Let’s be clear about one thing: gruesome accounts of violence and its results do not float my boat. Or light my candle, or set my blood racing, or any other such popular metaphors. There are authors whose work I avoid, because they seem to delight, if not glory, in the kind of lengthy graphic descriptions that the human imagination can usually achieve in far more vivid detail. And there are authors whose books I’ve put in the charity box after half a chapter for the same reason.
It works for some people, and that’s fine. Talking to readers at a Christmas market the other week, I found that a surprising number actually choose their reading matter for the gore and mutilation. In my previous life I even published one author whose accounts I had to tone down, partly so I could keep my breakfast down while I was editing, but mostly because those accounts went way beyond anything I thought even the most bloodthirsty readers would need. She was one of my best sellers; go figure.
What’s more, there are authors whose work contains plenty of examples of that kind of description whose books stand in whole rows on my shelves.
So today I have two questions: why can I read some books which contain thoroughly depicted violent crime but reject others; and, how far can violent crime in fiction escalate before the tide turns?
I don’t think question #1 is so very hard to answer. The difference between books containing the graphic stuff which I find I want to read and... the other kind is this: the ones I want to read also give me plenty I want to read about.
Usually that means great atmosphere, a central plotline which grabs me and makes me want to follow it to the end, however bitter it gets, and mainly, characters I’m persuaded very early to care about and want to get to know better.
Well-known examples of the above aren’t exactly scarce, but if you want a couple of names, how about Lee Child and Val McDermid?
On the less well-known front, though that may change, I’ve just finished my second sampling of T F Muir, one of the emerging ‘tartan noir’ authors I mentioned last week. A particularly macabre murder was described long before I applied the fifty-page test, but I took a deep breath, read those pages very quickly with my eyes half-shut and kept going. Why? Largely because Frank, as he’s known to his friends, has a deft hand with female characters (he’s a man – it’s not always the case). I wouldn’t have gone back for the second book if those characters hadn’t captured my imagination long before the end of the first, and I wanted to see how they developed.
The second question is trickier. I’m sure a lot of particularly horrible murders happen in real life as well as in fiction – but I can’t be the only person who has trouble with stomach-turning serial killings which seem to happen every few months in peaceful villages or scantily populated beauty spots. If I’d let myself believe there was a grain of truth in Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, I would have strongly discouraged my daughter from studying at the University of Oxford. And I’m pretty sure the Royal Family would have felt much the same about the next-but-one heir to the British throne completing his education at the venerable institution located in St Andrews if the local newspapers gave any hint that T F Muir might have a point.
But that’s not really the issue here; my real question is, how much gorier and more graphic can the descriptions get? And how much further can the boundaries be pushed? Without giving too much away, Mr Muir will have to work pretty hard to top his latest foray into the realms of grotesque brutality.
There must come a point where readers say enough! I can’t suspend disbelief any more.