as always, is in how it's handled.

As for hockey, the time is approaching where blows to the head will have to be outlawed. Fights are nothing more than repeated blows to the head.

Thomas Pluck said...

So tired of the emotionally ironclad hero. Read Warrior Soul by Navy SEAL Chuck Pfarrer, or other bios of real heroes, and they admit there is only so much a man can take.

pattinase (abbott) said...

This sort of tough guy image begins so young. My four year old grandson already rejects a ton of things because they are for girls. Just last week, he said to me, "Boys are mean, you know, Nana." I don't think this observation was meant to be either positive or negative but just matter of fact.

Steve Weddle said...

From a "technical" standpoint, I suppose, having the main character talk to the shrink does provide another acceptable place for an info dump, doesn't it? Imagine all the exposition you could drop in there.

Al Tucher said...

Maybe this is one of the factors behind the explosion of tough chicks in crime fiction. There's less worry about readers accepting their vulnerabilities.

Chris Rhatigan said...

Steve makes a good point.

seana graham said...

Wait a minute. You're telling me guys have emotions?

Just kidding. On a more serious note, there's been more than one too many head injuries among the people I know, and sometimes I think we should all just wear helmets all the time. It's no joke if it it happens to you