Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Writing about Violence

I mentioned on Monday my delight at a very positive review of The Hanging Wood in The Times. I'm equally pleased with a very generous review of the book in The Literary Review. And again it's gratifying that the reviewer, Jessica Mann, is, like Marcel Berlins of The Times, one of the genre's most thoughtful critics. And fascinating – at least to me – that they make very similar points.

This review, which says the book is "an excellent example of the traditional British whodunnit", and is "interesting and enjoyable", makes the point that the story "has all the ingredients: an attractive setting, a dysfunctional posh family and ingenious murder methods, with the violence taking place off-stage."

There is no denying that some of those who die in The Hanging Wood meet their end in a very gruesome ways. There are reasons for this, connected with the nature of the storyline, but I didn't have any wish, when I was writing the book, to salivate over the unpleasantness of what happens. There are certainly some books where graphic descriptions of acts of violence are absolutely necessary, and key to the integrity of the story, but there are other books where, it may be argued, the gore is over-done. Each author has to decide what approach to take, and I don't think there is a "right" or "wrong" approach that can be easily defined. In the end, much is bound to depend on the personal taste of the author and reader.

Is it old-fashioned to write the way I do? I agree with Marcel Berlins that it isn't, and I like to think the books like mine, although written in the detective novel tradition, have plenty to say about contemporary life. But in any event, you can only really write in a way that suits you – chasing after fashion in fiction may work occasionally, but not very often. So I really am heartened when intelligent critics with high standards are sympathetic to my books. Even without reviews, I'd keep on writing, but there is no doubt that the hugely positive reaction to my last novel is helping to motivate me with the follow-up.


Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - To answer your question - no. It is not old-fashioned to write the way you do. In my humble opinion, it represents skill and good writing on your part, along with a respect for the reader. Readers can be trusted to "fill in the blanks." There is no need to give every detail. To do so, again in my opinion, is to lessen the story. Please consider continuing to do what you already do very well.

Deb said...

When you think about it, there are plenty of rather violent deaths in Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, etc., but we don't get our noses rubbed in it. That's what I dislike about so much of today's murder mysteries--not so much the violence, but the (for want of a better word) luxuriating in it. I loathe the psycho-killer genre.

John said...

I agree with the points taken about graphic violence in fiction. There does seem to be an audience that craves reading about knives and the harm they can cause to human flesh just as there is an audience for obscenely violent movies that seem to exist solely for the gory depictions of characters being killed in horrifying ways (the Saw movies are a perfect example of this). But I find that detective novels don't really need to resort to these graphic depictions. Thrillers, yes. I did read a book recently that crossed the line and when I reviewed it I had to mention that the violent descriptions of victims dying were stomach churning and definitely not something for readers who want to avoid examples of graphic violence. In this case "graphic" was an understatement. Needless to say I have not returned to that particular writer. I'm not at all part of that audience.

Kacper said...

I've noticed that some reviewers will attach the "old-fashioned" tag without rhyme nor reason to any crime story that isn't an endless parade of slashings, decapitations and rapes interjected occasionally with a graphic sex scene and a bout of binge drinking (not that there's anything wrong with books that are that). In addition to your books, I've noticed it a lot with, say, Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache books which are some of the most psychologically complex, engaging, modern mysteries being written today.

I think the most aspects of the Lake District novels - the psychological complexity and realism of the characters as well as the focus on exploring their psyches, the focus on Hannah's personal life, the room for moral ambiguity - are all very contemporary and the hallmarks of a good crime novel of the 21st century. "Old-fashioned", to me, indicates the dominance of plot - characters taking a backseat to the ingenuity of plotting and careful cluing, resulting in something that's as much a mental exercise as a story. There are many writers who are keeping the tradition of the adroitly clued country house puzzler alive - G.M. Malliet is one who's doing a remarkably good job of it - but it's a rather specific subgenre of the novel, and not one in which I would include you or many of the other writers routinely called "old-fashioned".

Martin Edwards said...

Extremely interesting and pertinent comments; thank you very much.
I think, Margot, your point about 'respect for the reader' is absolutely central to good writing.
Kacper, I don't know G.M. Mallet's work at all - can you tell me more?

Kacper said...

Martin, Malliet wrote three Inspector St. Just novels for the independent American mystery press Midnight Ink - she's very popular stateside but hasn't seemed to make much of an impact across the pond, though all her books are set in the UK.

Her stories are all typical and rather purposely quaint country house mysteries, clear homages to the Golden Age, with large casts of quirky and slightly archetypal characters and very complicated, carefully clued plots. All her books start with a cast of characters and they usually have maps, too. Her newest is the start of a new series, featuring a vicar detective and set in a village named "Nether Monkslip", which is perhaps all you need to know about her. But I mean that in a good way - her books are very readable and great fun, sometimes veering more towards pastiche than homage.

Anonymous said...

I, too, agree with Margot that there is nothing old-fashioned in writing that assumes the reader has the imagination and intelligence to "fill in the blanks". The ever-more graphic descriptions of violence and its aftermath appearing in books seem to be linked to the similar escalation in films and television - not just in the unrepentant genre of spatter/snuff movies mentioned by John, but also in genuine detective or police stories.
This attempt to emulate a visual medium in print - perhaps driven by publishers with an eye on screen rights? - is misguided. Viewers use two senses to process information: they can see the eviscerated corpse and simultaneously listen to what the characters are saying. The story can therefore keep moving along. But readers have only their eyes. If writers want their readers to experience the dialogue AND the full horror of the corpse - but don't trust them to do so without having everything spelled out - they have to put their narrative drive into neutral while they embark on all the gory detail. The effect of this is to give even more emphasis to the horror.
Still, we shouldn't forget that back in the 19thC the intelligent and the explicit portrayals of murder and mystery coexisted, with the grand guignol of the stage and the lurid illustrations of the Police News catering for one taste and more thoughtful writers such as Dickens and Collins for another.
Or perhaps it was the same audience in a different mood!

aguja said...

Great news, Martin, that you are receiving these reviews. I agree that you can write only as it comes to you and in your own style. I like the way that you have approached this post.
I must confess that I have not read The Hanging Wood yet. I shall be in the UK at some point during the autumn and will look for it then.
Be encouraged! I would be ecstatic if my books were reviewed and even more so if the reviews were uplifting and positive.

Maxine said...

One reason I like Nordic crime fiction is that it is like turning the clock back 10 or 20 years (sometimes literally given the time it takes to get a book translated!) to a time when storytelling, psychological character study, plot and sense of place are paramount. Great! None of this rubbish bestsellerdom of lowest common denominator - serial killer (usually of attractive young women), inventive slowly described methods of death and torture, etc. Yuk!

Writers like you and Ann Cleeves keep up this tradition, and publishers like Quercus and Corvus seem to actually read the books they publish rather than just buy rights blind at some auction. Long may both continue!

Minnie said...

Hooray for good writing, handling shockhorror with sensitivity and discretion! I second Maxine's comments, and add my own encouragement and endorsement of you to all the others.