Crime Fiction: True Grit or Torture Porn?

Gratuitous violence, anyone?

To be honest, I didn’t know what ‘torture porn’ was until fairly recently, probably because slasher horror films (for which the term was originally invented) are definitely not my thing.  However, the question remains: where does the boundary lie between gritty reality in crime fiction and gratuitous, glorified violence for its own sake?

The reason I ask the question is that I’ve been puzzling myself over a few scenes in my crime novel which have had strong reactions from beta readers to date. One of those scenes was the original opening prologue and is particularly ‘gritty’: it’s a portrait of a terrified, frightened victim trussed up at the feet of a serial killer – told from the killer’s point of view. To be honest, I don’t like reading that scene myself and I wrote it. The killer doesn’t actually do anything to the victim in the scene – it’s the threat of violence to come and his warped view of the woman that is so discomfiting (and, believe me, it is clear from the scene that his view is completely and totally warped). But despite that, it makes me feel distinctly queasy and uncomfortable, and that’s much how it makes others feel too judging from the feedback I’ve had. But so far only two people have actually thrown it back at me with an ‘I don’t read that sort of degenerate trash’ response. Somewhat ironic given that it is written by someone who baulks at watching even worthy movies such as 12 Years a Slave because of the cruelty and violence depicted – hell, I think Home Alone is cruel and unusual (c’mon people, even burglars are real, live people and can be badly maimed or hurt – what’s with the throwing them down stairs and hitting them over the head with shovels for laughs?). OK, I confess: for me, that kind of semi-cartoonish slapstick comedy is right up there with torture porn – both to be deliberately avoided at all costs. It’s a personal taste thing, alright?

“Good art should make you uncomfortable.”

Anyway, back in 2007, shock meister Stephen King had this to say about torture porn:

“…I understand ‘torture porn.’ It’s a good phrase. But I would argue with you, there’s a fine line there…. There’s something going on in ‘Hostel 2’ that isn’t torture porn, there’s really something going on there that’s interesting on an artistic basis. Sure, it makes you uncomfortable, but good art should make you uncomfortable.”

According to Mr King good horror sets out not to horrify the reader, but to assault them, grab their attention and make them forget the outside world and the difference between good horror and bad horror is character development. Good horror has it and makes us feel for the victim – bad horror essentially objectivises victims and makes the reader the literary equivalent of a serial killer on the hunt. Ugh!

That said, it is not overly easy to write a crime novel which doesn’t involve some form of violence; after all, murder of any description, whether quiet and unnoticed or noisy and bloody, is still the one of the greatest violences one human being can perpetrate against another. Therein lie the horns of the dilemma: assuming you have vowed to eschew gratuitous violence in your novel, how do you make murder realistic without allowing it to tip over into, well, for want of a better word, titillation? Too little detail and you run the risk of objectivising your victim; too much detail and you could find yourself (albeit unwittingly) slap bang in the middle of your very own torture porn.

Interestingly enough, I read a scene in a crime novel not so long ago which led the reader through an assault on the main character. It was graphic, but a necessary part of the plot. Despite that, I felt uncomfortable and disturbed as I read it and wished the author hadn’t written it like that. Then I thought: hang on a minute, Katie B., time to get real here! The act of assaulting or murdering another person is disturbing – so how else should I be feeling? Exhilarated, excited, bored, mildly irritated?  No, I was feeling what I should have been feeling – the author was allowing me to experience the character’s feelings at that point and they weren’t cosy, comfortable, warm or fuzzy. Why would they be? Truth be told, the author was doing her job and doing it well. Empathy in action, folks!

Good Intentions

To get back to my scene – I suppose I do worry that it (and perhaps others in the book) might be classed as excessively violent even though my aim in writing it was primarily to show the deranged world view of a dangerous killer, and why it is so imperative that my detectives track him down as soon as possible. And that’s where I think the boundary lies between graphic realism and porn of any description: the author’s intention. Stephen King is right about character development – empathy for your victims is very important – but to my mind you’ve also got to consider the overall aim of the book or film. Maybe there are slasher movies out there with decent character development; the problem is if the characters still end up being summarily dispatched in as gruesome and graphic a manner as possible time and time again, you gotta wonder what the real point of the film is: pandering to an audience’s desire for gratuitous violence or exploring dark themes of man’s inhumanity to man in a meaningful way? Hmmm …

 By the way, in case you want to read the full 2007 article with Stephen King in the LA Times, here’s the link and I’d love to hear your views on the grit or porn question!


Schroedinger’s Dog and other parallel universes

Is the tale wagging the dog?

Don’t you just love quantum physics? All those possibilities, spinning endlessly until somebody bothers to look at them at which point they plump for their (positive) physical reality of choice – while somewhere out there in the universe exactly the (negative) opposite choice happens! Oh, the sheer entanglement of it all! Which may explain some of the character flips my main German detective has gone through in the past years.  Or maybe not. Depending on your positive or negative opinion of the whole shebang. Or Big Bang. Never mind.

BD06277_And while we’re on the subject of quantum physics, have you ever wondered why Schroedinger put a cat in a box to prove his point? Well, think about it. What dog would sit quietly in a box long enough for you to philosophise about the possibility at any given moment of it being dead or alive? You’d know the dog was damn well alive ‘cos he’d be whining and barking his head off in that ‘ok-this-box-is-cool-but-hey-guys-we’re-a-pack-here-and-I-wanna-be-out-there-with-yoouuuuu’ kinda way.  Cats, on the other hand, are simply Masters of the Universe.

Multiple character universes

Since I started this book, my German detective – like Bilbo Baggins – has been there and back again in terms of marital status changes so often he’ll be meeting himself coming back soon. Like the six wives of Henry VIII – died, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded survived – he’s been married, divorced, widowed and now he’s married again, but his wife’s in a coma.  I kid you not! Serious plot point here, people, so stop sniggering!

Harking back to my earlier post about PD James’s BBC4 interview with Mark Lawson, I note that the wonderful Baroness James of Holland Park decided – with some callousness, as she admitted herself (and it must be said, not without some obvious glee) – to ‘kill off’ detective Adam Dalgleish’s wife in her first novel because she might become too interested in his family and lose sight of the story. In fact, poor old Adam remains single (although not unattached) until the final novel in the series, A Private Patient, published in 2008. I think perhaps the good old lady felt she owed him after all that time (her first Dalgleish book was Cover Her Face published in 1962).

Avoiding stereotypes

The problem is that detective novels have changed since PD James started writing back in the 1960s. These days it can be tough avoiding those grieving  widow(er)/ alcoholic/ workaholic maverick cop tropes.

Mozart 008So how do you sort it so you don’t end up with a blindingly obvious stereotype? I have no definitive answer to that question – if anyone has, please let me know  – but I am a great believer in personal choices. Allowing my characters to make choices personal to them, whether it be their favourite colour, drink, wallpaper, or whatever, as well as reacting to events.  As PD James said: think about their cultural and creative life, their interests outside work. Thus Morse has his opera, Dalgliesh his poetry, Harry Bosch his jazz, and Kay Scarpetta her gourmet Italian food.

So what are my guy’s interests? Hmmm … let me think! Why, that’s easy! Quantum physics and football, of course!

Tearing the Veil

Auf Deutsch

I DON’T WRITE POETRY. It’s not because I don’t like it. In fact, I love poetry and will stand stock still in awe and admiration at those talented enough to capture a tiny sliver of beauty or truth in a few well chosen words. But I don’t write it.

Okay, so that’s a pretty clear statement. So what’s with the self-penned poetic output popping up all over the last blog post? Well, I pretty much set out my stall in Criminal Poetry: I don’t write poetry now, but I did for short period when I was much younger, until I realised it wasn’t really my forte.

Of course, it can’t have escaped your notice that the original version of Sprachskepsis, is in German. Warum?

Hand on heart, I’d be the first to admit that my previous attempts to get poetic in English were always fairly disastrous. You’ve heard of purple prose? Well, meet the queen of purple verse! Yes, generally the English language poems wot my younger self wrote were textbook examples of style triumphantly crushing poor old substance underfoot and ripping her heart out. To call them mawkish, sentimental and full of teenage angst would be too kind – even for me! Then there were the humorous doggerel spoofs of classic lit filled with dreadful puns and even more dreadful rhymes. Let’s not go there; rest assured, they were truly awful. Although if you are very naughty, I just might inflict on you my tale of Lamblet Elsingnore – failed actor and so-called avenger of his father’s death (or should that be the other way round?) – in an opus cunningly entitled ‘The Great Dane’. Be afraid – be very afraid!

‘More and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it. Grammar and Style. To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true Gentleman. A mask.’

Samuel Beckett, letter to Axel Kaun, 1937

 Vorsprung durch Technik

The fact is, I know exactly what Samuel Beckett meant when he said that he started writing in French because he wanted to write ‘without style’.  The long list of problems I encountered in my native tongue magically vanished when I put pen to paper in another language. Writing in German released me. It gave me freedom. I wasn’t familiar enough with the language to burden my verse (or prose) with the surfeit of adjectives, adverbs and clever literary flourishes that plagued me in English. It was new and fresh, and I loved its solidity and technical precision. Okay, so maybe in comparison to English and the romance languages, German is often clunky and literal. But I found comfort in its unadorned functionality and the ability, as I saw it, to simply call a spade a spade. Not to mention the fact that you could make up your own words by stringing two or more smaller ones together – how cool is that??

And the English-language exception? That came from a storytelling workshop exercise. I can’t remember the exact parameters of the exercise, only that it limited the amount of nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs to be used. Y’all seeing a pattern here? I considered it a genuinely scientific poetic experiment (I don’t consider that an oxymoron, by the way) with rather pleasing results. Which means it’ll probably show up on a Katie B. blog near you any time soon, as will, from time to time, some of my favourite poems by Shelley, Keats, Dickinson, Eliot and anyone else whose copyright I won’t be infringing! Oooh, can’t wait! Are we there yet? 🙂

Criminal Poetry

Interview with a late Crime Fiction great

I was delighted to catch the re-run of Mark Lawson’s 2006 interview with crime author PD James on BBC4 a few weeks’ ago.  What a wonderful woman! And a wonderful writer! Hard to believe she was 86 at the time of the interview and still had a few novels in her before she died in November last year aged 94. I hope I’m as active as her at that age (wouldn’t mind being that active at my present age!!).

I was particularly interested in her comments about the thorny problem of gruesome murder scenes: yes, they are gruesome, she acknowledged, and they should be realistic, but what was most important was that they conveyed the horror of murder to the reader. Which is why she chose mostly to describe the discovery of a body through the eyes of the person doing the discovering. The example used was from her novel A Taste for Death: a gentile lady arriving to do some church cleaning finds two bodies in the in vestry with their throats cut. Certainly a day less ordinary! And it is this incongruity that PD James found so fascinating: murder as a violent tear in the fabric of our ordered lives and the disorder and chaos it brings with it. A detective’s job therefore is all about bringing or restoring order. Intriguing stuff and Katie B. has to say that she concurs most heartily.

When ‘tecs get poetic

Baroness James also talked about creating her detective character, Adam Dalgleish, and how the downside of making him a published poet was that readers actually wanted to read some of his poetry. For all of you quaking in your boots at the thoughts that this author might be about to follow in her heroine’s footsteps and unleash some investigative verse on an unsuspecting public, you can all rest easy: none of Katie B.’s detectives will be writing poetry any time soon. I learned early on in my writing career that poetry is best left to the professionals, or at least to those with at least a modicum of talent for it.  My gifts – as I like to tell myself – lie elsewhere.

The sheer 30,000 feet drop from the sublime to the ridiculous…

And just to conclusively prove why there is definitely no place for one’s poetic output in one’s crime fiction , here’s a  short ditty I threw together earlier:

 There’s a green-eyed yellow idol to the North of Kathmandu; /He was on his way to Birmingham, but forgot to change at Crewe. /And so he sat on Platform Four, dejected and forlorn, /With misty eyes and deep regret that ever he was born./ ‘Alas, says he, I am a-Freud, oh, woe is me, oh woe! /No longer Jung, my id I see subsumed by my e-go!’

Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

2014: A tale of Donnybrook glassworks and leafy bottoms!

2014: Katie B. sits on her laurels!

the-dominant-glassworks-of-donnybrookOf course, there are some authors who wouldn’t be seen dead resting on their laurels! Not so, Katie B.! Why else would she be so well-padded in the posterior department, if not to be able to repose on a few crispy Laurus nobilis leaves for half a year or longer? Oh, well, at least the yearly review’ll be short and sweet! Don’t say I don’t spoil you!

So, here it is: Katie B.’s attempt to channel James Joyce won her the Tara Sparling Writes’ Flash Fiction Book Title Generator Competition in 2014. Whooop, whoop, yippee!  I’ve reblogged it again, in case any of you missed it earlier (hey, I told you these laurels were well-sat on!).

And congrats to Tara Sparling for garnering some serious laurels for herself with a Best Newcomer Blog win at the 2014 Blog Awards Ireland. No better woman and a well-deserved win. Noch einmal: whooop, whoop, yippee!

2015: Katie B. gets off her laurel-resting ass and writes stuff!

As to what’s on the agenda for 2015? Now that’s a different matter! I have whole heap of New Year Writing Resolutions jostling for pole position at the moment, but which to choose? Preferably one that will have more staying power than a single snowflake floating above the volcanic core of Mount Doom!autumn leaves 001

Actually, come to think of it, given my track record with New Year Resolutions of any description so far, I think’ll I’ll forget them and go for a 2015 mantra instead. And lo, here’s one I prepared earlier: ‘NO EXCUSES’. That’s right! No more ‘I’m too tired‘, ‘I’ve too much to do‘, ‘I don’t have enough time to write‘, ‘I can’t write when it’s snowing, raining, the sun is shining [please delete as appropriate],  ‘I have to wash my hair‘, ‘I have to wash the cat‘, ‘I have to watch my nails grow‘, and all the other paltry excuses I’ve used in the past years to stop myself writing.

Time to kick-ass! Katie B. Purcell’s ass to be precise! So in 2015 get off those bloody laurels before they turn to dust, girl, and get that novel finished! G’wan, you will, you will, you WILL!