Drawing a line in the sand of crime novels

In a Standpoint article, Crimes against Fiction, author and reviewer Jessica Mann explains why she will no longer be reviewing novels that contain "outpourings of sadistic misogyny" – a category that far from being a trend is, in her opinion, now a bandwaggon. She also notes that these books are not part of an anti-feminist backlash as some are written by women – one author quoted as stating that she is well-qualified to write this sort of book because girls grow up knowing that "to be female is synonymous with being prey". [No it isn't!]. Jessica Mann says, correctly, that authors must be free to write and publishers free to publish, but she is not going to review any more of this type of book. Good for her.

The Standpoint article was bought to the attention of many keen crime fiction readers by this post by Martin Edwards – and there is quite a discussion there and in this earlier post by Martin, Why so gruesome?, arising from Jill Paton Walsh's talk at the recent St Hilda's conference in Oxford. This conversation has continued at FriendFeed, where it has bifurcated into two parts (here and here).

One author cited in some of these discussions is Mo Hayder: she is a good example from my perspective because I am not sure if she goes over my personal 'line' in this respect, or not. Like many people, I was bedazzled by her debut, Birdman, while at the same time repelled by it. I thought parts of Tokyo quite brilliant (though other parts of the novel, particularly the last section, were weak): the description of the Nanking massacre was both horrific and yet worked in context (for me). [Coincidentally, Rafe McGregor today writes an excellent analysis of Tokyo and why it appeals to him.] On the other hand, I thought Hayder's Pig Island a mess – plot all over the place, tedious and unrealistic scenes on the island, badly written, clunky and sensationalist for the sake of it. Rafe McGregor disagrees – and that of course is the nub. What one reader finds unacceptable, another finds unproblematic or even appealing.

Looking at the question of gruesomeness from the other perspective, Karin Fossum is the opposite of sensationalist: her novels are written with a detached empathy. Her stories are extremely restrained, without any descriptions of injuries or information about post mortems, for example, and the narratives are simple ones. Yet her books are unbearably sad, featuring as they do the impact of the deaths of children or the tragic "Indian bride", told in unequivocal, unsentimental terms. I can well imagine some people finding these books quite unreadable, not for any gore but because of the intense emotions they evoke (I've cried while reading some of her books).

I like crime fiction because it is Greek tragedy in a (more) modern setting. All the classic elements of drama are present in a good crime novel, and the best of them show a massive disruption of some kind, and how a person or people come to terms with the challenges created by the disruption. That is what I find interesting – not the disruption itself. For me, if the event that drives the novel involves sadism, kidnapping, torture and other crimes against the weak and helpless, I'm closing the pages. (Also such plots are extremely boring and repetitive.) I've never been remotely tempted to read a novel by Chelsea Cain for this reason, though I am sure she's an excellent novelist and good luck to her. I've drawn the line under Michael Robotham, I am afraid, after reading Shatter, in which the villain forces a series of women to humiliate themselves publicly in various nasty ways, including driving them to suicide, by threatening them over the phone with the rape and torture of their teenage daughters, who he convinces the mothers he has kidnapped. For me, that book is beyond the pale – though again, many people like this author and good luck to him, too – but I shan't be reading him again.

I like a strong drama and I am not squeamish – Andrew Vachhs's novels are dark, addressing some of these issues of entrenched evil, and I enjoyed them. I would not agree with one commenter at FriendFeed who put Stieg Larsson's Girl With The Dragon Tattoo into Jessica Mann's no-go area. Even though this book contains some strong scenes, these drive the plot and are not endlessly repeated in ever more inventive ways. 

The books I dislike are those in which the main "interest" is some perverted person (usually a repressed man who had a bad relationship with his mother and who is locked in some inner fantasy world which we, the reader, experience in italics) stalks and murders several other people – this is boring (and cliched). This is why I didn't like Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris very much - and I am sorry to admit, Inger Ash Wolfe's The Calling - and, I suppose, why I don't read "true crime" with its associated prurience, banality and cod psychology. The mind of the killer, and lovingly detailed descriptions of inventive murders, just are not interesting to me.